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I see darkness. I'm lying spread-eagle on my back, ankles and wrists tied tightly to the bedposts so that I can't pull them free.
A woman is crying beside me. I've been kidnapped.
My name is Carl.
But there's more that I know about myself, fragments that don't quite make sense. Pieces of a puzzle forced into place. I know that I'm a quarter inch shy of six feet tall and that my physical conditioning has been stretched to its limits. I have a son whom I love more than my own life and a wife named . . . named Kelly, of course, Kelly. How could I hesitate on that one? I'm unconscious or asleep, yes, but how could I ever misplace my wife's name?
I was born in New York and joined the army when I was eighteen. Special Forces at age twenty, now twenty-five. My father left home when I was eight, and I took care of three younger sisters--Eve, Ashley, Pearl--and my mother, Betty Strople, who was always proud of me for being such a strong boy. When I was fourteen, Brad Stenko slapped my mother. I hit him over the head with a two-by-four and called the police. I remember his name because his intent to marry my mother terrified me. I remember things like that. Events and facts cemented into place by pain.
My wife's name is Kelly. See, I know that, I really do. And my son's name is Matthew. Matt. Matt and Kelly, right?
I'm a prisoner. A woman is crying beside me.
Carl snapped his eyes wide open, stared into the white light above him, and closed his eyes again.
Opening his eyes had been a mistake that could have alerted anyone watching to his awakening. He scrambled for orientation. In that brief moment, eyes opened wide to the ceiling, his peripheral vision had seen the plain room. Smudged white walls. Natural light from a small window. A single fluorescent fixture above, a dirty mattress under him.
And the crying woman, strapped down beside him.
Otherwise the room appeared empty. If there was any immediate danger, he hadn't seen it. So it was safe to open his eyes.
Carl did, quickly confirmed his estimation of the room, then glanced down at a thick red nylon cord bound around each ankle and tied to two metal bedposts. Beside him, the woman was strapped down in similar manner.
His black dungarees had been shoved up to his knees. No shoes. The woman's left leg lay over his right and was strapped to the same post. Her legs had been cut and bruised, and the cord was tied tightly enough around her ankles to leave marks. She wore a pleated navy-blue skirt, torn at the hem, and a white blouse that looked as if it had been dragged through a field with her.
This was Kelly. He knew that, and he knew that he cared for Kelly deeply, but he was suddenly unsure why. He blinked, searching his memory for details, but his memory remained fractured. Perhaps his captors had used drugs.
The woman whose name was Kelly faced the ceiling, eyes closed. Her tears left streaks down dirty cheeks and into short blond hair. Small nose, high cheekbones, a bloody nose. Several scratches on her forehead.
I'm strapped to a bed next to a woman named Kelly who's been brutalized. My name is Carl and I should feel panic, but I feel nothing .
The woman suddenly caught her breath, jerked her head to face him, and stared into his soul with wide blue eyes.
In the space of one breath, Carl's world changed. Like a heat wave vented from a sauna, emotion swept over him. A terrible wave of empathy laced with a bitterness he couldn't understand. But he understood that he cared for the woman behind these blue eyes very much.
And then, as quickly as the feeling had come, it fell away.
"Carl . . ." Her face twisted with anguish. Fresh tears flooded her eyes and ran down her left cheek.
She began to speak in a frantic whisper. "We have to get out of here! They're going to kill us." Her eyes darted toward the door. "We have to do something before he comes back. He's going to kill . . ." Her voice choked on tears.
Carl's mind refused to clear. He knew who she was, who he was, why he cared for her, but he couldn't readily access that knowledge. Worse, he didn't seem capable of emotion, not for more than a few seconds.
"Who . . . who are you?"
She blinked, as if she wasn't sure she'd heard him right. "What did they do to you?"
He didn't know. They'd hurt him, he knew that. Who were they? Who was she?
She spoke urgently through her tears. "I'm your wife! We were on vacation, at port in Istanbul when they took us. Three days ago. They . . . I think they took Matthew. Don't tell me you can't remember!"
Details that he'd rehearsed in his mind before waking flooded him. He was with the army, Special Forces. His family had been taken by force from a market in Istanbul. Matthew was their son. Kelly was his wife.
Panicked, Carl jerked hard against the restraints. He was rewarded with a squealing metal bed frame, no more.
Another mistake. Whoever had the resources to kidnap them undoubtedly had the foresight to use the right restraints. He was reacting impulsively rather than with calculation. Carl closed his eyes and calmed himself. Focus, you have to focus.
"They brought you in here unconscious half an hour ago and gave you a shot." Her words came out in a rush. "I think . . . I'm pretty sure they want you to kill someone." Her fingers touched the palm of his hand above their heads. Clasped his wrist. "I'm afraid, Carl. I'm so afraid." Crying again.
"Please, Kelly. Slow down."
"Slow down? I've been tied to this bed for three days! I thought you were dead! They took our son!"
The room faded and then came back into focus. They stared at each other for a few silent seconds. There was something strange about her eyes. He was remembering scant details of their kidnapping, even fewer details of their life together, but her eyes were a window into a world that felt familiar and right.
They had Matthew. Rage began to swell, but he cut it off and was surprised to feel it wane. His training was kicking in. He'd been trained not to let feelings cloud his judgment. So then his not feeling was a good thing.
"I need you to tell me what you know."
"I've told you. We were on a cruise--"
"No, everything. Who we are, how we were taken. What's happened since we arrived. Everything."
"What did they do to you?"
"I'm okay. I just can't remember--"
"You're bleeding." She stared at the base of his head. "Your hair . . ."
He felt no pain, no wetness from blood. He lifted his head and twisted it for a look at the mattress under his hair. A fist-sized red blotch stained the cover.
The pain came then, a deep, throbbing ache at the base of his skull. He laid his head back down and stared at the ceiling. With only a little effort he disconnected himself from the pain.
"Tell me what you remember."
She blinked, breathed deliberately, as if she might forget to if she didn't concentrate. "You had a month off from your post in Kuwait and we decided to take a cruise to celebrate our seventh anniversary. Matthew was buying some crystallized ginger when a man grabbed him and went into an alley between the tents. You went after him. I saw someone hit you from behind with a metal pipe. Then a rag with some kind of chemical was clamped over my face and I passed out. Today's the first time I've seen you." She closed her eyes. "They tortured me, Carl."
Anger rose, but again he suppressed it. Not now. There would be time for anger later, if they survived.
His head seemed to be clearing. More than likely they'd kept him drugged for days, and whatever they'd put into his system half an hour ago was waking him up. That would explain his temporary memory loss.
"What nationality are they?"
"Hungarian, I think. The one named Dale is a sickening . . ." She stopped, but the look of hatred in her eyes spoke plenty.
Carl blocked scattered images of all the possible things Dale might have done to her. Again, that he was able to do this so easily surprised him. Was he so insensitive to his own wife?
No, he was brutally efficient. For her sake he had to be.
Their captors had left their mouths free--if he could find a way to reach their restraints . . .
The door swung open. A man with short-cropped blond hair stepped into the room. Medium height. Knifelike nose and chin. Fiercely eager blue eyes. Khaki cotton pants, black shirt, hairy arms. Dale.
Carl knew this man.
This was Dale Crompton. This was a man who'd spent some time in the dark spaces of Carl's mind, securing Carl's hatred. Kelly had said Hungarian, but she must have meant someone else, because Dale was an Englishman.
The man's right arm hung by his side, hand snugged around an Eastern Bloc Makarov 9mm pistol. The detail was brightly lit in Carl's mind while other details remained stubbornly shrouded by darkness. He knew his weapons.
Without any warning or fanfare, Dale rounded the foot of the bed, pressed the barrel of the Makarov against Kelly's right thigh, and pulled the trigger.
The gun bucked with a thunderclap. Kelly arched her back, screamed, and thrashed against her restraints, then dropped to the mattress in a faint.
Carl's mind passed the threshold of whatever training he'd received. His mind demanded he feel nothing, lie uncaring in the face of brutal manipulation, but his body had already begun its defense of his wife. He snarled and bolted up, oblivious to the pain in his wrists and ankles.
The movement proved useless. He might as well be a dog on a thick chain, jerked violently back at the end of a sprint for freedom.
He collapsed back onto the bed and gathered himself. Kelly lay still. A single glance told him that the bullet had expended its energy without passing through her leg, which meant it had struck the femur, probably shattering it.
"I hope I have your attention," Dale said. "Her leg will heal. A similar bullet to her head, on the other hand, will produce far more satisfying results. I'd love to kill her. And your son. What is his name? Matthew?"
Carl just stared at him. Focus. Believe. You must believe in your ability to save them.
"Pity to destroy such a beautiful woman," Dale said, walking to the window. "Just so you know, I argued to tie your son next to you and keep Kelly for other uses, but Kalman overruled me. He says the boy will be useful if you fail us the first time."
Englishman put the gun on the sill, unlatched the window, and pulled it up. Fresh breezes carried a lone bird's chirping into the room. It's spring. I can smell fresh grass and spring flowers. I can smell fresh blood.
Englishman faced him. "A simple and quite lethal device has been surgically implanted at the base of your hypothalamus gland. This explains the bleeding at the back of your head. Any attempt to remove this device will result in the release of chemicals that will destroy your brain within ten seconds. Your life is in our hands. Is this clear?"
The revelation struck Carl as perfectly natural. Exactly what he would have expected, knowing what he did, whatever that was.
"Good. Your mission is to kill a man and his wife currently housed in a heavily guarded hotel at the edge of the town directly to our south, three miles away. Joseph and Mary Fabin will be in their room on the third floor. Number 312. No one else is to be killed. Only the targets. You have two cartridges in the gun, only two. No head shots. We need their faces for television. Do you understand?"
A wave of dizziness swept through Carl. Aside from a slight tic in his right eye, he showed none of it. Beside him, Kelly moaned. How could he ignore his wife's suffering so easily?
Carl eyed the pistol on the sill. "I understand."
"We will watch you closely. If you make any contact with the authorities, your wife will die. If you step outside the mission parameters, she dies. If you haven't returned within sixty minutes, both she and your son will die. Do you understand?"
Carl spoke quickly to cover any fear in his eyes. "The name of the hotel?"
"The Andrassy," Dale said. He withdrew a knife from his waistband, walked over to Carl, and laid the sharp edge against the red nylon rope that tied Carl's right leg to the bed frame.
"I'm sure you would like to kill me," Dale said. "This is impossible, of course. But if you try, you, your wife, and your son will be dead within the minute."
"Who are the targets?"
"They are the two people who can save your wife and son by dying within the hour." The man cut through the bonds around Carl's ankles, then casually went to work on the rope at his wrists. "You'll find some shoes and clean clothes outside the window." With a faint pop, the last tie yielded to Englishman's blade.
Kelly whimpered, and Carl looked over to see that her eyes were open again. Face white, muted by horror and pain.
For a long moment, lying there freed beside the woman he loved, Carl allowed a terrible fury to roll through his mind. Despite Dale's claim, Carl knew that he stood at least an even chance of killing their captor.
He wanted to touch Kelly and to tell her that she would be okay. That he would save her and their son. He wanted to tear the heart out of the man who was now watching them with a dispassionate stare, like a robot assigned to a simple task.
He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to kill himself.
Instead, he lay still.
Kelly closed her eyes and started to sob again. He wished she would stop. He wanted to shout at her and demand that she stop this awful display of fear. Didn't she know that fear was now their greatest enemy?
"Fifty-eight minutes," Dale said. "It's quite a long run."
Carl slid his legs off the bed, stood, and walked to the window, thinking that he was a monster for being so callous, never mind that it was for her sake that he steeled himself.
I'm in a nightmare . He reached for the gun. But the Makarov's cold steel handle felt nothing like a dream. It felt like salvation.
Kelly's voice shattered his reprieve. Carl was sure that he would spin where he stood, shoot Dale through the forehead, and take his chances with the implant or whatever other means they had of killing him and his family. The only way he knew to deal with such a compelling urge was to shut down his emotions entirely. He clenched his jaw and shoved the gun into his waistband.
"I love you, Carl."
He looked at her without seeing her, swallowed his terror. "It'll be okay," he said. "I'll be back."
He grabbed both sides of the window, thrust his head out to scan the grounds, withdrew, shoved his right leg through the opening, and rolled onto the grass outside. When he came to his feet, he was facing south. How did he know it was south? He just did.
He would go south and he would kill.