Are Dan and Mary Too Late?
A devastating prophecy.
A climatic meltdown.
A tortured soul.
Dan Wildman knows it's a long shot. Even with his sister's remarkable talents, the odds are against them.
Still, they must try.
Can Dan escape the clutches of brutal FSB agents and retrieve the elusive gemstone?
Will legal wranglings force the sale of their South African mine...
or will government ministers cause the collapse of global weather patterns in their search for the mineral?
Watch as temperatures rise in the fifth book of The Aurora Conspiracies Series.
From the brutal clutches of the FSB...
to the perils of the South African scrub...
Will our heroes make it back to stop a larger, home-grown terror?
Gauteng Province, South Africa
Blistering heat seared into their skin, driving Dan and Mary into the shade. Mary sat on a rock beneath a Marula tree. Sweat evaporated as soon as it left their pores. The puncture marks on Dan’s shin oozed with a dark yellow liquid, the surrounding tissue scarlet and sore. His face contorted from the pain, as the venom seeped into his bloodstream.
“We can’t stay here. We are just carrion for the hyenas.” She said, rising to her feet and dusting the red earth from her clothes.
“Just a short break, then we’ll make tracks.” His speech was stilted, his short breaths helping to manage the burning sensation creeping throughout his body. No matter how hard he tried, his head drooped, knocking his chin to his chest.
“We have to get to the roadside. Kit will never find us out here in the middle of nowhere. There are too many shrubs and trees.” She bent low and hooked her arm beneath his, hoisting him to his feet. “Won’t be far now.” She sounded optimistic, but it failed to convince Dan.
In his dehydrated and poisoned state, all his energies poured into remaining conscious and functioning. He did know that his sister would never steer him into further trouble deliberately. He had to trust her judgement. With Mary keeping him upright and leading the way, they hobbled away from the unrelenting sun.
It was impossibly slow going. Dan focused on avoiding rocks and holes. His heart raced with every step, forcing the venom to disperse throughout his muscles. “Wait…stop.” He panted, wiping blood from his nose. His hands twitched without coordination, increasing his anxiety that his heart would be the next muscle to lose control. His entire lower limb was now numb, making walking almost an impossibility. Lowering himself down to the ground, he turned his head away to vomit.
Mary sat down by his side. “You’re deteriorating fast.”
“No shit.” The poison was breaking down the cells in his flesh, and spreading ever higher. His erratic heart beat made him dizzy. The nausea was difficult to ignore.
Mary looked about her for higher ground. There was none. As far as she could tell, they were centrally located on the flat, lush plains of a wildlife reserve. To her left, lay dense lowland bush. To her right, barren soils supported rocky debris and fewer shrubs and grasses.
She glanced back at him. In one look, they both knew that he could not go on any further. If Kit did not find them soon, they would be too weak to fight off predators.
Dragging himself backwards across the parched earth, he rested his back against a rock and closed his eyes. Mary sensed his panic. She paced closer and sat next to him under the glare of the sun.
“This could well be it, little sister.” His eyes flickered open for a moment, and then closed again. His mouth was as arid as the soil around him.
“No way,” she grinned, falsely. “We’ve been in tighter spots before. We’ll get out of this, you’ll see.”
She gazed into the distant haze as it shimmied up from the rocks before them. He didn’t have to read her thoughts. They both knew that Dan’s situation was grave.
“You should go on alone. There is no need for us both to feed the hyenas.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not leaving you out here to die. Kit will find us.” She scrambled up onto her knees. His logic was sound. It was the most rational option, but there is nothing more stubborn than a British woman defying orders from an older sibling.
“Mary…” His voice was gentle and calm. “One of us has to make sure that the prophecy does not come true. You have to go on. You have to stop them. There is no one else.”
She looked down at the ground. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyelids and stung. He was right. The one dire consequence that their grandfather had fought against for the majority of his life, was set to materialise. For decades, he had kept the new element a secret from the world. He had taken enormous steps to prevent its discovery, and stop the greed of the world’s elite from exploiting its properties.
In just a few months after his passing, Dan and Mary had let it slip into the hands of the absolute worst of all society. They had opened Pandora’s box. She looked at his bare shin, his trouser leg rolled up to the knee. The puncture wounds were now seeping bloodied gunge, his face paler than cream.
Their eyes met. He took a breath and steadied his voice. “You know I’m right.”
Pinpricks of light bled through the course weave of fabric shielding his face. His breath hot and heavy inside the bag they pulled over his head. Dan was still inside the main airport building, but where? In clipped, heavily accented English, the Border Guards shoved his shoulder with unnecessary force. Running to maintain his balance, Dan’s shoulder connected with the wall. They laughed at him, jabbing the stun stick into his legs. The voltage surged through every muscle in his body, heating the layers of flesh in a rapid wave. The cuffs chafed his wrists behind his back. He could hear the rumble and repetitive clicking of his luggage wheels hitting the edges of the floor tiles. This was not your standard stop and search.
A door handle clunked, and then squeaked ajar. Dan found himself pushed inside and held against the wall. He could hear them grappling with his suitcase. They slammed it on a hard surface. The zip fastener whizzed as they opened the lid and clanked it down on the table.
The guards spoke together in their native Russian tongue. Dan listened as they dismantled the contents, opening the toiletry bag and shaking bottles and power adaptors in their search. One bellowed another Russian command, his tone conveyed frustration. Dan felt the sting of the baton against his inner leg. He moved until he stood astride pressed up to the plaster. The body search was rough and almost medically thorough. Still they kept him hooded and bound. What were they after? He knew that his bags were clean, not even a paracetamol.
While they muttered, Dan heard material ripping. They were slashing open the lining of his case. After no more than ten minutes, one of the guards grabbed the shoulder of his coat and dragged him into another room. Stark lighting produced an eerie amber glow inside the hood. Something electronic hummed in the background. Dan found himself sandwiched between two cold surfaces. A loud click later, and the same guard yanked him free of the machine - an x-ray. They thought he was a drugs mule, but then, why the hood?
There was more muttering in Russian. Their low disgruntled voices, were joined by another with a much deeper timbre. The build-up of stale air and condensation, made him dizzy. Maybe he was hyperventilating. He couldn’t tell.
They were on the move again. More corridors and swing doors, until a blast of arctic air, stopped his breathing mid inhalation. Within moments, his entire body shivered from the frigid temperatures. With one elbow supported by a guard, they assisted him into the back of a large vehicle, and cuffed him to the bench seating. The vehicle rocked as the back doors slammed shut. It leaned on the shock absorbers, distributing the weight of the driver as he entered the cab.
Now there was no light at all, just the irregular gear changes and straining engine noises, as they left the airport slip roads and sped along smooth asphalt. Dan estimated thirty to forty minutes of gentle bends and high speeds, until a sharp turn took them into noisier street traffic. At one point, Dan thought he might be alone in the vehicle, until a man cleared his throat. Probably one of the Border Guards, he thought to himself. At least they didn’t get Mary. Everything is fine, as long as she is free. The last sighting of her, was just before they dragged him from the document checking queue at the arrival’s booths. Mary had joined a shorter queue at the far end of the terminal. He kept his distance from her. With different surnames, they figured it would look less suspicious to separate from the plane. In retrospect, that was a wise precaution. She was free to go onto Moscow, while he sorted out this incidence of mistaken identity.
Eventually, the vehicle slowed. They rounded a sharp turn, forcing Dan to tense his muscles to remain upright. A jerky crawl took them to their destination. The man sitting opposite, unlocked the cuff securing him to his seat, and pulled him up by the arm. Those icy winds cut him in two once again. A cacophony of engine noises told him that he was in the midst of a busy city. It had to be central Moscow. He tripped up the kerb, and stumbled. His beating heart increased until he could hear it pulsing inside his ears.
They hurried inside an echoing building. Their voices were hushed and respectful. Wherever they had taken him, was intimidating the guards. He tried to calm himself, steady his breathing, but the disorientation was overwhelming. He shuffled along the hard floors until he could hear someone pressing a button. When it dinged, he knew they were pushing him into a lift. This cannot be right.
“Okay, I have cooperated with you every step of the way. This is getting ridiculous now. You have no right to detain me or treat me in this despicable manner. Take this hood off. I want to speak to a solicitor.” Dan resisted their shoves, pushing back against the guards.
“Shut the fuck up. We can do whatever we want. Now get in there.” One of them shouted. Dan was sure that it was not the one who travelled inside the van with him. He guessed that it was the driver.
“I am neither a smuggler nor a criminal. I am a tourist with a valid visa. You do not have the right to detain me. I want to speak with someone from the British Embassy.”
Deafening laughter surrounded him. “There are no UK diplomats left in Russia. Putin kicked them all out.”
More snorts of hilarity at his expense, roused him to anger. “Then I demand a phone call. I am very important in the United Kingdom,” He lied, “and I have rights.”
Without warning, a fist connected with the side of his face. It sent Dan reeling; his vision momentarily blurred with the pain. Moments later, a second blow to the gut had him doubled over trying to protect his abdomen.
“We know exactly who you are, Mr Wildman, and you have no rights.” The driver drawled. “Do what we ask, and it will save you a great deal of pain.”
Another punch caught him in the solar plexus, winding him. It took a little while to re-inflate his lungs. As soon as he was able, he said, “But you haven’t told me what you want.”
“You will tell us everything you know, whether you want to or not.” This time, it was the gruff man with the deep voice. A shudder propagated down his spine. There was something infinitely chilling about his manner.
His face throbbed, his gut ached. He did as he was told, and moved in the direction they drove him. Two sets of footsteps followed. Which one of them stayed behind? They closed the grill of the safety cage and set the elevator in motion. Dan anticipated an upward force. His stomach lurched as it dropped a few feet, and steadied to an ominously slow descent.
How did they know about him? His sister was the infamous one. They had deliberately kept a low profile in the airport, so as not to invite suspicion. He trawled through his memories, for people he’d met since inheriting his grandfather’s fortune. Most were within the cosseted realms of British politics. He couldn’t imagine any of the peers having a clue as to his whereabouts, let alone tipping off Russian authorities. All other acquaintances had no ties to the east at all. How had he triggered a red flag with Russian Border Guards?
These and many other panicked thoughts flew through his adrenalin spiked brain, before they reached the basement. Here at last, they removed the hood. Two men stood before him. One was from the airport. The other he supposed was the driver. Where was the man with the sinister voice? With the less evil of the two guards guiding him, he mooched as slowly as they would permit, along a frosted passageway to an open door at the end. The room was dark inside. It was to be his room. The closer he drew to the entrance, the more he could discern the dimensions in the dim lighting from the corridor. It was roughly the size of a wardrobe. There was no furniture, no windows and no water. A steel bucket stood in the centre of the tiny space.
Dan turned to face the least offensive man, ready to plead for mercy. Before he could open his mouth, they reached up to his chest and thrust him inside. With the door locked shut, Dan could see them smirking through a small shuttered flap in the wood. With a wry grin, the driver flipped the aperture closed, throwing Dan into complete darkness.
Alone with his fears, he reached out for his sister’s frequency. Her unique brain wave pattern allowed him to connect with her via a strong telepathic signal. It had been their lifeline on more than one occasion. He needed her now. Her voice of reason would render his situation less dire. She could mobilise help, from her important connections within the British Secret Intelligence Service. All he had to do, was call out to her.
Groping about the confined space, he flipped the bucket and lowered himself down on its base. With his eyes closed, and his mind as clear as he could manage, he sent his message out into the ether. “Mary… can you hear me?” He waited for an answer. Nothing. A deep breath and a second attempt, yielded the same results. He could neither feel her presence, nor hear her connection of thought. That’s odd, he said to himself. She saw me being taken at the airport. There is no way she would casually go to sleep, or somehow block me, knowing that I was in trouble. He tried again. “Mary? I need you to hear me… I’m in desperate need of help.” After his fifth try, he gave in to his fears. I don’t understand.
It took all his self-control not to break down. Yes, he had been in awkward positions before. His life was under threat more times than he would care to admit over the last few months, but never in a Russian detention centre, with no access to assistance. He shook himself alert.
Falling apart now would not help. He had to toughen up, blank any and all feelings. Russia had no time for a modern man in touch with his emotions, and despite what his former girlfriends had told him, becoming a strong detached bloke, was the way forward.
The rim of the bucket cut into his arse cheeks. Standing up he leaned his back against the damp brickwork. It felt ice cold through his clothes. The door surface was less unpleasant. He tried to peer through the cracks in the shutter, but could see nothing clearly. All his worry and nervous sweating in the airport terminal, left him parched. He had not eaten in hours, nor had anything to drink. How long would they keep him locked up with no charges or explanations? He had no way of judging the passage of time. They took all his belongings, including his watch and mobile phone, when first they arrested him.
When his legs started to ache, he stamped his feet and hugged himself against the cold. When that was no longer an option, and his lower back pained him to bend, he slid down the door to the filthy floor and folded his legs in the cramped space. Dehydration made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth and his temples ache. His knees clicked and cracked as he attempted to straighten them vertically up the wall. The chill seemed to penetrate every bone in his body, rendering his joints stiff and sore.
If only he had taken the time to find his girlfriend, Connie, before their flight. How long had it been since they had exchanged civil words together? He hoped that she was safe. Her absence troubled him. Perhaps she had been in one of her silent treatment moods or another of her six-week, undercover operations to secure an exclusive exposé for the broadsheets. None of his text messages were returned, and her mobile diverted straight to voice mail whenever he had called to smooth over their recent tensions. He should never have left things how they were.
For what seemed like hours, the gloom turned into despair. He may never get the chance to put his life back into order. He was just considering how he would make things right with Connie if he ever got home, when footsteps caught his attention. The more he listened, the louder they became, until the key turned in the lock. The door creaked open, and there stood a gangling man in military fatigues.
When Dan’s eyes acclimatised to the passageway lighting, he saw the stun stick resting at the man’s side. Struggle was useless. Stepping out into the corridor, Dan waited for the man to direct him. The electronic baton was held at arm’s length, aiming him the way they had arrived. For one glorious moment, he thought they were going to release him. They had figured out that he was the wrong man after all. Hope faded, when Dan paused next to the elevator, and got a jab in the back for his miscalculation.
Dan turned to glare at the man, and immediately regretted his action. The jolt of electricity almost made him lose control of his bladder. Almost. Still the man prodded, steering him to the left at the end of the corridor and into a sterile room. There was a central drain in the floor and a length of hosepipe. One low gym bench lay parallel with the walls. He’d seen enough action films to know what this meant. The room was equipped for water boarding. He swallowed hard.
“Look, I will cooperate. I have done everything you have asked of me. There is absolutely no need for torture. I am just a tourist. You need to let me go.”
Before he could protest further, the man swung his fist at Dan’s strong jawline. He saw it coming, and bobbed out of its path. Angered, the man took a set of knuckle dusters from his pocket, slipped them onto his hands, and took an almighty swipe into Dan’s belly. Winded for a second time, he was unable to prepare for the rain of blows that followed. Every punch took him closer to the ground, until the pain blended into one continuous agony.
Spitting blood and tooth fragments, Dan slumped to the concrete floor, tucking his knees up to his chest in the foetal position. That’s when the kicking began. There seemed no end to this man’s fury, yet he asked no questions. Was this the Russian idea of softening up the candidate for interview? The guard took a rest, standing back and wiping the sweat from his face.
In the brief hiatus between beatings, Dan tried to reason with the tormentor. “I can save us both all this pain and effort, if you just tell me what you want.”
That seemed to be the trigger for which they were waiting. There had to be some sort of surveillance tech in the room. A woman entered. She was rangy with wiry hair scraped back into a bun. Her hard-boiled face puckered as she drew close to him, breathing smoke infused breath into his face. Her bad dye job showed the grey roots in a uniform line at her parting. Dan’s tormentor fetched her a chair. She said nothing, watching him writhe around on the blood-soaked floor.
Dan opened his mouth, ready to repeat his question, but closed it again. Every sentence he uttered resulted in pain. Still, she said nothing, watching his facial expressions through the swelling and cuts on his face. Footsteps in the corridor prompted her to lean back and peer out of the open door. The sound of a latch clicking shut a short way off, spurred her into action.
“He’s back. We can begin now.” She signalled to the man with knuckle dusters. He reached down and grabbed a hand full of Dan’s clothing, drawing his other fist back in readiness.
“Wait…” Dan proclaimed. “Why are you beating me? What do you want?”
The tormentor looked at the woman for approval. She nodded and the man let Dan loose.
“Which division of MI6 are you with?” She asked.
“I’m not with MI6. I own a book shop.”
This answer did not meet with her satisfaction. She nodded and the brute jabbed his fist into Dan’s face.
“Where have you hidden the item, you smuggled through customs?”
“You have all my belongings. I smuggled nothing.” Another nod, another beating. The cartilage ripped open at the bridge of his nose. It poured with blood.
“Let’s try that again, shall we. What is your mission here?”
“I’m a tourist. I have no mission.”
“Where is the item of value?”
Could the valuable item be Grandma Phebe’s brooch, containing the gemstone with unusual properties? Was this interrogator not sure for what she was asking? Dan chose to play ignorant. “What item of value? What are you talking about?”
The woman looked pointedly at the corner of the ceiling. Through blurry eyes, Dan squinted. He could just make out a black box with a tiny green LED glowing on its side. She was deputising for another, but who?
She looked at the doorway. No one appeared and no movements were detected. Turning back to her henchman, she stood up and gestured towards the hosepipe. “Are you sure that you will not tell me where it is hidden?”
“What is hidden? What the fuck are you talking about?”
That did not go down well.
She walked into the corridor and called back to the man in army fatigues. “Make sure you close the door before you start. You flooded most of the corridor last time.”