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Dr. Sadie Kauffman had been always skeptical of people who, as their death sentence neared, claimed to have changed and reformed. Now she believed it. Time made all the difference, being locked up with nothing to do but think. She'd had forty long days and nights to mull over what her life had been so far—a mad race for things that in hindsight didn't matter. She would live differently. She rubbed her fingertips together. They tingled from nerves. Today was the day of her execution.
She watched one of the bandits as he plodded toward her makeshift prison, his rifle slung across his shoulder, his face wrapped in the trailing end of his headdress to protect him from the blowing sand. He opened the low door that had been nailed together from pieces of scrap wood, and swore at her as she stumbled out awkwardly, her legs numb from her cramped quarters. "Move it," the man said, and although she was limping forward as fast as she could, it wasn't quick enough for him. He shoved his rifle barrel between her ribs to make her go faster.
She blinked toward the desert horizon. The sun had barely breached it. Her last sunrise. No, she wouldn't think like that. She had to have hope. If the desert bandits killed her, what would they gain? They had to keep her alive to collect the ransom. She'd spent the night working out different ways to convince Umman, the camp's leader, to extend the deadline.
It'll work. They need the money.
She ran her fingers over her black headscarf and attached veil to make sure they exposed nothing but her eyes. The man kept shoving her at every few steps, toward the tents instead of the cooking fires as he would have on any other day.
"It's as fast as I can go," she snapped without heat. Did he even understand her? Other than Umman, the rest spoke no more English than the few words they used to order her around.
Her sandals sunk into the hot sand with each step. She still hadn't learned to balance her weight just right, angle her feet so she could walk the terrain with ease like the men whose tents sprawled like giant, unworldly beasts on the sand ahead. Most had their flaps open—giant, yawning mouths getting ready to swallow their prey whole. She shivered despite the heat that had to be nearing a hundred degrees already.
She halted at the entrance of the largest tent, looked inside with quick, darting glances and kept her head down to make sure her gaze wouldn't directly meet anyone else's. Most of the bandits were in there, lounging on worn carpets and sipping spiced coffee.
"So your country cares not if you live or die." The contemptuous voice was Umman's.
As far as desert bandits went, they looked the part—Ali Baba and all that—missing teeth, savage faces, murderous weapons. They smelled the part, too.
"The money is coming," she said with false confidence, knowing the U.S. never paid ransoms. She'd always thought that a reasonable policy—until now.
"Today. It's a lot of money." Five million dollars.
The men didn't appear to be impressed with her promise, nor did any of them look like they might be sympathetic to her cause. She was nothing to them, less than nothing—an annoyance, a reminder of a business plan that didn't work out.
"You think me a fool." The leader's voice was low, yet it seemed to thunder across the tent. He was the oldest of the men, his face crackled with scars, his scraggly beard blending into gray as it fell to his worn brown robe.
She had no doubt he would cut her throat without thought, as he would cut a goat. As he had cut one of his own men not two weeks before for some minor insubordination.
"Your people show me great disrespect," he said. Her carefully crafted speech had sounded reasonable and convincing in her head in the quiet of the night, but now, faced with a tentful of bandits, the arguments she had prepared suddenly seemed laughably feeble.
"I'm a doctor. You might need me. A few more days—"
"Do not bargain with me." Umman's voice rose, thick with anger. "We do not need your kind of medicine. You think I would trust you?"
Apparently not. At first, when she had been kidnapped from the hospital, she'd been convinced they'd taken her to heal some bandit chief and would let her go once she was done. It had taken her days to realize the true severity of her situation.
There had to be words she could say to convince him to do just that. Think. Think!
Something shifted in the darkest corner—a man she hadn't noticed, sitting away from the rest. She swallowed as she recognized the man she feared the most. Nasir. The sight of him scattered her few gathering thoughts.
Something in the man—an indefinable hardness, a dark purpose to his heart and murder in his eyes— made her get out of his way every time she'd found his gaze on her.
He was new to camp, had prodded in on his small camel two days after she'd been kidnapped from the field hospital. He had quickly gained the respect of the other men. There had been a fight or two at the beginning, testing the newcomer. Since then, most knew enough to steer clear of him.
His full attention was on her now, his dark gaze burning her.
Umman set down his cup and spoke in Arabic to the guard who'd brought her in while he dug through a wooden crate and tossed the man a new-looking digital camera.
He wanted her execution documented—probably so the next time they asked for ransom, everyone would know they were serious.
Her heart beat against her chest so hard it hurt. This can't be happening. It isn't real.
Things like this happened to other people, strangers on the evening news. Her hands trembled at the thought of her lifeless body on some Web site.
Run! her brain said, but before she could react, she was grabbed, rough fingers digging into her arm.
"Another day. The money will be here," she begged, her lungs drowning in panic that seemed to swallow her whole. "Out."
The guard obeyed, pulling her from the tent into the merciless light, into the killing heat. He dragged her behind the tents, up the first dune, barely slowing as she struggled against him.
How much did she have left? Ten minutes? Five? He held her tight, his gun aimed at her as he yanked her along. If she could pull away, how long would it be before a bullet slammed into her back? Even running couldn't save her now. Nothing could. Her body went slack with resignation.
She'd chosen the wrong course of action, staying in her prison in hope of a rescue instead of trying to run away in the night. The realization made her light-headed, dizzy. She'd thought the ransom would come, that the bandits wouldn't be so eager to discard their ticket to the money. She had no supplies. She'd been afraid the desert would kill her if she ran, but now even that seemed a preferable choice—death on her own terms.
"Let me go. Please." Her voice was high-pitched, weak. She hated it. Now that she realized there was no way out, she wanted to at least die with dignity.
If he understood her, he showed now sign of it. She glanced at his gun. He'd use that. It would be quick; she wouldn't feel a thing. Almost over now. She didn't think they would go far. Umman just hadn't wanted the inconvenience of her blood on his carpets.
NASIR UNCLENCHED HIS FIST. In another five minutes
the woman would be dead. Anything he could do to save her would jeopardize his hard-won cover, might make the other men realize that he was less than the ruthless killer he had purported himself to be.
And yet, he couldn't sit still and allow her to be gunned down in cold blood.
"I take her." He kept his voice hard, setting his face into an expression that bore no challenge.
A moment of silence passed, confusion underlining it. Most of the men were looking at him puzzled; Ahmed, the youngest, with burning hatred.
"I said she would die," Umman said, reacting just as Nasir had expected. The leader could not allow his authority to be overruled, especially not in front of his men.
No time to wait for a better opportunity, though, or to try to manipulate the situation.
"She'll be dead to her people. She'll be mine." Nasir stood, but inclined his head toward the man to make sure the action wasn't interpreted as a challenge.
Umman looked at him with blossoming anger and suspicion. He had every right. Nasir had been the one who had argued against allowing the men to rape her, and now here he was, claiming her as his own.
"She has no place here, no usefulness. If you changed your mind and want to use her before she dies do so." The camp leader glanced around, indicating that went for everyone.
"I claim her for my own. She'll be taken by no other," he said fiercely, then added on a more subdued voice the first good excuse he could come up with, "She might carry my child."
A low murmur rose from among the men, some of amusement, some of outrage.
"She came to me." Nasir went on with the lie, un-perturbed. If words could save her, he was willing to make up a tale. He did not want to start a fight, not yet. "Maybe she thought it would gain her favor. It does not. But I would have her birth the child. After my son is weaned, you may do with her as you please." He shrugged. "Once she's no longer useful, I'll kill her myself if you want."
Thick silence hung in the tent as one second passed, then another.
"Are you certain?" Umman asked, his face dark. Nasir nodded.
Even among bandits, children were taken seriously. Most of the men had families in one of the many villages at the edge of the desert.
"If the child lives, if it's a boy, he would be my first son," Nasir added for emphasis.
Everybody understood the importance of that. Tension thickened the air in the tent.
He listened for any sound from outside, willing the silence of the desert to remain unbroken, aware of every second that passed as he waited.
"She is your trouble." Umman gave his verdict after a few moments, visibly displeased.
Ahmed hissed. "She'll run away if he sets her up in a village. She knows where we are. Who we are."
The leader shot him a glance that shut him up and had him looking away, but did not berate the young man for his hotheaded outburst. He seemed to share Ahmed's concern.
"She stays with us," he said. "There's fire in that one that's not broken yet."
One of the men made a suggestion as to how Nasir could manage that, and others laughed, the tension suddenly broken.
"Shukran." Thank you. Nasir nodded to the leader and gave proper respect, then hurried out of the tent to save the American doctor's life.