Authors: Iris Johansen
There was a knock on the door, and at his terse “Come in,” it was opened by Karim.
“Sit down, Karim,” David said wearily, gesturing to the cane chair. “I’m sorry I didn’t let you know that I wouldn’t pin you for breakfast.”
Karim dropped into the chair, his white robe billowing slightly. “It doesn’t matter,” he said haltingly, his manner oddly awkward. “I was just a little concerned. Is Miss Callahan feeling better?”
“I think you knew she was never really sick.” David’s eyes met his steadily. “And no, I don’t think she’s really very much better. I just gave up trying to talk to her for the time being.”
“Shareen?” At David’s nod, the sheikh’s face became thoughtful. “She’s such a little warrior, I wouldn’t expect her to back down like that when facing a rival. It’s very puzzling.”
“But it wasn’t Shareen she was really facing.” David leaned back tiredly in his chair. “It was ghosts from the past, and they can be as hard as the devil to fight.”
There was a flicker of relief on Karim’s face. “I’m glad it wasn’t my bringing Shareen here that troubled her.” His smile was bittersweet. “We all have to face our own ghosts. Perhaps she’ll find that the phantoms tend to dissolve when we put the sword of reality to them.”
“Perhaps,” David said. “Lord, I hope so.” He smiled wryly. “Provided I can make her stand still long enough to admit they actually exist.”
“If there’s something I can do to help…”
“No, nothing.” David’s lips twisted. “You’re very concerned about Billie. Have you finally decided she’s not out to murder me?”
“It would seem unlikely,” Karim said gruffly. “I have had to become a keen judge of character over the years. From what I’ve seen in the past two weeks, she has much too soft a heart to make a successful criminal.”
“At last,” David said. “I tried to tell you that the first day I brought her here. I wouldn’t say your judgment—”
There was a knock on the door, and Yasmin opened it without invitation. There was a worried frown on her face, but David failed to notice it. His eyes were on the two objects she held in her hands. A tape recorder and one slightly battered guitar.
“She’s gone, Lisan,” Yasmin said breathlessly. “She said she had a headache and wanted to be alone. When I came to see if she wanted lunch, she was gone.” She looked at her hands. “There was only the guitar and a farewell note to me.”
“And the tape recorder,” David said dully. God, he never should have left her this morning. He’d seen the desperation in her. Maybe he’d been afraid to confront it.
Yasmin nodded. “She said in her note that there was a message on it for you.” She held out the guitar. “This is for you.”
He reached out and took the guitar, moving slowly, as if he were an old man. “Honorable Patches.” It meant a great deal to her, but right now it didn’t help to know that. It didn’t bring her back.
“What?” Karim’s brow creased in puzzlement.
“Nothing,” David said numbly, setting the tape recorder on the desk. “Nothing at all.”
“Would you like us to leave?” Karim asked, his usually fierce eyes gentle.
“No, it doesn’t matter.” He drew a deep breath and braced himself before leaning forward to switch on the recorder.
Billie’s voice flowed into the room, and it gave him a little shock. It was as if she were right next to him.
“I’m sorry, David. I didn’t break my promise. I tried to stay. But I can’t.” There was a pause before her voice came again, very husky now. “It’s not because I don’t love you. I do.” She laughed shakily. “I’ve never told you that, have I? That ought to prove what a coward I am. I’ve loved you for such a long time and I couldn’t admit it. It would have made everything too real. But I want to say it now.” The words were a mere breath. “I love you, Lisan.”
There was a muffled sob from Yasmin.
“I’ve left you my old friend and something else. It’s not one of mine; I can’t seem to think straight enough to put two words together right now. It’s by Roger Whittaker, but it tells it all.” There was a little pause, and then the soft chords of the guitar. Billie’s voice was sweet and low, with only an occasional tremor as it soared into the room.
You’re so quiet when those around you need to speak
So tranquil with the world but never meek
You laugh when any other man would cry
You tell the truth although you know it would be easier to lie
You’re so beautiful inside, See you shine
Like the sun that lights my darkness, See you shine
You’re my warm after the cold,
You’re my youth when I grow old
You’re my star up there in heaven,
See you shine See you shine, see you shine, see you shine
Too deep to let this shallow world destroy
Your inner ever-burning loving joy
Too generous to think before you give
And loving life, you help all those around you live
See you shine, see you shine, see you shine.
The last words weren’t quite as steady as the others, and a long silence followed. “Good-bye, David. Thank you for all the laughter and the miracles.”
Then there was only the mechanical whir of the tape. David reached out and switched off the machine.
He could feel an unfamiliar burning mist in his eyes, and for a moment he couldn’t do anything but stare blindly down at the guitar in his hands. Then he pushed the chair back, stood up, and headed determinedly toward the dressing room. As he reached Karim, he thrust the guitar at him. “Hold on to this for me, will you?” A moment later he was back, carrying a small brown leather suitcase, which he tossed on the bed and opened swiftly.
“You’re going after her?” Karim asked quietly.
“You’re damn right I am.” David was crossing the room to the rosewood armoire and pulling shirts and trousers haphazardly from the hangers. “She said she was confused, and I’m not about to let her stay that way. If she thinks I’ll take that blasted guitar instead of her, she’s out of her mind. I
“And I think she needs you,” Karim said heavily. “I can’t say I understand these sentimental passions. I never knew a woman who moved me in that way.” He shrugged. “Still, she is a woman with great spirit. Perhaps she is worth such devotion.”
“She is, Karim,” David said, throwing the clothes carelessly into the suitcase. “Believe me, she is.”
“You will bring her back?” Yasmin asked.
“I hope so,” David said soberly. “If not, I’ll go with her. Either way, she’s got to learn that it’s the two of us together from now on.” The phone on the bedside table rang stridently. “Will you get that, Karim? I want to finish packing.”
Karim set the guitar down, stood up, and moved the few feet to the bedside table. He picked up the phone and, after identifying himself, listened for a few moments. His impassive face revealed none of the shock he was experiencing. “I’ll tell him, Clancy.” He replaced the receiver quietly.
He turned to David. “I think you’d better stop packing, David,” he said slowly. “That was Clancy. He just got a report on the mobile phone from the guard he assigned to follow Billie.” He paused. “It’s almost certain Ladram has her.”
David felt his stomach knot with icy fear. “What the hell do you mean, ‘almost certain’? Doesn’t he know?”
“From what he observed, it seems highly probable. Billie was driving the Jeep through the market when her way was suddenly blocked by a sidewalk vendor. While she was waiting for him to pass, a short, stocky man in a tan burnoose jumped into the seat beside her. He made a gesture and the sidewalk vendor trundled his cart out of the way. Then Billie drove on through Zalandan to the city gates.”
“If he was close enough to see all that happening, why the hell didn’t he stop it?” David’s face was white with anger. Short and stocky. Ladram was short and stocky, almost pudgy. “He was supposed to guard her, dammit!”
“The man was sitting very close to her,” the sheikh said quietly. “Since Danilo could tell she was shocked when the man jumped into the Jeep, it would seem likely he’d have had to threaten her to get her to drive on. Danilo didn’t want to risk getting Billie killed if there was a knife in her ribs.”
A knife in Billie’s ribs. David had a sudden vision of the atrocities Ladram had described with such relish in those letters. Billie and Ladram. He felt the bile rise in his throat and smoldering anger beginning to burn away the fear. “Where was the guard calling from?”
“He’d just reached the city gates himself. He said Billie and Ladram appeared to be heading toward the canyons. He didn’t want to follow too closely in case Ladram noticed him. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to trail someone unobserved in the desert.”
“What if he loses them?” David asked tersely. “He may be so cautious he’ll let that crazy pervert get away.”
“He won’t do that. Clancy says Danilo is a very good man. He has orders to follow them to Ladram’s hideout and then report back to us.”
“And then we go after them,” David said grimly.
“No, then we wait.”
“Wait for what?” David asked fiercely. “Wait until Ladram starts to send me pieces of Billie in a box? Hell, no. I’m getting her away from him.”
“If we go running in there, even with a commando force, we’re likely to get Billie killed. Clancy has the right idea. We wait for Ladram to contact us and then we set a trap.”
he contacts us,” David said bitterly. “He may decide to exact a little revenge on her to amuse himself, and go after me later.”
“I don’t think so.” Karim’s narrowed eyes were shrewd. “He’s getting very impatient. I think he only wants to use her as a hostage to get you.”
That made sense, but David didn’t want to think of the consequences if Karim was wrong. It frightened him too much. Billie, oh, dear God, Billie.
“You will get her back, Lisan.” Yasmin’s voice was low and comforting. “We will all help return her to you.”
“I hope to heaven you’re right, Yasmin,” he said wearily. His eyes fell on the guitar propped against the cane chair, and he moved slowly to pick it up before dropping back into the desk chair. The smooth wood felt warm, almost alive, under his hands. It
alive for Billie. Her old friend. He leaned back in the chair and held Billie’s old friend close as he prepared to endure the wait.
E WON’T COME,
you know,” Billie said desperately. “Why do you think I was leaving Zalandan? We’ve quarreled and decided to go our own ways.” She glared at him defiantly. “There’s no way he’s going to walk into your hands just to save my neck. He couldn’t care less about me.”
“So you say, luv.” The thick cockney accent was almost soothing. Alphie Ladram held up the small likeness of the giraffe he was carving and appraised it with narrowed eyes. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we? It shouldn’t be long until we know one way or the other. It’s almost sunset, and Bradford should be meeting my man at the city gates now. Another forty-five minutes and he should be here.”
“He won’t be here, I tell you. He knows what you want to do to him. He’d be a fool to come here.”
“But he’ll be here anyway.” Ladram looked up, and there was a flicker of malice in the flat gray eyes. Serpent’s eyes. It was the first hint of emotion she had seen him exhibit since he’d jumped into the Jeep with her early this morning. “He
a fool in some ways. He thinks he’s some bloomin’ Galahad. That’s why he stuck his nose in what didn’t concern him in the first place. He’ll come, all right.”
Yes, he would. She knew he would, and it was sending her into a frenzy of terror. He’d come and Ladram would kill him and it would be all her fault. David would die because she’d been too much of a coward to stay and take whatever life and love had to offer. Oh, God, she’d give anything for the chance to do that now. What did it matter if it didn’t last forever? The memory alone would be precious enough to last her a lifetime. But David might not have any time at all now. Not if Ladram had his way. She tugged once more at the ropes securing her wrists in front of her, but it was futile. The bonds were so tight they were practically cutting off her circulation.
“You’re uncomfortable? What a pity,” Ladram said silkily, his ebullient smile making him resemble an innocent cherub. “Never fear, Galahad will be here soon to rescue you.” He leaned lazily back against the boulder that faced the opening of the cave. “That will be a jolly treat for all of us, luv.”
Now that he’d discarded the burnoose, she could see how squat his square body was. He was almost plump, and his thinning red hair made a fiery contrast with his pale, freckled face. His appearance had been a complete shock to her. Whenever she’d thought of Ladram in the past weeks, she’d thought of someone thin, dark, and lethal as a panther. This cockney cherub with the flat, emotionless eyes of a snake was both less and more menacing than she’d imagined. There was no question that menace existed, however. It was easily seen in those dead eyes.
“Why run the risk of killing David? You know how everyone in the Ben Raschid family feels about him. They’ll hunt you down like a wild animal.”
“But you don’t understand,” Ladram said softly. “That’s what I am now. An animal on the run. Everything I’ve scrounged and worked for since I was a lad in Liverpool is gone. There’s only one thing left now.” He looked down at the sharp, glittering blade in his hand. “Pretty, isn’t it? It’s come a long way with me from the docks in Liverpool.” He looked up to smile with such lethal ferocity that she shivered. “It has only a little farther to go.”
“They’ll follow David and your accomplice and capture you anyway,” Billie argued. “If you leave right now, you might get away before they get here.”
“How kind of you to warn me,” Ladram said lightly. “Such a considerate lass. I can see why Bradford was so taken with you.” His knife moved carefully over the giraffe, and a thin curl of wood drifted to the stony floor of the cave. “He won’t be followed. Dion has orders to be quite sure no one’s trailing them before he leaves the city. If he’s followed, he’s to leave Bradford and come straight here to tell me.” He smiled gently. “And then I will proceed to cut your throat, Miss Callahan.”
She inhaled sharply. There was no question of his sincerity. It was all there in those cold gray eyes.
“No, he won’t be followed,” Ladram said. “But just to make sure, Dion will stay down at the bottom of the cliff, guarding the trail that leads up to the cave.” His knife shaved another fine curl. “Then there will be just the three of us up here together. Won’t that be cozy, luv?”
The picture he painted was enough to make her feel sick. David alone and without a weapon, and Ladram with that needle-sharp knife. The thought sent a cold, wracking shudder through her. “Please,” she whispered, “I’ll do anything. Just don’t hurt him.”
“Are you trying to tempt me with your fair young body?” Ladram’s lips curled in amusement. “I don’t want to put down your somewhat meager charms, but you’ve no bargaining power there. I don’t fancy women very much.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Billie said, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “I didn’t think a man who used women as you did would.”
“Then, we don’t have anything to talk about, do we? Why don’t you just be quiet and relax? It shouldn’t be long.”
He settled himself more comfortably, his eyes fixed on the entry of the cave with the anticipation of a little boy expecting a treat.
Billie closed her eyes and drew a deep, shaky breath, but she could still see Ladram’s face before her. From the appearance of the cave—the sleeping bag, the heap of empty food cans in the corner—Ladram had been occupying this cave not fifteen miles from Zalandan for a number of days. He’d been weaving his web of vengeance like a malevolent spider and just waiting for his prey to become entangled in it. The treat he expected was David served up on a silver platter ready for the carving knife. She wouldn’t be able to stand it if he hurt David. Oh, please, don’t come, Lisan. Don’t come!
She opened her eyes, and her gaze compulsively followed Ladram’s to the wide opening of the cave. The sky was already tinted with delicate streaks of pink. Soon it would be the blazing scarlet of sunset. David would be meeting Ladram’s cohort now, and she knew he wouldn’t disobey Ladram’s instructions and chance getting her killed. No, he’d do just as Ladram said, and come alone and unarmed up the winding trail from the foot of the cliff and into this cave…where Ladram waited with his smile of anticipation, his cold eyes, and his wickedly sharp knife.
Dressed in black jeans and a black Windbreaker, he stood quietly at the mouth of the cave, with the last brilliant rays of the setting sun behind him. She had a fleeting memory of that night in the greenhouse. He’d been all in black that night too. Its somber darkness had made him look so vibrantly golden and alive. Alive.
Ladram rose slowly to his feet. “Welcome, Bradford,” he said genially. “We’ve been waiting for you very eagerly, haven’t we, Miss Callahan? She was trying to convince me you wouldn’t come, but I knew you would. You’re such a gallant man, out to save the whole world and all the poor unfortunates in it. How could you resist the plight of a pretty little woman like her?”
David’s gaze was running anxiously over Billie’s bound form, seated against the wall of the cave. “Are you okay, Billie? Did he hurt you?”
She shook her head. “I’m not hurt,” she said huskily. “You shouldn’t have come, David. God, I was hoping you wouldn’t come.”
“I had to,” he said, a little smile curving his lips. “I don’t know how to play that guitar. I need you to teach me.” He repeated softly, “I need you.”
She felt a rush of love so poignant and intense that it made her breathless. “I need you too,” she whispered.
“Very touching.” Ladram said mockingly. He tossed aside the wooden figure he’d been whittling, but kept the knife in his hand. “And I need you, too, Bradford. It’s been a burning so long inside me that it’s almost a passion. I dream about you every night, do you know that? All I can think about is how I want to mutilate that handsome face of yours.” His hand ran caressingly over the blade of the knife. “For a start, that is.”
“No!” Billie struggled desperately to her feet, using the wall of the cave to push herself forward. “You can’t do that.”
“You don’t want his face spoiled?” Ladram smiled. “I’m always willing to oblige a lady. I’ll start somewhere else first. Come closer, Bradford. I want to choose my points.”
David hesitated and then came slowly forward until he stood only a few feet away from Ladram. “You see how obedient he is?” Ladram shot her a mocking glance. “That’s because of you, Miss Callahan. He knows if he resists doing whatever I wish with him, I’ll start on you instead. Such a gallant man.” His eyes were running hungrily over David’s body. “Now, let’s see. Where do I begin?”
“Please.” Billie moved forward impulsively. “That’s not the way to hurt him most.” Her voice was low and shaking. “You want to punish him. You want to make him suffer for a long time, right? What you have in mind would be over much too soon.”
“Would it, now?”
She nodded, her frantic words tumbling over one another. “There’s another way. You’re right. He does care about me. He cares very much. Whatever you have in mind for him, do to me instead.” She heard David’s sharp exclamation, but she ignored it. She had to convince Ladram. “Make him watch it and then set him free. Can’t you see that would hurt him more? He’d carry the picture for the rest of his life.” But, she thought, David would be
“Damn it, Billie, shut up!” David said, his voice sharp with agony. “For God’s sake, keep out of this.”
“It’s all my fault,” Billie said fiercely. “How can I stay out of it?” She turned back to Ladram. “You said he was the Galahad type. My way he’d remember and suffer a lot longer than yours. Can’t you see that?”
“You may be right,” Ladram said slowly. He was studying David’s white, set face. “He certainly appears to care for you.”
“You know you’re only playing,” David said harshly. “Cut her loose and send her away. Let’s get on with it.”
“Not yet. I think we’ll let her watch a bit of it.” He shot a glance at Billie. “Shall we tie him up and begin, luv?” He moved within inches of David, who didn’t flinch. He touched the knife to David’s breast, applying just enough pressure so that it hurt, but did not pierce the flesh.
“No!” Billie gasped. She dashed in between them, and suddenly everything was a blur of impressions—Ladram’s surprised, then furious, face…David’s low exclamation behind her…then a white-hot pain in her upper arm. Strange that it should be hot, when the blade looked so cold.
“Billie!” She dimly heard David’s agonized cry, but it was a world away. She was thrust from between them with lightning swiftness, and stumbled to her knees. It appeared as if David moved in slow motion as he grabbed Ladram’s knife hand in a bone-crushing grip, while his other hand swung forward in a slap that connected with Ladram’s throat. It seemed a comparatively light blow, but Ladram’s eyes immediately glazed over, and he slumped forward, unconscious. She stared dazedly at his stocky figure, lying limp only a few feet away. It was all over so quickly. David was safe. She couldn’t seem to comprehend it. David was safe now.
He was kneeling beside her, and she was in his arms. The blood, she thought hazily, and tried to draw back. “No, I’ll get you bloody.”
“Shut up,” he said brokenly. “Shut up, love.”
He drew a deep breath and pushed her away from him. He retrieved the knife Ladram had dropped when he fell. Swiftly, he cut the ropes binding her wrists, then tossed the knife aside. His hands quickly unbuttoned her yellow blouse and pushed it aside to examine the knife wound. “It’s only a graze in the fleshy part of your arm,” he said with relief. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to the freely flowing wound. “Lord, we were lucky. He could just as well have killed you.” He placed his hand over the make-shift bandage. “Hold that for a minute. I’ve got to get some help for you.” He stood up, strode to the mouth of the cave, and waved his arms three times in a wide arc to someone in the canyon below. He was back at her side in seconds, and his expression signaled his anxiety as he noticed the paleness of her cheeks. He muttered a low curse as he dropped to his knees again and drew her carefully into his arms, one hand holding the compress firm. “You’re an idiot, Billie Callahan,” he said thickly. “A loving, glorious, brave idiot, but an idiot all the same. What the hell did you mean, jumping between us like that?”
She leaned against him with a contented sigh. He was so warm, and suddenly she felt so cold, icy cold. “I thought he was going to hurt you,” she said wearily. “I couldn’t let him do that.”
“No, I guess
couldn’t,” he said huskily, his lips brushing her temple. “But if you’d only stayed out of it, neither one of us would have been hurt. I was only waiting for an opportunity to touch him. I only had to
Nestling closer, she could feel his warmth, but it didn’t seem to pierce the sluggish cold that was running through her veins. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Clancy knew I’d be searched for weapons, so he gave me one of the charming little specialties of his security arsenal.” He held up his hand to show her the handsome gold-mounted onyx ring on his index finger. “All you have to do is thumb the spring on the side and a tiny needle comes out.” His lips twisted. “A needle coated with enough knockout fluid to down a rhinoceros in five seconds.”