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Fight Fire with Fire
By AMY J. FETZER
Copyright © 2009
Amy J. Fetzer
All right reserved.
Chapter One 10 years earlier, somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere
He wanted to break her. To let her skim the edge of madness.
He'd almost succeeded.
On the stone floor, Safia folded her body tightly, her legs beneath her. A turtle backing into its shell. She kept her head down, her grimy hands shielding her skull. Her Mao pajamas lay like a damp layer of filth over her skin and did nothing to protect her from the cold, wet stones. Or him.
Between his boots crunching lightly on the stone floor, she listened to his indrawn breath, the almost imperceptible brush of his clothing as his arm rose. She tightened down her muscles. The cane snapped, the lash licking across her back and wrapping under her ribs. Her teeth sank into her lip as ungodly pain burned in stripes over her spine.
Warm blood pooled in her mouth. swallowswalloswallow
The moan slid back down her throat, denying him victory.
He enjoyed her screams, but she offered no sound except her struggle for air.
Water dripped somewhere.
"I will have to think of something else then," he said.
His accent scraped with a guttural sound. She could never put her finger on the region. It didn't matter. She wanted to kill him. He probably knew it. His visits were less frequent and theirs was a twisted relationship. He talked. She never spoke. Never. Well, except to scream her freaking head off the first time he'd struck her. She wondered if his nose still hurt.
Her stomach coiled noisily, acid stewing on nothing. Food was a memory and she closed that mental door and kept in position. Waiting for another strike. Waiting till he dropped the lash made from strips of sugar cane. Layered, the cane could hold a man's weight, yet woven in a tubular braid, its flexing tongue didn't cut right away, the welts swelling till they burst the skin. He enjoyed letting it slither in front of her vision. It wasn't his only threat. He favored waterboarding in the beginning, bringing her so close to her death she'd felt the last of her air trade with water. How many times had he visited?
Her captivity was meaningless stretches between sessions. Without a shred of light, she no longer counted the days, her brain occupied with trying to understand why she'd been captured. She was in the field, but spent most of her days in a flat, monitoring movement of the local police and relaying information to experienced officers. Then she'd received an assignment, just a carrier pigeon. It wasn't unusual nor the first time. She'd been delivering a piece of art, a Chinese urn to an antique shop in Hong Kong. An exchange for information. As far as she knew, that's all it was, a jar. She remembered standing at the shop door, reaching for the latch and feeling someone move up behind her, then nothing. Not even collapsing.
She'd been tied up until recently; her wrists were still swollen with torn and blistered flesh. Her skin there was warm; infection was setting in. She peeked between her fingers and spied his boots, the toes polished, yet this time, the laces were wet. Dirt and a tiny bit of green clung to the rim of his heel. He'd been fastidious before, the boots unusually tidy when everything around here was filthy and medieval.
She didn't know where here was exactly. She'd woken up in this cell. As far as she knew, she was the only prisoner. She never heard or saw anyone except him and one guard. Their faces were a mystery, always hooded, and when she'd tried to look, he struck her down. Yet she'd glimpsed mud-brown material with small slits in the hood for eyes and mouth. He smelled vaguely of garlic. People who hid behind masks drew strength from anonymity. Her body was feeling every bit of his freedom.
He dropped the braided canes. She turned her head a fraction more to watch his retreat, but again, saw only his boots. He wouldn't leave the whip. She could use it to hang herself and he wanted her alive, this man with no name. If he'd said it, she didn't give a damn. Chung, was how she thought of him. Bluish light from the single lantern on the floor outside the door reflected in, and she imagined him taking the measured steps. Like small warnings. He would do as he'd done before. Step. Look back, then turn on his heels and two steps back into the cell to bend for the whip. He wasn't aware of the tell, but he was aware of the threat. Daring her to react. If she did, he'd strike.
At the cell door, he stopped. Before he turned to face her, she inched her arm to see him more clearly. All that encompassed was a view of his legs, his gloved hand loose at his side. He was never without the tight-fitting black gloves. Big hands. If he was armed, she couldn't see it. A single guard stood outside with the keys.
The tell came. He spun on his toes this time, then stepped. One, two....
She sprang from her crouch and grabbed the cane handle first, snapping it hard. The braided rope circled his neck, and she gripped both ends and yanked, dragging him till her back hit the wall. He struggled, but she held on, remembering each violation to her body. Chung grunted, clawing at her hands. The officer with the keys was stunned from his boredom and drew his club. He rushed her and she shoved her captive into his chest. Their heads hit with a solid thunk, but she held the whip ends, dragging Chung back and cutting off his air. But he was taller and bigger, and when he started to get his footing, she twisted, jammed her hip into his back and knocked him off balance. His polished boots slipped, his weight grinding her shoulder into the stone wall.
He squawked like a seal with a sore throat, and she felt warm liquid on the floor at her feet. He stopped struggling. His hands fell away from her and flopped loosely at his sides. She held still to catch her breath and had to concentrate on her hands, unfurling her stiff fingers. A knuckle popped. He slid to the floor. Three fingers pressed below his ear got her nothing, and she jerked back, her head swimming. Her breath rushed, and she licked her lips, tried to swallow. The burn rising in the back of her throat made her slow her breathing. Her hands trembled as she covered her face. I killed him. Her memory bloomed with the last days; his threats to remove her knee caps with a power drill, water boarding, and then humiliation, leaving her naked for days, making her beg for the one bowl of maggot infested rice ... and his touching her. He'd treated her as if he owned her soul. She hoped his was frying somewhere in hell.
She lowered her hands, then sank to her knees. She reached for the hood, afraid of what she'd find. She worked it up enough to see under it, and wasn't surprised by the dark skin, yet his face was obviously swollen. She pulled it further up. Skin was distended around his eyes, nose, and lips, all of it surrounded with deep purple bruises. There was no telling what he really looked like. She touched his cheek and felt a hardness unlike bone. It shifted. Oh no they didn't. Implants.
She turned her back on the body and crossed to the rookie. When they'd slammed, it knocked him out, but it also cracked the lantern. The phosphorous light was quickly dying and she searched him, taking the keys and night stick. He carried no other weapons. Not even a knife.
What kind of prison is this?
She found chewing gum in the rookie's shirt pocket and shoved a stick in her mouth. Pineapple and it tasted like heaven. She stripped off his shoes, but they were too big and she settled for the pants, rolling the cuffs. She cinched the belt but was forced to knot it. Some fried foods were in her near future, and she was going to enjoy gaining weight.
She took the rookie's shirt, and ripped off anything that would reflect, then knelt at Chung's body, freeing the belt. In her torturer's trouser back pocket she found exactly five hundred dollars, American. It was the newness of the bills that puzzled her, too pristine to have been in circulation yet. The bills were bound with a money clip, silver plated metal with the outline of a griffin or dragon. She pocketed the cash and clip.
The lack of a weapon bothered her. He wasn't the type to go around unarmed and she ground her hands down his hips and thighs, searching, then stopped, shoving up the pant leg to take the knife strapped to his upper calf. She felt a little better to be armed, but someone was going miss these two soon.
She stood, then instantly slapped her hand on the stone wall as her world tilted rudely. Her stomach joined in for the ride. She pushed gingerly back, knife in one hand, and wrapped the belt around her other palm, the buckle on the outside where it could do the most damage. She moved to the entrance.
No one came to investigate. Cautiously, she flattened to the stone wall. The only natural light was reflected farther down the corridor. She stepped out.
Sound had always come from the left. Never the right. Left led out. She hurried down the corridor. The floor was flooded a couple inches and she heard water rushing somewhere above her. Her bare feet barely made a sound on the uneven stone floor, and she kept moving, her hand on the wall for support. Everything swayed. Her muscles shook. If they caught her, they'd kill her. She had to get out of here and headed up, toward the sound of water. Then she slowed in front of empty cells.
The prison might be old, but the cells were retrofitted with steel doors, but that's where it ended. Inside were a few scraps of cloth wrapped around iron cuffs, slave shackles really. She hadn't been the only guest, and passing the next cell, she realized the light came from gaps in the roof. Vines and ferns shielded the sun, water misting like crystal rain. She tried the door, thinking she could climb to the surface, but it was locked. She tried the guard's keys and it surprised her that none of them worked. The guard had always opened her cell.
Don't analyze, she thought, turning away. She hurried down the corridor, stopping at each junction to check her bearings. The light diminished, and she felt as if she was heading downhill. Confused, she stopped, her back to the wall, holding the knife with a white knuckled grip. She took a slow breath, listening. The sound of water had changed and she frowned. It's splashing, she realized, but hesitated, dissecting echoes from hollow reverberation bouncing in a passageway. She'd be in total darkness in a few steps. A scraping sound came from behind her, the scuffle of footsteps.
Without a choice, she walked into the darkness, blinking to let her eyes adjust, and then advanced, her shadow glinting off the wet floor. She smelled something different-like raw mushrooms-and kept moving forward. It was several yards before her hands touched wood. Her fingers nimbly shaped a door, felt for the hinge and found a padlock. Shoving the knife in the belt, Safia tried the keys. Were they just for looks, she wondered when none of them worked. Dropping the keys, she held the nightstick like a bat and beat the metal. The sound vibrated like a clap, and the footsteps grew closer, faster. She slammed again, and the lock popped suddenly. A crazy surprised laugh escaped her and she worked it off and pulled, but the door was stuck, the wood damp and swollen. Footsteps crowded, closing the distance, voices calling now. She didn't understand a word, but knew she'd less than a minute before they found her.
She unwound the belt from her fist, sliding it through one of the rings that held the lock. Gripping the leather, she pulled, her foot against the wall. They were coming closer, and she prayed they got lost as she stretched herself out, pulling, the belt bearing most of her weight. The door gave, the wood against stone fracturing with rot. Light blossomed beyond and she flinched, turning her face away for a second, then pulled harder, her freedom inches away. It gave a little more and she wedged herself between the opening, then fell back against the door.
Twisted trees and overgrown vegetation surrounded her. The sunlight splintered, shadowing the landscape. She stood on a hillside, behind her, steep with rocks and thick vines, a worn path led away from the door. Frowning, she skimmed to her right, close to the wall of stones covered in moss. It looked like ruins, an old fortress or something. The crumbling formation jutted out, casting shadows, yet she could see the reflection of sunlight spilling somewhere beyond. She hoped it led down and edged along till the forest thinned. Gripping the wall, she peered around the jagged rocks.
Two men stood on an outcropping of rocks drenched in sunlight. A few yards behind them, a narrow waterfall poured from a small brook higher in the hill. Their backs faced her. She studied them, determined they were armed, but concealing it. They looked completely out of place, both in light shirts and dark trousers as if they'd stepped away from their office cubicles only moments before.
One man twisted a look over his shoulder, then turned fully. "Well done, Safia."
It was her boss. The shock of it sent her back a couple steps and she hit something, then jerked around. A hooded man stood near, still concealed. Then he reached under the hood's hem and pulled a long strap of flesh colored leather from around his throat. She'd missed that, but not that he could anticipate what she would do.
"You almost killed me."
"Almost wasn't what I was aiming for." She raised the knife a little higher and looked at her boss. "Somebody needs to start talking, or I'll finish this." She backed away, gripping the knife, point down. Her warden held up his hands as if it would stop her. After what he did to her? She looked at her boss. "Why?"
"We had to be certain your integrity couldn't be breeched," he said calmly, moving nearer.
A test. Staged. What arrogant bastards. Her eyes narrowed to slits. "And beating me like a rug was necessary?"
"No." He walked closer. "He went too far." There was a tightness in his words, the only sign of his displeasure.
Safia stepped back from them both. "He did more than that," she said in a low voice, her gaze pinning her shrouded tormentor.
Where did they find him? Was five hundred U.S. the going rate for torture-for-hire? Five hundred to enjoy inflicting pure misery on another human being? Because this one liked it. He's an outside asset, she realized, and didn't want to be near him. What she really wanted was his death to be real. She owed him, but she also understood she'd probably never learn his identity. It didn't mean she wouldn't try.
She kept her attention on the hooded man, committing everything to memory. "You said I lacked enough field experience," she aimed at her boss.
"You have it now." Her boss gestured to the black van several yards below on level ground, the single windowless door open and showing its luxurious interior. "Let's get some food in you first."
His tone was dismissive, as if this was just a rude interruption at a party. She wasn't going to forget the past days anytime soon and looked at the reason. He didn't move, brown eyes barely visible inside the dingy hood. His fingers flexed and she remembered them around her throat, holding her off the ground like a rag. In two steps, she was in his face, the knife sinking into his side as she drove her knee deep into his groin. He buckled with an oof and she gripped the hood hard enough to hear it tear and whispered, "Someday, I'll repay that game. On my terms."
"No. You won't," he gasped, and he was right. He'd have a different face. But she wouldn't forget the voice, or the pain.
"That's not wise!" her boss said somewhere behind her.
She twisted the knife as she pulled it out and shoved him off, stepping back. "But it felt good." She turned away as the man tried to straighten and failed. "Is that face courtesy of U.S. dollars?"
Her boss froze, nodding to the driver who moved to the van. "You saw his face?" He waved to her tormentor, and she didn't have to look to know he was slipping back into the stone prison. He gave off the stench of his own urine.
"You know I did. That beast didn't do a damn thing without your approval. Who is he?"
"Not if you want me to work for you again."
He snorted disdainfully. "It's above your pay grade."
"Then give me a raise." She walked past him. She'd have time to address that subject later. This was far from over. "How long was I in there?"
Excerpted from Fight Fire with Fire by AMY J. FETZER Copyright © 2009 by Amy J. Fetzer. Excerpted by permission.
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