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By:Kris Michaels

Chapter One

Curled on the crude bench, Tori blinked and fought to keep her focus. She etched one more line into the soft plaster of her cell wall. The added line brought the total to sixty-seven white marks scratched into the dirty plaster. Her mind twisted, muddled by fragmented thoughts. The words that haunted her formed a familiar cadence. When would they come? When would the pain stop? Is it morning or evening? Will I die today?

A door slammed at the far end of the corridor and the echo lingered in the cell. A low rumble of male voices reached her. She recognized the familiar tones. The guards. They no longer cared if she overheard them.

Terror spiked through her. Please, God, let it be morning! Which guard remained? Was it Emad, the day guard, who slept at the desk at the end of the hall and moved only when someone knocked at the door, or Kassar, the night guard, evil incarnate? An uncontrollable shiver rattled Tori’s body. Just like Pavlov’s damn dogs, her body reacted to the sound of Kassar’s voice. Now just the thought of him induced the response.

Kassar had held her head under water while another guard pressed glowing coals from a hand-rolled cigarette into the soles of her feet. The smoldering cinders seared through the ulcerated abscesses already branded deep into her arches from torture on previous nights.

Her screams pressed oxygen from her lungs. Desperate for air, her body inhaled the vile sludge that passed as water while Kassar held her head under the surface. A vicious grab of her hair pulled her up choking and vomiting. The bastard made sure she remained conscious. Kassar knew how to maximize the anguish and terror he inflicted.

“What is your mission?” His guttural English demanded an answer.

“I’m a photographer!” Her head was immediately plunged back into the putrid fluid sloshing in the bucket. Again searing agony ripped across the sole of her foot, and again the excruciating pain forced an involuntary scream and inhale. Just before she blacked out, hands grabbed her hair and pulled her to the surface.

“American whore! Tell me who sent you!”

“Photographer, freelance…nobody! Please! Let me go!” Her cries of innocence had only inflamed his anger.

The interrogations and torture had not broken her. Her captors knew only her cover story. That she maintained her cover story signed her death certificate just as certainly as admitting she worked for the CIA. No one will help. I know it. The freelance photography company would be a dead-end. Rightfully, no one there would claim knowledge of her. The CIA would never have the opportunity to confirm or deny her employment; she’d never confessed to working for them. There would be no ransom, no happy-ever-after ending to this nightmare. Death at Kassar’s hand would be the only escape.

Her abused body curled inward longing for warmth vaguely remembered. A distant rattle of the guard’s keys being thrown on the desk indicated whoever watched over her had stirred. Had Emad provided water or food? Would this be another day of starvation and thirst?

She lifted her head from the bench and attempted to sit, biting her fist against the nausea her movement caused. Tori panted and waited for the violent lurch of the room to stop. At some point, a crude wooden bucket had appeared inside the door of her cell. The mere thought of food or water drove her aching body into action. She put weight on her good leg, holding her useless arm close, and stood cautiously. The effort it took to cross the tiny cell had become a gauntlet of pain and determination. The sores and blisters on her feet cracked open and bloody footprints marked her progress. Yet starvation made one hell of a motivator, even for those who knew their fate.

Please, God, please let there be food. Her pitiful approach startled a rat the size of small dog away from the bucket. He squeaked his displeasure at the interruption and slid his lean body through the bars of the cell door. A small piece of bread and something that almost resembled broth lay at the bottom of the rotted wooden vessel. Thank you, sweet Jesus!

Tori pulled the container toward her. An echo of the scrape of wood on stone lingered in the silence of the cell. The putrid smell from the fetid congealed slime at the bottom rolled to her. She gagged and tried to hold in the sound of her dry heaves. No wonder the rat left without a fight.

Heavy steps echoed down the hallway toward her. The noise of the bucket or her retches must have caught the guard’s attention. Tori shoved the gelatinous hunk of bread into her mouth and chewed. The familiar pop of pellet-like substances provided indisputable proof maggots infested the bread. She pressed her hand against her mouth forcing herself not to regurgitate the only food she had consumed in days. Swallow it, Tori. It’s protein. Hysteria fought for control of her tenuous grasp on reality. The sound of footsteps grew louder. She limped away from the iron bars and pressed against the wooden bench that served as the singular piece of furniture in the cell.

Kassar, the evening guard, leered through the bars. Emad stood behind him. Fear gripped her, freezing her muscles, numbing her mind and mentally she started to slip away. The mandatory training classes she’d attended called the phenomena dissociative mental ordering. Tori didn’t know when or how she’d first begun to do it, but sometimes when they came to question and beat her, she left…mentally. Usually the curtain of oblivion fell only for the duration of the attack, but more and more, she lingered in the blackouts that protected her tenuous grasp on reality.

“The whore is useless to us! She is not what they said.” Emad spat at her through the bars.

“If she is of no political value and no one claims her, the elders will give her to me. She begs for mercy now. By the time I’ve finished with her she will beg for death,” Kassar responded and glared at her.

Emad’s voice trailed him as he turned and walked away. “You have been warned Kassar. The Westerners value their women. Do not defile her against the Elder’s decrees. The payment will decrease.”

“The Elders are fools. She is a filthy infidel! An American—our avowed enemy!” The hatred in his eyes nailed Tori to the wall. Kassar could kill her with one hand. She almost hoped he would. Spittle flew from Kassar’s mouth as he switched languages and spoke in heavily accented English. “No pay for a whore. They give you to me soon. I have until you die. Your body food for animals.”

“Kassar, you are to obey the Elder’s commands for the woman! Do not defile her or kill her. Have your fun tonight. Be useful and make her talk. Your reward will be more than this whore.” Emad’s sharp reprimand in Kassar’s native Afghani dialect earned her a snarl and an evil glare from Kassar.

Tori understood enough of their language to know her captor’s patience neared exhaustion. The guards’ exchange left no room for doubt—or hope. Left alone, she turned, inch by excruciating inch, to face the wall, and stared at the display of white marks. Sixty-seven days existing in a hell where her only defense consisted of desperate prayers for the impossible. How would her father and sister react to her death? Oh God…would they ever know? She couldn’t afford the flood of emotion that threatened to break her. No, she had to bury it all in order to protect them and herself.

The door at the end of the hall slammed shut. Once again, footsteps echoed menacingly down the hall. So it begins…again. Tori knew she reeked of weakness and fear. Kassar opened the bars and walked towards her. He grabbed her by the neck lifting her away from the wall and backhanded her. The force bounced her head off the concrete wall. She slumped against the wooden bench, numb. He untied the string around his shalwar, the Afghani version of pants.

“No longer will you hide under the protection of weak old men, American whore. I have watched and waited. I take you tonight. They will not know about tonight or any night after this. Nobody ever returns to the stench of the cells at night.” He pulled viciously at the waistband of her garb and moved over her. She didn’t resist the blessed darkness that pulled her past the white-hot shards of pain. Her eyesight tunneled and splashes of black obscured her vision as his hand clenched the front of her tunic. At least I won’t be conscious when he rapes me. Darkness drew her down to oblivion.


Jacob palmed his Interceptor 911. The fourteen inches of sharp-as-shit blade flew silently through the air toward the Afghani guard. The man dropped the person he was assaulting. The muscles in his back convulsed and with frantic movements, the guard reached around, pawing at his back. Shit. His knife had missed the guard’s heart, but the jailor’s sudden movement to the right had merely forestalled his inevitable death. In two quick strides, Jacob corrected his rare error and eliminated the threat. Simple applied torque and force plus acceleration broke the man’s neck instantly. The guard’s body dropped to the cell floor with a muffled thud. Jacob snatched his knife from the dead body, wiped the bloody blade on the man’s clothes, and then signed instructions to his men in the corridor.

The op had been planned for after the evening call to prayer. Executed with absolute precision, the team had encountered little resistance. They’d eliminated their primary targets soundlessly and efficiently. Pictures and fingerprints had been taken as proof to confirm mission completion for the agency that sanctioned the hits. While his men worked the IDs, Jacob had searched the adjacent room someone had turned into an office.