Authors: Rachel Moschell
All Rights Reserved
WARA KNEW IT WAS A DREAM, AND she and Cail were back in Morocco.
Not the nice part of Morocco, but jail in Rabat. Cail and Wara perched on rickety plastic chairs, facing an eager circle of prisoners, holding up posterboard signs of phrases in English. Among the prisoners in this little English as a Second Language group were five political activists, the reason Wara and Cail had been sent here with CI.
The plaster walls in this prison room were a flat pea green, drab and cracked. The tiles under her sandals writhed with grime. Everything smelled like a cocktail of mold and bleach.
Wara and Cail were here to collect information on the activists’ condition, and they’d made friends with the wife of the warden, a nice lady who had always dreamed of learning English. Through the friendship, Wara and Cail got permission to teach English classes inside the jail. And this gave them contact with the activists.
Right now, while they were teaching English, Cail was filming the activists with her little camera that looked like a necklace. All the five activists had done was peacefully protest against Morocco for occupying their homeland, the Western Sahara.
Oily purple bruises tattooed the prisoners’ arms and ankles, and the world needed to know how they had been beaten in this military jail in Rabat and were being held there with no official charges or trial date on the horizon.
Wara knew all this, had been working this assignment with Cail for four months now. But in her dream she still shivered, wanting to be anyplace but here. In prison.
This was not Iran, and she was not the prisoner here. But it was impossible not to feel claustrophobic. Pain radiated down Wara’s shoulders to her wrists, a dull throb that reminded her of interrogation in Evin Prison. They’d pulled her shoulders out of place, and she’d never really healed.
Yeah, she wasn't a prisoner here now, but what if the warden figured out why these two Americans had befriended his wife, what Wara and Cail were really doing here? What then?
Wara startled in her chair at the sound of heavy boots echoing down the hallway outside the room that held the English class. She cringed and willed herself to disappear into the plastic chair. Somehow she just knew it was the warden, and the way he was pounding down the hall like a rabid wolf meant he must know.
The door crashed open at Wara's back, and fingers bit into her shoulder as someone grabbed her from behind.
She knew it was a dream, but it was still freaky as anything.
She gasped and twisted around to escape the hand with the death grip on her shoulder, eyelids fluttering as she tried to shake off the dream.
But the hand was real.
Wara was already fighting before her eyes snapped opened, kicking at the weight that pinned her to the futon on her parents’ back porch in Montana where she was camping out for the night. It was a man, and he had a hand pinched across her mouth, immobilizing her on her back against the heavy cushions. The fingers drilling into her cheek were cruel and hard. Wara arched her back in panic and felt elbows squeeze tighter into her side.
Her heart surged to warp speed.
“Poison,” came the harsh whisper. “I wouldn’t move if I were you.”
She froze herself short of the knee jab she had been about to aim at her attacker's groin. The voice was gravely with a cocky British accent. He dug his nails into the flesh of her cheek and slammed her head to one side, then the other.
“Listen to me!” he grated, voice coarse like sand. “You’re already injected with the poison. I make it myself, and if you’re thinking about trying to mess with me, don’t. I have the antidote around my waist, along with six other poisons. You’ll never guess which one will save you and which will kill you, so you had better listen to me now.”
Oh, she was listening. That was not really optional.
Wara was terrified.
By now her eyes had managed to focus on the face that belonged to the voice, half-shaded in the moonlight. He was riddled with scars, dripping from his jaw all the way down his neck. His eyes were hooded and on fire.
“Who are you?” he demanded. He shook Wara so hard she saw stars, then released her mouth. Wara felt herself start to hyperventilate. “Remember, if you try to cross me," he hissed, "you die. It’s been twenty-nine seconds and I’ll give you another thirty more, at the most. Who are you? Why do they want me to kill you?”
He had said poison.
Of course, the guy could be lying, but one glance at the half-crazed light in his eye ruled out any motive. Wara’s heart was about to slam out of her chest. She felt herself sinking down into the futon, woozy.
The psycho raised his voice, yanking her chin backwards so she couldn’t help but stare right into his eyes. “Who are you?” he repeated.
“Wara…Cadogan,” she gasped.
"How do we know each other?"
Everything was beginning to spin, like dirty bathwater spiraling its way down the drain. And now she was sure she was hallucinating, because suddenly, horribly, the eyes drilling into hers came into context. The poison must be killing her, because this man pinning her to the futon, covered in scars and with wild sandy hair, had suddenly taken on the form of her ex-boyfriend.
“Lázaro?” Her words slurred with fear. “Lázaro Marquez?”
He released her chin as if she were on fire. “Is that who I am?” His voice turned hoarser, the accent more clipped. “How do you know me? Why do they insist I kill you?”
“I…don’t…know.” Her body was screaming for more oxygen. Lázaro’s elbows dug into her ribs and her heart threw itself against her chest, demanding to get out. “I can’t breathe. You…did this…to me?”
Everything was hazing black. Lázaro’s weight shifted and the hallucination continued. Some kind of azure-plumed feather from the jungle danced in front of her eyes, a delicate blow dart made of reeds. Something pricked her jugular, but it was too late.
She no longer knew if it was really Lázaro or why he was supposed to kill her or who she was or if he was saving her or killing her.
She was sucked into the weight of the futon and was gone.
THE GROUND BENEATH HIS FEET SMOLDERED with ashes, molten and soft and dead. The sickly sweet smell that rose from the ash was more than just ruined buildings and burning books.
He knew the awful smell was human flesh.
Alejo Martir staggered against a mud pillar and gagged, trying to see through the evil haze still rising from the destruction and the tears that leaked out of his eyes. The ancient pillar was straw-speckled and hot to the touch. The trapped heat seeped into the skin of his bare arm and easily breached the thin fabric of his stained t-shirt. Alejo gasped for breath, hearing himself wheeze in the polluted air. His ribs and arm were burning. He stumbled away from the pillar that had somehow survived the inferno and forced himself to cross what had once been the courtyard of the school.
Caspian was calling him, and Alejo knew there was no longer any need to check any of the tiny bodies fallen in the ashes for life. He and his team, Caspian and Lalo, had already shuttled the surviving kids to the local hospital hours ago.
The smell and the lifeless ashes told them that nothing else here in the courtyard still breathed.
Alejo squared his jaw and wiped his burning eyes violently on one sleeve. He could still hear Caspian's hoarse voice calling him from what had once been the school office.
They had gotten everyone who survived to safety. Now it was time to take care of the bodies.
Amadou was curled on the office floor, blackened fingers digging into the tiles. Warmth still rose from the cracked tile mosaic, and the broken pieces jutted up into the air at unnatural angles, burned, destroyed.
"Amy!" he was crying, and the wail floated among the cinders in the room like an unearthly banshee call, haunted by some impossible loss. It was the worst thing Alejo had heard in his life.
He backpedaled out of the room and threw up all over the charred doorstep, then sank to the ground amidst the ashes and Amadou's wails.
Lalo half-staggered into the courtyard and handed Alejo a smudged cell phone. "I sent Caspian to look for you,” Lalo said. Alejo’s Colombian team member was filthy and looked like death warmed over. “This thing’s been ringing off and on for hours,” Lalo said.
Alejo took the phone numbly, just as Caspian rounded the corner of the burnt office, jeans and t-shirt singed with angry slashes of jet black under the armored vests the whole team wore. Caspian's gray eyes were always ringed with smoky half-moons, but today they were tortured and blood red from the fumes. An ominous slash of green-black and puffy red bubbled down one arm, from the shoulder to his wrist.
"Fine, I'll call him now," Alejo said. With the words he breathed glinting cinders. He did not recognize his own voice. "I’ll meet you at the hospital."
Caspian blanched and wrapped long, sooty fingers around the remnants of a wooden swing set. "I don't want to go to the hospital," he said. No one had to ask why. That was where the children were. Burned from the fire and crying in pain.
"Yeah, well, they need our help," Lalo said. He was pacing around the courtyard, stirring up low clouds of dust. He turned his face up towards the sky and inhaled long and low, almost as if he could actually feel the sun on his lashes instead of flurries of ash from the remains of the school baking in the heat of this colorless day.
Of course. The dead could wait. Alejo and his team needed to get over to the hospital.
There was no way Amadou was going to be able to come help them, and the idea of leaving the man alone in this place with his suffocating grief was too cruel.
"I'll meet you at the hospital," Alejo croaked. He gripped the cell phone tightly and fought the whirlwind in his gut. "I need to call Rupert." Alejo's boss didn't yet know about this.
Alejo would give anything to have this all be a nightmare.
The fact that something like this had happened was beyond horror. Speaking about it seemed profane. There were some things that were just too awful to say out loud.
From the bowels of the smoldering school office, Amadou was still keening, fingers spread out on the jagged tiles, rocking back and forth in the ashes.
"I need to call Rupert," Alejo repeated, "and then I'm finding someone to stay with him." They all knew who Alejo meant. They couldn't leave Amadou in the office.
Lalo and Caspian headed out along the dirt road, quickly disappearing into the sizzling mid-afternoon haze. The air was strangely still, as if everyone here in Timbuktu were hiding, huddling inside the coolness of their ancient mud houses. Barring their tiny windows against the evil smoke that had split the sky of this fabled desert town.
Alejo glanced at the cell phone again with its nineteen missed calls and put his head into his hands and cried.
He thought about Wara as he sat there in the ashes, and immediately wished he could erase the thought, erase any trace of her connected with this place and the smell of death. The phone began to chirp and Alejo realized it had fallen to the ground. The cell was gray and dusty, like everything else that surrounded him. He put it to his ear and punched a button to answer.
It seemed to take a long time before he could speak. "Something happened, Rupert," he said into the phone. "They burned the school to the ground. Explosives. There are a lot of bodies."
There was only a short pause. "The team?" Rupert asked.
"All alive." In that moment, the word alive seemed to be something of a lie. Rupert made Alejo fill him in on the details of what happened. Alejo answered all his questions, but it seemed too soon when his boss cleared his throat to change the subject.
"Alejo, I'm afraid I have some bad news." The funny thing was, Alejo didn't even tense. Sitting here in Timbuktu, he was pretty sure this was about the worst it could get.
He and his team had failed. People had suffered. Too much.
Alejo could actually hear Rupert swallow hard over the phone. "I'm leaving Lalo and Caspian there to deal with this situation. I need you back here. Right away. Your old friend Lázaro came after Wara, and he tried to kill her.”
"What?" Alejo's voice was so hoarse he didn't know if Rupert had heard him. "What did he do to her?"
Rupert told him about the midnight attack at the Cadogans' house, on the very porch where he and Wara had talked the last time they were in Montana together. Rupert explained how Lázaro had injected her with poison, but apparently failed to finish the job. Alejo's ex-team member from the Prism said someone hired him for the hit on Wara, but they didn’t know who. Wara was now en route to CI headquarters in Morocco with Cail, who had met up with her for protection on the trip in case Lázaro realized Wara was still alive.
While Alejo was here in the heart of death, he had nearly lost the woman he loved. The smoke drifted away from the school and towards the Timbuktu hospital, where innocent children would be scarred for life from the violence Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb had unleashed here today.
But it was impossible for him to stay here, no matter how much the kids needed him.
Alejo snapped the cell phone shut and headed for Morocco.