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Even In The Darkness
By Shirlee McCoy
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Shirlee McCoy
All right reserved.
The heat woke her. That and the silence. Until then there had been noise, movement, hushed voices — sounds both terrifying and comforting. Tori Riley levered up, biting back a groan as she forced herself to a sitting position. The room was the same — ugly and mean, its water-marked walls and rotted carpet reeking of age and neglect. Sunlight filtered through the dirt-crusted window, burying the room in stifling heat. Tori's throat was dry with it, and she reached for the cup that sat beside her on the floor, the shackles on her wrists clanging together.
The cup was empty. Just as it had been last night. How much longer would they make her wait? She glanced toward the door, wishing it open, straining to hear above the pounding of her heart. The world beyond her prison seemed empty of life, the sounds she'd been hearing for the past few days absent.
The word slipped into her mind; icy terror pumped through her veins. Did they know? Had they found the box? Or worse, had they found Melody?
The thought brought renewed energy. She threw her weight against the chains that held her, ignoring the harsh stab of pain in her wrists and the blood that seeped from the gashes there. Breath gasped from her lungs, her chest heaving as she struggled in an effort she knew was futile. Hadn't she tried before? Hadn't she failed? But she wouldn't fail now. She couldn't fail.
Sweat poured down her face, soaking the sweater she'd worn to keep warm on the plane ride home. Only she'd never made it to the airport, and now the heavy knit only intensified the heat and her panic.
Stop! Think! The words roared into her consciousness. How many times had her grandfather barked those words at her? Tori stilled her frantic movements and closed her eyes, letting herself picture Pops, the old farmhouse, the gray-blue lake shimmering in the distance. Home. She'd been a fool to run from it.
A sound drifted into the silence, a soft sigh of air that whispered of danger. Tori's eyes flew open. Someone was coming. Rescue? Or death? She counted seconds by the throb of the pulse in her throat, each beat a moment closer to whatever would come.
When the door opened and he stepped into the room, she knew.
Black pants, black shirt, black ski mask. Tall, fit and strong enough to kill without ever using the gun he wore strapped to his side.
Tori shrank back, then straightened, refusing the fear that coursed through her. "I told the others I mailed the box home."
He didn't speak, just stalked toward her, his movement fluid and pantherlike.
She tensed, wanting to run but knowing there was nowhere to go. The only thing left to do was fight. She grabbed a length of chain in her hand, feeling the heft and weight of it, refusing to imagine the damage it could do.
He bent close, blue-green eyes striking against the black of his mask, his gaze softened by what looked like compassion.
Tori blinked, looked again, and the softness was gone, replaced by a hard determination that had her lifting the chain and swinging hard with her closed fist.
She should have known better. Dehydrated, weak from hunger, her body aching from what must have been days of torture, she was no match for the man's strength. His hand wrapped around hers, stopping its forward motion and forcing her fingers open. Dizzy from the effort, Tori slumped back against the wall, closing her eyes.
"Don't give up now, Red. You're almost home." The voice was deep and harsh, his tone distinctly American, not the more lilting intonations of her Thai captors.
Was he the ringleader? The boss? Did it matter? She opened her eyes, met his gaze. "What do you want?"
"You home and safe. So pay attention and do exactly what I say." He spoke as he pulled a slim tool from his pocket and used it to pop the lock on the manacles that bound Tori's wrists.
She winced as metal pulled away from torn and bleeding flesh. Winced again as he lifted her wrists and looked at the raw wounds. "These'll scar, but you'll live."
He dropped her hands and pulled an envelope out from under his shirt. "Passport, plane tickets, money for a taxi. You leave this building, flag down the first taxi you see, and head for Chiang Mai International. Your flight leaves for Bangkok in half an hour. When you get there, don't leave the airport. You've got a flight home at eight this morning."
He thrust the envelope toward her and Tori grabbed it, hands trembling as she pulled out a passport with her picture and another woman's name, two plane tickets and a thousand baht. "Why are you helping me?"
"There's no time for questions. Just do what I tell you, and everything will be fine." He put a hand under her elbow and helped her to her feet. "Let your hair down so it covers the bruises on your face, and pull your sleeves over your wrists."
She did as she was told, the hope of escape overshadowing the questions that raced through her mind. Still, she hesitated as he led her to the door. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"What makes you think you have a choice?" With that he stepped out of the room.
Tori followed, hurrying along a dark corridor and into a trash-littered stairwell, down flight after flight of steps, then out into early-morning sunlight. The roar of Chiang Mai traffic filled her ears and the tangy scent of garlic and spices rode the air. A hundred yards away, Buddhist monks made their morning rounds, gathering the first portion of their supplicants' morning meals in the alms bowls they carried.
Tori took a step toward them, wanting desperately to make contact, and felt the heavy warmth of a hand on her shoulder. She turned, ready to fight for her freedom. It wasn't necessary.
Her rescuer dropped his hand, staring down into her face, his eyes blazing. "Remember what I said."
Then he stepped back inside the building and disappeared.
Tori dashed down the narrow street, heading in the direction the monks had disappeared. A flower vendor called out to her as she passed, holding up a bouquet of stunning purple and white orchids. She considered stopping, asking for help or directions, but rushed on instead. She didn't know her enemies, and couldn't be sure they weren't lurking somewhere close by. Up ahead the monks had paused to accept plastic bags filled with thick curry, the daily bintabat ritual providing them with food and Tori with the chance to overtake them.
Should she ask them for assistance?
No. Better to flag down a taxi and get as far from her captors as possible. She stood at the curb, raised her arm, wincing as pain shot through her ribs and side. Nothing was broken, though the bruises were enough to make deep breaths painful. Her captors had been careful, more interested in inflicting pain than in causing damage. That, at least, was a blessing.
A yellow cab pulled over and Tori clambered inside, ignoring the stench of sweat and tobacco that drifted from the torn vinyl seat. "How much to the nearest bus station?"
"One hundred baht." The driver spoke in heavily accented English, his craggy face solemn, his dark eyes meeting hers in the rearview mirror.
She nodded and settled back into the seat, trying to quiet the wild throb of her pulse as the taxi eased through traffic. In the distance a Buddhist temple speared the sky. Beautiful, exotic, different. When she'd come to Thailand three weeks ago that's what she'd been looking for — something more than the quiet, small-town life she led. Now she'd give anything to be home, riding in Pop's old Chrysler, traveling familiar roads, hearing the same stories she'd heard a hundred times before.
She could be. She had a passport, money, plane tickets. What she didn't have was the assurance that Melody was safe, and that was something she needed more than she needed home.
The taxi turned onto a narrow side street, and Tori glanced back. No cars followed. No motorcycles moved into place behind the cab. She wanted to believe she was safe, that the nightmare she'd been living was over. But that was a foolish hope. One she couldn't allow herself. She leaned forward. "How much longer?"
Twenty minutes too long. She needed to be in Mae Hong Son now. Anxiety clawed at her stomach, burning a fiery trail up her throat. She swallowed it down and tried to speak past her fear. "I've got a hundred baht more for you if you get me there in ten."
The driver nodded, turning down another street and picking up speed.
Hurry. Hurry. The words thundered through Tori's mind, a dizzying accompaniment to her racing pulse. How many days had passed since she'd given the box to the jeweler Chet Preteep? Five? Six? He'd told her then that it would take a week to make a locket like the one Tori wore, the one Melody had admired so much. A week, and then he'd put the locket in the rosewood trinket box Tori had provided and deliver it to Melody.
Tori glanced down at her wrist, looking for the date on her watch. But her watch had been taken, as had her locket and other jewelry. Was it already too late? Had the box been delivered? Tori shuddered at the thought of what that might mean for Melody. "What day is it?"
"The day. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday."
Five days. Maybe she wasn't too late. She settled back into the seat, caught the driver eyeing her in the rearview mirror and lowered her head so that her hair fell forward. How bad were the bruises? She didn't dare try to get a look, could only imagine what the driver had seen. Would he talk to friends and family? Mention the bruised foreigner who had paid him double the fare to take her to the bus station? And if he did, how long would it be before the men who'd kidnapped her found her again?
Bone-deep cold, scared in a way she hadn't been in years, Tori tugged her sweater tight around aching ribs and tried desperately to come up with a plan. Her mind raced with images of Melody, beaten and tortured, her eyes filled with fear and pain. Tori had to get to Mae Hong Son before the box was delivered, had to make sure that the men who'd abducted her didn't get their hands on Melody.
She leaned her head back against the seat, trying to clear her mind, but it was too filled with terror and worry to focus. One minute she'd been packing, getting ready to return home. The next, she'd been chained to a wall, questions screamed into her face. Why?
She didn't have an answer. All she knew was that her longed-for trip to Thailand had turned into a nightmare, and because of that, Melody and her parents were in danger.
Please, God, keep them safe. Help me get there in time.
The prayer echoed through Tori's mind, a desperate plea. One she doubted would be answered. She'd lived life on her own terms for too long to expect help from God now. Tears clogged her throat and swam behind her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Like praying, crying did no good. Clear thinking, determination — those were the things that would get her out of the mess she was in.
Up ahead, buses lined the road. A swarm of people hovered on the sidewalk waiting to board. Soon Tori would be waiting with them, ready to travel back to Mae Hong Son and the box that shouldn't have been a threat, but was.
"Bus terminal." The driver pulled up in front of the entrance.
Tori handed him payment and pushed open the door. Despite the warmth of the day, she felt cold, fear shivering along her spine. She wouldn't let it stop her. With a deep, calming breath, she stepped out into the crowd.
Excerpted from Even In The Darkness by Shirlee McCoy Copyright © 2005 by Shirlee McCoy. Excerpted by permission.
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