by Julie Coulter Bellon
All Rights Reserved
Zaya still wore the same clothes she’d worn the day she was captured and, after all these months, they were little more than filthy rags that barely covered her. With temperatures dropping now, she’d wished countless times she’d put on something different that day. Maybe a few layers¾her favorite leggings, a long-sleeved shirt and sweater, even an extra pair of socks. But, then again, that last morning of freedom had been filled with thoughts of Julian, not what clothes she might need in a wintry 6x9 cell.
She shivered and pulled the tissue-thin blanket over her shoulders. Every day the air cooled by significant degrees and she knew winter was coming on. While it was hard to be grateful for anything her captors did, she’d nearly cried when they handed the small blanket to her. Captured operatives did their best not to show emotion, but as hope of rescue leeched away, that had been harder to control. It didn’t matter now, though. She was going to die in a cold, dark cell in central Afghanistan. The thought chilled her on the inside.
Zaya curled into a ball, trying to preserve what little body heat she had. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been warm. Well, that wasn’t true. If she closed her eyes, she remembered Julian’s arms wrapped tight around her, his lips on hers. The heat from his touch had blazed through her veins like wildfire. But Zaya didn’t want to remember and kept her eyes wide open, wishing the cold could numb her heart and mind as easily as it had her toes. Julian wasn’t coming. There would be no rescue. This frozen rock cell was her tomb, its icy touch the last thing she would know before she died.
The clanging of the door down the hall signaled it was almost time for the next meal. She drew in a breath, then wished she hadn’t, as her stomach rolled even thinking about the watery bean soup and crust of bread she’d been living on. Her captors had tried to use spices and spinach to make it more palatable, but Zaya still had to choke it down. The smell of the spices mixed with unwashed bodies and waste made her want to retch. She pulled the blanket over her nose and breathed through her mouth to calm her stomach a bit. Even with the revolting food and resulting odor, she still had hunger pangs. They were a strange comfort now, a reminder that her body was functioning and could still feel.
Some days she wished she couldn’t.
In a few minutes, the small metal piece cut out of the door lifted and a bowl was shoved in. If she didn’t eat within the next ten minutes, the bowl would be taken away, but Zaya didn’t care. She turned her back and closed her eyes. It was over. She couldn’t do this anymore.
Just let me die.
The thought flitted through her mind and she fought it for a moment. Only cowards gave up. She could stay strong until Julian found her. But even with all his resources and the Griffin Force at his disposal he hadn’t been able to do it so far. Maybe the mission to save her was destined to fail. She knew that would torment him. Julian hated to admit he couldn’t do something. His drive for success was what made him good at his job. But with every day she spent in captivity, it looked like Nazer al-Raimi had won the battle and maybe the war. Fighting terrorism had cost her everything and having a front-row seat to their failure was salt in the wound. It was over. She couldn’t fight the inevitable. She was too tired to go on.
Closing her eyes, she finally went to the corner of her mind she rarely allowed herself to go. Laughing in the sunshine with Julian. Teasing him about the premature gray hairs in his beard. Kissing him in their favorite coffee shop. Tears burned her eyelids. She’d never thought he’d give up looking for her, but maybe he had. How else could she explain the fact that she was still here? She pulled the blanket tighter. Being a covert operative had been her lifelong dream, but those dreams had never ended in a filthy cell where no one would ever find her. But, maybe it was for the best that they hadn’t. Then they’d never know she’d stopped fighting and given up.
It hadn’t been that way at first. They’d moved her several times during her first two weeks of captivity and she’d spent her time plotting escape attempts. Each one had met with failure and beatings. That’s when they’d taken to drugging her and then she’d ultimately ended up in a basement prison. Trying to keep track of the days, she made markings on the wall, but when her guard had found them, she’d been moved farther down the hall to this darker cell, which looked like a Medieval dungeon. She’d paced her prison, exercised her body and mind to try to stay strong. Hope had burned bright then, but eventually, with barely any food and injuries that wouldn’t heal, Zaya didn’t have the energy to fight. She was ready for death and hoped it came quickly.
Sighing, she turned over and stared through the darkness at the bowl. Even with the unappetizing smell, her stomach growled, and her hand reached for it. Curling her fingers around the clay, she pulled it to her and quickly drank the liquid.
I can survive one more day, she told herself. Hang on for just one more.
Pushing the bowl away, she lay back down, but before she could close her eyes, the door down the hall clanked open again. Zaya’s stomach sank. Saif. Her jailer. Her interrogator. Even in the cold air, sweat trickled down her back. He was the man who ruled her nightmares with the whip he always carried in his hand.
“Zaya,” he boomed. “I’ve thought of more questions for you.” He ran the handle of the whip over the door of her cell, his beady eyes gleaming in the light from the candle he carried in his other hand. She hated him. Loathed everything about him, from his pride at speaking fluent English to the way he enjoyed hurting others.
She sat up slowly and drew her legs up underneath her. Her hand automatically went to her hair to smooth it, but instead of a familiar long braid, there were only short spikes. Saif had cut it during one of their “sessions.” Rage filled her, effectively covering her helpless misery. That was why operatives were drilled constantly about compartmentalizing emotions. They didn’t help in situations like this and made everything worse.
“I’ve told you everything.” Her voice sounded weak to her own ears. She was so tired. Maybe hanging on for one more day wasn’t the best idea after all.
He opened the cell and took a step inside until he towered over her. If she were standing, even with her 5’8” frame, they’d be nose to nose, but he rarely allowed that. He liked to feel bigger than he was and forced everyone to sit or kneel in front of him, as if he were a king of some sort. If they refused, he put them in the box— a narrow wooden contraption that only allowed the person inside to be in a kneeling position. Saif would leave her there for hours. She still had scars on her knees from her many trips to the box. But with his whip in hand, Zaya knew today’s visit wasn’t about feeling superior or sending her to the box. He wanted answers and would punish her to get them. The soup she’d just eaten roiled in her stomach. She couldn’t live through another session with Saif. Hanging on was starting to sound like the worst idea she’d ever had.
He toed her knee with his boot. “I think you need one more chance to truly tell me everything.”
“There’s nothing more to tell, I swear it.” She backed herself against the wall. “Please. I don’t know anything.”
Saif chuckled, a sadistic echo that radiated prickles of dread down her spine. “But I think you do.” He nodded to the guard behind him, who stepped forward to take the candlestick from Saif so he could grab Zaya by the arm. She knocked over the bowl trying to get her feet under her, but he didn’t wait and dragged her down the hall.
She knew the room he was taking her to like the back of her hand. A metal table was in the middle of it with restraints to hold down her hands and feet. When she didn’t answer his questions, he would whip the tender soles and palms. It was his specialty.
He pushed her inside. “Get on the table,” he ordered and watched as she hauled herself to a standing position. Pain arced through her heels as she stood, still sore from their last session. Gritting her teeth, she sat on the edge of the table. She didn’t have a choice. Resisting would only make things worse, and it would take weeks to recover. If she did as he asked, their time together and her recovery would be shorter.
She lay down and waited while he buckled her hands and feet into the leather straps. Exposed and vulnerable, she carefully watched Saif finish making sure she couldn’t move. Exhaustion and despair enveloped her. She couldn’t go on like this. The tiny flicker of hope she’d felt in her cell telling her to hang on was snuffed out as she looked at Saif, tapping his whip on his thigh.
Turning her face away, she stared at a stain on the wall. Sometimes, if she could just concentrate on something else, it helped get her through the pain of Saif’s “questioning” sessions.
He didn’t approach her right away, but she could feel his eyes staring. “We don’t have to do this, you know. Just tell me about Julian Bennet and your suffering will be over.” His words were soft, deceiving. She knew what he said was a lie, but part of her wanted it to be true. When she didn’t respond, he touched her foot with the handle of the whip. That maneuver was a technique he used to scare her, but today, resignation mixed with her fear, making it seem more bearable.
Julian. Did Saif want to know that Julian liked his coffee black with only one cream and no sugar? That he had a cat named Milo? Probably not. He wanted to know about Griffin Force, black sites, how much Julian knew about Nazer al-Raimi’s network. Things that would be like signing Julian’s death warrant if she revealed them. “I’ve already told you. I was a runner. I never met Julian.”
The whip snapped over her left foot, and she clenched her teeth. He would go easy on her at first, the whipping slow and excruciating until she didn’t give him the answers she wanted. Then it got ugly.
“I know you aren’t a runner. You were seen with him.” He got down in her face, his mouth twisted into a snarl. “How many operatives has he recruited for Griffin Force?”
Not enough, she thought. Or I wouldn’t still be here.
But before she could finish that thought, an explosion rumbled through the old complex. Ceiling tiles fell on her torso, and she flinched against the pain, but with her hands and feet shackled, she couldn’t protect herself.
Saif took the three steps to the door and yanked it open. “Waheed!” he shouted, but his guard didn’t answer back. Saif shut the door again and came around to unshackle her. His fingers were clumsy as gunshots sounded outside.
Could this be the rescue she’d prayed for? If it was, she needed to stall so they’d have time to find her. If it wasn’t, and it was a rival terrorist cell storming the complex, she definitely wanted to be far away from here.
“Where are you taking me?” Zaya asked. Maybe Saif knew more than he was saying.
“You’re valuable enough that I have my orders to take you directly to Nazer if anything like this happened,” he said, then clenched his teeth as more ceiling tiles fell. “And I need to get you out of here before this building falls down around us.”
He grabbed her arm again and pulled her off the table. She set her foot down on the floor and cried out in pain. Saif didn’t slow down, and dragged her to the door. Before he could touch the handle, though, it burst open and three men in full combat gear rushed in. Saif tried to push her in front of him, but her foot was too tender, and she dropped to the floor. Everything was moving so fast, but felt like slow motion. The men were yelling for Saif to get on the ground, and she turned her head in time to see him point a gun at the tac team leader. Saif didn’t even have time to blink, much less pull the trigger before he was killed.
Am I dreaming? The men’s voices were a mix of American and British accents. Could Julian have finally found me?
The obvious team leader, dressed in black, leaned over her and she blinked up at him. “We’re going to get you out of here, Z.”
Z. No one called her that except her closest friends. Hope swelled in her chest. She was found!
He put his hands out as if he wanted to help her stand, but hesitated. “You’re pretty banged up,” he said carefully, looking her in the eye. “It’d probably be best if I carry you.”
“We gotta get out of here,” the man next to him said, touching his earpiece. “Nazer’s called for reinforcements and they’re on their way.” He stood next to the first man and stared down at her. “I know you’re hurt, and we’re going to take care of that, but we’ve got to get you to the helo now or we’ll lose our window.”
Zaya could only stare, her tongue thick, with tears clogging the back of her throat. It was over. The nightmare was over. Nodding was all she could manage and she didn’t protest when he put her in a fireman’s carry and they hustled toward the door.
From her perch over his shoulder she lifted her head to see Saif’s body on the floor. Rage filled her again. His death had been so easy. No suffering. No torture or threats or praying for death. Part of her wanted them to stop. To somehow let her mete out some justice for everything he’d done to her. But it was over now and she just wanted to be free. To go home.
A tear slipped out and blazed a trail into her hair as her rescuers rushed down the hallway of her prison. Deep down, she knew, even if they got out of there, too much had happened. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Not even home.