Just for fun I thought I'd post the first chapter of Ribbon of Darkness and a little taste of Chapter Two. I hope you like it!
Ribbon of Darkness
by Julie Coulter Bellon
copyrighted material 2011
Kennedy Campbell was being pulled to the bottom of the Malacca Strait, the water around her suffocating her, stealing her air, making lights dance before her eyes as her body strained for the oxygen that wasn’t there. She kicked as hard as she could, pulling against the heavy burka that was weighing her down, but the fabric clung to her, as if it were always meant to act as her funeral shroud. The light above her that would guide her to the surface seemed to be fading as if her eyes were slowly closing, and she knew she had to make one last stand to go toward it.
She twisted her arms around, clawing at her back, trying to find the hooks that held the burka together. Bubbles snorted from her nose at the effort and her lungs burned. Fumbling, she arched her back and kicked her legs. Come on! she silently screamed, but the material held fast. Sinking downward, Kennedy closed her eyes, surrendering to the heaviness surrounding her. Open your eyes, Kennedy, she ordered, and lifted her lids in response. Focus. Don’t make your parents bury another daughter.
Keeping her eyes on the small pinpoint of light hovering above her, Kennedy wriggled and punched at the heavy cloth enough to finally free her upper body so she could flap her arms in an attempt to rise to the top, to break the surface and breathe the air she’d always taken for granted. There were only seconds to spare before she drowned. With every last ounce of energy she had, she pushed for the light and the life-giving air she knew she would get if she could just reach it.
When she finally broke through, she gasped, gulping and choking in the muddy water that was desperate to pull her back underneath its waves. Her lungs felt like they were on fire as she sucked in oxygen mixed with water. Coughing and sputtering, she was pulled under twice more, the water’s current working against her. Kennedy couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t get on top of the waves, and the twisted burka was still hampering her efforts to stay afloat. She felt like she was going to die no matter what she did.
Her eyes and lungs burned with a fire she’d never felt before and every breath made her cough uncontrollably. Again and again she tried to get on top of the water so she could get control of her breathing to actually take a breath instead of just sucking water. Kicking her legs hard, she broke the surface to gulp in another breath, and as she did, she felt something float past her head. Grabbing for it, she missed the first time, but quickly rolled and caught it on her second try.
She realized it was a piece of wood and clung to it like the life preserver it was. Steadying herself with it under her body, she floated for a moment trying to get her bearings and breathe without coughing. Wiping the water away from her eyes and taking deep gulping breaths, she stared upward at the life-giving moonlight above her that had penetrated the dark waters enough to lead her to the surface.
She was grateful to be alive.
She floated there for a few minutes, taking in her surroundings as best she could, and giving her exhausted body a little respite before she tried to get to shore and find her friends. Looking behind her, she could just barely see the edge of the boat she had been on, sinking beneath the water. At first, she didn’t see any other swimmers around it, and her heart sank.
“Jaabir,” she shouted as loudly as she dared, treading water and slowly turning from side to side. “Jaabir!”
A split-second later she spotted something else floating toward her. Paddling toward it as best she could, her hopes soared as she realized it was a person. But just as quickly they sank as she got closer and could see that the person wasn’t moving. Hoping against hope it wasn’t Jaabir or Samira, she finally reached the floating body, and, while clutching her wood piece with one hand, she turned the body over with the other.
She flinched back. It’s wasn’t Jaabir or Samira, but it was a woman Kennedy knew. She had been with them through the entire journey from Afghanistan, but Kennedy had never learned her name. She was so quiet, but would give small smiles to Kennedy when the men weren’t looking. A little sob escaped Kennedy’s lips. That small smile was still on her face, frozen there in death.
Kennedy stared at the woman, unsure of what to do. Trying to stay afloat in the waves while holding onto the woman’s body was difficult. Kennedy’s burka swirled around her in the water and she felt its constant downward pull. She was exhausted and shivering and she didn’t know how much longer she could fight. She had to get to land soon, but she didn’t want to leave the woman in the water. Alone. Someone needed to be there with her. For her. The way she should have been for Abby before she died.
At the thought of her sister, Kennedy lifted her chin. “I can do this,” she said, glancing heavenward.
But her head went under the waves once more, the water’s pull like a relentless whirlpool, sucking them both down. Kennedy opened her eyes underwater, looking into the dead face of the body she was clutching, knowing her strength was almost gone and that their bodies were now a weight that helped the water in its quest to own them both. She was going to die, just like her quiet, almost-friend in front of her who had wanted nothing more than a better life.
Kennedy knew if she wanted to live she had to let go, but she wished there was another way. There wasn’t. Resigning herself to that fact that she had failed the woman she barely knew just as she had failed her sister, she let the woman go. Immediately she felt physically lighter. But Kennedy knew that the heaviness that had settled in her heart once again would never go away. She followed the body to the surface as it moved away from her, finally breaking the waves herself, gasping and retching the moment she did.
Turning toward land, the choppy water washed over Kennedy time and again, filling her ears, nose, and mouth as she swam toward it. Concentrate, she told herself. One stroke at a time. You can’t die. You can’t put Mom and Dad through that.
With her head bobbing over and under the waves, she put the last drop of her reserves into getting to shore.
Every part of her body ached, and it took all she had to lift one arm above the other to keep swimming. It seemed to take forever before the shore was within reach, and as she drew closer, she could see some people huddled near a small bush. Glad that she wasn’t the only survivor, she dragged herself onshore and collapsed on the rocky sand. If felt so good to be out of the water, she almost turned her face and kissed the land, but resisted the urge and instead, she laid there for a moment, enjoying the feeling.
She didn’t lay there long before she could hear the footsteps of someone approaching her. Raising her eyes without raising her head, she could see that the shadow was large enough to be a man, but he quickly crouched low when lights swept over the beach. Realizing that they could be in danger, Kennedy quickly pulled herself into a crouching position and stayed low as she moved away from the lapping water. She semi-crawled up the beach, feeling almost overwhelming relief when she recognized the man trying to meet her halfway. Jaabir. He knelt in the sand when he reached her and held out his hands, taking her by the arms.
“I’m so glad you’re all right,” he said with a grim smile as he gave her a quick once-over. “I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“What about your sister and nephew?” she asked, barely able to speak, her voice scratchy from all her coughing and the emotion she felt welling up inside her.
Trying to get herself under control, she concentrated on the man in front of her. “Did you get them out?”
Jaabir nodded and pointed toward the other two shadows. “I have them. But we must get out of here quickly. They are sweeping the beaches and if we are caught we will be sent to the government facility that does not look kindly on people like us. Or maybe worse.”
She picked up the bottom of her long burka and waited a moment to see if there would be any more lights looking for movement before they ran quickly toward Jaabir’s relatives. Kennedy felt a shiver of unease run up her back and she stole a glance behind her. The inky darkness and sound of water was all she could see and she tried to relax. When she reached the small shrubs where Jaabir’s sister, Samira, and his nephew, Mosah were sitting, Mosah looked up at her, sneezing and breathing heavily, his clothing obviously just as wet as hers. Samira huddled next to him, her eyes wide with fear as she unobtrusively resumed wringing out the little boy’s clothing as best she could. She glanced up at Kennedy and Jaabir as they approached her, worry plain on her face.
Kennedy wanted to ask if Samira were all right, but she didn’t say a word as she drew near to them. The lights swept close to the beach they were on and Kennedy sat down quickly. Her adrenaline pumped through her heart one more time, not allowing her to wallow in how bone-tired she was all the way through her body. Her wet burka felt as if she was dragging an extra forty pounds along with her and she wished she could take it off. She wasn’t used to its heavy weight. But as she watched Samira, she realized the woman didn’t see her burka as a burden at all and was using it as a cover to blend into the darkness. Kennedy tried to mimic her stance, silently gathering the wet oppressive fabric around her to cover her position as well. Samira nodded to her, no words needed at all to express the fear and uncertainty they were both feeling.
They sat there like that for a few minutes, silently wringing out clothing, trying to gather a little warmth, but the lights were coming closer and it was apparent that they were going to have to move soon. But which direction to go in? Jaabir seemed to be having the same thoughts as Kennedy. He was on her left, carefully watching the road, and Kennedy assumed that he was scouting out the best way for them to escape. She watched him and thought of going over to help him, but instead, she stayed where she was, mirroring Samira’s movements in wringing out her burka section by section while still covering herself and their hiding place. Neither woman spoke as they worked. Being illegally smuggled into a country was bad enough, but when that endeavor goes horribly wrong, it just didn’t seem like there was much to say.
When Kennedy’s burka was as wrung out as it was going to get, she wrapped her arms around her knees, trying to generate some body heat. Glancing over at Samira, Kennedy could tell she was nervous, the abayah covering her head making her eyes seem even more large and luminous as they darted between her son and Jaabir. Her front teeth were worrying her bottom lip so hard, Kennedy wondered if she would bite through it.
Realizing she was staring, Kennedy turned her head and watched the water, the memory of her near-drowning fresh in her mind. Her lungs still felt like a fire raged through them at the thought of it. She wondered what had happened to the body of the woman she hadn’t brought to shore. Would someone find her? Would the current take her very far? Kennedy closed her eyes, the feeling of failure washing over her, the regret a hard lump in her heart. It was just as fresh as the day Abby died. Clenching her fists, she took as deep of a breath as she could. She wasn’t going to go there. Not again.
When she opened her eyes, lights were starting to illuminate the spot where their boat had sunk and Kennedy knew that they didn’t have much time left. They were closing in. She watched a medium-sized boat circle the wreckage, but even squinting through the darkness Kennedy couldn’t tell if it was a government boat patrolling the area or another illegal one trying to find something salvageable from the downed ship¾whether it be people or goods. Whatever kind of boat it was, she knew they didn’t want to take any chances that they would be found. She stood up and started toward Jaabir’s position, feeling a little wobbly.
Trying to shake it off, Kennedy took a step back to make sure that Samira and her son weren’t far behind her, but when she started forward again, her legs were still having a hard time responding to her commands. It was like they were frozen or something, or the muscles had been overloaded and given up. But whatever reason it was, Kennedy didn’t have time for it. She pressed on, trying to stay somewhat hidden by the foliage on the side of the road.
Jaabir reached their side and quickly ushered them to a small ditch near the edge of the road. “I’m going to cross first with the boy. When I signal that it’s safe, you and Kennedy follow,” he said to Samira.
She nodded and both women watched him reach the other side safely. He gave a low whistle and Samira started across, but Kennedy heard something that made her stop in her tracks. Realizing the hum she heard behind them was a truck coming, her stomach twisted with fear and she ducked down where she was, pulling her burka close around her, once again using it as a shield to hide her position.
“No,” she whisper-shouted to Samira, but Samira flew across the road toward Jaabir and her son. Kennedy’s breath caught when she saw Samira’s frightened face illuminated in the truck’s headlights. She could see their shadows as Jaabir and Samira started to run into the field, the little boy between them. Kennedy watched, helpless. The truck stopped, and four men jumped out with AK-47s in their hands. Kennedy knew they had no chance, but couldn’t turn away. What should I do?
She heard Samira’s scream as she was held back by one man, while reaching for Jaabir and the boy who were being hustled in the truck by two others. The fourth was scouring the fields with a large sweeping flashlight and Kennedy resisted the urge to run. She quietly backed up toward the way they had come, hoping she could find some sort of cover, but before she had gone ten feet, she knew that the man with the light had spotted her.
She turned around, the light in her face as the man came toward her, his gun at the ready. Kennedy turned and ran for the beach, but tripped over her burka, falling face first in the grass near the road. The man behind her caught up easily, before he grabbed her and hauled her to her feet. She was herded into the back of the rickety old truck with Jaabir and his family. The men were laughing as they jumped back in. They seemed to be completely at ease and it made Kennedy’s insides boil. She wanted to do something, but knew that there wasn’t anything she could do. She was at their mercy.
The truck rumbled to life and the driver seemed to have a destination in mind as they headed toward the outskirts of the city. The old truck bumped along the country road, its occupants watching each other as best they could in the darkness. As soon as the driver and the two guards up front were focused once again on the road and less on them, Jaabir moved closer to Kennedy. He waited until the two guards in the back with them were laughing together and not watching them as carefully, to sit next to her, pressing close against Kennedy’s side. He leaned forward so she could hear his whisper. “I’m so sorry that you are involved in this.”
He shifted slightly, keeping his eyes on their captors. “These men aren’t government, they are obviously paid scouts, and they aren’t anyone we want to be with. I will create a diversion. You and my sister take the boy and get out of here.” He glanced up at his sister and she nodded as if she had planned this with him.
Kennedy nodded. “You know I will.” Inching closer to the boy, she waited, hoping the truck wouldn’t speed up, that Jaabir wouldn’t die in his diversion attempt, and that she and Samira would be able to get away.
The truck slowed to a crawl as it began to bounce its occupants almost uncontrollably like it was going over a string of potholes. The guards were thrown off balance and Jaabir seized the moment. Tackling the guard next to him, he grabbed for the gun. Kennedy heard Samira screaming as she reached for Mosah’s hand and flew toward the opening at the back of the truck. Her grip was tight on the little boy, but as she jumped, she heard the screaming abruptly stop as the gunfire exploded.
While Kennedy was in mid-air she felt a whoosh of air as the boy next to her crumpled, falling like a stone to the ground. Kennedy landed with her body crouched over him, breaking the silence with her own scream. “No, no, no, no.”
Her gut clenched as she leaned over his little form, the red stain on his side evidence that she’d failed to protect him. The truck was bouncing to a stop and Kennedy couldn’t even muster the urge to protect herself. The child next to her was watching her, his brown eyes showing his obvious pain as he was bleeding, but he didn’t say a word of complaint, he just let the tears leaking out of his eyes say everything he didn’t. Kennedy wished she had anything with her that could help him, that she could use to put pressure on his wound, but her own clothing was still wet and probably full of germs. She felt utterly helpless.
The men were coming. She could hear them and yet, she didn’t run. She couldn’t leave a little boy to die alone in the middle of a dirt road in Indonesia. She held his hand and whispered to him, telling him it would be all right. But inside, she knew nothing would ever be the same again.
Ethan Barak stood at the edge of the grave, the gaping hole in the earth waiting for its spoils. Ethan stared at the dirt, not lifting his head as the rain started to fall, as if even heaven itself wanted to hurry the process of burial. The rain coursed down his head and face, making the paths of tears where there were none. He felt nothing. No grief. No anger. Just an empty void¾as empty as the grave in front of him.
He could hear stirrings from the church and knew the funeral was probably over and the procession bearing the coffin would soon be here. The family his father had made after he’d abandoned Ethan and his mother would be in this very spot momentarily. Ethan knew his presence wouldn’t be welcome, but he still lingered a little longer. For just a moment he wondered if his father ever wondered about him, ever regretted leaving him behind, or if Ethan was just a faraway memory that he didn’t like to think about. With a deep sigh, he pushed those thoughts away. None of those questions mattered now, and it was no use even thinking them.
He ran his hand through his dark rain-slicked hair, his normal mask of composure feeling vulnerable. Even if it had been his mother’s dying wish that he reconcile with this father, the opportunity to do so was gone. His father was dead and the reality was, he’d barely known the man and hadn’t cared to, because he thought that in the future, he might feel the need to remedy that fact and would make amends then. But the chance had been taken from him now. The grave would be satisfied once the coffin bearing his father’s body was here, the gaping mouth of earth covered over and closed once it was full. Ethan wouldn’t stay for that, even to watch from afar. He probably shouldn’t have come in the first place. He heard the heavy church doors creak open and he knew it was time to go. Shoving the piece of paper deeper into his pocket, he started to move away from the gravesite, his shoes making muddy squishing sounds as he tried to get to the edge of the small cemetery without being seen.
Once in his car, he brought out the piece of paper and stared at it again. The message was clear. There was no doubt that his father had been murdered and that it was because of Ethan. His jaw clenched as he read the words one more time. “On your head.” Whatever that meant, whatever they were trying to make Ethan pay for in his father’s blood, Ethan had received the message and was about to send one of his own. He was going to find the person who’d done it and make them feel the overwhelming pain he couldn’t.
He pulled out his cell phone and texted three words of his own. “Meet me. Now.”