Tess clutched the bare mattress and gulped a lungful of stale air, her heart jackhammering against her ribs. A nightmare? No—men were shouting, outside. She widened her eyes, then squinted. Open, closed, open, closed, it made no difference. Black was black was black.
She sat up with a lurch and shuffled back against the damp stone wall to at least get a fix on which way was up. Not a sliver of gray slid between the floorboards above. Had to be night. She’d been asleep? For how long? She laid her palm over her face and blinked, the lashes tickling her skin. Definitely open. This wasn’t the kind of nightmare you got to wake from. As further proof, her big toes throbbed in unison where Hamid’s men had ripped out the nails.
A door squealed, and something solid was dragged across the floor overhead. From their nest in the corner of her cell, the mice scratched and squeaked—even they knew something was up. She shakily exhaled. Six days she’d been here, and each night had been heavy with silence until the distant song of a muezzin’s call to prayer. What was different about tonight?
A flashlight beam flickered through the cracks. More voices— instructions, perhaps. A series of clinks, a heavy scrape—they were opening the bunker hatch. Was she to be freed? She swallowed. Or executed?
Fresh air puffed over her face as the hatch lifted. She drew up her knees and hugged them. The flashlight beam tracked around the cell, pausing on a food tray the mice had finished up, and a scattering of empty plastic water bottles. The light flicked to her, scorching her eyes and drilling pain into her brain. She shut them tight and sealed her palms over top. Even then her vision pulsed bloodred.
If they were planning to make another video, or if Hamid was coming to ask again if she was ready for death, the next sound would be the rasp and bump of the rope ladder being lowered. But this early? This felt more like the hour of…
Enough overthinking. She breathed deeply through her mouth— she’d stopped inhaling through her nose days ago, so she couldn’t smell herself rotting.
People had survived years like this. She had to keep believing that the kidnap of a high-profile American TV journalist would prompt a large-scale search, even in East Africa. She had to keep visualizing a company of marines scouring the arid terrain. Or would they be out to get her, too?
The rasp didn’t come. More scuffles and scrapes. She forced her eyes open. Shadows circled the dirt floor. Above the hatch, figures moved and a man grunted, as if with great effort. Something blocked the square hole, returning the cell to darkness. It wasn’t the hatch cover, so what was—?
The thing dropped. She shrank back as it thudded down a few feet away. A strobe of light flashed on a large curled shape before the hatch thunked shut. Metal scraped on metal—the bolts sliding home. She shivered. Voices and footsteps retreated, a door squealed shut, a key clicked in a lock, leaving the darkness absolute. She let her crown drop back on the cold stone. Not execution, not yet. Maybe they were storing something down here. But at this time of night?
As her shuddering breath subsided and the mice settled, she made out another sound. Air rasping, in and out, in and out. Holy crap.
The thing was alive.
“Hello?” Her voice caught. She cleared her throat. “Hello?”
She crawled off the mattress and felt her way along the packed dirt. Her right hand hit something warm, covered with smooth fabric.
It flinched. Human, at least.
“It’s okay,” she said.
She splayed her fingers. Under the fabric the skin was firm but yielding. A stomach? A groan rose up—a man’s voice. Her left hand touched something hard. Bones—a row of them. He shuddered and arched away. His spine? Which meant her other hand was currently exploring a particularly solid butt. She released her grip.
He muttered something unintelligible. French?
“Are you hurt?” In the cloying silence, the walls whispered back.
A grunt. She’d have to find out for herself. Maybe they’d sedated him with the same drug they’d used on her after they’d dragged her from the Land Rover. She glided her hands over his curved back.
No sign of injury—nothing but hard ridges of muscle, under a thick cotton jacket. At his shoulders, her finger caught in a loop. An epaulet.
Military? An enemy soldier to Hamid and the al-Thawra network was likely to be an ally to her—and there’d be more where he came from.
Unless his team was dead, as hers might well be. Her cameraman had taken a volley of bullets within seconds of the ambush.
Every time she closed her eyes she saw his face—the flicker of disbelief and realization before he slumped, lifeless. Just a young Zimbabwean news junkie who thought working with her would propel him into the big time, and all it got him was… She sucked in air through clenched teeth.
Her translator better still be alive. Last she’d seen him, al-Thawra thugs were dragging him feetfirst along a stony road. He was just an honest, reliable local dad who’d needed the money. Had she been explicit enough about the risk of working for her, about the need for secrecy? He’d been so eager for the job. If she’d got him killed, too…
No. Cling to hope. She’d been the target, not him.
She dipped two fingers under the soldier’s collar and scooped.
No dog tag. Thick, corded neck, suede buzz cut. His crown was hot and…sticky. Ugh. She snapped her hand away. Had to be blood.
He moaned. A bit of light would be handy—she’d rather not stick her fingers in his brain.
“You’ve got a wound up here. I’m going to check it. Hold still.”
Like he was capable of anything else. She closed her useless eyes and brushed her fingertips over the spot. An inch-long gash gaped over a lump the size of half a tennis ball. Ouch.
“It’s not too bad,” she said. Like she had any idea. “I have a firstaid kit.”
He needed sutures, but alcohol wipes and adhesive strips would have to do. God help him if it got infected down here. He muttered again.
She caught a guttural R. Definitely French, maybe from Djibouti— no other army this side of the Congo would speak French. Or L’armée de Terre? But why would a French soldier be out here?
“Is anything else hurting?” Silence. “I’m just going to check.”
She leaned over him, her knees touching his back. Her hair slipped loose. She looped and twisted it into a knot. One benefit of hair that hadn’t seen shampoo in a week—it was greasy enough to tie without a band.
She ran her fingers over his shoulder and a rolled sleeve, down to his right hand. Jesus, the guy had muscles. As she slid her fingertips into his palm, his hand closed. Just a reflex, but she gave in to it, letting the flicker of comfort shoot right up to her chest.
The deep words came from so low in his throat she could have imagined them—she’d been imagining a lot of crazy things lately.
Maybe not a reflex, then? She squeezed back.
“De rien,” she said, her choked R giving away her rusty tourist
French. God, was he ever welcome, whoever he was. She shouldn’t be thankful some other luckless schmuck had wound up here.
Reluctantly, she eased her hand from his. He’d be more comfortable on the mattress but first she should make sure moving him wouldn’t worsen any injuries. She patted his stomach, then stroked up. At his chest, hard pecs tightened. Nothing wrong with those reflexes.
His neck and jaw were rough with stubble—almost a beard— rising up to a sharp, smooth cheekbone and speed bumps of tiny wrinkles beside his right eye. His forehead was unlined, though a little rough and peeling. The skin between his eyes was bunched into two crevasses. Was this how blind people built a picture of someone?
The bones were in the right places, though the nose felt wonky. He didn’t recoil when she skated her fingertips along it, and there was no open wound. An old break, perhaps.
“Can you roll onto your back?”
He sighed, and seemed to understand, shifting and resettling and—she guessed from the sound of rubbing fabric—straightening his legs. He was moving freely enough. She checked his other arm. A gravelly graze on his elbow but otherwise okay. The fingers of that hand didn’t curl around hers. Which was fine.
She skipped the business part of his trousers—nothing much she could do about that if it wasn’t working, and she already knew there wasn’t a thing wrong with his butt. His legs felt fine. Very fine— powerful thighs slid into long, strong calves. His trousers—combat pants, presumably, given the number of pockets—were tucked into socks. His boots were intact. Best leave them on—in this filth, his feet were better off contained.
“Back in a sec,” she murmured.
She felt her way to the mattress and found her backpack, which had been ransacked for everything but her first-aid kit and a few toiletries. No phone, no laptop, no documents, no notes—little more than Band-Aids, sunscreen and lip gloss. I need you to stay pretty for my videos, Hamid had said, shoving the backpack into Tess’s stomach.
Hamid had stood there, a few feet from where Tess now sat, flicking through her notebook. You’ve been trying to find my base. Congratulations, my friend. You succeeded. If I’d known you were so keen to drop in, I would have invited you much sooner.
How did you find me? Tess had demanded.
The same way I usually find people. The same way I found your whistle-blower, the traitor Latif. Hamid held up Tess’s phone. With the help of America’s very useful National Security Agency. My job is a bit like yours, you know. It’s all about the contacts.
That’s impossible. I was careful. She hadn’t been online in a fortnight.
She’d been using burner phones, contacting no one she knew.
We were all careful.
Not all, Hamid said. Not all. Your translator texted his wife several times.
Tess’s face went cold, all over again. She removed the first-aid kit from her backpack. She could do nothing for her crew now but she could help this soldier. Returning to him, she coaxed his head onto her lap, cradling his shoulders with her thighs while keeping her bandaged feet clear.
What had this guy done to incur al-Thawra’s wrath? Or was Hamid trying to draw France into their phony conflict?
“I’m going to clean the cut on your head. It might sting a little.”
At his solid weight, a memory flashed up of her final weekend with Kurt, when he’d taken leave and met her in Cairo. Ugh. Turned out even a Medal of Honor didn’t make a man honorable—even if half of America swooned over him. No more military heroes for her.
Next time she’d go for a dependable small-town accountant whose chief attribute was loyalty. Someone who could be relied on to come home after work—alive, and not smelling of another woman. Charm and bravado spelled trouble. She frowned. That was if she got a chance at a next time and didn’t end up in two pieces like the last unfortunate American kidnapped by Hamid.
She ripped open an alcohol wipe and ran it over her hands. Working on feel and guesswork, she smoothed the next few wipes over the lump, wringing out the alcohol so it dripped on the wound. He hissed, his shoulders tensing against her.
That’d have to do—she was low on wipes, and she might need to change the dressing in a day or two, if they both lasted that long.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to send the message to her other senses that they were on their own, as she held the wound closed with one hand and pressed on the suture strips with the other. Several times the strips tangled and she had to start over. She finished by winding a bandage around his head. Better than nothing.
Would twice the people be looking for al-Thawra and their hostages now? Soldiers were full of no-man-left-behind macho crap. At least they’d be a whole lot more enthusiastic about looking for one of their own than for a pain-in-the-ass reporter. More than a few
American politicians and military brass would be greatly relieved to pay their respects at Tess’s funeral.
“Done,” she whispered. Now, how the hell would she move him?
His head felt heavier, suddenly. “Monsieur?”
He groaned. “Oh.”
“Oh.” She heard him swallow, with effort. “Water.” “Of course. Hang on.” Duh—he was saying “eau,” not “oh.” No kidding he’d be thirsty. The air out here was so dry it felt like you’d swallowed a cup of salt. She eased his head off her lap and crawled to the mattress, waving her arm as if she were divining the water.
She knocked over a bottle and caught it before it rolled away.
“Here,” she said, scrambling back. “Can you sit up?”
No answer. Unconscious, again. Crap, how was she going to do this? She heaved him upright, cradling his back against her chest.
She sensed his head slumping, and caught him as he tipped sideways.
Her foot grazed his thigh, searing pain up her leg. She adjusted under his weight, her arm muscles burning as she guided his head back onto her shoulder. Man, he had to weigh two hundred pounds. Help me out here, buddy.
Grunting with effort, she closed her arms around his torso and twisted the cap off the bottle. It couldn’t be a good idea to pour liquid down his throat. She splashed a little water into her palm and lifted it to where she guessed his mouth was. She got his prickly chin, instead. She tried again, a little higher. When her palm touched his dry lips, she eased the water into his mouth. He moaned and straightened a little, relieving the pressure on her muscles. On her next attempt he darted out his tongue and licked her palm, shooting fissures of awareness up her arm.
Well, if he was strong enough to do that… She brought the neck of the bottle to his lips and raised it. Water trickled down her arm but his throat made swallowing sounds. She flinched as something warm and rough closed over her fingers—his hand, guiding the bottle to a better angle. She couldn’t bring herself to extract her hand. Maybe he was a hallucination—her isolation and fear playing on her subconscious—but whatever he was, whoever he was, calm spread through her for the first time since her translator had slowed for that damn roadblock near Hargeisa. Hell, she’d take any relief she could get.
He released her hand. “Beaut,” he gasped.
Beaut? Was that French? Something about the accent was familiar— something that didn’t fit this picture. When he’d said “water” in English, he hadn’t used the French R. He’d trailed off with no R at all.
Definitely not a French accent. Was he English? But why the French words earlier? A multilingual local? Or maybe his accent was just messed up after too many years away from home, like hers.
“Nothing wrong with your eyes. It’s pitch-black down here—I can’t see anything, either.”
His back collapsed against her chest and she fought to catch him.
Conked out again? She laid him down and extracted herself. She found the graze on his elbow and dabbed and dressed it. It couldn’t be healthy to leave him on the dirt—at night the cold seeped up through it. The mattress was filthy and scratchy but it provided a couple of inches of insulation and comfort.
Well, if she couldn’t take him to the mattress… She felt her way across the cell and shoved the squab up against him. Screwing up her face, she rolled him onto it. He shuffled and settled, with a sigh that might have been gratitude. After checking he was lying clear of his wound and breathing okay, she let her shoulders slump. God, it felt good to not be alone. The chances of him being a psycho killer had to be low, right? This compound already contained more than its fair share.
So where would she spend the night? No way was she taking the floor, not when there’d be a little space right in front of him she could just fit into. If he was sedated he was likely to sleep soundly, and she probably wouldn’t sleep at all—she’d dozed off only a few times in the long days and nights she’d been locked up. By the time he returned to his senses in a few hours she’d have disentangled herself. In his current state, he was no threat to her—or anyone else, unfortunately.
After gulping some water, she crept to the top of the mattress and slipped down into his outstretched arms as if sliding into a sleeping bag. One heavy forearm weighed down her waist. She wriggled until his other biceps pillowed her head. Was this a little creepy of her? He’d understand, surely.
Arrested by a thought, she trailed her fingers down his rough, corded left arm and over his knuckles. No ring. Not that that proved anything—plenty of married military guys didn’t wear them, much less abide by them—but at least she might not be taking advantage of another woman’s semiconscious husband. Just a regular semiconscious guy. She curled her legs around his bent ones. He mumbled and pulled her closer, burying his face in her hair and sliding a hand down her outer thigh. Uh-oh—he wasn’t about to have some drugaddled wet dream, was he?
She held her breath but in seconds he relaxed—with her firmly in his grip. And, hell, that felt good. She dared to press her nose to his arm and inhale. Gravelly. Tangy. Real. His sweat probably smelled a damn sight fresher than hers.
Still no dusty beam of gray spilled through the cracks overhead— she couldn’t even see the boards. Dawn had to be hours away. She yawned. If these were the last hours of her life, at least they’d be comfortable ones—even if the relief was stolen from an unwitting stranger.
Don’t you dare die on me, soldier.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Edge Of Truth by Brynn Kelly.
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