Terror's Child. A tale of murder and child abduction

Source

Vengence

Sudan: the past

The boys eyes flashed in the receding light, their depths reflected from the blade gripped tight across his knees. Patient, he squatted at the roofs edge caressing the cool steel, his eyes never leaving the passage below.

None suspected him.

Only his mother would be wondering at his absence; but it was for her he did this. She need not worry, he thought. All would be made right soon.

In the months of her suffering, the son had dimmed within; a dying light. The brilliance of his god-given gifts smothered by hateful men, whose traumatic influence had beleaguered his soul with shadows. Now only one light remained: her love. All else in him had darkened, a shade pressing in on the one light until every thought had become bent to its defence.

He heard the door open and the man step through, closing it behind him. The youth gripped the blade the more tightly and leaned forward, balanced on the balls of his feet. Only seconds now and the man would be in place.

All pathways of the mind had led to this, every scheme of his heart pointing here, until what was at first resisted had come to be embraced—and yearned for. Like the hungry lion it roared for satisfaction, the darkest of all within him now considered the only defence to his light. He felt it growl as the deeper shadow of the man fell across the twilit alleyway.

All the fluid energy and vigour of the soon-to-be man unleashed itself in silence as he sprang, each part of the plan so mentally rehearsed that his body positioned itself unconsciously in flight, angling the fang of his blade perfectly, timing the point of impact with feline precision.

His legs landed to either side of the man's head, curling themselves under the armpits even as his quarry staggered. As the man fell, the boy, with blade held in a double-fisted grip, curled over his victims head, forcing the chin to his chest while simultaneously catapulting his own arms through their fullest arc. With shattering impact the razor edged blade severed muscle, tendon and bone, becoming embedded deep in the man's chest. Rolling free, the boy watched as the Arab landed hard on the daggers hilt.

Eyes blinking, unable to take breath, the man rolled onto his back. He would die soon.


Lust

Australia: present day

The landscape flitted by at the periphery of Terry's awareness, his fullest attentions consumed by turmoil within. On the one front a blustering storm of desire raged, cursing his conscience and ranting at thoughts of restraint. Meanwhile another wind, in quieter tones yet oddly as clamorous, berated him as fool for even entertaining such thoughts and demanded he stop, 'right now!' He felt like a small bird buffeted between the two; tempted to land where passion blew, yet made fearful to do so by consciences' gusts of warning.

Weather-wise it was a normal day, high summer in south-east Queensland; hot, humid and with a sky of indecision that alternated as frequently as the hours themselves between dismal grey and brilliant blue. As a landscape it was unlike what most would expect of a sub-tropical part of the world, the arid hues of yellow and brown dominating the lush greens. A contrast, and one that spoke sadly of what Australia's fate might become; a country dominated by dry grasslands and salt-bush, and a desert boundary that pushed relentlessly outward.

Sweat made the palms of his hands slick despite the air-conditioning. His right-forefinger and thumb, as if playing the part of contestants in his duelling thought-fight, squeezed and twisted his ear lobe in nervous parody to his inner conflict, while his left hand unconsciously pulverised the steering wheel. He drove on, eyes, hands and feet operating the car by rote, detached from the mind in that mode of habitual routine so often the cause of accidents. He did register the road sign, though; Motel- two kilometres.

He glanced again at the passenger beside him. She still slept, or pretended to. Which, depending on the facet of his mind he sided with, made his private turmoil harder or easier.

She was pretty, more than pretty, and dressed the way she was, more than alluring. At the beginning he'd been good. Even when he'd known she'd put him at the top of her wants list; or needs, going by her story. In fact, at the beginning the thought hadn't even crossed his mind, not seriously. But she'd been forward enough that there was no margin left to doubt what she wanted. He was but to respond and she'd become more than just his assistant, and then some. This had flattered as much as startled him; having never experienced a female predator before; not where he was the prey. Of course he'd pretended not to notice at first, but she'd been persistent as well as forward Working with the woman every day... Well, what could he do?

To start with, you could have asked her to dress appropriately, you are the boss, remember.

I couldn't do that, that's her business.

No. Her business was seducing you. Your business should have been to put a stop to it... You knew where she was leading the first time she smiled at you longer than she should have, but you let it roll, didn't you... Now crunch-time is here buddy and you better get off this ride before everyone gets hurt... You can still stop this you know... Find a new secretary... What about your commitment to Brenda, what of the pain you'll cause her?

And so it went. He knew what he wanted, but deep down knew that it wasn't right, and there was no argument to counter that –it just wasn't right. He glanced again at Jocelyn, the skin of her well tanned legs within easy reach of his touch.

Even while staring, he marvelled how quickly he'd caved once he'd begun toying with the notion; like a child intending to peek at its Christmas present; suddenly the peek has transmogrified, and there it is, open before them.

A precarious thing, self-control, he thought, test it at your own risk.

He wanted her; knew it was a mutual want. Was that word strong enough for what he felt? Craved, maybe? Yet with all the mutual ardour he remained torn up inside at the immorality of it all. You're married; you've made a commitment... At that moment he passed a small chapel, a large sign attached to its road-facing wall, The world will one day be gone, and the things we love of the world also, but he that does the will of God will live forever.

'The will of God?' he said aloud, and looked over at Jocelyn, embarrassed he'd spoken aloud. She didn't stir.

He hadn't considered God in years, not in any depth. True, his wife was religious; which he admired but didn't want for himself. Too many bad memories lingered down that road. The message of the sign discomfited him nonetheless.

Terry's father came to mind, Ronald Sinclair. He'd disown me if knew what I was planning. Mum would cry herself into a faint. He sighed, why do I want so bad what's wrong? He dragged his sweaty hand down his face, puffing his cheeks into his palm and slowly exhaling.

Why?

He thought again about God.

His parents, Catholics, devout Catholics, had been studious in imparting their faith to their children, never lax in teaching a moral lesson or slow in punishing sinful behaviour. They were in Terry's eyes dogmatic and over the top. They wanted his best, he knew. Yet all in all they were parents he felt as much aversion toward as love, especially his father, as much stifled in his company and memory as relaxed. A dogged and deep bitterness edged his whole outlook toward them. An unpleasant connection and one he'd eventually moved away from—ran away; even if it was only across the Tasman, leaving them to themselves in their larger than necessary house in Dunedin, New Zealand. Now, however, he realised what a thorough job they'd done.

I can't even do what I want without my parent's beliefs challenging me.

He immediately berated himself for the thought. He believed in God, true, but not because his father told him so. It was more that logic simply dictated that belief in God was... well, logical. Wasn't it? He felt that old discomfort within again; of faith obligating the believer to the Believed. He let the thought slide. Forcing his thoughts around it, he felt ashamed. Relegating his parent's methods of child-rearing to the Procrustean bed was an attempt to throttle his conscience and justify what he was contemplating. The realisation made him loath with self-disgust. Trashing your parent's morals to justify your adulterous lack of them, you miserable ass.

Another thought began to trouble him now—with its sweetness. Really all he had to do was stop thinking. Then he could do the deed and leave the consequences to later, whatever they would be. The thought scared him, not least because it was so tempting and easy, but also because it smacked of total irresponsibility. Irresponsibility was not something he took lightly, in himself or others. He had once, but no more; learnt too many hard lessons from his rash youth on that score. Then the irony made him laugh, despite his misery. Worrying about possible consequences, what about being responsible with your life, you idiot.

He looked again at Jocelyn, and the sight made his brain smoulder. He had read once how the American Indians viewed the conscience. To them it was like a blade within the heart, twisting when violated, causing pain. Ignored, it eventually cut a furrow so deep that pain could no longer be felt, the inner voice of conscience rendered impotent.

Terry wondered if that would be a good or bad thing.

You're being a fool again! What does it matter what you feel? Wrong is wrong. Listen to your shame, if you don't you're no better than a man ignoring the pain of his feet in a fire. You won't escape being horribly scarred.

Realising he was doing well over the speed limit, he forced himself to relax. The sign up ahead told him the Motel was eight hundred metres on the left. Looking at Jocelyn, arousal swept shame aside. It was countered immediately by an image of Brenda, smiling at him with that impish look that used to make his heart tingle—still made it tingle. He pushed the image out, and thought he felt the blades turn. Why are you doing this? The voice seemed weaker, Can't you see this is only going to...

Distancing himself from the voice, he turned up the off ramp and into the motel car park. He trembled, though not from excitement. The sensation reminiscent of watching his first horror movie. That strange mental mingling of alarm and anticipation, while the battle of 'should I watch or should I hide' neutralised each other, bereaving the mind of control, placing the decision in passions realm.

Again he looked over at Jocelyn. She was just waking. The stretch she gave emphasised her curves yet took nothing of Terry's trepidation away. Ignoring the almost nauseous feeling within, he walked over to the motel office and through the double doors that stood. Tall Cabbage Tree palms rose like stanchions to either side. Images of his parents flashed to mind.

Speaking quickly, but with a tongue suddenly dry, he booked a room—one room.


Brenda

Sitting on the patio with a cup of her favourite instant coffee, Brenda sipped and ruminated on life. Inside, Channel-nine-news acted as a backdrop, the ongoing story of babies going missing from their cribs a disquieting stress to Brenda's already see-sawing thoughts. None of them were overly deep, though for different and opposite reasons. Some areas of her life shone pleasantly in her mind, requiring no depth of consideration at all. Though not because they lacked depth, but that their fullness bubbled so easily at the surface of her existence there was no need to dig. Other areas were not so certain, and so remained un-delved, the 'what ifs' too painful, the possibilities too damaging to what she hoped. One such area was her husband. She loved him. O how she loved him, and she didn't doubt his love in return, for without question he'd shown he loved her ...and yet...

She glanced at her reflection in the sliding door. It failed to do justice to her pretty blue eyes and bobbed blonde hair. She didn't think of herself as beautiful. She didn't think of herself as ugly either, although she knew she had been once. The closure of adolescence had seen the end of the overly skinny, pimpled and flat-chested girl, producing at the finale something altogether different. No, the reason she looked at herself was more comparison than dissatisfaction—comparison with Jocelyn.

She'd been delighted when Terry landed his first big free-lance contract. Delighted for him as much for the fact the bills would at last be paid after three years of a marriage based on anything but riches. With the publishing of his first book—an examination on the effects of alcohol throughout Australian culture—and the suggested proposals for further works put forward by the publishers themselves, well, life for a time became sweet, and very busy. Brenda had been his extra right hand during that time, secretary come courier come proof-reader come woman extraordinaire. He and she had done everything together.

Then Emily had arrived

Expected and accepted by both, she had only been truly embraced by Brenda. As godmother to her younger sister's daughter, Brenda had anticipated the day since the first phone call revealing Beth's liver cancer. Being pregnant at the time the doctors had recommended an abortion, but Beth had rejected the option, supported in the decision by the fact her prognosis was as bleak either way. With both parents dead and Beth's boyfriend, the father, having run off, Brenda was her only support. Yet she'd endured, birthed and held on for several months after.

Emily had then become Brenda's... and Terry's.

Terry had put a good face on at first, and would have succeeded in the illusion if she hadn't known him so well. Yet everything about it was so ill placed for him. Firstly the timing; his business had only just become established and he wasn't ready to give fatherhood the effort he knew it would require, was disappointed that he had to even think about it; especially for a child that wasn't his. Then there were the changes that took place in their lives, the changes a baby brings. On top of this, the child had been a sickly one, the doctors explaining that the drugs used to keep Beth alive and able to bear the pain would take some time to clear from the infants system, that the symptoms were less ill health than withdrawal. Between vomiting almost every day for months and the associated weight loss and dehydration, special dietary supplements, skin rashes, colic and constant crying—the child demanded much care. And it was Brenda who gave it, herself paying the maternal price of sleepless nights and restless days resulting in her both appearing and feeling drained; not to mention having the amorousness of a corpse. Terry had even called her that once. Both had laughed to hide quite different emotions; her hurt, his frustration. It hadn't been an easy time for either of them.

Oh Terry, she thought, I know you've tried so hard.

And he had. To such a degree that for the first few weeks Brenda was hard pressed to see any struggle within him at all. He was a great husband and clearly supportive of her efforts with Beth's daughter. But there was the problem. He couldn't make the jump to seeing Emily as his own daughter, and unable to develop that bond, all efforts failed to dispel his growing frustration.

On top of this, work began to exact its toll, the proxy father attempting to stretch himself across the fronts of a business that had taken the strength of two before—and taxed them.

And so he got help.

And so he got Jocelyn.

Brenda had felt uncomfortable the first time she'd met Jocelyn, seen her. According to the cliché, opposites attract, but in getting to know the woman, Brenda found serious fault with that concept. If two people were more opposite than her and she, they'd be from different planets. And yet she felt only passive antagonism in the woman's company. Of course, she'd never told Terry.

Now she wished she had.

She looked at the clock. 7:07pm. He had left that morning—with Jocelyn—to drive down to Sydney as guest speaker at a function for the National Book Council of Australia. She'd suggested he fly, but he said he intended to bring back several large items, so best if he took the Landcruiser. He'd said he'd call her on the return journey.

She looked again at the coffee table, Terry's mobile phone silently recharging there. He'd forgotten it, which made her nibble her bottom lip. He never forgot his phone. She shook her head. He's your husband and he loves you, stop thinking the worst of him. But she couldn't. A fourteen hour drive with nothing but the gear change column between her husband and that... that... assistant, she's only his assistant... that trollop.

Looking up at the clear night sky, Brenda said a quick heartfelt prayer for her husband, wondering as she did so whether God actually was in the business of stopping people from sinning; the world an indicator of a poor success rate if he was. Just please grant him wisdom then, she amended.

She got up and went through what Terry called her night security rounds, checking all the doors, the windows, the iron, the oven, the stove; she'd been in a house fire as a young girl and it had left an impression.

Last of all she checked Emily. As always the infant brought memories of her sister and their last month's together in the hospital. She treasured that the child would always invoke these memories, was delighted to raise her as her own, in her sister's memory; their daughter. She lay in one of her favourite sleep positions, width-ways across the cot with arms protruding out one side, legs the other and head somehow buried under one arm like a roosting bird. Brenda gently laid her out lengthwise, spent a short moment watching her chest rise and fall before herself turning to go to bed.

She was startled awake by a loud bang from the kitchen, like a roasting tray being dropped from a bench. Thinking that the dish-rack had collapsed and fallen to the floor, she walked down the hall, picturing broken pieces of kitchenware scattered across the tiles.

She was too startled to scream when two men suddenly stepped out in front of her; men she didn't know. One moment their eyes were raking down her body—she was only wearing her underwear—the next their hands were. Strong fingers tight around her throat kept the scream in.


Answered Prayer

This is it, the last chance I have.

Jocelyn had only smiled with false coyness when she'd walked into the room and seen the one queen size bed. She'd then turned, latched the door and kissed him ever so gently on the cheek. Then like some classic Hollywood movie, she said she would get into something more comfortable.

Crunch-time had finally arrived.

Terry's conscience was making one last ditch all out assault before the huntress arrived back on the scene and seared the man's brains; it was a battle to the death. The line once crossed could never be uncrossed, the act committed never uncommitted. What he chose to happen here could have dreaded consequences, and that was the main battle ground, the two sides of Terry's nature alternately reminding him of and then desensitising him to what could result from his decision today.

One side played dirty, images of what he imagined Jocelyn like in the shower acted like a battering ram against the gates of reason and decency. The other side could only play clean, it wasn't in the tempting business and had no darts of vice and desire to hurl, only mental signposts that said in big letters — DANGER! YOU'RE BEING AN IDIOT!

Terry sat on the bed and shook. The maddening thought that this could be a night to remember if only I would let go and stop resisting, stop thinking, hammered at him; but he could not stop thinking. Then there was the knowledge that if he just waited a little bit longer she would come out and the decision would be made. But he couldn't justify that either, even thinking it made him feel a betrayer—To Brenda, himself, and… Oh God, don't let me do this. Don't let me do this. I don't want to betray my wife. Please don't let me do this.

A sudden clarity of cold reason swept through him, passion and desire momentarily driven before it, leaving him with one clear thought, an answer, maybe.

Running to the door, he lifted the catch, opened it, and without looking back ran. Getting to the car he realised he'd left his keys in the hotel room. ...a ready excuse to return. NO! He abandoned the car, left it to Jocelyn, and ran on, leaving temptation behind. He ran and kept running, his conscience hounding him still, even as it cheered.



Discovery

The train ride had granted Terry time to think deeply about what he'd done; why, and what it meant. A lingering desire still floated in the back of his mind; the luring question of what it would have been like, how sweet the experience may have been. But these were suppressed by the stronger, elated feelings of having done the right thing in the face of tremendous enticement. The words of Terry's father, of all people, flashed to mind, 'Sin always gives less than what it promises, demands payment greater than you can afford, and leaves you less a person than before. Only fools pretend otherwise.'

Terry reflected on those words, surprised he'd remembered them, and nodded at their truth. If he had committed adultery, how much would it have demanded of him in exchange? For the few hours of pleasure it offered at most —and guilt ridden at that—what would he have paid? At the least it would have cost him his self-respect, at the most his wife and their marriage; none of which were worth losing for anything he could think of. He was flooded again with the warmth of rightness, pleased beyond measure that he hadn't ruined what he had; he'd done enough of that when he was young. Am I at last learning? He thought.

His feelings for Brenda had been heightened by the decision to remain true to her, the physical act of running from Jocelyn subliminally enacting a run toward his wife. He wasn't yet sure what he would tell her. She was sure to ask questions: Why was he home so soon? Where was the car? Where was Jocelyn? But at least he could answer those questions with a conscience clear of everything bar the evil of desire itself.

He made up his mind then to tell her the whole truth, to apologise for even considering what he had been, and to highlight that his love for her had been strengthened by the test. He knew she'd forgive him. In truth there was little to forgive; wasn't there? One can't blame a man for temptation, only for succumbing to it. And he hadn't... close, but he still hadn't.

As he entered his street, his home only a ten-minute walk from the Helensvale train station, Terry began to have second thoughts about how his confession might affect Brenda. Sure, she would forgive him, but would she trust him again? How hurt would she be?

Maybe it was best if he didn't say anything. Yeah, good one Terry, how are you going to explain the car? And what about Jocelyn? You're going to have to fire her you know, and Brenda's no fool, she'll connect the two events and all sorts of doubts will fill her head. Just tell her the truth, she's a Christian, she'll forgive you. He nodded to himself and voiced affirmation to his thoughts. He wasn't going to lie, and he'd learnt through life that being up front was best.

With its lilac blooms covering both the branches above and the ground beneath in a dense blanket, the large street-lit jacaranda tree canopied Terry's figure before he stepped from its shelter and walked up the path to his front door. Quietly sliding the key in the lock he entered, his heart pounding with near the degree of alarm he'd felt in the parking lot of the motel: both an eager-to and eager-to-not feeling. This sort of stress has got to be bad for the health, he thought.

Brenda's a light sleeper and will wake up before I get to our room; In fact, he suddenly realised, she's probably awake now and wondering who it is, I'm not supposed to be back for days. 'It's alright darling; it's only me.' He called in a voice between speaking and shouting. No reply. That's odd.

He crept up the stairs, stopping at the toilet to relieve himself before making his way down the hall toward their bedroom, wishing there were further delays he could make before having to wake his wife with explanations. He stopped again to look in on Emily. She laid there, arms through one side of the crib, legs poking out the other. How she managed a comfortable sleep like that was beyond him. He smiled as he repositioned her, knowing she'd only roll into the same layout again. Looking at her innocent face made him glad, glad he'd run from ruin.

Emily's health had improved, but Brenda still preferred to hear her if she cried. Therefore, he was surprised to find the door to their bedroom closed. He guessed the window must be open and the door blown shut. Taking a nervy breath, he entered.

The closed window was the first thing he noticed. Then, by the subdued glare of the streetlights, he saw his wife sprawled out on her back, naked and still asleep.

Her dimly illuminated body looked beautiful to him, and he stood a few moments admiring the outline of her figure, becoming mildly aroused at the sight. He gently walked to the bed and sat down beside her.

He traced a slow finger across her abdomen. Although too dark to make out features, Terry became aware that something was not right, a feeling quite distinct from the trepidation he felt about his forthcoming confession. The feeling grew when Brenda didn't stir, a woman normally awoken every time he rolled over in bed. She remained perfectly, unnaturally still; too still. His mind immediately jumped to the worst. Even as he switched the bedside light on, he leapt up and away from the bed. What he saw made every part of him freeze in the grip of shock so intense he couldn't gasp, his joints locking him where he stood.

Brenda lay spread-eagled on the bed, her face contorted in a mask of horror, her left hand curled in a fist. In the middle of her left breast a small hole still oozed blood.

Terry saw all this, but no more. Something small and hard landed heavy on the back of his head and he fell to the floor, white stars on black his last memory.


Morgue

She looked not unlike she did when sleeping, when only the streetlight illuminated her face. He'd often done that earlier in their marriage, crept out of bed to open the curtains, just enough that the light revealed her. He suspected she merely pretended to sleep so as to enjoy his admiration. At one time he'd gazed at her for an hour from the wicker chair by the bed, just taking her in, appreciating all the finer details of her beauty that he was normally too preoccupied to focus upon: the exquisite curve of her waist, the perfect angle of her nose in relation to her jaw and the fragile, slender shape of her arms.

Tears filled Terry's eyes and slid down cheeks quivering with emotion only half released. Though blurring his vision, he was too numb to raise a hand and wipe them away, too bewildered by the extremes of circumstance and turmoil he was going through; lust, guilt, exhilaration, shock, horror, loss and grief. All had come in such rapid succession, entangling within him; the ripples of each overlapping and mingling until he was unsure of what he thought, let alone what he felt. He blinked away the tears and looked again at Brenda, his visage screwed up as a wall against the tumbling emotions behind, a masked face unrevealing of any acute anger or pain or loss.

He reached out. He didn't want to, but at that point he didn't care much for what he did or did not want; the fact he didn't want to goaded his self-spite to reach out and touch her. He caressed her throat, gently drawing his fingers along the ugly blue bruising violent hands had inflicted there. He swallowed back bile and his hand fell to his side and hung there as if the touch had paralysed it. He looked again at the small black hole in her chest, smaller than the width of his little finger, and the wall of his face tightened.

Strangled to unconsciousness. Raped while laying unaware, and then shot through the heart. The last people to see his wife alive had hurt her, used her, and robbed her of life.

He so much wanted to feel unfiltered anger. He knew it would come, but there was no room for it inside at present. The ripples of meshed sensations were fast becoming storm tossed surges within him, a torrent threatening to burst through its barrier and overwhelm. But anger would come, and he longed for the pure release of it, a single focused emotion. Welcome it he would, and wish he had those men before him so he could show them what it was to be hated, hurt and robbed of life.

In the shadow of his agony over a murdered wife was knowledge of another unthinkable act; the challenge of it a fountainhead of questions he'd surely drown in. He could not presently process it, scared to bring it to the forefront of his mind. So he suppressed it under the anguish for his wife. But it remained, a bulging pressure of anxiety straining for release.

A hand rested itself momentarily on his shoulder. Terry turned to see the detective from the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence; a big man just short of his fifties but with the physique of one much younger. He was in charge of the case.

'Are you coping alright Mr Sinclair? Can I get you anything?'

Terry thought the voice too quiet for the man's bulk. He didn't answer, just shook his head, afraid of the barrier breaking if he but attempted speech.

'Well, sir, I've organised a car to take you home if you want. Um–' He sounded awkward, '–I know this is never the right thing to request at this time, but I have to ask to see you tomorrow, early, if possible. We have certain questions we have to ask and details to go through. Hard but necessary I'm afraid. I hope you understand.'

Terry nodded. An unfathomable thought was slowly taking its hold of him, its grip tentative though its enormity enough to freeze his other emotions into quiet. I'll never see her again. I'll never ever see her again; it was a thought beyond his grasp. He was relieved when the stilled emotions began churning his thoughts to numbness again.

'Mr Sinclair. Sir, are you sure you're going to be all right? I can only guess what you're going through and I want to help in some way, please tell me what I can do. I also have a wife and daughter and if I was to lose them-'

The words came crashing through the storm of his mind like lightning through mist, striking at his consciousness to overlay the image of his dead wife with the image of Emily.

They took Emily. They took the baby!

The barrier collapsed.


The Swains

All around him was black, a bubble of inky mire that exuded emptiness and despair. Beyond, outside this sphere, but in some sense part of it, Terry could see platforms of light. On one stood his parents, though they were distant and dimly lit; Terry felt angry when he looked at them, anger deep-seated in blame... or was it guilt? Strong emotions kept him from stepping toward them. Emotions he didn't understand.

On a much closer platform stood Brenda, Emily held in her arms. A longing struck Terry, fearful but thankful and tainted with a sense of constraint, limitation. He knew that he'd been on that platform, once, but had left it. He didn't know why.

Below him shone another landing, at its centre stood Jocelyn. Promised things that platform did - Sweet things. He shook his head. Empty things, empty promises; it was a delusion, another place of seeming light not bright enough to banish his shadows. He knew it couldn't grant him what he wanted most, to rid himself of this gloom that surrounded him, a darkness that undermined with imperfections any good he sought, frustrated with a stigma of pointlessness any goal he set, and teasingly darkened the edges of the peace he so rarely found but valued more than his breath.

Years seemed to go by within this darkness and Terry wondered at how he'd ended up here. He reminisced of his childhood, threadbare memories hinting at happy times, carefree times, days of lightness and laughter when this burden didn't weigh him down so.

In desperation he screamed and threw himself at the walls of his prison, wanting so much to find those coloured patches in his life again. Yet the darkness moved with his efforts, seemingly untouchable. He began to feel the enormity of his situation, so alone in his darkness with so much light all around promising everything but what he desired most. He began to weep for his need, but the tears would not last and their bitter taste on his lips seeded a grievance within his heart.

So it was he stood within his tomb and shouted with all his might, shook his fist at heaven and railed accusations of injustice and wrong at a God who'd treated him so spitefully.

Yet, like tears, the voice, too, eventually runs dry. And so he sat again, robbed of means to vent, left only to mumble his complaint at himself...it's not fair, I did the right thing... It's not fair... it's not fair...

It's not fair.

Terry's eyes popped open with a haunting suddenness, the pupils contracting in the brighter light to take in the mist-green ceiling of a bedroom, his mind swimming the last of the distance to catch up.

A dream, it had been a dream, but such a dream as to leave him unsure of whether he had awoken or still slept. So real it seemed that waking was no more than passing from one reality to the next. Not until he raised his hand empirically to his face was Terry satisfied he had indeed awoken.

Then reality overwhelmed him.

He lay there, the death of his wife an immutable hole in his head and heart. No matter how hard he tried to fill them, they remained empty. There was no emotion, no comforting philosophical aphorism, no pleasant thought or numbing one that could replace the terrifying hollowness within, just a void that refused any form of solace with a savagery.

And the void was growing.

Like some kind of psychical black hole it slowly sucked the rest of him in. He could feel it physically; while intellectually acknowledging he was on a road not healthy for the mind. He'd read about post-traumatic stress, depression, the stages of grief, but reading and acknowledging it where like sandbags before the tidal wave of experience, wholly inadequate.

Then there was Emily, on a different level of consciousness altogether; almost disregarded but for the shame it invoked. Whereas the loss of Brenda saturated his soul with a corroding despairing ache, his pain for Emily founded itself in guilt. Pale in comparison to the deepening pit of agony his wife once filled, yet burrowing in his soul nonetheless, ingrained with the knowledge that he should feel more, care more, react more.

But, for Emily, he felt nothing.

A knock at his door pulled him momentarily from despair and guilt, but he didn't answer. The door opened and a head peeped in, it was David Swain; Terry's longest and closest friend and currently his publishing agent also. He'd emigrated from New Zealand shortly prior to Terry and had lodged him for some months after his arrival.

Terry remembered, then, that David had picked him up from the morgue yesterday. The memory seeming less real than the dream he'd just had.

Terry acknowledged him with a glance, which David took as permission to enter. It wasn't, but Terry couldn't be bothered saying so.

Of slim build, average height, smart, alert to people signals and quick with a warm smile, David was a man whom Terry liked a lot –under normal circumstances. However, Terry was not eager to share this moment with anyone, least of all someone as persistently optimistic as David; He just didn't think the man could understand how he felt.

He was wrong.

'My first wife died violently, did you know?' David's words were quietly spoken and tinged with old grief. Strange, out of place words coming from a man such as he.

Terry blinked, stared at his friend. David's face told he wasn't making some sick joke and Terry's surprise was enough that he found his voice. 'I never knew you'd been married before you'd met Julie.'

David shrugged, 'That's because I never told you. It was in the three years I was overseas, when we weren't in touch. I was young, she was younger, we met, we fell in love, we married. Shortly after she died, all within a month. I never told anyone but Julie.'

Both men just looked at each other.

Terry swallowed, 'How?'

'Accident really, but still murder. Thief grabbed Diane's purse as he ran by, knocked her onto the road and into the path of a car. She died instantly. Thief just kept running. Police never found him.' David's voice remained unnaturally subdued as he sketchily retold of his loss, his eyes glistening over at the memory.

'Were you there?' Terry asked, 'With her when it happened, I mean.'

'No'.

'Why weren't you there?'

David raised his eyebrows, 'I was working at the time?'

Terry bunched a fist into the hair at the back of his head and nodded with his eyes closed. 'Then you had a good excuse. There was nothing you could do. You had to work.'

Leaning forward, David spoke gently but firmly. 'Terry, I know you well and I know what you're doing, but you mustn't. I couldn't stop what happened to Diane, and you couldn't have stopped what happened to Brenda. You can't blame yourself mate.'

Terry's throat tightened into a knot. He wanted to agree, but he knew he was to blame, knew that it wouldn't have happened if he'd been at home where he should have been.

The National Book Council meeting had been a ruse. He'd only used the invitation as a means to take Jocelyn away with him. He wouldn't have gone otherwise. So it came down to him not being there to protect his family because he was too busy pursuing his animal lust. Because of him Brenda had died.

'Are you listening to what I'm saying, Terry? It makes no sense to blame yourself; If you must get angry, get angry at the low-life's that murdered her, not yourself, OK? Not yourself.'

Terry's emotions found a focus, inflamed by the heat of his own self-blame, 'David, you don't understand, all right. You don't understand! It is my fault.' He wasn't angry with David, and was surprised his ire used him as an outlet. Yet for some reason he couldn't quite fathom, Terry didn't want to hear anything that alleviated his pain, removed his guilt or quieted his self-reproach. In a way beyond his mental influence, he saw the blame as deserved and, therefore, fair punishment for unfaithful desires.

'You don't understand, David. You don't know what I... I... –', Shouted anger became throat clutching whispered grief, '–I wasn't there because... because I was with another woman.' Terry clutched his knees to his chest under the blanket and wept.

David's posture had become stiff backed in the chair. He wasn't expecting a confession, especially one like this. He didn't know what to say. He was still seeking a reply when the door eased open and Julie, his wife, walked in. She saw Terry crying and her husband's awkward expression but understandably misread the reasons.

'I've just made some breakfast for everyone, it's on the table, but I can bring it up if you want.'

Terry didn't look up, just shook his head slightly. David rose and gently taking his wife's arm led her out of the room, leaving Terry to weep himself to sleep.


Renna

The soldiers, having flagged down her car, unceremoniously dumped the child in the back and commanded she transport him to the nearest medical centre. She'd refused. Even if she hadn't been a nurse, the boy's critical condition was obvious. So she countermanded the order with one of her own; they were to use their radios and call for help. At first they refused, some nonsense about radio silence, but she convinced them eventually, after which they'd been cooperative; even setting a tarpaulin over her vehicle. Even so, the extreme heat made her lightheaded while she tended the boy in the back seat, cooling him with damp rags to his head and torso.

Renna held the boys hand in her own. It was withered, as was the child's body; emaciated from hunger and thirst.

Found in a ditch far from any village or settlement, the child had no place being here; could never have arrived without help of some form. Gazing out at the soldiers, she wondered if the boy were the victim of one of the them. They belonged to the countries undisciplined military, a training exercise bringing them into this area she'd been told; that coincidence the only reason the child still lived.

At least these ones aren't drunk, Renna thought, recalling other times she'd seen government soldiers this far north; drugged and intoxicated. There was the possibility they were responsible for the child's condition, but there was no way to know. And it seemed unlikely; they being the ones to seek her help. Maybe these are a more decent class of soldier than those responsible for the atrocities in the v Aïr Mountains villages, she thought. A haunting image flashed across her mind, of mutilated boys, hands cut off by drunken militia machete, the dismembered teenagers' only guilt a suspicion they were members of the rebel FPN.

Gently raising his head, Renna refilled the syringe with water and squeezed the liquid drop by drop into the boy's mouth. Although only semi-conscious, his swollen tongue responded to the moisture with small twitches. Renna chaffed at the lack of medical equipment necessary to treat the severe dehydration he suffered; an IV was all she required. She knew there was not enough fluid in his body to get blood to the vital organs. What she currently did stood little chance of changing that. Forcing too much liquid down his throat would only cause him to vomit it up. So she persisted with drips from a syringe, hoping against the odds it would keep him alive until better help arrived.

It was while she still nursed the boy that the other children were found, all dead, four in all, located along a two kilometre stretch of inhospitable land travelling due east from where they'd found the boy.

Renna had cried then, her tears falling onto the boy's tattered shorts, soaking into the dirt encrusted cloth to form a muddy spot that slowly spread. For some reason the sight of this emphasised his plight, bringing further tears as she continued to syringe water into him.

Only two days ago she'd been sipping coffee in Prague, listening to the busy street-din of the Czech Republic's capital, while meeting with Petr Procházcha, her Aid Coordinator to the relief effort in Africa.

She'd then flown to Algeria, being met by a Pastor of one of the few Christian churches in the countries southern province of Tamanrasset. Then, with all appropriate paperwork signed she'd driven across the border into one of the poorest countries on earth–Niger.

The largest nation in West Africa. Over eighty percent of it claimed by the largest desert–the Sahara; and the rest constantly threatened by drought and desertification. As such, the majority of the country's twenty million population are clustered in the far south and west of the nation; the capital city of Niamey the most south-westerly and densely populated quarter.

Renna's primary goal was to reach Arlit, an industrial town and capital of the Agadez Region in northern-central Niger. Once accounting for ninety percent of Niger's export, the formerly uranium rich town had been through booms and busts that had ultimately resulted in dislocation and suffering for the tens of thousands of Nigerians who'd flocked to the shanty towns surrounding it. Built between the Sahara desert and the eastern edge of the Aïr mountains, it was two hundred kilometres south by road from the border with Algeria.

Renna could have flown, but she'd wanted to stop along the way at the village of Assamakka, and report on its status, including any illegal immigrants stranded there.

Having a first-world, though somewhat run-down, infrastructure, including an airport used to serve European workers and their families, Arlit had become a transit point for undocumented immigrants attempting to travel to Algeria, and from there to France. Renna's job was to meet with Bob Turner, another employee of the World Child Aid Organisation. They were to determine how children were being impacted by the growing illegal industry of people smuggling.

Like many such post-industrial towns in the middle of no-where, there was no shortage of opportunists willing to exploit others for a quick dollar. Law enforcement in these places was minimal and, as often as not, corrupt. Therefore it fell on the shoulders of charity groups like World Child Aid to ensure those most easily exploited and neglected –children– were watched out for.

Looking again at the boys distended tongue, Renna wondered where these children had come from. Arlit was still one hundred kilometres to the south, and the nearest village seventy kilometres from her current location. No one, least of all children, could travel far on foot in this desolate place, not without water. She called over one of the soldiers, hoping he spoke French as did the officer she'd spoken to earlier; although the official language of Niger, French was generally only spoken by the educated.

'Quel est dans cette direction?' she pointed east: what was in that direction?

The soldier looked to where she pointed, 'Rien', he replied in adequate French and with a shrug: nothing.

She probed further, asking how far there was nothing.

'200 km avant que vous atteignez le roulé en liasse d'anefok.'

That makes no sense, she thought, if it was so far to the nearest wadi, where had the children come from. 'D'où pensez-vous les enfants sont venus?': where do you think the children came from.

'Les immigrants illégaux, qui sait.' The soldier shrugged again before walking off.

Illegal immigrants; but if they were, where are the parents, why only children? Were they abandoned?

Renna shook her head forlornly, knowing the answer to these questions could well be the saddest imaginable. Smuggling people illegally across borders cost money, a rare commodity for most here. Occasionally Renna had come across the ultimate consequence of this disparity–a starving waif. Desperate to leave the country, parents abandoned their children, orphaning them to the deprivations and dangers of life in the streets or in the sewers and refuse tips of towns like Arlit. Such children quickly became the most pitiful of Africa's suffering masses, easily caught up in the illicit trades of human abuse.

The sound of a helicopter distracted her thoughts.

Sent from Arlit with a medic onboard, the helicopter was large enough to accomodate all the children. Renna wished she could accompany the boy, feeling a degree of responsibility toward him now. But she couldn't abandon her vehicle, and still had the area of Oubandawaki Makiani to monitor before reaching Arlit.

Giving the French medic her business card, she asked that he pass it on to whoever would be caring for the boy, that they contact her office and leave a message regarding his condition.

He agreed and then they were gone.

The few soldiers who remained, departed soon after, leaving Renna alone on the remote stretch of road with only sad thoughts of the children's miserable fate. As always, thoughts of children led her to think of her own, and she wondered if her little Miranda still lived.

Renna retrieved the photo from her purse and kissed it gently. Six years had clouded the other details of that night, but she still remembered taking the photo, just hours before putting Miranda into her cot and going to bed herself.

Only a few years ago such recollection would have led to tears, but Renna had passed that point, her grief now a shadow of what it was for so long. Starting the Jeep's engine she turned the air-conditioning on and sat, thinking, while the heat in the cabin slowly dissipated. Sitting in the front seat of the four wheel drive, she looked again at the photo.

So like her father, she thought, as years became seconds in her mind and her child's image was momentarily replaced by the once love of her life. So much had changed in the six years since her daughter was taken that recalling it seemed surreal, pretend, someone else's life.

Her husband had left a year after Miranda's disappearance. A year later, she'd received report of his death. He was so strong and bright, the centre of her universe at one time. A scientist with the European aerospace industry in Toulouse and an experienced rock climber, he had often dazzled her with his wide ranging and brilliant abilities. Yet for all his achievements and vigour, he'd failed to cope with his daughter's loss. It triggered the fault-line within him that at some deep level had shattered his soul. Refusing any professional counselling, he'd instead sought solace in the mountains he loved so dearly; and was himself shattered by them, falling to his death on one of the more perilous climbs in the Pyrenees.

She still wondered whether he'd committed suicide.

Her pain was no less, but Renna had chosen a different path to escape it. Ultimately it had proven the right one, an escape from personal pain via the helping others to face theirs.

She had joined the World Child Aid organisation on counsel from a close friend and wife to her home towns local parish priest, himself a victim of horrible trauma; trauma he believed only escaped when he'd taken the step to serve others in their anguish rather than drown in his own.

To Renna it had made some sense, and although far from easy, she'd persevered. In hindsight she believed it made her what she now was; a stronger, wiser and more compassionate person. One that still hurt deeply at times; but now did so from a place not core to her needs; a place that may never fully heal, but no longer claiming all other parts in its misery.

Returning her thoughts to Miranda, she said a small pray for her, one she'd promised always to bring to God; just in case her daughter lived. This done, she pulled out onto the road and continued on her way.

Two trees finally broke the monotonous horizon of the sand road she travelled, the sun low in the late afternoon sky. The trees marked the location of Oubandawaki Makiani; a place few travellers traversed, fewer still found inhabited; and all wondered why it would be.

Renna knew that within a ten kilometre radius of these trees up to ninety people may live –or may not– and only occasionally did any of them gather at the trees.

Being tired, she stopped under one of the acacia's and turned off the engine. Although she had a tent in the rear of the Jeep, she decided against putting it up, the long drive and trauma of the day having wearied her to the point of exhaustion. Instead she planned to just sleep in the back.

But not without a meal first.

It was while eating that Renna first noticed the glint, the setting sun reflecting off a distant object to the north-east. Only when it became several glints did her curiosity rouse enough that she retrieved the spotting scope from the back of the four-wheel-drive. A keepsake of her late husband, an adventurer through-and-through and one who'd believed in having the latest technology, the Meopta Meostar scope was light enough to free-hold but came with a tripod; making it easier to focus steadily on distance objects. Renna had found it a great way to watch the wildlife of the countries she visited.

With familiar use she unfolded the tripod and mounted the scope. At 60x75 zoom the instrument brought to brilliant clarity whatever it was aimed at. Renna angled it toward where she'd last seen the glint. When she peered into the lens, the distant dunes of the Sahara immediately loomed large.

Nothing but sand.

In her weariness, she was about to give up when a blur entered her field of view from the left. Adjusting the lenses, she saw a line of armed men with several camels trudging across the desert. She judged them as several kilometres distant. Their small appearance through the scope made making out details near impossible. At first she thought they were soldiers, possibly even those she'd met earlier, or Tuareg smugglers, maybe even FPN rebels.

Examining the line more closely, she saw that several were too small to be adults, surely children. Curiosity kept her attentive. It was when she saw one of the children fall, and then what appeared to be a sharp kick given by the soldier behind, that she gasped. As she watched, the soldier repeatedly kicked the child. Renna was not breathing, chest muscles paralysed in shock. Failing to stir the child through violence, the soldier pointed his rifle at the still form before walking on, the others of the party only looking back before also continuing.

Several seconds later the faint crack of the rifle discharging reached Renna's ears. At first she didn't associate the sound with what she'd just seen; but the fact that the child had not risen as the others walked on, eventually slammed home the truth. She continued to focus on the inert figure as the others exited right from her field of view, horror forming in the pit of her stomach as the still body remained so.

She'd reached the child in under an hour, having driven the Jeep as far as she could before being impeded by a long-dried-out but impassable wadi. She'd then crammed her day-pack with water, food and a first aid kit, and marched the rest of the way on foot.

The child, however, was beyond help.

Stunned in bewilderment and fear, Renna sat next to the girl on the sun warmed sand, completely unsure what to do next. The party of men who had done this had long disappeared eastward. Apart from her, there was no living soul to be seen. To the south, by the last rays of the sun, she could just see the silhouette of her Jeep. She'd left the interior lights on as means of guiding herself back, and as darkness deepened these lights became brighter.

The child beside her appeared about four or five years old; although she was likely older, malnourishment having stunted her growth. At a guess Renna surmised that she may have witnessed a child smuggling ring. This still occurred in Niger, children sold into bonded servitude, or worse. However several things challenged that theory. For one: why would they kill a child if they wished to sell her? And surely they would take better care of children they wished to profit from; this girl appeared half starved. Secondly: why were they walking east, away from the border and into the Niger's Sahara interior? The many borders of the land-locked Niger would be a more likely destination for profit.

However, one argument above all others challenged Renna's smuggler theory.

The child before her was white.

Renna switched her mind from the horror she felt and the many questions she had, to just the practical one of how she would get the girl back across the wadi and to her vehicle.

Other answers would have to wait.

12 comments

UlrikeGrace profile image

UlrikeGrace 6 years ago from Canada

You are doing it again...parrster....


parrster profile image

parrster 6 years ago from Oz Author

Not deliberately, I promise :)


jill of alltrades profile image

jill of alltrades 6 years ago from Philippines

You write well.

Now I'm wondering how the past connects with the present.


readit21 profile image

readit21 6 years ago

Really nice writing! I would love for you to read some of the story I posted up myself. thanks

and keep writing!!


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada

good writing, though I think I am mission just a bit, still enjoyable, consider this rated up and bookmarked, and of course stumbled upon.


parrster profile image

parrster 6 years ago from Oz Author

Thank you all for your encouraging words. I appreciate you all!


menomania profile image

menomania 6 years ago from Elmira, New York

Just read part one, looking forward to continuing - gives me something to look forward to. Thanks


kaltopsyd profile image

kaltopsyd 6 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

I really enjoyed reading that. It definitely makes me want to read the book. You're a great author... but you already know that, don't you? Keep up the great work.

I'll be back to read more.


parrster profile image

parrster 6 years ago from Oz Author

@kaltosyd ~ Thanks for the encouraging words. Of the stories I have so far written, this one took the most research and planning. The story, though fiction, is based around very real occurrences. These I have attempted to weave into a twisting plot. I am so happy that you've started reading.


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 3 years ago from Michigan

Whoa, what a riveting and complex storyline. Your use of the English language is exquisite and paints vivid pictures in my mind - you are a very fine writer.

Now you've got me hooked too - look forward to putting more of the puzzle together in your next writing.

Bless You parrster! Voted up +++

Mekenzie


parrster profile image

parrster 3 years ago from Oz Author

Thanks McKenzie. It's been a while since anyone's read any of my stories, which makes your visit very special. If you like I can send you the completed manuscript to read.

God bless.


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 3 years ago from Michigan

YES please. :)

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