As the truck rolled to a grinding halt, Sassy Smith braced herself at the back door. This would be her one chance, and she wasn’t going to blow it. They’d only been moving for a few minutes, so it wasn’t a “rest” stop, at least she hoped not. She’d seen that horror unfold more than once since she was kidnapped off the streets in Niamey two days ago.
She wasn’t absolutely clear on the time of day. She was guessing early morning, but it could have been midafternoon. Her internal clock was pretty screwed up. They were close to a town, if the warehouse they’d just been in was any indication.
If they unlocked the back, the doors had to swing out like a big gate, and that momentarily blocked the guards’ vision. She’d have a three- to five-second head start to run once they opened. Given the terrain, that might be all she needed. Sassy was small, but she was lightning fast.
She slipped off her wedge heels as she stood by the doors and knotted the kimar scarf around her waist. It had long ago slipped from her head, but she didn’t dare leave the truck without it. She had no idea where they were, and a woman with her head uncovered in some areas of this country might as well be wearing a neon sign and shouting into a bullhorn.
The women around her were already tuning up, moaning and wailing. Sassy took a deep breath and reached for that inner calm she could always find when everything around her was going to hell. Being raised by a crazy alcoholic had made that a necessity. Her brother, Trey, claimed that she had ice water in her veins.
Sassy shook her head. She couldn’t think about Trey right now, or the Mexican prison where he was incarcerated for a murder he hadn’t committed. She would shut down completely and be incapable of doing what had to be done here. She needed to focus. What had seemed not so bad initially had turned ugly and frightening in the past forty-eight hours. If she dwelled on her circumstances for very long, she’d lose her nerve.
Four women on the truck had been sexually assaulted on the journey across the Hoggar Mountains since Sassy had joined them, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Sassy’d sat beside one and held her as she’d wept afterward. She had the terrible feeling she might be next if the way these new guards were treating her was any indication.
She dragged her thoughts away from that stomach-turning possibility and instead narrowed her concentration to the back door of the truck. This was just like when she’d been a runner back in high school. You waited for the signal gun to fire, and you never looked back until you crossed the finish line.
She wasn’t weeping like the others in the truck; she was gearing up to blast out of here. If she was lucky, only one guard would be opening the door, and he wouldn’t be expecting Sassy. She held a shoe in each hand, ready to brandish them like small clubs if necessary. She heard the padlock rattle in the lock and slipped into “the zone” as if she was in the starting block on the high school track years ago.
The door swung open, revealing a sliver of light, and Sassy immediately dropped through the gap to the ground, rolling under the truck and scootching out the other side, away from the traffic, before she’d fully taken in her surroundings.
The women were wailing; no one would “tattle” on her. She hesitated a moment, hiding herself beside the two large back wheels. They were on a busy road with a long stream of cars coming from both directions, but beyond that, she couldn’t tell anything about her location. There was nothing but a long wall directly behind her. Why were they stopping here and opening the back door? They were in the middle of a town. A very busy town.
Was that a bridge?
She stared a moment. That was the Sidi M’Cid.
She’d been here once before on another story. This was Constantine. The market was just across the road.
Why would her captors stop here, in the middle of all these people? Why open the truck beside the Casbah? These men were not the sharpest tools in the shed. Thank God.
She studied the guard’s feet by the back door and glanced at the wheel on the traffic side of the truck. The tire was as flat as her chest had been when she was eleven years old and praying for boobs every night.
The guard would be climbing in the back of the vehicle soon to grab the spare, but he still hadn’t realized anyone had flown the coop. She crawled underneath the undercarriage to the traffic side of the truck and checked to make sure no one else was exiting the cab on this side. Seeing no one, she waited for a break in the line of cars coming from the opposite direction. Then she stood, tucked the shoes under each arm, and sprinted across the street. The gravel over the top of the warm asphalt dug into her feet, but she ignored the pain. The guard behind her yelled, but he was too late. Sassy slipped into the crowds and never looked back, disappearing into the Casbah and the anonymity of market day.
She was free.
She hurried through the labyrinth of stalls strung with the vendors’ wares—scarves, food, embroidered baby clothes, electronics, linens, housewares, even chickens. Anything and everything one could imagine was found here. The shoppers were out in force as well.
Was this Christmas Eve? She’d lost track of the days while on the truck. But there was no time to dwell on that. She slipped the kimar up over her head and wrapped it twice, securing it as best she could without a pin or mirror. She shoved her shoes back onto her bruised feet and slowed to a more sedate pace, since a white woman running through the market would draw entirely too much attention.
She paused by a vendor selling beautifully woven rugs and glanced behind her. No one appeared to be following. But she couldn’t be sure if the man from the truck was just good at tracking or had given up and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Either way she had to keep moving. She gazed to the Sidi M’Cid, its towers rising majestically in the air over the one-lane bridge. That would be her quickest way out of the area.
She looked closer. No, that wouldn’t work. The bridge was cordoned off with police and official vehicles swarming it from both ends. She was stuck here for the time being, unless she wanted to venture farther into Constantine or try the urban gondola system.
Despite the sign ahead for one of the gondola stations, she wasn’t ready to do that yet. Sassy wasn’t scared of much—in fact, she’d do just about anything on a dare—but her fear of heights would keep her out of that egg-shaped car crossing the Rhumel Gorge unless someone held a gun to her head.
For just a moment she wondered if she’d made a mistake leaving the truck. She could possibly have found out where Elizabeth Yarborough was if she’d stayed with the women. Or if Trey’s girlfriend had even been here in Africa, as Sassy strongly suspected. But the last time they’d stopped, the man in charge had looked at her with entirely too much interest and undiluted lust. He’d groped her thoroughly as he’d shoved her into the truck in the warehouse.
She’d known it had only been a matter of time until they’d pull her from the back at one of the “rest stops.” As a reporter, she’d been on her own in too many dangerous areas of the world not to recognize the signs. And she wasn’t dumb enough to think she could fight them off or talk her way out of it. She wanted to help her brother, but she wouldn’t put herself in the position of being raped to do it. She’d be no help to Trey if she was a broken wreck or worse.
She refused to think about what this meant for Elizabeth. Her brother’s girlfriend might very well have died on the Sahara crossing, if her journey had been anything like that of the women in the truck with Sassy. Even if that were true—and Sassy’s heart ached to think it could be—Sassy had to find the evidence, anything to prove that Elizabeth hadn’t died at the hands of her brother at a resort in Mexico, as the authorities claimed.
A wave of dizziness flowed over her. Lord, she was hungry. She estimated the last time she’d eaten a real meal. It had been almost forty-two hours ago. Plus she’d had precious little water on the grueling trek across the desert. She needed food now.
What was she going to do? She looked around her. She had no money, no phone, no passport, no way of proving she was an American citizen. She questioned whether or not going to the local police would help or hurt.
She hadn’t had great luck with the authorities here in Africa since she’d arrived to investigate the human trafficking problem and the possible relationship to Elizabeth’s disappearance. As a freelance reporter, she’d assumed she’d be ignored to some extent. The corruption was rampant in the government, but she was now certain that she’d stepped on someone’s toes with her investigative reporting. If she went to the police station, would the authorities help her, or turn her back over to the men she’d just escaped?
Bryan Fisher spied the sparkling lights of Constantine on the horizon. It was a beautiful night, but he didn’t give a damn about the scenery right now. He’d driven like a bat out of hell from the port city of Skikda once he’d learned that Sassy was in trouble.
All along the way, he’d been telling himself that she had to be okay. There was no way she was hurt. Sassy Smith always landed on her feet. But the other part of him knew that the men who’d taken her were vicious. He’d seen their handiwork, and there was no telling what could happen if they had her.
The kicker was he’d passed the truck and the women this morning on his way to the coast, catching up with his partner, Nick Donovan, and Nick’s girlfriend, Jennifer Grayson. They were now on their way home after the harrowing week of attempted murder and kidnapping they’d had together in Africa. He still didn’t know who was behind their troubles, but the Vegas and the Riveras were prime candidates in Bryan’s eyes.
He hadn’t known that Sassy had been on the truck he’d passed—or, rather, that she was supposed to have been on the truck. She hadn’t been in the group of women he’d seen taken into custody by the Algerian military at the roadblock that had stopped him on his way through Constantine. He hadn’t even discovered she was in trouble until he’d met with Nick and Jennifer in a café in Skikda earlier today. He still couldn’t believe she’d been kidnapped.
Sassy was supposed to be in Niamey, writing her freelance article on Mexican cartels and sex trafficking in Africa. She’d never intended to be part of the story itself. He ignored the cold sweat that had taken up permanent residence at the base of his spine ever since Jennifer had told him about Sassy being on the truck with the traffickers’ load of women.
On his wild ride back from the coast, he’d almost chewed through an entire pack of Dentyne gum as he’d tried to contact Marissa Hudson, his boss and the co-owner of AEGIS, Armored Extraction Guards and Investigative Security. He’d had to settle for leaving her a voice mail. Risa had connections everywhere, and he needed her contacts at the embassy to find out what had happened this afternoon to that truckload of women after they’d been taken into custody.
But things were going to hell at the AEGIS office right now with a warrant out for the arrest of Gavin Bartholomew, Marissa’s partner. The charges were bogus, but Bryan feared they were enough to dry up Risa’s resources in most embassies on the African continent.
Bryan was just approaching the Sidi M’Cid Bridge when an incoming text message dinged on his phone.
Call me, NOW!
He pulled off the road just before the bridge and hit speed dial. Risa answered on the first ring. “Glad you caught me. We’re getting on a plane. I’ve got about thirty seconds before I have to turn my phone off. Here’s the scoop.”
He scrambled for a pen and paper, grateful she was cutting to the chase.
“I talked to my one embassy contact in Algiers who was still speaking to me. The truck had a flat near the Casbah in Constantine, by the bridge. Driver swears it was the only time the truck door was open before the roadblock. If Sassy Smith got away, it was there.”
“Are they sure the driver is telling the truth?” Bryan couldn’t shake the thought that Sassy was in a ditch somewhere after being used and discarded by the animals running this trafficking ring.
Risa cleared her throat, but her voice still had that hoarse tone that reminded him so much of Sassy’s, even though their accents were different. “The same story was confirmed with a couple of the women on the truck, but no one actually saw Sassy get off the transport. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Most of these girls were so out of it from dehydration and hunger, they didn’t notice much of anything until they were being rescued.”
Bryan squeezed his eyes closed and imagined what kind of shape Sassy might be in at this point. If she’d gotten away at the Casbah, where could she have gone?
Risa’s voice interrupted his unhappy train of thought. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go. Leave me another message, but on this new number.” She recited the number that had come up on his caller ID. “It’s a burner. The AEGIS numbers are most likely all being tapped at this point.”
He didn’t even have time to say Thanks or Who is we? He knew she was with Gavin. Bryan didn’t believe the man was collaborating with the cartels, and Marissa was loyal to a fault. She wouldn’t leave her partner twisting in the wind on some bullshit charges.
Gavin’s wife had just died after a long, agonizing battle with cancer. Another example of how loving someone and losing them could eviscerate you. Bryan wasn’t going to think about what kind of hell Gavin was dealing with.
If Risa could help the man by doing what she did, then more power to both of them. Whatever else was going on between them was none of his business. Hell, he was only a contract employee, not even a permanent hire for AEGIS. Nothing in Bryan’s life was long-term anymore.
He hung up and looked ahead. The Casbah was just across the Sidi M’Cid Bridge. He studied the landscape a moment. He’d never been inside the market, although he’d seen pictures. Located in the oldest part of the city, it didn’t look particularly welcoming at this time of night, with its dark, winding streets and narrow alleyways. But it would be the perfect place to hide if Sassy had escaped her captors here.
This would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. He comforted himself with the thought that he’d at least located the most probable haystack. He crossed the bridge and created his own parking space on a side street before diving into the maze of the Casbah.
Despite the objections of many Muslim religious leaders in the area, there were signs of the Christian holiday all around the market. Some things had been “adapted” to the area. On one side of the entrance, Santa’s sleigh was parked with goats in the harness instead of reindeer. And on the other side—somewhat miraculously—there was a nativity scene complete with angels, wise men, and the baby Jesus. Given the religious climate, this was all most unusual.
Most vendors closed up shop when the sun went down, although there still were a few around the entrance to the marketplace itself. Fear for Sassy and what could be happening to her right now had him speeding up the incline farther into the labyrinth of streets. The deeper inside he travelled, the more lonely and desolate everything appeared, with only the occasional shop open for business.
Sassy, where are you?
If she was out here alone, she could be in just as much trouble as she had been on that truck. Bryan rushed ahead into the darkness, hoping for his own Christmas miracle.
Copyright © 2015 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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ebook release June 2015 / print release July 2015 / audiobook release April 19, 2015