The distant, shrilling screams and the deathly scent of smoke in the still of the night have me springing off of the tiny cot. I swiftly scan the small hut that’s been my home for the last couple of weeks. Snatching the clothes from the plastic container that’s placed in the corner, I quickly change into my baggy black pants and shirt. After putting on the ghutra around my head and wrapping the black scarf around my face with my hair pulled back, I’m confident that I can easily pass as a man.
The screams grow louder, and the footsteps scatter in panic. There’s something terrible happening out there, but I’m not too worried yet.
I’ve prepared for this.
I grab my knives and stick them in my boots and the side of my pants. As the stench of smoke invades me, I seize my gun and soundlessly slither out of the hut.
The small homes and huts of the village are engulfed in angry flames. The villagers are screaming and running, trying to save their loved ones. I quickly assess the scene, suspecting that the fire must have been deliberately set.
Who the hell would do this?
And then I see them. Men in their Jeeps are yelling at the villagers, their guns drawn. I’ve heard of attacks like this. These men may be part of the radical rebel group that has been terrorizing the villagers and robbing them of little they possess. My gut tells me it must be the group, FILO, which Tom Sterns has warned me about. Sterns is still the leader of our special operation forces and my mentor, so I trust him completely. Instantly, my blood boils at the possibility that these rebels may have some direct or indirect involvement with Chayse’s death.
Don’t lose control, Tess.
I have to remain focused. I can’t let my emotions push me into making poor decisions.
My mind drifts to the little boys and girls I’ve been helping in the small medical clinic, and I silently sprint toward the homes to save the kids. I think about little Akbar and Sheyla, who have already gained a special place in my heart. The brother and sister’s hut is not too far from me. As I move closer, I helplessly watch the blaze consume their home. My heart crashes to the floor, and I pray they escaped.
Don’t panic, Tess. Think!
I hear wailing of a child. As my head spins toward the sound, I see a stranded little girl standing in the middle of the chaos, crying by herself. Where is her mother? And then I notice her. The mom is lying on the ground unresponsive and not too far from the toddler. I race to the girl and grab her, trying to bring her to safety. Holding her securely under my arms, I rush toward the clinic.
The girl is terrified, probably thinking I’m one of the men who attacked them. Unfortunately, I can’t stop to reassure her right now.
When I kick the door of the clinic open, somebody tries to hit me with a stick. Luckily, I block the strike easily and take the stick away with one arm while still holding the child with the other. Just as I’m about to pull my gun out, I notice it’s my assistant, Tanveer. I yank my scarf down to show him my face.
“It’s me! Dr. Johnson!” I yell. Sterns, who sent me on this mission, didn’t want me to use my real name. My identity in Iraq has been Dr. Karen Johnson.
He takes a step back in shock. “What is happening, Doctor? Why are you dressed like one of them?”
“I can’t explain right now. But you must trust me, okay? You have to take this little girl out of here. Her mother is no more. You can’t stay in here. I think you need to take as many people as you can and try to flee into the woods. Maybe you need to escape to the next village. They will probably set this clinic on fire as well. I’ll try to save as many people as I can, but you need to get a group going and get out of here. Do you understand?”
Staring at me in disbelief, he finally responds. “Yes. Okay, I understand. I will wait by the edge of the woods and see if more people come. They can meet me there, and we will escape together.”
“Okay, go now. I’ll tell whoever I can.”
“Wait, what about you?”
“I have to help them, Tanveer. I’m not leaving.” I then turn to the little girl who is still crying. In her native language, Arabic, I gently say, “Hey, sweetie, this is my friend. He will help you, okay?” I’m not sure if she hears anything I say to her, but at least the gentle tone of my voice calms her a bit.
Placing the scarf back on securely to cover myself, I sneak back out of the clinic and sprint toward the madness. To my horror, I see a man on the ground, dead, with a woman hovering over him, screaming. One of the attackers approaches her and pulls her off of the man. He takes his gun and shoots the man again, as if rubbing his death in even more to the woman. A shrilling sound escapes her as she yells something to him. He turns around and strikes her across the face. She tumbles to the ground, her face buried into the dirt. The man points his gun to shoot a fatal shot to her head. As if accepting her fate, the woman lies still, not resisting.
Without hesitating, I aim my gun and shoot straight through the man’s heart before he can pull the trigger. Making sure none of his men has witnessed my kill, I rush to the woman and pull her up. I instruct her in Arabic to head toward the woods to make her escape. She has no idea who I am since I still have my face covered. Luckily, she realizes that I just saved her, so she follows my instructions.
Before running, she turns to me and grabs hold of my arm. “Kill them all!” she whispers fiercely.
As I find more villagers, I give them the same instructions. I try to avoid calling attention to myself from the terrorists, but at times, I do have to use my gun or my knives. There’s no way I can take on all these men. There are at least ten Jeeps here, so from my estimation, there are probably forty to fifty men, all heavily armed. Although, I’ve already killed eight of them, it’s impossible for me to get them all. The best I can do is to try and save as many people as I can.
As the fire swallows the small village, I bring the last batch of people to the edge of the woods. Tanveer is still waiting with the small crowd, all of them crouched low behind the trees.
To my relief, I notice Akbar and Sheyla standing with Tanveer. Happy to see them, I give them a quick hug. At first they are frightened, but when they hear my voice, they recognize me and hug me tightly. Feeling their tremors, I assure them everything will be okay.
Shifting my attention to Tanveer, I direct him on the next move. “I think you need to start taking everybody out of here before those bastards realize what’s happening. I’ll go back to the village. If I find anybody else, I’ll bring them with me. Start heading toward the east. There’s a village that’s about seven or eight miles from here. Hopefully, they can help.”
“Okay, doctor. You going to be okay?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” I give Tanveer a quick nod and turn toward the burning village again.
As I sneak back, I hear many of the men yelling in Arabic.
“Who the hell is killing our men?”
“And where are all the villagers?”
“Somebody dare to challenge us? I want them found. Do you hear me?”
I stay hidden. The men scatter about to search. Damn it, I’ve been hoping they wouldn’t find any of the dead bodies of the men I’ve killed yet. I have to remind myself to stay focused on my mission. What I need to do is try to capture one of the men and find some information about Saheim. My instincts tell me he is the missing piece of the puzzle.
I’m confident these men know about Saheim. He’s one of the main leaders of groups like these. If I obtain some information on him, then he can potentially lead me to Chayse’s killers.
Sterns has warned me about him—Saheim is a wanted criminal. He’s ruthless and one of the most dangerous leaders of FILO, Future Iraq Leaders’ Organization. None of the villagers have been willing to talk whenever I’ve brought his name up. I’ve gotten the feeling that some of them have heard his name but have been too afraid to say anything.
I suddenly notice that some of the men are heading toward the woods where the villagers escaped. Running out of time, I have to think quickly and stop them. Moving swiftly and silently like a predator about to zero in on its prey, I pursue them.
Briefly scanning, I notice twelve men going toward the woods. They all have their bandanas on and have their guns drawn. I have to distract them. It’s now or never. I leap in the opposite direction and shoot toward them. When they hear the shots, they yell and race toward me. I’m confident they don’t have a visual on me, but they know the general direction of the shots. I’m not worried about being caught because I can easily outrun them. My sole hope is that they all follow me, so I can steer them away from those innocent people.
I don’t run too fast initially, making sure they continue to pursue me. I purposefully go toward the west, luring them as far away as possible. When they’ve been on my tail for at least fifteen minutes, I speed it up and try to lose them. With enough distance between us, I climb up a tree to hide out. I’ll head back toward the village once everything settles down a bit. I’m bound to bump into some of them since they’ll probably still be searching for me. At the first opportunity, I plan to take one of the men as my captive and make him talk about Saheim.
As I wait in the tree, I think about all of the innocent people who lost their lives tonight. Shit, what is wrong with this world? To make matters worse, everybody is afraid to stand up to these groups that go around terrorizing.
I’ve already been here for two weeks, searching for answers. Tonight is the closest I’ve come to finding some information. But damn it! Saving the village was not part of the plan. I had no idea these horrid men were going to go on a killing spree and burn everything down. At least it gives me some pleasure to know I took out quite a few of them tonight.
But not enough.
No, they all have to pay—every single one who’s responsible for Chayse’s death. I don’t care if they’re involved directly or indirectly. They will pay.
Two weeks away from my son. My Jace. My heart and soul. Oh how I miss my baby. I promised him before I left that I would be home soon. And it’s already been two weeks.
I can’t believe he’s going to be two years old in four more months. With a head full of dark hair and big gray eyes, Jacen reminds me of Chayse every day.
As I hide in the tree, I think about my life since Chayse’s death. I remember my pregnancy, the birth of my son, and how every day and night, Chayse has been on my mind and in my heart.