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The air was so thick, Annja Creed felt she could use her sword to slice it open. But doing so wouldn't affect the extreme humidity that seemed to surround her every second of the day. Even when the blistering sun didn't penetrate the thick canopy of the jungle, she could still feel the heat of its merciless rays burning down. Something as simple as taking a breath felt as if she was swallowing thick porridge.
She'd already resolved herself to the one simple fact about being in the jungleshe would never be dry. Her clothes clung to her, accentuating every curve of her body. They were soaked through with sweat and the twice-daily rains that haunted her new home.
It wasn't a home she wanted to live in. But, for the moment, she had no choice.
She worked her hands behind her back, trying to relieve some of the pressure on her wrists. The handcuffs didn't help matters.
She stretched to get her hands under her, hoping she'd eventually be able to slide them under her legs so her hands ended up in front of her rather than behind her. A stream of sweat ran down her face for her efforts.
Annja took a deep breath and sighed. How do they stand it here? she wondered. She'd been in the Philippines for less than a week and she still hadn't acclimated to the tropical environment.
Of course, she hadn't come here thinking she would end up as a prisoner of the dreaded Abu Sayyaf, the notorious terrorist group with links to al Qaeda. Annja was supposed to be researching a new story for Chasing History's Monsters. But a contact hadn't turned out to be who he said he was. Instead, Annja found herself looking down three gun barrels, and when the small Toyota van had rolled to a stop in front of her, the wisest move was to get inside.
She smirked. If she was being totally honest with herself, part of her wanted to see where things led. She was getting used to unexpected adventures and the truth was she usually enjoyed them. She was pretty good at getting herself out of tight spots.
Her smile faded. I should have considered all the options beforehand, she thought. Before she was forced to endure a bumpy flight away from Manila, and then a riverboat ride to some desolate part of the country.
And there was also the fact that she had no idea where on earth she was. The Philippines comprised over seven thousand islands. Annja could be on any of them.
With no real way home.
She racked her brain. What do I know about Abu Sayyaf? Not much. Just what had made it to the news. She knew they were notorious for their cruelty. They hadn't pulled off much in the way of actual terrorist attacksa stray bombing here and there. But what they lacked in a track record, they made up for in terms of their lucrative side businesskidnapping.
Abu Sayyaf operatives had resorted to kidnapping over the past ten years to help finance their various other operations. Normally, the kidnappings took place at expensive resorts frequented by wealthy Europeans. But in the past few years, Annja knew that Abu Sayyaf had also kidnapped several missionaries. The results weren't always positive. If the ransoms were paid, by and large most of the victims were released. In the case of one missionary, however, he was beheaded.
Annja wondered what they hoped to achieve by kidnapping her.
She looked around the makeshift camp. There were several huts built a foot off the ground on stilts. Their rooftops had been painted and thatched over to help conceal them among the other plants of the jungle canopy, probably to discourage them from being seen from the air by the military units that hunted the terrorists.
She wondered if it was true that U.S. special-operations troops were involved in the hunt for Abu Sayyaf. She supposed they could be, and the thought of them attacking the camp cheered her.
The reality of it seemed unlikely, though. Annja hadn't heard any type of aircraft in the area since she'd been here.
The jungle, she knew, could be utterly impenetrable. Walk in any direction and within ten yards, you'd be totally lost unless you knew exactly where you were going and how you were going to get there.
She heard a chicken clucking off in the distance. They were one of the few animals that Abu Sayyaf members seemed to keep around the camp. She was grateful they at least fed her well enough. Last night she'd had a chicken-and-rice dish that had filled her stomach and set her at ease for the first time in a few days.
They kept her well hydrated, too. Of course, they had to.
In this heat, even just being leashed to the wooden pole a few feet away, Annja could dehydrate fast. Someone stopped by about once an hour and forced her to drink water.
The dark skin of her Filipino hosts suggested they were indigenous to this area, rather than city transplants. She knew that Abu Sayyaf, like many terrorist groups, preferred the disenfranchised lower classes to the middle class or wealthy. It was easier to recruit them, easier to get them to commit to suicide missions if they believed their families were going to be taken care of after they were gone.
From her vantage point in the camp, Annja had seen a total of twelve men and four women. Each one of them was dressed in camouflage fatigues. And even Annja was wearing fatigues. Her own clothes had been unceremoniously stripped off when she'd first arrived. Annja wondered if her nakedness might have aroused any of her guards, but they merely looked away while she put on the new clothes, which smelled of mothballs.
She heard the tramping of feet and looked up. One of the guards, a guy she'd named Big Nose because of the bulbous snout he had, approached with her hourly ration of water.
Annja tilted her head back and opened her mouth. The water was cool. Annja wondered if they had a refrigerator somewhere, and if so, what sort of power it was running on. A generator out here would be too noisy and would require a supply of gasoline to run. She didn't think they would opt to trade their concealment for a creature comfort. But who knew?
She swallowed some water, pausing to take a breath before finishing off the water off. She felt a few drops run down her chin and smiled at the guard. "Thank you."
He frowned and walked away.
So much for making a friend, she thought. I don't think I can count on him as an ally.
She continued the struggle to get her hands around to her front, but couldn't make it work. She slumped forward, straining to stretch her back muscles. She'd already worked on keeping her legs flexible, but her arms had pretty much gone numb.
She sighed and took another deep breath. Now what? Annja closed her eyes and looked inside of herself. The sword she'd somehow inherited from Joan of Arc hung in its ready position. All she had to do was reach in and take it.
But how could she do that when her hands were cuffed?
She was still learning about the powers of the sword and what she could and couldn't do with it. Maybe I don't need my hands free in this plane to do it in that plane, she thought. Perhaps she could reach into the otherwhere and then, when she opened her eyes, the cuffs would be gone. All she had to do was see it so.
Annja saw her hands as free as she reached toward the sword.
She felt the hilt and wrapped her hands around it.
She opened her eyes.
Her hands were still cuffed behind her. The sword was nowhere to be seen.
Annja frowned. So much for that.
She knew she had to get her cuffs off before she tried to do anything at all that might spring her from this place.
The problem, she realized, was that even if she did escape, where would she go? She had no idea where she was. They'd blindfolded her until she arrived in the camp. And stumbling through the jungle wasn't the smartest thing she could do.
There had to be another way. But what?
Annja looked up. Somewhere in the camp, there seemed to be some sort of commotion. She heard more voices. They spoke loudly. Was it an argument? Annja strained to listen, but her knowledge of Tagalog was minute. And there was no way of knowing what particular dialect these terrorists were using.
The voices seemed to be getting closer. Annja sat back, trying to feign disinterest.
The guard with the big nose came into view. The AK-47 assault rifle he wore dangled from its strap on his shoulder. The gun looked large in his smallish hands, but he kept it fixed on Annja.
She wanted to smile. Like I'm any type of threat right now, she wanted to say. But she kept her mouth closed.
Big Nose knelt behind her and untied the leash binding her to the tree. He stood and gestured to Annja with his gun. "You will come with me," he said.
Annja nodded and the guard motioned back the way he'd come. Annja took a few stumbling steps, waiting for the blood to flow back down her legs. She tried flexing her arms, but the cuffs really restricted her movement.
The man led her to a large hut. As Annja walked toward it, she saw other members of the terrorist cell peering at her intently. Did they know who she was? Was this why they'd kidnapped her? Did they even get Chasing History's Monsters out here? And if they did, Annja would still be surprised they might know who she was. Since she didn't make a habit out of wearing skimpy clothes, her fan base was significantly smaller than her buxom cohost's.
The guard walked her up the steps of the hut. Annja's feet felt the rough-hewed wood flooring under her. It felt good to be standing again after sitting for so long. She ducked under a palm frond opening and walked inside the hut.
It was much darker inside. But a small fire kept it just shy of total darkness. The heat was worse in here and Annja instantly felt herself sweating even more than she had outside.
"What is your name?"
The voice wasn't one she'd heard before. It sounded quite cosmopolitan.
"Annja Creed," she said, looking for the source of the voice.
"Where are you from, Annja Creed?"
Annja strained to make out any details, but she could only see that he had close-cropped hair. There was also a vague tinge of some sort of cheap cologne on the air. He'd obviously showered recently. Or maybe he'd rolled around in the cologne sample inserts that they stocked magazines with these days.
"What brings you to our country?"
"I work for a television show. One of the story ideas brought me here," she replied.
"You're a reporter?" he asked.
"What does that mean?"
"I'm not with the news. It's more of a history show. Like documentaries."
"You don't have a camera crew with you?"
Annja shook her head. "I came over first to see if the story was legitimate. Only then would the camera guys come over so we could film it."
Annja heard the rustle of papers. "We have your passport here."
"They took it from me when I was kidnapped," she said.
"Yes, and it's a shame they didn't bother to look at it. Otherwise it might have saved us both from the embarrassing situation that now confronts us."
"Yes. You see, my colleagues are sometimes a bit, shall we say, overzealous in their work? It's a stressful thingI'm sure you can appreciate it. There are all sorts of logistical elements to planning a proper kidnapping. Emotions run high. People make mistakes."
"Mistakes?" Annja wondered where this was going.
"Yes. You were not our intended target, Annja Creed."
"You didn't mean to kidnap me?"
Annja smiled. "Oh well, that's cool."
"It is not cool. It is a bad mistake," the man said calmly.
There was movement behind Annja. A guard pushed another man through the doorway. His hands were bound behind him and he was gagged. But Annja recognized him as the terrorist who had kidnapped her.
Annja looked back into the darkness. "Well, like you said, everyone makes mistakes."
"Mistakes are not tolerated in our organization. It would set a bad precedent if I allowed such behavior to fester within our ranks."
The gunshot sounded like an explosion and Annja jumped. She looked behind her and saw her kidnapper facedown on the floor, a pool of blood rapidly pooling around his head.
Annja turned back. "So, we're all through here, then? I'm free to go?" she said quickly.
"Unfortunately, no. You've seen too many things here."
Annja shook her head. "I didn't see a thing. I was blindfolded until I got here."
"Even still "
Annja shook her head. "I have no issue with what you do
or who you do it, to. You said this was a mistake. So let's correct it. Let me go," she spoke confidently, hoping she was persuasive enough.
"No. I think you'll be able to help us out, after all," the voice said.
"Indeed. But it will, most unfortunately, mean your death."
The guard with the big nose steered Annja out of the cloistered environment of the thatch hut and back down onto the muddy ground. He deliberately pushed her fast enough so that Annja's legs had trouble keeping up with the momentum, causing her to stumble and trip most of the way down. At last he shoved her and Annja had to turn her head at the very last minute before she crashed to the ground.
She sat up and spit out some dirt. "Thanks for the help, jerk," she muttered.
The guard grinned and took his pistol out. Annja frowned. This was not good. The guard thumbed the hammer back.
The guard and Annja both turned toward the veranda of the hut she'd just left. The man standing there lit a cigarette. He exhaled a thin stream of smoke into the dense jungle air and regarded Annja.
"Are you scared about dying?" he asked her.
Annja got to her knees and stared at him. "I've faced death before."