Eight men stand outside the trucks, shouldering rifles, all of them Javier’s men. I grip the leather seat beneath me, finding it harder to penetrate with my fingertips than the worn-out seats in the old truck. We come to a stop about one hundred feet away.

But I don’t see Javier. Or Izel.

I begin to panic when at first I don’t see Lydia, either, but then I spot her inside the cream-colored Ford. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s Lydia. I press my face against the metal cage as closely as I can, trying to see better, but it doesn’t help much.

Niklas turns his head to look at me.

“Sit back and stay out of sight,” he demands.

I do what he says, not because he ordered it but because it’s probably best.

The truck door slams shut. Victor walks out ahead of it towards them. One by one I look at each of the men, wondering which one was sent here to speak for Javier since he’s not here himself, but then I see Izel’s black hair sliding past the window of the green truck as she gets out.

“This makes twice Javier’s been too much of a coward to come himself,” I say out loud, not necessarily to Niklas.

“He knows by now that Victor can kill him with little effort,” Niklas says, watching out the window. “I’d say it’s a smart move on Javier’s part.”

Izel tries to approach Victor with her usual sultry walk, but she’s clearly in pain from the wounds he left on her legs and she stumbles just as she passes the rusted hood. One of the men step over quickly to help her, but she smacks him hard across the face and shouts curses at him, telling him to back off. She hates pity. I think she hates everything, including herself.

Words are exchanged between Izel and Victor. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but by the body language, I can tell it’s the usual: Izel trying to scare him with threats about Javier and how he’s made a very dangerous enemy—same opening conversation as they had back at the motel that day. And just like before, Victor is unfazed by her and it only adds fuel to the fire in her expression.

I try to hear what they’re saying even though I know I can’t, but mostly, I try to see Lydia.

Against Niklas’ demand, I push up closer to the cage again, trying to glimpse her through the window. I’m positive that’s her sitting on the passenger’s side. But I think there’s someone sitting next to her.

Izel raises her hand to the men by the truck behind her and one of them runs around to open the door. He reaches inside and grabs the one I think is Lydia and drags her out.

“It’s her!” I say excitedly, relieved.

Niklas snaps his head around.

“I said sit back,” he growls through bared teeth. “Don’t f**k this up any more than you already have.”

I freeze hearing this and I fall backward against the seat again, though only enough that it satisfies him and he turns away.

Lydia looks like hell, but at least she’s able to walk. At least she’s alive. She’s dressed in the same dirty clothes she was wearing when I saw her on that video. The bloodstains left from her mouth and nose are evident on the front of her thin white t-shirt, even from here at a distance. Her hands are bound at the wrists down in front of her. Her light red hair is disheveled and filthy and matted. She’s crying, gazing hopelessly toward us in the SUV and I can only imagine she’s wondering whether or not I’m in here. I want to run out of here and toward her, to let her know that I’m OK and that she’s finally going home, but wishing I could do that I know is all that I can do.

The man who pulled her out of the truck jerks on her elbow, pulling her harshly out of the way and over to the side.

Victor says something to Izel and she smiles cunningly. Then she looks back over her bare shoulder and indicates with the wave of two fingers for the other man whom she’d just slapped, to do something. He responds quickly by going around to the open truck door where Lydia was removed and he reaches inside for the other figure I saw had been sitting next to her.

“Oh my God,” I say also more to myself. “That’s Cordelia. Why did they bring her?” I look to Niklas for the answer, but he doesn’t offer one.

Cordelia and Lydia are standing side by side now, both trembling with tear-streaked faces, both of them unable to stop looking toward the SUV.

Victor waves two fingers toward us.

Niklas turns around. “Are you ready?”

I swallow hard. “Yes.”

Niklas opens his door and as he gets out the hidden locks on the SUV click again. He pops the back door open and reaches out his hand to me. Reluctantly I take it.

“Sarai!” I hear Lydia’s voice on the air once I step out of the SUV.

I look up as I move around the opened door to see the man holding her by the elbow push her onto the dirt-covered ground and onto her knees. The other man does the same to Cordelia just because he can.

I begin to walk slowly the short distance toward Victor, my legs shaking more with each step. I feel Izel’s eyes on me, so cold and predatory, but I won’t look at her. I refuse to give her the satisfaction. Instead, I look only at Victor and although he’s staring right into my eyes, I know that not an ounce of his vigilant attention has been taken from those around him.

Then he looks away, putting his hand up to me and instinctively I stop.

“Have one of your men bring them,” Victor instructs Izel.

Izel sneers, her nostrils flaring, making her look all the more hateful. Then with the backward tilt of her head, she orders the man standing over Lydia to do just that. He swings his rifle hanging from the shoulder-strap around toward his back and then reaches out with both hands, grabbing Lydia and Cordelia each in one, lifting them to their feet.

Victor looks at me again. He reaches out his hand and as I walk toward him I feel his seemingly emotionless gaze penetrate my own. There’s something in his eyes, something quiet and mysterious and I feel like he’s trying to speak to me through them. I place my hand into his and his fingers collapse around it, at first carefully.

Something doesn’t feel right, in a way like that furtive look I saw in his eyes seconds ago.

As the man approaches, Victor’s hand tightens around mine. I only see Lydia’s eyes now, full of fear and hope and relief as she moves closer. And then when they are within Victor’s reach, in a quick, unseen motion, I’m shoved onto the ground and I see Victor reach out so fast, grabbing the man by his head and snapping his neck. Lydia and Cordelia fall to their knees and the next thing I know, Victor has the man’s semi-automatic rifle and is spraying bullets toward Izel and the others.

Lydia and Cordelia try to cling to me as the sound of bullets move vociferously through the air in all directions, but I shove them both onto their stomachs and push theirs faces against the dirt with my hands.

“Stay down!” I scream, dust whipping up into my mouth. “Follow me! Come on!” And I drag my body as fast as I can across the dirt toward the SUV like a soldier crawling through enemy fire.

More shots ring out, two or three hit the sand near us, one pinging off the side of the SUV’s open door. And even though the SUV is within fifteen feet, I feel like it’s too far away and that we’ll never make it. One bullet hits the ground two feet in front of my face, causing me to freeze up and come to a dead stop. I’ve already lost sight of Victor, but I see Niklas running away from the SUV with a gun gripped in both hands as he fires off several shots in rapid succession.

“Hurry!” I shout over the chaos, twisting my head around so that I can see if Lydia and Cordelia are still following, my arms pressed even harder into the dirt.

Lydia is screaming and I glimpse blood on the sand near her foot. Cordelia, terrified, moves quickly past me, forcing her body through the sand even with her wrists bound. But Lydia is stagnant and I turn back to help her. If I have to drag her across the ground alone and through a hailstorm of bullets, that’s what I’ll do.

“My foot!” Lydia cries out to me.

“Don’t stop, Lydia! Push through it! You have to keep moving!”

I finally make it back to her and I cover her head with both of my arms when another bullet zooms past, narrowly missing us. She buries her face in the crook of my arm now. Sobs rock her body.

The bullets stop, but the eerie silence is almost as frightening as the noise. For what feels like forever, I’m afraid to lift my head and as the dust begins to settle, I only see two upright bodies among the dead.

Viktor and Niklas.

Sobs of utter relief shudder through me, causing my chest to constrict over and over again until I feel like throwing up. I don’t even realize that I’ve managed to sit upright with my bare heels digging into the sand. At some point I lost my flip-flops. Lydia throws herself on me and I wrap my arms around her so tight I feel my fingers digging into her back. She would do the same if her hands weren’t restricted by that rope.

“Sarai! Sarai!” Lydia cries into my shoulder. My name is all that she can get out.

“I know, Lydia! I’m so sorry that I left without you. I’m so sorry!” My nose burns from crying so much and so hard.

Lydia pulls away and looks at me, shaking her head. “No, no, you tried,” she says as I work furiously on the knots in the rope until I finally get her wrists free. “It was my decision to stay. But look, look Sarai, you kept your word. You promised to come back for me.”

I wrap her up in my arms again and we just sit here like this together, on the ground without any care in the world about the dead people laid out not so far away. We only pull away when I see Niklas walking toward us.

Briefly I glance behind me at the SUV and am relieved that Cordelia got away safely, too. She sits huddled in the backseat, her legs drawn up toward her chest as she rocks back and forth in a state of shock.

I turn back to Lydia and cup her bruised and dirty face in my hands, moving her long, reddish hair away from her mouth and cheeks with my thumbs. I press my lips against her forehead.

“We’re going to take you home,” I say and a soft, lip-quivering smile breaks out on my face.

She smiles back at me.

A single shot rings out, ripping through the wide-opened space. Lydia’s smile fades as I look back into her eyes.

That eerie, foreboding silence is back, bathing us in its infinite cruelty. I feel like time has slowed, that somehow the world around me has flown by and left me behind to suffer this moment. It’s just me and Lydia, staring into each other’s eyes. Mine in disbelief. Hers glazing over with something that sends chills through me.

It’s always the eyes….

I watch those bottomless eyes until the life slips completely out of her and her head falls backward like a broken spring.

One more shot rings out. Even though I watch the bullet pass through the front of Izel’s skull, and Victor, as his gun drops again slowly to his side, I feel like I never really took my eyes away from Lydia whose body hangs precariously in my arms.

And then in a whirlwind of color and movement and sound, the world catches up to me again and I scream into whatever part of it is listening and pull Lydia’s lifeless body against my chest, rocking back and forth with her in my arms. Her limp arms fall and sway beneath her. I feel her blood warm and thick as it pools beneath the fabric of her shirt and bleeds through to my hands holding her back.

Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series