I trust you have good news for me,” said Hassan.
Nessim, even though talking to a phone, closed his eyes as if in prayer. “We’ve had a setback, sir.”
“Someone else got to him first.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor do we, sir. He went into a hotel. He came out again. He walked around to the back and down an alley. Another man followed him. We thought nothing of it until a black car pulled up and he was bundled into the back.”
“You mean you just let them take him away?”
“We were across the street. There was a tram.”
“A tram?” asked Hassan icily.
“Where did they go?”
“We don’t know, sir. Like I say, there was a tram. We couldn’t get past.” The damned thing had just sat there as he tooted at it, the fat driver smirking at them, enjoying their frustration.
“Who was it? Who took him?”
“We don’t know, sir. We’re working on it now. If we’re lucky, it’s someone who heard what he did to you and thinks they can sell him to us at a price.”
“And if we’re not?”
“According to his file, he has plenty of enemies. Maybe one of them spotted him.”
Silence. One beat. Two beats. Three. “I want him found,” said Hassan. “I want him found as a matter of urgency. Do I make myself clear?”
Nessim swallowed. “Yes, sir. Crystal clear.”
Knox felt incomparably older as he trudged north, following tire tracks in the sand. When the rope had paid out and stretched taut, he knew he was going to die. It was a qualitatively different thing, knowing you were going to die as opposed to fearing you might die. It did strange things to your heart. It made you think differently about time, the world, and your place in it.
Apparently the rope had been cut clean through, then fixed back together again with duct tape. The tape had ripped free as soon as the rope went taut, so that the two sections of rope had pulled apart, and Knox had flopped down on the sand, his bladder venting, his heart bucking like a terrified steer, bewildered by his reprieve. The driver had come around in a great loop over the sand to collect his comrades, who had been squatting there all the time, filming his reaction, the way he pissed himself. They had all laughed uproariously at that, as though it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. One of them had thrown an envelope out the window, and then they drove off, leaving him tied there to the stake, his trousers soaked, his throat raw with burns from the rope.
It had taken him two hours to free himself from his various bonds. He was shivering by then, full-body tremors. Desert nights were cold. He had dried his trousers as best he could by smearing them with handfuls of dusty sand, then gone over to the envelope. Plain white. No writing on it. When he had opened it, some sand fell out. Ballast to stop it blowing away. Apart from that, it contained only an Egypt Air compliments slip with four words on it: “You have been warned.”
He climbed a small rise. Far ahead, the pinpricks of headlights were headed in both directions on a busy road. He walked at a slow, tired, dispirited pace. It was easy enough to be bold when you faced abstract dangers, but it was different now that they clearly knew where he was. And he had others to think of, too, particularly Augustin and Gaille. He couldn’t risk putting them in danger.
It was time to get out.
Nicolas Dragoumis was an early riser by temperament, but this morning he awoke earlier than usual, eager as a child at Christmas. He went straight to his laptop to check his e-mail. There was one from Gabbar Mounim, as promised. He downloaded and decrypted the movie file attachment impatiently while he read the message, nodding approvingly as he did so. His father had always insisted that Knox wasn’t to be harmed, and Mounim made it clear that his men hadn’t harmed Knox, not in any real sense. A little chloroform, a tap on the skull, a jolt to his system. That couldn’t count as harm. On the contrary, it would make him appreciate life all the more.
Nicolas played the movie for the first time: Knox abducted; Knox lying unconscious on the floor of the car; Knox dragged onto the desert sands; the look of terror on his face as the car accelerated away! Nicolas was exultant. To think that this wretch had once caused him and his father such grief! And now look at him! Pissing himself like an eight-year-old. He played it again, then a third time, his back soothing with every frame. A good night’s work. A very good night’s work indeed. Because, unless Nicolas wasn’t the judge of character he knew himself to be, that would be the last he ever saw of Knox.
It was growing light when Knox finally reached the coast road, but the traffic was still thin. He ran across, then over a bank of dunes and down the beach to the Mediterranean. He peeled off his trousers and boxer shorts, washing them in the lapping waves, wringing them out as best he could. He draped them over his shoulder and walked along the beach, his feet caking pleasantly with the chill, thick sand.
The sun rose orange, laying a fiery comet on the foamy backwash of a wave. He reached a walled compound of holiday homes, a gate swinging on the breeze. It looked deserted. These estates came alive only on weekends and holidays. Many of the homes had clotheslines outside, several draped with swimming costumes, towels, and clothes. He went in, wandered among them until he spotted an old cream djellaba and headdress, faintly damp, perhaps because of the early hour and the nearness of the Mediterranean. He left his trousers in part exchange, along with as much cash as he could afford. Then he took them and fled before he was spotted.
It was all very well for those men to warn him to get out. But he needed his bank cards, passport, and papers, all of which he’d left at Augustin’s. Most of all, he needed his Jeep. It took him an hour thumbing before a three-wheeler stopped to offer him a ride. The driver addressed him in gruff Arabic, so Knox replied in kind without even thinking, his mind elsewhere. They talked of soccer; the man was a passionate Ittihad fan. It was only after Knox had got out that he realized he’d been mistaken for an Egyptian. His Bedouin clothes and genes, no doubt, plus his deep tan and a day’s worth of stubble.
He was almost out of money, so he took buses to Augustin’s apartment block, walking the last kilometer. He was on alert as he made his way through the parking lot, or he wouldn’t have spotted the two men in the white Freelander, one smoking a hand-roll, the other hidden in the shadows. He went closer. Through its rear window, he saw a familiar red overnight bag, a black laptop case, and a cardboard box packed with his own belongings from his Sinai hotel room. He spun on his heel and hurried away, but he hadn’t gone far before he realized that there was no real point in fleeing. If Hassan had wanted him captive or dead, he wouldn’t have let him go last night. These men were surely here to make sure he really did leave.
He turned again and walked boldly over to the front steps, his back to the Freelander, trusting his Egyptian robes to act like a cloak of invisibility. A janitor was mopping the red terra-cotta tiles. Knox stepped around the wet patch and risked a glance as he waited for the elevator. The men were still sitting in the Freelander. He took the elevator up to the seventh floor, walked down a flight, crouching below window level to let himself in. There was no sign of Augustin. He had evidently been playing away. Knox packed his belongings, then wrote a brief note thanking Augustin for his hospitality, letting him know he’d hit the road, promising to call in due course. He was just finishing up when he heard footsteps outside, then a key scraping in the lock. He watched in frozen horror as the handle turned and the door opened and Nessim came in with a translucent bag of electronic equipment in his left hand.