My thanks to my wonderful Betas comments welcome.
John rubbed his eyes wearily. He'd been studying the map intently for more than an hour, and the words and symbols were beginning to merge. However, he was getting a feel for the area from which Rhiannon Philips had been taken. The village of San Paulo was one of several, about seventy klicks east of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where tributaries of the Bogotá River crisscrossed the plateau to form fertile valleys and where people had settled. This was the Andean part of the country. Altitude might be a problem; Bogotá was 2,625 meters above sea level. But he normally acclimatised quickly so he should be okay. He'd have to be, he thought wryly.
He frowned; where the kidnappers went after they left the village was anybody's guess. The whole area was dominated by the Cordilleras, a range of mountains that formed a part of the Andes. They could have a stronghold in one of the more remote villages higher up in the mountains, but it was equally possible that they would make for the Caribbean coast. They might possibly have headed for one of the major ports like Cartagena or Barranquilla, especially if they had drugs to get out of the country. They might have contacts in the Caribbean Islands or Central America who couldn't be kept waiting. John's eyes drifted across the map and rested on the word Bogotá and he wondered if they would they make for the capital. Sometimes it was easier to hide in a city.
The kidnappers would have to think on their feet. From what little Alex had told him, it was obvious that they had not planned to take anybody hostage. So whatever they did next had to fit in with their original plans. His biggest concern was that, having taken Rhiannon away from the village, they would decide taking her hostage was too big a risk and kill her.
He sighed again. He was going to need some inside information about the area and what drug cartels operated there. Common sense told him they would have to approach the Americans for intelligence in the area. He shivered slightly. He was apprehensive at the thought of having to work with the Americans. He had until recently been on their most wanted list.
Deciding it was time to share his thoughts with somebody, he stood and walked towards Layla's office. Her door was open and she waved him in.
"Is the Major back from Number Ten yet?" he asked, perching on the edge of her desk.
"No not yet," she replied.
John looked at the page she was reading on the internet. It was about the DEA's activity in Colombia.
"I see you're thinking like me. We are going to have to work with the Americans on this one."
"Well, it makes sense, doesn't it? They have the most inside knowledge about the Colombian drug trade."
"Yes, they do. Have you requested their help yet?
"Yes, they are sending over an agent…" Layla paused.
"Layla, what is it?" John watched as she bit her bottom lip.
"They are sending over Frank Arlington; he is their special liaison officer in London."
"And, judging by your tone, you don't like this man, do you? Have you worked with him before?"
"He is the agent we dealt with during the Gerald Baxter extraction. Collinson let him strut about like he owned the place. It was pathetic how he just acceded to every demand that Arlington made."
"So, Collinson's attitude was what has coloured your opinion of Arlington?"
"No, I'd dislike the man anyway and he…" Layla broke off.
"What aren't you telling me, Layla?"
"While you were in Afghanistan extracting Baxter, he was the agent for the United States doing deals with Zahar Sharq. John, you need to know that he is the man who ordered the American Special Forces to take out Baxter and yourself."
John nodded. "And I'm guessing he was the person who ordered Sharq to ambush Collinson and myself."
"Well, we've no proof, but yes you can bet he did. He is a calculating bastard, John."
Porter smiled wryly. "I wonder, do you think when he meets me he will want to continue our - 'special relationship' -?"
"Well, we're about to find out. He's in the reception giving Louisa a hard time."
John turned slightly and studied the man in reception. If ever a man had an air of self-importance, it was Arlington. It was obvious from the way he stood looking down his nose and gazing impatiently around the reception area that he considered himself vastly superior to anybody in MI6. He was sharply dressed, his clothing impeccably tailored and his hair expertly styled.
"He looks like an ad for some male grooming product." John ran his hand through his hair. "You know the ones I mean –'because you're worth it.'"
Layla giggled at his exaggerated American accent. "You don't use grooming products then, John?"
John's eyebrows raised in mock horror. "Me, use grooming products! I'd get laughed out of The Special Forces. Besides, the kit bag isn't equipped to carry moisturisers and hair gel. Good old fashioned soap and water is good enough for The British 'Tommy,' Layla lass." The accent went from west coast movie star American to Rochdale, England.
Layla smiled. John Porter wouldn't use and didn't need any grooming products. Her smile widened as she remembered how she'd nearly swallowed her tongue when he'd reported to Hereford following his reactivation into the service. Gone was the shaggy mane of hair; in its place was a short, sharp, no nonsense style that suited both his face and character.
"Would you care to share the secret that is making you smile, Lieutenant?" John asked.
"Nope, you're big headed enough as it is, Sergeant, without me feeding your ego."
John laughed. God, Layla was sharp.
"I'd best go and rescue Louisa from Arlington, though if I know him, he's going to be less than impressed at having to deal with me. If you go to conference room A, we'll join you there," Layla told him.
"Okay. Layla, you do realise that I have to walk through reception to get to Room A, don't you?"
"Yes, and I will be watching you every step of the way."
"Lieutenant, this thing you have for looking at my butt…" he teased.
"You fool, I want to see how Arlington reacts when you walk through reception. I am counting on Louisa asking you where Pemberton is. When she does, she will call you by your name. I've a hunch your presence is going to really piss Arlington off."
"Well, if it does, we are even, because his presence pisses me off." John grinned as he opened the door. "See you in five minutes."
Arlington was sat impatiently flicking through a magazine. John smiled; the American was obviously not happy about being kept waiting.
As Layla had predicted, Louisa spoke to him the moment he entered the reception area, saying "Sergeant Porter, do you know when Major Pemberton is expected back?"
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw recognition dawn on Arlington as he looked up to see who had entered and if they were important. John watched in silent amusement as the colour drained from the American's face.
Didn't think you'd have to meet me face to face, did you mate, John silently taunted, his face impassive.
Careful not to show any hint of recognition, John walked up to the desk and smiled at the receptionist.
"No, I haven't, but you know what these meetings at Whitehall can be like- they can drag on for hours. Lieutenant Thompson is around if there is a problem…" He turned and looked at Frank Arlington pointedly.
"Thank you, Sir." The receptionist looked worried.
"Louisa, it is Louisa isn't it?" John asked. The young receptionist nodded. "I was away on a mission when you were appointed, so you don't know, but I like my friends to call me John." He wasn't sure if the receptionist had picked up the emphasis on the word friend but he knew Arlington had.
He smiled at the receptionist before he continued to walk towards the conference room.
As promised, it was less than five minutes before Layla and Arlington entered the conference room. He heard them before he saw them because Arlington was mouthing off about wanting to be treated with a little more courtesy.
"Mr. Arlington, have a seat, please. I understand that you know Sergeant Porter?" Layla asked over Arlington's complaining.
Arlington stopped speaking abruptly and looked at Porter, who was leaning against the wall, his arms folded.
"No, I've never met Sergeant Porter."
"I didn't say you had met him, I asked if you knew him," Layla said coldly.
"Lieutenant, how would I know him if I haven't met him?" A smug smile flitted across Arlington's face.
"Well, I thought you'd remember the name of the British soldier whom you ordered assassinated by American Special Forces operatives in Afghanistan."
Arlington's lips thinned and a white outline appeared around them, an indication of how angry he was.
"Lieutenant, be careful what you accuse me of," he said coldly.
Layla tilted her head to one side and considered the man in front of her.
"Do I need to be careful when I accuse you of doing a deal with Sharq, which involved providing him with classified information in return for killing Porter and Gerald Baxter? Or perhaps it is your part in the killing of Major Collinson that I need to be careful about?"
"How dare you imply that I would order the killing of allied soldiers?" Arlington hissed, his fury barely contained.
"I wasn't implying anything, Mr. Arlington. I was accusing you, and not without proof. Let's not pretend that we don't all know what you are and what you did."
"Why, you little bitch, who the f*ck do you think you are?"
Porter moved forward, but Layla stopped him, her hand raised. She moved forward and put her own face inches from Arlington's.
"I am the officer you are going to have to deal with until Major Pemberton returns. You need to understand that means treating me and the people here with respect. Quite frankly, you give Americans a bad name, but I have to work with you. Now, we have a situation in Colombia and we would like any information you have about the drug cartels known to be operating in and around the Sabana of Bogota."
"Colombian Drug Cartels are a U.S. concern, not a British government concern. So, my advice is that you leave it to the big boys."
"The situation involves a British national, so that makes it the British government's concern. Quite frankly, what the PM will want and expect is your total co-operation in this matter. A British female aid worker has been kidnapped. No demand has been made as of yet, but we suspect that is because they have not realised that there was a witness to the kidnapping."
"So, some stupid tart gets taken hostage and we have to go in and bail her out. Jesus, don't you even give them training?"
Porter moved so quickly that neither Layla nor Arlington had time to react. Grabbing the American by his suit lapels, he pinned him against the wall. "Shut up and listen you bastard. Firstly, that 'tart' happens to be a highly experienced Oxfam aid worker; secondly she appears to have let herself be kidnapped to prevent the killing of twenty local children, and thirdly…"
"And thirdly," a voice from the door spoke quietly. "She happens to be my daughter, but even if she wasn't, she is British Citizen, not a tart. You will never call another British Citizen a tart, Mr. …"
"Arlington, Sir," Porter said helpfully.
"Mr. Arlington, do I make myself clear or do I have to speak to your superiors?"
"No, Mr. Prime Minster, Sir, you do not," Arlington said, his face crimson.
"Sergeant, I believe you can release Mr. Arlington," Major Pemberton said dryly.
Arlington shot John a look of pure loathing before he straightened his jacket and took a seat. "The woman who has been taken hostage is your daughter, Sir? I didn't realise you had an older daughter."
"No, neither did I. There were rumours a month ago, but they were denied by Rhiannon's mother. It seems she lied. It's a hell of a way to find out you have a daughter, being told she's been kidnapped."
John stood observing the Prime Minister, aware as only a father could be of the emotions that the man was dealing with. He watched as he swallowed hard, reigning in those emotions and taking back his control.
"Major Pemberton, let's get down to business shall we?" the Prime Minister said, taking a seat.
The car skidded to a standstill and, for what felt like the thousandth time, Rhiannon hit the side of the car. She moved her head and groaned softly; she had no idea whether she had been unconscious minutes or hours. Was this just a hold up on a road or had they reached their final destination, she wondered? The sound of the car doors being opened seemed to confirm that they had arrived.
Footsteps crunched on the ground. Her kidnappers were walking on gravel. Were they on a driveway? She could hear the muffled voices of men talking in Spanish. Were they talking about her? It was impossible to make out what they were saying. Perhaps they were discussing killing her. She broke out in a cold sweat; fear clasped at her heart, causing it to beat wildly, and the pounding sounded so loud to her ears that she felt certain the men outside the car must be able to hear it. She wondered whether it would be better to show how scared she was or to try and act defiantly. She wasn't sure she could act defiantly, but it would be nice to know which might work in her favour, It might make them think twice about killing her. Weeping wreck or cool customer?
Footsteps sounded on the ground, followed by the boot creaking open and warm sticky heat brushing her skin. Her breath caught in her throat and her muscles tightened. Suddenly with no warning a pair of hands grabbed her and lifted her roughly out of the car. The moment her feet touched the ground, her knees buckled as blinding pain shot through her muscles. Her hands were still tightly bound behind her back, so she fell helplessly to the floor, the sharp gravel biting into her knees.
"Stand up!" A voice commanded in Spanish and Rhiannon felt a hand shake her shoulder. When she didn't move, somebody pulled her to her feet, grabbing her tightly under her arm pit. The moment they let her go, however, and she tried to walk, she stumbled again. Her knees smarted as they smacked into the rough ground. Cursing, the man pulled her to her feet one more, but this time he did not let her go. Another man joined him and they dragged her across the gravel and up steps into a building.
"Untie her," a cultured voice commanded in Spanish.
Rhiannon felt hot tears of relief spike on her lashes as the bindings at her hands and feet were released, followed by the gag and finally the blindfold. The light, although dim in the hall, still seemed intense after being in darkness for hours. She blinked rapidly several times as her vision returned to normal and the room came into focus. You couldn't call it a room, really; it was a grand entrance hall, palatial almost, with floor to ceiling marble pillars and an immense sweeping staircase.
"Senorita Phillips welcome to Casa de Marguerita." The man looked as cultured as he sounded. Cultured, and with expensive tastes if his clothing was anything to go by. Rhiannon knew enough about fashion to recognise designer clothing when she saw it. He was probably in his late forties, but his hair was still thick and dark with just enough grey to make him look distinguished. He reached out and took her hand in his and raised it slowly to his lips. His touch made her skin crawl and nausea washed over her. She resisted the urge to pull it away; it was probably wise not to antagonise this man. It frightened her to realise that, had she not known what this man was, she'd have thought him charming and handsome. Looks were deceptive and it would be easy to be fooled by this man.
"I am Sebastian Cortez."
She stood silently, wondering what one did in a situation such as this. Did you shake hands, answer, smile, or break down? Oxfam didn't provide handy tips for kidnap victims.
She flinched slightly as Cortez reached over and touched her temple where a bruise was developing around the cut.
"Did one of my men do this?"
"No, it happened when I was in the boot of the car. I hit my head as we went round a sharp bend in the road." Rhiannon's voice was little more than a whisper.
He turned to face the men.
"Who put her in the boot of the car?" he asked in Spanish, his voice cold and devoid of emotion.
"Carlos said we should in case we were seen."
Cortez nodded, his gaze moving to the other man. "Imbecile, Miss Phillips is guest and now, thanks to you, she thinks I am a thug." As soon as he saw Cortes' hand move inside his jacket, the man Carlos began to run. But escape was futile. Cortes had drawn his weapon and shot Carlos before he hadtaken five paces.
She tried not to scream, but it was as futile as the man's running had been.
"Shush, my dear. I am sorry you had to witness that, but it was necessary. You are trembling, senorita. Alberto, take Miss Phillips to her room." He glanced at the other man before continuing "There is a bath there. Why don't you freshen up and sleep before joining me for dinner. Shall we say eight p.m.?"
She wanted to laugh. it was so ludicrous, it sounded as if he were inviting her on a date.
He took her silence for agreement. "Good, until tonight then, senorita." He kissed her hand once more before turning away.
Pemberton waited until Arlington and Layla had left the room. "Porter, can you work with the Americans?" Pemberton looked at the man opposite him.
"Yes Sir, I can."
"I have to question that, Sergeant. You had Arlington pinned to the wall."
"Arlington is a pri… I mean, a special case. He ordered his men to kill me."
"Well, that might cause problems, then," Pemberton replied.
"No, Sir, it won't. I can work with anyone as long as that person doesn't try to kill me. Then… well, it's every man for himself. To be honest, Sir, until the last mission, I got on well with the Americans I worked with. I don't think it will be a problem."
Pemberton nodded. "And what about Alex? She will leave Colombia as you arrive. How are you with that?"
"It is fine. Alex kind of gave me permission to rescue Miss Phillips."
"Who is Alex?" Simon Clarendon spoke for the first time since Frank Arlington had left.
"Alex Porter is the young aid worker who was with Miss Phillips when she was abducted," Major Pemberton explained.
"And Alex Porter is?" The Prime Minister looked at the SAS Sergeant.
"My daughter Sir. By some quirk of fate, she happened to be working there. She is our eyewitness, but more than that she was friends with your…"
"My daughter. You can say it, Sergeant Porter. How is it possible to feel all this wonder, love, anger, and pain over a person I don't even know?"
"I suppose, Sir, it is like when your child is placed in your arms for the first time. You are given this tiny stranger and in the space of a heartbeat, your life is never the same. The world and your place in it suddenly make perfect sense. You're a father and the fact that she is twenty-eight years old doesn't change that," John said quietly, thinking about his own daughter.
"I'm just so scared that I will never know her, never speak to her or touch her."
"Sir, there is a good chance we will find her. Porter is a …"
"Major Pemberton, exactly what experience has Sergeant Porter had in situations like this? No offense, Sergeant, you understand this is my daughter we are talking about."
"That's alright, none taken, Sir." Porter smiled, wondering what Pemberton was going to tell the PM.
"Sergeant Porter is a very experienced Special Forces Operative. His role in Section Twenty has meant in many cases he acted alone. You remember the Katie Dartmouth kidnapping?"
Simon Clarendon nodded.
"Well, Porter is the operative who rescued her." Pemberton said without elaborating.
"Okay, right, well that's good." Clarendon suddenly seemed at a loss for words.
"Sir, I can't promise I will get her back, but I can promise I will do my best." John said.
"Thank you, Sergeant Porter. I best get back to my wife. As you can imagine, this has been a terrible shock for her. And Rhiannon's mother will be arriving shortly and I should be there when she does. Not a situation I ever imagined I would be facing, my wife and my childhood girlfriend together in the same room. My weekly meeting with the Queen is less scary." His smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
"I will speak to you tomorrow, Sir," Pemberton said as he opened the door.
Layla entered the conference room almost as soon as the Prime Minister left.
"Is Arlington on his way back to Grosvenor Square?" Pemberton asked as she shut the door.
"Yes, Sir, he is going to alert a DEA contact in Bogotá named Sam Henderson. Our flight is booked for midnight and he will meet us at Eldorado airport."
"When will Alex be got out of the country?" John asked.
"She is leaving at 7 p.m. tonight. I have arranged for her to go to my parents' house. I hope that is alright, John? I didn't think she should be alone."
"It is fine. Thank you, Layla, that's very good of you and your parents."
"You're welcome. Here are your ticket and passport. You are James Kendal, a British teacher on holiday."
"Really, is that all? Not an arms dealer or drug lord?"
"That will change once we are in Bogotá. Arlington thinks the DEA will know who has snatched Miss Phillips before we take off. We can make more definite plans on the flight."
"Who are you going to be, Layla? My wife or my girlfriend?" he asked cheekily
"Ego again! Sergeant, you can wish, but I'm Sarah Chambers, a fellow teacher. That's all."
He sighed dramatically. "Oh, well, you're the boss. I guess this means we are off to Colombia. How is your Spanish, Layla?"