Torsten Dahl book 1 - Stand Your Ground (9 page)

Dahl wouldn’t let them get involved. Civilians had already died today, cops too, and he wouldn’t knowingly risk the life of another.

Unless Isabella and Julia came under direct threat
.

It was only a matter of time before the boys – if they were assisting Grant – would have vehicles converging on their location. Dahl now saw the streets not as a maze, but as a trap, potentially populated by objects faster than he was. He quickly dog-legged again, heading farther east and knowing his luck would run out sooner rather than later. The children were growing tired, their legs slowing, their energy levels past spent and in need of recharging. As they raced up yet another narrow, residential street, a sight appeared that made even the confident, capable, soldier within him gasp with fear.

At his side, Johanna screamed.

Up ahead, half a dozen youths came fast, cutting them off with bottles, billy-clubs and baseball bats.

Dahl saw one chance and zipped to the side. Head down, he sprinted like a man with the Devil breathing hotly on his heels, heaving the children into his arms and turning on the speed. Animalistic yells chased him.

Stay with me, Johanna.

A low white wall revealing a garden overhung by a mostly-collapsed rear porch whipped past, followed by a surprisingly well-trimmed square patch of grass. Dahl felt every muscle brimming with adrenalin, every nerve ending on fire.

They wouldn’t take his children.

He reached the end of the alley and looked back.

Johanna was nowhere to be seen.

 

FOURTEEN

 

Dahl took only a split-second to realize he was wrong.

Johanna
was
visible . . . among a crowd of youths, captive, entirely surrounded, frozen in terror as they closed around her. The scream of terror must have come when she stopped moving. Overwhelmed with anxiety for the safety of his children, he had failed to realize.

He stood now at the end of the alley, the way open ahead at another junction but now far less appealing, the gun he’d taken from the nightclub cop raised in one hand so the mob could see it as a deterrent, Isabella and Julia held back by the other. Choices darted around him like hungry birds, but every single one involved leaving his children. As he stood there, brain working overtime, a familiar face hove into view.

Nick Grant passed among the youths along with three of his black-clad mercenaries.

“Torsten,” he called out in that infuriatingly sophisticated accent that didn’t fit the factual man. “What to do? Torture her? Remove some bits and pieces? Lend her to the boys for an hour? Ah, choices.”

“First one to touch her gets shot in the head,” Dahl said. “Step back.”

Grant laughed. “Wait, boys. Let’s see what Mr. Dahl here suggests we do.”

“What I don’t understand,” Dahl said, “is that I thought you were a bloody businessman, after profits, avoiding losses. That sort of thing. Not a bloodthirsty psychopath hell bent on revenge.”

“Well, you would be right.” Grant rearranged his jacket and tie so that they sat perfectly straight. “I am a businessman. My employer is the bloodthirsty psychopath.”

“And he is . . . ?”

Grant gave a slight shrug and held his gaze.

Dahl could prolong this by recounting the events that followed the second time Grant and he had crossed paths, in hopes of infuriating Grant into making a mistake, but it was unlikely to leave Johanna unharmed. Dahl wouldn’t let his wife go easily, but he couldn’t retrieve her from this encounter.

“Let her go.” Always worth a try.

“Oh, okay then.” Grant turned theatrically to his gang of cohorts and bellowed: “Let the lady go.”

A small portion of the boys gaped, but the rest stepped away. The mercenaries didn’t budge. With the crowd parting, Johanna appeared in full view as if seen at the end of a tunnel, eyes red-rimmed, face a mask of terror, holding her hand across herself, the merest semblance of protection. Dahl knew women who could fight their way out of that pack in less time than it took to write down the sentence, but his wife was not one of them.

Johanna took a tentative step toward Dahl.

Grant extended a hand. “Bring those bikini strings right here, love. I’ll help you out.”

Dahl raised the gun and, a moment later, faced down three weapons as Grant’s mercs lifted theirs. Dahl knew that Grant would belay any attack orders; he’d be worried about taking the first bullet.

“Your choice, Dahl.” Grant said. “Your wife or your kids.”

Dahl didn’t have the bullets or the position to take them all. He lowered the weapon slightly, letting Grant know the barrel was still only a twitch away from re-sighting.

“What occurred between us, the second time . . .” Grant said slowly. “You will answer for that.”

“What about your employer?” Dahl asked. “What does he want?”

“You’ll see soon enough. When you all meet him.”

With that, he signed to his men and the group closed up again around Johanna, her cries muted by their bulk. The Facilitator called back loudly as he walked away with his men about him.

“Come to the Jolly Roger in two hours. I’ll leave tickets at the gate. I’ll have somebody new to meet you there; a young lad, I’m told. We’ll exchange her for you right then. Don’t be late, Dahl, or you won’t see her again.
Whole
¸
that is.”

 

FIFTEEN

 

So that was Grant’s game now. He wanted everything Dahl loved laid out, trussed up and squirming before him. He was that kind of a man. No doubt he also wanted Dahl to suffer in the meantime, knowing his wife waited helpless in the enemy camp. Typical Grant behavior, maximizing the hurt to feed his own gratifications. Dahl led his children away, comforting them with murmured words as they hurried through several more narrow streets in the opposite direction from Grant and his men.

He’d been given two hours. What on earth was the Jolly Roger? Where was the commercial center of Bridgetown? Embassies? Even a bloody telephone call would ease his mind. But other factors steered him away. And who the hell was this ‘young lad?’

He didn’t know where this meet point was or how long it would take to get there. He couldn’t let Johanna down. Where could he stash the kids?
Could
he stash them safely? What would happen to them if both he and Johanna didn’t return?

A plan.
That’s what he needed. But a solid plan could only come with a little more knowledge.

A local tended his small front garden ahead. Dahl slowed and apologized for bothering the man, then asked if he had ever head of the Jolly Roger. The man tipped the brim of his hat, grunted, and turned away, leaving Dahl no wiser. They threaded another intersection.

Isabella turned her teary face up at him. “You should
know
what the Jolly Roger is.”

Dahl blinked hard. “I should?”

“Disney. It’s a pirate ship.”

“Ah, yes.” He’d know that, of course. It just didn’t fit with Grant and the mercenary bunch he ran with. But it was a pirate ship, and Barbados lay on the eastern margin of the Caribbean. Dahl hurried the kids along, seeing taller buildings ahead, wider roads and busier streets. He estimated 30 minutes had passed since they’d lost Johanna. Isabella sobbed openly at his side, with Julia not much better, both children aware their mother was in danger and that their dad was struggling to find a way to help her. Dahl found it increasingly hard to be both soldier and father.

And husband? What about that?

No time for that. He checked for signs of pursuit, saw none, and took Isabella and Julia across a busy road — a man curiously and spectacularly alone near the heart of a bustling holidaymaker haven; a man normally able to summon one of the best combat teams on the planet but without the time or means to do so; a man who knew it would all be over before any dependable help arrived. In the end, it would all come down to choices and quick thinking.

A street performer told him all about the Jolly Roger and where to find it. The Pirate Party Cruise set sail for lunch and dinner from a dock at the end of Wharf Road. The street performer directed Dahl, then gave them the sad eyes affected by bellhops everywhere when the tip they received fell below expectations.

“Sorry,” Dahl said. “No wallet.”

As they walked, still wary but passing through the crowds now, Dahl allowed Isabella and Julia to slow down, then use a water fountain. Public restrooms also came in handy. No doubt he could find a way to use a phone now, but time was like a winged angel in a speeding chariot, elusive and fleeting. Memories of his second encounter with the Facilitator chipped away at his mind with knife-like edges.

The Russian
Bratva.
Fifty thousand members. A human-trafficking operation. Why would a
mafiya
outfit like that need a man like Grant?

Dahl eyed the passing crowd as his children drank from a shiny water fountain. An odd thought occurred to him as he watched. There were no sirens on the streets, no thumping of helicopter rotors, no signs that what most people would imagine had been a terrorist attack had ever taken place. A sense of the surreal washed over him. Life bustled and rushed to left and right, every which way, individuals chasing dreams or decisions or simply each other. Could the whole episode have been quashed that quickly and completely? By whom, and how?

Dahl asked a passer-by for the time, called the kids over and started to revise his thinking about how he might save the three people he loved most in the world from the events of the next few hours.

 

SIXTEEN

 

At a fundamental level, Johanna Dahl knew exactly what she had to do to stay unharmed and alive. Foremost in her mind was the main reason to stay alive – she wanted to see her children again. To hear them laugh and succeed and play with friends. That was life – and she wanted it desperately now.

But the immediate danger of her situation consumed her whole. Surrounded by dozens of locals, herded along the sidewalk, followed by military-looking men with guns now concealed and the Englishman who commanded them all, she shrank her presence down to the smallest size possible. Fear had been the sole engineer of her capture, and she still could not summon the strength and the nerve to combat it. Large, black vehicles lined up along the curb ahead, ticking in the direct sunlight as if they’d recently been driven hard. Doors were opened, men slid inside. Johanna was pushed, prodded and manhandled into the rear seat of the last vehicle in line, a butch Range Rover Sport. Once she was inside, men flanked her to left and right, staring forward, saying nothing. The interior felt stifling until the driver switched the engine on and the air-con kicked in. Once they were in motion, Johanna’s heart started to yearn even more. Every second took her further away from her children and deeper into danger. She had heard the Englishman’s ultimatum and knew it was incontestable here. The fact that they’d tracked her family across half of Barbados, using cops along the way, proved it.

What she didn’t know was why.

Why was all this happening to them?

Because of Torsten
. That was the only answer. His battlefield world had crashed into their family’s life, and this was the result. All she knew for certain was that she had never been more scared, or in this much danger.

The Range Rover motored carefully down several streets, each as colorful as the last, until it reached a poorer area, much like the neighborhood her family had traversed less than an hour ago. Here, though, each house was gutted, its brown insides exposed, its exterior stained. The sun lost its brightness when it hit these desperate hovels, glancing off in shame rather than extending warmth. What few people populated the area turned away instinctively from the expensive machinery rumbling down their litter-strewn, pot-holed streets. Even those who sat in doorways, belongings piled at their side amid drug paraphernalia, bowed their heads.

Johanna’s flesh squeaked as she shifted in the back seat, skin pulling against leather, which caused one of her guards to stare at her in amusement.

“Want me to scratch that for you?” he said, but fell silent upon receiving a hard stare in the rear-view mirror. She wanted to ask questions, to delve for information, but didn’t dare. Being in the hardest, most vulnerable position of her life was entirely debilitating, and Johanna Dahl was as far out of her comfort zone as she cared to acknowledge.

Without warning, the out-of-place procession stopped and pulled over to the curb. All drivers cut their engines as if in sync. Doors started opening and one of the men opened theirs, signaling that she should follow quickly. Her second guard slid along after her, blocking any escape even if it had somehow crossed her mind. Once outside, the heat swathed her like an electric blanket. The sidewalk felt hot beneath the bare soles of her feet, making her hop a little and walk into shadow under the watchful eyes of the men.

It didn’t take long for the Englishman to step up. “My name is Nick Grant. We have some time to kill,” he said. “If your husband follows orders, all will be well – for you. And he’s a good soldier, your husband. Always follows orders.”

Johanna couldn’t speak, couldn’t even blink, the dryness in her mouth a patch of arid desert.

Grant nodded to the men at her side. “Bring her.”

Johanna witnessed the next minute like an out-of-body experience. Out in the open, obvious in the street, a group of flak-jacketed mercenaries and hyped-up locals marshaled her through a heavy door. And though she did not see anyone in the windows or peering around corners, Johanna was certain they were being observed.

By people who had seen it all before.

Inside, the place was a wreck. A rank passageway, its floor furnished with an extra layer of grime and garbage, led past several dark rooms. Sounds came from some of them, groans, whimpers and worse. Her own room lay at the far end, windowless but at least appeared to be otherwise unoccupied. They pushed Johanna inside without ceremony, but she just managed to keep her feet. Her eyes had been adjusting for the last several minutes but the absolute darkness inside this chamber rooted her to the floor for several more. No way did she take another step until she knew exactly where she stood, and what might be lying around her.

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