Eric's boot strikes on the cobbled street rang out with military precision as he hurried up the hill. His unshaven jaw clenched. He wielded his anger like a club, bludgeoning down every jab of anxiety that leapt up through his gut. Anger was the only way he was going to get through this. It kept his wits honed, his focus sharp, and his mind clear. Worry and fear were just emotions that served to slow his reflexes and muddy his vision. Emotions he told himself he felt because Kendra was a member of his crew that was in trouble.
Cresting the hill, Eric saw the coffee house on the left side of the twisting street. He stopped and leaned up against a stack of crates and lit a cigarette. He took a long drag, and then blew the bluish smoke out through pursed lips. Eric took another drag on his cigarette, and then threw it down. He ground the glowing butt under his booted heel.
They had discussed going back to the Venture to pick up Hayes, a dozen or so of the crew, and guns, of course, but the probability of Kendra being moved during that time was high. Kendra disappearing in the filthy warrens of Zarzis was not an option. If they did not find her here at The Veiled Camel, she would slip away and become as out of reach as a chain-less anchor.
The Veiled Camel was just far enough off the beaten track to attract those who had little regard for the law, but close enough to entice tourists who thought they were being daring. The location suited Talos' bustling black market business, trading in rum, opium, guns, and women, to a tee. Ruthlessness and a keen business sense had turned a modest little coffee house into the successful hive of vice and money making that is was. Talos could afford the exorbitant bribes the Zarzis officials demanded in exchange for a general oversight of his organization. The Greek conducted his business mostly unfettered, so Eric knew it would be asinine to try and involve the police. They would have little interest in listening to Eric. They would probably arrest him out of sheer annoyance for bothering them with such a 'frivolous' case.
So they would have to do this alone. Eric would go in and demand that Kendra be returned. There would be bargaining, at which point Eric would promise to exchange Kendra for guns and ammunition. Neves would stay in the background, posing as a drunken sailor. If anything went wrong, Neves was armed. It was a game they had played before with success before.
He adjusted his white cap and glared at the peeling paint on the front door of the meqah. No one had come in or out for the past five minutes. He glanced to his right and saw Neves lounging against a store front, his chin tucked down on to his chest, hands stuffed into his dungarees. The sailor let out a tremendous belch and then spat. That was the signal. Neves was ready.
Damn that woman.
The inside of the meqah was dark and smoky. To Eric, the place stank of corruption, coercion, and blackmail. A couple of Arabic men were smoking a hookah in the corner. Two sailors were bellied up to the bar drinking and jabbering away in Spanish. An olive-skinned woman with enormous brown eyes was lounging on a stool at the end of the bar. She looked up at him caught Eric's eye. He returned her stare, shook his head, and then made a quick horizontal cutting motion with his hand.
The woman gave Eric a petulant look, and then turned away.
Eric swept his cap off and tucked it under his belt.
There was a short, dark-haired man standing behind the bar. He was polishing a coffee cup with the edge of a bar towel that had once been white. Eric walked up to the bar. The man behind the bar placed the cup down and smiled a toothy smile.
"Greetings." The man's eyes darted to Eric's white cap. "Captain. What is your fancy today?"
The man spread his arms wide indicating the many jars, brass containers, and bottles stacked on the shelves behind the bar. "I have many things to choose from. Tea? Coffee? Ouzo? Or perhaps you would care to sample some of our more exotic fare?"
The man grinned again.
Eric grasped the edge of the bar and leaned forward. He decided that there was no time for banter.
"Talos has something that is mine. He didn't pay for it, and I want it back."
The dark-haired man cocked his head to one side as if he were perplexed.
"You are mistaken, I am sure. Talos is no thief. He is the proprietor of this fine business..."
"A white woman came in here about an hour and a half ago. She is a member of my crew."
The barkeep picked up another coffee cup and began polishing it. "I cannot say I have seen a white woman today."
Eric leaned in even further. He could smell garlic on the man's breath. "I know she is here."
The man's dark eyes flicked behind the Captain's shoulder. Eric felt someone step up behind him.
Eric smacked his fist on the bar. Several coffee cups rattled and bounced. "I know what this place is. I know who Talos is. That woman came in here, and I want her back."
The barkeep's black eyes went hard.
Just as Eric had predicted and wanted, the man who had stepped up behind him slipped a hand around Eric's upper arm.
"Is there a problem, Nikos?" A gravelly voice sounded in Eric's ear.
"Zeno, this man seems to think a white woman has come into the Veiled Camel today."
Eric twisted out of the grip on his arm and turned around. Eric stood nose to nose with one of the men who had been smoking hookah.
"Take me to Talos now."
"You are in no position to demand anything, Captain."
Eric lunged toward the hookah man, Zeno, and grabbed the front of his shirt. Before he could take a step forward, rough hands grasped both of his elbows and yanked him backward.
"I would not do that if I were you." A new voice sounded in Eric's ear.
Eric struggled in what he hoped was a convincing matter. "Let me go you fools."
Eric felt something hard jab into his back as Zeno strode forward. He jabbed Eric in the chest.
"Talos does not allow this kind of behavior in his establishment." Zeno growled.
"I know about the opium. I have proof!"
There was a brief silence after Eric's declaration, and then the man who had a revolver jammed into Eric's back spoke rapidly in Greek to Nikos. The barkeep gave a curt nod in response.
Zeno rifled through Eric's pockets. When the man found nothing there, he jammed his hands up Eric's pant legs and continued searching. The man grunted as he yanked Eric's old kampfmesser out of its thigh sheath.
Damn! He'd forgotten about his small trench knife. He'd be sad to part with it. The small blade had saved his life twice during the Great War. Zeno slapped the blade down on the counter.
"Really, Captain." Nikos said. He covered the knife with his hand and slid it off edge of the bar discreetly. "Talos runs a quiet establishment." An unpleasant edge crept into his voice. "We'll have none of your filthy German brutality here."
Satisfied that Eric was now unarmed, Zeno and the unseen man shoved him forward toward the right side of the back of the bar. Eric resisted, leaning backwards and muttering complaints and accusations.
Zeno smacked Eric in the back of the head. "Shut up Fritzie."
Where was Neves? He should have come in by now. Below Eric's anger, a lacy panic began to swell. If he disappeared into the back of the bar without Neves knowing where…
The front door opened and a slash of light flashed across the interior of the bar. Eric purposely stumbled and fell to the floor. As he landed, Eric twisted around so he could see who had just entered.
Swaying slightly, Neves made his way toward the bar. "Eu quero um pouco de rum!" But before bellying up to the bar, Neves flicked his eyes over to Eric and grinned. "Rum!"
Eric was hauled to his feet and frog marched toward a sheet of hanging beads behind the bar. Zeno parted the beads and Eric was shoved through.
Eric found himself being propelled down a dark, cramped hallway. The procession of Englehorn, Zeno, and the still unidentified Greek thug turned left down an even darker passageway. Zeno, who led the way, stopped in front of a door and delivered three sharp raps.
Eric heard footsteps. The door opened wide enough for a man to poke his head out.
"Talos is busy." The man said in Greek.
"This man is accusing Talos of stealing. Says he has proof. " Zeno grabbed Eric by the collar and jerked him forward.
"Who is he?" The man inside the door demanded.
Zeno tightened his grip on Eric's collar."What the hell is your name?"
For a second, Eric debated whether or not disclosing his real name would get him on the other side of the door, the door that he was now fully convinced stood between himself and Kendra.
"I only speak to Talos."
The thug behind Eric rammed his head into the doorjamb.
"Name, you filthy swine!"
"Englehorn." Eric gasped.
Then, with reflexes honed in hours of hand to hand combat in the treacherous trenches of France and Belgium, Eric struck out at the man behind him, catching his captor in the throat with a well-placed backward thrust of his elbow. The man fell, clutching at his throat, rasping and choking. Zeno turned around, only to be greeted by Eric ramming his forehead into the surprised Greek's face. Zeno's head snapped back against the door jam and slid bonelessly to the ground.
The Captain burst through the door, panting. His eyes raked the inside of the room and quickly assessed situation.
It was not good. He could smell blood. His gaze settled on Talos, who was standing akimbo in front of a figure, slouched in a chair. Several splotches of half-dried blood stained the floor. Eric's jaws clenched reflexively.
He looked at Talos and couldn't help staring at the ropey white scar that slashed the man's face in half.
"I am busy." Talos said in a silky voice. He stepped away from the figure in the chair.
Terror as Eric Englehorn had never known knifed through his chest. It was Kendra. She was tied, tied to the chair, blouse was ripped open, a bruised shoulder and half her blood spattered brassiere exposed. She was trembling, but by damn, her chin was lifted in defiance.
Well, that explains the blood, Eric thought. He almost laughed out loud. Almost.
Now was the most crucial part of this whole charade. Kendra had to act a part she had no idea she was playing.
Eric wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You traitorous little Jezebel!" He seethed.