I can hear doors opening, and I know they’re looking for something . . . or someone. Hardly daring to breathe, I try to meld into the wall, to make myself so small I would be invisible to the gunmen prowling out in the hallway.
“Where is she?” a harsh male voice demands in strongly accented English. “She’s supposed to be here, on this floor.”
“No, she’s not.” The voice answering him is Beth’s, and I stifle a terrified gasp, realizing that the men have somehow captured her. She sounds defiant, but I catch an undertone of fear in her voice. “I told you, Julian already took her away—”
“Don’t fucking lie to me,” the man roars, his accent getting thicker. The sound of a slap is followed by Beth’s pained cry. “Where the fuck is she?”
The man barks out something in his own language, and I hear more doors opening. They’re coming closer to the room where I’m hiding, and I know it’s only a matter of time before they find me. I don’t know why they’re looking for me, but I know I’m the ‘she’ in question. They want to find me, and they’re willing to hurt Beth to do it.
I hesitate for only a moment before stepping out of the room. On the other side of the hallway, I see Beth huddling on the floor, her arm held tightly by a black-garbed man. A dozen more men are standing around them, holding assault rifles and machine guns—which they point at me as soon as I come out.
“Are you looking for me?” I ask calmly. I’ve never been more terrified in my life, but my voice comes out steady, almost amused. I didn’t know it was possible to be numb with fear, but that’s how I feel right now—so terrified that I don’t actually feel afraid anymore.
My mind is strangely clear, and I register several things at once. The men look Middle Eastern, with their olive-toned skin and dark hair. While a couple of them are clean-shaven, the majority seem to have thick black beards. At least two of them are wounded and bleeding. And for all their weapons, they seem quite anxious, as though they’re expecting to be attacked any minute.
The man holding Beth barks out another order in a language I now realize is Arabic, and I recognize his voice as belonging to the man who’d spoken in English. He seems to be their leader. At his command, two of the men walk up to me and grab my arms, dragging me toward him. I manage not to stumble, though my stitches ache with a renewed ferocity.
“Is this her?” he hisses at Beth, shaking her roughly. “Is this Julian’s little whore?”
“That would be me,” I tell him before Beth can answer. My voice is still unnaturally calm. I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet, the danger that I’m in. All I want to do right now is stop him from hurting Beth. At the same time, at the back of my mind I’m processing the fact that they want me because I’m Julian’s lover. That could only mean one thing: Julian is alive and they mean to use me against him. I suppress a shudder of relief at the thought.
The leader stares at me, apparently as surprised by my uncharacteristic bravery as I am. Letting go of Beth, he comes up to me, grasping my jaw with hard, cruel fingers. Leaning in, he studies me, his dark eyes gleaming coldly. He’s short for a man, only about five-seven at most, and his breath washes over my face, bringing with it the fetid odor of garlic and stale tobacco. I fight the urge to gag, holding his gaze defiantly with my own.
After a few seconds, he lets go of me and says something in Arabic to his troops. Two of the men hurry over and grab Beth again. She screams and starts fighting them, and one of them backhands her, stunning her into silence. At the same time, the leader’s hand closes around my upper arm, squeezing it painfully. “Let’s go,” he says sharply, and I let myself be led toward the door at the end of the hallway.
The door opens to a staircase, and I realize that we’re on the second floor. The gunmen form a circle around me, the leader, and Beth, and we all go down the stairs and out through a door that leads to an unpaved open area outside. We pass one man’s dead body in the staircase, and there are several more lying outside. I avert my eyes, swallowing convulsively to keep the bile from rising up in my throat. The sun is bright, and the air is hot and humid, but I can barely feel the warmth on my frozen skin. The reality of my situation is beginning to sink in, and I start to shiver, small shudders wracking my frame.
There are several black SUVs waiting for us, and the men drag me and Beth to one of them, forcing us into the back seat. Two of them climb in with us, forcing us to huddle together. I can feel Beth shaking, and I reach over to squeeze her cold hand with my own, drawing comfort from the human touch. She looks at me, and the terror in her eyes chills my blood. Her freckled face is pale, and her right cheek is swollen, with a massive bruise starting to form there. Her lower lip is split in two places, and there is a smear of blood on her chin. Whoever these men are, they have no compunction about hurting women.
I desperately want to ask her what she knows, but I keep quiet. I don’t want to draw any more attention to ourselves than necessary. My mind flashes back to the dead bodies we’d just passed, and I fight the urge to throw up. I don’t know what these people intend for us, but I strongly suspect our chances of getting out alive are minimal. Every minute that we survive, every minute that they leave us alone, is precious, and we need to do whatever it takes to extend those minutes for as long as possible.