Night Child(6)

By: Ann Major

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A man's high-pitched wail rent the silence. It was followed by rifle bursts hitting something soft, then ricocheting against stone. Afterward silence filled the well-dark blackness with suffocating nothingness.

The stench of death and decay rose from the mattress and made Dawn's empty stomach give a dry heave. Terrified, she jumped off her filthy pallet and listened to the silence. Dear Lord! Let this be a nightmare! Let me wake up!

But as her torn nails dug into the mud wall, and she swallowed queasily and felt her tongue rub against the grit in her mouth, she knew this grim reality was no nightmare. Her injured right ankle was twice the size of her other one, and the pain every time she limped was excruciating. How many times had she awakened with the same fervent prayer on her parched lips? Always there was only this dank, putrid cell with its filthy pallet and windowless walls.

She licked her chapped lips. Her hand went to her throat, and she touched her medallion. She longed for water. In her sleep she even dreamed of it, but her jailer never brought water. Instead he brought the most awful coffee she had ever tasted. It was so strong, it tore her insides apart, but she drank it anyway because it was liquid and she was dying of thirst. Once he had brought her a hot, sweet bottled drink, and she had guzzled it greedily until every drop was gone.

She stared into the utter blackness and imagined that it must be the middle of the night. She had lost count of the days and nights. All she knew was that it wasn't as hot now as it was sometimes, especially during the day when the cell was most like an oven and a grayish brightness seeped in through the cracks in the door.

Everyone but Dawn was sleeping on the roof to escape the heat, but she had been locked in a cellar that was hot and still, and so dark that she sometimes felt the darkness lying like a heavy crushing weight on her chest.

Outside she heard a sound. As she listened she could distinguish the shuffling of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, moving down the hall, the fumbling for the right key. She knew all the familiar sounds of him by heart.

The handsome Arab with the daggerlike nose and cold black eyes was coming. A scream bubbled up her dry throat.

The door opened. He set his flickering oil lamp down beside her food and seized her. She was blinded momentarily by the light. Black shadows danced eerily against the squat walls.

"Shut up, pretty American girl, or my men will come."

Her scream froze in her throat as the odd menace in his low tone sank in. Aslam always came. Only him. Suddenly she knew why.

When she quieted he let her go, shrugged and turned to leave.

"Let me out. Let me walk outside at least. I can't stand it in here."

He ignored her and unlocked the door again to go.

"Don't leave me in the dark. Please. No..." Dawn cried. He continued to ignore her, but in desperation, she pounced on him, grabbing his back.

He whirled around, his face distorted and savage. "I think you stupid, pretty American girl." His rough hands bit bruisingly into her forearms. He pulled out a pistol and shoved it against her head. She heard the trigger click.

His hands were shaking. Her face went as white as paste. In the flickering light, her eyes were as immense and dark as glimmering, hand-blown English marbles. Against her ear he murmured something in Arabic and began to laugh. As he reached to extinguish the lamp her fear mushroomed. All her life she had been terrified of two things—the dark and horses.

Now in the darkness he was laughing at her. "Tomorrow, you will die... like the others."

For years she had run from the real world. She had danced, the beauty she created on stage the only reality she wanted. In one shattering moment, her world had become too real.

So, this brute was not so different from his men. He was going to kill her. Tomorrow. Strangely, just knowing what her fate was to be made her fear lessen. A desolate, numbing peace settled upon her.

He towered between her and the open door, her only avenue to freedom. She considered her chances of getting past him, and they seemed infinitesimal.

But he was going to kill her, anyway.

As a dancer, she knew all about human bodies, their strengths, their frailties. In a single leap she jammed her good foot hard onto his instep. He pitched sideways. Her nails found his eyes, her knee his crotch.

He doubled over with a groan, and she picked up the lamp and banged him over the head. Then she broke free and hobbled down the hall on her injured ankle.

She was running up the stairs when a tall shadowy figure loomed out of a corner. A hand coiled from the darkness, and she was caught and knocked breathless against the tallest, hardest male body she'd ever felt. Her breasts were pressed against corded chest muscle; her thighs ground against his.