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Sanctuary

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Sanctuary

There had been some dark days since Doctor Abby Griffin had arrived in the East African Republic, but this had rapidly become the worst so far. Her fourth gunshot victim of the day was lying on her operating table with a bullet wound to the abdomen and even though she’d stemmed the bleeding from that with gauze the monitor showed he was tachycardic and had lapsed into hypovolemic shock. He must be bleeding internally. She was worried she was going to lose him like she had number one and number three.

“I’ll have to do a laparotomy to find the source of the bleeding,” she said to her assistant, Doctor Eric Jackson. She made the incision in the young man’s abdomen and it was immediately obvious the bullet had caused a lot of damage. Blood filled the cavity and Jackson suctioned it while Abby tried to find the source, or sources more like. There was so much blood it was difficult to see, and she grabbed gauze from her table to stuff into the area, but it was soon stained red.

“We need more blood and gauze,” she said to Jackson, taking over the suctioning while he went to fetch the supplies. Back in Chicago she’d had equipment that would cauterise the blood vessels and stop the bleeding but there was nothing like that here, and the supply system was a nightmare. It was back to basics in every way.

She glanced at the monitor. Systolic pressure was dropping. If she couldn’t stop the bleeding and get more blood into him she was going to lose him. Where the hell was Jackson?

“Jackson!” she yelled, turning around to look for her assistant.

“I’m here,” he said, appearing at her side, his large brown eyes sad and helpless. He was holding a single bag of blood.

“Where’s the rest of the blood, and the gauze?” said Abby.

“There isn’t any more.”

“What? What do you mean there isn’t any more? Find some!”

“I’ve looked. There isn’t any.” Jackson pulled on his lower lip as he looked at her.

“There must be! You can’t have looked properly!”

“I did, Abby,” he said in his soft voice which never seemed to change no matter how much stress he was under, unlike Abby who let it all out. “We used a lot today; I guess we didn’t realise how much.”

“What about the backup refrigerator? Did you look there?”

“Of course I did.”

Part of her knew he was right and that he’d looked because he would turn over any stone to help, but another part of her couldn’t give up without checking herself. “Let me see. Keep suctioning and try not to use the gauze unless you have to; that’s all we have.”

“You won’t find any blood, Abby,” said Jackson as Abby marched to the large refrigerator at the back of the room and looked in there just in case. It was clearly empty. She went through to the second room where a backup refrigerator was located. There was nothing in there either. She rummaged through the meagre supplies in the vain hope something was lying beneath something else, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be enough.

“Fuck!” she cried, and a patient lying on a gurney turned soulful brown eyes on her. “Sorry,” she said more softly. “Samahani”.

She pulled open cupboards and drawers frantically searching for something that could stem the bleeding enough for her to be able to operate and found only a bag of cotton wool. That would have to do.

She hurried back to the main operating theatre, if you could call the makeshift room with its mud walls and straw floor a theatre. Jackson was packing the last of the gauze into the man’s abdomen, but as Abby approached, the monitor let out its familiar whine and the waves flattened into a line.

Jackson immediately moved to the man’s chest to start compressions.

“Stop,” Abby said, putting her hand on Jackson’s arm. “There’s no point. He’s lost too much blood and there’s nothing to replace it. We can’t save him.”

“I’m sorry, Abby,” said Jackson.

Abby gave a deep sigh. It wasn’t as though she wasn’t used to this by now, but each death pained her, and the lack of supplies and equipment frustrated her. For want of a few bags of blood, or clean gauze, or sterile equipment, dozens of people were dying.

“It’s not your fault. It’s been weeks since we had a shipment of supplies. We can’t go on like this.”

“What else can you do, Abby if they won’t respond to your messages?”

“I’m going to see Ambassador Kane later and I’m not leaving there until he agrees to do something. I don’t care what it takes.”

“He’s been useless so far.”

“I know, but that stops tonight.” She unhooked the monitor and moved it away from the bed. “In the meantime, we need to organise a blood drive.”

“I’ll do it,” said Jackson.

“Thank you, and see what you can rustle up in terms of cloth or anything that can be used as padding.”

Jackson left, and Abby stood looking at the young man who’d died on her table. “I’m sorry,” she said, stroking his arm. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.” She pulled the swabs from his body, put them in the bin. She sewed up the incision she’d made in his abdomen and used a small amount of precious water to clean the blood and dirt off his body before wrapping him in an old cloth, which she really couldn’t spare, but still. She didn’t know who this young man was, or whether anyone would claim him, but the least she could do was give him some dignity while he was in her care. What happened when he left the field hospital she had no control over. He’d probably end up in a mass grave like the countless others she’d lost to this rebellion.

She’d known when she’d joined Global Doctors that it would be harder than anything she’d experienced as a doctor in Chicago, but nothing had prepared her for the conditions here in the East African Republic. They were on the frontline in every way, treating the wounded in the rebellion, burying the dead, constantly losing what few supplies got through to thieves and mercenaries, comforting the grieving, arguing with the officials from both the local government, the UN, and the US government who were trying to contain the chaos in this former colony.

She pulled off her blue operating gown and hat with a sigh, put them in a laundry basket. There was supposed to be a local woman to wash and sterilise the clothes but she only appeared if she wasn’t consumed with her family issues, and most of the time Abby took them back to her camp and attempted to boil them over the campfire. She’d do that tonight, once she’d been to see that asshole Marcus Kane, so-called United States Ambassador, although what he was here in east Africa for she couldn’t say. He was worse than useless and only seemed to care about the American businessmen who were bleeding this country dry.

In the third room of the field hospital, the one that served as a ward, Malia, a young nurse from Nigeria, was checking on the few patients they had, including the second gunshot victim of the day whom Abby had managed to save.

“How’s he doing?” she said as Malia detailed his stats on a form.

“Stable, and looking good,” she said, turning a wide toothy smile on Abby.

“Good. I’m heading into Edenville tonight, so I’ll be out of range for two or three hours, but Jackson is on call.”

“We’ll be fine. Are you doing anything nice in town? Meeting someone?” she said looking at Abby slyly.

“I am meeting someone, but I doubt it will be nice. I’ll see you tomorrow all being well.”

Abby stepped outside and the heat hit her. They were at the end of the rainy season and the humidity was hell. She pulled on the front of her blue vest, wafted it as though that would help at all. The only thing that swept over her was warm air. Sweat beaded on her brow and started to slide down her face. She wiped it away, but it was soon replaced by more beads that coalesced and formed a rivulet of salty water. She’d have to change before she went to see Kane. He always looked immaculate, somehow immune to the stifling heat.

She walked along the dusty path towards the row of tents that formed the rest of the aid compound. Outside the gates a shanty town had grown up on the edge of the disputed territory. To the north lay the Tonshasa National Park with its lions and elephants and understaffed Ranger Service. Forty miles to the south was Edenville, the administrative centre of the East African Republic. Such a short distance in American terms, but a world away from Abby’s life in Tonshasa. Edenville was a coastal town, with whitewashed colonial houses built by the British and adapted by the Americans, and treelined streets, flower beds, municipal services.

Abby walked along the rows until she came to her own tent which was at the far end of the compound with only a chain link fence between her and miles and miles of savanna. She lifted the flap, went inside. There were no locks here because there was nothing to steal. She had her laptop and her cell phone, but she always carried them with her. The only other things she owned were her few items of clothing and her medical textbooks, which no one would want to have.

She stripped and washed in cold water still left from the morning, brushed her hair, and tied it into a ponytail. Then she found a pair of grey jeans that were relatively clean and added the only white blouse she owned that had survived the heat and the moths. She looked at herself in the sliver of glass that served as her mirror. She would never match up to Ambassador Kane in terms of cleanliness, but she thought she’d do.

She picked up her backpack, walked outside to her rusted heap of a Land Rover and flung the pack on the back seat. She got in the driver’s side, crunched the gears into first, and bounced down the rutted track to the entrance. Once through the gate she turned south and headed to Edenville, and that useless bastard Kane. She was ready for him this time; wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

---

Marcus Kane stood at the window in his office on the second floor of the United States Embassy, staring down at the street below. From here, Edenville looked clean and neat and ordered, and when he’d first found out about his posting to the East African Republic’s capital city a year ago that’s how it had seemed in the pictures he’d been shown. He’d thought it would suit him, because he was clean and neat and ordered himself, and liked everything around him to be the same.

It wasn’t until you got up close that the truth was revealed. The white walls of the buildings were dirty and stained, the paint peeling, the brick crumbling and adding to the endless dust. There was no escaping the stuff. Sand, mainly, and dirt. It got everywhere, sticking to every surface, invading every crevice until he shed it when he undressed, like skin, clouds of it landing on the floor, encircling him, its sharp edges gritting his bare feet as he headed for his second or third or fourth shower of the day.

For all its faults, the administrative centre of the town was the nicest part. Once you got away from it the streets grew narrow and rutted, the housing dilapidated, the poverty pervasive. He’d had no choice in coming here, and no time to prepare. One minute he’d been enjoying the delights of Paris, the next he’d been on the plane east with little more than his suitcase. It had taken six months to get the rest of his belongings sent across, and by then he’d wanted to send them back and go with them, tucked into the baggage hold, a stow away from his own life.

“This is the perfect place for a man of your talents, Kane,” the US Secretary of State had said when he’d ambushed him in the dining room of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “Major conflicts there affecting American interests. Needs someone with your negotiating skills. Proper feather in your cap if you can sort it out. The President has his eye on the region.”

He'd believed him too, or at least he’d wanted to, until about five minutes after he’d arrived and he’d read the note left by his predecessor, expressing his joy at being freed from his prison and his commiserations for Kane. He knew then it was a punishment mission, meted out to him because of what he’d done in Paris, and who he’d done it to. Looking back, it seemed ridiculous he hadn’t realised straight away, but it had all happened so fast, and had been made to seem like an opportunity, or maybe there’d been an element of denial, if he were honest with himself.

He watched the tide roll in, bringing with it more sand, and sighed. Nothing to be done but to make the best of it, which he was trying every day to do, not always successfully.

There was a knock on the door, and it creaked open. He turned to see who had entered. It was his secretary, Gaia.

“What is it?” he said.

“Your three o’clock is here, Sir.”

Kane looked at his watch, surprised it was that time already. Where had the day gone? He didn’t feel like he’d achieved anything of note.

“Fine, send him in.”

“Yes, Sir, and don’t forget you’re meeting Doctor Griffin later. She’ll be here between six and seven.”

God, he’d forgotten he was meeting her. “Can’t she be more specific about what time she’s coming? I can’t sit around waiting for her.”

Gaia shrugged. “I guess her line of work is unpredictable.”

Kane dismissed her with a wave of his hand then walked over to his large oak desk and sat in his creaky old chair with its faded green upholstery that had seen better days like everything here. He undid the buttons on his blue jacket, adjusted the cuffs of his grey striped shirt so they showed evenly. Abby goddamned Griffin. She was the last thing he needed today. Infuriating woman, wanted everything on her terms, as evidenced by her casual attitude to timekeeping. Did she think he had nothing better to do than hang around waiting for her? She was only coming to beg things from him he couldn’t give her. She could have saved them both the time and trouble and just called him.

The good doctor wasn’t the only problem person in his life, however. Charles Pike, the man he was about to meet, was an American businessman who’d been in Edenville for at least as long as Kane, making his fortune off the backs of the local people. Pike was short and squat, and he had that short man syndrome where he asserted himself to the point of being overbearing. What was it called? Napoleon Complex? Yes, that was it. He was dark-skinned, bearing the same earthy hue as the local people. His ancestors originated here as he’d told Kane one night over a few too many drinks, economic migrants to the United States two generations before Pike was born. Said he’d returned to boost the economy of the land of his fathers, but Kane hadn’t seen much evidence of that in the short time he’d known him. He was draining them if anything.

Kane’s family were Europeans, Scottish people cleared from their lands in the eighteenth century to make way for sheep which were more economical and enriched the landowners more than the poor people cast out. How far man had fallen, worth less than a beast of the earth he was supposed to reign over, if you believed the bible guff. It was the same here, the people valued as muscle and sinew, strength and tenacity, and when those assets were gone, when they were soft and broken, exhausted and old before their time they were cast aside.

Kane’s unwanted ancestors had settled in New York, prospered, and moved to Washington where Kane was born forty years ago. They were McCain’s originally, but his grandfather had changed the name; Kane didn’t know why.

Humans were in constant flux, restless, migrating, searching for a better life, the perfect life. Such a thing didn’t exist as far as Kane was concerned. There was only the endless striving.

“Charles Pike, Sir,” said Gaia, showing the man in and then leaving, closing the door behind her.

“Mr Ambassador,” said Pike with a slight nod.

Kane didn’t bother to stand; he gestured to the chair opposite him. “Please take a seat, Charles,” he said. He sat back in his chair, put his hands together on the table and contemplated the man. He was wearing a combat vest over his shirt and tie as usual, as though he fought in a war zone instead of working in one. He was sitting ramrod straight, trying to look dominant, but the incessant stroking of his black goatee gave him away, Kane thought. He had insecurities, probably more than just his height. Kane was tall, six feet give or take a millimetre or two. He didn’t need to use that to assert his authority, though. As United States Ambassador he WAS the authority. “How’s the wife?”

“Oh, fine, you know.”

Kane nodded as though he knew or cared what his wife felt or did or was. “And the children?”

“Kaden has finally got over his flu and gone back to school. Been under my feet for too long.”

“Ah. Good. So, what can I do for you today?”

“The same thing you did for me last time, or rather didn’t do.” Pike’s tone was one of exasperation and disappointment, as though Kane was one of his children who had failed to clean his room when asked. He searched his mind for what had been the last in a long line of requests from the businessman. Oh, that thing with the Republic’s Minister for Transport.

“Have you not heard from Miller yet?”

“No, otherwise I wouldn’t need to be here.”

“Well, I spoke to him and he said he would be in touch. It’s only been, what, three weeks or so?”

“It’s been a month,” said Pike. “I can’t afford a delay like this.”

“I’m sure he’ll call you when he can.”

“That’s not good enough. I need you to get me in to see him. A phone call isn’t going to cut it now. I’ve got product waiting to be moved and that goddamn bridge is still unusable. He needs to fix it. I’d get my guys to make the repairs but every time we go near it, his men stop us. I’m starting to think there’s more to it than a so-called supply issue.”

“I can’t make them move any faster,” Kane said, twirling one of his silver cufflinks. They’d been a gift, and even though the memories they brought tortured him at times, they were also comforting. He often found himself fiddling with them when he was under stress. Like Pike with his beard, he supposed. He stopped playing with the cufflink, pulled his jacket sleeves down over his cuffs to reduce the temptation. It wouldn’t do to let Pike see his discomfort.

“I’m not convinced you’ve tried very hard,” said Pike, his frown heavy, his eyes narrow and accusatory. “Are you the Minister’s man?”

Kane banged his fist on the table in annoyance at Pike’s suggestion. “That’s enough of that! I’m not to be bought by anybody as you well know. You’ve tried often enough.” He pushed back his chair with a scrape and a loud creak. He’d had enough of this idiot. “I’ll speak to Miller again, impress the urgency of the situation upon him.”

Pike stood, and Kane moved around to his side of the desk, stood in front of him, using his height now to show his dominance, because the man had affronted him, and he was simmering with anger. He did more than he should for the likes of Pike, and this was how he was repaid. Accused of being corrupt, taking bribes. It was taking every ounce of his self-control to remain relatively calm.

“There’s an event, isn’t there, this weekend? Some government function,” said Pike, undeterred.

“It’s the Republic’s anniversary celebration, yes. What of it?”

“Get me into the event and I’ll speak to him myself. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”

Kane stared at Pike and he stared back. He wasn’t going to back down, and Kane didn’t have the energy or the will for a fight. “Fine. Gaia will sort out an invitation with your secretary.”

Pike nodded. “I guess I’ll see you there.” He opened the door and left, leaving Kane fuming in his wake. He hadn’t even said thanks, the arrogant low-life bastard!

He slammed the door shut behind Pike, returned to his desk and slumped into his chair. He couldn’t stomach people like him, who thought everyone was as morally bankrupt and corrupt as they were. This place was full of them, from the Republic’s top officials to the American citizens he was here to protect, to the government he was here to represent. All here for one thing, to exploit this country and its resources and do it for as little cost as possible.

He held his head in his hands. He’d committed a lot of sins in his life, but nothing that warranted this punishment surely. It was a heavy price to pay for pissing off the wrong person. He could have killed someone and got off more lightly. He might yet, Pike being first in line.

He buzzed Gaia. “Tea,” he said when she answered. “And can you call Doctor Griffin, tell her I can’t see her today.”

He took out his blue fountain pen, the one he’d had since he graduated cum laude from Yale too many years ago to remember and opened a file of papers that needed his signature.

“Doctor Griffin isn’t answering her cell,” said Gaia when she brought him his tea.

“Keep trying,” Kane said.

Chapter Text

The closer Abby got to the capital the better the road became. The animals and people meandering along the rutted, compacted dirt became fewer, the potholes smaller, the bumps less likely to make the Land Rover launch into the air like a daredevil trying to jump a row of buses. Right on the outskirts there was asphalt, and a relative silence descended as the tyres rolled smoothly over its surface. She was able to steer with one hand, so she rested her other arm on the windowsill, felt a welcoming coolness as the breeze evaporated the sweat from her blouse. There was nothing she could do about the other sleeve though. She’d have to keep that one by her side when she spoke to Kane. He never seemed to sweat, but then robots didn’t, did they?

She entered Edenville from the north, headed towards the coast and drove along the front for no reason other than it was beautiful and she loved the smell of the sea air. It reminded her of vacations they’d taken in Maine when she was a kid, driven across country by her father each Fall to see the foliage displays at Bar Harbor. He’d been dead twenty years now, all her adult life, and she’d never been back to Maine. The smell of the sea here was different, warmer, saltier, but the emotions it invoked were the same.

She found a parking spot across the road from the Embassy for which she was grateful. The less she had to walk, the better chance she had of staying cool. She didn’t care what Kane thought about how she looked, but she wanted him to take her seriously, and standing in front of him constantly wiping sweat from her brow, her blouse sticking to her while he remained cool and composed didn’t help her cause. He’d looked at her with distaste on more than one occasion.

She waited at the entrance while her credentials were checked, then was escorted into the old building, following a young man up a sweeping staircase with dark wooden handrails and polished finials. The red and gold carpet was threadbare in places, held in place by tarnished gold stair rods. She thought of old British novels like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice whenever she came here because the Embassy was nothing more than an old house really, built by British people who hankered after the homeland and built their new home in direct homage to their old one. Somehow, it had survived its American invasion, the only sign of its latest occupants the ubiquitous picture of the President that was in every government property anywhere in the world.

Kane’s office was on the second floor, and his secretary, Gaia, sat outside his door at her neat desk like a guard dog. She smiled warmly at Abby.

“I’ve been trying to call you,” she said.

“Have you?” Abby took her phone out of her pocket, looked at it. The battery was dead. She needed a new phone but hadn’t found the time to get one. “It’s dead, sorry. What did you want?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “Can I get you a drink?”

“A water would be great.” Abby followed her to the cooler where Gaia pumped water into a plastic cup. “Has he tried to put off seeing me?”

“His Excellency is always happy to see you,” said Gaia, using Kane’s official designation, as though that would impress Abby.

“No, he’s not. He wouldn’t see me at all if you didn’t press my case.”

“He’s had a stressful day that’s all. He’s not in the best of moods.” She handed Abby her cup and Abby took a sip, the chill water slipping easily down her throat and out to her extremities, cooling her.

“He’s never in a good mood.”

Gaia shrugged. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Abby stood next to Gaia’s desk while the girl went into Kane’s office. She emerged a moment later. “He’ll see you now.”

“Thank you,” replied Abby.

Gaia held the door open for her and she went inside. Kane was standing by the window looking down at the street. He didn’t turn immediately, and Abby studied his profile, his long imperious nose, his thin lips and strong chin. His dark brown hair was perfectly coiffed as usual, not a strand out of place. It was shorter than last time she’d seen him a couple of months ago, recently cut, gelled or hair sprayed to within an inch of its life. How it didn’t wilt in this heat she didn’t know. He was wearing a three-piece suit as usual, the jacket a flecked blue the colour of a late summer sky, the waistcoat white, his shirt grey-striped and buttoned up, his blue tie knotted perfectly and held in place with a silver tie-clip. One hand was tucked into his pocket. All he needed was a silver-topped cane and he’d be a Victorian dandy. He fitted in here, in this fussy old house.

Abby looked down at her grey jeans that had dark streaks along the thighs where she’d wiped dirty hands on them. She brushed them with the same hands as though that would clean either jeans or hands. It did neither, only smudged the dirt even more.

Kane turned from the window, his cool gaze landing on her, his brown eyes swooping over her, taking everything in. Abby stiffened, felt her muscles contract ready to defend herself.

“What can I do for you, Doctor Griffin?” he said in his clipped nowhere American accent, the words sliding out on a sigh.

“I’d like to talk to you about the medical supplies the Government is still blocking.”

He closed his eyes briefly, then gestured to two wingback chairs either side of an old disused fireplace. “Please take a seat; I won’t be a moment.”

He walked towards his desk and Abby sat in the right-hand chair which was upholstered in a faded red velvet. Her butt cheeks sank into the seat, trapping her, and she was struggling to sit upright when Kane returned.

“Are you alright?” he said as he put a decanter and two glasses on a side table and sat in the other chair, which was a dark brown leather, and which supported his slim frame perfectly; of course it did.

“Yes. The chair tried to claim me, but I fought it off,” Abby replied. She could have sworn his lips twitched, but the rest of his body remained unmoved, so maybe she’d imagined it.

He pulled the stopper out of the decanter, poured a large helping of an amber liquid into one of the glasses, then held the bottle towards her. “Would you like one?”

“What is it?”

“Whisky. Scotch.”

This had never happened before in any of her meetings with him. She was lucky to get more than a couple of sentences out of him usually, and they mostly consisted of the word no.

“Erm, yes. Thank you, but just a small one. I have to drive back.”

Kane poured her a shot then handed her the glass. Abby took a sip, the liquid having the opposite effect to the water she’d drunk earlier, warming her veins, bringing a flush to her skin. Kane took a large sip of his drink. He must have had a really bad day.

“Are you okay?” she said, feeling as though she should offer some form of interest in his wellbeing seeing as he’d asked after her when she was stuck in the chair, and he was being hospitable for once.

“I’m tired,” he said, and then he sighed. “You want to talk about the medical supplies.”

Abby felt bad now for disturbing him, and then she wondered if that was the point, if he was trying to disarm her so she wouldn’t pester him too much. That was probably why he’d given her the whisky, to dull her senses. She put the glass on the table.

“I appreciate you seeing me.”

Kane nodded, took another sip of his whisky. “I don’t know what I can say that I haven’t said before.”

“It’s about what you can do, not what you can say. I need drugs, equipment. We ran out of blood today and a young man lost his life on my operating table. I could have saved him, would have, if I’d had blood and swabs. I don’t ask for much. I know I’m not going to get a full-blown operating theatre, but I don’t even have the most basic things.”

“Those things are down to your organisation to provide. I can’t magic them from thin air.”

“I know that! You don’t need to magic them from anywhere. They’re here, in the Republic, in Edenville probably. The Government is holding them hostage because they think I’m helping the rebels.”

“You ARE helping the rebels.”

Abby sat forward so she could glare all the harder at Kane. “Our remit is to help anyone regardless of political affiliation. You know that.”

“And you know that I can’t be seen helping someone who’s helping the rebels. My job is to represent the United States of America and to uphold its foreign policy regarding the East African Republic. If the Government here think I’m supporting the rebel forces it could start a war!”

“I’m not asking you to go to war! I simply want you to talk to the Government, to convince them to let the supplies through. It’s not just the rebels we treat, it’s all victims of the war.”

“There’s nothing simple about your request. I can’t just march into the office of the President or the Minister for War and demand they do what a doctor who has no authority here whatsoever wants.”

“You can negotiate, use your diplomatic skills. That’s what you do, isn’t it? That’s your job.”

“As I’ve already said, my job is to represent the interests of the United States, not Global Doctors.”

“I’m a citizen of the United States, and your job is to represent my interests.”

Kane sighed so long and heavily Abby was worried he might deflate like a balloon having the air squeezed out of it. He seemed small suddenly, contained within the chair, its wings enfolding him, crushing him. Abby felt sorry for him, but only for a moment. He was well paid for this gig, and he could damn well do what he was here to do.

“You don’t understand what you’re asking,” he said.

“I understand perfectly. You just don’t want to help me. You’re too concerned with proper channels and staying in your lane.”

“Do you know who you’re talking to?” he said, an edge to his voice.

“I’m talking to the only person here who can do something, anything, to help me, but he refuses.”

“I’m the United States Ambassador to this god-forsaken country. I’m the President’s representative. I report to him. There’s only one other person between me and him. That’s who you’re talking to.”

“And that makes you more important, does it?”

“Yes!” replied Kane, exasperation in his voice. Abby was pleased to hear it, because it meant she was wearing him down.

“Then I would think someone that important might be able to make an actual difference.”

“I can’t intervene on your behalf. I don’t know how many times I can say this to you.”

“Then don’t, just get me an introduction to someone I can talk to.”

“Like who?” He ran his hand through his hair, causing the strands to loosen and flop down into his eyes. He pushed them away.

“The Minister for War.”

“You’ve got no chance.”

“The Minister for Transport, then. He’s the one holding up my supplies, blockading routes.”

Kane swiped the back of a long finger over one of his eyes. He did look tired; maybe the drink hadn’t been to put her off her guard, maybe he’d needed it. “The Minister for Transport is a popular man today,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Abby picked up her Scotch, took another sip. It was nice, smooth, with just an edge of burn as it slid down her throat.

“You’re the second person wanting to talk to him.”

“What did you do for the other person?”

“Nothing,” said Kane, but Abby could tell from the way he looked into his glass instead of at her that he was lying.

“Nothing my ass!”

Kane looked up then, fixed her with a stare that would send shivers through a lesser person. Abby felt a frisson of something but she pushed it away. He was about to give in, but he didn’t want to make her victory seem easy. “I invited this person to an event on Saturday where the Minister will be in attendance.”

“What event?”

“A celebration, of the Republic’s independence.”

“And he’ll be there?”

“Yes. I just said so, didn’t I?”

“Then I want to go.”

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because why would you? How can I get you an invitation?”

“How did you get one for this other person?”

“He’s a prominent businessman. He has legitimate interests.”

“Oh, I see, so because he’s moving money in and out of this country he’s legitimate but someone who’s saving actual lives is not?”

“That’s not what I said!”

“It damn well is!”

“For God’s sake!” said Kane, slamming his hands down on the arms of his chair.

Abby glared at him, not about to let him scurry away from this when she knew she was close to getting what she wanted.

“Fine!” he said. “You can come with me. I suppose you’ll have to be my date.”

“What? I’m not coming as your date!”

“I can’t get you an invite otherwise. You either come with me, or not at all.”

Abby finished her whisky, using the time it took to think this through. An evening with Ambassador Kane was her worst nightmare, but if it meant she got her supplies her suffering would be worth it. “Okay then. I’ll come with you.”

He finished his own much larger drink, put the glass on the table and stood. “You’d better behave yourself.”

“What do you take me for?” said Abby, pushing herself out of the chair carefully so she didn’t make an idiot of herself like she had when she’d sat in it.

Kane raised both eyebrows in response. “Saturday, then. I’ll meet you here at eight and we’ll go together.”

“Fine.”

He gestured towards the door and Abby walked towards it. She paused with one hand on the ornate brass knob. “Thank you,” she said, giving him her best smile, because she knew a lot of what he’d said about his limits was true, and she’d bullied him into submission. It was the only way, though, with people like him. Sticklers, rule lovers. They needed to be strong armed, and Abby wasn’t above doing whatever it took to help the people she was treating.

“I suppose that’s something,” he said with another sigh.

“What?”

“Getting a thank you. They seem to be in short supply these days.”

Abby was going to say something, but he’d turned away from her, was heading back to his seat. She opened the door and left. Gaia’s desk was empty, her computer switched off. Abby looked at her watch. It was nearly seven o’clock. He’d met her after office hours, and she’d kept him this late. It wasn’t as if he had far to go to get home, though, as he lived in the Embassy. She on the other hand had to drive forty miles back to her camp. The young man who’d brought her up earlier was outside and he took her back downstairs and saw her to the door. A minute later she was back on the road, speeding while the road was good so she could get back to camp before dusk.

---

Kane poured himself another whisky after the doctor left. She’d been more persistent than ever, but he supposed seeing someone die in front of you for lack of equipment would make her like that. He admired what she did every day, seeing all the human pain and suffering, the terrible injuries she must deal with, and the death, though he would never admit it to her. Doctors were an interesting breed of human, that was for sure, and Abby Griffin was something else on top of that. He wished he could help her the way she wanted him to; he’d much rather spend his time supporting her cause than that of Pike, who was only in it for himself. He couldn’t, though; he just couldn’t. There was no way around it. His hands were tied.

He took off his jacket and unbuttoned his waistcoat, sank back into his seat and drank some more. He’d have to keep a close eye on her on Saturday. Taking her as his plus one meant anything she did would reflect on him; he hadn’t thought that through when he’d made the offer. Then there was Pike who also wanted an introduction. Kane would have to handle all of this carefully, otherwise he would come across as supporting both these people, despite his best efforts to distance himself.

Paris had been so much easier than this, even though it was one of the top jobs in the diplomatic service. He’d blown it, probably together with his chances of getting a job like that ever again. He was stuck here, squashed between the likes of Pike and Doctor Griffin, slowly having the life squeezed out of him. There’d be nothing left of him soon.

He finished the second drink, then put the stopper back in the decanter. He was feeling sorry for himself and it had to stop. This was his life now, and he had to get on with it, make the best of it. He told himself this two or three times a day, and sometimes he managed to fool himself into believing he was doing okay. This wasn’t one of those times.

Chapter Text

Late on the Saturday afternoon and a gentle wind was blowing in from the south, bringing with it a faint hint of the sea and a welcome coolness. A flock of green wood hoopoes were chittering and cackling in the big acacia tree on the other side of the fence, as though they were having an amusing conversation. They made Abby smile as she pottered around her tent getting ready for the Republic’s anniversary party.

It hadn’t taken her long to decide what to wear because she barely owned anything other than jeans, t-shirts and vests. She had one pair of good trousers - grey slacks that flared out and let the air circulate - and she pulled those on and fastened the button. She’d lost weight in the eight months she’d been in Africa, and they hung boyishly from her slim hips. She tucked her white blouse into them to give her some shape and then stood back to appraise herself in the sliver of mirror.

She’d braided her long brown hair rather than wearing it in its usual ponytail because it looked neater and more elegant. She thought she looked okay, presentable at least. She’d probably be the only woman there in slacks, but there was nothing she could do about that. She’d lost the only dress she’d brought with her in a regrettable incident involving a candle and too much of the local palm wine.

There’d been a gathering not long after she’d arrived, one of the regular get togethers of local people, aid workers, and volunteers from Global Doctors designed to foster good relationships. The palm wine was plentiful, and she’d drunk a couple of glasses. She’d had it before and found it sweet, not too alcoholic. She hadn’t realised this wine had been distilled into chang’aa, a more potent version she later learned was used to stop bleeding in bush medicine. Alone and intoxicated in her tent that night she’d thought it a good idea to read by candlelight, knocked the candle over as she was trying to set it on the table where it had fallen onto the dress she’d discarded on the floor. Luckily, she’d had a jug of water next to her and was able to douse the flames before the whole tent went up. The dress could not be salvaged.

There was a rustling at the front of her tent, and her assistant’s voice called out.

“Abby? Are you ready?”

“I won’t be a minute, Jackson.” She gathered up some papers she wanted to show the Minister later and stuffed them into her bag, then picked up the keys to the Land Rover and headed outside. Jackson was leaning against the vehicle, arms crossed. He was wearing his traditional dress of a dark blue shalwar kameez, and sunglasses. He looked her up and down.

“You look nice.”

“Thanks. So do you. Where are we going again?” She hopped in the driver’s seat, put her Aviators on to avoid the glare from the sun and turned as he got in next to her.

“It’s on the Tsevo road, about five miles from here. Thanks for doing this; I know it’s out of your way.”

“It’s fine. I don’t have to be at the Embassy until eight. There’s plenty of time.”

They trundled east along rutted roads, the cooler air fanning the interior of the car.

“These people you’re meeting,” said Abby after they’d driven a couple of miles in silence. “Are you sure they’re okay?”

“Yes, they’re mainly other aid workers, a few locals, and Nate will be there.”

Nate was a young man he claimed was just a friend but about whom he talked incessantly when he and Abby were working together in the surgery. She felt she knew Nate better than most people she’d met in her life and she’d never laid eyes on him. He worked as security for a British NGO but never came to Tonshasa. It was always Jackson going to wherever he was. The relationship worried Abby, although she couldn’t put her finger on why. Whenever she expressed any concerns Jackson gave her his big goofy smile, his laconic eyes gazing half lidded at her, and told her she wasn’t his mom and she didn’t need to worry so much. She did feel responsible for him, though, even though there wasn’t much more than a decade between them in age. He had a big soft heart and she’d come to care for him a lot.

“I won’t be able to pick you up again. I don’t know what time this thing will finish.”

“You don’t need to pick me up; I’ll probably stay over.” He glanced at her shyly and Abby raised both eyebrows but didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure why he didn’t feel comfortable telling her the truth about him and Nate, but maybe one day he would. She wasn’t about to push him, because she hated being questioned like that herself.

“How are you going to survive an evening with Ambassador Kane?” said Jackson, deftly changing the subject.

“I shall amuse myself trying to prick his pompous ego. Do you know when I saw him the other day, he actually said do you know who you’re talking to? Like I’m some kid in front of the headmaster. I felt like saying no! Who are you exactly? What are you doing here? He was in Paris you know before this. Paris! And now he’s in Edenville. He must have really pissed someone off to get sent here, which wouldn’t surprise me at all!” She turned to get Jackson’s reaction and saw he was amused. “What?” she said.

“Nothing. It’s just...he really winds you up!”

“He does!”

“Hmmm.”

“What does that mean?”

Jackson shrugged innocently. “Nothing.”

Abby was about to question him further when there was a bang and the Land Rover shuddered and lurched to one side. Abby struggled to keep control of it as it veered and bumped over the uneven ground sending her and Jackson bouncing out of their seats.

“Fuck!” said Abby as she wrestled control back and brought the vehicle to rest on a dusty verge. Her heart was thumping in her chest. “What the hell happened there?”

“Did you hit something?” Jackson turned to look out of the rear window.

“I don’t think so.” Abby got out, looked back down the road although she couldn’t see much through the cloud of dust they’d kicked up.

“Oh!” said Jackson in a forlorn voice.

“What?” Abby came around to his side of the Rover. He was standing looking down at the rear tyre. “Oh, damn!” There was a large hole in the tyre wall. Shreds of rubber flapped in the breeze. “Goddamned potholes!”

“I’ll just check you didn’t hit anything.” Jackson disappeared into the dust cloud and Abby kicked the tyre in frustration. These things were a pain in the ass to change, and a new one would cost a fortune!

She was removing the spare tyre from the rear door of the Land Rover when Jackson reappeared.

“I’ve found the culprit. It’s a hole the size of Jupiter.”

Abby tutted, wrestled the tyre from its fixings. “Help me with this will you?”

Together they rolled the tyre to the side of the road and Abby got the jack and started the laborious process of changing the tyre. By the time they’d finished she was sweating, and her hands and face were covered in mud and sand. Jackson looked perfect even though he’d been helping her. Abby looked down at herself. Her boots were muddy, and her slacks dust covered. Her blouse had orange stains on it including two in the shape of fingerprints where she’d put her hands on her hips to survey her handiwork without thinking of the consequences.

“Look at the state of me!” she groaned.

Jackson grimaced. “You’ve looked better.”

“Kane’s going to love this!”

“You can’t go to the party like that. Go home and get changed; I can walk the rest of the way.”

“Get changed into what? Everything else is as filthy as this, and you’re not walking. We’re still three miles away. Kane will have to put up with me as I am.”

“God, I would pay to see his face,” said Jackson as they got back into the Rover.

Abby smiled but she was furious inside. How was she going to be taken seriously by the Government minister looking like this? She’d have to clean up somehow. There’d be a washroom at the Embassy. It was only mud; she’d be able to get it out. She put the Rover into gear and set off more carefully. She tried to summon hope but felt only despair.

---

Kane paced the hallway of the Embassy, checking his Rolex compulsively. The time seemed to move slowly, so by the time Doctor Griffin was half an hour late it felt like half the evening had passed already.

“Did you search Gaia’s desk thoroughly?” he said to the boy who always seemed to be in the Embassy even though he had no specified role that Kane could discern.

“Yessir.”

“There was no note, no scribble on a piece of paper saying Doctor Griffin would be late?”

The boy shook his head.

Why was she incapable of keeping to a timetable? All her meetings with him were scheduled between some vague this or that time and even then she was sometimes late, although she’d probably say she wasn’t because the time wasn’t fixed. A train that runs to no timetable can’t ever be late, can it? Probably has no passengers though either because who would stand around all day waiting for something that might not arrive? Which was what he was doing now. He looked at his watch again. Forty minutes late now. He’d called her numerous times with no answer. He’d waited long enough. She’d wanted to come with him, not the other way around. She’d had her chance.

He checked himself in the mirror, adjusted his bow tie, fastened the bottom button on his black waistcoat. He pulled out a stray hair from his eyebrow with manicured fingernails. Perfect.

“If Doctor Griffin deigns to arrive, bring her to the Palace,” he said to the boy. Luckily for her he was in a generous mood. There was the vague possibility she’d had some incident on the road that had waylaid her, so he didn’t want to prevent her attendance at the party completely.

“Yessir,” said the boy, and then the doorbell rang, and he jumped up to answer it.

Finally! thought Kane. This had better be her. The boy returned and walking a few steps behind him was the good doctor.

“What the hell?” said Kane, as he took in her dishevelled appearance.

“Nice greeting,” said Abby.

She stared at him as though he was the impertinent one when it was she who’d turned up late looking like she’d rolled here rather than driven.

“What happened?”

“My tyre blew. Had to change it. Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s... okay. I’m sorry about your tyre.”

She shrugged. “Damned roads. I’ll be having a word with the Minister for Transport about those as well!” She sighed dramatically. “Shall we go?”

“Go where?”

“To the party.”

Kane was unable to contain his astonishment. “You can’t go like that!”

“Why not?” she said, putting her hands on her hips which she’d clearly done earlier as well judging by the finger shaped marks already there.

“Because... look at you!” Kane stuttered.

“I don’t know what you want me to do, Kane. I thought about trying to clean my clothes but that’s only going to make them worse and I don’t have a change of anything with me. We’re in the African bush here; dirt and sand are part of everyday life.”

“Not at the palace they’re not. You’re not coming with me looking like that.”

She shrugged again, fixed him with that stare she had that exasperated him so much. She wanted him to challenge her, try to force her to do something, just so she could say no. Saying no to him was what she lived for, he was convinced.

She wasn’t going away and he wasn’t going to take her looking like that, so they were at an impasse. There was an interminable silence where they both looked at each other and the boy looked from one to the other and no one spoke. No one was willing to back down. Then an idea came to Kane.

“There’s a closet in one of the bedrooms. It has old clothes in it, ones left by previous Ambassadors and their wives. I don’t know why they didn’t take them with them or why they’ve not been thrown away, but they’re there. Maybe something in there will fit you. Something suitable for a party,” he added, because knowing her she’d throw on another pair of slacks. Not that she didn’t look good in them, he had to give her that. She had long legs even though she was short in stature, and a high, slim waist. The trousers suited her. He coughed to clear his throat. “Well?” he said when she hadn’t answered him.

“That sounds... reasonable, yes. Thank you.”

“I’ll show you upstairs.”

He led her up the long, curved stairway, up three flights of stairs to the living area of the Embassy. “This is the room with the closet,” he said, opening a door on the left of a long hallway, “and this is my, erm, room. You can use my shower if you want to get cleaned up. I don’t think the other room has one.”

“That’s very kind of you,” she said, and her brown eyes were suddenly large and warm, faint lines appearing at the side of them as she smiled.

“You’re welcome. I’ll be downstairs.”

He sat in one of the chairs that lined the main hallway, next to the boy, who didn’t speak but who stared up at Kane the entire time. Kane tried not to seem uncomfortable, but it was unnerving to be so observed. Eventually he couldn’t take it any longer.

“Who are you exactly?” he said.

“The boy,” said the boy.

“Yes, but what boy? Whose boy?”

The boy shrugged.

“What do you do here? Do you get paid?”

“I help you,” he said.

“Yes, but why? Who pays you?”

“Miss Gaia looks after me.”

“Does she? And how old are you?”

The boy shrugged again. Kane sighed. He’d ask Gaia about him on Monday. He wasn’t bothered about him being here, but he should at least know who he was and what he did. He’d taken his presence for granted until now.

He heard the clip of heels on the threadbare carpet of the stairs and looked up as Abby turned the final corner and descended the last few steps. Kane’s breath caught in his throat; it was the strangest feeling, and he literally stopped breathing for a second. He had to put his hand on his chest to make sure his heart was still beating. It was and quickly.

She’d chosen a simple black dress but it was form fitting and showed her cleavage and the swell of her breasts. They were bouncing alluringly as she moved from step to step. He’d never seen them before, not out like that, and they were nice, there was no two ways about it. The dress stopped at knee height and she’d found some strappy high-heeled shoes that showed off muscled calves. Her hair was unbraided and it hung in soft waves on her shoulders. She was stunning. His reaction to her surprised him.

“Are you ready?” she said, seemingly unaware of the effect she was having on him, which was fortunate.

“You sexy, missus,” said the boy, and he winked at her.

“You’re too young to know what sexy is,” said Kane.

The boy gave him a look that was far too knowing for his presumably delicate years.

“Thank you,” said Abby to the boy. “That’s sweet of you.”

“You are, erm, you do look... nice,” stammered Kane, who now appeared to be tongue-tied as well as breathless. What was happening to him?

“Good enough for you am I now?” she said, and he was brought back to earth with a bump. She might be attractive in a physical way, but she was an annoying pain in his ass, as she’d just reminded him.

“You’ll do,” he said, smiling smugly at her.

She smiled archly back at him. “Then let’s go.”

The boy opened the door for them, and Kane gestured for Abby to precede him. It wasn’t worth summoning his diplomatic car for the short journey to the Palace, so they walked side by side. Kane decided to use the time to brief her on how he wanted the evening to proceed.

“It would be better if we mingle first and introduce you generally to people rather than you springing straight for the Minister like an attack dog.” He looked at her expecting her to have some sarcastic comment to make but she just smiled. “I have an agenda of my own obviously. People I need to talk to. You don’t have to stay with me all evening but please don’t do anything that’s going to cause me embarrassment.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t need to keep me on a leash. I will be on my best behaviour, I promise.”

“Hmm,” he said, and she smiled again.

“You were in Paris I believe before you came here?” Abby said.

“Erm, yes, that’s right.”

“Quite a change, then, to be in somewhere like Edenville.” She looked up at him slyly and he knew what she was hinting at, that she really meant to say it was a comedown for him. It was what everyone thought when they found out his previous posting.

“I feel I can do more good here than in Paris,” he said, trotting out his usual response.

She looked at him sceptically. “Really? What good do you do exactly?”

He bristled at the veiled accusation in her comment. “I help our citizens when they need it, which is all the time, and I look after their interests. I also promote the US Government’s policy with regard to the regime here. We are working hard to encourage improvements in conditions and human rights, for example.”

“All from the comfort of your Embassy.”

“Not at all!”

“How much of the Republic have you actually seen? Do you visit the poorer areas, go into the bush?”

“When necessary.”

“Oh, really? I’ve never seen you out at the camp.”

“That area’s not in my remit.”

“Very little seems to be within your remit judging from our past conversations.”

He felt she was deliberately trying to wind him up, wanting to get her usual kick out of making him angry. He wasn’t going to play her game. “I’m a diplomat, Doctor Griffin. My job is diplomacy, smoothing the way. I can’t go anywhere that is outwith my responsibilities, and I can’t antagonise people in positions of power. Everything I do has to be done carefully and within guidelines and through the proper channels as I have said to you many times before. That’s my job.”

“You can call me Abby if you like. Might seem odd to people if you call me Doctor Griffin when I’m supposed to be your date.”

“You’re not my date, date.”

“That’s what you called it at our meeting. You can be my date, you said.”

“I should have said plus one. You’re my plus one.”

“Must have been a Freudian slip then.” She grinned at him and he had to take a deep breath because she always seemed to twist him into knots. He didn’t know how she did it.

“Have you worked for Global Doctors for long?” he said, desperate to change the conversation.

“About two years.”

“And before that you were...?”

“I was a doctor in Chicago.”

“Is that your home city?”

“Yes.”

“For a clinic I presume.”

“Erm, no. I was a vascular surgeon actually.”

He was so surprised by her answer he stopped walking. She went ahead a few steps before she realised he wasn’t by her side. She stopped and turned.

“What?” she said.

“I’m just surprised. I’d assumed you’d been a do-gooder all your life.”

Her look was one of pure sarcasm. “I’m not a do-gooder as you call it. I’m simply a human being who cares.”

“What brought you to this service then? What brought you here?”

She didn’t answer for such a long time he began to think she wasn’t going to say anything at all.

“Same thing as you.” She turned on her high heels and continued walking.

He wasn’t at all sure what she meant by that. Same thing as him in the sense of being banished here for some perceived wrongdoing, or same thing as him in the sense of wanting to make a difference? He didn’t get a chance to question her further because they were at the gates of the Palace. They got through the security procedures and walked up the long drive towards the sprawling old colonial house that served as the Presidential palace. Kane visited here often so didn’t think twice about where he was, but Abby stopped at the bottom of the steps to look around.

“Wow!” she said, gazing up at the huge white edifice with its portico. “I’ve never been this close to the building before.”

“I think of it as The White House on steroids,” said Kane, and received a grin in return.

“I suppose you’ve been there?”

“Many times.” Guards opened the main door for them, and Kane held out his arm to Abby. “Shall we enter?”

She looked up at him with those dark eyes that now seemed full of mystery to him, then she linked her arm through his.

“Yes, let’s.”

Chapter Text

“Amazing!” said Abby as she walked arm in arm with Kane into the palace. Like the rest of Edenville the house screamed old colonial British. It was grandiose yet elegant, maintained to perfection even though the days of empire were long gone. British empire at least, and the American one that had followed. The Republic had been independent for twenty-five years, hence the party she was attending. America still had a foothold, though, as represented by the man whose arm she was holding.

The hallway they entered was wide with a sweeping staircase ahead that fanned out at the top. “Imagine all the kings and queens who’ve walked down that staircase.” She paused to caress one of the marble finials which was cold to her touch.

“Hmm. In colonial days, the first Governor was decapitated on those stairs,” said Kane in a matter-of-fact tone.

“What?”

“Right there,” he said, pointing halfway up the first flight. “The head rolled down to about where we’re standing.”

Abby looked down at the white marble floor beneath her high heels. It was hard to imagine such a thing tainting the pristine surface. “Are you kidding me?” She looked up at Kane, examined his face to see if he was pulling her leg.

“No. It’s a historical fact.”

He seemed unmoved by the event, his dark eyes looking into hers without a hint of emotion or amusement or anything. Maybe he didn’t have the imagination to picture it and therefore was disconnected, or maybe he simply wasn’t human, as she suspected. She held his gaze, primarily to see if he would blink. He did, eventually.

“You must be a hoot at dinner parties,” she said, and that brought a wry smile to his face.

“Nothing is ever what it seems, Doctor Griffin,” he replied, gesturing around the room. “There are dark waters beneath every surface.”

“Indeed!” said Abby, thinking she was looking at the perfect example. “What lurks beneath your surface?”

“I’m surprised you think I have depth,” he said and then he moved away leaving Abby no choice but to go with him as they were still linked.

They walked to the end of the hall to huge double doors that were opened by two men dressed like servants from Downton Abbey.

“I’m not sure the colonial days are over,” whispered Abby as they entered the room.

“The king is dead, long live the king,” replied Kane.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing ever changes. Aah, hello,” he said as a white-haired elderly man and woman stepped up to him. The man sported a large belly that preceded the rest of him by several seconds.

“Mr Ambassador,” said the woman, a tremor of excitement in her voice. “What an honour to see you here.”

“The honour is all mine,” replied Kane, smiling benignly and shaking hands with the couple. “May I introduce Doctor Griffin. She works for Global Doctors, saving lives up at the camp near Tonshasa.” His tone was neutral, and Abby couldn’t tell if he was mocking her or being genuine.

“Hello,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”

The woman looked Abby up and down and nodded, then turned her gaze back to Kane, Abby evidently being judged unworthy of a comment.

“This is Edward and Elizabeth Bunting. Edward is a businessman from Akron, here to get the locals drunk.”

There was a definite tone to Kane’s voice now, one of mocking disapproval, but Edward from Akron didn’t catch it. He laughed. “We make some of the finest beer in America,” he said to Abby, a twinkle in his eye. “Better than anything that comes out of Milwaukee.” He winked at her as though sharing some inside joke. Abby had no idea about the brewing industry, or the significance or otherwise of Milwaukee, but she smiled dutifully.

“I have no doubt.”  

Edward grinned broadly, then turned his attention to Kane. “I would like to discuss something with you, Mr Ambassador, if I may,” he said, moving to put his arm around Kane’s back as if to draw him away.

Kane nodded; the sigh that accompanied it barely disguised. He took a step back. “Yes, yes. Feel free to make an appointment with my secretary. If you’ll excuse us.”

Kane moved away, still dragging Abby with him. “Occupational hazard,” he said.

“I suppose you’re never really off duty,” she replied, feeling a pang of sympathy for him.

“Everyone wants something. Speaking of, shall we get a drink?”

“Fancy a beer, do you?”

The smile he gave at her comment transformed his face fleetingly, bringing warmth and humour to his eyes. It made Abby smile in return.

“I wouldn’t drink the crap he produces if I were paid to do it. What would you like?”

“A small glass of red wine if they have it.”

Kane raised his hand and a young boy not much older than the one at the Embassy came towards them. “Two red wines,” Kane said, and the boy disappeared, coming back a moment later with two glasses. Kane handed one to Abby.

“Thank you.” She sipped her wine and looked around the room. It was enormous, Olympic sized swimming pool big, with a wooden floor so polished she had concerns for her modesty in this dress. She’d be more comfortable in her slacks, but she had to concede she would have stood out amongst all the impeccably dressed people in the room even before she had dirty handprints all over her. She was lucky to have found a dress that fitted her so well. Kane’s appreciation of it hadn’t gone unnoticed when she’d walked down the stairs at the Embassy. His eyes had been out on stalks. The memory made her smile. So he was human.

She glanced at him; he was staring into the distance, not focussed on any particular thing so far as she could tell. She couldn’t make him out. He was stiff and humourless ninety-nine percent of the time, carried an air of ennui, of being above everything, and then there’d been that one moment where he’d smiled so warmly and genuinely. Was it an act, his coldness? A way to cope with the constant problems and questions he must get, his occupational hazards as he called them, people like Abby. After all, they weren’t here tonight on a date or for pleasure. He was at work, and she and people like the Buntings were the reason for that.

“No sign of the Minister yet,” said Kane, “nor any of the Government. I expect they’ll make an entrance later.”

“Is that other guy here, the one who also wants to see the Minister?”

“Charles Pike? Can’t see him.”

“What’s his line of business?”

“Mining and distribution. Titanium ore mainly, up east of you.”

“In the rebel zone?”

“Bordering it. He’s not supposed to go into the zone but the seam he’s mining extends there and I suspect that’s why he’s situated where he is.”

“You mean he’s mining illegally in the rebel zone?”

“I have no proof of that.”

“Doesn’t it bother you, what he’s doing?”

His eyes were cool again when they turned on her. “My feelings on anything are irrelevant. I’m not here to pass judgement; I’m here to support the legitimate interests of American citizens.”

“So you keep saying, but you do pass judgement.”

“I don’t!”

“You do! All the time. You’re judgemental of me and how I look and what I spend my life doing, and that guy from Akron and his beer, Pike and his business, this whole place. It’s like we’re all far beneath you.”

He gazed at her for a long time. “You don’t know me,” he said finally.

“I see what I see.”

Kane took another sip of his drink, didn’t answer.

“Do you wish you were still in Paris?” she said, unwilling to let this thread go now she’d pulled on it.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I was in London for a while, setting up the project here.”

“Do you miss that?”

“Yes, but I’m glad to be here. I... well I can’t say I enjoy being here because the work I do is horrendous most of the time, but I feel useful here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”

“Then you are lucky.” He turned to look across the room, where people were starting to gather, and a band of musicians was setting up.

“What went wrong in Paris? What did you do?” The musicians started tuning their instruments, twanging guitars, blowing into trumpets. Kane took so long to answer she thought he hadn’t heard her because of the noise and then finally he turned a dark, penetrating gaze on her.

“What did YOU do?” he said. “What are you running from?”

Abby’s heart stopped beating for a moment, her stomach lurching into her throat. She felt as though he was seeing right inside her, to the heart of darkness that lay like a shadow at her core. “I... erm...” she stammered.

Kane nodded, as though he understood what she couldn’t say. He sniffed. “The music is usually rather good,” he said. “I think you will enjoy it.”

Abby stood by his side with her heart beating out of control. It was shocking to be seen like that, and by him. Most people accepted she was here on a calling, which she was, but no one looked deeper. No one had ever thought to look for another motive, or if they had they hadn’t dared to pull it out into the light and point a finger at it. Not until now. It was strangely thrilling to have that part of herself laid bare, even if he didn’t know exactly what he was looking at.

After the music, which was fun and exhilarating and lifted her mood, and the President and his Ministers had done their speeches and praised the Republic and all the formal things that people did at these events, the atmosphere became more celebratory, the party getting into full swing.

“We should mingle,” said Kane. “See if we can get to the Minister. Would you like another drink?” He took her glass from her and gestured to one of the waiters.

“I shouldn’t. One is enough.”

His surprise at her response was obvious in his face. Did he think all doctors were alcoholics?

“It’s a long night to get through,” he said. “You’ll need it. Trust me.”

“It’s not that. I have to drive back, so I can’t drink too much.”

“You’re not staying in town?” said Kane.

“No. I, erm. All the hotels are booked up.” It hadn’t occurred to Abby to stay in the town in truth. She rarely stayed away from camp too long; was worried what might happen in her absence.

“You can’t drive all that way in the dark!”

“Of course I can. I drive in the dark all the time.”

“Yes, but... you know with the celebrations people might get, well, excitable. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I’m quite capable of looking after myself,” she said, although his concern was touching.

“Quite, but still. No. I don’t think you should drive back tonight.”

“What do you want me to do? Sleep in my Land Rover?”

For a moment he looked as though he was considering that as an option for her, and then he shook his head. “You can stay at the Embassy.”

“I can’t do that!”

“I insist. You can have that room with the closet. It’s a bit dusty but I’m sure you’re used to that, given the state in which you arrived.”

There he was being judgemental again. He couldn’t help himself. Abby was about to retort when he was pulled to one side by another grey-haired old couple and she was left staring at his back. She was indignant at the way he’d made decisions for her, without giving her a chance to have her say, but also surprised that he’d offered up the Embassy. It would be a relief not to have to drive back, but she felt as though she would be accepting his arrogance if she agreed.

---

Kane barely listened as the people who had accosted him talked. So many of the people he dealt with were elderly he sometimes wondered if the Republic had become the new Florida for retiring Americans. He couldn’t imagine getting to the age of sixty-five and deciding the best thing to boost his 401K was a business investment in a war-torn African country, although the way things were going with his career he might still be here then, dealing with the children of these people.

What would Abby Griffin be doing when she was sixty-five? Surgeon General probably, although she wouldn’t be good at the political side of the role, she was too direct, too, well, undiplomatic. She’d shocked him before, asking him about Paris so openly. She sensed a story there, like many people did, that was no surprise. No one had ever asked him outright though. She hadn’t liked it when he’d turned the tables on her. She probably thought she was well camouflaged beneath her cloak of caring do-gooder, but Kane never took anything at face value, and he was especially suspicious of people who travelled across the world to help people when they could easily do it at home. He’d suspected she was running from something, and she’d confirmed it with the look of sheer horror on her face when he’d asked her. It didn’t make him feel good to have exposed a little of her underbelly, but if she wanted something from him, she had to give something in return. He wasn’t giving away his secrets for free.

He tuned back into the people talking to him, made some vague promise to look into their problem and dismissed them by turning away. He found himself staring straight into Abby Griffin’s warm, brown eyes.

“You have some front ordering me what to do,” she said, as though they’d been in the middle of a conversation and she was continuing it. Kane couldn’t remember what they’d been talking about.

“What do you mean?”

“Ordering me to stay at the Embassy.”

“It’s not an order. If you want to drive forty miles on pot holed roads in the dark with wild animals and drunk locals roaming then you are welcome to do it. I’m sorry if being concerned for your welfare is an affront to you.”

She opened her mouth and then closed it again which gave Kane some satisfaction. “It’s... I appreciate your concern,” she said at last.

“Then you’ll stay?”

She sighed as though he was sending her to prison rather than offering her a warm room and a comfortable bed for the night. “Yes. Thank you.”

“You don’t have to spend the whole night with me. You can go to your own room after we have sex,” he was unable to resist saying.

She gaped at him. “I beg your pardon?”

Kane smiled.

“You bastard!” she said, and she laughed, loud and throaty enough to make people close to them look.

Kane took two drinks from a passing waiter and handed one to her and then he scanned the room. “Ah, the Minister looks free.” He took her arm and started to lead her towards the Minister for Transport. They hadn’t got halfway before a figure loomed in front of them. Loomed was the wrong word in the case of Pike. Slid into view like a snake was more accurate. Kane was forced to stop abruptly, still holding onto Abby.

“Ambassador Kane. I’ve been looking for you,” Pike said.

“I’ve been right here,” replied Kane.

“Yes.” Pike’s eyes slid over Abby.

“Erm, this is Doctor Griffin from Global Doctors.”

“Charles Pike, Farm Station Mining Corp.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Abby.

“Likewise. I was hoping we could see the Minister, Kane.”

“I was just on my way with Doctor Griffin.”

“Good timing, then.” Pike started to head in the direction of the Minister.

“I’m taking Doctor Griffin to speak with him first,” said Kane.

“Ah. Well, you won’t mind if I butt in will you, Doctor Griffin, only I have children to put to bed you see.”

Kane didn’t believe for a minute that Pike was going home to see his children, he just wanted to get to the front of the line in case this was the only meeting the Minister would take.

“Erm,” said Abby.

“We won’t be long,” said Kane to Pike.

“I really must insist if you don’t mind,” said Pike. “It’s a matter of great urgency.”

“Let’s not forget I’m doing you a favour here, Charles.”

“I know, and I’m grateful.” Pike’s smarmy smile made Kane want to slap him.

“It’s fine,” said Abby. “You go first.”

“Thank you,” said Pike, and he didn’t wait for Kane and Abby before striding in the direction of the Minister.

“There was no need to do that,” said Kane to Abby as he hurried after Pike.

“I know, but we’re wasting time standing here discussing it. Better to get him out of the way.”

“Come with me, and then we can keep hold of the Minister once Pike’s done.”

“Are you sure that’s okay?”

“Your problems are essentially the same, so we might be able to kill two birds with one stone.”

“He has people dying on his operating table for want of supplies, does he?” She looked up at him with those softly mocking eyes that gave no quarter.

“No, but his products aren’t getting through either. Same problem, very different consequences I admit.”

Kane managed to get in front of Pike before he reached the Minister. He grabbed his arm to pull him back.

“You can’t go up to him directly. He won’t listen. Let me make the introductions, and don’t press him too hard, it will have the opposite effect.”

The Minister for Transport, David Miller, was in his early forties, a tall, rangy black man with salt and pepper hair and dark freckles across his slim face. He had an empty glass in his hand and was smiling as he talked to another man Kane didn’t know. He hoped this was a sign the Minister was in a good mood, because he was notoriously difficult to handle most of the time. He greeted some of the other people in the circle, shaking hands and passing small talk and then the minister noticed him.

“Ambassador Kane! Now the party is complete!”

Kane put on his best and most reverential smile. “Minister. Best wishes from the President and the American people on this glorious day for the Republic.”

“Thank you, thank you.” The Minister took Kane’s hand and shook it vigorously. “It is indeed a glorious day! Are you enjoying the party?”

“Of course. The President has been most generous as ever.”

“Twenty-five years, Kane. Twenty-five years! I was sixteen when we won our independence from our oppressors. No offence to you or the American people, of course.”

“Of course. A hard-won independence.”

“It was. I fought for it you know. From the age of eight my father instilled in me the value of an independent republic and I was out with the rebels as we were called then, my gun bigger than me.”

Kane listened dutifully while the Minister related the story he’d told a number of times. He’d probably been telling it for twenty-five years, embellishing it as he went. Kane had done his research on the history of the country and its battle for independence and whilst he understood and appreciated the cause, the country had unfortunately gone down the path of many towards a state where democracy was merely for show and to deflect from the corrupt power grab by people like Miller. Back home his own country was headed down a similar route albeit the power grab had been stealthier, so it wasn’t a situation confined to specific areas of the world.

“You have served your country with honour,” said Kane when the Minister paused long enough for him to speak.

“Thank you,” said Miller. He looked behind Kane to where Pike and Abby were standing. “You have guests with you.”

“Ah, yes. American citizens under my care. This is Charles Pike of Farm Station Mining Corp, and Doctor Abby Griffin from Global Doctors who is the Director of the aid camp up at Tonshasa.”

Miller ran his eyes over Abby, lingering on her breasts without shame for so long Kane felt uncomfortable and considered moving in front of her to block his view, but he expected Abby would dislike that more than the ogling.

“Good evening, Minister,” said Abby.

“You’re the one helping the rebels in their fight against the legitimate government of this country,” Miller said, finally looking up towards her face.

His statement made Kane groan internally. He hoped Abby would be more polite with the Minister than she had been with him when he’d said a similar thing.

“Global Doctors is neutral regarding the, erm, situation. Our mission is purely to save lives, no matter which side they are on,” she said.

“By saving the lives of people who wish us harm you are helping them, and destroying us,” said Miller.

“I must disagree. Global Doctors provides a vital service for all its patients and is certainly not destroying anything. We’re here to give aid to the needy, and I’m sure the Republic wouldn’t wish to prevent that and have the blood of any human being on its hands,” said Abby, indignation in her voice, and Kane put his hand on her arm to try and quiet her because this wasn’t the time for starting such an inflammatory argument. She wouldn’t get what she wanted that way. She tried to shrug his arm off, but he held her tight and turned quickly to Pike, pushing him forward.

“Charles has a mine up near Tsevo,” Kane said. “That’s your home territory I believe, Minister.”

“It is. I am aware of Mr Pike’s mine. You employ many locals, for which the government is grateful.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said Pike. “It is a beautiful area to work in. My own ancestors come from a town only a short distance from Tsevo, so it gives me great pleasure to be able to bring jobs and prosperity to the people there.”

“That is most interesting. I don’t believe we have met in person before.”

“No, Sir. I usually deal with the Minister for Trade or Ambassador Kane. It’s fortuitous to have met you, because I do have a small problem that is preventing me from further enhancing the local economy. Your expert knowledge of the subject and the area might be of great assistance to me.”

“If there is something I can do.” The Minister glanced towards Kane. “A round of drinks might go down well, Ambassador,” he said with a smile that Kane wanted to wipe off his face.

“I will arrange it,” he said. He turned away, still gripping Abby’s arm, and headed towards the bar.

“What are you doing?” she hissed.

“Saving you from yourself,” he said.

She pulled away from him. “I don’t need saving.”

“You damn well do! You just practically accused the government of genocide!”

“Hardly! I said they wouldn’t want blood on their hands.”

“And as he had just said he didn’t agree with your operation that’s as good as saying they don’t care and are in fact letting people die!”

“They don’t care, and they are letting people die!” She stood with her arms crossed in front of her, glaring at him.

Abby

“I know. I do know, Abby.”

“But you do nothing about it.”

“I can’t do anything about it.”

“So says every apologist for genocide throughout history.”

“Now hang on!” he said, outraged at her accusation. “I am NOT a supporter of genocide.”

“By standing back and doing nothing, you are.”

“There are many ways of accomplishing a goal. Blundering in and upsetting people at a party in their honour is not going to get you what you want. It needs thought, planning, diplomacy.”

“And while you’re thinking, and planning, and kissing ass, people are dying.”

“That’s the way of the world, Abby. We do what we can.”

“You’re doing nothing.” She swept a glass of wine off the tray of a passing waiter and disappeared, leaving Kane staring in her wake, feeling like he’d been knocked down by a herd of bulls and trampled. What had he done to deserve this? He’d been trying to help her. Not only were her words likely to upset the Minister but this was a country that barely stuck to the rules. They wouldn’t think twice about arresting her and then he’d be visiting her in some hellhole jail. She should be grateful!

Kane

Kane got three large whiskeys from the bar and returned to the Minister and Pike. All the while he was listening to them talk, he was thinking about Abby and what she’d said. She had no understanding of his position here or what the diplomatic service was about. She wasn’t even technically under his care. She was here in an international capacity and he’d done her a huge favour just getting her an introduction to the Minister, and she’d blown it like he’d known she would.

Her accusation about him doing nothing stung. He was doing a lot in his own way. It was subtle, that’s all. She didn’t know, couldn’t see. Too subtle, a voice at the back of his head said. So subtle as to be undetectable. God, he’d just wanted to do his time here, move on when his bosses had judged him punished enough. Now he had Abby Griffin in his head, and she wasn’t going to go away easily.

An hour or more passed before Kane got an opportunity to look for Abby. He wasn’t sure if she’d still be at the party the mood she’d been in when he’d last seen her. She was supposed to be staying at the Embassy, but she probably didn’t want to do that now, although he didn’t know where she would go. He hoped she hadn’t driven back to Tonshasa as she’d had two glasses of wine and was last seen with a third. The roads were difficult enough to navigate at the best of times, let alone when drunk. Maybe she’d sleep in her car like she’d said earlier.

He grabbed another whisky, even though his head was starting to fog. One more drink, one more round of looking for her and then he’d leave and put this night behind him.

It was dark outside and he could see people busily setting up the firework display that would signify the end of the celebrations. Maybe he’d stay for that, and then go. He wandered outside and it was a relief to get some fresh air. It was cooler now and a light sea-salted breeze felt good after the warmth of the palace. He walked away from the people, following a footpath flanked by palm trees. Lights were strung between the trees casting a multicoloured glow on the gravel as he walked. He turned a corner and stopped as he saw a figure sitting on a stone wall, long, bare legs resting on the step beneath. She was bent forward with her head in her hands and her long brown hair was obscuring her face, but there was no doubting it was Abby. She was framed in the warm orange glow of a lamp and something about her pose, her sadness, tugged at a heartstring. He sighed, then went up to her.

“Hey,” he said softly, and purposefully ignored the warm feeling he got when she looked up at him with dark tear-filled eyes.

---

Abby looked up to find Kane staring down at her. God, he’d caught her right in the middle of a good cry. Damn him!

“Go away,” she said, because she wasn’t in the mood for more of his condescension, and she didn’t want him to see her like this and think she was vulnerable and in need of his support.

He didn’t go away; instead, he settled on the wall next to her.

“The fireworks will be starting soon,” he said.

Abby didn’t reply.

“I wonder if they’ll match the ones we created earlier,” he continued, turning his head to look at her.

Abby felt a smile tugging at her lips despite herself. “You were out of line,” she said.

“So were you.”

She nodded, because she’d done a lot of thinking in between drinks and had come to the conclusion that she had behaved naively in her dealings with the Minister. She’d let him get to her and that was probably a tactic he used often to deflect people from even getting close to asking what they wanted of him. She’d fallen for it, and now had nothing. Pike had played the game and was probably basking in success. She hated the world sometimes, especially politics and politicians, present company not exactly excepted.

“I don’t want to be here in the Republic; it’s not my choice,” said Kane, surprising Abby with his candidness. “Because of that I may have put less effort into certain things than I could have done.”

“I shouldn’t have said what I did. I know your job puts you in a difficult position.”

“Nevertheless, you were right. I have done nothing.”

“What can you do? Your hands are tied.” The irony of them sitting here arguing the opposite to what they’d said earlier wasn’t lost on Abby, nor on Kane if his wry smile was anything to go by.

“Well, I’ve got the shipment of supplies that was being held at the border released. It will be with you in a couple of days.”

Abby was so surprised she could do nothing but stare at him. “How?” she said at last.

“The Minister had agreed to help Pike get his shipment out, so I managed to convince him to allow Pike to bring in your supplies on his return.”

“That’s amazing! Wow. How did you convince him?”

“It’s best you don’t know.”

Abby studied Kane carefully, seeing for the first time the dark circles beneath his eyes, and the red that flecked the edges of the whites. He’d said he was tired the other day and he clearly was, perhaps mentally as well as physically. It must have taken some effort to press her case to the Minister after what she’d said to the man, and although she suspected he’d agreed to do something in return that he knew she wouldn’t like, she decided not to say anything. Be grateful for once in your life, Abby, she told herself.

“Thank you,” she said, and she put her hand on his where it rested on his knee. He gripped her fingers with his and they sat in silence as the band began playing and the music drifted over to them from the main lawn behind the palace.

“Do you want to go and watch?” said Kane.

“I’m fine here.” Abby finished her whisky and watched out of the corner of her eye as Kane drank his. They were still effectively holding hands and she wasn’t sure why that was except that it was comforting and maybe it was for him too although she wouldn’t have thought he would need something like that, not until tonight at least. Did he have anyone in his life? Was there a girlfriend, a wife, children? They’d have been his date surely instead of her if that was the case. Maybe he’d left them behind, or maybe they’d left him because of whatever he’d done in Paris. Maybe he was alone like she was, and a fleeting moment of companionship offered some warmth.

Maybe she’d drank too much. Not maybe. Definitely. She drifted into a warm haze as the band played. The crack and pop of the fireworks did little to penetrate her peaceful state and she was surprised when she felt something stroking her arm.

“What?” she said, opening her eyes. Kane’s face was looming in front of hers and trying to focus on it made her head swim.

“It’s time to go,” he said, and she looked blearily around at the grounds that were emptying of people.

“Have we been here all this time?”

“Yes. You fell asleep and I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

Kane nodded and Abby stood and a moment later her stomach was lurching as she felt nothing but air beneath one of her feet.

“Fuck!” she said, and then strong arms were around her and she grabbed hold of them.

“There’s a step,” said Kane, an amused smile on his face.

“Don’t laugh at me,” mumbled Abby.

“I wouldn’t dare,” he said, and he kept his arm around her as he guided her down the steps and along the path.

Abby thought she could walk by herself but was too tired to try. It was easier to lean against Kane and let him take the strain. She wasn’t sure if she fell asleep again because only a second later or so it seemed they were at the Embassy and he was helping her up the stairs. They came to the door of the room with the closet and Kane opened it and led her inside.

Abby flopped onto the bed with a sigh. A cloud of dust rose into the air and she laughed. “Dust!” she said.

“It’s everywhere,” replied Kane, and then he disappeared out of her view and she felt him fiddling with her feet and then there was relief as he removed her shoes and she could wiggle her toes.

“That feels nice,” she said.

“Good.”

He reappeared in her view with a blanket which he draped over her. His face was inches away from hers and she looked up into his warm brown eyes.

“Kane,” she whispered, and he leaned in further to hear her.

“What?”

“Thank you.” She put her hand on the back of his head and brought him closer so she could place a kiss on his cheek. His skin was warm and salty beneath her lips and he smelled fruity like the acacia trees next to her camp.

It was a nice smell. Very nice.

“Night, Abby,” he said, his breath feathery against her ear.

“Mmmm,” she replied.

---

Abby woke sweating from a dream where she was being dragged into a pit of sand by a horrible monster. She expected to see the beige canvas walls of her tent when she opened her eyes but instead it was a large room with red walls and heavy red and gold curtains. Dust moats were floating in the shaft of sunlight that beamed through a gap in the drapes. Oh, yeah, she was in the Embassy.

She sat up and her head started banging. Oh, God! She’d got drunk last night when she was annoyed with Kane and then he’d found her and he’d helped her and oh, no! A memory rose to the surface that made her stomach flip. The scent of acacia and the taste of salt. She’d kissed him! What the hell? It was only on his cheek but still! What must he have thought?

She groaned, searched her foggy memory for anything else embarrassing. She didn’t think there was anything too bad, but she couldn’t be sure. She pulled back the blanket and looked down at herself. She was still in the black dress she’d worn to the party. He'd taken off her shoes, she remembered that, but he hadn’t done anything else, not that she would have expected him to. He was a lot of things, but not that. She barely knew him, of course, but some things were just known. Marcus Kane was an honourable man. An honourable man she’d kissed. Fuck!

She needed a pee desperately, so she eased herself out of the bed and stood on wobbly legs before opening the door and peering out into the hallway. Yesterday she’d used the bathroom in his room which was down the hall, but she couldn’t exactly barge in there now demanding to use his facilities. There must be another bathroom for a house this large, or for the public maybe. His office was one floor down, so it stood to reason there’d be a public bathroom there.

---

Kane was sitting in his usual spot at the end of the dining table, pouring tea from the pot into his china cup when the door to the dining room opened. He looked up to see a surprised-looking Abby standing in the doorway. She was still in the black dress from last night although it had twisted slightly so one breast was almost bared and the other was completely covered. Her hair was wild, flat to her head on one side and sticking out in every direction on the other. She stared at him.

“Oh,” she said.

“Morning,” said Kane, trying hard not to laugh at the sight of her.

“Erm, hi. I was, erm, looking for the bathroom.”

“It’s two doors along on the right.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Would you like some tea when you return?”

“Do you have coffee?”

“I can arrange coffee.”

She nodded, then turned and shut the door behind her. Kane rang down to the kitchen and ordered a pot of coffee. He sipped his tea while he waited for her to return.

Last night had proved interesting to say the least and he’d gone over the events a few times before falling asleep. She was drunk when she’d kissed him, so he didn’t think too much about that, although it had felt nice and he’d been tipsy enough himself to consider returning the gesture before deciding that it wasn’t appropriate.

The hand holding before that, though - he wasn’t sure what that had been about. She’d put her hand on his to thank him and the reasonable thing to have done would have been to ignore it or to pat it a couple of times in recognition and then she would have withdrawn her hand from his knee and that would have been that. Instead, he’d grasped her hand in return and neither of them had let go for what turned out to be a considerable period of time, albeit she was asleep for most of it. Was he that starved of comfort? No one had touched him in over a year in anything other than a business capacity limited to shaking hands and the odd clap on the back so maybe he was. Maybe it had just felt nice to them both after the upset of earlier in the evening.

The door opened and the boy came in with a pot of coffee which he tried to set before Kane.

“No, put it in front of the other chair,” he said, gesturing to the one opposite him. “I have a guest.”

“A guest?” said the boy, giving him a big grin. “Is it the sexy lady?”

“Erm, yes, but...” Kane didn’t get to finish because Abby came through the open door. She’d adjusted her dress and she must have gone back to her room because her hair was tied in a messy unbrushed ponytail.

“You’re lucky man,” said the boy, winking at Kane in an exaggerated manner.

“It’s not what you think, not that you should be thinking anything at your age.”

“Morning,” said Abby, smiling at the boy.

“Morning miss. You hungry? You work up an appetite?”

“Oh, erm, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can stomach anything,” she said, seemingly oblivious to the boy’s innuendo.

“You should eat something,” said Kane. “It will settle your stomach and you have a long drive ahead.”

“Maybe some toast then.”

“Tell the chef we’ll have toast for Doctor Griffin, and I’ll have my usual,” said Kane and the boy left, turning to grin at him again as he stood on the threshold.

“Take a seat,” he said. “There’s some coffee for you. Do you want milk?”

She grimaced. “No, black will be fine.”

“Are you feeling worse for wear?”

“A little.” She held her cup to her nose and sniffed the coffee, grimaced again then took a sip. “Ugh,” she said.

“It’s not that bad is it?”

“No. It’s just... I’ll be fine soon.”

“I have a feeling we’ll be the talk of Edenville after today,” he said.

“Don’t you have guests staying here?”

“Not often, and not ones who come to breakfast wearing the same thing as the night before.”

She looked down at her dress. “Oh, yes. Well, I wasn’t meaning to come to breakfast. I just wanted a pee.”

“You can use my shower again later if you want and take whatever you need from the closet.”

“That’s kind of you, thank you.”

They sat in a slightly tense silence until the boy returned with breakfast. He set a rack of toast in the centre of the table with butter and jam, and put a plate of scrambled eggs in front of Kane.

“Thank you.”

“You live large here,” said Abby, helping herself to a slice of toast and some butter.

“There have to be some perks to this job.”

“What was the Paris embassy like?”

“Now that was a breakfast. The finest, most buttery croissants, the most perfect poached eggs I’ve ever had in my life. The chef here is incapable of making a poached egg, that’s why I have them scrambled.”

“In the camp we have a canteen and we take it in turns to cook meals. It’s mainly toast and scrambled eggs too, though not as nice looking as those.” She pointed her knife at Kane’s plate.

“You’re welcome to have some of these. They always do too much.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks.” She held out her plate and Kane piled some eggs on her toast.

Silence descended again as they ate. It was a strange feeling sitting opposite Abby. He didn’t know her at all really, and yet there was something familiar about her, something that made him feel like he could be himself with her. Perhaps it was because she was a doctor. Weren’t they all by the nature of their jobs people in whom you felt you could confide?

He finished his eggs and watched her as she ate the rest of hers. For someone who couldn’t stomach food a few minutes ago she was certainly polishing it off well. She cleared her plate and pushed it away with a satisfied smile.

“That was good. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She swallowed some coffee then looked at him. “I’m sorry, erm, about last night.”

“What about last night?” Kane wasn’t sure what she remembered, or thought she remembered.

“I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“You mean when you kissed me,” he said, unable to prevent himself teasing her because she looked so embarrassed and contrite and also he was a bastard who couldn’t turn down an opportunity like this.

“It wasn’t a kiss, kiss.”

“I should hope not, given that I was drunk myself. It would have been taking advantage.”

“You weren’t drunk!”

“I wasn’t sober, and how would you know? You were asleep half the night.”

“True. Well, anyway, it was a thank you kiss. Thank you for sorting the supplies out. That was... I very much appreciate you doing that.”

“I was happy to do it, and I appreciated the thank you kiss.”

“Okay. Good. Thank you again. I should probably get showered and then leave you to your day.” She pushed back her chair and stood.

“Of course.” Kane did the same. “You remember which was my room?”

“I do, yes. Thanks.” She opened the door to leave.

“Abby?”

“Yes?”

“I might come up to the camp, make sure the supplies arrive okay.”

Her eyes grew wide at his suggestion. “You want to visit the camp?”

“It’s about time, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Yes. Erm, yes, well that would be great, yes. There’s a lot to show you.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

She was completely unable to disguise her surprise and it made Kane want to smile. “Okay then. I guess I’ll see you soon.”

“You will.”

She looked at him one last time then left. Kane sat back down, poured himself another tea. A long-forgotten feeling crept into his veins, one of excitement and possibility. He hadn’t felt this for years, not even in Paris. He closed his eyes. What are you doing? What the hell do you think you’re doing?

Chapter Text

“This is amazing!” said Jackson as he handed another box down to Abby from the back of the flatbed truck.

Abby handed it to Malia who passed it down the line. “I must admit I didn’t truly believe it would arrive until the truck rolled up.”

“You didn’t think Kane would come through?”

“I believed he’d done as much as he could, but I wasn’t sure he had control over whether it actually happened. Asking someone at a party is one thing, them actually following through is another.”

“I still can’t believe you managed to persuade him. I never thought he would get his hands dirty himself.”

“I guess I made a good case, and he couldn’t refuse.”

Abby had given Jackson heavily edited highlights of her night at the Embassy. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed, although the memory of walking into the bathroom and seeing how her dress exposed her and realising with a cold shiver that Kane had seen her like that made her wish she could turn back time. It was that Jackson teased her enough about her reactions to Kane, even before the weekend in Edenville. What he would say if he knew she’d kissed the man while drunk she didn’t like to think.

“Didn’t he say he was going to come up and make sure the supplies got here okay?”

“He did. I’ll ring the Embassy later and let him know they’ve arrived.”

“Oh, yeah. He’ll make sure all the hard work unloading is done before he turns up.” Jackson laughed.

“I’m sure we can put him to work on something if he comes. Get his nice suit dirty.”

“I’ll make sure I have my camera phone ready, although he’ll probably come complete with entourage and personal photographer. Wouldn’t want to let an opportunity like this go to waste.”

Abby smiled at Jackson’s comment, but she didn’t think Kane had been motivated to help in order to make himself look good. If anything, it would do the opposite, because being seen in the camp wasn’t great for his image. Hadn’t the Minister accused Abby of supporting the rebels by treating them? Kane himself had said that on a couple of previous occasions. The US Ambassador coming to an aid camp could be seen as taking sides or being provocative. If he did come, he was taking a risk and she doubted he’d want that publicised.

“Only another forty boxes to go,” she said, staggering under the weight of the last one Jackson had passed to her.

---

Kane sat in the back of Gaia’s car and gazed out of the window as the countryside rolled by. The road was rough, and Gaia’s car was old and possibly without shock absorbers the amount of bouncing they were doing. He’d be bruised by the time he got to the camp if this continued.

He’d had no choice but to persuade Gaia to take him north, not that she’d needed much persuading. She was as interested as he was in seeing Abby’s field hospital. He wanted to keep this visit under the radar as much as possible because the camp wasn’t under his jurisdiction and neither the Government here nor the Secretary of State or the US President would be happy if they knew he had been. They would think he’d allied the US with the rebels, and that wouldn’t do at all. He couldn’t come officially, so he’d taken the day off work, which meant no diplomatic car, driver, or security detail, and he didn’t own a car of his own, hence his need to rely on his secretary.

It was probably a bad idea all round, but he’d promised Abby and didn’t want to let her down. He was curious as well, he had to be honest. He wanted to see the conditions she complained about for himself, find out how she worked, what she had to deal with, see her in action. She’d awakened something in him. He was labelling it conscience or spirit or anything but what it probably was, which was a fascination with her.

“We’re only a few miles away now,” said Gaia from the front. “Ten, fifteen minutes maybe.”

“Thank you.”

The road had become orange sand, pitted and potholed. The edges of the road were hard and clay-baked and beyond them stretched the bush, sparsely green in places, the shrubs low growing apart from the occasional acacia tree that raised its head far above the rest. The colours of Africa - orange and green. There’d be big game out there somewhere. Kane hadn’t seen any of the so-called Big Five because he didn’t venture far out of Edenville and he hadn’t had time or inclination to go on a safari. Abby’s camp was on the border of the Tonshasa National Park, so she might have seen something, although if the lions and elephants had any sense they’d stay well clear of the human habitations. The fighting that raged close by probably scared them off anyway.

Tonshasa, the town that was at the centre of the rebellion, was a few miles further east, on the main road to Tsevo itself, where Pike’s mine was located. The aid camp was far enough away so as not to be in the middle of the fighting but had to be close enough to be able to treat the wounded without a huge delay. Living and working in a war zone was stressful and dangerous. He thought Abby was crazy giving up a good career as a vascular surgeon in Chicago to risk her life here. Whatever she was running from back home must be bad.

They approached a small village of scattered clay-baked houses with grass roofs. Beyond lay the gates to a large tented compound. They were here.

“It would be good while we’re here if you could talk to some of the patients and the other aid workers,” he said to Gaia.

“Why?”

“I want to get a full picture of what is happening at the camp.”

“Are we spying on Doctor Griffin? Is that why we’re here?”

“We’re not spying on her. We’re getting the facts. I want to know first-hand, unfiltered, what kind of work they do and who their patients are. I imagine Doctor Griffin will want to give me the official tour but that may or may not be everything there is to know. That’s where you can help.”

“I’m sure she won’t try and hide things from us.”

“Of course, but I’ve already put my neck on the line securing the shipment. If I’m going to get any further involved I want to know exactly what I’m getting myself into.”

He saw Gaia’s dark eyes in the rear-view mirror as she looked at him quizzically. She didn’t say anything and a few seconds later pulled up outside the gate of the compound. Kane got out of the car, shook some of the ache from his legs. He wasn’t used to being cramped up in the back seat of a tiny car. He could have sat up front but he hadn’t wanted to be seen and it was easier to duck down and hide in the back. Already he was hiding and lying and dealing in subterfuge. What else was he going to get into because of Abby Griffin?

---

“You’re not going to believe this!” said Jackson as he rushed into the treatment room where Abby had just finished suturing a knife wound on a young man’s arm.

“You’re fine now,” she said to the man. “Uko sawa sasa.” He nodded and she gave him a small packet of antibiotics and sent him on his way.

“What am I not going to believe?” she said to Jackson as she started cleaning her workstation.

“Kane! Kane is here!”

Abby paused, needle in hand. “Kane is here? Ambassador Kane?”

“How many Kanes do you know?” Jackson was pink-cheeked with excitement.

“Here at our camp now?” Abby put down the needle. She couldn’t quite believe what Jackson was saying. She hadn’t even told Kane that the shipment had arrived. When she’d rung the Embassy earlier she’d been told he was taking a vacation day. He couldn’t be here!

“Yes! He’s outside.” Jackson turned to leave the room.

“Do you even know what he looks like?” She picked up an antiseptic wipe and cleaned her hands with it as she followed him through the hospital.

“Yes, I know what he looks like. I was at an event once in Edenville and he did a speech.”

“Right.”

Abby exited the door into the heat of the midday sun and sure enough standing at the gate of the compound arguing with the security guard was Kane. She was taken aback not just at seeing him here at the camp but because he wasn’t in his usual suit. He was wearing black jeans and a grey t-shirt, and he looked like another person entirely.

“I know I don’t have an appointment. I’ve already told you that, but she is expecting me,” he was saying to the guard.

“If she was expecting you, your name would be on my list.”

“It’s okay, Kioko,” she said, striding up to the gate. “You can let him in.”

Kane turned at the sound of her voice, an exasperated look still on his face. “Thank God!” he said. “This man is impossible.”

“Would you prefer he lets any old stranger in to kill us all while we work?”

A smile tugged at Kane’s lips. “No.” He looked at the guard. “My apologies, Kioko.”

Kioko grunted his disapproval of Kane’s general manner but opened the gate. Kane beckoned to someone and Abby watched with further amazement as Gaia got out of a tiny battered old car and followed him through the gate.

“I’m surprised to see you,” she said to Kane. “Hello, Gaia.”

“Hello, Doctor Griffin.”

“Call me Abby, please. This is my colleague, Doctor Eric Jackson.” She beckoned Jackson forward and he shook hands with Kane and Gaia.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said.

“I hope you don’t mind us calling unannounced,” said Kane as he stepped forward, moving as though to kiss Abby’s cheek before thinking better of it and holding out his hand.

Abby went to take his hand then realised she was still holding the antiseptic wipe. She put it in her pocket, wiped her hands on her jeans so they wouldn’t be too soapy. Kane had a sly smile on his face, but she ignored it and shook his hand firmly. It was warm and soft. His arm was more muscled than she would have imagined; in fact, his t-shirt was tight enough for her to see his entire upper body was taut and lean. He must work out, which surprised her. She could smell him again, that sweet smell of acacia. Did he wash his hair in it, or did he use some kind of Scent of Africa aftershave?

“Not at all,” she said. “Did you get my message? Is that why you’re here?”

“What message?”

“I called the Embassy earlier. The shipment arrived first thing this morning.”

“It has arrived then? I was told it would be here today hence our visit.”

“You’re too late to help us unload it unfortunately, although there are still things to move and unpack,” said Jackson, and Abby gave him a warning look.

“However we can help. We’re in no rush to get back.” Kane smiled at Jackson in that way he had that seemed benign but was in fact condescending. He’d used it with the Buntings at the party, and most of the people he met.

“First things first,” said Abby. “Can we get you some tea or coffee?”

“Tea would be lovely, just a splash of milk,” said Kane.

“Water would be great,” said Gaia.

“Jackson, would you mind getting us all a drink?”

“I’d be happy to,” said Jackson.

“I’ll come with you,” said Gaia and they headed in the direction of the canteen tent, leaving Abby and Kane alone, still standing just inside the gate.

“Was your journey okay?” said Abby, still struggling to reconcile the uptight, suited man who rarely left his Embassy with the still uptight but more casually dressed adventurer standing before her.

“The roads are terrible. I’ve been on smoother roller coaster rides.”

“Welcome to the bush. It’s a whole other world for you I bet.”

“I have been to places other than Edenville.”

“Really? Tsevo doesn’t count. I always thought they had asphalt there because of the mining operations, but now I realise it’s because the Minister for Transport hails from there.”

“I could not possibly comment on the motives of the Republic’s esteemed Minister,” said Kane with a straight face, although his eyes were twinkling. “And I have never been to Tsevo.”

“You really should get out more. Now, would you like a tour of my hospital while we wait for the refreshments?”

“I would like nothing more.”

---

Kane followed Abby towards a small whitewashed building that was shaped like a cross. It had a grass roof and small windows. He imagined it would be stifling inside. They kicked up clouds of dust as they went, and his trousers and shoes were covered in the stuff. Abby was wearing grey jeans that were equally as dirty and a blue lab coat. Her braid bounced against her shoulder as she strode up to the door. Piles of boxes were stacked up along the outside wall, dozens of them.

“We haven’t got around to unpacking the supplies yet,” Abby said.

“That’s them?”

“Yes. I can’t thank you enough for arranging it. This used to be a church but it hadn’t been in use for a while. We were lucky to get it,” she said, which explained the shape of the building.

There was a small room on the left which looked like an office, and on the right was a room with two rows of beds, eight of which had people in them.

“This is our recovery ward. The low rate of occupancy isn’t because we don’t have enough patients, it’s that many of them don’t make it this far.”

She looked up at him with a mixture of sadness and frustration in her eyes and Kane swallowed down the joke he’d been about to make about her competency.

He walked between the rows, looking at the patients who were all men and of a similar age. The beds were little more than cots like those Kane had slept in when he was in the army. Threadbare blue sheets covered the patients’ thin bodies and there was little in the way of machinery to support and monitor them. In an American hospital you wouldn’t be able to move for equipment. It was quiet in comparison, just the steady beep, beep of heart monitors.

“How many people do you treat on average?”

“It depends. The fighting is sporadic so some weeks we might get thirty or forty patients and another week there might be one or two. We also operate as a clinic for the local townships, so that keeps us busy in the quieter times.”

“And Global Doctors pays for all this?” He walked right up to one of the men who was sleeping, looked at his chart. Gunshot wounds. No surprise there. He looked at the man, at his smooth, unlined face that looked peaceful in repose. He was probably twenty if he was a day and had already seen more in his few years than most would in a lifetime. Looking at him reminded Kane of things he’d long tried to bury, and he pushed the feelings back down. On the table next to the man’s bed was a vase of pink carnations and a book. Kane picked up the book. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie.

“Through general fundraising by the charity and also local fundraising I try to do here,” Abby was saying, and he tuned back into her. “People don’t have a lot of money, but we do blood drives and ask for clothing and books and those kinds of supplies.

“This is provocative reading to give to rebel fighters,” Kane said, showing the book to Abby.

“You’ve read that, have you?

“I’ve read a few books set in Africa. Coetzee, Conrad, Naipaul.”

“A Bend in the River is a wonderful book!” Abby looked surprised that Kane had read these authors. She probably thought he wasn’t interested in the place he’d been sent, which he couldn’t blame her for as he’d told her at the party that he didn’t want to be here. If she remembered that.

“I would recommend The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas if you want to be entertained, although you might find it very close to home.”

“Is it about a US Ambassador who goes rogue and helps out a poor, underfunded and understaffed hospital?”

Kane laughed. “No one would believe such a tale. It’s about politics and dirty tricks. Can the men read English?”

“Many of them can read and speak English, and we have books in Swahili for those who don’t.”

“And these are donated?”

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“We try to make them as comfortable as possible.”

“Are all the men here from the rebel zone?”

“No. There are some Government fighters here. We don’t get a lot of them because they tend to be taken back to Edenville but some of the more critically injured come here.”

“Doesn’t that cause problems, having rival fighters in one place?”

“Our policy is quite clear. We’re here to treat the wounded and it doesn’t matter what side they are on. When you’re here, you are a patient and not a fighter. Once they leave here they are free to do whatever they want to each other.”

“And there’s never been any trouble?”

“Every now and then, but on the whole it works. I run a tight ship.”

“Okay.” He was amazed at what Abby was achieving here, something that the Government and the war itself was unable to do, which was bringing people together, despite their differences.

“Through here is the treatment room and then the operating theatre.” She directed Kane through a small room lined with glass fronted cupboards. Two gurneys lay side by side at one end.

“You can see from the cupboards that we were low on everything.”

Kane looked more closely at the cupboards. They were indeed virtually empty. He stopped by one, opened some drawers beneath. Most were empty. “I’m glad I could help.”

He followed Abby through to the final room of the building, the apex of the cross.

“This is my domain,” Abby said with pride. “We don’t have a lot, but we try our best.” She gave Kane a wry smile.

The room only had one window and was stifling. Kane felt as though he was going to melt away. Abby had her lab coat on over whatever she was wearing beneath. She must be uncomfortable but apart from the beads of sweat that had gathered on her brow she looked unmoved by the conditions. Kane usually had two or three showers a day minimum to keep cool, more if he had time, but he couldn’t see how Abby managed that in these conditions. Did they even have a shower? What was her camp like if this was the hospital? How did she operate here for sometimes probably hours on end?

“This is where the magic happens then,” he said, trying to make light of it because he suddenly felt depressed at the thought of what was happening up here, what she had to cope with.

“I wish I could wave a magic wand and it would all be better, but yes, I do what I can.”

“You seem to be doing an excellent job under the circumstances.”

“Thank you.” She smiled, and Kane looked around again. There wasn’t much to see, not that he knew much about what should be in an operating theatre, but more than this surely.

“Abby, we’ve got refreshments. I’ve put them in your office.”

Kane turned around to see Doctor Jackson standing in the doorway.

“Oh, great. Let’s go there then and we can talk or you can ask me anything you want.”

“Sounds good.” Kane followed her back to the room at the front of the hospital, surreptitiously pulling his t-shirt away from his skin trying to get some cool air to circulate, but there was none. No sea breeze here to lower the air temperature.

In Abby’s office Doctor Jackson had set two mugs on her desk and a plate of bright red sweets called mabuyu. The room was cramped, and Kane was grateful when the young man said he would show Gaia around the camp. It would be less unpleasant temperature-wise and give Gaia an opportunity to question Abby’s assistant. He took a seat opposite her and sipped his tea. It was stronger than he liked but it never ceased to amaze him how the hot drink cooled him. Abby had a coffee judging by the bitter smell.

“Help yourself to the mabuyu,” she said. “They’re made locally. I have to admit they’re my weakness.” She took one of the sugared seeds and crunched on it.

“They’re not the chili ones, are they? I’m not a fan of those.”

“No, they’re strawberry. They’re delicious.”

Kane popped one of the seeds in his mouth and let it melt a little before crunching on it. “Very nice.”

“Don’t you like spicy foods? Cause that might be a problem if you’re staying for lunch. I think pilau is on the menu today and it’s always spicy.”

Kane was taken aback momentarily because he hadn’t expected Abby to invite him to lunch. “Erm, well it’s kind of you to ask us, thank you. I like spices, just not in sweet things.”

“You’re an everything in its rightful place kinda guy, right?”

“I think you’ve accused me of that before, of staying in my lane.”

She had the grace to look mildly embarrassed at being reminded of her words. “I would say you’ve veered off course a little lately.”

“Whether that’s a mistake remains to be seen.”

They held each other’s gaze for a moment, and then Abby broke it by reaching for another sweet.

“I know it wasn’t exactly a long tour,” she said. “We’re one of Global Doctors’ smallest operations.”

“Can you tell me more about the funding and supply process?”

The trouble with Abby, he thought as she outlined the problems to him, was she had a compelling story to tell and was clearly passionate as anyone who gave up their comfortable life would have to be to come to somewhere like this, but she was playing in a game where there were no rules at all. She thought the facts spoke for themselves, and the cause was obvious to anyone. To be uninterested or unmoved by the plight of the people she treated was anathema to her. Unfortunately, the people she needed help from couldn’t care less.

She might accuse Kane of staying in his lane, which he did for the most part, but he knew from long experience that if you wanted something from people whose motives were selfish you had to appeal to that side of their nature. Her truth and her emotional words were never going to move anyone in the Government, and she was too quickly moved to passion and hot-headedness. She was working herself up now, gesticulating as she described to him her frustrations with the supply company and the whole process.

“So, while it’s wonderful that you’ve helped get the supplies through this time, and I am grateful don’t get me wrong, you can see that this will happen again next time. This delivery will last a couple of months maybe if we’re lucky and then we’ll be back to square one. I’m trying to place my next order now because I know it will take forever but the only time I managed to speak to a human being they cited some logistical issue again!” She sat back and looked at Kane and he felt at a loss as to how to help her.

“Who is the supply company?” he said.

“RL Medical.”

“Are they an African company, or British?”

“They’re American, but they work out of South Africa.”

“Can’t you find another supplier, one that’s more reliable?”

“They’re the soul distributer in southern and eastern Africa, and even if they weren’t, the logistical problems of getting the supplies here would be the same for any company.”

A company with sole distribution rights in an area like this was suspicious to Kane, but he sensed an opportunity for him to help. It would mean putting his neck further on the line, and if the company was in league with the Government here, it could lead to disaster all round. He looked at Abby as she sipped her now cold coffee. He could walk away from this if he wanted, be sympathetic, promise to see what he could do and then do nothing, but wasn’t that what she’d accused him of at the party? And hadn’t he admitted to her that he’d been coasting since he’d got this position? It made no political sense for him to do this, but she’d got to him now. He couldn’t go back to Edenville and sit in his office and listen to people like Pike and the Buntings knowing what was happening up here and that he’d turned his back. Goddamn her!

“You know, an American company operating in the Republic is within my domain, even if they’re not based here. I can perhaps look into them for you, see if I can find out what’s going on.”

Her face lit up with surprise and pleasure. “Would you? That’d be amazing!”

“I can’t make any promises about what I’ll find or what action I can take if I do find something.”

“No, I appreciate that, but it’s something. It’s a start. They won’t listen to me, but you’re the US Ambassador. This is great, thank you.”

Kane felt a warm glow at her gratitude. It had been a long time since anyone had appreciated anything he’d done, but he wasn’t usually the kind of person who derived pleasure specifically from helping others. He felt good when he received praise for a job well done, who didn’t, but other than that most things didn’t bother him. He’d been too long alone here, perhaps. All ties with Paris had been cut, and he had little in the way of family back home in the US.

“I’d like to see the rest of the camp if I may, get a full view as it were.”

“Oh, of course, yes. I’ll show you around.”

He followed her along dusty paths through neatly ordered lines of dark green tents. Kane counted at least thirty, which was surprising because he’d only seen Abby, Jackson and a couple of nurses in the hospital.

“Are all these tents occupied by Global Doctors employees?”

“No. We share the camp with a couple of other small aid agencies. In terms of Global Doctors there’s six paid staff and we have a number of volunteers but they come and go. I’m the Director of the camp as you know, but there’s another doctor as senior as me and we both have a junior assistant and there are two full time nurses and the volunteers.”

Kane nodded as Abby pointed out the canteen and the food supplies. He didn’t even know how many staff the Embassy had but there was at least twice that number catering to him alone. He had Gaia and a couple of other secretaries, his driver, two Embassy security guards, his security detail, the kitchen staff, the cleaners, the Boy, and God knew who else. Someone dry cleaned his clothes, polished his shoes, made sure his favourite whisky was replenished, and he had no idea who that was.

“We have a local woman who cleans all the scrubs etcetera but she’s not very reliable so sometimes I have to clean them in a bucket outside my tent. My old colleagues would be appalled.” Abby laughed, although of course it wasn’t funny. In circumstances like these you had to laugh or else you’d cry.

They’d reached the back of the compound and on the other side of the fence the bush crowded in, a lusher green than in the village. A large acacia tree dominated the view, a couple of its branches overhanging the fence. In the distance something shrieked, sounding closer than Kane would like.

“A hyena,” said Abby. “There’s a pack of them roaming around. Sometimes they come up to the fence.”

“Have you seen a lot of wildlife here?”

“Oh, yeah, and sometimes we go out into the National Park if the Rangers need us and I’ve seen some amazing things. The only one of the Big Five I haven’t seen is a rhinoceros.”

“Wow!”

“One of the upsides of being here I suppose. You probably don’t get much game down in Edenville.”

“I think an elephant walking along the sea front would cause some consternation.”

“But you’ve been on safari, right? I mean you can’t come to Africa and not see the wildlife.” She opened the flap of the last tent in the row, went inside.

“Erm, I haven’t actually had a chance,” said Kane, following her in. The tent was welcomingly cool inside. It was clearly living quarters, although there wasn’t much in the way of furniture – a desk covered with books and notepads, a couple of camping chairs.

“You haven’t been into the bush? You really must. It’s a fantastic experience.”

“I’m sure it is.”

“This is my palace,” said Abby, gesturing to the space. “It’s not the Embassy is it?”

“It’s cool at least,” said Kane. He looked through a couple of the books on the table, medical textbooks mostly, books on Africa, Michelle Obama’s autobiography.

A flimsy curtain divided the space and Kane could see the silhouette of clothes hung on the other side. He peered around the curtain. There was a cot with one pillow and a thin blanket. A lamp sat on a small table next to it beside another pile of books. Mobiles hung from the canvas roof as decoration. They seemed to be made from scavenged items like wood and beads and coloured glass.

“Can you even imagine sleeping in that?” she said, coming to stand beside him. She was so close he could smell her, coconut oil mostly, but also sweat and that underlying smell of antiseptic people who worked in hospitals carried around with them.

“I don’t have to imagine it. I was in the army for five years, slept on worse things than that.” He looked down in time to see her eyes widen in surprise. She hadn’t expected that answer. He wasn’t sure why he’d told her; he usually avoided all mention of his military past.

“You were in the army?”

“82nd Airborne Division.”

“What, those soldiers who parachute into war zones?”

“Amongst other things. I was a captain in the 73rd Cavalry doing RSTA, that’s reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.”

Abby shook her head and stared at him as though he was a different person. He was, he supposed. More different than she knew. “Did you see combat?” she said.

Kane really wished he hadn’t mentioned his past now. Abby was nosey and would think nothing of questioning him closely, and the last thing he wanted was for her to somehow prise open the tightly lidded box that contained his deepest regrets. He’d wanted to impress her perhaps, give himself some depth because he’d got the feeling the last couple of times he’d met her that she thought he was useless. He’d have to give her something; the longer he stood not answering her the more suspicious she would get.

“I was in the middle east, yes.”

“Wow! So all of this, this war zone, being here in the Republic, that’s not new to you then.”

“No, but my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are not ones I care to repeat.” He moved back into the main area of the tent, thumbed through one of her notepads to distract himself from her penetrative gaze.

“And then what, you left and decided to become a diplomat?”

“Something like that.”

“I’m surprised you took this posting then if you don’t want to relive those experiences. I know Edenville is protected but the rebellion isn’t that far away.”

“I didn’t exactly have a say regarding my posting.” He looked at his watch. “I hope I’m not keeping you from your work.”

“No, not at all. Showing you what we’re doing is important, and they’ll let me know if I’m needed.”

“It’s been very informative.”

“And for me too, Captain Kane,” she said with a grin.

“Don’t erm, don’t call me that in front of the others. It’s not something I particularly want known.” He smiled to show he wasn’t admonishing her.

“You do know people can Google you and find out that kind of information, don’t you?”

“Of course, but I don’t think anyone’s been interested enough to do that so far.”

“You underestimate yourself. I think you are a very interesting man, MISTER Kane,” said Abby.

“Why don’t you call me Marcus. We are after all on more intimate terms after last week at the Embassy.”

“You’re not going to let that drop, are you?”

“I haven’t washed my cheek since,” said Kane, running his fingers over the place she’d kissed him in order to tease her.

“I thought there was a smell.”

“That’s you. You smell like formaldehyde.”

She chuckled, her shoulders heaving. “That has been said before.”

They stood in the middle of the tent smiling at each other. Kane was overcome with an urge to kiss her cheek in the same place she’d kissed his. Would she welcome that? Would she kiss him back? Would they end up in each other’s arms, lying on the cot squashed together. Would he unbutton her lab coat, reveal what was beneath? Good God, man! Get a grip! The heat was getting to him, that was the only explanation for that diversion into complete fantasy.

“Shall we see if it’s time for lunch?” he said.

“Why not, Marcus,” said Abby, and she led the way from her tent to the canteen.

---

They stayed in the canteen talking with Jackson and Gaia after lunch. Abby was pleased with the way the day had gone so far. She thought she’d given Kane... Marcus... it felt weird calling him that, too friendly almost. She could shout at Kane, let him know her displeasure; it felt different now that he was Marcus. Probably just the novelty; he was bound to do something to annoy her sooner rather than later and she wouldn’t be able to contain herself. She thought she’d given him a good insight into life at the camp and what she had to deal with, and what problems the supply issues caused. If he could get through to the medical supplies company that could really make a difference. She’d have to be on better behaviour with them than she had been with the Minister if she got a meeting.

She watched him as he lounged in his chair, long legs stretched out, hands folded over his belly. He seemed more relaxed than she’d ever seen him. Gone was the stiff, humourless man she’d had unproductive meetings with; perhaps he shed that persona along with the suit. And now she knew he’d been in the army, which had been a complete revelation. A tour of Iraq and Afghanistan must have been brutal; no wonder he didn’t want to talk about it. Had something happened there? It was inevitable she supposed. It might explain part of his sadness, his general ennui with life. That plus whatever had happened in Paris. There was still a lot to learn about him, but the many layers of Marcus Kane were slowly beginning to unpeel.

“I’d better get on with moving those boxes and unpacking,” said Jackson, getting to his feet.

“Can we help with that?” asked Marcus.

“Erm yes, of course, if you want to.” Jackson couldn’t hide his surprise.

“If we all help it will take no time at all.”

They all stood, and Abby led the way back through the camp towards the hospital. “These are to go inside to be unpacked and put away,” she said pointing to a dozen or so she’d already separated out from the rest. “The others need to go into our storage unit.”

“I’m happy to take those if you’ll show me the way,” said Marcus.

“Grab a box and I’ll take you,” said Jackson. “Do you need instruction in safe manual handling?”

Marcus grinned. “I’m fine. I absolve you of any liability should I injure myself.”

They left to take the first boxes and Abby and Gaia started moving the others inside. It was hot work, and Abby had to take off her lab coat and top and was working in her vest. Even so, sweat was soon dripping down her front making her uncomfortable. Marcus must be feeling the same, because as she stepped outside to grab another box, she was in time to see him peeling off his sweat-soaked t-shirt to reveal tanned, olive skin and well-defined muscles. She caught Jackson’s eye and couldn’t help smiling at the appreciative look on his face which she suspected was also on hers. Damn, Marcus had a nice body! Why did he hide it under so many layers of clothing?

He turned and saw them both staring at him, and smiled in that way he had which made Abby feel like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

“It’s hot,” he said, as though an explanation were needed.

“It certainly is,” said Jackson and Abby had to swallow the laugh that was bubbling inside her.

“Stop it!” she whispered when Marcus had turned to pick up another box. He couldn’t see her, so she watched unashamedly as he bent, and the muscles in his back and arms stretched and bulged. He probably knew she was watching and was putting on a show but that was fine by her. It had been a long, long time since she’d seen a man even partly naked other than when she was treating them. She was going to enjoy the view.

Jackson sighed as Marcus disappeared towards the container. “I get what you see in him now,” he said.

“I don’t see anything in him!”

“Oh, come on! There’s definitely something between you.”

“There’s nothing between us other than a mutual interest in helping our patients.”

“Really? Why is he here, Abby? He’s never shown an interest before and in fact has been downright rude to you, and then you go to Edenville to a party with him and suddenly he’s intervening with Government ministers, coming up here touring our facilities, eating with us, helping move our stuff.”

“I got through to him that’s all.”

“It must have been the sight of you in those filthy clothes. Maybe he thought you were destitute.” Jackson laughed loudly at his own joke.

“I guess that was it.” Abby watched as Marcus returned, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.

“Just a few more to go,” he said, and disappeared again.

“I’d better help him,” said Jackson.

Abby stood alone thinking about Jackson’s words. Was it strange that Marcus was here? Jackson didn’t know exactly what had happened in Edenville, how upset she’d been with herself and the Minister, how obstructive she’d thought Marcus was being, and how they’d argued. He’d helped her because he believed in her cause deep down, and she’d called him out for his inaction. It was natural he’d want to see for himself what he was risking his reputation for.

And yet... there’d been something when they were in the tent, an atmosphere between them, a tension. She’d felt it, and at one point it was so strong she’d thought he was going to lean in and kiss her, but he hadn’t. She shouldn’t forget that he was a diplomat and therefore a charmer; he just happened to be an unhappy one, so his charm and persuasive skills had been hidden perhaps until now. She was probably just responding to that. He’d found something that gave his time here purpose. It was nothing more than that.

She got one of the volunteers to bring them a pitcher of raspberry lemonade for when the boxes were moved, and they stood drinking it in the shade of the building. Marcus was standing next to her, still half naked, beads of sweat caught in the hairs on his chest and belly. Gone was the acacia smell, replaced with the scent of hard work.

“Thanks to everyone for helping with the supplies, especially to Marcus and Gaia, without whom we wouldn’t have had anything to put away,” said Abby.

“Oh, I didn’t do anything to help with that,” said Gaia.

“You made sure he took my meetings, so you’re crucial to this whole process.”

“I’m grateful to you for giving up your valuable time and showing us your operation here,” said Marcus. “It’s been very informative.”

“Thank you for your interest.”

“We should probably get back,” said Marcus, handing his glass to Jackson.

“I expect it will take a while in that small car,” said Abby. “The roads are difficult enough in my Land Rover.”

“It was interesting driving up here,” laughed Gaia. “I’ll go and crank it up now.”

Abby walked to the gate with Marcus, who was gripping his now-dry t-shirt in one hand. “Are you not going to put that back on?”

“I’ll wait until I dry off a bit first.”

“I must say this isn’t a sight I expected to see today or, well, ever,” said Abby, gesturing to his torso.

“Guess it was just your lucky day then,” he said, making Abby laugh.

“I guess so.”

“Mine too,” he said, glancing at her vest which was more revealing than the dress she’d worn to the party. Not as sexy though, given that it was covered in dirt and sweat. His words made something flip in Abby’s stomach.

“Thank you again,” she said.

“I’ll see you soon I’m sure,” he said, and then his hand was on her sweaty back and he was leaning towards her. He kissed one cheek and then the other in the continental style and then he walked through the gate towards the waiting car.

“Strange man,” said Kioko as he closed the gate.

“Yes,” sighed Abby. “A strange man indeed.”

---

A week later, Abby was in her office when Kioko called on the radio to tell her there was a delivery for her. She shouted Jackson and they went outside to where a driver was unloading four large boxes.

“What’s this?” she said to the driver. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“I don’t know, Miss. I was just told to bring this to you.”

“Who told you?”

The man shrugged, and having unloaded the last of the boxes he got back in his truck and drove off. Abby stood with hands on hips and looked at the boxes.

“Aren’t you going to open them?” said Jackson impatiently.

“Yes, of course.” She got out her knife, sliced through the tape and opened one of the boxes. It was full of books. A second one was full of clothes. “What the hell?”

Jackson pulled a few of the items out to examine them. “These are good clothes.” He rummaged through the rest of the box. “There’s trousers and shirts and socks and stuff.”

Abby opened the third box and there were small framed artworks and more books. There was a note stuck to the lid of this box. She peeled it away carefully, unfolded it.

“Oh, my God!” she said.

“What is it? What does it say?”

“It’s from Ambassador Kane.”

“Kane? You’re kidding! Read it to me.”

“Dear Abby, as you know there are a lot of unwanted clothes at the Embassy, and when I got back after my visit to you I found other items that I have no need for. I thought you could put them to better use. Yours, Marcus.”

Jackson stared open mouthed at Abby. “Wow!” he said at last.

“Yeah.” Abby was lost for words as well. He’d made no sign when he’d visited that he was considering a gesture like this.

“I told you you’d made an impression.” Jackson took the note from Abby so he could look at it.

“I guess we all did.” Abby wanted to downplay the note because there was something about it that made her pulse race. It seemed personal somehow, even though the wording was short and to the point. That was Marcus all over, but this gesture betrayed such thoughtfulness. She was overwhelmed.

“What does he mean, as you know there are a lot of clothes at the Embassy?”

“Never mind,” said Abby, taking the note from Jackson and carefully folding it before putting it in the pocket of her lab coat. “Let’s get these boxes inside shall we and see what exactly we’ve got.”

Chapter Text

With the dry season in full swing the weather became less humid and more bearable and Kane had resumed his lunchtime walks along the coast. They were peaceful moments, despite the security detail accompanying him everywhere. He stuck to the sidewalk although he was tempted now and then to take off his socks and shoes and run across the sand. Maybe he should do that one day, just head for the sea and shed layers of clothing as he ran before diving into the cool water. Would his security guys have to run and jump in after him? They’d think he’d gone mad. Maybe they’d just let him drown. Okay, that train of thought took a turn. He’d been doing well recently suppressing the negative thoughts. Having a purpose, a cause that he cared about, had been good for him, but they were there still, lurking. That was the trouble with suppressing things as opposed to eradicating them. They tended to spring back up like moss on waterlogged ground.

“I’m going to walk on the sand,” he said to Mburu, one of his guards, who exchanged a glance with Gibson his partner but didn’t say anything.

Kane held onto a streetlight as he pulled off his socks and shoes and rolled up his trousers. He handed the items to Mburu then headed down to the beach. The sand was warm and diamond edged beneath his feet, the sharpness making them tingle. How long since he’d done something carefree? He supposed you could call what he did in Paris carefree, he certainly hadn’t had any care for the consequences, but that had been more an indulgence of his desires than a simple, uncomplicated pleasure.

The sand wasn’t as pristine here as it was further up the coast, more of a brown than the sparkling white of the tourist beaches, the sea lacking the shades of blue and green that made people stuck in cities around the world long for some African sunshine. He wasn’t sure why it was so different when you only had to go a couple of miles for the postcard scenery. Edenville had long been a working area of fishing boats and small industry, so maybe that had altered things here, or maybe the city sprung up because of its more workaday attributes. It was a chicken and egg situation he had no answer to. The city was more real than the artificial delights of the all-inclusive resorts which he rarely visited except when the number of US tourists getting into drunken trouble exceeded his tolerance and he turned up in person to intimidate owners and guests alike into getting things under control. Which they did, for a while.

Back in his office and once again fully clothed, the sand caught between his toes made his feet itch. He’d have to find time for a shower before his final appointments of the day. Gaia entered the room with his tea and a message.

“I’ve finally got hold of that guy from RL Medical, Ambassador, well his secretary. She said he’s available at one o’clock their time, that’s two o’clock ours, so in about half an hour.”

“Oh, that’s great! Thank you, Gaia. That took longer than I expected.”

“He’s a hard guy to pin down.”

“I’d say! It’s been over a month. I could get hold of the Queen of England more easily.”

“She likes you.”

“We did connect at a dinner in Paris. Have I told you that story?”

“Yes,” said Gaia with an unamused smile. “Check your emails. There’s one from Doctor Griffin.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“It’s marked personal, so I didn’t open it.”

“I’m sure it’s not personal in whatever sense you’re implying.”

“I was implying nothing, just stating a fact.”

Kane studied Gaia who gazed back with that look of patient benevolence she used with him which he suspected was a front for her true feelings which were that he was ridiculous. She was probably right.

“Patch that Lightbourne man through to me at two,” he said.

“Yes, Sir.”

When she’d gone, he took a sip of his tea then opened his emails. He’d only spoken verbally to Abby once since his visit to Tonshasa and that was when she’d called to express her gratitude for the boxes of books and clothing he’d had sent to the camp. She’d taken to sending him emails updating him on events at the hospital and photographs of the artwork on the walls and a bookshelf one of the recovering men had built. He enjoyed receiving the updates and wondered what today’s would reveal.

Hi Marcus

The Tonshasa National Park rangers have invited me on safari next week. Good chance to see some lions and elephants! I remembered you saying you’d never been on safari and wondered if you’d like to come as my date (not date, date haha!)? Let me know asap because they need to know numbers.

Also, we need to talk supplies! Same old problems.

I’ve started reading The Seersucker Whipsaw on your recommendation. You were right! It is ridiculously close to home. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry most of the time while reading it. We can discuss when I see you if you’re brave enough to go bush ;)

Abby

Kane smiled as he read the message. How differently she spoke to him now compared to when she used to drive down to Edenville with the sole purpose of berating him. This version of her was warmer and more easy going and therefore preferable, although he suspected that would only last as long as his cooperation and usefulness. There was a challenge in her short message which basically meant he had no choice but to accept her invitation. He really should see more of the country while he was here, and a day spent in Abby’s company had its attractions. He hit reply.

Dear Abby

I should be delighted to accept your invitation to go on safari as your “date” and can assure you I am indeed brave enough. I have faced far worse, yourself being an example, and find the prospect of herds of lions and elephants a walk in the park in comparison.

Please send details – date, time etc – when you have them.

I shall look forward to discussing the Thomas book with you.

Yours,

Marcus

He read the message over, smiled at the thought of her face when she read him comparing her to a herd of elephants, and hit send. He perhaps should have told her he was speaking to the CEO of RL Medical but didn’t want to promise something he then couldn’t deliver. With any luck he’d have some good news for when he saw her.

At two his phone buzzed and it was Gaia.

“I have Russell Lightbourne for you,” she said.

“Thank you. Patch him through.” He waited for the click that told him the call had been placed. “Good afternoon, Mr Lightbourne. Thank you for taking my call. I’m Marcus Kane, United States Ambassador to the East African Republic.”

“Yes, I know who you are,” Lightbourne said in what Kane considered to be an impertinent tone. “I was surprised to hear you wanted to speak to me, Mr Ambassador.”

“You’re a difficult man to track down.”

“My business means I’m rarely in one place for long. What can I do for the United States Ambassador?”

This was where Kane had to tread carefully, because he was walking a fine line of what was within and outwith his jurisdiction. “It’s an enquiry, really, more than anything. I have a US citizen working in the Republic as a doctor with an organisation called Global Doctors. I expect you’ve heard of them.”

“Yes, of course. We’re one of their major suppliers.”

“The Global Doctors operation in the Republic has been having problems getting supplies through, and your company is the main supplier of their equipment and materials. I was wondering if you were aware of the issues they’re facing.”

There was silence for a moment, save for the long breath that Lightbourne released as he thought. “I’m not personally aware of any problems, no.”

“Doctor Griffin, my erm, the US citizen concerned, has been sending numerous emails to your organisation and has tried to phone but hasn’t received any responses.”

“I see. I can only apologise if that’s the case. My team handle enquiries: they don’t normally reach me, unless the US Ambassador gets involved of course.”

Kane sensed mockery in the man’s voice, although it could be confusion, or curiosity. It was unusual for someone like him to involve himself in an issue like this so he couldn’t blame the man for being uncertain. “The supplies are being delayed somehow, either getting here from wherever you send them or once they get into the Republic.”

“We’re based in South Africa, so our supplies are coordinated from there. There shouldn’t be any problems, but I’d be happy to look into it for you.”

“I can assure you there are problems because I’ve seen the consequences for myself. I know from my research you supply other businesses in the region. I’m surprised you haven’t had complaints from them as well.”

“As I said, I’m not aware of any complaints, but I shall personally investigate.”

“Thank you.”

“What’s the name of the doctor who’s been trying to contact us?”

“Abby Griffin at Tonshasa.”

“Right.” Kane could hear Lightbourne typing on a keyboard. “Yes, I have the details here. They’ve been getting shipments approximately every two months for the last year and a half but there are no notes attached to her file to say there have been problems or that she’s contacted us. Perhaps she’s been contacting the wrong department?”

“I doubt that. She’s extremely competent.”

“I see,” said Lightbourne in a way that made Kane feel as though he’d revealed something about himself in relation to Abby.

“They give vital humanitarian aid and therefore a reliable supply of medicines and equipment is of paramount importance as I’m sure you will understand.”

“I understand perfectly, Mr Ambassador. I will be in touch with Doctor Griffin as soon as possible.”

“I’d prefer you to relay the information to me in the first instance, and by the end of the week.” He knew he should step back now and let Lightbourne and Abby work things out together, because he had no need for any further role in this, but he couldn’t resist wanting to give Abby any news himself.

“Very well. I’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you. Good day.” Kane ended the call and sat back in his chair. He was playing a dangerous game here, getting involved so closely with the camp and the rebel zone, and what for? They were doing good work, yes, and it made him feel good to help, but it wasn’t just that. It was her. It was Abby. He knew even though everything was telling him to stop, to get out before any harm came to either of them, that he would not. He was on the ride now, and there was no getting off.

---

Abby was packing supplies into her Land Rover when she heard the gates to the compound open and a car entered, its headlights sweeping over her. It was Gaia’s small Nissan, but it was Marcus who unfolded himself from the driver’s seat, putting his arms on his back as he stretched and yawned. He was wearing khaki pants and a grey sweater and she was relieved he hadn’t come dressed in full safari gear like many of the tourists she’d seen when she’d been in the National Park. Instead he looked effortlessly handsome and like he did this kind of thing all the time. He reached into the back of the car and pulled out a backpack before heading over to Abby.

“It’s the middle of the goddamn night!” he said by way of greeting.

“Hello to you too. Are you tired?”

“Bruised would be a better description. I feel like I’ve been tossed around in a washing machine driving that thing,” he said gesturing to the car.

“It was very good of Gaia to lend it to you,” she said.

“I’m going to have to get a car,” he muttered.

“I did tell you to come up last night.”

“I had that meeting. There was no getting out of it.”

“Throw your bag in the back and we’ll get going. The rangers want to be in position by sunrise.”

Abby waved to Kioko as he let her out of the compound then turned onto the Tsevo road for a couple of miles before she’d have to turn off for the National Park. Marcus was quiet, looking out of his window at the blackness.

“There’s not much to see,” said Abby.

“I kind of like the darkness, the not knowing what’s out there.”

“That’s very philosophical of you.”

“It’s what happens when you get up three hours before you’ve gone to bed.”

Abby laughed at his joke and the Land Rover veered to the side, bumping over the hard clay before she got it back under control. “Don’t make me laugh!” she said.

“I wasn’t being funny; it’s how I feel!”

At the Tonshasa National Park Ranger Centre the rangers were loading two Land Rovers and a Landcruiser with equipment. Abby recognised one of the rangers, a woman called Indra whom she often met at meetings to discuss the conflict in the area around the Park. She was tall, dark-skinned with short, black hair tightly curled and a tattoo in the shape of some kind of sickle that covered one side of her face.

“It’s lovely to see you again, Indra,” she said.

“It’s good to see you, Abby. How are things at the hospital?”

“They don’t get any better. May I introduce my friend, Marcus.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Marcus, holding out his hand. “Thanks for letting me come on the trip.”

“Oh, you’re welcome, Marcus. Abby does so much for us, she’s a godsend sometimes, especially when we run out of medical supplies. We like to reward her when we can.”

“Speaking of supplies, I’ve got a few boxes in the Rover to unload before we go.”

Marcus helped Abby unload some medical supplies the rangers needed and store them in the Centre. They transferred their bags to one of the Park’s much larger Land Rovers and jumped in the back. Indra got in the front seat and introduced the other ranger in the vehicle as Jojo before fixing them with a stern look.

“This isn’t a tourist safari, Marcus,” she said. “We’re here to do a job and today that involves primarily surveying the animals but also some welfare management. Abby knows the drill, but you must listen to me because your life may depend on it. At no point must you get out of the vehicle unless we say it’s safe to do so. We’ll lift the roof of the Rover once we get onto site and the sun is up and you’ll be able to see everything you want from there. Do what I tell you and you’ll be fine. We’re heading out to the river for our first stop and this afternoon we’ll set up camp at the Arkana Elephant Sanctuary. We’ll go out on a game drive at sunset and then you can relax at the camp. Tomorrow if you’ve been a good boy we’ll do a foot patrol. You got that?”

“I do yes, I understand. It sounds amazing, thank you.”

“We’re here to work, so if you don’t get in our way we’ll all get along fine.”

Marcus turned to Abby when Indra had finished speaking, his eyebrows raised in amusement.

“She’s a little abrasive,” Abby whispered in his ear, “but I think she likes you.”

“How can you tell?” he whispered back.

“That was her flirting with you at the end.”

“Calling me a good boy?”

Abby grinned at him. “You’ll see. I didn’t tell her you’re the US Ambassador, I figured it might be best in case news got out.”

“You think people would wonder what I’m doing on safari with a rebel sympathiser?”

“I was thinking more of my reputation if I’m seen consorting with the enemy.”

“Oh, I’m the enemy, am I?”

“Well, you’ve gone rogue, as you and I know, but they don’t, so... it’s about how it looks.”

“The rogue and the rebel,” he said, holding her gaze. A warm shiver ran though Abby.

“A deadly combination,” she replied, her heart rate increasing as he continued to stare.

“That remains to be seen.” He looked for a moment longer, then turned to the window where a faint glow was starting to bloom to the east.

Abby looked at the back of his dark head, wondering what all this meant. She wasn’t sure if he was teasing, which he liked to do, or flirting with her. Either way it was thrilling to be in the game again, if indeed they were.

---

Kane stared out of the window as they bumped along dusty tracks with the sky lightening all around them. The vegetation thinned and the sunrise spread a pink glow over the savanna. He was uplifted, by the view and by his conversation with Abby. Their interactions had become part teasing and part flirting and he was enjoying it. She made him smile, got his heart racing, and he thought she felt the same. This was going to be an interesting day.

A lone acacia tree stood in the middle of the vast grasslands. Beneath it there was a shape, no, two shapes as one moved, and the dark mass separated.

“There’s something there,” Kane said, and Abby scooted closer to his side so she could see.

“Oh, there is!”

The vehicle came to a stop and they all looked out at the tree. Kane cranked the window and cool air filtered in, bringing with it bird song and animal cries.

“Lions,” said Indra, peering at them through binoculars.

Kane fumbled in his bag for his binoculars and focused on the animals. They were silhouettes against the dawn sky so he couldn’t make out much detail, but they were definitely lion shaped.

“Two females. Probably Bibi and Bala. We see them often here,” said Indra.

“Amazing.”

“You’re missing the most obvious thing,” said Indra with amusement.

“What’s that?”

“Look to the left and the top of that rise.”

Kane swung his binoculars in that direction and saw dozens of dark shapes against the sky, most with their heads down as they grazed. “What are they?”

“Zebra.”

“Oh, great!” He turned smiling towards Abby.

“You’ll get better views than this soon,” she said.

The vehicle set off again and Indra turned to look at them. “Is there anything you would like to see, Abby?”

“I haven’t seen rhino yet. They eluded us last time.”

“Oh, they did, yes. We’re going to the river today where they’re often seen, so you might be lucky.”

“I hope so.”

They came to a river a few minutes later but evidently not the one Indra had referred to because they drove straight into this one, bouncing over a rocky path that rose partially from the water. Kane gripped the handle above the window to stop himself hitting the roof. The sun was fully up now, the sky turning from pinky-grey to blue.

“Here’s your first proper view, Marcus,” said Indra as the Rover stopped. “Might be a good time to open the roof.”

While she came into the back of the vehicle and fiddled with the roof, Kane stared out at the herd of elephants that were standing in a small group maybe twenty, thirty feet from the car. He counted five adults and three young. The adults were huge, their bodies red-grey from the dust. They brushed the ground with their long trunks, snuffling, sweeping. With the roof lifted he was able to stand and scan the group carefully.

“Aren’t they majestic?” said Abby who was squashed next to him.

“Beautiful.”

“I think they’re my favourite; people call them lumbering but I think they’re graceful. Oh, there’s a couple of lions! One of them is lazing around but the other’s stalking the elephants.” She pointed to the track ahead where a male lion with a big shaggy mane was lying on the road while the female stared intently at the herd.

“Typical man,” said Indra. “Doing nothing while the woman works.”

Abby laughed and Kane nudged her. “Hey, some of us do more than our share of the work.”

“Because you don’t have a woman,” she said, jostling him back.

“So you assume, and that’s very sexist of you both.”

“Are you unattached, Marcus?” said Indra.

“Currently, although I know that’s difficult to believe.”

“He thinks a lot of himself, Abby.”

“Someone has to,” replied Abby with a smirk.

“And I suppose you two are turning hordes of men away are you?”

“My ex-husband turned me off, but I could make an exception...” said Indra with a lascivious smile.

“Told you,” whispered Abby.

“What about you, Abby?” said Kane, ignoring her whisper because he wanted to take this opportunity to see how she would respond. “Is there anyone special in your life?”

“You mean other than you, Marcus?”

“You know, I think I preferred it when you hated me.”

She raised both eyebrows at him as if to say what’s changed? “Keep lining ‘em up, I’ll keep hitting ‘em out the park.”

“You think you’re funny,” he murmured.

“I do.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.” They were staring at each other now, her dark eyes mere inches away from his.

She leaned even closer, put her lips against his ear so her breath tickled his skin. “I’m waiting for my prince to come along,” she said, and then she leaned back and laughed.

Kane failed in his attempt to keep a straight face. He was about to reply with a quip when he saw movement and the female lion was stalking towards the herd of elephants.

“Oh, God, I hope she’s not going to take one of the youngsters,” he said, alarmed.

The herd shuffled closer; the young elephants gathered up by the older ones. The largest of the elephants stood her ground, stared at the lion. The lion stared back. Kane tensed. He heard Abby take in a sharp breath next to him. There was more staring, and then the lion backed away. The elephants moved off and Kane let out a sigh of relief.

“That’s why I love the elephants,” said Abby. “They’re brave and loyal and they take no crap.”

Like you, Kane thought, though he didn’t voice it. They continued their journey to the river, he and Abby clinging onto the roof as they watched the landscape go by. He’d thought it would be difficult finding the animals but they were everywhere – zebra, leopards, lions, elephants, birds – grazing the savanna, lazing by the side of the road, standing in front of the Rover staring at them before finally letting them pass. Abby had a camera with a large lens, and she took photographs every time they stopped.

At the river there were zebra wallowing in the water but no rhino. Indra and Jojo surveyed the animals and made notes while Kane and Abby scanned the sights. Indra’s radio crackled and she answered it in Swahili.

“There are rhino further upriver,” she said when she’d finished her conversation. “We’ll go there now and then we can have snacks and if it’s safe you can stretch your legs.”

“Oh, that would be awesome!” said Abby, a huge smile on her face.

Further upriver there were indeed rhino – huge beasts all muscle and strength with big horns. They could flip the Land Rover easily if they wanted to. Kane hadn’t thought about rhino often in his life, but he’d assumed they were fat for some reason. They were big, yes, but their grey hides were stretched tight over bony spines and ribs. There was a young one standing close to the car and Kane could count its ribs as it moved. It stared at him and he stared back. He thought it looked sad, but it was probably simply curious.

“This is just amazing!” said Abby, clicking away with her camera.

“Better than you thought?” said Kane.

“Yeah, but then nothing here ever disappoints. It’s just so beautiful.”

They drove a short way up onto a ridge so they were enough of a distance from the animals to be able to get out. It was good to feel solid ground and Kane stretched his legs, couldn’t help yawning as he did so. It was hot without the breeze the car created and he peeled off his sweater. He’d like to take off his t-shirt as well but Indra was watching him out of the corner of her eye and he didn’t want to encourage whatever flirtatious feelings she was having. He found a comfortable looking lump of grass and sat on it, took an orange out of his bag and started to peel it. Abby came and sat next to him.

“Are you still tired?” she said.

“My body is, but my mind’s very much awake.” He offered her a slice of orange and she took it.

“What do you think of your first safari, then?”

“I’m very grateful you invited me. Thank you.”

“It’s fun. It’s nice to have a break. I don’t get away from the camp often, except when I come and see you.” She smiled at him and Kane returned her smile.

“This is the first time I’ve done something unrelated to work since I came here.”

“You’re kidding? I mean I thought I was bad but at least I’ve been on a couple of outings.”

Kane popped a slice of orange in his mouth and sucked on it. “I’ve been very unmotivated for a lot of things, myself included.”

“Well, I’m glad you dragged yourself out here.” She bumped her shoulder against his and he returned the gesture and they sat on the warm grass shoulder to shoulder, staring down at the river and the rhinos.

“I am too,” he said.

Chapter Text

The ranger convoy reached their afternoon stop just after midday. Arkana Sanctuary was an area a couple of miles from the river reserved for ranger training and dedicated to elephant conservation. Abby and Marcus helped the other ranger teams unload the Landcruiser and put up camp before erecting the small canvas tents where they would sleep. Other tents including a large mess tent and one that functioned as a latrine were permanently in place at the camp. Jojo brought them camp beds and Abby unrolled her sleeping bag and placed it on the bed with her blow-up pillow which she put into its soft casing. She had no problem roughing it, but she had to have a good pillow or else she couldn’t sleep, and this was the best she’d ever found. Small enough to fit inside her backpack, but big and soft and comfy once she’d blown enough air into it.

Marcus was coming out of his own tent as she left hers, yawning again.

“Why don’t you have a nap? We’ve got a couple of hours before we need to go out again.”

“There are things to do, aren’t there? I don’t want to leave it to you,” he said, yawning once more.

“You’ll be more use later when we have to prepare dinner in the dark. Go and lie down. I’ll wake you at three if you’re not up by then.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

He smiled gratefully then disappeared into his tent. Abby went to the mess tent where two of the rangers were eating snacks at long wooden tables and Indra and Jojo were cleaning the pots and pans they’d be using later.

“I’ll do that,” said Abby.

“It’s fine. You’re our guest,” said Indra.

“I don’t mind, and you must have work to do.”

“We have our notes to write up,” said Jojo.

“You go and do that, then. I’ll sort everything here.”

“We’ll sit at the table then we can talk,” said Indra, taking a seat at a bench made from the trunks of large trees. “Where’s Marcus?”

“He’s resting. He hasn’t slept properly in a while.”

“Ah,” she said, a knowing look on her face. “Are you dating? I thought you were both single.”

“Oh, we’re not dating. He told me, that’s all, on the way up, that he hadn’t slept.”

“How do you know him?”

“He’s erm, through Global Doctors, he’s... he helps us with our supplies. I don’t see him often but last time we met he said he’d never been on safari so when you offered to take me, I thought it would be a good opportunity for him. He works hard; doesn’t get much time off.” She was aware that she was over explaining and could see from Indra’s face that she was aware of it too.

“I see. He’s a nice guy. Very good looking.”

“Yeah. He knows it too,” said Abby.

“Yes.” Indra laughed and Abby joined in.

“If you’re not dating then maybe the way is clear for me.”

“Erm, I guess. Yes. Erm, I don’t really know what he...I don’t know him that well.” She looked down at the pot she was wiping so she wouldn’t have to look at Indra’s face. The prospect of someone wanting to date Marcus shouldn’t cause her any problems and yet something in her stomach churned at the thought.

“We shall see,” said Indra, and Abby glanced up and flashed a quick smile before returning to her task.

By three, Indra and Jojo were preparing the Rover for the afternoon drive and there was no sign of Marcus. Abby went over to his tent, undid the flap and poked her head inside. He was lying on his back on his camp bed, one arm over his chest, the other flung out to the side. He was dressed only in his boxer shorts and Abby felt little shame in looking at him. She’d seen most of him before after all, when he’d stripped off his t-shirt at the hospital. It was only his bare legs that were new. It was a terrible excuse for ogling him, but she stuck with it. His legs were as lean and muscled as his torso, the same olive brown, the hairs sparse and soft-looking. Did he manscape, as they called it? Wax his legs and his chest, because in Abby’s experience men as dark as him were usually really hairy, but Marcus was smooth skinned. There was a mark on his thigh, circular, puckered and pink. It looked like an old gunshot wound, she’d seen enough of them to know. From his army days, perhaps?

“Are you examining me, doctor?” he muttered from the bed, shocking Abby as she’d assumed he was asleep.

“I, erm. No. It’s time to get up.”

“Mmm. ‘kay.” He stretched his arms above his head so that his body grew taut and his stomach hollowed, his chest and ribs puffing out. He was doing that to tease her she had no doubt.

“I’ll be outside,” she said, pulling the flaps closed in a hurry.

Marcus emerged a few minutes later, dressed in his khakis and t-shirt. “Thank you for letting me rest,” he said as he flung his backpack into the Rover.

“I’m sorry I had to wake you, unless you were already awake?” She wanted to ascertain how long he’d known she was looking at him, and how he’d known as his eyes were shut.

“If you want to know how I knew you were ogling me, your heavy breathing gave it away,” he said looking at her smugly.

The bastard was too clever for his own good! “I was NOT heavy breathing!” She got into the back of the Rover and he plonked next to her.

“Relax. I heard, I think, the rustle of the flap, and I thought you were going to say something, but you didn’t, so I figured you couldn’t help yourself. I don’t blame you. I’m an arresting sight.”

“You’re an absolute bastard,” she said laughing.

“You already know that.”

Jojo and Indra jumped into the car and they set off once again for the afternoon game drive.

“You look well rested, Marcus,” said Indra.

“I’m ready for anything you’ve got now, Indra.”

“I like the sound of that,” she said, and Abby had to look out of the window because she didn’t want to catch Indra’s or Marcus’s eye and betray her feelings about their flirting.

Back on the game drive and they drove away from the river deep into the savanna where there was nothing for miles except grass that was already becoming parched in places and acacia trees that stood above everything like sentries surveying their positions. Marcus was perched on the hood of the Land Rover surveying the herds of zebra, elephant and giraffe that were visible in front of them and shouting out numbers and any details he could see to Indra who was perched next to him writing it all down.

Abby was on the other side of the Rover, watching two baby elephants playing and rolling in the grass. One was pushing the other over, tormenting it, preventing it from trying to get back up. They were siblings maybe. Did elephants have more than one baby? She wasn’t sure. She turned to ask Indra, but she was talking to Marcus.

“You are good at this. Your eye is true,” she was saying.

“It’s very enjoyable,” said Marcus.

“I’m sure, but not many people can see the way you do or have the patience to keep looking and counting. Have you done something like this before?”

“Perhaps. In another life.”

“I am intrigued. What did you do?”

Abby waited to see what he would say, because he hadn’t been too keen on telling her the story of his army days when he’d been at the hospital. Was he going to tell this virtual stranger?

“Just birdwatching with my father when I was young.” He gave Indra a tight smile.

“That is good practice.”

“Yes.”

Abby returned her focus to the antics of the elephants. The one who was being tormented had got to its feet and was now pushing the other one which fell to the ground. The first baby stood looking down at it with what Abby chose to interpret as triumph. She smiled. She was so engrossed she didn’t realise Marcus was standing next to her until his acacia scent wafted over her. She looked up from her binoculars.

“Hi,” she said.

“What are you watching?”

“Two baby elephants play fighting. It’s funny.”

They watched the elephants together for a few minutes. “They must be related,” said Marcus.

“That’s what I thought, but I’m not sure elephants have more than one baby.”

“Cousins then.”

“Yeah.”

“I have some news for you later,” he said, lowering his binoculars.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“You’ll have to wait until later.”

“What? Why can’t you tell me now?”

“Because it’s too much information to give here.”

“Then why say anything at all?”

“Give you something to look forward to,” he said, leaning towards her with a smug grin.

“Why are you such a tease?”

“Because you’re an easy mark, like that baby elephant on the ground there.”

Abby looked at the elephants then back at him. “Just so you know, that baby elephant was the one doing the tormenting a minute ago.”

“Is that a warning to me?”

“Take it however you like.”

He took in a deep breath then let it out slowly while looking at her as though she was some amusing curiosity. “I like a challenge,” he said, and then he leant back against the side of the car and lifted his binoculars. Abby stared at his profile. His thin lips were set in his usual half smirk and part of her wanted to wipe the smile off his face and another part...

“We’d better get moving,” said Indra, appearing beside them. “I want to check the watering hole before the sun sets.”

---

It was dark when they returned to camp. They unpacked the Rovers by the light of hurricane lamps. There was a chill in the air now the sun had gone, and Kane got his sweater from his tent and pulled it on. In the Mess tent Abby was in the kitchen area, chopping at something. The memory of tents just like this in days gone by hit Kane and made him feel nostalgic but nauseous, which was how thoughts about his time in the army usually made him feel. It was why he suppressed them as much as he could. The smell was the same, that kind of boiled cabbage smell that every Mess kitchen seemed to have no matter what was cooking. The table Abby was cutting the vegetables on was made from tree trunks and salvaged wood. The sink was a metal bowl set into a handmade wooden frame complete with draining area. The water was all connected, though; you didn’t have to go and collect it like he’d done more times than he could remember.

Abby looked up and saw him. “Hey,” she said, giving him that wry smile she had that made him think that she was constantly evaluating him and he was constantly found wanting.

“Hi. What are you doing?”

“Just doing the prep for dinner.”

“I can do that if you want.” He walked to her side of the table, stood next to her.

“It’s okay.”

“No, please. I’m no good at the actual cooking but I can wield a knife like a pro.”

“Okay, that would be great!” She handed him the knife and Kane took over chopping the carrots, peppers and potatoes.

“What are we having?”

“Stew with ugali.” She added chopped onions and tomatoes to a pot and started to sauté them.

“I’ve never had ugali,” Kane said.

Abby looked at him astonished. “How long have you been here?”

“What seems like half a lifetime.”

She tutted. “And you’ve never had ugali.”

“The embassy serves mainly American food and some local delicacies but never this. Even the dinners I’ve been to at the Palace haven’t served it.”

“It’s a staple.”

“I know, but I guess it’s because you have to eat it with your hands and most of the events I go to are formal.”

“You really haven’t lived, Marcus.”

“I’ve lived plenty, just not here in the Republic.”

Indra entered the tent and came over to them. “We’ve finished our work for the night. The guys are getting the campfire going. I thought it would be nice to eat outside if the flies aren’t too much.”

“Oh, definitely,” said Abby.

Indra eyed them both up. “You don’t have to cook, Abby. I can take over now.”

“It’s fine. I want to. My way of saying thank you.”

“I’m happy to help.”

“There’s no need. Marcus and I have it under control. I’ve made this before many times.”

Abby’s tone seemed friendly but to Kane’s ear there was an edge to it, one of polite dismissal. Indra stood silently for a moment, and then she nodded and left. Kane considered making a quip and decided against it. He’d teased Abby enough today. He thought she enjoyed it, but there was a fine line between teasing and annoying someone, and he didn’t want to cross that. Not tonight.

“Can you chop this meat?” Abby said when he’d passed the vegetables to her.

It was a cut of beef thankfully, not a goat which he’d once had to butcher back when. He sliced into the meat. The memories were close to the surface tonight, threatening to break through like the bubbles in the sauce Abby was making. He needed a distraction.

“So, are you dying to know what I had to tell you earlier?”

“I’ve thought of little else,” she replied sarcastically.

He ignored the sarcasm, which was deserved he couldn’t deny. “A few days ago I finally managed to track down the CEO of RL Medical.” He watched her, waiting for her reaction. She looked up in surprise.

“Really?”

“Yes. He’s called Russell Lightbourne and he was a devil to get hold of, but I persevered and spoke to him on Monday. He claimed to know nothing about your problems and there was no record of your calls or emails.”

“What?” she said incredulously, holding a spoon dripping with sauce in the air. “I called that place every day sometimes twice AND emailed them.”

“I know. I have no doubt that you did. I’m telling you what he said.”

“Well, he’s either seriously misinformed or he’s lying!”

“You might want to put that spoon back in the pot before you get covered in sauce.”

Abby looked down at her shirt where a huge blob of tomatoey sauce was spreading like a blood stain across the white. “Damn it!”

To Kane’s delight she took off the shirt so she was clad only in a dark blue vest which accentuated the parts of her he’d enjoyed looking at when he’d taken her to the Palace. He kept his eyes firmly on her face, however, in case she decided quite rightly that she didn’t want to be ogled and went to put on another shirt. She dumped the stained shirt in the sink with some warm water. “I’ll have to let that soak.”

“It’s warm in here anyway,” he said, ignoring the fact he had on a t-shirt and sweater.

“Yeah. So, I assume you have more to tell me other than that guy is a lying toerag?”

“I do! I told him to get some information to me by the end of the week and yesterday he returned my call. He was full of apologies, said your calls had somehow not been logged and they’d had a problem with their IT system which had resulted in a number of emails, not just yours, getting lost.”

“Bullshit!”

“I agree. However, he said that the delays you’d been experiencing were partly to do with their procurement system, problems with their own suppliers and also some logistical issues they were having with the government here, which frankly we were expecting because Pike had the same problems, didn’t he, except going in the other direction.”

“That’s true, but it smacks of an excuse not a reason to me.”

“That may be, but you’re on his radar now, and he said that he will make sure that your next shipment arrives on time. He said you could call him personally to place the order and he would see it through.”

Abby’s annoyed frown turned into a smile as she listened to him. It spread all over her face, lighting it up, making her cheekbones stand out sharper than the knife he was cutting the meat with. She was beautiful when she smiled like that. She was beautiful all the time, but especially so when she smiled. He was glad he’d made Lightbourne send the information through him, because the way she was looking at him now was his reward for risking his reputation for her.

“Thank you so much, Marcus! That’s amazing! Oh, thank you!” She leaned across and kissed his cheek and he put his arm on her back to hold her there just for a millisecond. She smelled of fresh air and spices.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

“As soon as we get back I’ll call him, place the order. Oh, this is such good news! I’m so grateful to you.”

“It was no problem,” he said, which in one sense was true because Gaia had done all the hard work tracking the man down and arranging the call, but it was his reputation, his position that was at stake.

“No. You worked so hard for me and I know that it isn’t straightforward for you. I do know that, despite how I speak to you sometimes.” She grinned and then she kissed him again, just a quick peck on his cheek.

Kane couldn’t help a sigh of happiness that escaped him. This was definitely the distraction he needed. Abby was a balm to his soul, even when she was berating him.

“Anything I can do. You only have to ask.”

“I will.” She beamed at him then returned to her stew.

Kane put the meat into another pan at her direction so she could sear it, and they spent a pleasant hour cooking and chatting about the hospital and how well the items he’d donated had been received.

When the food was ready everyone filled their platters and took them outside. Kane was last to leave and was annoyed to see the log seats next to Abby were already taken up. He had to sit on the other side of the campfire next to Indra. The night had cooled further and Abby had put a jacket over her vest. She smiled across at him as he took his seat and he returned her smile.

He watched her as she rolled some of her ugali into a ball and poked her thumb into it before scooping up some stew with it and popping the whole lot into her mouth. She’d been right to mock him for his lack of knowledge about the local cuisine. He’d been unwilling to immerse himself in the local culture because that would make it seem like he’d be here forever, and that was the last thing he wanted. He copied her and scooped up some stew. The ugali tasted remarkably like popcorn and the stew was rich and spicy.

“This is amazing, Abby,” he said.

“Oh, thanks. We eat it a lot at the camp.”

“You know how to make it well,” said Indra.

“I’m honoured you like it. I was wondering, Indra, how the elephant sanctuary is doing after last year’s problems?”

“We are nearly back on our feet. Tomorrow you can come and see if you don’t have to rush back.”

Abby glanced at Marcus who nodded. “That would be great, Indra,” he said.

They ate their meal and talked about conservation and the double-edged sword that was tourism. The rebellion affected them more here than at other nature reserves in the country because it was on the doorstep. Wildlife crime was a way of getting money to fund weapons and was a constant battle for the rangers. Kane listened with interest for the most part, only occasionally drifting away into memories of other nights like this, before pulling himself back because that wasn’t a rabbit hole he wanted to fall down.

The fire crackled and sent sparks shooting into the blackness, the heat from it warming his face. The tsetse flies that bugged them during the day were thankfully absent now that the air was cool. Moths fluttered and one landed on Kane’s leg, a pale one with pink lines on its wings that formed an upside-down vee when closed. He held his finger next to it and after a moment it crawled onto it, its feathery legs ticklish against his finger. He smiled, and when he looked up, he saw Abby was watching him.

“Abby said you work in supplies, Marcus.” Indra’s voice interrupted the reverie he was slipping into while looking at Abby through the flames of the fire.

“Did she?” he said, confused as to why she would tell Indra that.

“Yes. She said you help her get her medical supplies.”

“Oh. Yes, I erm, I guess you could say I am an intermediary, a facilitator.”

“I see, and what brings you to Africa?”

Guilt, he thought. “Adventure. An opportunity for something different.”

“You are an adventurous man,” she said, her black eyes boring into his. She had an interesting face, and not just because of the tattoo that curved around one eye like the letter C trapped between two lines. It must mean something he supposed, but he didn’t know what. She had scars too, on her chin and beneath the other eye.

“When the mood takes me. What does the tattoo mean?” He traced its shape in the air a few inches away from her face, trying to figure it out. That was a mistake, because she took his hand and put his fingers on it, tracing it on her skin instead. It was too intimate an act for Kane, especially with someone he didn’t know, someone who was perhaps interested in him, as Abby seemed to think, but he didn’t want to pull his hand away in case it offended Indra. He let her do it, then when she dropped their joined hands, he pulled his fingers from hers as carefully as he could.

“It is part of the symbol of my tribe. We are a warrior clan,” she said, before going on to tell him about her people.

---

Abby watched the flames from the fire as they danced, sending wisps of smoke and red embers high into the air. Through the flames she saw Marcus and Indra talking to each other, and then Marcus had his hand on Indra’s face, stroking it, tracing the contours of her cheek. What the hell? Indra was doing most of the talking but Marcus seemed rapt with attention. Abby couldn’t see them clearly because of the fire but she was sure they were holding hands. She didn’t know what to think! She knew Indra was attracted to Marcus, but he hadn’t given any indication he felt the same and even if he did, surely no one went from hardly having met, to touching each other intimately within the space of a few hours? Maybe they did. Maybe she was the odd one because she liked to get to know people, to get their measure before she committed any part of herself in any way.

She felt angry, and disappointed with Marcus. She’d thought they were establishing a friendship, a connection. He teased her and she teased him and they both enjoyed it or so she’d thought. Now, barely an hour after telling Abby how he’d risked himself for her and letting her kiss him in gratitude, even though it was just on the cheek, he was seducing another woman or allowing himself to be seduced. Either way it was galling.

Jojo, who was sitting on one side of her, wasn’t much of a talker but he turned to her now and started discussing the elephants they would see in the sanctuary the next day and Abby was grateful for the distraction. She entered into the conversation wholeheartedly and tried not to notice or care when Indra and Marcus got up and disappeared into the Mess tent together. They reappeared a few minutes later with jugs of a milky liquid she recognised as palm wine. Oh, good! A drink was just what she needed; it would loosen her up, because she was becoming obsessed with Marcus and Indra and it was stupid - the consequence of being alone in a place like this, doing the job she did. Everything was intense and heightened, and you started to live your whole life in that way, obsessing, micromanaging, anything to give yourself a sense of control in a world of chaos.

She took the glass proffered by Marcus and returned the smile he was giving her even though she didn’t feel like doing it. The more you smile, the happier you feel her father used to say. It worked, some of the time. They talked as a group, drank more palm wine, and Abby relaxed, started to feel mellow. A couple of the rangers left and a quieter, more contemplative mood took over. Abby sipped her wine, stared at the fire, drifted into a peaceful trance. Someone sat next to her and when she turned her heavy head to see who it was, Marcus was looking at her, his half smile warm, his eyes twinkling in the reflected light of the fire.

“Hello,” Abby said.

“Hello. Are you having a nice time?”

“Yes. Are you?”

“I am. It’s been a great day, really interesting.” He took a sip of wine, looked at the fire.

“We didn’t talk about that book, the Whipcracker whatever.”

Marcus smiled. “The Seersucker Whipsaw, although I would love to discuss a book about a whip cracker with you.”

There he was again, teasing, flirting. Wasn’t one woman enough for him? “You probably think that’s me, yeah, someone who cracks the whip, bosses people around?”

“You are the boss, though, aren’t you? The one in charge.”

“Hmm.”

“You do a great job.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence, watching the fire. “Where’s Indra?” Abby said eventually.

“In the Mess, I think. They’re having a planning session or something, I don’t know.”

“She’s a nice woman.”

“Yeah. She, erm, she tried to start something with me before, when we were getting the drinks in the tent.”

Abby turned in surprise, not at what he’d said because she’d suspected they were up to something in there, but how he’d said it and why he was telling her. “Did she?”

“Yeah.” He laughed softly.

“That’s... that’s great. She’s, erm, she’s great, like I said.”

“I’m sure she is. Not for me, though.”

“No?”

“No.” He smiled again, his eyes roaming her face as though he was examining her.

“I thought you seemed... I thought you liked her... your hand, her face.” She mimed him touching Indra’s tattoo.

“You saw that did you?” He huffed a laugh. “I wasn’t given much choice. She’s a determined woman.”

“She is.” Abby turned back to the fire, happy to have been wrong, though unsure why Marcus had felt the need to tell her.

“The sky is beautiful,” Marcus said, making Abby look up. It was inky blue, the stars purple and white and orange, clustered in their millions.

“It feels heavy.”

“Yeah. When I was in the army I sometimes bivvyed rather than sleeping in my tent. I liked to look at the stars, fall asleep to them.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

Marcus sat straighter. “We could do it. Get our sleeping bags, bring them out here.”

“What, now?”

“Yeah. Just for a while. Come on.” He jumped up and headed towards his tent. Abby sat for a moment, unsure what he was asking here, what he wanted, if anything, and then she got up too and went to her tent for her bag and her pillow.

“What on earth is that?” said Marcus when he saw it.

“It’s very comfortable. I don’t go anywhere without it,” she said, putting her bag on the ground next to his and lying on top of it, the pillow beneath her neck.

“It’s enormous!”

“You’re just jealous,” she said, wriggling until she got her head in the perfect position.

“I could probably fit my head on that as well if I squished up to you.”

“Well you’re not doing that, so tough.”

“Spoilsport,” he said smirking.

They lay inches apart, staring up at the sky. The buzz of cicadas filled the air and out on the savanna animals were calling. A monkey chittered in a tree close by.

“That monkey will be eyeing up our food supplies,” Abby said.

“As long as it’s not eyeing us up.”

“What was it like in Iraq?” she said, not sure if he would answer, but he’d brought the subject up earlier, sort of, so she thought she’d try.

“Like here I suppose. Beautiful, crazy, boring for long periods of time, terrifying at others. Life could go from mundane to hellish in a matter of moments, so that gave it an edge. You probably know something about that.”

“Yeah, like on that day you came to visit it was such a good day. No emergencies, everyone settled, time to get on with things. Time for conversation, some semblance of normality, and then that can be shattered in an instant. I don’t feel the danger myself, though, not like you must have.”

“I often think it’s like living a parallel life when you’re in a danger zone like that. There’s one part of you, what you might think of as the essence of you – the boy who watched birds with his dad, the young man who chased girls, worried what to do with his life, the man who goes to the movies, and reads everything he can get his hands on, and one day will lie beneath the stars with a beautiful woman – and there’s another part that is completely focussed, who knows what he’s doing, who takes the danger in his stride, who doesn’t feel the fear, and they’re both there, they’re the same person, but one is at the fore and that person takes over and the other part of you... that part doesn’t feel the consequences until later, when it’s over, except of course it’s never over, because that man has to live with what the other did.”

Abby turned her head so she could look at Marcus. He was more of a shape now than anything clearly defined, the fire having died low. He was still staring at the stars. He must have been through something terrible to talk about having to live with himself, but she didn’t want to push him too soon.

“We do what we have to in order to survive,” she murmured.

“Yeah,” he said softly.

She reached across, felt for his fingers with hers. He gripped them, and they lay like that, holding hands, unspeaking, lost in their thoughts and memories.

“Jackson, my assistant, organises games nights for us sometimes, to relieve the tension, you know. We line up empty medicine bottles, the big ones, and we play skittles, and one time he filled a colostomy bag with M&Ms and we hit it like a piñata.” Abby laughed at the memory. “Sometimes I think if people saw us, the patients or even some of the other aid workers, they would think we were the most awful people.”

Marcus laughed. “Doctors have the blackest humour in my experience. We were like that as well. You have to be otherwise you’d go mad. Sinclair, he was my second in command, he used to organise a kind of mini Olympics. There’d be shooting and hunting and races but they were makeshift, and he always did something to make you laugh, like he’d paint faces on the tin cans we were shooting, but they wouldn’t be faces of the enemy like you’d expect. One time they were all pictures of me, so I was forced to shoot myself and that was harder than you’d imagine, and I missed, and he won. He was a bastard like that. You think I’m bad, but he was worse.”

Abby could hear the smile in his voice, the affection and the pleasure that the memory was giving him and was glad, because she’d wanted to lift his mood if she could, get him to think of something positive because there were always good times, even amongst the absolute worst. You had to cling to those.

“He sounds like a hoot!”

“He was... he was.” Marcus dropped her hand and turned onto his side so he was looking at Abby, so she did the same. “Thank you for doing this with me. Thank you for inviting me on the trip. It’s been wonderful.”

“You’re welcome. I’m really enjoying it.”

“I am too.” He sighed, and then he reached across and stroked her hair, tucked a strand of it behind her ear. “I should get some sleep. Still need to catch up on last night.”

He stood and held out his hand to Abby who grasped it and let him pull her up. Marcus gathered up his sleeping bag and Abby did the same, tucking her enormous pillow under one arm.

“I’m definitely jealous of that pillow,” Marcus said, and then he put his arm around her back, drew her to him and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Night, Abby.”

“Night, Marcus.”

She watched as he walked to his tent, undid the flap and disappeared inside. Something was happening between them, but she wasn’t sure if it was a blossoming friendship or something more. He seemed to want to take things slowly whatever it was, which was fine by her. Mostly. She went into her own tent, flopped onto her sleeping bag fully clothed and was asleep within a minute.

Chapter Text

Two days later Abby sat in her office and dialled the number Marcus had given her on their return from safari. It rang several times and she was starting to think it wouldn’t be answered when a low male voice spoke in her ear.

“Russell Lightbourne.”

“Mr Lightbourne, it’s Doctor Griffin from Global Doctors in Tonshasa. I believe you’re expecting my call?”

“Aah, Doctor Griffin, the Ambassador’s friend. I was expecting you, yes.”

Friend? Was that how Marcus had characterised their relationship to this man? It didn’t seem very professional, but then perhaps he’d wanted to take the focus away from his formal role as Ambassador.

“Ambassador Kane was kind enough to contact you on my behalf, yes. I’d been having trouble getting hold of anyone at your company.”

“So he said, and as he must have told you, it was a series of unfortunate events that led to us losing all trace of your messages.”

A catalogue of errors at best, Abby thought. She didn’t believe the man’s excuse for the lack of communication and was about to say that when she remembered what Marcus had said at the party about there being many ways to accomplish a goal. She couldn’t argue with that now because his skills in diplomacy had led to this call. She swallowed her disbelief and spoke in a neutral tone.

“Thank you for agreeing to help personally with the next shipment. I have a list of requirements if you can take these down.”

She heard Lightbourne’s breath hitch on the other end of the phone, as though he was suppressing a laugh.

“You are very direct. I like that.”

“I need these supplies, Mr Lightbourne. They’re the only thing that matters to me.”

“Of course, and call me Russell, please. Mr Lightbourne is too formal now that we are personally acquainted.”

“It’s quite a long list, Russell, so I hope you have something to take notes on.”

“I’m ready for you, Doctor Griffin,” he said, as though to give her the opportunity of giving him the same courtesy of calling her by her first name. She wasn’t going to. She didn’t trust him and wouldn’t even start to until the first shipment arrived on time as he promised.

“Here we go, then.”

She read out a long list of supplies and was gratified to hear his keyboard clicking as he typed the items hopefully directly into the procurement system.

“Everything apart from the chest drains are in stock,” said Russell.

“Those are vital. I deal mainly with gunshot wounds which includes thoracic trauma - pneumothorax, haemothorax. I can’t function without the drains.”

“The problem is with our suppliers. The last batch they sent were poor quality. We’re sourcing them from a new supplier.”

“You need to make that a priority.”

“You don’t need to tell me how to do my job. You’re not our only customer, you know.”

Abby sensed amusement rather than anger in his voice, and that irked her, because it meant he wasn’t taking her seriously. “Are other customers getting chest drains?”

“Those who put in orders before you will obviously get the remainder of our current stock.”

“Can’t you at least split the orders – give me part of theirs and then share the rest out when you have them?”

“I... That is... No, I don’t see how I can do that. They were in front of you in the queue it’s as simple as that.”

Abby took a deep breath, tried to channel Marcus and his diplomacy. “I understand that, and I understand the position you’re in. Perhaps you could give me their names. I’ll call them and explain the situation and see if they’re willing to take a part order.”

“I really can’t do that, Doctor Griffin. I’m sure you know I can’t.” He sighed loudly, probably to make sure she knew what a pain she was. “Leave it with me. I’ll see what I can do, but in the meantime I’m sure you won’t want to hold up this order any longer. I’ll have it sent to you and try to ensure there are no delays at the border or in Edenville this time.”

There was clearly little Abby could do other than storm down to wherever his warehouse was and liberate the equipment for herself. “Fine. Okay. Thank you. Please keep me informed.”

“You can rest assured, and I am already looking forward to our future communications.”

Abby knew sarcasm when she heard it, but she closed her ears to it. “I will look forward to hearing from you sooner rather than later, then.”

“You will. Goodbye, Doctor Griffin, and thank you for your continued custom with RL Medical.”

Yeah, yeah, thought Abby, and she disconnected the call without replying. The man thought she was amusing, someone to be placated and dismissed. Well, she was going to call him every day for an update until the shipment arrived and see how he liked that.

---

Kane was sitting in his office eating an apple and reading his emails in between meetings when a message from Abby dropped into his inbox and he clicked on it.

Hi Marcus!

Sorry I haven’t been in touch since we got back from safari. It’s been so busy here unfortunately. A fresh bout of fighting over near Tsevo meant we were inundated with the wounded. More lived than died for the first time in a while so I’m chalking it up as a success – go me! (Doctors’ humour – I know you understand it).

Got through to that Russell Lightbourne guy a few days ago – thanks again for his number – and new supplies are on the way!! Can’t come soon enough. I got the feeling he wasn’t taking me seriously, so I called him every day and after three days he said the supplies had shipped and to stop calling him! I guess he’d had enough of me. I’m sure you can empathise with him :) He can’t get chest drains which I desperately need so I’m having to improvise. I made one this morning out of an IV bag, a water bottle, and some old tubing and it worked okay but no substitute for the real thing obviously. If you have any chest drains hanging around in closets in that old mansion of yours then send em my way!

I’m attaching some pictures from our safari I thought you might like to see. We’ll have to do something again if we both get time – continue your cultural education. Call me sometime – evening is best if the cell reception works.

I better go – have to work on my critique of the Whip Cracker for when next we meet ;)

Love,

Abby

Kane read the message through twice, smiling as he did, despite the desperate content of most of it which she camouflaged with dark humour. He could hear her voice, see her wry smile as she spoke, her intelligent eyes. He missed her, he realised. He opened the photos, looked through them. Most of them were ones she’d taken of the animals. She had a great eye and a good camera because the pictures were sharp as a pin and very striking.

The last one she hadn’t taken because it was of the two of them standing next to one of the baby elephants at the sanctuary. Jojo had taken it and Abby was beaming, her delight at being there written all over her face. Kane looked stiff in comparison, staring straight at the camera, back straight, barely a smile. He didn’t know why he looked so miserable because his memory of that moment was one of happiness. Jojo had asked them to stand closer so he could get the elephant in shot and Abby had put her arm around Kane’s waist, and he had put his around her shoulder. It had been a good moment, a nice end to their adventure.

Abby must have liked the picture or thought he would want to see it to include it, and it was a good one of her. Kane decided to print it out. It would be a nice memento to have despite how ridiculously formal he looked in it. He wouldn’t be looking at himself if he got it framed. He pressed the forward button on the email to get Gaia to print it for him then changed his mind. She might wonder why he wanted to print it. He hit print himself then got up and went into the outer office to wait by the printer.

Gaia looked up in surprise. “Can I help you with anything, Mr Ambassador?”

“No, I’m fine. Just waiting for something to print.”

“Okay.”

Kane stood by the printer, listening to it whir. It seemed to take forever, and nothing was happening, then there was a beeping sound and a light was flashing on it. He peered at the screen. Paper jam! Damn it! He pulled open drawers, tried to find where the paper was stuck. He couldn’t and was forced to look helplessly at Gaia who came over to the machine. She opened a side drawer, pulled out crumpled paper and then pressed some buttons. The machine whirred again, and this time Kane could hear paper moving through the system.

“Thanks,” he said in an effort to dismiss her, but she didn’t move.

“I’ll make sure it comes out okay,” she said. “Sometimes it only prints half the page after a jam.”

“It’s fine,” said Kane, but there was no moving her. He watched as the paper slid out of the machine and Gaia picked it up. She examined it, then looked at him with a sly smile.

“That’s a nice photo of you and Doctor Griffin.”

Kane took the picture from Gaia. “Yes.”

“She’s a lovely woman.”

“The Secretary of State should be calling soon. Make sure you put him through straight away.” Kane hurried back to his office clutching his picture. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t wanted Gaia to see the photo or to question him about it. It wasn’t as though anything was happening with him and Abby, and if it were it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t illegal for him to date a US citizen, and they were both single. He liked being a closed book he supposed, that was the trouble. Wasn’t keen on letting anyone see beyond the mask, not unless he wanted them to.

He was halfway through typing a response to Abby when the phone rang.

“Good afternoon, Secretary Michaels,” Kane said as his boss was put through to him.

“Afternoon, Kane. I trust you are well.”

“Yes, Sir. How is Mrs Michaels, the family?”

“Oh, fine, fine. I wanted to talk to you about your latest report.”

Michaels was never one to waste words. Kane barely knew him, despite having served under him for the past five years. “I expected you would, Sir.”

“You seemed extraordinarily concerned with this rebel zone to the north of you. Is the fighting getting closer?”

“Not at this time, Sir. The Government has kept the fighting contained to that area for the most part with some sporadic rebel outbreaks in other areas of the country.”

“They’ve been fighting for years now, practically since the country gained independence.”

“Yes, Sir, but it is becoming a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds if not thousands of people being killed, and many of the towns in and around the rebel zone are cut off from supplies, the people abused and starving.”

“Do we have interests in the area?”

Kane closed his eyes briefly. It always came to this. “Yes, Sir. There is a mining operation, Farm Station Mining Corp who export titanium ore and other precious metals to the US. We also have interests in the palm oil and brewing industries in the area. I think there is an opportunity here, Sir, for the United States to take the lead in offering bilateral humanitarian aid to the area, bringing both sides together and helping to facilitate a peace. This will go a long way to achieving our goal of helping bring security and economic stability to the Republic.”

“And you believe there is an appetite for such bilateral support, because that has not been the case in any of your previous reports.”

“There is a project run by Global Doctors close to the rebel zone that treats the wounded from both sides and which has had some success in educating the soldiers, both rebel and Government, and encouraging understanding and cooperation between them. If there is an appetite for this amongst the fighters themselves then with the appropriate support and infrastructure this could be scaled up into a wider peace agreement.”

“We need more evidence of this than a few wounded soldiers before I take anything to the President.”

“All I’m asking for at this stage is your support and permission to make some enquiries, to get the facts. I’d like to visit the rebel zone, or close to it. A visit to the mining operation wouldn’t be unusual, and we can go from there.”

“I don’t want anything to come back on the United States, Kane. It’s a delicate situation there which is why we put you in post.”

That wasn’t why they’d put him in post and they both knew that, but the pretence had to be kept up. “Yes, Sir, and I appreciate that. I will make sure this is done discretely and without consequence to the United States or the President.”

“Very well. I’ll expect frequent reports.”

“Yes, Sir.” Kane ended the call and sat back in his chair, fingers steepled beneath his chin as he thought. It had been a risk informing Secretary Michaels of his plan and asking for permission to execute it, but Kane liked to do things by the book. Abby would probably have gone ahead and asked for permission or forgiveness after the fact depending on how successful she was, but Kane couldn’t do it. His years in the military had instilled discipline in him and even though following the rules hadn’t prevented the catastrophe that had occurred, it was a hard habit to break.

He returned to his email to Abby, read through what he’d written.

Dear Abby

It was wonderful to read some good news at last regarding the supplies. I’m glad I was able to help and that it is all working out. I do indeed empathise with Mr Lightbourne having been on the receiving end of your persistence! He has my condolences.

Thank you for sending the pictures of our safari. You have a wonderful eye and I’m thinking of getting a couple of them framed for my office. The one of us was interesting. I can assure you I enjoyed our time together much more than that photograph shows.

His words seemed so formal, especially compared to hers which were full of her spirit. Maybe miserable, boring bastard was his spirit. What would she think when she read them? Would they make her smile like her words had him? He was tempted to tell her the news about his impending fact-finding mission to the rebel zone but decided it would be better to wait until he had something concrete to reveal. He had to give her something personal, something to make her smile.

The boy asked after you the other day. He calls you the sexy lady and asked if I was having you for breakfast. I’m assuming he meant TO breakfast, but with him you never know! I found out he’s fourteen so not quite as young as I thought. He’s bolder than I was at his age. I was tempted to tell him we’d lain together beneath the stars but that news would have been all around the Embassy instantly, so I refrained.

I would love to do something else together if our schedules allow. Local wine tasting perhaps...? I’ll call you in a day or so.

Love,

Marcus

He said love rather than his more usual ‘yours’ because she had used the term. He doubted she’d meant it as an expression of any great affection other than in a friendly way. It was just how she was, and it seemed appropriate to reciprocate.

He sent the email and a few seconds later his door opened, and Gaia showed in his next appointment. Kane stood and shook the man’s hand. When he shuffled his papers to find the ones required for the meeting the photo of him and Abby fell onto the floor. He picked it up and smiled before placing it in his drawer.

Chapter Text

Abby was working at her desk by the dim light of a hurricane lamp when her cell phone rang. She saw it was Marcus and answered the call with a smile. “Hi!”

“Hi. Is this a good time to call?” His voice was echoey on the other end of the line and she wondered from which of the many enormous rooms in the Embassy he was calling.

“Yes. I’m just doing paperwork. I’m happy to be distracted.”

“Then I’ll do my best to distract you.” Abby could hear the smile in his voice.

“Where are you?” she said, putting the phone on speaker and laying it on the table.

“I’m in my bedroom. Is your next question going to be what am I wearing?”

Abby laughed. “I know what you’re wearing. Your three-piece suit.”

“I’ve taken the jacket off.”

“How progressive of you.”

“Thought I would be less formal for our chat.”

“I appreciate the consideration.”

He huffed a soft laugh into the phone. “I got your email today. The supplies have arrived then?”

“Yes, everything except the chest drains arrived this morning. Amazing efficiency for once.”

“I’m glad Lightbourne came through. I wasn’t convinced he would.”

“Me either. The test will be whether he comes through the next time and the one after that.”

“He’s encountered the formidable Doctor Griffin now; he’d be a brave man if he pulled any stunts again.”

“Is that how you see me? Formidable.”

There was silence apart from the sound of his breathing. “There’s no right way to answer a question like that.”

“Come on, Marcus. I’m sure someone with your diplomacy skills can think of something.”

“Hmm. There are many facets to your personality and that is one of them.”

Abby picked up her pen, doodled a flower absentmindedly on her notepaper. “Not bad,” she said, inking in the heart of the flower. “I’m curious now as to the other aspects of my personality.”

“You’re fishing.”

“Teasing.”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure I know you well enough to comment at this moment in time. I might need to see you again to investigate.”

Abby’s pulse picked up at his words. That was a definite flirt. No two ways about it. She took the phone off speaker, put it to her ear so he was closer. “What do you have in mind?”

“I have business in Tsevo on Thursday. I could swing by, treat you to a fine dinner in your canteen.”

“You have business in Tsevo? What business?”

“Top secret diplomatic business.”

“I see.”

“Yes. So... shall I come by?”

Abby tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She felt warm because of his words, the possible intention behind them. “Are you feeling brave?”

“Do I need to be brave to have dinner with you at the camp? Are you going to poison me?”

“No. It’s just, well, if you’re feeling brave there’s a hoteli in the next village, just a tiny place more like a café than a restaurant really but they do amazing food. It might be fun to go there.” She waited for him to say no, because he wasn’t adventurous when it came to the local cuisine or venturing out into the unknown for that matter, and the thought of this was probably too much for him.

“Erm... yes, okay. That sounds good,” he said, surprising her.

“Really? Great! You won’t regret it.”

“I’m already looking forward to it.”

“So am I.” Abby cradled the phone against her ear. “Marcus...” she said.

“Yes?”

“Don’t wear your suit. It will be... you’ll stand out.”

His laughter was soft in her ear. “You don’t think we’ll stand out anyway?”

“Well, yeah, but...”

“It’s okay. I’ll bring a change of clothes. Do you want me to wear anything in particular?” he murmured, somehow making his question sound intimate.

“Something casual.”

“I can do casual. I’ll wear that t-shirt you were fond of when I visited the first time. I noticed you admiring it.”

He meant when he’d taken it off and he’d caught her and Jackson staring at him, but she wasn’t going to be baited into a discussion of his body. “I’m sure that will be adequate,” she said.

“Fine. Until Thursday then.”

“Until Thursday.”

“Bye, Abby.”

“Bye, Marcus.”

Abby cancelled the call and sat back in her chair, a ripple of anticipation running through her. This was a date, there was no denying it. The thought of it was exciting, but then doubt crept in like it always did when it really came down to the wire. She hadn’t dated since Chicago, had always said no on the few occasions she’d been asked, but none of those men had made her feel like Marcus did. None of them had been interesting enough to tempt her out of her self-imposed exile. She’d made a promise to herself for a reason. Was he worth breaking that promise for, and more to the point, was it fair to subject him to her, with her history and her shame? He knew there was something, but when he found out what it was, would he still be interested? It was unlikely.

She should stop this now before it got too far, but she didn’t want to, despite everything. She was curious about him, already attracted. She sighed, picked up her pen and went back to work. It was dinner with an interesting man that was all. Take it one step at a time.

---

“This is an honour, Mr Ambassador,” said Charles Pike as he ushered Kane into his office and shut the door behind them.

“A visit is long overdue, Charles. I’ve been meaning to see other parts of the country for some time, but Edenville has kept me busy.”

“Of course, of course. Your secretary didn’t give too much detail about what you want to do while you’re here.”

“I want to know more about your operation, any problems you’re having, get a tour of the facility if that’s okay.” Kane settled into the functional office chair opposite Pike and clasped his hands over his stomach. He wanted to appear casual, as though this was a courtesy visit, or a jaunt, a day out of the office. Not the reconnaissance mission it really was.

“We’re small compared to some other mining operations. We’re responsible for maybe a tenth of the titanium extraction in the Republic. As you know, Tsevo already had better infrastructure than some other places, probably because of the Minster’s connection, though don’t quote me on that, but we’ve improved the roads around our site. Seventy percent of our employees are local people, which we’re proud of.”

He smiled at Kane, and Kane nodded and smiled dutifully, though he suspected few of the locals were employed in the higher paid positions if the number of white faces in the offices he’d walked through were anything to go by. He listened while Pike bragged about the mine’s productivity, but what Kane really wanted was to go out on the site and have a good look around. He sat patiently while Pike droned on and as soon as the man paused for breath he took his opportunity.

“I think it would be useful to take the tour while you explain everything,” said Kane, standing so that Pike had no choice but to do what he wanted. “Give your words some context.”

“That’s fine. We’ll pick up some PPE on the way.”

They stopped in an outer office and Pike handed Kane an orange hi-visibility vest, safety boots and a white hard hat which Kane knew was going to make him feel hotter than hell. He sighed as he tightened it around his head. The things he was doing for Abby and she didn’t even know!

They left the compound of temporary office buildings and got in the back of an ATV which one of Pike’s men drove.

“This is one of the mine fields,” said Pike as they drove past a vast piece of land with buildings and scaffolding, conveyor belts and pumping systems. What looked like black sludge seemed to have been scraped out of the ground and piled into a series of conical hills. Brown water pooled in the hollows left behind. It looked like a disaster zone.

“We do wet and dry mining here,” continued Pike, “This is the wet dredge system where the water table is high. We dig pools effectively and the sediment is suctioned out and goes through a lot of processes to extract the ore. That’s it there.” He pointed to the piles of black sludge.

“I wasn’t expecting it to look like that,” said Kane.

“What did you expect?”

“Nuggets I suppose, like gold.”

“If only,” laughed Pike. “It’s grains in the sand. The second process, the dry mining, is on the higher ground where the water table is too deep. We use earth moving equipment to obtain the sediment which is then processed and dried. This is what’s left afterwards,” he said, as they drove past huge dunes of discarded sand.

“What happens to all that sand?”

“The Government requires us to plant it up with trees.”

Kane couldn’t see any evidence that this directive was being carried out. “Are you doing that?”

“Yes. We will get around to it.”

Yeah, right, thought Kane. They drove around the rest of the site, which was huge. Pike explained how they damned the river to obtain enough water for their cleaning process. It seemed quite a soulless experience to Kane, the beautiful savanna land ripped apart. What happened to the animals that had roamed here, and the people who’d been forcibly removed to make way for the plant?

“Transport is our biggest problem as you know. There are endless delays. I know from when I go to forums that the larger mining operations don’t have these problems. Now Minister Miller is involved I’m hoping there will be change.”

Kane half listened while he complained. He’d thought that Pike was also illegally mining in the rebel zone which bordered the mine, but the operation was so large he couldn’t see how it would be possible to do it without being seen, not only by anyone living here or by government inspectors but by things like Google Earth. Surely, an operation this size would be noticeable. He’d have to check his phone later. The track they were on curved where it met a large fence and a barricade. There was a track on the other side of the barrier, but it was narrow and pitted. The ATV turned the corner to go down the other length of the U-shape.

“What’s beyond the fence?” said Kane.

“That’s the rebel zone,” said Pike.

“You are right on the border, then.”

“Yes. Obviously, we extended the site as far as we could because the ore doesn’t stop at an artificial border, but we can’t go any further.”

“Do you have any trouble with the rebels?”

“Surprisingly no, not really. We have excellent security and we have, erm, lines of communication with them. I’ve met their leader, Jaha.”

“Really? What was he like?” He suspected Pike was being less than truthful about what the lines of communication were. Bribes probably, a cut of the profits to leave the site alone. Were the Government aware of that? It would be seen as supporting the rebels, but how could they not wonder why the site was left alone? The longer he was here the more questions he had.

“He’s about our age, fifty or so, pretty hard guy. Really intelligent, though, knows the history of this country inside out.”

“I’m forty-two!” said Kane, unable to contain his outrage at being thought older.

“Yeah?” said Pike, giving him a funny look. Bastard! thought Kane. “He fought for independence just like Miller but he’s not happy with the way it’s gone. I don’t do politics myself, but it helps to keep him onside.”

Twenty minutes later they arrived back at the office complex. In the building Kane removed his protective equipment, tried to fluff up his sweaty hair which was sticking to his head in places. He placed the helmet on a hook on the wall and then he noticed a stack of boxes with RL Medical on the side.

“You get your supplies from RL Medical?” he said as he followed Pike up the metal stairs to his office.

“What? Oh, erm, yeah. They supply all the PPE and First Aid equipment.”

“I see.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just they’re the suppliers that Doctor Griffin was having problems with, the ones you brought in for her when Miller intervened.”

“They’re the only supplier in this region.”

“Have you had problems getting supplies from them?”

“I wouldn’t know. Have we ever had problems with RL Medical, Janine?” he said to a woman sitting in an office next to his.

“Oh, them!” she said, a look of disgust on her face. “They’re useless. I ended up trying to order in huge bulk so I wouldn’t have to deal with them too often but they still send the deliveries in smaller units, and they’re always late.”

“There you go,” said Pike to Kane. “Do you want a coffee? Get us two coffees, Janine,” he said when Kane nodded his agreement.

---

Abby’s morning had been a busy one. There’d been a renewed burst of fighting to the north of her, and four patients had ended up on her operating table. None had life threatening injuries and all four were recovering on the ward. She was filling out paperwork regarding them when Kioko called on the radio.

“There’s a Russell Lightbourne here to see you, Doctor Griffin,” he said.

“Russell Lightbourne?” repeated Abby, knowing she’d heard Kioko correctly, but not quite believing it. What would he be doing at the camp?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Okay. Please let him in, Kioko.”

Abby went outside and watched as a huge black Range Rover pulled up in front of the hospital. A tall, slim man with short dark hair and a greying beard got out. He was dressed casually in black slacks and a black shirt open at the collar.

“Doctor Griffin?” he said, walking towards her.

“Yes. Mr Lightbourne, I take it.”

“Call me Russell.” Russell held out his hand and Abby shook it. His grip was firm, his hand cool.

“This is an unexpected visit. What can I do for you?”

“It’s more what I can do for you.”

“Oh?”

“I have a surprise for you.” He smiled, his eyes glinting in the sun. They were extraordinary, a pale blue that was piercing, bright against his suntanned skin.

Abby was flummoxed. She’d had no notice he was coming, no message from him or his team and now here he was saying he had a surprise. The head of RL Medical. What could he want?

“What is it?”

“It would be much more fun for me if you saw for yourself. Come over to my car.”

Abby followed him to the vehicle. He opened the rear door to reveal a stack of brown boxes. He pulled one forward so it sat at the edge of the trunk.

“Open it!” He handed Abby a knife and anticipation flooded through her, which was ridiculous because she’d only just met him and had no idea what was happening. The guy had a sense of theatre about him, though, the ability to make this moment exciting.

She sliced through the tape and pulled back the flaps. Inside were the components of a chest drain, a state of the art one by the look of it. She took a section out, examined it.

“This is amazing, but it’s not what I ordered.”

“I know, I know, but I felt bad for messing you about, and I think I told you we got a new supplier. These are the best they make. I thought you deserved them. On the house, of course.”

“That’s amazing! Thank you!” Abby was blown away by the gesture, which was so thoughtful.

“It really is the least we could do. Shall I bring these in for you?”

“Thank you, yes. I’ll help.”

There were eight boxes altogether containing enough chest drains for Abby to cater to three hospitals full of patients.

“Can I get you a drink or something to eat?” she said when they’d stacked the boxes in the consulting room.

“I would love something cold if you have the time.”

“Yes, I was just doing some paperwork. We had a busy morning but it’s settled down now. Let’s go to the canteen.”

They drank lemonade and Russell told her more about the supply problems they’d been experiencing. Abby was still sceptical about some of his explanations, but she couldn’t deny the guy had gone out of his way to make things right. She was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“How did you get into this business?” Abby said, thinking she might as well find out as much as she could while he was here.

“That’s a long story, but I was a doctor like you what seems like a lifetime ago, and I got frustrated with what I saw as a lack of equality and access to medicines and equipment between the rich and the poor of many countries. I was in South Africa at the time, and you might be frustrated with me and my company, but I can tell you things used to be a LOT worse. I decided I could do better myself and that’s when RL Medical was born.”

“Oh, wow, that’s a really interesting story. Did you have a specialism as a doctor?”

“Cardiology.”

“I’m a vascular surgeon, or I was!”

“There’s nothing like working with the beating heart of people.”

“That’s right!”

“Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes. What about you?”

“Yes, but I feel like I’m doing good for so many more people now than I was before.”

“My patients are certainly different.” Abby smiled, took a sip of her lemonade.

“I will admit I didn’t know as much about Global Doctors as I should have, so I looked it up after our conversation. You do amazing work.”

“Thank you. There are so many problems I can’t even begin to list them. It keeps me on my toes.”

“Makes you feel alive, doesn’t it?” Russell’s eyes shone brightly as he spoke.

“When I’m not dead on my feet I suppose it does.”

“What problems do you face here?”

“Where to start!”

Abby outlined all the issues she had, the problems with the government, the routine thefts she had to deal with. She left out her frustrations with the US Government because it didn’t seem fair to malign Marcus now that he was on board and helping her. Instead she told Russell how helpful he’d been and how his intervention had finally got things moving.

“He seems like one of the good guys,” said Russell.

“He is. He’s been wonderful. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for him.”

“Then I’m very grateful to him,” said Russell, leaning closer to her.

Abby nodded. “I hope that our newfound cooperation will continue from now on. Getting the supplies on time is vital to us. People die without it.”

“I know, and once again I’m sorry that you’ve experienced such problems. I have taken it upon myself to ensure this never happens again.”

“I hope that’s the case.”

“I do have another gift for you, actually, one that will help with that.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a computer program that will link you more directly with our procurement system. You’ll be able to bypass our admin and place orders directly yourself.”

“That sounds wonderful!” said Abby, taken aback once again at Russell’s generosity. He must really feel bad for letting her down.

“I take it you have a computer here? I just need a moment to install it and I can show you how it works.”

“Yes, there’s one in my office. I’ll take you there.”

They went to the office in the hospital and Russell pulled up a chair next to Abby’s to show her the system. It was impressive and would save a lot of time and worry in the future.

“Thank you for this,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”

“You’re very welcome,” said Russell, smiling at her warmly. “Anything I can do to help you must say. Anything at all.”

---

Kane had escaped Pike mid-afternoon and was standing outside his rental car at the side of the Tsevo road, waving his phone in the air trying to get a signal. He got one eventually and brought up a satellite map view of the area. The Farm Station mine was obvious, a huge scar on the landscape. He could see the fence that bordered the rebel zone, and the start of the track that was on the other side of the barrier. He traced it for a few yards but then the bush closed in and it disappeared. There was no sign of any mining operation, or even any buildings. The bush was verdant here because of the mineral rich sand and the river, and the canopy for the most part was closed.

He noticed a track going into the area that looked as though it might meet up with the one next to the mine. It was a couple of miles further up the road he was on. He got in the car and pondered what to do. The track was in the rebel zone, but right on the edge. What were the chances anyone was there? He could have a quick look, get the lie of the land and no one would know. Decision made he put the car into drive and headed down the road.

The track off the Tsevo road was narrow but not overgrown, so Kane guessed it was in occasional use. At the end was a gate like the one in the mine. He reversed the car off the road so he could turn around and left it perched on the grass at the side. He contemplated the gate. It was a metal one with five bars, easy enough to climb over. He went back to his car, took off his jacket and waistcoat and put them in the trunk, taking out his backpack and slinging it over his shoulders. He rolled up his sleeves then headed back to the gate, climbing over it and jumping down onto the other side, kicking up a cloud of dust that coated his trousers and shoes. It was a good job he’d brought a change of clothes for later.

He stood still for a moment. He could hear the sounds of the mine in the distance, the clattering of machinery, the rumble of engines. He walked down the track and five minutes later came to a junction with another track, the one that led from the mine presumably. He turned right, headed further into the rebel zone. It wasn’t until he heard a hyena howling in the distance that he realised he was in the bush with all that entailed. A pack of lions could be round the next corner, hungry and waiting for an idiotic meal on legs to walk right into their trap. He paused, then continued. He wasn’t going to go far, and the chances of an animal encounter were slim.

After twenty minutes of walking he rounded a corner and saw a building ahead, a long, dirty white hut with a metal roof. He ducked into the bush at the side of the track and watched. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. He got his binoculars out of his backpack, scanned the area. Nothing. He crept through the bush keeping parallel to the track until he was behind the building but still a few yards away. Again he waited, observed, listened. How easy it was to slip back into his old army role, his training kicking in, a second nature that he’d supressed but had clearly not left him.

When he was as certain as he could be that no one was around he walked slowly towards the building. There was a window at the back and he tried to look through but it was boarded and there were bars on the outside. He hugged the stone wall of the hut and turned the corner. He could see the track now, heading further into the bush. Waiting again, and then he made the final turn so that he was at the front next to the door.

The door was on the left of the hut with three boarded and barred windows to its right. He tried the handle but the door was locked. He took out his penknife, got the tweezers and bent one side ninety degrees to make a tension wrench, then he opened the needle and slid it into the lock, using the tension wrench to hold the pins inside the lock in place. He snaked back and forth with the needle until he heard a click. He tried the handle and the door opened. “You’ve still got it,” he whispered to himself, adrenaline flooding his veins.

Inside, the hut was dark, and he got his torch from his bag and shone it around. There were two rooms, the long one that he entered first empty apart from a table and two chairs. The smaller room to the left had a stack of boxes along one wall. His torch picked out a name on the side of the boxes – RL Medical. Kane’s pulse picked up. What were their supplies doing in a locked hut in the rebel zone? He lifted one of the boxes down and put it on the floor. It was light and when he opened it there was nothing inside except for a rough straw. He did the same to the rest of the boxes, looking through each one but finding nothing but the same straw. It seemed like a strange packing material for medical supplies, but he’d seen something like this before, in raids he’d conducted in Iraq. His heart sank as he made the connection. This was not good.

He restacked the boxes then had one more look around before leaving the building and heading outside. He returned to the bush, continued walking parallel to the track for a while but there was nothing obvious to see. He decided not to push his luck. It was getting late and he had an hour’s drive ahead of him to get to Abby’s camp. He retraced his steps, sticking to the bush this time, away from the track, and half an hour later was back at his car. He stowed his backpack, tried to brush as much of the dust off himself as he could. An idea of what was happening here had formed in his mind, but he was going to need a lot more proof before he could do anything about it.

An hour later he pulled up at the gate to the Global Doctors’ camp. Kioko let him through with a scowl and Kane parked in front of the hospital next to a huge black Range Rover he hadn’t seen here before. The door to the hospital was open and he heard laughter coming from the office. He went inside, poked his head around the door. Abby was sitting at her desk and next to her, the chair Kane had previously sat in pushed close to hers, sat a man with short, dark hair.

“Erm, hi,” said Kane, and Abby and the man turned to look at him. The man had a neat beard, greying at the edges, and startling pale blue eyes. He frowned at Kane. Abby smiled broadly.

“Hi! You’re early.”

“My meeting finished early. Who’s this?”

“Oh, this is Russell Lightbourne of RL Medical. You’ve already met by phone.” She turned to Lightbourne. “This is Marcus Kane, erm, Ambassador Kane.”

Russell Lightbourne? What was he doing here at the camp? Kane held out his hand and Lightbourne stood so he could shake it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ambassador,” he said.

“Likewise,” said Kane, keeping his handshake firm although he was shaken inside. If his instincts were correct, this man who was here with Abby, sitting with her, laughing with her, was dangerous and not to be messed with.

“Russell brought me my chest drains. Isn’t that wonderful of him?” said Abby, beaming at Kane and then Lightbourne.

“Amazing,” said Kane.

“I always like to give the personal touch where I can,” said Lightbourne, those unsettling eyes staring at Kane coolly.

Something clenched in Kane’s stomach. “Very generous of you,” he said in a tone that was equally as cool.

“Are you here on official business, Ambassador?” Lightbourne said.

“Yes,” said Kane

“No,” said Abby at the same time. She frowned at Kane.

“I see,” said Lightbourne. He turned to Abby. “I should go. I don’t want to keep you from your business.”

“You don’t have to rush away. I’m sure Marcus would be happy to talk with you as well.”

Kane kept quiet, because he wasn’t ready yet for a chat with Lightbourne, didn’t want to give anything away by being unprepared. Furthermore, he didn’t like the way he was looking at Abby, smiling at her, flirting with her. It was better if he went.

“No. I must get back. I have a meeting in Edenville later.”

“If you’re sure.” Abby stood and Kane moved out of the way so she and Lightbourne could get past him. He stood in the doorway as Abby followed Lightbourne to his ridiculously oversized car.

“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks then,” said Lightbourne, and Kane watched with every muscle in his body growing tight as Lightbourne leaned in and kissed Abby on the cheek.

Abby waved as Lightbourne drove away, and then she came and stood in front of Kane. “Are you okay?” she said.

“I’m fine. What’s in two weeks?”

“Oh, there’s a conference about some new equipment that could save lives in the field. I’m going to go if I can.”

“And he’ll be there, Lightbourne?”

“Yes. His company has made the equipment. Why? Is that a problem?” She scanned his face as she said this. Kane forced his lips into a smile.

“No, not at all. It sounds interesting.”

“Should be. If I can get away.”

“Is it not around here?”

“No, it’s in South Africa.” She smiled at him, then reached up and kissed his cheek. “It’s nice to see you. Do you want somewhere to get changed?”

“That would be great.”

“I’ve bagged you a spare tent. I wasn’t sure if you were driving home tonight or if you wanted to stay.”

“I could stay. I don’t have anything scheduled early tomorrow.”

“Great! Here’s the tent,” she said, lifting the flap of one of the green ones a few rows down from hers. “I’ll leave you to get ready. I have a few things to finish up and need to get changed myself so feel free to have a wander around, whatever you want. I’ll meet you in the canteen in an hour, is that okay?”

“That’s perfect.”

She paused at the flap on her way out. “I’m really looking forward to tonight.”

“Me too.” Kane smiled warmly at her and then she left. He put his bag on the cot, sank into the chair next to it. Why would Lightbourne bring the chest drains himself? It made no sense, unless he was on a fishing expedition, but for what reason? There was no way he could know what Kane had just seen, and there was no reason for anybody to be suspicious of him. Kane shook his head. He had to put the guy out of his mind. This was his night with Abby, their first date, and he’d be an idiot if he let anything spoil it.

Chapter Text

Abby found Marcus in the hospital, sitting next to one of the patients, chatting to him.

“We were discussing your rebel book,” he said, holding up Half of a Yellow Sun. “Adamu identifies with Ugwu.”

“You could write book about me, Miss,” said Adamu.

“Maybe we should write it together,” said Abby, smiling at them both.

“It was nice talking to you,” said Marcus, standing up and taking Adamu’s outstretched hand. He turned and followed Abby out of the hospital. He was casually dressed as promised in skinny black jeans and a tight black t-shirt. He looked good, and Abby’s pulse quickened.

“That’s not a bad idea, you know,” he said as they left the ward.

“What isn’t?”

“Writing a book about your experiences here.”

“I’m not sure the Republic needs another white person’s perspective on its troubles, but there is a creative collective in Upala. I could put Adamu in touch with them.”

“That’s a great idea.”

They were out in the early evening sunshine now, heading towards Abby’s Land Rover.

“You look lovely by the way,” said Marcus.

His compliment made Abby smile, because she was in the same clothes she’d worn when she went to the Embassy for the party, the grey slacks and white blouse that had frustrated him so much with their filthiness. They were clean now, though, of course.

“Thanks. I look better than last time you saw me in them.”

“You looked good then, just somewhat dishevelled.”

“You preferred the dress, though.”

“It had its attractions.” He grinned at her. “I have something for you, if they’ve survived.” He went to a black sedan and opened the trunk, bringing out a bunch of yellow and orange roses that were wilting from the heat. He handed them to her, kissing her on both cheeks. “Sorry they’re a bit limp.”

“They’re beautiful, thank you,” said Abby sniffing the roses. “I’d better put them in water.” She went to her office, filled a jug with water and stood the flowers on her desk. There was no doubting now that Marcus saw this as a date, because you didn’t bring flowers for a casual dinner with a friend. She was on a date, her first in a long time, and despite all her worries about where this might lead and what that would mean she was happy. It felt good to be wanted by a great guy she was interested in too. Maybe she could do this, if she really tried.

The Upala Café had started out as a traditional mud hut, long and thin with orange painted walls and a straw roof, but had been extended over the years to include a semi-open dining area with walls whose lower halves were peeled-bark branches and upper halves open to the elements, with occasional thicker branches holding up a straw thatched roof. Bright yellow and orange curtains shielded diners from the worst of the sun and gave an element of privacy from the road and passers-by. The open side of the extension led to a wooden deck where spontaneous dancing would sometimes break out. Malia had first brought Abby here and it had become her favourite place to visit in her rare moments of downtime.

She watched Marcus as he took in the white plastic chairs and wooden tables with red tops covered in clear plastic that made up the dining facilities. His long nose wrinkled, making her smile.

“It’s very clean,” she said.

“Right,” he replied.

They took seats at a table next to a window and close to the deck. The smell of barbecued meat drifted across from the kitchen on a light breeze, making Abby’s stomach rumble with anticipation. Marcus was frowning at the menu. This side to him fascinated her. He’d been in the army, slept under the stars, presumably lived rough at times, known what it is to be surrounded by dirt and crap and mess, and yet he seemed to almost fear it all. He was so neat, so buttoned up, so disdainful of the realities of life, wanting to keep himself far above it. Maybe it was a reaction to what he’d experienced. Yes, that was it! He’d been through things so terrible he had to literally cleanse himself of them, pretend they didn’t exist.

“It’s a basic menu,” she said, “but I can recommend the nyama choma. It’s roast goat meat and God, it’s good. It usually comes with a tomato salad and your favourite ugali.”

He looked up at her, his lips finally curving into a smile. “Is that what you’re having?”

“We could share it if you like, get a mixture of side dishes to go with it.”

“Yes, okay, that sounds good.”

“I’ll order it,” she said, to save him any potential embarrassment if he didn’t want to go. “Do you want a beer or some palm wine?”

“A beer, thank you. Let me pay.” He handed her a roll of bills to cover the cost.

Abby placed the order and returned a few minutes later with a jug of beer. She poured them both a glass. “Cheers!” she said, holding her glass towards Marcus.

“Cheers.” He clinked his glass against hers then took a sip. “This is good.”

“It’s all good, Marcus.”

“It’s good to be here with you,” he said, smiling warmly.

“How was your day, your top-secret mission?” she said to tease him.

“Interesting. I took your advice to get out into the country more and went to see Charles Pike at the mine.”

“Oh, wow. What was that like?”

“Fascinating.”

He described his visit to the mine. His comments on Pike and the set-up, the destruction of the landscape, were amusing and withering, accompanied by his usual dismissive sneer.

“I know you think that I think I’m above people like him,” he said, “but everything I’d concluded about Pike and his operation was proved on that visit.”

“I’ve got to know you better now. I understand that a disdainful condescension is just your nature. You can no more help it than I can help being a constant ray of sunshine.”

Marcus snorted at her comment. “I’m thinking back to all the times you’ve called me an arrogant, judgemental, ass-kisser. I certainly felt bathed in sunlight then.”

“That’s me flirting,” she said with a sly grin.

“I knew it!” he said, laughing. “Guess I must like that then.”

“I guess we both do,” she said. They smiled at each other, and then their eye gazing was interrupted a moment later by the arrival of the food, which came on a large platter with no cutlery.

“Time to get your hands dirty,” said Abby, flexing her fingers.

“You’d better show me what to do with my fingers,” Marcus said, one eyebrow raised suggestively.

Abby grew warm but tried to be matter of fact. “Use your fingertips and mix different things together. Don’t close your lips over your fingers, just pop the food into your mouth.” She demonstrated this with a strip of meat and some of the ugali as Marcus watched.

“I could just sit here and watch you do that.”

“You’ll get hungry.”

“I’m already hungry,” he said, making her blush.

“Eat your food.”

He sighed and then picked up some meat, chewing it thoughtfully while he looked at her. “Very tasty.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I know,” he said. He reached for some rice at the same time she did, and their fingers touched. They were still for a moment, and then his fingertips tentatively covered hers, stroked them, sticky with sauce and meat juice. Abby rubbed her thumb across the backs of his fingers, and he raised his eyes to hers, his dark gaze penetrating. Abby’s pulse was racing.

“We’re supposed to eat it, not play with it,” she murmured.

Marcus raised both eyebrows in response, and then he pulled his fingers away, squeezed some rice together and popped it into his mouth, still looking at her. Abby was starting to regret ordering the sharing platter; she wasn’t going to survive this much longer.

They ate in silence for a minute after that. Dusk had fallen, and a man came over to them to light the small hurricane lamp that sat on the table.

“I had to butcher a goat once,” said Marcus when he’d left, his comment so unexpected Abby nearly choked as she was swallowing a piece of the meat.

“What? How? Why?”

“I was in Afghanistan. We were in the mountains looking for insurgents and there was a village that was pretty crucial to our operations. We needed to get them onside because the village could provide a forward base for sorties into the mountains. As you know, part of my job was to do the reconnaissance, which basically meant a lot of time peering through binoculars and getting the lay of the land. After a couple of days I knew who was who, what was going on, what was important to them.”

“You were a spy!” said Abby, trying to picture Marcus doing what he described. She couldn’t see the man in the three-piece suit doing it, but the one in front of her in his t-shirt and jeans she could definitely imagine peering with those dark, penetrating eyes, watching, calculating. A warm shiver ran through her.

“Kind of I suppose, but we didn’t infiltrate. I never had to pretend I was someone else.” He picked out a piece of meat, examined it, then popped it in his mouth, licking the sauce from his fingers. “I soon realised that they were being terrorised by a goat. Don’t laugh,” he said when he saw her face. “It’s absolutely true.”

“How did a goat terrorise a whole village?”

“It was a small village, about twenty people. The goat ate everything in sight and when they tried to challenge it, it would chase them and headbutt them and knock them over. They couldn’t get near it without risking serious injury. It was one angry goat. I don’t know what had happened to piss it off.”

“Were there any other goats around?”

“Not in the village. Up in the mountains maybe.”

“It probably wanted a mate, had an overload of testosterone and no way to get rid of it except on the people.”

“Really?”

“Yes. It’s quite common.”

Marcus chuckled. “That would explain why I’m so angry all the time...”

Abby’s laugh in response was loud, causing the people around them to look at them. “I don’t know what to say to that.”

“Best to say nothing. Let’s pretend I never said it.” He grinned sheepishly at her. “Anyway, this goat. We figured it would be a great way to get on their side if we captured it and freed the village. It did NOT want to be taken, and injuries were sustained, some in very painful places, though I was spared that particular agony. I got knocked on my ass a few times.”

“I don’t condone what I’m about to say, but why didn’t someone just shoot it if it was such a terror?”

“The villagers didn’t have guns, they were subsistence farmers, and we didn’t think it would go down too well if we went in all guns blazing, you know. People might have thought we were trying to shoot them.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yeah. Eventually I managed to capture it and tether it, and I thought that would be the end of it, but no. They wanted it dead so it couldn’t hurt them again and apparently, as I had captured it, I was responsible for it. I won’t upset you with the details, but we realised we had no choice, and I dispatched it as humanely as I could. Sinclair, my second, he decided a barbecue would bring us and the villagers together, and that’s how I ended up butchering a goat.”

He sat back when he’d finished his story, his smiling eyes glinting in the pale orange light from the lamp. She thought he’d enjoyed telling her the tale. How many more must he have up his sleeve and yet he didn’t exploit his heroic past, didn’t even want other people to know, unlike that Minister at the party who gloated about his achievements.

“That’s an amazing story. You’re the one who should be writing a book. You must have so much to tell.”

“I don’t know. I think it’s hard to make people understand the realities of life at war. Things can be misconstrued.”

“I guess that’s true. What made you join the army, though?”

“Erm, I left Yale and I was expected to go into consultancy, that’s what my dad did, financial stuff mostly, but I didn’t want that. I didn’t know what I did want, though, I was kind of rudderless. I’m not someone who can sit and do nothing, so I joined up. Fairly classic reason I suppose. What about you? How did you end up as a vascular surgeon in Chicago?”

“My tale is really boring compared to yours. I haven’t lived a very exciting life.”

“I’d say what you’re doing now is pretty exciting.”

“What, having dinner with you?” She grinned at him.

“That, and saving lives in a war-torn country.”

“Oh, yes that... I was born in Chicago, raised there, educated there. I went to UoC for undergraduate and for my MD. My mom was a thoracic surgeon and my dad was an OBGYN and all I ever wanted to do was be like them. No other profession even occurred to me. All the conversation in our home was about medicine, and patients, and ideas, and the joy they had at helping people. I wanted to feel like they did, to have that kind of meaning in my life.”

“And did it work out like that?”

“Yes. I was very fulfilled.” She looked at him, wondering if he was going to ask the inevitable follow-up question. He did.

“But you gave it up to come out here, put your life at risk. Was it not enough anymore?”

He wanted her to tell him the real story he’d already sensed was there, but even if she felt able to do so it would bring down the mood, and this was supposed to be a date. It wasn’t the right time. “I needed to make some changes in my life, and I wanted a challenge.”

He held her gaze and then he nodded. “I can understand that.” He finished his beer, picked up the jug. “Do you want another one?”

“Just a half. I have to drive back.”

“Okay.” He poured them both a glass.

Abby took a sip then sat back in her chair. “Have you found out anymore about that boy who works in the Embassy?”

“The one who thinks you’re sexy?”

“That’s not why I’m asking.”

“It is. You’re fishing for compliments again.”

Abby feigned outrage. “When have I ever fished for compliments?”

“The other day on the phone. You wanted me to tell you your finer qualities.”

“I was teasing you.”

“Right.” He looked so smug Abby wanted momentarily to hit him. “As it happens, I agree with the boy. You are sexy.”

“Even with handprints all over me?”

“Especially then.”

“That’s not what you said at the time.”

“No, but I was thinking it.”

Abby felt beads of sweat prick out on her brow. It was warm in the room, with little breeze, and his words weren’t helping.

“What about my finer qualities?” Marcus said.

“Do you have any?”

“You tell me.”

“You can be charming when you want to be.”

Marcus put his hand on his heart in a dramatic fashion. “You’re too kind.”

Abby smiled. “I think you’re intelligent and funny, and I have to admit secret army spy guy is a sexy look on you.”

“I see! So I’m only attractive now you know I’ve been in the army! Is it the thought of the uniform?”

“No! I liked you before I knew you were in the army. I...”

“Did you? How long before?”

“How long before what?”

“How long before you knew? Cause I only told you when I came to the camp.”

Damn, she’d managed to walk straight into that trap! “Ah, erm, well.”

“It wasn’t really a thank you kiss, was it, at the Embassy? You were hot for me.”

“I was NOT hot for you!”

“I knew it.” He nodded sagely, then stretched as though he was yawning, his t-shirt riding up to show his taut stomach. “It’s understandable.”

“You’re a smug bastard.”

“I love it when you talk dirty.”

Abby laughed. Someone turned the music up loud and people drifted to the deck to dance. “Do you want to dance?” she said, not holding out much hope.

Marcus pulled a variety of faces. “I’m not really... I’m devoid of rhythm in that sense.”

“Everyone has rhythm, you’re just too chicken.”

“Are you calling a man whose fought in a war a coward?”

“Yes.” Abby held out her hand, but he shook his head.

“You dance. I’m quite happy to watch.”

“I bet you are.”

He shrugged, a broad grin on his face. A couple of young women passing noticed her gazing at the deck and beckoned to her. “Go on,” said Marcus.

Abby hesitated, and then she got up. She could do with letting loose, and if he was content to watch then a couple of dances wouldn’t hurt.

“Okay. I won’t be long.”

“I’m fine here. I’ve got my beer.” He topped up his glass then sat back with arms folded.

Abby went to the deck with the two young women and started moving to the music, self-consciously at first because she could feel Marcus’s eyes on her even when she wasn’t looking at him, and then the beat got into her veins and she forgot anyone was there, and just gave herself up to the rhythm.

---

Kane watched Abby dance, his pulse throbbing and not because of the music. She was so hot, so sexy, with her eyes closed and her head thrown back, long, wavy hair swaying to the rhythm. She was lost in it and he wondered if this was something she did a lot. It was probably a good antidote to the stresses of her job, better than drinking too much whisky which was what he did. She must be comfortable with him to let go in front of him like this, and that thought made him feel good.

If he’d had any notion that this was an exploratory date, a test to see how she felt about him and whether he would want to take their relationship further it had been well and truly dispelled. He’d been fascinated with her since their evening at the Palace, if not before, and his interest was only growing the more about her he learned. She was challenging and full of life and he knew he paled in comparison, a moth that flew in the dark compared to her sun-loving butterfly.

The last time he’d felt like this he’d been sixteen and obsessed with Miss Bauman his American Literature teacher. He’d taken AP Lit because of her, struggling through Greek tragedies in the hope of impressing her. His love had been in vain because he’d found out she was dating the American History teacher, Miss Stafford. That had led to other, more involved fantasies, long forgotten until now and best left that way. He didn’t think he’d have that problem with Abby. She was definitely interested in him.

He finished his beer, his head buzzing pleasantly as the music invaded it and he watched Abby dance almost hypnotically. When she appeared in front of him, holding out her hand, he was too befuddled to resist, and when his head cleared and he found himself standing in front of her on the deck while she was trying to get him to dance, it was too late to do anything about it.

“I can’t dance,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter.” She took his hands and put them on her hips, then reached up and linked her hands around the back of his neck. She swayed and he had no choice but to sway with her. “This is nice,” she whispered, looking up at him.

“Yes,” he said, and he moved his arms around her, his hands pressing into the hollow of her back, holding her to him. She rested her head against his shoulder, and he pressed a kiss to her hair.

They stayed like that for a while. He wasn’t sure you could call it dancing, but they were moving together, holding each other. He kissed her hair again, brushed his lips against it. She smelled like coconut and she was soft and warm. She looked up, gazed into his eyes, and her lips moved towards his and he met her halfway, capturing them in a soft kiss. Her fingers snaked into his hair, caressing the back of his head and he moaned as her lips parted and he got a taste of her. She was the burst of a summer fruit and he held her tighter so he could explore further.

He was lost in kissing her when someone nudged him, bringing him to his senses, and he broke the kiss.

“The music does that, eh?” said a young girl, smiling suggestively at them, and Abby’s already warm face flushed a deeper red.

“I forgot where we were,” she said, dropping her arms from around his neck.

“So did I.”

“Are you ready to go?”

“Yes,” said Kane, and he followed her out to the Land Rover. He was tingling with anticipation, desperate to kiss her again, but they didn’t touch as they got in the vehicle and headed towards the camp. It was dark now, the moon risen, huge and full and tinged orange from the last rays of the dying sun. Kane didn’t know what was going to happen when they got back, but there was a tension between him and Abby and he was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one feeling it. He’d like to take her to bed, but it might be too soon. Best to let her have the lead and then he wouldn’t fuck anything up.

“That was a great night,” said Abby as they bounced along.

“Amazing,” replied Kane, and that was the last thing either of them said, as though too many words would break the spell between them.

At the camp they got out of the Rover and Abby jangled the keys in her hand. “I have some palm wine, if you’d like a glass,” she said.

“I would,” said Kane, and they threaded their way down the rows to her tent.

Inside she lit a hurricane lamp and they were bathed in a pale, yellow glow. She put her keys on the table, turned to look at him. He moved towards her and then somehow she was in his arms and they were kissing again. Her fingers raked through his hair; her body was pressed against his. His hands roamed her back from her ass to her head.

“Marcus,” she moaned as he kissed her neck.

“Do you want this?” he whispered.

“Yes,” she said, and her hands gripped his t-shirt, pulling it out of his jeans. He held up his arms and she dragged it over his head, putting her hands on his bare chest and kissing him there.

He had three buttons on her blouse undone when there was a shout from outside and someone was calling her name.

“Abby! Abby! Are you there?”

“That’s Jackson,” she said, looking up at him breathlessly. She broke away from him, headed towards the front of the tent, doing up her blouse as she went.

Kane knew from the sound of Jackson’s voice that this part of the night was over. Something had happened, something bad. He picked up his t-shirt, put it on with a guilty sigh, adjusted his jeans so his arousal would be less obvious, and followed behind Abby.

“What’s the matter?” she was saying as he emerged from the tent.

“It’s an emergency.” Jackson blinked in surprise when he saw Kane. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.”

“It’s fine,” said Abby. “What’s the problem?”

“An influx of wounded, more than we can cope with.”

“Okay. Let’s go.” She hurried down the path after Jackson, turning to Kane as she went. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He followed her. “Don’t be. Can I help?”

“Erm, yes, I guess. Yes, that would be great.”

There was chaos in the hospital when they entered. Bleeding men on gurneys and stretchers seemed to be everywhere and they were moaning and crying with pain. Abby headed to the treatment room, grabbing her blue scrubs and hat. She and Jackson scrubbed their arms and Kane stood helplessly watching, unsure what to do and not wanting to ask and disrupt their process.

“Malia!” shouted Abby as the nurse entered the room. “Find some clothes for Marcus and get him some gloves. You can triage with Malia if you don’t mind,” she said.

“Anything I can do.”

She smiled at him, and then she turned to Jackson and they were soon discussing strategy. Malia took Marcus by the arm and helped him into a white lab coat. She gave him a clipboard and pen.

“We will check each person and try to talk to them if we can, get information. We will decide which needs seeing first. You can take notes.”

“That’s fine,” said Marcus, and he followed her to the line of waiting patients. Abby had gone; he could hear her shouting instructions to Jackson in the operating theatre. He turned away, concentrated on the people in front of him who needed his help.

The sun was up by the time everyone had been examined, operated on, and made comfortable on the ward. Kane sat collapsed in a chair in the canteen, surrounded by most of the camp it seemed. Abby was opposite him, her arms folded on the table, supporting her tired head. He shut his eyes to rest them and was surprised when he opened them again to find himself alone. He stood and stretched, went out into the too bright day. There was no sign of anybody so he went first into the hospital. Abby was sitting in her office, typing into her computer. The flowers he’d bought her sat brightly on her desk. She looked up wearily when he entered.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi. What are you doing working? You should be resting.”

“No rest for the wicked.” She got up, went over to him, put her arms around him and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Thank you for what you did last night. You were amazing.”

“I did nothing. You were the amazing one.”

“No, you were brilliant. Malia said you were a godsend. Thank you.”

“It was the least I could do.”

Abby sighed, rested her head against his chest. He held her tight to him. “I’m sorry our night was interrupted,” she said.

“It couldn’t be helped.”

She pulled back, looked up at him. “I really enjoyed myself, you know, before everything.”

“Me too. It was fantastic.” He kissed her lips again, sighing softly as she responded.

“Can you stay?” she said when they parted.

Kane looked at his watch. “Sadly, no. I have a meeting in two hours, and I need to get changed.”

“Okay. We’ll meet again soon, though?”

“You can count on it. I’d better go get my things. I’ll call you.” He kissed her again, and then he headed to the tent he’d never ended up sleeping in, gathered up his belongings and returned to his car. Abby came out of the hospital as he stowed them in the trunk.

“Call me tonight!” she said.

“I will.” Kane got in the car, waving out of the window as he went through the gate. He watched in his rear-view mirror as Abby and the camp receded. Once she was no longer in sight he put his foot down as hard as he dared on these roads. That was some date, he thought, laughing to himself as he sped through the countryside leaving a trail of dust behind him.

Chapter Text

The following week Kane attended a dinner at the British High Commission. This was his life most of the time, endless rounds of dinners and events, held in seeming rotation by the various ambassadors and dignitaries from all over the world that had an interest in the Republic. He supposed he should hold something soon, had put off this particular duty since he took office. He’d have to ask Gaia to arrange something. Most of the other officials had wives or husbands to stand by them and take up some of the heavy lifting in terms of meeting and greeting. He tried to imagine Abby in the role of host alongside him, and the thought made him smile. She’d never be able to keep her opinions to herself. Was that a bad thing? No, but when you were dealing with sensitive or volatile world leaders, the slightest wrong word could have major repercussions.

Speaking of volatile leaders, Kane saw the Minister for Transport approaching him. He was dressed splendidly in colourful robes. Kane felt drab in comparison in his black tuxedo.

“It’s good to see you, Minister. I trust you are well.”

“Fine, fine. You are alone today, Mr Ambassador?” Miller smirked at Kane. “No Doctor Griffin with you?”

“She’s far too busy to waste time with the likes of me,” Kane replied.

“Busy saving our rebel friends, eh, Kane. Do you agree with what she’s doing?”

“The United States doesn’t take sides, though as always we encourage dialogue and cooperation in the hope of peace.”

“You think it is so easy.”

“I think it’s far from easy, but does that mean we shouldn’t try?”

“I do not think the two sides are easily reconciled.”

“But if they were, you would perhaps be the one able to do it. The only one.” Kane knew from experience that the Minister was the type of man who responded to flattery, and he wasn’t above indulging him if it got him what he wanted.

“What makes you say that?” The Minister took Kane’s elbow, steered him away from the crowd.

“The fighting is so close to your home town, and you have great influence amongst your people. I heard that the rebel leader, Jaha, is also from your region. You were at the same school, I believe.” Kane had been doing his homework studiously since his visit to Pike at the camp and had uncovered numerous links between the Minister and the rebel leader. He was keen to explore them if he could.

“What are you suggesting, Kane?” The Minister was frowning angrily.

“Nothing, Sir. Nothing untoward, just that he might listen to you. You probably have things in common.”

Miller leaned so close to Kane he could smell the spice of the dinner they’d eaten earlier. “Do you think you’re the first person to come to me with ideas like this? You are a small, insignificant piece of this country’s history.”

“I’m aware of that, Sir, but I am here nevertheless, and I’m simply trying to learn and understand...”

“I knew Jaha many years ago,” said Miller, interrupting Kane. “Yes, he was a childhood friend, and we fought together for this country’s glorious independence. Then we went our separate ways. I have not spoken to him in many years, and I do not wish to.”

“There are people caught in the crossfire, innocent people,” said Kane, pushing one last time, because he hadn’t expected the Minister to say anything about Jaha, let alone confirm their past relationship.

“No one is innocent, Mr Ambassador. You are either for this country or you are against it. It is simple.”

“There will never be peace without communication.”

“There will be peace when we have crushed the rebels. I don’t think the United States wants to involve itself in these matters. It is best you stick to your drunken tourists and businessmen, or is it drunken businessmen?” He laughed heartily at his joke.

Kane forced a smile. “Both I expect,” he said.

Miller grinned, and then his smile faded. “None of this concerns you, Kane. You have been seduced perhaps by a pretty face, which is understandable, but your rebel doctor is playing a dangerous game, and so are you if you align yourself with her. Think about that.”

The Minister walked away and Kane went to the bar, got a glass of whisky, half of which he downed in one gulp. Miller’s parting words had unsettled him. They sounded like a threat, and he didn’t like how much Abby seemed to be in their radar. He wished for a moment she wasn’t so open about helping the rebels, but then he took that back. She was brave and bold and unafraid to do what she thought was right regardless of the consequences. He admired that, had been like that himself once upon a time. He cared for her now, that was the problem, and the thought of her getting into trouble or being hurt made him feel sick. She wasn’t going to leave, so he had no choice but to continue his investigations, expose what was really happening with RL Medical, the rebels, and the Government.

He swallowed the rest of his whisky then went outside, pulling out his cell phone and dialling a number as he went.

“Farm Station Mining Corp,” said a bright voice.

“It’s Ambassador Kane for Charles Pike,” he said.

“Oh! Erm, just a moment, Mr Ambassador.”

A few seconds later Pike’s voice echoed in his ear. “What can I do for you, Sir?”

“I know you’re paying bribes to the rebels to ensure the safety of your mine,” said Kane, coming straight to the point.

There was silence for what felt like an age. “I... what... Are you joking, Kane?”

“I’m deadly serious. I know you’re doing it, and I don’t care, not about that. I want you to set up a meeting for me with Jaha. Quietly, obviously. No one must know.”

“Kane! I... Listen, I don’t know where you got this information, but you’re out of order.”

“Will you set up a meeting?”

Silence again.

“This is between you and me, Pike. There will be no comeback. Can you do it?”

Pike sighed long and loud. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, and cut the call.

Kane walked down the steps and through the gate. Game on, he thought. Game fucking on!

---

“So, what exciting things have happened to you today?” Abby propped her cell phone against a pile of books on her desk and watched as Marcus adjusted the position of his phone, his face looming in and out of focus as he fiddled. He sat back and peered at the screen.

“Can you see me okay?”

“Yes. I can see you in all your pompous glory.”

“Very funny. I’ve come straight from a meeting hence the suit. I can take off the jacket for you if you prefer.”

“No, I’ve kind of grown fond of your buttoned-up look.”

He smiled, pulled on the cuffs of his shirt, fiddled with his round, silver cufflinks.

“I like your cufflinks,” said Abby. “What’s the pattern on them?”

“An eagle,” said Marcus, holding one to the camera so she could see it.

“That’s lovely. Is that the symbol of your old regiment?”

“No, that was a kind of bizarre hand, I can’t even describe it to you.”

“So the eagle’s kind of a birdwatching thing, like you used to do with your dad? Is it your favourite bird?”

He pulled the sleeves of his jacket down to cover the cuffs. “They were a gift, actually, so I didn’t pick the motif.”

“Oh! From someone special?” She thought she’d tease him, see if she could prise details of some past love out of him. He shuffled in his seat, coughed.

“A friend, but yes, they were special.”

They? A neutral pronoun, which meant he didn’t want to give anything away about the person. He also said ‘were’, past tense. Did that mean they were no longer a friend, or no longer alive? Interesting. Abby decided not to pursue it because he was clearly uncomfortable discussing it.

“They’re beautiful. An eagle is very you. Your friend chose well.”

He nodded. “Thank you. How has your day been?”

“I got to use one of my new chest drains! I know that’s not really a cause for celebration, but it worked so well. It was great to have something modern and easy to use. I wish we could afford more equipment like that.”

“Is the fundraising going poorly?”

“There’s been a slump lately in donations worldwide, not just for our organisation. The economy’s so bad, I guess, people can’t afford to give too much, and they’re cherry picking who they donate to. I think an organisation that works with people who are essentially killing each other isn’t a top priority for your average American taxpayer.”

“If there’s anything I can do, you know you only have to say.”

“That’s so kind of you, but actually you’ve reminded me of something. I forgot because it only happened this morning, but I got an email from Russell Lightbourne, you know of RL Medical, and they do fundraising within their various companies, and every year they pick an organisation to raise funds for and guess what? They picked us! Isn’t that amazing?”

Marcus leaned forward, put his hands on his desk. “Lightbourne is giving you money? Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”

“He’s not GIVING us the money, it’s a donation, and they haven’t raised it yet. His employees do stuff like sponsored walks or bake sales and that’s the money that comes to us.” Marcus was frowning as she spoke, and Abby didn’t know why he would have an issue with what she was saying. “Do you think it’s a problem?”

“I don’t know. He seems to be getting very involved all of a sudden.”

“He’s kind, that’s all, and maybe he still feels bad about the delays with the supplies. A man did die after all; it could be weighing on him.”

“I doubt he takes everything that happens to his customers to heart.”

“That’s very disingenuous of you, Marcus. I know you’re suspicious by nature, but it’s just a kind gesture. It doesn’t cost him anything personally does it? It’s not like he’s donating his own money.”

“I know. You’re right, I’m sorry. I care about you that’s all. I don’t want anyone taking advantage of... Global Doctors.”

“Aww. I appreciate your concern, I really do, but I can look after myself. Not that I don’t want your support. I do. It’s lovely that you care enough to be involved.” She smiled warmly at him to show she wasn’t upset by what he’d said. He was being overprotective that was all, and it was sweet of him. She wasn’t used to it, had forgotten what it meant to have someone else involved in her life, someone with concerns and opinions.

“I do care. A lot.”

“I care about you too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I might be kind of wishing you were here a tiny bit,” said Abby, deciding to get the conversation onto a more pleasant track. She didn’t mind arguing with Marcus but right now she was tired and stressed and she needed the Marcus who made her feel good. They’d been teasing each other every phone call since their aborted night together, and she looked forward to it.

“What would we be doing if I was there?” he said, settling back into his chair.

“It would be dark like it is now, just the lamp lit. It’s raining outside and we can barely hear the radio over the sound of the raindrops hitting the canvas.”

“What’s playing?” murmured Marcus.

“The song we danced to in the café.”

“That was a sexy song.”

“Yes, I loved that song. It’s my new favourite.”

“What’s it called?”

“I have no idea.”

Marcus laughed. “We should find out, then next time I’m there we can play it.”

“And will you dance with me?”

“Dancing with you is MY new favourite thing.”

Abby sighed. She closed her eyes. “I’m in your arms now, you’re holding me tight. You smell like the acacia trees; did you know that? Like the savanna.”

“It’s my aftershave.”

“You smell nice.”

“So do you.”

“Not like formaldehyde?” She opened her eyes in time to see him throw his head back as he laughed.

“No. Like a coconut. A fruity coconut.”

“A fruity coconut?” Abby chuckled. “That’s a new one.”

“It’s how you taste as well. Fresh. Summery.”

“And how do you know how I taste?” said Abby, lowering her voice.

“Cause I’m kissing you. I can taste you right now.”

Abby closed her eyes again, remembering the café, the dance, his lips on hers, his tongue in her mouth. “I love your kisses,” she said softly.

Marcus sighed deeply into the phone. “When can I see you again?” he said.

“I can’t leave here,” said Abby, opening her eyes to see him leaning closer to the camera. His eyes were huge and dark. “I’m taking extra shifts because I’ll be away soon.”

“Oh, yes. Your trip to South Africa.” His thin lips turned down into a frown. “I don’t think I can get up to see you. I’ve got a ridiculous number of events this week.”

“I’m flying out on Thursday.”

“From Edenville?”

“Yes. Why, do you think you’ll have time to see me?”

“I’ll make time. I’ll juggle some things around. What time’s your flight?”

“I have to check in at three.”

“Come down earlier if you can. We’ll have lunch at the Embassy at the very least.”

“Okay, that sounds great!” Abby smiled, pleased to have something to look forward to.

“The boy will be happy to see you,” said Marcus, grinning.

“I’m not coming to see the boy.”

“I’m not keen on sharing you either but I don’t want to be selfish.”

“Be as selfish as you want. I just want you, and some kisses.”

“I can arrange that.”

“Awesome! Oh, I’m looking forward to this now.”

“So am I. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do more than a quick phone call the next couple of days. Out at these events like I said.”

“That’s okay. We’ll see each other soon so I can go a couple of nights without talking to you.”

“I wish it could be for longer.”

“Hey, it’s all good. There’s no rush. We’ve got plenty of time.”

“I know. I want to be with you that’s all.”

Warmth flushed through Abby. Ever since their date they’d abandoned all pretence that they weren’t interested in each other, but it still made her hot to hear him say it.

“Think how great it’s going to be when we can finally be together.”

“I think about that a LOT,” Marcus said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Me too,” Abby whispered.

They stared at each other through the phone. Abby wished she could reach out, stroke his face, run her fingers through his hair. She sighed. Marcus must be thinking the same thing because his hand crept across the desk towards the phone and then he paused and drew back.

“I’d better go,” said Marcus. “I still have some work to do.”

“Oh, yes. I don’t want to keep you. Take care, Marcus. I’ll see you Thursday.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Take care, Abby.” He smiled into the phone, and then she watched while he loomed towards the camera to switch it off. The screen went dark and Abby sighed again.

It wasn’t until she’d started talking to Marcus every night that she’d realised how lonely she’d been before, how starved for affection. She looked forward to their phone calls, took his precious words and carried them with her during the day. They gave her warmth and reassurance. It was crazy in some ways, because they’d only had one official date, but life in a war zone did that to you. It brought life into focus, and time, how short it was, how unpredictable. It made you cling to the good, the positive, the things that made you happy, and right now one of those things was Marcus. She wasn’t going to let this go.

---

“Is this really necessary?” Kane struggled as the man sitting next to him in the back of the car tried to put a hood over him. He’d spent half his life relying on his exceptional vision to seek out and process information, and having that sense covered went against every instinct he had.

“The leader insists,” said the man.

Kane took a deep breath, forced himself to relax. “Fine,” he said.

When the hood was on the car set off. It was two days before he was due to see Abby, and that morning he’d received a message from Pike that he was to drive to Tsevo for a two o’clock meeting. He’d been in the middle of a conference call and had to claim sudden illness to get out of that and the rest of the day’s commitments. Pike said someone would meet him in the same layby he’d stopped at a couple of weeks earlier when he’d gone on his impromptu reconnaissance mission. He had a feeling, therefore, that he knew where he was being taken.

Sure enough, after two or three minutes they turned off the main road onto a bumpier dirt road. A few minutes after that they stopped and he heard the squeak of a gate opening. The car turned right and bumped down another track. He could hear the mine in the distance like before. They were going to the hut.

The car stopped again and three doors opened and shut. A second later, Kane’s door opened and he was dragged out. He stumbled as the man led him across the rocky path to the hut. The door opened and he was pushed forwards. He heard the door shut behind him and then the hood was pulled off and he immediately scanned the room to take everything in. There were two men flanking him, big, burly men with frowning faces and huge guns strapped to their chests. They were M16A4s, classier than the more standard AK-47 terrorist groups often used, and popular with the US Military. He’d had one himself, knew what they were capable of. Ahead, sitting at the table, was a black man who was examining Kane as critically as Kane was him. He had a bald head and a black moustache with a thick, silver goatee.

The man, Jaha, Kane presumed, unfolded long legs and stood. He was the same height as Kane, but bulkier with a strong neck, the tendons thick like rope. He could probably beat Kane in a fist fight, but Kane was light and quick, which could be an advantage. Of course, there were the other two men to evade as well, should he need to make an escape, and only one exit.

“I’m Thelonious Jaha,” the man said.

“Like the jazz singer,” said Kane.

“No,” replied Jaha, staring at Kane coolly.

“Oh. Okay.”

Then Jaha smiled. “I’m joking. Yes, the jazz singer, Thelonious Monk. Everyone mentions it. I have grown accustomed to making a joke about it.”

“I fell for it.” Kane held out his hand to Jaha. “Marcus Kane.”

Jaha shook his hand then gestured to the chair on the other side of the table. Kane took the seat.

“I apologise for the way you were brought here. It’s not befitting for a man of your status, but I must respect my privacy, I’m sure you understand that.”

“I do, and I’m grateful to you for agreeing to see me.”

“I was intrigued I have to say. It is not every day the United States Ambassador wants to meet a rebel leader.”

“I’m not here in an official capacity. I hope you understand that.”

“Whatever you wish. What can I do for you, then?”

“I was interested to learn about the struggle from your point of view. Everything I hear or read is filtered through the Government.”

Jaha folded his arms, gave Kane a long look. “Why would you want to learn about us? You’re a Government man.”

“My loyalty is to the United States and its people, but I’ve seen the hardships the war is creating, and I’m keen to see if there is some common ground between yourselves and the Government.”

“Aah, I see. You want to end the war and take the glory. Marcus Kane for the Nobel Peace Prize.” He laughed heartily.

“Not at all. I would prefer my involvement to be unknown.”

“I do not think your bosses would say the same. They would want the prize for the United States of America.”

Kane couldn’t argue with that, because it was true, but he wasn’t here to broker peace, he was here to meet the rebel leader, get the measure of him, see if he could get any confirmation that what he suspected was true. It might not happen on this visit. He had to get Jaha to trust him first.

“They don’t know I’m here. No one does.”

“Except for Charles Pike.”

“He won’t say anything for fear his dealings with you will be made public.”

“What about your friend at the camp, Doctor Griffin? Does she know you are here?”

Kane’s stomach tightened at the mention of Abby. “She does not.”

“You have been seen at the camp. My men have seen you.”

“Some of the staff there are US citizens.”

“That is the reason, is it?”

“Yes,” replied Kane, wondering if everyone in the Republic knew about him and Abby.

“Relax, Mr Kane. You are tense like an impala facing a lion. I promise I will not eat you, or your Doctor Griffin. I like her. She’s our friend. She helps us.”

“She helps everyone.”

Jaha grinned. “We don’t hold that against her.”

Kane couldn’t help smiling. Only Abby could be threatened by government officials and praised by so-called terrorists.

“Please tell me your side of the story. I’m here only to learn and understand.”

Jaha looked at the two men who had brought Kane in. “You can leave now,” he said, waiting for them to shut the door behind them before turning to Kane.

“I will explain, and then you will know the truth.”

Kane nodded, though he expected he would get a version of the truth mixed in with a lot of lies, just like he got from Miller and the rest of the Government.

Jaha told him the history of the rebellion from its birth just after independence to the present day. He’d assumed the role of leader after the previous one was killed in a battle with Government forces a decade before. He didn’t mention his relationship with Miller so Kane decided to ask.

“I was talking to the Minister for Transport the other day. He mentioned you were old schoolfriends.”

Jaha’s eyes widened with surprise. “Did he? I’m surprised he remembers.”

“You fought side by side at the beginning.”

“We did, but then he got greedy, as they all did, and we parted ways.”

“Would you be open to meeting with him if he was willing?”

Jaha’s shoulders shook as he laughed. “If he wanted to meet me I would think that the world had ended.”

“The civil war has to end somehow,” said Kane.

“Yes. When we win.” Jaha stood, and Kane realised the interview was over and stood as well. “It has been entertaining meeting you, Ambassador. I appreciate your efforts, however misguided they are.”

Kane smiled, nodded. He followed Jaha to the door, glancing into the side room as he did. The door was ajar, and he could see there were more boxes than before, all with RL Medical stamped on the side.

“You require a lot of medical supplies,” he said quickly before Jaha could open the main door. The man stopped, turned, and followed Kane’s gaze.

“Fighting is a dangerous business.”

“Of course. I didn’t realise you had a medical facility of your own.” He watched Jaha’s face closely. He was tight-lipped, but a muscle twitched in his cheek.

“Not everyone ends up in your doctor’s hands,” he said, then he put the hood over Kane’s head, plunging him into darkness.

He felt a light breeze as the door opened, and then strong arms grabbed him and he was led away.

“Goodbye, Marcus Kane,” said Jaha from behind him, and Kane was bundled into the car before he could reply.

They completed the journey in reverse, and soon he was back at his car, freed from his hood, watching Jaha’s men drive off down the road.

He was pleased with how the meeting had gone. It was a coup to have met Jaha at all, let alone spend so much time with him. It was the end, though, that was the most interesting. He’d been caught out by Kane’s comment about RL Medical. There was no medical facility in the hut, and he doubted there was anything more than a basic field station wherever they were fighting. If they had something as substantial as what the boxes implied there would be no need for Global Doctors.

No, those boxes had contained something else, something that was the opposite of healing. The only question was, did RL Medical know what was in them? Did they supply more than medical equipment, and if so, how was he going to find proof?

Chapter Text

“Hello, Abby, it’s lovely to see you.” Gaia came out from behind her desk to give Abby a hug.

“It’s nice to see you too. How are you?”

“I’m really good. I just finished my last exam so I’m happy.” She grinned broadly.

“I didn’t know you were studying. What’s the course?”

“I’m doing politics and economics at Edenville University. It’s a part-time course and this is my last year.”

“And you work here as well? That’s some dedication!”

“This has been a dream job while I’m doing the course. I’ve been to lots of events with the ambassadors and that gives me great insight into the political world.”

“I bet you’ve seen it all.”

“It’s amazing what you can learn when people think you’re a nobody.”

“I hear that! Congratulations!”

“Thank you. Ambassador Kane is running a few minutes late, but he said I should send you into his office, so just go ahead.”

Abby opened the heavy oak door to Marcus’s office and went inside. He was standing at the window like he often was when she called, talking into his cell phone. He had on his blue linen suit with the white waistcoat, which she used to think looked ridiculous, but now... now it made her heart race to look at him. He turned when he heard the door, smiled at her. He gestured to the chair Abby had sat in on her last visit here. She was ready for it now, eased herself in carefully so it didn’t claim her. She listened to his side of the conversation for a few moments but it was something boring about US taxes so she tuned out, examined the ornate carvings in the stone mantlepiece over the fireplace instead.

“Sorry about that,” said Marcus after a few minutes. “It was my boss; I couldn’t get out of it.”

“It’s okay.” Abby stood as he headed towards her.

“No, it’s not. We have such little time.”

“Let’s not waste it, then,” she said, and she put her arms around him and kissed him.

He hugged her to him, his hands on her back, sliding beneath her blouse to caress her warm, bare skin. “You smell so good,” he whispered in between kisses.

“So do you.” Abby kissed along his jawline, down to his neck, wanting to taste just a little of him. He tasted like he smelt, like spiced fruit. She unbuttoned his waistcoat, ran her hands over his shirt, feeling his nipples harden beneath the cloth.

“God,” moaned Marcus. “We should just lock the door and forget lunch.”

“I wish we could,” she replied, and then she gasped as his hands moved to her ass and gripped her, his fingers dangerously close to where she was aching for his touch. He was a hard and heavy weight where he was pressed against her. Jesus.

“We can, if you want,” he whispered.

This wasn’t how Abby had imagined their first time to be, but did that matter? She didn’t want to go to bed with him and then leave straight away, but then again she desperately wanted to go to bed with him. She was about to reply when there was a knock at the door. They sprang apart, and Marcus moved to stand behind one of the chairs.

“Come in,” he said in a voice that was higher pitched than usual.

Gaia poked her head around the door but didn’t enter the room. “Sorry to disturb you, Mr Ambassador, but the kitchen has called to say your lunch is ready.”

“Thank you. We’ll be right there.”

She closed the door and Marcus looked at Abby ruefully.

“It’s probably just as well,” Abby said. “You’re at work and I have to leave in a couple of hours.”

“I know, but damn.”

“Yeah.”

He grabbed her wrist and pulled her to him, kissing her again, sighing softly. “I wanted to take my time with you anyway,” he murmured in her ear, “so I suppose it’s for the best.” He stepped away then, buttoned up his waistcoat and his jacket, smoothed them down.

Abby was left with a racing heart and a pulse that throbbed in every part of her body.

“Shall we go?” said Marcus, holding out his arm to her.

“Lead on,” she replied, linking her arm through his. She should have found time to come and see him before this. They could have resolved the tension that had built up between them the last two weeks and she wouldn’t have to fly to South Africa in damp panties and a haze of regret. When she got back she would do it, she would make the time.

The dining room at the Embassy was more opulent than she remembered from her last visit, although she’d been hungover then and incapable of in-depth observation. Everything was yellow, from the patterned wallpaper to the heavy damask curtains that hung in perfect swags at the large windows. The walls were half-timbered, and the wood was painted a pale lemon. The rug that covered most of the dark wooden floor had a yellow oval in the centre surrounded by a yellow and orange floral pattern. The dining table was oval shaped, shiny and a deep brown, mahogany maybe, and places had been set at either end. The plates had flower patterns too, blue and yellow around the edges. Abby felt like she did when she was outside in the midday sun – warm and dazzled by the glare.

“This is some room!” she said, taking the seat Marcus pulled out for her.

“Yeah. I often feel like it’s mocking me. It’s so happy all the time.” He sat opposite her, unfolded his napkin and spread it across his knee.

Abby could barely see him above the huge floral arrangement in the centre of the table. “This isn’t exactly friendly is it?” she said, picking up her plate and cutlery and moving so she was next to him.

“They’re not used to setting a place for a, erm, woman friend.”

Abby snorted at his use of the term. “Woman friend. Is that what I am?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.” His eyes were sparkling humorously.

She thought for a moment. What were they? Not partners, not yet, and girlfriend/boyfriend always sounded like something young people were, not those pushing middle age. “Interested party,” she said, and Marcus let out a loud belly laugh.

“That’s good. I’m glad you’re interested.”

“I am,” she said, and she covered his hand with hers and leaned across to kiss him.

“This is definitely a better place for you to sit,” Marcus said when they parted.

“So, what are we having for lunch?” Abby said as her stomach rumbled.

“I thought I’d keep it light as you’re boarding a plane, so the chef is preparing grilled fish, locally caught, in a lemon butter sauce with a green salad.”

“That sounds amazing!”

“You can’t live within yards of the sea and not eat a lot of seafood.”

“My dad used to take us to Bar Harbor in Maine for our vacation every year. We ate tons of clams and lobster.”

The door opened, and two men in chef’s whites entered pushing a trolley. They placed the food in front of Abby and Marcus.

“Would you like some wine, Sir?” one of them asked Marcus.

“Yes. Do you want a glass?” he said to Abby.

“Just the one.” The man poured a pale white wine into her glass.

“You can leave the bottle,” said Marcus.

“Will that be all, Sir?”

“Yes, for now. Thank you.”

When the men had gone, Marcus lifted his glass to Abby. “Here’s to a successful trip,” he said.

“Thank you.” Abby sipped the wine which was light and fruity. “That’s lovely.”

“I was going to say I don’t usually drink at lunchtimes, but actually I’m often at some lunch or meeting where they’re plying me with alcohol.”

“Maybe they think it will soften you up.”

“Only beautiful doctors in need can do that.” He smirked as Abby groaned at his comment.

“That’s bad,” she said.

“True, though.”

Abby tried the fish which was delicious. “This is really good.”

“Yes, I’m spoiled I suppose.”

“Where does everyone else in the Embassy eat?”

“There’s a large eating area on the ground floor next to the kitchen.”

“But you don’t eat in there?”

“Not often.”

“Not good enough for you, eh?” She raised her eyebrows in challenge.

“This is more convenient, that’s all.”

“I can see it must be tough walking down that extra flight of stairs.”

Marcus chuckled. “You got me.”

“In this instance I’m glad you’re such a snob, because it means I get you all to myself.”

“Time alone is something we’re struggling with, isn’t it?”

“That’s something we can remedy when I get back from South Africa.”

“I’d like that.” He reached across, stroked the side of her face gently. “I’d like that a lot.”

Abby flushed with heat, and her heart was racing again. She felt like a teenager, experiencing the all-consuming attraction that came with first love. Not that she was in love with Marcus. It was too soon for that, right? Yes. Yes. Way too soon.

“So what’s on the itinerary in South Africa?” Marcus said, thankfully putting an end to Abby’s train of thought.

“Mainly the conference. Obviously, I get there tonight and there’s the usual reception thing in the hotel, and then the conference is a mix of lectures and stalls to look at products. The main thing to find out about is this new infusion system they’ve developed that’s for use out in the field. It sounds really ground-breaking.”

“I didn’t realise they made equipment as well as supplying it.”

“Oh, yes. Russell was motivated to set up the company because of the disasters he saw every day when he was a cardiologist. It wasn’t just supplies not getting to where they were needed, it was the lack of affordable equipment in the first place. He decided to do something about it and set up the company. He does amazing work.” She swirled a piece of fish around her plate, trying to chase up as much of the sauce as she could. “Your chef is fantastic!”

“Yeah,” said Marcus. “Cardiology, that’s in your area of expertise, isn’t it?”

“Similar, yes. I was surprised when he told me he had a proper medical background. I’d assumed he was just a businessman.”

“Businessman, philanthropist and cardiologist! He has many strings to his bow.”

“He does, yes.” She looked up from her plate because there was an edge to Marcus’s voice. He was jabbing at his fish as though it still needed subduing. “I know we got off to a rocky start with him, but he’s one of the good guys I think.”

“I’m sure he is.” Marcus smiled tightly at her and chewed on his fish, his jaw clenching with every bite.

Abby stared at him. Was he jealous? Surely not. “You’re not... There’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s only a conference.”

“I’m not concerned. There’s something about him that’s all. I don’t trust him.”

Abby put down her knife and fork and took Marcus’s hand. “You can trust me. That’s all you need to know.”

“I do trust you. It’s not that; it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s a feeling; I can’t really explain it.” He looked almost pleadingly at her and Abby didn’t understand where his fears were coming from, unless...

“Is this something to do with Paris? Did something happen there, something that makes you mistrust people?”

He sighed, took his hand away and picked up his drink, taking a long draught. “It’s not because of Paris. It’s nothing. I’m being stupid. You’ll have a good time.”

“You’re never going to tell me what happened there, are you?”

He turned his dark eyes on her, stared for what felt like an age. “I was forced to leave Paris because I... I saw some injustices happening and I... it didn’t go down well when I told my bosses, and so I got sent here as punishment.”

“Oh wow! You were like a whistleblower! That’s so brave, Marcus. You could have told me that.”

“I’m not allowed to tell anyone. State secrets and all that.”

“Right, of course, yes! Oh, gosh. Well, I’m really proud of you whatever it was. It takes guts to stand up to people like that, and to have to deal with the consequences.”

He smiled sheepishly then turned back to his meal. She thought there was probably more to it than he was able, or willing, to say, but telling her anything at all was a big step. She was pleased. They talked about their safari trip after that, indulging in their memories, and the atmosphere returned to a happier one.

After the lunch things had been cleared away there wasn’t much time left before Abby had to leave. Marcus moved to perch on the window seat, taking her with him and pulling her into the vee of his legs. He put his hands on her ass, pressed her to him. She linked her arms around his neck, and they kissed again. The kiss was long and slow and sweet, and full of promise. When they broke off, he moved to her neck and the parts of her chest that were bare to him, down to her cleavage, peppering the swell of her breasts with hot, breathy kisses. She wanted nothing more than for him to unbutton her blouse and do that to her all over. She put her hands on the back of his head to hold him there.

“Come and see me when you get back,” he mumbled into her chest.

“I will. I will.” She lifted his head so she could find his lips again and they kissed passionately, arms wrapped around each other, until the clock struck two with a loud chime, and she knew she had to go.

They drew apart, and Marcus stroked her hair and her cheek. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

“I’ll miss you too, but I’ll call. We’ll video call tonight when I get to the hotel if you want.”

“No. You have a great time and enjoy yourself. You deserve some time away even if it’s work-related. Don’t give me a second thought.”

“I’ll be giving you lots of thoughts, don’t worry about that.” She gave him one last kiss on the lips, sighed and then left the comfort of his arms to pick up her bag. “I’ll see you soon,” she said as she headed for the door.

“Have a safe flight,” he replied.

“I will. Bye.” She left the dining room feeling strangely emotional. She was only going away for the weekend, and she hadn’t even seen him for two weeks. What difference could a few more days make? Yet it seemed poignant for some reason. They were on the brink of something, she supposed, and it was hard to leave that possibility behind, even for a few days.

---

Kane stood at the window and watched as Abby crossed the road towards her Land Rover, waiting until she’d driven off before slumping into his seat at the table. He poured himself another glass of wine, took a large gulp. He should be feeling happy, euphoric, because the time they’d spent together had been wonderful, and he was desperate for more, as was she, but all he could think about was the lie he’d told. He put his head in his hands. Goddamned idiot! Why had he done that? He should have told her the truth or laughed it away. Instead he’d made up a story about Paris, one that was so far from the truth it was ridiculous.

It was that damned Russell Lightbourne’s fault! Kane didn’t want Abby spending time with him because he was dubious at best, but he had no proof of his suspicions so he couldn’t say anything to her. His attempts to try had come across as jealousy which she’d picked up on, of course she had. And wasn’t she right? Wasn’t that why he’d said what he had about his removal from Paris? He’d wanted to look good in her eyes, because Lightbourne appeared to be practically a saint, and so much better for Abby than him. They had a lot in common.

God, it was pathetic just hearing himself think these things! He hadn’t cared about what he’d done in Paris, other than being annoyed that it had led to his banishment here. Now that he’d met Abby, someone who was good and kind and loving and not a selfish, self-satisfied prick like him, he felt ashamed. There was no way he could tell her the truth without looking morally bankrupt, which he didn’t think he was, and yet his actions told a different story. He hadn’t cared, that was the problem. Not about his work, not about the people he was employed by or worked with and least of all about himself. He was self-destructing before he met Abby, and he hadn’t wanted her to see how pathetic he really was.

It was time to grow up and take some responsibility, for himself and his past. How he was going to tell her the truth he didn’t know. He’d have to hope she didn’t find out until he’d figured a way to tell her without ruining what promised to be a beautiful and life-changing relationship, for him at least. Fuck! He banged the table in anger, causing wine to jump out of the glass and stain the cloth. He couldn’t sleep with her without telling her the truth. It wouldn’t be right, so he was going to have to do it when she got back, and accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

That evening Kane did a deep internet search on Russell Lightbourne. RL Medical was legitimate, which he hadn’t doubted. It was a successful company, and Lightbourne made a good living from it. Kane found his home address in South Africa from company records. He had a house in Fresnaye, an upmarket area of Cape Town, a huge sprawling thing on the hills above the ocean. It was fenced on all sides like a compound. Kane doubted you’d get change out of five or six million dollars for that.

Lightbourne wasn’t shy about being seen. He was photographed at all the right parties, rubbing shoulders with government officials, film stars, foreign dignitaries, even members of European royal families. He probably knew the Queen of England better than Kane did! The enormous car Kane had seen him in was one of many, and he had a helicopter at his disposal, probably a private plane as well. The business surely wasn’t doing well enough to support such a lifestyle? He wasn’t trying to hide his wealth so it must either be legitimate, or he was confident that no one would look, or care.

There were pictures with various members of the Republic’s government, including Miller and the President. He couldn’t find any connection with Jaha or the rebels, and there were no pictures with Pike. Lightbourne’s company did a lot of business in the south and east of Africa. In fact, they’d bought up other supply and distribution companies over the last few years so that they were now the sole distributor of medical supplies and equipment like Abby had said.

Kane turned his attention next to Lightbourne’s personal history. He was still a US citizen and Kane had access to government databases that the general public didn’t. Through a combination of this and interviews Lightbourne had given plus other internet searches he found out that the man was forty-two and from Madison, Wisconsin. He’d studied Economics at the University of Wisconsin and then he’d gone to work for a consultancy specialising in medical insurance and finance. Five years after that he’d disappeared from US databases, not paying any taxes or drawing a salary that Kane could find. He’d reappeared a couple of years later in South Africa as the CEO of RL Medical. Kane could find no mention of him being a cardiologist, he’d never studied Medicine or anything relating to it like he’d told Abby. He’d lied.

The question was why? It can only have been to get close to her, to get her onside, but what did he gain from that? As attractive as Abby was, Kane couldn’t see Lightbourne doing all of this just to form a relationship with her. Then again, hadn’t he himself just lied to make himself look good, because he wanted her. Maybe Lightbourne was the same. No. He’d only met Abby once, talked on the phone a couple of times. She was captivating though...

It all came down to the boxes he’d seen in the rebel’s hut, and what they’d contained. He was sure it wasn’t medical supplies, because since when did they come packed in straw? He’d seen some of Abby’s supplies and they were packed in foam and plastic. When he was in Iraq they’d uncovered a safe house used by insurgents. There’d been boxes there too, and when he’d opened them the first thing he’d seen was straw, and beneath that straw were guns, and grenades, all manner of weapons. He knew in his gut it was the same here. Someone was supplying the rebels with weapons, and they were using RL Medical boxes to do it.

Were the guns coming in from elsewhere and being transported in the boxes, or were they being smuggled in alongside other legitimate shipments? Was this why Abby’s supplies were always delayed? If her orders were being used as cover, then there’d be delays after entry while the smuggled items were separated from the ones meant for Global Doctors. This would have to be a major operation. They’d need people in the port, customs, transport, the government. What about Pike? Was he involved? Was he paying his protection money to Jaha by turning a blind eye while guns were smuggled via his mine?

He had to make these connections somehow. Seeing a few boxes at the rebel camp and having his suspicions about Lightbourne wasn’t going to cut it with Abby or anybody. The man could be perfectly legitimate, paying for his enormous compound through some trust fund or investments Kane hadn’t managed to find. He couldn’t start asking too many questions himself, because that would be noticed immediately. He needed an expert, someone else like him who’d been trained in recon and surveillance, and he knew just the person. They hadn’t spoken in years because he’d cut all ties with his previous life, but his regiment’s motto was Honor, Fidelity and Courage, and those things never died, no matter how much you tried to move on. If he called for help, he would get it.

Chapter Text

Abby sat at the desk in her room at the Marriott hotel in Cape Town and opened her laptop. It was late on the Friday afternoon and she was relaxing after a long day at the conference. She placed a video call and waited to see if Marcus would answer. She’d tried calling and texting him yesterday when she’d arrived but hadn’t managed to reach him. He was busy, she knew that, but she felt the need to see him or speak to him even if it was only for a minute.

She was about to give up when the call connected, and his face appeared.

“Hi!” she said.

“Hi,” he replied with a thin smile.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, yes, sorry. I was just about to get in the shower. Had to put some clothes on.” He smiled then, and Abby grinned back.

“That’s a shame,” she said, her voice low.

“How’s Cape Town?” he said, not taking the bait. He was probably tired; he looked it, his face drawn and pale and his eyes heavy.

“Beautiful! I haven’t had chance to explore the outside really, but it’s a great hotel and I have a wonderful view of the sea. Look!” She picked up the laptop and scanned it around the room then took it to the open window. “Can you see?”

“Yes, it does look beautiful.”

“I was surprised when I arrived because I booked the cheapest room, but Russell had arranged an upgrade, so I have this fantastic view.”

“That’s kind of him.”

“Yes. I haven’t seen much of him, he wasn’t at the meet and greet thing last night, but there’s a dinner tonight so I expect I’ll see him then.”

“So you haven’t had a chance to talk to him, then?”

“No. He only appeared about an hour before the conference ended and by the time I’d got out of the room he’d gone.”

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of time to chat all things cardiological later.”

“Yes!” said Abby, pleased that Marcus was making an effort regarding Russell. “So, how have you been? I tried calling yesterday but I know you’ve been so busy.”

“Sorry about that. I had an event and I didn’t see your call or text until today, then I figured you’d be busy at the conference.”

“Oh, it’s fine, don’t worry. I know you said not to call, but I wanted to see you I guess.”

“I’m sorry I missed you, but it’s lovely to see you now.”

“It’s lovely to see you. You look tired, though. You’re not overdoing it, are you?”

“No, I’m good. There’s no need to worry.”

“Okay.” She looked at him a moment. Something was off with him because he wasn’t flirting or teasing her like he usually did. Tiredness could do that to you, though. She knew that better than most. Sometimes it was hard to summon up the energy for laughing and joking. “I wish you were here,” she said softly.

“I wish I were there too, believe me, although I’m not sure I could cope with all that medical talk. It’s far too clever for me.”

“I doubt that somehow.”

He smiled, a warmer smile than the one before.

“If we ever get time for a vacation we should come here,” she said.

“I’d like that,” he said quietly.

“Okay, well I’m going to let you get that shower and relax. Don’t do any more work tonight. You need the rest.”

“I’ll try.”

“Okay then.”

“Abby.” He leaned closer to the camera and Abby did too.

“What is it?” she said, her heart starting to thump.

“Take care, won’t you?”

“Of course I will.” She frowned as she examined his face. Something about his voice and his demeanour was making her worry. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. I want you back here safe and sound that’s all.”

“Oh,” she said, relieved. “I will be. I’ll be back soon. I’ll be with you before you know it.”

“Can’t wait.”

“I’ll let you go, then. Bye, Marcus.”

“Bye, Abby.”

The screen went blank the instant he finished saying her name, and Abby sat back and stared at it. Was there really something going on with him or was she reading too much into what was nothing more than a tired man forced into an unexpected conversation? The latter, hopefully. What else could there be?

---

“Your wife doesn’t know about me I take it?” said the woman slouched in the chair on the other side of Kane’s desk.

Charmaine Diyoza looked almost the same as when he’d last seen her over a decade ago, her long, brown hair tied back in a ponytail, her strong face determined, blue eyes softly mocking. The only difference was she’d swapped combat fatigues for a sleeveless black t-shirt with a death metal logo and black skinny jeans. Her taste in music obviously hadn’t changed either. The t-shirt showed off her muscled arms and the tattoo of their regiment’s insignia, which most of their unit had got on a drunken night out in Germany pre-operation. Kane and Sinclair had been the only ones sober enough to abstain.

“Abby’s not my wife,” Kane said.

“Oh. She sounds wifey, worrying about you.”

“She’s kind and has a big heart, that’s all.”

“You’re doing her, right, though? I mean you always did have a big appetite in that regard.” She smiled slyly at him, her voice a purr.

“It’s not like that.”

“Don’t tell me you’re keeping it in your pants these days! What happened?”

“Some of us change.”

She folded her arms, regarded him with one eyebrow cocked. “The surprises keep on coming. I hear from you after God knows how many years of radio silence, and I find out you’re a freaking Ambassador! Now you’re telling me you’re all loved up with a woman you aren’t even fucking! The universe must have tipped on its axis while I wasn’t looking.”

“I guess that must be it.” Kane sat forward, put his hands on the desk. “Can we cut the crap now and talk about what you’re here for?”

“Of course, Captain. Whatever you say, Sir.”

Kane closed his eyes briefly. Diyoza had always been difficult to work with, insubordinate, rude, unable to stick to the rules, always skating along the edges, sometimes crossing over. It had been a relief to leave the army and never have to deal with her again. Her unorthodox methods were exactly what he needed now, though. She would get the job done, and despite her blustering attitude, she was also sneaky, stealthy, able to get in and out of places undetected.

“It’s imperative there’s no trace of your investigation,” Kane said. “The players involved are warmongers and criminals. They’ll stop at nothing to protect their business.”

“What business are we talking about exactly? You were really vague in your message.”

“It’s only my suspicions at the moment, but I believe it’s gun running, like in Iraq.”

“Gun running! Jeez, Kane. What are you involving yourself in this for?”

“The war is costing thousands of lives and putting ten times that in poverty. People are dying needlessly while Lightbourne and his cohorts get rich.”

“I know you’ve always had a bee in your bonnet about injustice, but this isn’t your war, Kane. Just do what you can via your job and let other people worry about it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?

“Because it’s affecting people I care about.”

Diyoza sat forward, a knowing look on her face. “Abby you mean. What’s her role in all this?”

Kane poured them both a tequila, which was Diyoza’s drink of choice. Not something he liked much himself, but the mood he was in any alcohol would do. He told her the whole story, everything he knew and suspected and by the time he’d finished they’d gone through a quarter of the bottle.

He sat back and regarded her, his hands steepled in front of him. “Thoughts?” he said.

“You clearly feel this in your gut.”

“I do.”

Diyoza nodded. “If there’s one thing I learned all those years ago it was to trust your gut. You never let us down.”

“That’s not quite true, is it?”

“That wasn’t your fault.”

Kane sighed deeply. He’d known that seeing Diyoza would bring up memories he’d tried to bury, but he hadn’t been prepared for how visceral they were. Just looking at her, hearing her voice, sent him back to that time, to those dreadful events.

“Let’s not go there,” he said.

“Have you never talked about it?”

“No, and I’m not about to start now.” He pulled on his sleeve, fiddled with the cufflinks like he always did when he felt stress. Of course, she noticed.

“You’re wearing those, though,” she said, nodding at them.

Kane folded his arms so the cufflinks were hidden. “Let’s talk strategy, shall we?”

“Fine, but you’re torturing yourself, you know that don’t you?”

“I’m most concerned about Russell Lightbourne. I want you to connect him to all of this,” he said, ignoring her.

“We don’t know for sure there is anything to connect. I think my first job is to run surveillance on the hut you found up near the mine. If I can see the guns coming in, then I can trace the route back and see if it ends at this Lightbourne’s door.”

“That sounds good. Time is of the essence, so anything you need, tell me, no matter what the cost.”

“I like to do things alone as you know, so there won’t be too many out of pocket expenses. I’ve been doing this ever since you left. I’ll do the job; don’t worry.”

“I know you will. You were the only person I thought of.”

“I’m flattered I suppose.” She smiled, then grew serious. “You’re my brother and you always will be. I got your back.”

“And I’ve got yours. Keep in constant touch.”

“I will.”

Diyoza stood and bumped fists with Kane. “HFC,” she said, using the initials of their motto, Honor, Fidelity and Courage, like they used to do back in the day.

“HFC,” replied Kane.

---

The delegates’ dinner that evening was held in the grand ballroom of the hotel. Abby thought the name was euphemistic, as the only grand thing about the room was its size, and it bore little resemblance to ballrooms she’d seen in movies or TV shows. She’d half expected chandeliers and luxurious furniture and instead it was ceiling lights and faux leather chairs. She lifted the cloth covering the table she was sitting at to reveal cheap laminated wood. Still, the floral table decorations were nice, and the linen was clean and fresh. She took a picture of the room and texted it to Marcus.

Not as grand as your private dining room xx

She received a reply when she was about to dive into her seared salmon trout.

At least you don’t need sunglasses xx

That was more like Marcus and it made her smile. He must be feeling rested. She finished her meal and chatted to the people on her table who were mainly medical reps. She didn’t have a lot in common with them, but she’d learned how to talk easily to people she didn’t know over her years as a doctor and the conversation was pleasant enough.

A short time later the lights dimmed, and spotlights shone on the stage. Russell walked on to a round of applause. He gave a brief history of RL Medical and spoke about the products they’d seen already and what they could look forward to on the Sunday. When he’d finished speaking, music started playing and some people took to the small dancefloor while the catering staff cleared the tables. Abby stayed where she was, watching. She really wished now she’d organised this better and asked Marcus to come with her. He could have explored Cape Town during the day, and they would have had the evenings together, eating and dancing and then of course the nights, free of interruptions, just the two of them making love. She closed her eyes and sighed.

“That’s a big sigh!” came a now familiar voice and she looked up to see Russell smiling down at her. “Are we boring you?”

“Not at all. I was daydreaming.”

“Anything good?”

“That remains to be seen.”

He nodded, put his hand on the empty chair next to her. “May I?”

“Of course.”

He settled into the chair, one leg folded over the other and contemplated her. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

“Very much so. I have a lot of new products for my wish list. Can’t afford most of them but that’s nothing new.” She smiled to show she wasn’t judging the prices of his supplies.

“Hopefully our fundraising will help with that in the longer term.”

“Oh, yes. That was so kind of you. I really appreciate it.”

“Oh, no, it’s me that appreciates you. I was very moved by what your organisation is doing, and your work in particular in Tonshasa. Such a difficult place to be but you’re performing wonders.”

“Thank you,” she said, amused at his hyperbole. His sense of the dramatic was not only obvious in his speech but in his dress. He was wearing a purple jacket that had gold brocade on the collar and sleeves over his black shirt and pants and looked like he’d been on a theatre stage rather than a conference platform.

“I have a proposal for you, actually,” he said, looking pleased with himself.

“Do you?”

“I do. I’m launching a project to run training programs in some of the more deprived areas we supply, and I thought you could be my first.”

“Training programs in what?” said Abby, intrigued.

“Field first aid, at least initially. I’m thinking of having an army of well-trained first responders and field technicians, people who are familiar with the most valuable life-saving devices, supplied by us for free of course. They could be out in small towns and villages where there is no direct access to medical facilities. There would also be funded courses in medicine for those who show aptitude. You could help train the future generation of Doctor Griffins, Abby. What do you think to that?”

Abby was taken aback at his proposal. It sounded interesting, but she wasn’t sure she had the time to instigate a project like this.

“It’s a wonderful idea, Russell, but I’m not sure if I’m the right person for it.”

“You’re the perfect person.” He patted her hand then stood. “I’m having a soiree at my house tomorrow night, a few friends, mainly medical people, some government. Why don’t you come, and we can discuss it in more detail?”

“Oh, I can’t. My flight back is tomorrow afternoon.”

“Change it. You won’t regret it. This is the future, Abby, a chance to do something fabulous.” He walked away leaving Abby to stare at his back, her mind alive with confusion but also possibility.

Back in her room later she called Marcus on the phone, hoping it wasn’t too late.

“Hi!” he said.

“Hi. I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

“No, of course not. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Did you have a nice evening?”

“It was interesting.” She settled back against her pillow, the phone nestling against her ear. His voice was a low, comforting rumble.

“How so?”

“Russell turned up, and he wanted to speak to me. Turned out he is launching a training program for first aid responders in deprived areas and he wants me to pilot the first one in Tonshasa.”

There was silence from Marcus on the other end of the phone.

“It sounds interesting,” she continued.

“Yes,” he replied. “What’s involved for you?”

“I don’t know for sure. He’s invited me to his home tomorrow to talk about it.”

The silence this time was even longer. “I thought you were coming home tomorrow.”

“I was, but I can change my flight, come back on Monday.”

“You’re not staying the night at his house, though?”

“No! I’ll extend my stay in the hotel. He lives in Cape Town, so I’ll just get a cab back here afterwards.” She wasn’t sure whether she found Marcus’s obvious jealousy cute or annoying. He’d denied having trust issues when they’d talked on Thursday, but something was clearly the matter. “I’m not keen on your lack of trust, Marcus,” she said, deciding to get it out in the open. It was better to talk than to let things fester.

“I do trust you. It’s him.”

“I don’t understand what you have against him. His company mixed up my supplies, but he’s gone out of his way to rectify that since. I can only conclude that you’re jealous, and if you trust me like you say you do there is no need to be jealous. He can’t do anything I don’t want to do, and I don’t want to do anything.”

“I know that. Perhaps we can talk about it when you get back.”

“Yes, I think we should.”

There was another silence. Abby was about to tell Marcus goodnight because she’d had her fill of his silent reticence when he spoke.

“I don’t want to leave things like this,” he said.

“Good. Neither do I.”

“I care about you a lot. More than I’ve cared about anybody in a long time.”

“I care about you too. I hope you realise that.”

“I do.”

“I wonder sometimes. We can’t talk about this over the phone because it feels like there’s a deeper conversation to be had here, but I want you to know that it’s possible that someone, and I’m not naming any names here, might think that you’re everything she wants and needs.” Her hand was shaking where it held the phone as she spoke. She hadn’t admitted the depth of her feelings to herself properly before never mind to Marcus, and hadn’t put her heart on the line for anyone since it had been broken what she’d assumed was beyond repair.

“You’re all I need too,” Marcus said quietly, making Abby’s heart thump against her chest.

“Well, we’re okay then, aren’t we?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll call you the minute I get back and we’ll see each other somehow no matter what.”

“Sorry for being an ass.”

“You’re not an ass, but you need to talk to me, Marcus. You need to tell me how you feel, what’s on your mind. It’s the only way we can move forward.”

“I will. I promise. As soon as you’re back.”

“Okay. Sleep well.”

“You too.”

She cancelled the call and dropped the phone on the bed. He was a complicated man with a difficult past. She’d known that since the night at the palace. She understood where he was coming from because she was the same. They were both hiding things, from themselves and each other. Maybe it was time to come clean, to trust each other truly, and tell their stories.

---

Russell Lightbourne’s house was nothing like Abby had expected. It was more like an estate, hidden behind high walls and a huge security gate. She knew Cape Town had its problems with crime like many cities, but this seemed over the top. Perhaps he’d been a victim in the past and was overcompensating, or maybe it was another symbol of his tendency to the dramatic.

She was shown to a room at the rear of the house that opened onto a huge deck with a swimming pool. It was dark already, it being winter in South Africa, but it wasn’t yet cold, and some people were gathered around the pool in groups, talking while others were lounging indoors in designer chairs.

“Abby!” said Russell as he walked towards her, resplendent in an Asian-inspired purple tunic that looked like something The Beatles wore in the sixties. His dress sense was truly amazing.

“Hello, Russell. Thank you for inviting me.”

“You look divine,” he said, grabbing her shoulders and kissing her on both cheeks.

“Thank you,” said Abby, looking down at the simple blue dress she’d hastily bought in the hotel’s boutique because she hadn’t brought a party dress on the trip.

“Have you got a drink? Let’s get you a drink.” Russell commandeered a couple of glasses of wine from a passing waiter without asking what Abby wanted and passed one to her.

“Thank you,” she said. She had a feeling Marcus had been right and it was a mistake to have come here. The man was... pushy was the politest way to put it.

“Let’s go out onto the deck. I have the most amazing view of Table Mountain.”

They stood at a railing beneath which was a steep drop and gazed at the mountain. It was lit from beneath and glowed eerily against the dark sky.

“Beautiful,” said Abby. “About your training project. What can you tell me about it?”

Russell smiled voluminously. “There’s no messing around with you, Abby, is there. I liked that about you the first time we spoke.”

“I have an early flight tomorrow, so I can’t stay long.”

“Of course. Let me tell you all about it.”

He outlined the project which he’d clearly put a lot of thought into because his plans were detailed and instantly actionable. It was very tempting, because the outcomes would have such a positive effect on the region and its people.

“I’m just concerned about how I would find the time for this,” she said when he’d finished. I have a full-time job at the hospital that has no set hours and I can’t be away too often.”

“Then maybe the trainees come to you. You can host them at the camp. I’ll supply an assistant or you can find one yourself who can act as a mentor. That way you are always on hand and there is someone to take care of the day to day administration side of it. It will be like having lots of extra hands. No more washing your scrubs in a bucket, Abby.”

“That’s not exactly a hardship. I don’t know.” The job might be ideal for Malia, give her leadership and training experience to add to her nursing skills.

“You can take some time to think about it, but I would like to get this pilot scheme up and running while there’s still some summer remaining in East Africa.”

“You are able to move that quickly?”

“Yes. It’s all planned out, and the money is available.”

“Wow. Okay, well I will definitely think about it and give you my answer as soon as possible.”

“That’s all I ask.”

They stood in a comfortable silence for a while, observing the other guests talking and laughing. Abby couldn’t stop thinking about the project.

“Is the Republic’s government on board with this project, because I’ve had problems with them before?”

“I have good ties with many members of the government. They are sympathetic to the project.”

“Really? When I met the Minister for Transport he dismissed me and accused me of being a rebel sympathiser because of my work.”

Russell laughed. “I can only imagine what you said in return.”

“I didn’t get chance to say anything because Marcus pulled me away.” Abby smiled at the memory of that, and how annoyed she’d been at the time.

“Ambassador Kane? You are good friends with him I hear.”

“Yes. Where did you hear that?”

“The Ambassador is the subject of many conversations in government circles, even here in South Africa.”

“Oh?” said Abby, flummoxed by Russell’s words.

“You must know of his reputation if you are friends.”

“As an Ambassador?”

Russell shook his head. “I don’t think he ever found the time to do his proper job when he was in Paris.” He looked closely at her. “You don’t know...” he said softly.

“Know what?” Abby’s stomach started to churn, making her feel sick. “What don’t I know?”

“I thought you couldn’t know. You’re such a good, moral person. I couldn’t understand what you were doing associating with someone like him.”

“What do you mean, someone like him? You’d better come out with it, Russell. I don’t like games.” She was short with him because she was starting to feel worried and a little scared about what he was going to say. Part of her didn’t want to know but the other part was desperate to hear it.

“He’s completely morally bankrupt, dear. When the ministers found out he was heading to the Republic they joked about having to lock up their wives, although I don’t think many of them were actually joking, not after what he did in Paris became known.”

“What did he do in Paris?” said Abby in a small voice.

“He had an affair with the Minister for Foreign Affairs’ wife. Cuckolded him effectively, and the man was his host, gave him every courtesy. It went on for ages, in the US Embassy, in the man’s home, in his bed. Sometimes Kane and the wife would sneak away while the Minister was at home, during a party or something. That’s how they got caught, because they became careless. The Minister found them together in the marital bed. Had the potential to be a HUGE scandal, but it was hushed up, and the US Government dispatched him to the Republic practically before he’d tucked himself back into his pants. Of course, this kind of news gets out, especially in diplomatic circles. Everyone knew about it. The worst thing, I hear, was that he didn’t even care! Never apologised, never said a word.”

All the blood seemed to drain from Abby’s body and she went cold all over. She couldn’t speak, could hardly process what Russell was saying. Marcus had told her only a couple of days ago that he’d left Paris because he’d blown the whistle. She’d praised his actions, felt proud of him, and now she was hearing that was all a lie. Why would he make something like that up? She’d thought he was cold when she’d first met him, but that had been a front, to hide what she’d thought was a trauma from his past, from Paris or Iraq. It wasn’t a front at all. He was a man who could cheat and lie and sneak around and not even care about it or acknowledge his behaviour. Everything she’d grown to love about him felt like a lie.

“I, erm... I have to go now,” she said, thrusting her glass at Russell. “Thanks for the invite.”

She brushed past him and he caught her elbow. “Abby. I’m sorry if this news has upset you.”

“It’s not your fault. I really must go.”

She stumbled through the house trying to find the exit. A man in a security uniform came up to her.

“Mr Lightbourne has a car waiting to take you to your hotel,” he said. “Come this way.”

She followed him out to the waiting car and got in. She had no recollection of the journey back to the hotel or how she’d got to her room. She lay slumped on the bed feeling sick. She took out her phone, scrolled through the pictures and brought up the one of her and Marcus on safari. He’d made a joke about his stiff demeanour in the photo. Was that his true self? Cold and uncaring. Surely not. What about the man who’d organised the supplies for her, who’d helped unpack them, danced with her, told her he cared about her, needed her? Was that all a lie? Was it an elaborate ploy to get her into bed? God!

She switched off her phone and threw it across the bed. She was going to have to confront him about this, because there was no way she could see him and pretend she didn’t know, and there was certainly no way she was going to kiss him or do anything else at all until she’d heard his side of the story.

She rolled onto her side, curled into a ball. Five years it had taken to even think about giving her heart to someone again. Five years, and barely a few hours later it had already been bruised. Whether it was broken forever she’d find out when she got home.

Chapter Text

Kane was sitting in his office reading a report when the door burst open and Abby walked in, closely followed by Gaia with a bemused look on her face.

“I’m sorry, Mr Ambassador. Doctor Griffin insisted on seeing you.”

“It’s fine. Thank you, Gaia.” He waited for his assistant to shut the door then stood and headed towards Abby. “Couldn’t wait to see me, eh?” he said, leaning in to kiss her.

She backed away from him and his stomach clenched. Something was wrong.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

She stared at him, her shoulders heaving as though she was trying to contain an explosion of something.

“What really happened in Paris?” she said, and his blood ran cold.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I want you to tell me what you really got banished here for, because I know it wasn’t blowing the whistle.”

“Who told you?” he said, although he could guess.

She shrugged, continued to glare at him.

“Russell goddamned Lightbourne! I knew there was something wrong with him.” Kane turned away from Abby, went to stand by the window.

“It’s not Russell there’s something wrong with. It’s you!” Abby followed him, stood with her arms folded across her chest.

“I made a mistake,” said Kane. “I’ve regretted it every day since.”

“Because you got caught and sent here. If you hadn’t, you’d probably still be doing it, or you’d have moved on to someone else’s wife.”

“That’s... that’s probably true, yes, but being sent here was the shakeup I needed, and meeting you...”

“Don’t bring me into this! This is about you and what you did.”

“Abby, I was different then. I’m not like that now.”

She shook her head. “You haven’t changed. You lied and cheated back then, and only a few days ago you lied again to me. You didn’t tell me the truth about what happened when I asked you directly.”

“I was ashamed. I didn’t want to admit it to you.” He gripped his cufflink, twirled it around and around. She wasn’t going to forgive him easily that much was obvious. What if she couldn’t forgive him at all?

“But why tell a lie? Why not say you don’t want to tell me or you’re not ready to? I don’t understand it.”

“I wish I’d told you the truth. I wished it as soon as the words were out, but it was too late by then.”

“I was proud of you,” she said quietly.

“I know, and I felt awful.”

“You kissed me after that. You sat on the window seat and you kissed me, and you touched me, and we effectively made promises to each other. I was going to come back here and make love with you. Were you going to go to bed with me and not say anything? Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I was going to tell you when you came back. I knew it was wrong what I did, Abby. I never should have lied to you, I just panicked in that moment, and you were all full of Lightbourne and how wonderful he is and I thought how can I tell you the truth? You’d think I was sleazy, immoral. I couldn’t have you thinking that, and the wrong words just came out.”

“This obsession with Russell is out of control, Marcus. You’ve only met him once, I’ve only met him a couple of times, and yet you’re comparing yourself to him and thinking that I’m going to sleep with him. You assume because you don’t think twice about jumping into bed with people we’re all like that!”

Her comment stung in numerous ways. It was true of the old him, but the new one had thought he’d never have a relationship again of any kind, not until he’d met Abby. “I never thought you were going to jump into bed with him.”

“Then what is it? Because it makes no sense. On the one hand you’re a confident guy who clearly has no problem getting women into bed, and on the other you’re insecure because someone takes an interest in me professionally. Your behaviour feels controlling and I don’t like it and I don’t understand it.”

“I’m not trying to control you, it’s just there are things about him, things you don’t know.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say for certain yet. I don’t have proof.”

“This is crazy, Marcus. You sound crazy, you do see that don’t you?”

He should tell her his suspicions about Lightbourne, but he had the feeling that without proof it was going to sound like he was trying to undermine the man to make him look bad to Abby and put her off him. It was all too late. He should have told her at the start, brought her into his confidence, trusted her.

“None of this changes my feelings for you, or the fact that I’m not that man anymore,” he said desperately, because she was withdrawing from him, he could see it in her eyes and her face, and the fact she kept looking at the door, planning her escape.

“Well, it changes my feelings for you. I don’t know what to think, I really don’t.” She moved quickly, was at the door before he could draw a breath.

“Abby, I love you, please don’t walk away!”

She spun around, looking at him with shock, tears dripping onto her cheeks. “That’s... you can’t just say that, Marcus! That’s not fair. It’s not.” She put her hand on the door, turned the knob. “I need some time to myself to think. Please don’t contact me. I’ll be in touch with you when I’m ready.”

With that she was gone, the door banging shut behind her. Kane stayed rooted to the spot, staring at the space she’d left. What a mess he’d created. He’d been destroying himself for a decade now, and here finally was the coup de grâce, the final blow, and he’d delivered it himself, which was just fucking perfect.

---

For three days Abby thought about little except what Russell had told her and her subsequent conversation with Marcus. It had reached the point where she wasn’t sure what Marcus had actually said and what were the words she’d put into his mouth in the heated arguments she had with him in her head. She spent every waking moment at work in order to try and take her mind off the subject but in the quieter times, or when she was lying in her camp bed unable to sleep because of the heat, her wired brain turned again and again to Marcus and what he’d done in Paris.

Russell had called and emailed but she’d ignored him. This situation wasn’t his fault because he hadn’t known Marcus had lied to her but part of her blamed him nevertheless. It was petty and unfair, but she couldn’t help it. If she hadn’t gone to his house, if he hadn’t told her what he had she’d be happy with Marcus now. It was a ridiculous train of thought to be having because she’d be happy under false pretences, but sometimes she thought she’d rather that than the pain she was currently feeling.

On the third evening since her return she was in her tent, sitting at her desk writing reports, when Jackson entered via the open flaps. The first she knew of him being there was when he spoke her name softly. She looked up distractedly.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” he said, coming closer to her.

“Are you okay? What do you want?”

“I’m fine. It’s you I’m worried about.”

“There’s no need to worry about me, I’m fine.” Abby returned to her report, ticked a few boxes.

“I disagree. You’ve not been yourself since you came back from South Africa. Did something happen there?” He sat in the other chair, adjusting it so he was looking at her, his dark brows knitted with concern.

“Nothing happened. I told you I’m fine.” She tried to stare defiantly at him to show him she was telling the truth, but he had big soft eyes and the love and worry in them made her want to cry. She looked down at her paper.

“Abby, you’re not fine. You’re moody and you’re short with people and that’s not like you. You seem so sad, like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders. Something’s wrong.”

Abby put down her pen with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry if I can’t be sweetness and light all the time. I’m very busy. I don’t always have time for niceties.”

“Now see, that’s definitely not you. The Abby Griffin I know always has time for a kind word no matter how busy she is.”

“You don’t know me like you think you do.” She knew she was being unreasonable, and that Jackson didn’t deserve to be the butt of her anger, but he was here and she was tired and didn’t have the energy to stop herself.

“Perhaps you’re right, but what I do know is that your attitude is affecting the moral of your staff and I would like to help you with whatever is causing you to behave like this.” He pushed back his chair abruptly and stood. “We’re having a braai, and it would be nice if you could join us.”

With that he left, and Abby glared at her paperwork as though it was somehow at fault. She hadn’t been that short with people, had she? She thought she’d kept her feelings pretty well hidden, but apparently not. Jackson wouldn’t lie. Guilt washed over her about her staff, the wonderful people who worked so hard and didn’t deserve anything but warmth and praise. Goddammit! She rested her elbows on the table, covered her face with her hands, the heels pressed into her eyes trying to prevent the tears that were forming. She was a grown woman and it was ridiculous to behave like this, but it was just that it had taken so long to allow herself to feel love again. The betrayal seemed huge.

She finished her paperwork, collapsed onto her cot fully dressed. The sound of laughter and music drifted across along with the smell of roasted meet from the barbecue. What good was it doing lying in here alone, thinking too much? She got off the bed, found a dark blue wraparound cardigan and pulled it on.

Outside, the smell of the food was stronger, and she followed her nose to the fire pit beside the Mess tent. Upwards of thirty people were sitting around it, talking and laughing, most of the camp it would seem. Someone had a guitar and a couple of others were tapping djembe drums softly. Jackson was standing behind the grill, turning some chops and sausages. He looked up as she approached, smiled warmly.

“Here she is,” he said.

“Sorry,” said Abby.

“No need. Do you want a chop or some sausages?”

Abby hadn’t been hungry much lately, but the smell of the meat was intoxicating and made her stomach rumble. “Sausages, please.”

Jackson put the meat on a plate, handed it to her. “Help yourself to some ugali and salad,” he said, gesturing to a table heaving with prepared vegetables. Abby avoided the ugali because it brought up too many associations with Marcus and heaped her plate with peppers and tomatoes instead.

“Let’s find a seat,” said Jackson, handing the barbecue tongs to one of the volunteers.

He led Abby to a quieter part of the circle where two camping chairs sat drunkenly next to each other, their legs embedded into the grass. Abby sat gingerly in one, wiggled so the legs evened themselves out. Jackson sat in the other. He didn’t speak, though his silence was comfortable, and Abby ate her food slowly, watching the fire. Someone came round with a jug of palm wine and some tankards and she took one, swallowing a large gulp, the alcohol hitting her extremities instantly, warming them on the inside.

“I’m glad you came out,” said Jackson.

Abby nodded, drank some more of the wine.

“What happened?” he said softly.

“I’ve been an idiot,” she said, and the tears started to flow.

Jackson was quiet while she cried, waiting to speak until she’d wiped her eyes and her nose.

“Why have you been an idiot?” he said.

“I let myself trust someone and I think it was misguided.”

“You mean Kane?”

Abby nodded, sniffed, fumbled in the pocket of her cardigan finding an old tissue. She blew her nose, threw the tissue into the fire. “He’s not the man I thought he was.”

“Why? What has he done?”

She told Jackson everything that had happened since meeting Marcus at the Embassy for lunch on that fateful day. “I knew there was something in Paris, I’ve known since day one. A man like that doesn’t get sent to a place like this without reason but I didn’t want to push him because it’s personal, you know. I figured he’d tell me in his own time.”

She left out the part where Marcus had intimated he’d tell her his secrets if she told him hers, back when they were at the Palace waiting to meet the Minister. Jackson didn’t know any more than Marcus about her past, no one here did, and what’s more she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d only been honest with him from the start then they might not be in this mess. He knew she had her own secrets and he’d never pressed her for them since that day. He seemed to be happy not knowing, whereas she’d been desperate to find out what had happened in Paris. Maybe sometimes it was best not to know.

“Sounds like he was worried about telling you.”

“Well, yeah, because it’s such an awful thing to have done. When he did tell me what I thought was the truth I was so proud of him and I told him and he just sat there and soaked it all up knowing it was a lie. How could he do that?”

“People do all sorts of things that make no sense, Abby. Maybe he was jealous of Russell like you said, felt inadequate next to a man with so many accomplishments.”

“He’s a United States ambassador! Plus he knows those kinds of things don’t matter to me. I’m not interested in what people do, I’m interested in who they are in here.” She thumped her chest where her heart was pounding with the anger that was starting to build again.

“I know. It’s a crappy thing to have done.”

“Damn right it is, and the joke is he kept saying he trusted me! As though he had any reason not to! That’s a twisted kind of trust isn’t it? And really when you think about it even having to say that is weird. We’re barely dating and he “trusts me!” It’s like I should be honoured or something. Saying things like that is a way of controlling someone. Don’t you think that’s controlling?”

Someone came round with more palm wine and Abby held out her glass for a refill. She took another large swallow, but it did nothing to quell the anger in her.

“Yes, a bit,” said Jackson, getting a refill as well. “But I don’t understand why you’re surprised by that. He’s always been like that, hasn’t he?”

“Controlling?”

“Kind of, like uptight and unyielding. Weren’t you always saying everything is on his terms? He decided what you could say to the Minister and pulled you away when it wasn’t what he thought you should say, he organised the supplies, he introduces you to Russell then tells you he doesn’t want you to see him.”

“To be fair that was for the best, the thing with the Minister. He knew I was going to do more harm than good and he stopped me for my sake. That all worked out well, didn’t it? The thing with Russell I don’t understand.”

Jackson smiled. “It’s a man thing. They’re both alpha males and you’re the prize they’re fighting over. You’ve been on safari; you see it all the time.”

“Oh, come on! They’re not lions. Besides, Russell isn’t interested in me in that way.”

“Isn’t he? He comes up here to deliver goods to you personally – the head of a company that has clients throughout Africa. He invites you to a conference, upgrades your room, he asks you to a party at his house.”

“He’s just being kind.”

“He knew you were friends with Marcus, maybe more than friends. Have you ever thought maybe he told you what he did in order to put a spanner in the works of your relationship?”

Abby stared at Jackson disbelievingly. “Now you’re sounding like Marcus!”

“I’m not defending what Kane did, but I can see how it might look to him.”

The wine was starting to fog Abby’s brain making it hard to think clearly. It couldn’t be true, could it? She stared at the fire and tried to focus. Russell had brought her better chest drains than she’d wanted, upgraded her room without asking, chose the wine she was drinking that night. God, was he just as controlling as Marcus? Was she being manipulated every way by both men? She sighed heavily.

“Regardless of what Russell intends or what Marcus believes, he had no right to lie to me or behave the way he did.”

“No, but like I said, he maybe didn’t want to look bad in your eyes. If he likes you, cares for you then he wants to look good to you. If what Russell says is true, then he’s a philanderer, or he was in the past, and you’re... well you’re upright, moralistic. He maybe felt intimidated.”

“What do you mean I’m upright and moralistic? Are you saying I’m a prude?”

“No, no.” Jackson put his hand on Abby’s arm and she forced herself to let him even though she wanted to shake it off with annoyance. “But I think that sometimes you maybe might come across as a little bit judgmental.”

Abby pulled a face at his description of her. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that of course. Marcus had called it her a couple of times. Was it true? Maybe a little, if people didn’t live up to her expectations. No, dammit, this wasn’t about her!

“I don’t see why I am at fault for any of this.”

“I’m not saying you’re at fault, I’m just trying to show you a potential path of reasoning behind what Kane did. Is it possible you’re more upset by what he did in Paris than by his lie to you?”

Abby drank more wine, watched the pale liquid swirl around in the tankard. “When I heard what he’d done with that woman I thought - I don’t know who he is anymore. He’s not the man I thought he was.”

“What kind of man did you think he was?”

That was easy to answer. “Funny, kind, loving, loyal, intelligent, proud, ridiculously pompous.” She couldn’t help smiling at the last part, thinking about him immaculately dressed in his three-piece suit no matter how hot it was.

“And having an affair with someone before he met you means he’s no longer any of those things, does it?”

“Well he’s clearly not loyal.”

“He’s been loyal to you.”

“As far as I know.”

Jackson shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought he was an ass too, but then he came up here and he helped us in so many ways. He stayed up all night when we had that crisis. Why would he do that if he wasn’t who you think he is?

“Because he wanted to get me into bed. It’s what he does, fucks women.”

Jackson snorted, which wasn’t the response she was expecting. “No offence, Abby, but if he wanted to get someone into bed there are easier people available to him than you. You don’t really believe that do you?”

Tears welled up again and she was helpless to stop them. “He said he loved me,” she sniffed.

“What if that’s true? What if he has changed and he loves you and he was scared to lose you? He told a lie, made a mistake.”

“Why are you so hell bent on defending him?”

“I’m not defending him.”

“You are!”

“I’m not. I’m... Look, the way you’ve been the last few weeks, I’ve never seen you so happy. He makes you happy and seeing the difference in him the few times I’ve met him I think you make him happy too. I don’t want you to throw away what could be a great relationship because he made a mistake.”

“It’s a big mistake.”

“Yes, but consider this. If you hadn’t found out the way you did, and he’d sat down with you and told you the truth when you got back like he said he was going to, how would you have reacted then?”

“I don’t know. I guess we would have talked.”

“And if he’d told you the truth about Paris from the start – his truth, not what you’ve heard from Russell – would that have been a deal breaker?”

Abby thought about the things she’d done which she hadn’t told Marcus about. Why hadn’t she told him? Because she was ashamed, and fearful that he would think differently about her and not want to be with her anymore. Oh, God!

“No,” she whispered.

“Then I think you owe him a chance to tell you his side of the story properly. When you know the facts you can make an unbiased decision based on the evidence.”

“You’re right,” she said, looking up into his warm brown eyes. “I thought I was supposed to be the mentor here.”

Jackson took her hand in his. “I had a similar thing a while ago with Nate. His job, sometimes he has to do things he can’t tell me about and one time he told me he’d done something I didn’t think was right and like you I wondered if he was the man I thought he was.”

“Oh, wow, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine. We talked. I realised that in a relationship the other person isn’t a carbon copy of you or as perfect as you want them to be. There will be things you don’t agree on or things they do or have done that you don’t like. Just because Kane played around in the past doesn’t mean he’s doing it with you or that he will again. His past is a part of him and you either accept it or you call it a day, move on.”

His words sent a shiver down Abby’s spine, the thought of moving on completely from Marcus left her cold. She was used to him in her life, enjoyed being with him, loved how he made her feel. It was why she was so upset at the thought of his betrayal. She didn’t want to believe that what they had was a lie. She didn’t want to lose him forever, but at the same time she wasn’t going to put up with someone controlling or whose natural instinct was to lie to protect himself. She had to give him a chance to tell her the truth, Jackson was right. It was what they both deserved.

“It’s nice to hear you talk about Nate,” she said, deciding it was time to think about other people for a change. “You’ve never really talked about your relationship with him.”

“There’s no great reason for it. I’m just not someone who is comfortable sharing the personal stuff I guess.”

“We are the same in that way.”

“We’ve broken the ice now. You can always talk to me.”

“You can always talk to me too.”

They clinked tankards and took long draughts of the palm wine. Abby stretched out in the camping chair, stared at the fire. She would call Marcus tomorrow, tell him she was ready to talk.

Chapter Text

After Abby left, Kane spent the rest of the day brooding in his office. He told Gaia to cancel all his meetings and hold all his calls. He wasn’t in the mood for talking to or seeing anyone. In fact, there was a large part of him that wanted to drive straight to the airport, get on a plane and fly home to Washington DC. There was nothing for him there, though, not even a house, because the home he’d inherited when his parents died was leased to a family. He hadn’t lived there in nearly a decade anyway, hadn’t lived anywhere really since he’d joined the army in his early twenties. He had nothing and no one.

He paced the room, thinking about what Abby had said, and that bastard Russell Lightbourne. He’d told her on purpose that much was clear, and God knows what he’d said. Not the truth, which no one knew except him, his boss, and the woman he’d had the affair with, and her husband, of course. How had Lightbourne found out? He must have done his research on Kane like he had done on him. Probably knew someone at the Paris Embassy. He thought they’d done a good job of keeping it quiet, but his sudden departure would have sparked gossip, and maybe they hadn’t been as discreet as he’d thought they’d been, although her husband hadn’t known until he’d walked in on them. Perhaps it was a lucky guess.

He ended up at the window like he always did, staring out at the sea. What if he got a boat, sailed across the Indian Ocean? He could start again in Indonesia or go further to Australia, the Northern Territory where nobody lived. He could fish from his boat and forage in the bush and live alone the rest of his life so he couldn’t hurt anyone else again ever. He twirled his cufflinks, ran his thumb over the eagle design on one of them.

“I wish you were here,” he whispered.

He was here now because of that night ten years ago, the path from there to here clear to him, a path of self-destruction, guilt, and regret. He thought he’d found his saviour in Abby, someone who made him feel whole again for the first time since then. He’d ruined it because of his pride and his legacy of shame. He couldn’t even blame Russell Lightbourne because if Kane had been upfront with Abby from the start the man would have had nothing to hold against him. She would have been able to say, ‘I know all about that’ and walk away, seeing the attempt for what it was, a manipulation, an attempt to defame.

She didn’t see Russell for who he was because he was a master at what he did, and now Kane had blinded her even more to the truth with what she thought was his jealousy, had probably pushed her towards him if not romantically then at least as a friend. He couldn’t let that happen. No matter how things ended up between him and Abby he wasn’t going to let her be used and hurt by that man.

He was a threat - to Abby, to the Republic and to the American people - and threats had to be dealt with. It was no good sitting here feeling sorry for himself and he couldn’t go on with his job pretending everything was okay. He had to do something. He picked up his cell phone, dialled the now familiar number.

“Diyoza,” said the gruff voice when the call was answered.

“It’s Kane. Where are you?”

“At the port. I’ve got an office under surveillance. They’re the main entry point for the goods from RL Medical. I’ve found out there’s a shipment due tonight or tomorrow, so I’m going to wait and see what happens.”

“I’m coming down.”

“What? There’s no need, Kane.”

“Nevertheless I’m coming. I’ll be an hour give or take.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Yes. This isn’t about you. I need to do this, Diyoza.”

She sighed heavily to indicate her displeasure at the idea. “Fine. I suppose you might come in useful even if it’s just so I can pee somewhere that isn’t in a bottle without breaking the surveillance.”

“Just like old times. Where exactly are you?”

She described her location and when he’d put the phone down Kane pulled up a map, worked out how he was going to get there without being seen. When he left his office he was surprised to see that Gaia wasn’t at her desk then he realised it was eight o’clock and everyone had gone home.

He went to his bedroom, showered to remove any traces of his aftershave or any other scent then went to his closet, pulling out a bag that had been everywhere with him for as long as he could remember. Inside were a pair of black combat trousers, a black t-shirt and a sweater. He dressed in the clothes and pulled on his boots, tucking the pants into them. He took out a balaclava that rolled up into a woollen hat and threw it on the bed together with gloves, a small kit of essentials, a flask, his binoculars with the night vision and a compact digital camera.

He unzipped a pocket at the rear of the bag, pulled out his holster and a Beretta M9 handgun. They used SIG Sauer M17s in the army now, but back in his day it was the Beretta and that was what he felt most comfortable with. He strapped on his holster, checked the gun and loaded a magazine. He tucked it into the holster and pulled on a black leather jacket to cover it. He put the bag away and took out his backpack instead.

He loaded all the items on the bed into the backpack. When he was satisfied he had everything, he opened his door carefully, checked to see if anyone was around. The corridor was empty, so he made his way down the back stairs to the kitchen. There was no one there either thankfully, so he made coffee for his flask, rummaged in the cupboards for snacks to sustain a possible two-day surveillance. He ended up with nuts, chocolate, and potato chips. He made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, enough for him and Diyoza even though she was probably well provisioned, grabbed a couple of bottles of water and stuffed all of this into his pack.

He couldn’t go out of the front or back doors without being seen because they were both heavily guarded, so he opened a window in the kitchen, threw his bag out then climbed onto the counter and eased his way through, landing with a painful bump on the rough pavement behind. He got up, brushed the dirt from his clothes and was congratulating himself on a job well done when a small voice spoke.

“Where you going, Mister?”

Kane spun around to see the boy sitting on a step gawping at him, a lit cigarette drooping between his fingers.

“To see a man about a dog.”

“What dog? You want pet?”

“Yes, a big guard dog.”

“Hmm.” The boy frowned, not buying his excuse. He looked Kane up and down. “You look like spy, like James Bond.”

Kane couldn’t help smiling at his comment. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You up to no good like him? Are you seeing a lady, is that why you sneak out the window?”

“Something like that, yes.” Kane was anxious to leave but didn’t want to alarm the boy so much he would say something to Gaia or anyone else in the Embassy.

“Is it the sexy lady? You going to see her?”    

“It is about the sexy lady, yes, but it’s a secret. You won’t tell anyone will you?”

“I won’t tell, mister.”

“Good.” Kane had an idea now that he’d seen the boy. “You can help me actually.”

“Yeah? You got anything for me?”

Kane sighed, rummaged in his pocket for his wallet. He took out a few bills, pressed them into the boy’s hand. “I want you to distract the guard at the entrance to the car park. Get him as far away as you can.”

“I can do that no problem!” The boy smiled a gap-toothed grin.

“Good. Smoking kills, by the way,” he said.

The boy shrugged. “You say hi to sexy lady from me. Treat her nice.” He winked, and Kane laughed softly.

“I will.”

He followed the boy along the rear wall of the Embassy, watched as he went up to the guard and said something to him. A moment later the boy was running and the guard was running after him. Kane ran himself, straight into the compound and to his car. He jumped in, set it into drive and was out onto the main road, watching in his rear-view mirror as the boy taunted the guard from a safe distance. He’d accepted he would have to be seen by the guard as he went for his car, but it was better this way. The more people thought he was still in the Embassy the better. He would text Gaia in the morning if he wasn’t back by then, tell her he was ill and not to be disturbed.

He put his foot down, headed towards the port, the old anticipation rising in his veins, warming his blood with the thrill of the chase. It never left you, the training, the memories. If he closed his eyes now he’d be back in Iraq or Afghanistan, hiding behind walls or rocks, his mind sharp, his eyes focused, seeing everything with perfect clarity. He took deep breaths to calm his beating heart. It felt good to be doing something, made him feel alive.

At the port he sneaked through the broken fence as directed by Diyoza and crept through the maze of buildings and shipping containers until he found her on a rise at the back of the port, hidden behind a clump of straggly bushes amongst some trees. She was dressed all in black like him, her long hair tied back in a ponytail and tucked into a black baseball cap.

“Hey,” he said, dumping his backpack on the ground and crouching next to her.

“Hey.”

“What’s the situation?”

“I’ve identified that quay as the zone of action,” she said, pointing to a docking area with large blue cranes looming above it. Around twenty people were busying about the area. “The office to the right is the one I’ve been watching. I visited your little hut yesterday up at Tonshasa and found a shipping label still stuck to the back of one of the boxes. It references this quay and office as the place of entry.”

“I never noticed a shipping label when I looked,” said Kane, angry with himself for missing something crucial like that. He got his binoculars out of his pack, watched the scene through them.

“You’re lost in the sauce these days, man. Been out too long.”

“I’m sharp enough,” he replied, ignoring her dig at his intelligence. “They’ve probably had more deliveries since then.”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

He smiled, then settled into a more comfortable position next to Diyoza. They watched the quay in silence for a while. Kane’s stomach rumbled sounding loud in the quiet of the woods. He realised he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He took out the PB&Js he’d made earlier, offered one to Diyoza.

“Thanks,” she said, taking it and chowing down.

Kane poured some coffee, ate his sandwich and stared at the scene below. Thoughts of Abby were bubbling beneath the surface of his mind. What was she doing now? How upset was she? She’d seemed devastated, especially when he’d told her he loved her. Why had he done that? It was true, he’d known it for a while now, but of all the times to tell her! It could never be taken back, would forever be associated with that moment, with his past, what he’d done.

“Are you gonna tell me what’s eating you or just sit there sighing all night?” said Diyoza.

“I wasn’t aware I was sighing.”

“It’s every other breath. Either something is bothering you or you’re having an erotic fantasy about me.”

He smiled sarcastically. “I’ve never had an erotic fantasy about you. I don’t think of you that way.”

“How charming! I don’t know how you get all the women you do.”

“Some of us just have it.”

“Hmm.” She finished her sandwich, took his cup and swigged some of his coffee. “Is it the wifey? Abby? Has she dumped your ass?”

Kane closed his eyes briefly, sighed. “Kind of.”

“Aah. Why don’t you tell Aunty Charmaine all about it?”

“You don’t want to hear all this.”

“If it means you stop sighing and moping around for the rest of this surveillance it will be a price worth paying.”

To Kane’s surprise he found himself telling her about Abby and what he’d done. They both kept their eyes on the target area while he talked and she listened. He had to pour more coffee when he finished his mouth was so dry.

“I don’t really see why she’s got her panties in such a twist,” said Diyoza. “So you fucked someone before you met her. You’ve fucked a lot of women. A lot!”

“Yes, alright, I don’t need reminding of that!”

“Are you fucking around now while you’re with her?”

“No. There hasn’t been anyone since Paris and I don’t want anyone else but her.”

“Then I don’t see her problem. Is she a virgin?”

Kane realised he knew nothing about Abby’s past other than her career history. She’d told him as little about herself as he had her. “I don’t know. I doubt it.”

“Then presumably she’s shagged people before you.”

“It’s not about the sex, it’s about me, the kind of person I am. She thought I was a good person I guess and now she knows I’m a shit.”

“You’re not a shit, jeez man! You like sex, don’t we all. Maybe shagging this man’s wife wasn’t the best idea, but it’s hardly the worst thing in the world. She does know you’ve been in the military, right?”

“Yes, she knows that.”

“What does she think you did during your service? Play toy soldiers, shoot beanbags?”

Kane thought about the few things he’d told Abby about his time in the middle east. They hadn’t said much beside that fire on the safari, but she’d understood, he was sure of it. ‘We do what we have to in order to survive,’ she’d said.

“She understands what it’s like in that environment. She deals with its consequences every day.”

“Then she should know that sometimes we do things to relieve that stress, things that civilians wouldn’t understand.”

“Yeah.”

“I really don’t think you should beat yourself up about this, Kane. I know I gave you a hard time when we worked together, but you were the best leader we could have had. I trusted you with my life and I still would. You’re a good person, someone to rely on. You have your flaws, who doesn’t, but you’re decent. I don’t know what more she can ask for.”

Kane sat silently watching the quay and thinking about Diyoza’s words. Abby was upset, yes, but he’d made a mistake and if he had a chance to explain, to tell her everything, then she might understand, she might be able to forgive him. He had to tell her the truth, all of it, and she had to do the same with him. Maybe then they could move forward.

“You need to talk to her, Kane,” said Diyoza.

“I know.”

They spent the night in their makeshift foxhole, taking it in turns to sleep. The quay was quiet, and then at first light the activity increased and half an hour later a huge tanker sailed into view. Kane nudged Diyoza awake and they watched as it berthed. It was hours before they started unloading, and then container after container was craned onto the quay.

Men with clipboards supervised the undertaking, coming in and out of the office. A number of trucks arrived empty and left loaded with shipping containers. It was possible one of them contained the goods from RL Medical, but that container had to be unloaded first, its contents removed and sorted. That could happen anywhere, but Diyoza had intel that the work happened here in the port under the supervision of rebel sympathisers amongst the port staff.

The convoy of trucks slowed, and the rest of the containers remained where they were. Activity diminished on the site and the men with clipboards returned to the office. Kane ate his last sandwich and shared his potato chips with Diyoza. He walked through the woods to relieve himself and stretch his legs. When he returned he settled in for another long night. Darkness fell and it grew cold. He put his balaclava on, rolling it up so it formed a warm hat. He stared at the scene through the eerie green glow of his binoculars.

At zero one hundred hours a truck drove onto the quay. Two men came out of the office and went towards it, conversing with the driver on the dock for a few minutes.

“Diyoza,” said Kane, nudging her. “We’ve got incoming.”

“Fuck, I was having a good sex dream.” She sat up, stretched, grabbed her binoculars.

“I hope I wasn’t in it,” replied Kane.

“Nah, it was your girl, Abby. I was showing her what a real man can do.” She grabbed at her crotch in imitation of a man thrusting.

Kane’s shoulders heaved while he silently laughed. He’d missed this, he realised. The banter, the piss-taking, the laughter in the face of danger. He tried to calm himself because his binoculars were shaking too much to focus. A container was loaded onto the truck, but instead of heading out of the port it went in the opposite direction, closer to where they were hidden. It stopped and the driver jumped out. He and the men from the office went around the back and opened the container doors. They disappeared inside.

“We need to get closer,” whispered Kane.

He and Diyoza crept through the brush until they were in a position where they could see part of the rear of the truck. Another, smaller vehicle arrived. Gradually, boxes were removed from the container and stowed in the back of the truck. After a couple of hours the men exited the container and shut the door. They stood next to the smaller truck, talking. Some of their words drifted towards Kane as he watched. He heard “expected today,” and “the monk.” What did that mean?

“We need to see what’s in that vehicle somehow,” said Diyoza.

“Oh!” said Kane as realisation hit him.

“What?”

“The monk. I think they’re talking about Jaha, the rebel leader.”

“Eh?” Diyoza screwed up her face in confusion.

“He’s named after a jazz musician, Thelonious Monk. He told me himself.”

“Then they’re taking the goods to him.”

“To the hut,” said Kane.

“Yes.”

“We need to follow them.”

“Or get a head start, be in position.”

“You go,” said Kane. “You know where it is.”

“I do, but don’t you want to come with me?”

“I’ll follow, but I want to try and check out the main container first, see what’s left, whose shipment it is.”

“That’s not going to be easy.”

“Since when did I do anything that’s easy. Get going.”

“True. Okay.” She stuffed her things into her backpack, shouldered it. “Stay frosty,” she said, and then she slunk away, disappearing into the night sky.

Kane stayed where he was, waiting to see what would happen next. After a few minutes the driver of the smaller van appeared, got in and drove away. Kane could only hope Diyoza had enough time to get into position at the hut before it arrived. She’d have to hide her car, so it wasn’t an easy task.

Nobody came out of the office and Kane decided to get closer, see if he could find out what they were doing in there. He unzipped his jacket so he could access his gun easily. Adrenaline flowed through his veins as he drew near the office. The door was open, and he could hear voices, people talking and laughing. He knelt beneath the window, then looked quickly inside, taking in as much as he could in the brief glimpse he afforded himself. The three men were sitting around a table, their legs stretched out on the chairs next to them. A bottle of palm wine sat on the table, half empty. It looked like they were in it for the rest of the night.

This was his chance, the only one he was going to get. He went to the truck and contemplated the container. They’d closed the doors but hadn’t locked them into place which was a stroke of luck. Nevertheless, he knew the doors creaked loudly when they were opened because he’d heard it earlier. He’d have to be careful and patient.

He eased the door open millimetre by millimetre until there was a gap wide enough for him to slip through. He turned on his torch, looked around. Straw, plastic and medical supplies littered the floor and there were boxes strewn around. The boxes were instantly familiar, the logo of RL Medical stamped on the side. All of them had been opened, and he looked in one. It was only half full and contained medical supplies. Straw was stuck to everything. He looked in another which was the same.

The third was different. This one was full and was neater than the others, the contents packed efficiently. Kane rummaged around, couldn’t find any straw. The box next to it was the same. He quickly examined a few others and found a mixture of the two, some full, some half empty. Plastic pouches were stuck to the sides of the boxes and he slit one with his penknife, pulled out the paper and looked at it. His heart thumped against his chest. It had Abby’s name and the address of the camp on it. There was a list of items allegedly contained within the box but when he compared it with the actual contents it was different. A clipboard lay on top of one of the boxes, crammed with sheets of paper like the one with Abby’s details.

He scanned the other boxes, checked out the address labels. Some were for Global Doctors, others for the mine, others for places he’d never heard of. He sat back on his heels, contemplated the scene before him. It was clear to him what was happening now.

The illicit goods, what he believed to be weapons, were hidden at the bottom of the legitimate boxes, packed in straw. On arrival at the port the boxes were opened, and the medical supplies removed. The weapons were consolidated into some of the boxes and taken away. The medical supplies were repacked into the remaining boxes with new content labels and then shipped off to their destinations. No wonder there were delays. There were hundreds of boxes in here, each needing to be sorted. Between the drinking and the work, it must take days to complete.

He was taking photographs of everything when he heard voices, the drunken laughter sounding closer than he would like. Fuck! They were coming out of the office. He hurried to the container door, peered out. There was no sign of the men but the voices were really close, just a few metres away. Kane jumped out of the container, having no time to close the door more than an inch or two. He reached the wooded slope just as the men appeared at the rear of the container.

“Didn’t you shut this?” said one of them.

“Fuck knows,” said the other, and they all laughed.

Kane retraced his steps to the hole in the fence and squeezed through. A couple of minutes later he was back at his car. He slammed it into drive, his heart racing, his pulse throbbing. He roared into the night, heading for Tonshasa, and what he hoped was the final piece of the puzzle. He allowed himself a smile at the success of the mission, and then the smile turned into a laugh. He let everything out, his pain, his frustrations, his satisfaction, screaming into the darkness as he put his foot down and sped along the road. It felt amazing.

Chapter Text

Kane drove past the entrance to the rebel zone and pulled the car onto the side of the road, bouncing over the ruts and small shrubs until he felt the car was sufficiently hidden from the sweeping headlights of anyone passing on the main road. He’d studied maps of the area extensively since his first visit and knew there was a more direct route to the hut that cut off two sides of the triangle. There would probably be a high fence to tackle but he was confident he could handle it. He shouldered his backpack and set off at a run, holding his arms in front of him to prevent branches whipping into his eyes.

As he approached what he thought was the right area he slowed, found the fence line and crept along it. He stopped occasionally, looked through his binoculars. After five minutes or so he stopped to look again, and the shape of the hut loomed into his vision. Beside it was the van he’d seen at the port. He couldn’t see signs of human activity. The fence looked to be about eight feet in height, but it was chain link which provided good hand and footholds. He heaved himself up and over it, landing with a hard thud on the baked clay the other side. He sat for a moment, winded, then he took out his binoculars and scanned the area again. A shape was crouched to his right, looking at him through its own binoculars. Diyoza.

He headed towards her, hunkered down by her side.

“I got here barely a minute before them,” she whispered. “There was no sign of anyone already in the hut and when they arrived they opened the lock themselves.”

“So no Jaha then.”

“Not yet.”

Kane nodded, watched as two men came out to the van and took a box out of the back, carrying it between them towards the hut. This went on for so long dawn broke and the rising sun spread a pink glow over the scene. Kane and Diyoza were well hidden behind a thicket of bushes some two hundred metres away. He wasn’t worried about being seen. He ate the last of his chocolate and drank some water, settled in for who knew how many more hours of surveillance.

At last the door of the van was slammed shut and the men stood talking for a moment before getting into the vehicle and turning it around, heading back down the track towards the gate. Kane watched through his binoculars until they were nothing more than a dust trail.

“Let’s get inside the hut before anyone else comes,” he said to Diyoza.

“I’ll go first,” she said.

“Take these. I’ve already made a tension wrench.” He handed her the relevant parts of his knife. “Any problems jump the fence and make a beeline at zero two hundred. My car is off the road one klick from here.”

“Gotcha. Okay, I’m moving in.”

“I’ve got your six,” replied Kane, taking his gun from its holster and moving so he could follow her and watch her back from a distance.

He scanned the track and the surrounding bush while Diyoza headed towards the hut and the door. She had it open quicker than he had and was inside in no more than a couple of seconds, shutting the door behind her. Kane moved closer, alert for signs of movement or noise, but there was nothing. Diyoza opened the door and beckoned to him. He moved slowly towards her.

“I’m not gonna spoil it for you,” she said with a grin, and then she swapped places with Kane, heading outside so she could watch him while he inspected the hut.

Inside he switched on his torch and entered the side room. The boxes were stacked neatly like before, and they hadn’t been sealed. He opened the flaps and looked inside. Beneath a thin layer of straw he found hand grenades, dozens of them. Another box contained the M16A4s like those the men who’d brought him to meet Jaha were carrying. He opened maybe half a dozen boxes, finding handguns, knives, assault rifles, more grenades. Jesus Christ! He took photographs of everything, making sure to focus on the name of RL Medical on the side of the boxes.

He was about to open another box when he heard the hoot of an owl. His heart thumped. That was Diyoza’s warning. They had incoming. He hurriedly put everything back as he’d found it then opened the door. She signalled down the track and Kane poked his head out, saw a dust cloud moving towards them. He shut the door, got the padlock on and then hurried back to their observation post, Diyoza close behind him.

“You get what you needed?” she whispered.

“Yes.”

They watched as a flat bed truck approached. Two men got out of the cab and one opened the rear door. A tall man unfolded himself from the seat and stood stretching in the warm air. It was Jaha.

“That’s him,” whispered Kane, “Jaha.” He took photographs as Jaha headed to the hut.

The men were inside no more than ten minutes and when they came out again they were empty handed. They got back in the truck and drove away.

“Checking the shipment’s arrived I guess,” said Diyoza.

“Yes.” Kane sat back, leaning against a tree. “We have our link from the ship to this hut.”

“We do. Go us!” Diyoza held up her hand and Kane high fived it.

“It’s not enough.”

“Why not? With the pictures you’ve got and your testimony you can blow this operation apart.”

“No. I want Russell Lightbourne. I need to prove that he’s behind this. We don’t have a link between RL Medical and the arms.”

“Their name is all over the boxes!”

“Yes, but he could say he’s a victim of this, that his equipment is hijacked somewhere else along the supply chain. We need the other end of the operation, where the guns are being packed into the boxes, and any links between him and that.”

Diyoza sighed, although it wasn’t unhappily. “Guess I’m going to South Africa.”

“I guess you are. I’ll do some research from this end.”

“I might have to go dark if I’m to successfully infiltrate their operation.”

“That’s fine. Report back when you can. I won’t try to contact you unless it’s an emergency.” Kane stood, looked around. They were getting somewhere but it all felt too slow. He was generally a patient man, able to play the long game, but there was too much at stake here.

“Lighten up, Kane! We’re winning.” Diyoza thumped him on the arm.

“I know.”

“Go home, get some sleep then talk to wifey. Get that resolved so you can concentrate on this.”

“I will.”

“Still can’t get over you moping over a woman.” She shook her head in disbelief.

“I guess we all have to settle down sometime.”

“Not me! I’m free and easy and it’s staying that way.”

“Good luck with that,” said Kane.

Diyoza grinned. “My car’s that way,” she said, pointing down the track. “I’ll be seeing ya.”

“You will. Stay frosty.”

“You too, boss.”

Kane watched for a moment and then headed for the fence, letting himself down more gently on the other side than he had before. He trooped exhaustedly back to his car. Two hours later he was back at the Embassy. The boy was sitting on the step looking as though he hadn’t moved since Kane left two days before.

“You have good time, yes?” he said. “You been gone long time.” He tapped a non-existent watch on his wrist.

“I had a great time,” said Kane, which, despite the seriousness of what he’d been doing, was true.

The boy ran round to the front of the Embassy and then let him in via the back door. Kane crept up the stairs to his room. He took off his jacket, holster and gun and shoved them and the backpack into the closet before collapsing onto his bed. He was asleep within a minute.

When he woke he was disorientated, thinking he was still in the foxhole. He expected to see Diyoza sitting next to him but there was no one. He glanced at the clock. It was just gone midnight. Jesus. He turned over to go back to sleep. A few minutes later he felt a vibration in his pocket. He pulled out his phone, saw there was a text from Abby. He opened it.

I want to walk I rjonk I miss y0u

He stared at it, not understanding. The words were blurred because he wasn’t fully awake. Was he misreading it? No, it definitely said that. She must mean she wants to talk. He wasn’t sure what I rjonk meant. I think, perhaps. I want to talk I think I miss you. Did she think she missed him, or did she think she wanted to talk? It was impossible to know without any punctuation. Why had she written it like that? It was late, maybe she was tired, or drunk. Oh, God, had he driven her to drink? Probably.

He wasn’t sure if he should reply. If she was drunk, then she might not know what she’d done. He could legitimately pretend he was asleep, reply in the morning.

No.

No more lies, plus he wasn’t sure he could go back to sleep thinking she was lying in her bed up in the camp, waiting for him to reply. Fuck it.

Let’s talk in the morning. I miss you too.

He didn’t put a kiss because that just felt too presumptuous. He stared at the words for a moment, then he pressed send. A minute later his phone buzzed again.

K

He put the phone on the bedside table then got under the covers, still fully dressed. It felt good to have had a brief exchange with her. Knowing she was looking at her phone the same time he was, seeing their brief conversation made him feel close to her. He pulled the covers tighter, shut his eyes. A few more hours sleep and he’d be alert enough to talk.

---

Abby woke with a banging headache and a mouth dryer than the desert sand. She almost fell out of bed, saving herself at the last minute by clutching the side of the cot and somehow defying gravity. She got up gingerly, went to her desk and drank from a small bottle of water there. Her memories of the night before were vague. She’d had a good talk with Jackson, she knew that, and then they’d got stuck into the palm wine and she half remembered dancing with him in front of the fire. There was nothing after that, not even a memory of getting back to her tent. She was still dressed in the clothes she’d worn last night so she must have just got in here and collapsed.

She grabbed a towel and her wash kit and staggered to the shower, standing under the stream longer than she usually did because it felt good and for once she was grateful for the cold edge the water had. It was waking her up. She returned to her tent, got dressed and sat at her desk. She should text Marcus, let him know she was ready to talk. Her phone wasn’t on her desk or in the pockets of the jeans she was wearing yesterday. She searched the tent, finding it eventually on the floor beneath her cot. She picked it up, swiped the screen. She brought up the text app and stared at it in horror.

There were texts.

To Marcus.

Last night.

Oh, God!

She read the exchange, cringing at the drunken misspelling of her text to him. What the hell must he have thought? He’d replied quickly, so he must have been awake, seeing it arrive in real time. She would be forever grateful to him for not calling her there and then. If he’d caught her last night when she was drunk and vulnerable who knew what she might have said. He’d been a gentleman, like he had when she’d kissed him that night at the Embassy. She’d known then he was a good man or thought she did. She sighed. What to do? She wasn’t compos mentis enough to talk to him now, but he’d be expecting a call in the morning and it was already nearly ten o’clock. She’d have to text him, make a time to call.

Sorry about last night she typed, then she erased it. No, she wasn’t going to apologise. She hadn’t done anything wrong and it was his fault technically that she’d been drunk.

Got caught up with work. Can we talk this afternoon, say at two? I’ll call you.

She sent the text then finished getting ready. His reply came as she was leaving the tent.

That’s fine with me. We’ll talk then.

Abby put her phone in her pocket and walked to the medical centre, her pulse racing. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say or even if this was the right time to get into anything too deep. Probably not over the phone, but she needed to say something, couldn’t let it fester because that would do neither of them any good.

The next four hours went slowly and her heart rate got gradually faster as the time to call Marcus approached. Just before two she left her office and returned to her tent, wanting to be somewhere familiar for the conversation. She wondered as she pressed the button for his number if he was feeling as nervous as she was. Probably more so, as he’d be expecting to be interrogated.

“Hi,” he said when he answered the call, and it felt so good to hear his voice Abby didn’t answer for a moment, just held the phone tightly to her ear.

“Are you there?” he said, sounding worried.

“Yes, I’m here. Hi.”

“It’s good to hear your voice.”

“Yeah, yours too.”

“Were you out last night?” he said.

“Erm, yes, we had a braai. There was palm wine.”

“I thought so.” She could hear the smile in his voice.

“I was just with Jackson. We were dancing.”

“I’m sorry I missed that,” he said softly.

“Yeah, well...”

There was silence after that. It felt strange and awkward because they never had any trouble talking to each other, couldn’t stop, and now it was as though there was a wall between them, like they hardly knew each other. They didn’t, though, that was the problem. They were strangers really.

“I hate this, Marcus,” she said at last. “I hate feeling so awkward and uncertain.”

“I do too. I’m sorry, Abby. You don’t know how much I regret everything that’s happened. If I could start all over again I would.”

“It’s easy to say that now but these are choices you made, Marcus. It’s what you do in the moment that counts not what you wish you’d done when it all goes wrong.”

“Maybe that’s true but it’s when you’re in the moment that you don’t think, or you think too quickly, make the wrong decision.”

“Why did you do it, why didn’t you just tell the truth or put me off? It’s the fact that you made me feel proud of you, that’s what gets to me.”

“When I first got banished here I was angry for so long. I was arrogant and I didn’t think I deserved this punishment. I didn’t want to admit that I’d been wrong but I knew deep down that I was. I haven’t dated anyone since then and I decided that I wasn’t going to, that I’d had enough of it all. Then you came along and changed everything. I wanted to tell you about Paris, but I was ashamed of my behaviour. I’m ashamed of a lot of things I’ve done in my life. I was scared to tell you the truth in case it put you off me, but I knew I had to, I knew I would one day.”

Abby heard him take a deep breath before he continued.

“Then you were talking about Russell and how wonderful he was and regardless of my feelings about him a part of me was jealous. I thought that you would think he was so much better for you than me. You have more things in common, he seems like a nice person, more community spirted, more idealistic than me. When you asked about Paris I thought well if I tell her the truth how am I going to look? The scales will be lifted from her eyes and she’ll see me for who I really am, a self-centred, selfish, morally bankrupt man. You were about to go to South Africa and spend time with him and I don’t know... it just came out what I said. I certainly had no intention of making me deliberately look good, just not bad. I didn’t intend to deceive you in that way. I was devastated when I realised the impact of what I said.”

“I see,” said Abby, who was trying to process everything he was saying. His answer seemed honest and to come from the heart. She could understand his reasoning or rather lack of reasoning at the time. She was doing the same in a way and he didn’t even know it. What he did in Paris though, that couldn’t be put down to a spur of the moment thing, it was deliberate, and went on for some time.

“What you did, though, with that woman in Paris. Is that a pattern of behaviour you have?”

“I have lived a more frivolous life in the past than I do now.”

“What does that mean? Just be honest.”

“I have dated a lot of women, yes, if you can call some of it dating. Some of them were married or I didn’t even know what their relationship status was and didn’t care.”

“See that’s just... I don’t understand that, Marcus. It just speaks to a disregard for others and yourself. I thought you were so warm and caring and capable of being a wonderful partner and then I find out about this and I’m finding it hard to reconcile the two people.”

“Like I said before, I’m different now. You’ve changed me.”

“I’m not sure I believe that one person can change another like that, plus it’s a lot to put on me. Do I have to stay the same person in order for you to stay the same? What if I don’t live up to your expectations?”

“You could never not do that.”

“That’s it, right there. I could disappoint you just the same as you have me.” She knew she was starting to make things about herself and wasn’t sure why. Was she trying to prepare him for her own revelations?

“I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you,” he said in a low, quiet voice.

“That’s not what I...”

“Abby there are reasons why I have done the things I have, things that have happened in my life that have caused me to be someone that I don’t like either, not in many ways. In fact I hate myself, and I’ve tried to destroy myself so much I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

To her horror she heard him sob quietly. “Marcus, I... What has happened?”

He was silent for some time. “I can’t talk about it over the phone. It’s... I’ve never talked about it with anyone.”

Abby’s heart broke for him. “I’m so sorry. I understand better now. I do. I, erm, there are things I have to tell you myself, things that like you I don’t know how you will react when you find out. We need to talk properly, honestly, face to face.”

“I know,” he whispered.

“When can we meet?”

Marcus took a deep, shuddering breath. “Abby, I have to tell you something else. It’s about Russell, please just listen. I told you I had a feeling about him and that I wanted to find out more before I talked to you. Well, I’ve been doing a lot of investigating and his company is involved somehow in weapons smuggling.”

Abby was so shocked by his words she had to catch a breath. “What?”

“It’s true. I have proof. I don’t know if he knows what is going on but I’m trying to find out. That’s the main reason why I didn’t want you to go to South Africa, I was scared that he might hurt you.”

“What... why would he hurt me?”

“Because the weapons are being smuggled into the country hidden in your medical supplies. Not just yours, all the supplies they send in.”

This was too much to process. “They can’t be!”

“They are. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I have photographs.”

“Oh, my God! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it was just a suspicion and like you said he seemed like a decent guy and you liked him, and I knew I had to have something solid to show you. He might be innocent, and I’m willing to, you know, consider that until I find out otherwise.”

“You don’t think he is, though?”

“No. I don’t. There’s no way a man like him doesn’t know what is being shipped along with his supplies.”

Abby thought about Russell, about his huge house below the mountain that was more like a fortress than a home. Oh, God!

“I’m supposed to be setting up a training program with him, I’m the pilot scheme.”

“Oh yes, you mentioned something about that the other day. What is it exactly?”

Abby explained the scheme to Marcus and then told him everything that had happened at Russell’s house, including what he’d said about Paris.

“Abby, no one knows about Paris except the people involved, my boss, and the President, unfortunately. There’s no way the ministers here know unless Russell has told them.”

“Then how did he find out?”

“Scuttlebutt and a lucky guess, or he hacked something. I wouldn’t put anything past him. He never went to medical school, you know. I researched him extensively.”

“This is too much, Marcus!”

“I know, I know. It’s unbelievable.”

“I can’t... I can’t process all of this.”

“Can you, I mean, is there any way not to work with him until I find out what’s going on?”

“I don’t know. Let me think.” It would be a shame to give up the training program because it would do such good, but if it was the fruit of ill-gotten gains, then it would be tainted. On the other hand, maybe it could be used to their advantage.

“What if I go ahead and set it up, use it as a means of getting closer to him, see what I can find out myself.”

“No way, Abby. I don’t want you involved in this.”

“I am involved, Marcus! It’s my supplies he’s using.”

“It’s dangerous. He’s dangerous. Men like that will stop at nothing if they think their livelihoods or their freedom is at stake.”

“Then I’m already in this up to my neck. He’s chosen to get close to me for a reason. Let’s take advantage of that, just a little, give him a shake and see what falls out.”

“I can’t possibly let you do that.”

“You don’t control me, and you can’t stop me if it’s something I want to do, and it is.”

She heard him sigh loudly and deliberately down the phone.

“You’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Fine, then I suppose we’d better come up with a plan.”

They spent an hour on the phone talking about Russell and everything except what they really should be talking about. By the end they had a plan of action, and Abby felt a frisson of excitement despite the obvious dangers.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” said Marcus.

“Absolutely. We’re going to nail the bastard.”

“That’s my girl!” he said proudly, making Abby’s stomach flip. They’d got caught up in their enthusiasm for bringing Russell down and had got away from what she’d originally called him about.

“We still need to talk, Marcus.”

“I know. I want to, I really, desperately do, but let’s just get this out of the way first, see how the next week or so pans out.”

“Okay.”

“Are we, erm. I know you can’t promise anything, and I don’t want you to but are we... is there hope for us?”

Abby felt tears welling in her eyes. “There’s always hope. I can’t make any promises but what we have, I don’t want to throw it away. I want to try, Marcus, I want to give us a chance.”

“That’s all I could ask for.”

“Okay then. I’d better get back to work.”

“Yes, me too. Keep me updated.”

“I will.”

Abby ended the call and sat back in the chair, her head spinning. She could hardly begin to work through everything that had happened over the last hour. She didn’t know what Marcus was going to tell her about the root cause of his behaviour over the last few years, although she suspected it was something to do with his time in the middle east. He must have witnessed something there or been a part of something terrible for it to have affected him this badly. She felt better having talked to him, tons better, and in her heart she knew it would work out. He was a good man, and there would be a good reason.

Next thing to do was to call Russell, make things up after her running out on him at the party, and persuade him to come out here and set up the training program with her. Operation Alpha, as Marcus had named their plan, was about to swing into action.

Chapter Text

Abby tidied one of the supply cupboards for the second time in as many days. The hospital had been quiet for nearly a week now, which made her suspicious as to what the rebels were doing and planning. Everything made her suspicious since her conversation with Marcus. She looked at her staff and her volunteers, wondered if any of them were involved, if they were Russell’s spies. She couldn’t see any of them having ulterior motives for being here, but then she’d believed Russell to be a harmless eccentric, passionate about helping the African people. He might be, but she was coming down more and more on the side of Marcus. He had lied to her about something he was ashamed of; Russell had lied to her about pretty much everything! Being a surgeon, his career history, Marcus.

Even the supplies she was handling felt tainted. The chest drains she’d been so pleased to get were just a means for him to get close to her, keep her onside. If they weren’t so damned necessary she’d have thrown them away, gone back to improvising with tubes and water bottles. Now the supplies were providing a distraction while she waited for Russell to arrive with his first aid training equipment. She felt some trepidation at the thought of seeing him again, at having to lie and pretend. She wasn’t good at that kind of thing.

“Didn’t you do that yesterday?” said Jackson, startling Abby so much she jumped and dropped a box of antiseptic wipes.

“Did I?” Once you started lying it was amazing how much easier it got with each one.

“Pretty sure you did.”

“Oh, well, it won’t do any harm.”

“I guess not.” Jackson bent and helped her pick up the wipes and put them back into the box. “Are you worried about Russell coming or something? You’ve got that all sorted out with Kane now, haven’t you?”

“Marcus and I are fine, and things should be okay with Russell. I’m anxious to get started with it that’s all.”

Lies, lies and more lies. She’d debated hard about whether or not to tell Jackson the truth about Russell and about the plan she and Marcus had concocted to try and snare him. In the end she’d decided against it. Jackson was an even worse liar than she was, and he would worry terribly about Abby being involved. It had been hard enough convincing Marcus she was capable of dealing with Russell. Jackson would have been worse. From outside came the sound of the gate opening and a powerful engine. Jackson went to the door, looked out.

“He’s here.”

“Great. Can you find Malia, I think she’s in the training room?”

Jackson left and Abby remained inside the hospital, out of view of Russell for the moment. She gathered herself, took deep breaths. Whatever Russell’s intentions, the idea of the first aid training for local people was a good one and she had to focus on that. She’d had second thoughts about embarking on something that would raise the hopes of Malia and the local people who would end up on the programme only for it all to end when Russell was caught. Marcus had reassured her they would continue with the project one way or another, even if they had to fund it themselves, and she felt better because of that. The way to get through this was to think about the benefits and the project itself. She forced a smile on her face, stepped outside.

“Russell! It’s lovely to see you. I hope your journey was good.”

“My dear Abby,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders and kissing both cheeks. “I would put up with anything to see you.”

“You’re too kind.”

“How have you been? Are you over your unfortunate entanglement with that dreadful Marcus Kane?”

“Marcus Kane who?” said Abby, smiling.

Russell smirked. Abby swallowed the bile that had started to rise in her throat. Jackson appeared at that moment with Malia and Abby introduced the girl to Russell.

“Malia is a registered nurse so we can skip the initial step of training up a first aider and get straight on with teaching her what she needs to know to find and recruit new people.”

“That’s wonderful. Thank you for offering to be our first guinea pig, Malia. This is a wonderful opportunity for RL Medical to really get into the heart of Africa and help the people where they most need it.”

“I’m excited about the opportunity,” replied Malia.

Russell shook Malia’s hand and smiled that broad smile he had that revealed all his gleaming white teeth but didn’t reach his eyes as Abby only now noticed. It was hard not to punch him in his smug face. Marcus would be proud. Abby’s smile at that thought was the first genuine one she’d given all day.

“We’ve set up a new training facility in one of the tents which we can show you now.”

“I’ve got all the initial equipment you’ll need in my Rover,” Russell said. “The rest will be sent up later when you’re ready to move out into the territories.”

“I can help you unload it,” said Jackson, eager to please as always.

“There’s no need, thank you, Jackson. We can manage.” Abby was keen to keep Jackson and Russell as far apart as possible because Jackson knew she was still seeing Marcus and Russell thought they had split up. She didn’t want either of them saying anything that could make the other suspicious. The subterfuge was already giving her a stomach ache and she’d barely started.

“If you’re sure?”

“Yes. There’s a report I didn’t manage to finish if you don’t mind, and if you can hold the fort while we’re gone that would be wonderful.” She gave him her warmest smile and he scurried away to do as asked.

She turned to Russell and Malia. “Okay, let’s go and see the training room.”

---

While Abby was dealing with Russell, Kane was at a cultural event in the gardens of the Presidential Palace. He was tired, having spent every evening and half the night since he’d spoken to Abby up at the hut in the rebel zone, surveilling it, waiting to see if anyone came for the weapons which were still untouched inside. So far no one had moved them. Diyoza thought she’d found the link between Lightbourne and Jaha and had gone undercover in one of Lightbourne’s factories to find out more.

Kane yawned, looked around the garden. All the usual suspects were in attendance, including Charles Pike from the Tonshasa mine. Kane was determined to get an audience with Miller the Minister for Transport and was stalking him at a distance, waiting for his opportunity. He wanted to bring up Lightbourne, observe the Minister’s reaction. Pike came up to him while he was standing at the outdoor bar sipping a scotch.

“Ambassador Kane! Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Busy, Charles. You know how it is.” Kane shook hands with the businessman. “How are things up at the mine?”

“The usual problems but otherwise good.”

“Supplies still not getting through?”

“Finally got the latest ones yesterday, a week late!”

“I believe Doctor Griffin had the same problem. Terrible service from RL Medical.”

“I’ll be telling their CEO as much when I see him.”

“You’re seeing Russell Lightbourne?” said Kane, his interest piqued at mention of the man. He knew he was in the Republic because Abby was meeting him today. He hadn’t known he was here for any other purpose.

“Yes, there’s an event tomorrow night at the mine actually. We’ve signed a deal with the Government to supply titanium ore to a couple of technology interests they have and there’s a drinks and nibbles thing to celebrate.”

“And you invited Lightbourne?”

“God, no. Miller invited him. Seems Lightbourne’s in the area anyway and the minister is bringing him along.”

“He and the minister are that close, are they?” This was interesting news. He’d seen pictures of them together when he was researching Lightbourne but then he was photographed with everyone important in the south and east of Africa. Those photos hadn’t stood out to Kane.

“Must be. It will be a good opportunity to bring the supply issue to his attention.”

“It will. Can I get you a drink?”

“A beer will be good, thanks.”

Kane signalled to the barman and got a beer for Pike and another scotch for himself.

“I wouldn’t mind coming along to your event myself if you don’t mind. My boss is encouraging me to do more networking which as I’m sure you know means do it or else there’s trouble.” He smiled conspiratorially at Pike.

“I can’t imagine having the President of the United States as a boss.”

“It has its moments.”

Kane sipped his whisky, looked at Pike who was examining him in return.

“It would be an honour to have you,” he said finally.

“I’ll look forward to it. What time shall I be there?”

“Six o’clock. It’s an early thing because people are travelling up from Edenville like yourself.”

“I’ll see you then.” Kane nodded at Pike then moved away. He decided not to talk to Miller now, but to wait until tomorrow when he’d be with Lightbourne. Kill two birds with one stone or at the least rattle their cages. Should be interesting.

Later that night, having been up to the hut earlier than usual, he FaceTimed Abby, drumming his fingers on the old wood of his desk while he waited for her to answer.

“Hi!” she said, her face looming in and out of view as she settled the phone.

Judging from the background and the warm light, she was in her tent. It felt so good to see her. They’d spoken once since their make or break phone call a week ago but that had been a quick call without video where she’d updated him on her arrangements with Lightbourne. This was the first time he’d seen her in the flesh as it were since she’d stormed out of his office. She looked tired. Her face pale and dark lines etched beneath her eyes.

“Hi. How are you?”

“I’m okay. How are you?”

“I’m good considering. How did it go with Lightbourne today?”

“God, it was hard, Marcus. I just wanted to punch him I really did. I had to clench my fist a few times. He’s just so slimy I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.”

“He’s good at what he does. He puts on a front, says what people want to hear.”

“He was like that today, but it all seemed so different. When he smiles, it doesn’t reach his eyes. They’re so cold. I thought they were really interesting but now they look like ice.”

“You’re seeing the real him.”

“Yes, I think so.”

It was a relief that she’d come around to his way of thinking on her own accord. The thing with Abby, he’d learned, was you couldn’t force her into anything. She made up her own mind, wouldn’t be pushed or coerced. She wasn’t always right, as her previous feelings about Lightbourne proved, but she’d been willing to open her eyes and her mind, and the truth had won out.

“Tell me what happened today.”

He listened while she ran through the events of the day and the plans for tomorrow. It had all been straightforward, mainly about the training scheme with some attempts at flirting which Abby had neither encouraged nor discouraged which was what they’d agreed. It still hurt to think of her smiling or being nice in any way to that man but needs must. Marcus told her about his chance meeting with Pike and how he’d wangled an invite to the event at the mine the following evening where Lightbourne and Miller would be in attendance.

“Russell invited me to that. I meant to tell you,” said Abby, looking surprised that Marcus had mentioned it.

“Really? What did you say?”

“I said I’d have to see how the day went tomorrow. I wanted to check with you first whether you thought it was a good idea for me to go.”

Marcus sat back, twirled his cufflink. “I don’t know. Do you need to go if I’m there?”

“It might be interesting the two of you together with me there. Jackson said you were both alpha males, maybe we should take advantage of that.”

“Jackson said what?” said Kane, surprised and more than a little outraged at being put into any kind of category with Lightbourne.

Abby smiled, looked closer into the phone. “It was just when I was talking to him about everything, you know. I had to talk to someone, and he said part of it was kind of posturing between two alpha males, like the lions on safari, with me the prize.” She laughed. “I’m not saying I agreed with his assessment.”

“I should think not! There would be no contest for one thing. I would win.”

“I have no doubt you would.”

Kane puffed out an annoyed breath. “Jackson! Tell him to stick to stitching people up or whatever it is he does.”

Abby shook her head, smiling. “Not at all alpha male,” she said.

“Shut up,” said Kane, unable not to smile back because she looked so lovely when she smiled like that, her face glowing in the soft light.

“Anyway, I think I should go. I think it would shake him up to see you there, might cause him to make a mistake.”

“You’re probably right, and it would be nice to see you.”

“You can’t be all dopey-eyed when you see me. He thinks we’ve split up and that I hate you.”

“I’m not dopey-eyed!”

“You were just then when you were trying not to smile at me.”

“Fine. I will try not to look like any member of the seven dwarfs when I see you.”

Abby burst out laughing at that, had to wipe a tear from her eye. “I don’t think you can help looking like Grumpy.”

“I shall just think of this conversation and I’m sure I’ll be able to summon up the appropriate feelings.” He folded his arms, mock glared at her.

“I’m sorry. I will stop laughing at you now,” she said, a huge grin still plastered to her face. “I suppose it won’t matter if you look like you’re yearning for me. It’s me that’s dumped you after all.”

“True. I’m the poor man whose heart you’ve broken.”

“I would never do that,” she said softly.

“I miss you. It will be hard to see you and not be able to be with you.”

“I know. It’s for the best, though, yeah?”

“Yes,” he said unhappily.

“Okay, Grumpy. I have to go and do my final rounds before bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You will. Night, Doc.”

“Night, Marcus.”

He switched off his phone and sighed. Tomorrow was going to be a test in so many ways.

---

Abby arrived at the Farm Station mine with Russell just after six. He’d driven her himself in his huge Range Rover which she’d been grateful for, because the thought of having to sit next to him on the back seat of a chauffeured car had been too much to bear. She’d offered to drive them herself so she’d at least have some control over being able to leave if she had to, but Russell wouldn’t hear of it. He’d been very solicitous of her since he’d picked her up, complimenting her on her hair and her dress, which was the same blue one she’d worn to the event at his house. She hadn’t wanted to wear it because it brought back memories of that night, but everything else she owned from her slacks to the black dress she’d worn at the Palace which Marcus had sent with the things for the hospital, brought memories of him and she didn’t want those tainted by any association with Russell.

He put his hand in the small of her back to escort her into the building and she hoped her smile didn’t look too much like a grimace. The room they were in was clearly the canteen during the day. It was grey-walled, large and featureless with a serving area at the back. Most of the chairs and tables had been stacked along one wall, leaving a few tables that were covered with drinks and trays of food. Abby scanned the room looking for Marcus but there was no sign. He probably wanted to arrive late, make sure Russell was already there.

“Can I get you a drink?” said Russell.

“A red wine, please.” Abby didn’t want to drink too much but it would look odd if she didn’t have something, and a couple of sips might take the edge off her nerves.

The Minister for Transport headed their way as Russell handed Abby her drink. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck as he smiled broadly at them, and took a large gulp of the wine.

“Mr Lightbourne!” cried the Minister, clapping Russell on the back.

Russell nodded, bowed his head. “Minister. A pleasure to see you as always.”

“And you, and you, and I see you’ve brought our dear friend Doctor Griffin with you.”

“Good evening, Minister,” said Abby, allowing the man to take her hand and kiss the back of it.

“You’re not with our dear Ambassador Kane tonight, Doctor?”

“Erm, no, that’s erm, no.”

“I’m the lucky man tonight, Minister,” said Russell, putting his arm around Abby’s waist.

“Speak of the devil,” murmured Miller, and Abby and Russell turned to see Marcus entering the room.

Abby’s heart thumped at the sight of him. It felt like so long since she’d seen him, and he looked more handsome than ever. He was in a three-piece suit as always, this one a midnight blue with a delicate check. Cream waistcoat, pale blue shirt, dark blue tie. His dark hair was teased into a small quiff. He stood near the door, scanned the room, his eyes eventually alighting on them. She could see him take in their cosy threesome, Russell’s arm around Abby. He scowled. Don’t screw this up, she thought. Don’t get jealous.

“What’s he doing here?” muttered Russell sounding annoyed.

“I don’t know,” replied Abby.

“I invited him,” said another voice. Charles Pike joined their company. “Always good to keep the US Ambassador on side.”

“He doesn’t look happy to see you, Russell,” said Miller, gleefully.

“You reap what you sow,” replied Russell.

Let’s hope you do, thought Abby. She turned away from Marcus, put her focus back on Russell and the Minister.

“I didn’t know you two knew each other,” she said.

“I do a lot of business in the Republic, so I’ve come to get to know the Minister over the years.”

“Russell is a good friend to the Republic,” said Miller, grasping the man’s shoulder and squeezing it enthusiastically. Abby wondered if he’d already been drinking. He seemed glassy eyed.

“Of course you will work closely given your role as Transport Minister. It’s good that all the problems with the supplies have been ironed out.”

“Not for me they haven’t,” said Pike. “My last shipment was over a week late.”

“I got my supplies on time. They arrived a week last Thursday,” said Abby, seeing an opportunity to perhaps cause some mischief.

“So did mine, but they were supposed to come the week before.”

“Perhaps you don’t have the connections Doctor Griffin has.” Marcus came up to them, drink in hand.

“Ambassador. Glad you could make it.” Pike shook Marcus’s hand as did Miller.

Russell stroked Abby’s side, moved his hand higher until it was resting just beneath her breasts. She wanted to take his hand and bend it until it snapped. Instead she stood stoically, stared at a spot above Marcus’s head so she wouldn’t have to look into his eyes.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” replied Marcus. “You look well, Abby.”

“Thank you,” she croaked. She coughed to clear her throat.

“Doesn’t she look stunning? Most beautiful woman here.” Russell squeezed Abby tighter, his eyes fixed on Marcus.

“Always.” Marcus had a fake smile on his face but Abby could see he was clenching his fist. “Interesting that you’re both together, actually,” he said, indicating Russell and Miller. “I met a mutual friend of yours a few weeks ago, had a very interesting conversation with him.”

“Erm, a mutual friend?” said Russell, still looking coolly at Marcus, but he stiffened, held himself a little taller as he stood holding onto Abby.

“Yes, Thelonious Jaha, the rebel leader. He said he knew you both.”

Abby was pretty sure that was a lie. Marcus had told her Jaha hadn’t admitted any relationship with RL Medical other than as a supplier. She examined Russell and Miller closely, looking for their reactions. Miller glanced briefly in Russell’s direction, but Russell stayed fixed on Marcus.

“I can’t think why he would say that,” he said.

“Probably because he’s a customer of yours.” Marcus stepped closer to Russell. The two men were the same height, and they were staring into each other’s eyes. Abby’s heart was beating so hard she felt breathless.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Russell.

“Oh? I saw your boxes there, and Jaha said you supplied him. Are you saying he’s a liar?”

“I don’t know everybody we send things to.”

“You’re the CEO of RL Medical and you don’t know that you’re supplying the rebel army?” Marcus shook his head as though he couldn’t believe how stupid Russell was. “Did you know your friend was supplying the enemy?” he said, turning to Miller.

“Don’t involve the Minister,” said Russell before Miller could say anything. “We both know why you’re saying what you are, and it’s nothing to do with rebels or supplies. It’s because Abby is here with me and not you.”

“Now who’s being ridiculous.”

Russell leaned in, hissed through gritted teeth. “You can’t bear the thought that she might prefer me to you. I mean, look at you! A peacock strutting around dressed like something out of the nineteenth century. You’re pathetic.”

Abby willed Marcus to stay calm. Russell was trying to deflect attention from the accusations Marcus had levelled at him by winding him up.

“This has nothing to do with Abby, except that soon I hope her eyes will be opened along with everyone else’s when I expose you for what you are.”

Russell dropped his arm from around Abby’s waist, moved so that he was close enough to Marcus to be able to whisper in his ear, which he did. Abby couldn’t hear what he said, but Marcus turned red in the face and before she could even blink, he’d punched Russell square on his nose, knocking him to the floor where he lay sprawled.

“Marcus!” she said, shocked at what had happened.

“Kane!” said Pike, trying to grab hold of him. Marcus shook him off.

“Get up!” he said.

Russell stayed on the floor, wiping blood from his nose and lip. “Behold the United States Ambassador everyone,” he said to the room which had fallen silent, all eyes on the two men. “Can’t keep control of himself. Don’t let your wives out of your sight tonight. He likes to plant his flag wherever he can. Doesn’t care if the ground’s already occupied.”

Marcus moved towards Russell, bent to try and pull him to his feet. Abby grabbed his arm, dragged him back. “Don’t,” she said.

“Get out of my way, Abby,” said Marcus, and she could tell from his eyes that he no longer cared about their plan. He wanted Russell and nothing else mattered.

“No, just come with me. Come with me, please.”

“Don’t you go anywhere with him, Abby,” said Russell, starting to get up.

“It’s fine. I’ll deal with it. Don’t worry.” She flashed what she hoped was a warm smile at the loathsome man, then pulled Marcus towards the door.

“I’m sorry,” he said as she marched him between two buildings and round to the back of the site where they wouldn’t be seen.

“What the hell were you thinking? You know what he’s trying to do.”

“I saw red. I don’t know, I just...” He put his head in his hands, rubbed his eyes.

“He was deliberately winding you up to deflect from what you were saying and it worked!” She put her hands on her hips, sighed with frustration. “What did he say to you that made you hit him?”

“It was nothing.”

“It was clearly not nothing. Nothing doesn’t make someone punch someone else.”

Marcus lifted his head, looked at her with tired eyes. “He intimated that you were going to sleep with him tonight, but in cruder words than that.”

God, he was frustrating. How many times did she have to tell him she didn’t want anyone else? “You know that’s not going to happen. We’ve been through this.”

“I know that! It was just the thought of him thinking that, and those words about you coming out of his mouth. I couldn’t help myself. I had to shut him up.”

Abby moved so she was standing next to Marcus, her back against the warm plastic siding of the building. “You gave him what he wanted,” she said, sighing.

“Yeah, but I rattled him, didn’t I? He wouldn’t have said any of that if he wasn’t bothered. He knows I know now.”

“What does that achieve, though? I’m worried that this puts you in danger, Marcus. If he thinks you’re onto him then who knows what he might do.”

“We have to push him, Abby. We have to make something happen. Now that they know I know or suspect, then they’ll have to do something about it and that means showing their hand one way or another, and I’ll be watching and waiting for it.”

“What if showing their hand means hurting you?” Fear coursed through her veins, the reality of what they were dealing with hitting her for the first time. She realised that part of her had still not believed what Marcus had told her, was expecting it to turn out to be a mistake, but now here they were, poking the bear, which had responded and was now out for revenge.

“It won’t get to that, and I’m ex-Army, remember. I can handle myself.”

“I don’t want to lose you, Marcus,” she said quietly.

Marcus turned, put his hand out and stroked her cheek with the back of it. “You won’t.”

She held his hand, then pulled it away from her face, pressed a kiss to the palm. Marcus puffed out a breath, looked into her eyes, and then they were arms wrapped around each other, lips locked together, kissing. She put her hands in his hair, caressed him, felt the softness of him, his warmth. It was so good to be close to him again, to feel his arms around her, breathe in his comforting scent. He turned her, pressed her against the wall, kissed her face, her neck, pulled the straps of her dress down, trailed his lips over her clavicle, across her chest to the other side.

“God!” she said, putting her hands on his face, bringing him back to her lips. There was an urgency to their kisses, a desire to abandon herself to him, to their obvious need. He was hard against her; it would only take a few adjustments. She put her hand on the bulge in his pants, stroked his firm length. Marcus groaned.

“Abby,” he whispered, “God, Abby.” His hand moved lower, grabbed the skirt of her dress, pushed it up. He touched the bare skin of her thigh, stroked it, his fingers tantalisingly close to where she was aching for him. They skirted the edge of her panties, started to slip beneath.

“What the hell?” came a voice, and they sprang apart, turning as one to look at Charles Pike who was staring at them open-mouthed.

Abby smoothed down her dress, pulled up her straps, her heart racing out of control.

“Charles,” said Marcus, his hands clasped in front of him. “It’s not what it looks like.”

“Come off it, Kane! It’s exactly what it looks like.”

“Okay, yes it is, but it’s not what you think.”

“I honestly don’t know what to think! I came out to check that Abby was okay and I see something I don’t think my eyes will recover from! I thought you were with Russell, Abby?”

“I, erm. It’s complicated.”

“Clearly.”

“Listen, Charles,” said Marcus moving towards the man. “I can’t tell you what’s going on but believe me it’s a matter of national importance. You can’t say anything to Lightbourne or the Minister, or anybody for that matter.”

Pike shook his head. “You getting your end away is a matter of national importance?”

“No, not that. Abby and I we’re... we’re together but we’re pretending otherwise. It’s an undercover operation if you will.”

Pike raised an eyebrow at Marcus’s phrasing. Abby thought it was hopeless trying to convince him of something they couldn’t even talk about properly, but she had to try. He would go back in the room otherwise and tell everyone what he’d seen.

“Charles, I know we don’t know each other well, but there’s a lot at stake here and I’m not talking about me and Marcus. It’s something that affects the people of this country, their very lives. We’re trying to save them, and it’s vital that no one else knows about it for now. You can help us and make a huge difference to what’s happening in this country and all you have to do is keep quiet.”

“Is this going to affect my mine?”

“Not in a significant way, no,” said Marcus.

“I don’t care much what you’re doing or why or who you’re doing it to or with, as long as I’m not affected.”

“You won’t be. I guarantee it. Do we have a deal?” Marcus held out his hand and after a second Pike took it.

“You’d better get inside,” Pike said to Abby. “They’ll be out here looking for you if I don’t come back either.”

“Okay.” She looked at Marcus and he nodded. She wanted to touch him, to hold him and kiss him goodbye but Pike was standing next to them and he was right, the others could be here any moment.

“I’ll be alright,” said Marcus, smiling warmly.

She took one last look at him then followed Pike inside.

“It’s all sorted,” said Pike to the two men when they came up to them. “Abby’s told him to go and I made sure he did.”

“Thank you, Charles,” said Russell. “Are you okay?” he said, turning to Abby.

“Yes. You shouldn’t have provoked him like that.”

“I couldn’t resist. He’s such a smug bastard.”

That was rich coming from him. Abby didn’t think she’d ever met anyone more full of themselves. How could she ever have thought him kind and caring?

“He’s history,” she said.

“He certainly is,” replied Russell, and Abby shivered at the coldness of his delivery, the ice in his pale blue eyes.

Chapter Text

Kane spent the rest of the evening sat in his car which he’d parked to get a good view of the building where the mine celebration was taking place. He watched people come and go, saw some activity not unlike what he and Abby had nearly indulged in, although these two were drunk and didn’t seem to care that they were in full view of anyone passing by.

He kept his eyes on the entrance, thought back to that moment with Abby. He shouldn’t have let Lightbourne get to him, but it was worth it for what happened afterwards. She still cared for him, she still wanted him, that much was obvious. It gave him hope and comfort knowing that, even though they couldn’t be together properly until they’d talked. He was glad in a way that Pike had interrupted them though it hadn’t felt like that in the moment. He wanted his first time with her to be special, not up against the wall in a dirty minefield. That kind of thing was the old him. Abby deserved better.

It was a quarter after nine when Lightbourne emerged, closely followed by Abby. At least he didn’t have his arm around her this time. Seeing that when he’d walked in earlier had nearly broken him. He’d thought he was prepared for seeing them together, but he wasn’t. He knew it wasn’t real on Abby’s part and he’d told her he’d hit Lightbourne because of what he’d said, which was the truth in terms of deciding to punch him at that particular moment. The reality was he’d felt jealous seeing that man touching her, and he knew he had to control those feelings because Abby quite rightly didn’t like it and he could understand how it seemed to her like he didn’t trust her.

He was new to all this, hadn’t cared enough about anybody before to get jealous or worry what they thought. He had a lot to learn. Hopefully, when all this was over, he would get a second chance with Abby, be able to prove that he could be the man she needed and deserved.

He watched as they headed to Lightbourne’s ridiculous car. He went to open the door for Abby, but she dismissed him, opened it herself. Things looked frosty between them. He hoped she would be okay getting rid of Lightbourne at the end of the night, felt bad that he was leaving her alone with him. ‘I can handle myself,’ she’d say, and he had faith that she could.

Twenty minutes later, Minister Miller emerged alone. He got into the back of a waiting car and they set off. Kane followed, keeping a reasonable distance behind. Luckily other people were leaving too and he was able to blend in with them at least while they were driving through the mine complex. He had a hunch about where Miller was heading next and sure enough when they reached the main road he turned left towards Tonshasa rather than right to head back to Edenville. Kane maintained his distance behind them.

Not long afterwards he saw the car turn off the main road onto the track that led to the rebel zone and the shack. The warm glow of satisfaction at being right spread through his body. He drove on, further than last time because he wanted to be as close to the shack as possible. He abandoned his car by the side of the road, grabbed his backpack from the boot and ran, crashing through the undergrowth, not caring that he sounded like a herd of elephants because no one could hear. As he got closer to where he thought the shack was, he slowed, his movements becoming more lion than elephant, stalking quietly.

He didn’t climb the fence initially, just stood silently scanning the area the other side with his binoculars. He couldn’t see the track in front of the hut but there was no obvious movement around it and the area behind was clear. He climbed the fence, lowered himself the other side as far as he dared, dangling on stretched arms before he fell to the ground with a soft thud. He scanned the area again. He saw the Minister’s car parked on the track facing back the way it had come. There was no sign of Miller or anyone else.

It was ten minutes of patient waiting before something finally happened. Two voices carried easily across the air to him.

“Where is that damned man?” Miller’s voice, deep and resonant. He was impatient, not a man used to being kept waiting.

“He will be here soon, Sir. All of this is very sudden.” Kane didn’t recognise the second man’s voice. Miller’s driver he presumed.

“Our hand was forced tonight. I said Kane would be trouble but no one listened to me. A bumbling fool they said, but a man who’s been a captain in the US Army is no fool. I warned them not to underestimate him.”

“You did, Sir.”

Miller harrumphed in reply.

So they thought him a fool? He laughed silently at that. They weren’t wrong in many ways. Certainly the man who’d occupied the post up until a few months ago was a fool. Not now though. Now his eyes had been opened.

He wanted to see the man Miller was talking to, put a name to the voice if he could. He also wanted first glimpse of whomever they were waiting for. Jaha he presumed. He’d suspected since he’d first talked to the Minister about it that the two men were still in contact. It seemed incongruous that a government minister would allow a rebel leader to operate so close to his home territory, particularly when they used to be friends. No one would believe a man like that would be working with the rebels, though, he supposed. That was how he’d got away with it.

Kane crept closer to the hut, took up a position not far from where he’d stood waiting for Diyoza to search the building just over a week ago. He had a good view of the track and the side of the hut. The man with Miller was his driver-come-bodyguard. Kane crouched behind a bush, waiting. The acrid smell of cigar smoke drifted towards him and he could see the glowing tip even without his binoculars. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket and he fished it out, hid the screen’s glow behind his backpack while he looked at it. It was a text from Abby.

Got home safely. RL left 10 mins ago. He wanted to stay but I told him I was tired and he didn’t argue. It was good to see you earlier despite everything. Goddamn Pike! Probably for the best. You said you wanted to take your time remember? I want that too. Soon. A xx

He smiled. So much promise in her words. It felt good. He was about to compose a reply when he heard something crack behind him. A twig perhaps. He started to turn and then the world went black and he could hardly breathe. Someone grabbed hold of his arms and he struggled, tried to twist out of their grip. The hands holding him slackened and he pressed his advantage, managed to spin away, although he couldn’t see what he was doing. He moved to take off the hood or whatever it was when he heard a gun cocking.

“Don’t make me shoot you.” He didn’t recognise the voice, though it was clearly a Republican accent.

“Okay,” he said, holding his hands in the air.

He sensed the man moving behind him, then his hands were brought down behind his back and handcuffs were clasped around them. The gun was pressed into his back. “Walk,” said the man, and Kane stumbled forward blindly. He guessed they were heading towards the hut, visualised the route between where he’d been hiding and there. No obstacles he could remember. He walked more confidently.

“What’s this?” said another voice. Miller’s.

“I found a spy, Sir.”

“Who is it?”

Kane was pushed onto his knees and the hood was pulled from his head. He looked up to see Miller frowning down on him.

“Ambassador,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, dear, oh dear.”

“Guess they were right about me being a fool,” Kane said, cursing himself for his inattention.

Miller laughed. “Foolish to be caught, yes. Not in other matters I suspect.” He looked at the man behind Kane. “Take him inside.”

Kane was forced up the steps and into the hut. The man who’d captured him pushed him onto a chair, his hands still handcuffed behind his back.

“Go see if there was anyone else with him,” said Miller to the man.

When the man had gone, Miller pulled out the other chair and sat in it opposite Kane. “What are we going to do with you?” he said.

---

Abby had endured a terrible evening with Russell after Marcus had gone. He’d seemed to assume that because she’d got rid of Marcus that paved the way for him. He was all over her, hands constantly on her, guiding her when they went anywhere, round her waist when he was talking to someone. Abby put up with it because she didn’t want to make him suspicious and she was keen to observe who he met, listen to everything he said.

He was charming, likeable, asked people about themselves, never missed an opportunity to talk about RL Medical, try and sign people up to their service. She could see why he was so successful as a businessman. Why did he need to get into something as dangerous as weapons smuggling? He surely didn’t need the money. She’d decided to ask him about what Marcus had accused him of, because if she knew nothing about it, or if Marcus had been trying to persuade her of this then it would be something she would mention, wouldn’t it?

It was hard to find a moment alone, but at last he took a break from all the schmoozing and they got some food, stood eating it at the back of the room.

“You know, what Marcus said to you earlier, about supplying the rebels, do you really not know who your clients are?”

She popped a stuffed cherry tomato in her mouth, looked up at him with innocent eyes.

He frowned at her. “You don’t believe what he was saying, do you?”

“I don’t know what to think. He seemed to know what he was talking about.”

“Maybe the rebels have our supplies, but if they do then they’ve ordered them through a third party. We certainly don’t have Jaha’s name in our database.”

That was a plausible answer, hard to argue with. “He said Jaha himself told him you supplied him.”

“According to him! He’s delusional, making the whole thing up. Who’s to say he’s ever even met Jaha.” He looked more closely at her. “Has he said things like this to you before?”

“No, but I know he had his suspicions about you.”

“And you know why that is. Marcus Kane is an arrogant man used to getting what he wants. I’m a rival in lots of ways, better than him and he knows it. He can’t beat me fairly, so he’s resorted to denigrating my character. Think about him, Abby. He’s banished here, you know what for, and I believe he was dishonourably discharged from the army, similar kind of behaviour. He’s a liar and a cheat and a user of people. In my opinion you’ve had a lucky escape.”

He sniffed, gave her a long, cold stare. Abby nodded, couldn’t trust herself to speak. Russell had lied about Marcus being discharged from the army. She didn’t know why he’d left but she wasn’t going to be taken in by this man’s lies again.

Russell didn’t give anything away and stayed away from the Minister for the rest of their time at the event. Abby was glad when it was time to leave, managed to avoid him touching her again. He’d moved in for a kiss on the lips when they’d arrived back at the camp, but she’d turned her cheek, suffered while he kissed her there instead. She was relieved when he left, stood watching until his Range Rover was out of sight just to make sure.

Now she was lying on her bed, clutching her phone, waiting for Marcus to reply to her text. It was crazy what they’d nearly done earlier, making out like that behind the building. If they hadn’t been interrupted when they were, they’d have had sex, she knew it. She’d wanted it in that moment, really, desperately wanted to be with him in that way. They were supposed to be waiting until they’d talked, she was supposed to still be a little mad with him, but when she’d seen him all that flew out of the window. She didn’t need to know everything that had happened in his life to know that he was a good man, and that he cared for her, loved her as he’d told her so inappropriately. She loved him too, flaws and all. She had to tell him that.

Poor Marcus. He put out this image of being self-contained, confident, arrogant even. He was as fucked up as she was, maybe more so.

She looked again at her phone. No reply. She had plenty of signal so it couldn’t be that, unless he was somewhere without signal. It was possible, although she couldn’t think where he’d be at ten o’clock. She hoped he’d got home okay. Maybe she should call him. She brought up his number, waited for it to connect. It rang a few times and then his voicemail cut in. She left a brief message asking him to call her.

Maybe he was asleep, like she should be. She had an early shift tomorrow and needed to be fresh. She put the phone beneath her pillow so the vibrations would wake her if he called back, and tried to go to sleep.

---

Kane sat in the chair with his hands still cuffed behind his back. Miller and his goons had gone outside a moment ago and he took the opportunity to look around. A single bulb hanging from the ceiling bathed the room in a harsh yellow light and he could see more than he had by torchlight last time he was here. The building was constructed of a simple frame with wooden planks on the outside. There was no cladding on the inside, leaving the frame visible. The planks could probably be kicked off. The windows were boarded over and had metal bars on them. The door he knew was secured with a simple padlock which again he suspected could be kicked open.

The chair he was sitting on moved but he could see that the table was secured to the floor with bolts. He’d have to hope he didn’t get handcuffed to that, assuming he survived long enough to even attempt an escape. He’d surprised Miller by showing up here and the man genuinely didn’t seem to know what to do with him. It wouldn’t be long before someone else turned up, Jaha probably. The Minister was probably on the phone to him now. He could hear him talking outside but not what he was saying.

A minute or so later, the door opened and Miller and the man who’d captured him entered. The man was holding Kane’s backpack and cell phone. He handed them to Miller. Kane’s heart sank. He’d held on to a sliver of hope they might not find them and he’d have further support for his escape. That wasn’t going to happen now.

“What have we here?” Miller said, looking through the backpack. “Is a US ambassador permitted to have such a thing in my country?” He pulled out Kane’s gun, showed it to him. “I think not.” He handed the gun to his man.

“Is a government minister permitted to support the rebels who are bringing his country down? I think not,” replied Kane.

“A fair point,” said Miller, grinning. He looked through the rest of the bag, then handed it back to the other man. He swiped Kane’s phone screen. “The pin?”

Kane shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Miller shrugged. “That’s fine. I don’t need to see your conversations, although you have a missed call from the lovely Doctor Griffin. I wonder what she had to say to you?”

Kane remained unmoved but he was thinking about Abby. She’d have expected him to reply to her text, and when he hadn’t, she’d called. If he didn’t call her back she’d wonder where he was. He hoped she wouldn’t do anything stupid like try to find him.

“Perhaps she was telling you what a wonderful night she had with Mr Lightbourne.”

“Perhaps,” said Kane.

Miller laughed. “You fooled Lightbourne with your little performance but not me. You’re working together the two of you, trying to bring us down.”

“Abby knows nothing about this.”

“Very admirable, Mr Ambassador, very gallant.” Miller switched off the phone, gave it to his man who put it in the backpack.

“Why are you doing this? Why are you working against your own government?”

“I have never actually worked WITH my government,” replied Miller, and then light filtered through the cracks in the siding and Kane heard engine noise. “Ah, the cavalry.”

Miller opened the door and went outside, leaving the man to guard Kane.

“What’s your name?” said Kane, receiving a long stare in response.

When Miller returned, he had Jaha with him and the two men stood and regarded Kane.

“I did not expect to see you here again, Kane,” said Jaha, and he held out his hand as though expecting Kane to shake it. “Ah, I forgot,” he said, smirking.

“You can unfasten these cuffs,” said Kane, “and we can talk properly, all men together.”

“I think that would probably end badly for you,” said Jaha. “You’d be tempted to try and overpower us, and I’d have to shoot you and I’m not sure I want to do that just yet.”

His words weren’t a surprise to Kane. He’d known from the moment he was captured that he was a dead man unless he managed to escape. These men weren’t going to let him go and they would never trust him not to talk because he would talk. He’d do everything in his power to bring them to justice and everyone in this room knew that. It was just a matter of time and whether they thought he could be useful before they killed him.

“Killing a US Ambassador would be a huge mistake. It would bring a lot of unwanted attention on this country and your activities.”

“Which is what you would do if we let you go, so you have put us in a difficult position.”

“An accident would be easy enough to arrange. Killed by an animal perhaps, or better yet, a lovers’ quarrel. Jealous of the doctor’s relationship with another man you kill her then shoot yourself. We get rid of both of you!” said Miller.

Kane felt a stab of fear in his stomach. It was one thing killing him; he’d been doing it to himself all these years anyway, but to involve Abby. He had to do everything he could to make sure that didn’t happen.

“I told you she knows nothing about this. I’ll cooperate with you if you leave her out of it.”

“I’m not certain you have much to bargain with, Kane,” said Jaha.

The door opened again and Miller’s driver entered, whispered something to Miller who then left with him.

“We have some business to attend to, so I hope you won’t mind if we get on with it. I’ll stay here and keep you company,” said Jaha.

More sweeping headlights from outside and suddenly there were lots of voices. The door banged open and four men entered, two of them going into the smaller room and the other two standing in a line outside. Weapons passed along the chain.

“You’re distributing them to your people,” said Kane to Jaha.

“That’s what they’re for.”

“You and Miller have always been friends, haven’t you? That tale you told about him being greedy and going your separate ways. That never happened. Is he your mole in the government?”

Jaha sat on the chair opposite Kane, stretched out his long legs. “You know the more I tell you the less likely it is you’ll make it out of here.”

“I don’t fool myself into thinking that’s a likely outcome whatever you or I say or do.”

“You only have yourself to blame for any consequences. You have involved yourself with something you know nothing about. This isn’t your country. It isn’t your fight.”

“This may not be my country, but innocent people are being killed – YOUR people – and I can’t sit back and let that happen.”

“Innocent people die all over the world all the time. Do you think the US government isn’t killing people? They do it in your own country, in front of everybody.”

“You’re trafficking arms into this country and they’re falling not just into the hands of your rebels but also into rogue groups. You’re involving children, killing civilians. This isn’t just a fight between your soldiers and theirs. And on top of all that there are people getting rich off it, people like Russell Lightbourne.”

Jaha laughed at that. “Russell Lightbourne, yes. An interesting man. You and he do not get on I believe.”

“I tend not to make friends with international arms smugglers and war criminals.”

“I do like you, Kane. You amuse me. What’s most amusing is you really seem to believe that you’re doing this for the greater good, when I think perhaps your motives are a lot more personal.”

He was referring to Abby of course. Kane didn’t want her brought any further into this and he certainly wasn’t about to talk about her with this man.

“My motivation is irrelevant. You are right, this is your fight, and my job as US Ambassador is to try and bring the two sides to the table if I can, and there is still time for that. Call a ceasefire, start talks with the government. With Miller on your side there’s every chance you can get more support. Isn’t there a peaceful solution to be found?”

“And I suppose in return you won’t expose Lightbourne and the arms dealing we’ve been doing with him?”

“I can’t say that, but he’s not important to you and your cause. You don’t need him to move forward and find peace.”

“You are desperate to throw him to the lions, to sacrifice him. I admire that. Must be the army man in you, or maybe you’re more like us than you want to admit. You’ve killed a lot of men, I imagine. Was it from far away through your scope or did you ever get up close and personal?”

Jaha leaned towards Kane as he said this, and he was tempted to headbutt the man, just for the sake of it, but there was no way he’d get out of here alive if he did that.

“I’m responsible for a lot of things, but I’ve learned recently that there is hope. You can change, you can do better. You can be the man you were meant to be.”

Jaha took a deep breath, his face inches from Kane’s. “I am the man I was meant to be.” He smiled, and then he stood, looked down at Kane. “I believe you might be useful, so I’m not going to kill you today.”

He pushed through the chain of men and went outside. Kane watched as the final weapons were removed and the building emptied. Engines roared and he heard tyres spinning on the dirt road as they headed to their destinations. A couple of minutes later, Jaha returned with a bull of a man Kane didn’t recognise. He had a heavy chain in his hands.

“Make sure he’s secure,” said Jaha, and then he left, not looking at Kane.

The man pulled Kane roughly from the chair, pushed him onto the floor next to the table. He sat with his entire weight on Kane’s legs and wrapped the chain around his waist and one of the table legs, padlocking it closed. Kane’s hands were still handcuffed behind his back, stretching painfully. The man looked at him, and out of nowhere he punched Kane, sending his head snapping back, blood flying from his nose.

“What the fuck?” he cried.

“That’s from Russell Lightbourne,” the man said, and then stood and kicked Kane over and over again, in his stomach and between his legs. The blows were so painful a white heat bloomed in his body, making him feel sick and dizzy and he fought to keep control of himself, tried to breathe through the assault. At last the man stopped. He bent and unfastened the cuff on Kane’s right hand, leaving it free.

“So you don’t piss yourself, if you still can piss,” he said, laughing and kicking a bucket into view. He indicated that Kane was supposed to aim into it if he needed to go. It was too far away but he didn’t say anything, couldn’t even if he wanted to, he was still so winded.

The man went to the door, switched the light off plunging Kane into darkness, then shut the door and padlocked it.

Kane felt his face with his free hand, wiped the blood from it as best he could. He didn’t think his nose was broken, just sore. He examined the chain around him, pulled on it, tried to make the table move but it had been well secured to the floor and there wasn’t a lot of room for him to manoeuvre. He couldn’t see how he was going to get out of this situation, cursed himself for getting captured. Idiot! He rubbed his aching balls through the material of his trousers, wincing with the pain.

No one knew he was here. Diyoza had gone dark in South Africa, wouldn’t even be trying to contact him. Abby would realise he was missing but she didn’t know where the hut was, and he didn’t want her coming here and trying to find him. That would just leave both of them in trouble. She also didn’t know Diyoza or how to contact her. Diyoza knew where to find Abby, but by the time she realised anything was wrong it would probably be too late. He was stuck here, and he had to either find a way out or accept his fate. He could die if he knew Abby was safe. That had to be his goal from now on. Ensure her safety regardless of what he had to agree to with Jaha and his band of merry war criminals. Nothing else mattered.

Chapter Text

“That went really well I thought,” said Abby to Malia as they sat in the training tent after the first session was over.

They’d started the program with some of the volunteers from Global Doctors and the other aid agencies plus a young girl, Akinyi, from the nearby village, mainly so that Malia could practice her teaching style with people she felt comfortable with.

“They ask a lot of questions,” she said, pulling a panicked face.

“You handled them all brilliantly. The main thing to remember when teaching is to be confident on the outside, no matter how you’re feeling inside. People will believe anything if you say it with enough authority.”

Malia laughed. “Is this what you call bullshitting?”

“It is. I’m not advocating lying to them, but if you project confidence, people will have confidence in you. If you don’t know something, it’s okay to say so and tell them you’ll find out, but the best way to feel confident and be able to answer their questions is to know your stuff, which you do.”

“It was good, it was fun. I enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Now, go and get a drink, you’ve earned it.”

Malia left and Abby looked at her phone. There was a missed call but it was from Russell. Why hadn’t Marcus responded? She’d been busy all day, hadn’t even had spare time at lunch because the attendees hadn’t left her alone for a minute. She went outside, stood by the firepit and called him. It went straight to voicemail again. She didn’t leave another message because there was no point. He was a busy man she knew that, but the way he was last night she’d have thought he’d have been eager to know she was home okay, or wanted to talk about what had happened after he left. It was strange he hadn’t even sent a text message.

She dialled the US Embassy, Gaia’s direct line, but that too went to voicemail. The clock on her phone told her it was gone six, so Gaia had presumably left for the day. She left a message asking her if she would ask Marcus to call her.

There was nothing else she could do, short of driving to Edenville and camping out at the Embassy until he turned up. She wasn’t about to do that, not when it was growing dark and it was a four-hour round trip. It had only been twenty-four hours, and their relationship was still rocky despite their antics outside the mine. Maybe he was giving her space, maybe he was regretting it. God, this was ridiculous! Just call me, Marcus! Why won’t you call?

With nothing practical to do regarding Marcus and a brain that was tying itself in knots thinking about him, Abby decided to find Jackson or somebody, anybody, and spend the evening talking about something other than Marcus goddamned Kane.

She was in bed by ten, tossing and turning on the small camp bed, listening to the cicadas and the animal cries coming from the bush. Her gut told her something had happened to Marcus, but what? Was he injured somehow, a car crash perhaps? He might be lying hurt in his car somewhere, off the road maybe, caught by one of those massive potholes that had blown a hole in her tyre, and flipped into the desert. The more she thought, the worse the situation became, until she could stand it no longer. She got up, found some palm wine and downed a couple of glasses worth in one go. Then she lay back down, waited for it to send her to oblivion.

---

While Abby was busy with the training course, Kane was alone all day in the hut, having spent an uncomfortable night chained to the table. His face had swollen, particularly his nose, narrowing both his nostrils and making it hard to breathe through them. He was forced to breathe through his mouth, and the brief snatches of sleep he’d got had been disturbed by his loud snores waking him up. His balls were swollen as well as he’d found when he’d unzipped his pants and fumbled around inside so he could pull out his dick to pee. That had been painful too, a warm stream that stung as it came out. Most of it had missed the bucket and soaked into the wooden floor. The room smelled of stale urine, but he’d got used to that now. He was glad he hadn’t eaten much since the day before as he didn’t feel the need to do anything else. He had no idea how he’d manage that with any scrap of dignity.

He’d been through worse than this before, out in the desert wastelands of Iraq and Afghanistan, days spent in the same place, everything makeshift, no part of life private from his comrades. It forged bonds, created spirit that got them through. He’d never been captured before though, never been alone like this. He was hungry and thirsty. They’d left him no water and as the morning dawned and shafts of orange light filtered through the boards, the temperature rose. He pulled on his chains, wriggled, and squirmed but nothing he did made the table budge even a millimetre.

There was enough light now to be able to see more clearly and he used his free hand to examine his clothing. An idea flickered into his mind and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. His cufflinks! He was dressed in his best three-piece suit and he always wore the cuffs with it. He could undo one and use it to pick the lock around his waist. He looked at the arm that was handcuffed to the table but couldn’t reach it with his free arm, the chain around his waist preventing him from turning more than an inch in that direction. That was okay. He could unfasten the one on his free arm with his teeth.

He nosed the sleeve of his jacket up, gripped the shirt with his teeth, nibbled around trying to find the cufflink. It wasn’t there! He felt his whole sleeve with his nose and his mouth but the cuff was gone. It must have come out while he was being manhandled. He felt around the floor, tried to reach behind him but didn’t get far. If it was in here, he couldn’t see it or feel it. It was probably outside, lying on the grass where he’d been captured and first handcuffed. 

Despair washed over him fleetingly, and then he took a deep breath and calmed himself down. One option discounted. Now to look for the next.

---

Abby woke with a mercifully slight headache the next morning and was up, showered and dressed by eight. In her office she dialled the Embassy again. This time Gaia answered.

“Gaia, it’s Abby Griffin from Global Doctors.”

“I know who you are, Abby,” the girl replied with a smile in her voice. “How are you?”

“Not great. I’ve been trying to reach Ambassador Kane since Wednesday night but he’s not returning my calls. Is he there?”

“He hasn’t been in the office since Wednesday, so I haven’t seen him.”

Abby’s chest grew tight at Gaia’s words. “Has he had meetings? What does his schedule say?”

“He’d cleared his schedule for a couple of days, although he has a meeting with Mr Edward Bunting in an hour. I expect he’ll be down for that.”

“Down from upstairs you mean? You think he’s in the Embassy?”

“Where else would he be? What’s going on, Abby, is everything okay?”

“No, I don’t think everything is okay. Can you do me a favour? Go and check the Ambassador’s room, see if he’s there, if his bed’s been slept in.”

“Okay, sure, I can do that, but he’ll be there, Abby. I wouldn’t worry.” Gaia was trying to be soothing but Abby detected an edge to her voice. She was concerned as well.

“Please just do it now and call me back immediately.”

It was interminable waiting for Gaia to call back. Abby had no patience for doing anything else so she simply sat staring at the phone willing it to ring. It was fifteen long, awful minutes before it did.

“Gaia?” she said when she answered.

“Yes. Ambassador Kane isn’t in his room and the bed doesn’t look slept in although it would be hard to tell as he always makes it neatly himself, he’s very particular about that.”

“Fuck!” said Abby, who believed the last time Marcus had made his bed was Wednesday morning.

“I also checked with the catering staff and he hasn’t eaten any meals here since breakfast on Wednesday. I went out to the parking lot and his car is gone. The guard said he went out in it around three-thirty on Wednesday and he hasn’t returned.”

Fuck, shit, he was missing! She knew it. She should have done something sooner, listened to her gut.

“No note, no nothing?”

“Nothing. Should I be doing something? Should I get the police or the guards involved?”

“No!” said Abby quickly. “Don’t do that. I, erm, I need time to think.” She drummed her fingers on the table, her brain whirring through options and possibilities. “He has a friend from his army days, she’s called Diyoza, that’s her surname, I don’t know her first name. Can you find a number for her or any way to contact her and text it to me? That would be really helpful.”

“Yes, of course I will do that. He’s okay, isn’t he, Abby?”

“I don’t know, Gaia. Keep in touch.”

Abby ended the call and sat back in her office chair. Where the hell was Marcus? What had happened to him? More importantly, how was she going to find him?

After speaking to Gaia, Abby spent the next few minutes sitting at her desk, thinking. She concluded that the most obvious place to start looking for Marcus was where she’d last seen him, which was at the mine. She called there, asked to be put through to Charles Pike. She wasn’t a hundred percent sure she could trust him, but he hadn’t betrayed her to Russell and Miller, so she had to take a leap of faith.

“Charles, it’s Abby Griffin, from Global Doctors,” she said when he answered.

“Yes, hello, Abby. Are you recovered from Wednesday night? You got back okay obviously.”

“Yes, I did thank you. Charles, I’m ringing because Marcus hasn’t been seen since that night - Ambassador Kane.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, and I’m concerned about him, especially after what went down at the party.”

“He seemed fine when he left.”

“You saw him leave?”

“When he left us, I mean.”

“You didn’t see him leave the mine itself, like drive away?”

“No, but I assume he did.”

“Can you do me an enormous favour and check whether his car isn’t still in your parking lot?”

“I don’t need to check. I’ve driven in and out of there a few times today and his car wasn’t there.”

“Okay, thanks. Sorry to trouble you.”

“Is there a—”

She didn’t hear what he was going to say because she’d already disconnected the call. Dammit! That would have been an easy place to start if his car was there, not that she wanted to think what that might have meant for Marcus.

A text came through a moment later with a possible number for Diyoza that Gaia said she’d found on a list of the Ambassador’s calls. It was the only number she didn’t recognise. Abby called it. It went to voicemail, the recorded message one of those robotic ones that came with the phone. She left a message anyway.

“Hi, this is a message for Diyoza, I’m sorry I don’t know your full name. I’m Doctor Abby Griffin, I’m a friend of Marcus Kane. I don’t know if he’s ever mentioned me. I’m concerned for his safety as he hasn’t been seen since Wednesday evening and it’s Friday morning now. I can’t leave a complicated message here but if you could ring me that would be great.”

She left her number then ended the call. She wondered if Marcus had gone to the rebel camp. He’d been checking out some hut there all week, waiting for the rebels to collect the weapons that had come in with her shipment of medical supplies. The trouble was he hadn’t given much away about the location. She knew it was close to the Minister’s home village which was Tonshasa and not far from the mine. It would make sense if he’d gone there after the party. The area there was vast and included the National Park. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack, and she wasn’t well versed in survival techniques. She’d be eaten by a lion in less than five minutes.

There was someone who did know that area well and who could help her, though, someone who was fond of Marcus. She made another call.

---

Indra unfolded a map and spread it across the hood of Abby’s Land Rover. They were in the National Park close to where it bordered the rebel zone.

“The rebel zone is vast, Abby,” she said, pointing to an area in the centre of the map. “This is the main area of conflict as you know, and this is where it borders Tonshasa and the Farm Station mine. We’re here in between the two. This hut you’re talking about could be anywhere. It’s hundreds of square kilometres.”

“You don’t have any idea where it could be yourself? Never seen anything like it?”

Indra studied the map. “This area here used to be a camp for game hunting long ago before the war. It’s possible there are remnants.” She circled an area.

“I could start there,” said Abby, eager to get going.

“No. Wild animals have been spotted in that area many times. You don’t have a gun or any means to defend yourself. It’s better if I check that out first.”

“I’m not sitting on the sidelines, Indra.”

“I don’t expect you to, but I’m not going to deliberately put you in danger. There could be a simpler explanation for his disappearance. Why don’t you take the road from Tonshasa here and make sure he hasn’t had an accident? It looks like there are a couple of ways into the edge of the zone here and here. You’ll be safer there.”

Abby couldn’t deny the thought of coming up against the wildlife in the zone wasn’t one she’d been relishing. Men with guns were just as scary, but more easily avoided than a hungry lion.

“Okay, that seems fine.”

In the distance was the sound of sporadic gunfire. Abby looked around trying to pinpoint its location.

“It’s a long way away, don’t worry,” said Indra. “Let’s do an initial sweep and meet back here at five. Call me if you see anything.”

Abby looked at her watch. It was midday already so that didn’t give much time to do the search and return to the Park. She frowned at Indra.

“We can’t search in the dark, and you’re certainly not doing it alone,” Indra said. “I’ll drive as close to the camp as I can. If he’s there, I’ll know it.”

“Okay. I really appreciate you doing this.”

“Anything to help. Marcus is a good man. If we draw a blank today, we will draft more people in tomorrow. I’ve already asked Jojo to prepare.”

“It’s very kind of you both.”

Indra dismissed Abby’s comment with a wave of her hand. “Drive along that track and you’ll come out near Tonshasa. Be safe and be careful.”

“You too.” Abby shook Indra’s hand, then jumped into her Land Rover.

She drove along the rutted track and then out onto the Tonshasa road. It was long and straight, and every mile was the same as the previous one. The only thing of interest was the huge pipeline that ran alongside it. Oil maybe, or more likely water. Abby drove slowly, annoying the other cars on the road who overtook, her shaking their fists at her and swearing.

She glanced from side to side, trying to see a car or signs of one leaving the road. It had been a day and a half now, though. Surely if Marcus had gone off the road he’d have been found. The side with the pipeline was almost pure desert thanks to the works undertaken to build the facility. He’d be seen there. The other side was a sandy edge and then bush, sparse in places, dense in others. She concentrated mainly on that side.

She was maybe three or four miles from the mine and the end of her search area when she spotted something ahead on the bush side. It was a car. Her pulse picked up and she sat straighter, as though being two inches closer to the windscreen would bring instant clarity. As she approached, she could see the car was parked neatly, showing no signs of having crashed. It was Marcus’s car, the rental. He was here somewhere. There was too much traffic for her to pull up and be able to do a U-turn so she was forced to go as far as the mine before she could turn around and head back.

She eased off the road behind the car, sat and stared at it for a moment. A horrible thought crossed her mind. He wasn’t in there, was he? In the trunk? Fuck! She jumped out, grabbing her backpack which held medical supplies and headed to the car. There was no one in the main part of the vehicle. She tried the trunk, but it was locked.

“Marcus?” She rapped on the metal, then she put her ear to it and listened. There was no sound from within and no smell which she would have expected if he’d been in there a couple of days. Good. He wasn’t dead in the trunk, which was a start. She took out her phone to call Indra but there was no signal. Damnit. Clearly Marcus had gone into the bush, but where exactly?

---

The second day of his captivity dawned, and Kane was still alone. He’d got no closer to figuring a way out of his predicament and was now considering his options for when they eventually took him out of here to execute him. He’d make a run for it, even though he wouldn’t survive. Better to die a free man. It was midday, or what he presumed was midday judging from the movement of the shafts of light illuminating the hut, and he was hungry and thirsty. The last thing he’d drunk was a glass of water at the event on Wednesday night. It was Friday now. He couldn’t even pee anymore, having sweated out any remaining liquid in his body.

He wondered what Abby was doing, whether she had missed him yet. Would she form a search party? Probably. He didn’t want her to. Didn’t want her anywhere near this place. He hoped she’d been sensible and gone to the authorities. US officials hopefully, but anything would be preferable to doing something alone.

He drifted into a memory of the first time he’d met her. It was at a party the Embassy had thrown to introduce him to prominent local US citizens. She’d cornered him, haranguing him about supplies and the uncaring nature of his predecessor. He’d been annoyed because it was supposed to be a party, and couldn’t she let him settle in for five minutes? He’d dismissed her contemptuously and thought she’d be easy to keep at bay. He laughed out loud at that, the sound of his voice strange after so much silence.

Noise outside and he was immediately alert. Boots on the gravelly dirt, a scraping outside the door.

“Hello!” he shouted hoarsely in case it was her. His heart rate increased.

The door rattled, the sound of the padlock, so it was someone with a key, unless Abby knew how to pick locks. Maybe she had Diyoza with her. The door opened and a shadowy figure walked in, framed against the light. The brightness made Kane blink.

“God, it stinks in here,” came a male voice, the one from the other night, the one who’d beaten him. Kane’s heart sank.

He walked in, leaving the door open. Kane looked at the exit but who was he kidding? He couldn’t get past this guy even if he weren’t chained to the table. The man had a gun, and it was held casually in his right hand, but it would be primed, as would he.

In the man’s left hand was a plastic bag, and he threw it towards Kane. “They don’t want you to die just yet,” he said, and then he turned around and shut the door behind him, leaving Kane to his semi-darkness.

He pulled the bag towards him, looked inside. An energy bar and a small bottle of water. Jesus. Either they were lying about wanting him to die or they were planning on coming back soon, because this wouldn’t last him long. He took a sip of the water. It was tempting to guzzle it all but he knew from experience it was better to have small amounts. The energy bar he left. He wasn’t starving yet, and he might need it more later.

---

Abby decided to walk in a straight line from Marcus’s car into the bush. She figured she’d eventually come to some kind of boundary between the rebel zone, which as Indra had said was part of an old game park, and this scrub at the side of the road. It wasn’t easy keeping straight as the scrub was dense in places and thorny. She ploughed on, determined not to veer from her goal because she could easily end up some distance away in the wrong direction and not be able to find her way back.

Her face and arms were scratched from fending off branches, but she was rewarded for her sacrifice by the appearance of a tall metal fence ahead. She stopped, looked around, listening to the sounds of the bush. There was nothing but the birds and the occasional chittering monkey. She walked up to the fence, looked through it. It felt as though her heart stopped, and she caught her breath. A hut on the other side, a short distance away, tin roof, wooden sides. That had to be it!

She crouched and waited, couldn’t see any sign of people. After ten minutes trying to be patient she could wait no more. Marcus might be in that hut, injured. She had to get closer, see what she could find out. To her right the fence was distorted, the wire sagging in places where weight had been placed on it. Marcus must have climbed here. She followed in his footsteps, threw her backpack onto the ground when she got to the top then eased herself over, ripping her jeans at the knee as she did so. She dropped down, twisting her ankle. She hissed with the pain, rubbed it then got gingerly to her feet, picking up her backpack.

The hut was a hundred metres away maybe. She limped to the side, saw a track running in front of the hut. There was a car outside which had been hidden from her view before. She knelt on the ground, felt a sharp pain and removed her knee to see what had stabbed her. It was a cufflink with an eagle design. So Marcus had been here.

A noise made her look up and a man was now standing next to the car, a heavy-set black man with short closely-cropped hair. Abby didn’t recognise him. The man stared straight at her, making her heart drop into her stomach. She didn’t think he’d be able to see her hidden behind the bush, but he clearly saw something, because he started walking towards her.

She was caught in two minds between staying still in case he hadn’t seen her and running. Then he shouted, pointed at her. She jumped up, leaving her backpack behind, and ran, crashing through scrub, adding to the cuts and slashes on her arms and legs. She ran blindly, thinking of nothing but being faster than him. He was quick for a big man, and his heavy breaths got closer and closer.

---

In the hut Kane heard a shout and he sat up, the chains around his waist and wrist biting painfully into his skin. Someone else was out there, someone who had surprised the guard. Oh, no. No! Please don’t let it be her! He could hear the man crashing through the undergrowth like a herd of elephants and another shout. He tensed, waiting to hear a gun shot or a cry, but there was silence.

A minute later the door opened, and someone was pushed inside. His worst fears had come true. It was Abby, her hands handcuffed behind her back, her face and limbs bloodied. Kane was alarmed at the sight of her. What the hell had happened?

“Marcus!” she said, sounding more relieved than fearful.

“Abby! Are you okay? Has he hurt you?”

“No. I’m fine, are you?”

“Wait there,” said the man, pushing Abby to the floor, then leaving and padlocking the door behind him.

Abby struggled to her knees, shuffled towards Kane. “Oh, God, what happened to you?” she said, looking horrified at the sight of his face.

“A message from Russell Lightbourne.”

“That goddamn man! Let me look at you.”

She got closer, but with her hands behind her back all she could do was look. Kane touched her face with his free hand, thumbed some of the blood away.

“Never mind me, what happened to you?”

“They’re just grazes from the scrub. I found your car, kind of didn’t let anything get in my way.” She laughed softly.

Kane brought her face to his, kissed her lips, tasted the iron tang of blood. “That’s my girl,” he said.

“Oh, Marcus! How long have you been here?”

“Since Wednesday. I followed Miller after the party, got caught outside the hut.”

“Me too. Is he Miller’s goon?”

“No, Lightbourne’s I think. He’s the one gave me this.” He pointed to his face, ignoring the other parts of him that still throbbed occasionally, and not in a pleasurable way. He didn’t want Abby to know about that.

“Bastard.” She leaned forward, kissed him again.

“I’ve missed you,” said Kane, holding her face, his fingers stroking the soft hairs around her ear. Her hair was in a ponytail and he could feel twigs and leaves in it when he moved further, caressing the top of her head.

She groaned. “I’ve missed you too.”

“I didn’t want to see you again like this, though.”

“I know, but part of me doesn’t care. I was happy when I found your cufflink, knew for sure you were here.”

“You found my cufflink? Where is it?”

“In my pocket.”

“That could be useful. Which one?”

Abby shuffled to one side to indicate which pocket. Kane tried to get his hand in, but her jeans were tight. He could feel it at his fingertips, just another millimetre or two. At that moment the door opened again.

“Good god, can’t you two keep your hands off each other? You’re disgusting.”

It was Lightbourne. His goon pulled Abby away before Kane could hook the cufflink. He hoped they wouldn’t realise what he was really trying to do and find it.

“Can I help it if I’m a better man than you?” he said to distract Lightbourne.

It worked. The man came towards Kane, knelt in front of him. “You’re not a man, you’re an animal, led by your dick like all animals. I thought Abby had more taste, but I guess she’s as dirty as you.”

“You can talk about being dirty. How much blood do you have on your hands?”

“Enough that two more bodies won’t make any difference.” He glared at Kane then stood.

“Are we going to kill them?” said his henchman.

“Not yet, sadly. Arrangements aren’t in place. Let them stew for a day or so.”

The man grabbed Abby, fastened her right hand to the same table leg as Kane’s left hand. Her left hand was free, and he didn’t put a chain around her which was something. She’d have movement, which would be useful.

“We need to find their cars and get rid of them,” said Lightbourne. “Try the main road first.”

The man left and Lightbourne stood looking down on Kane and Abby.  “Enjoy your last hours together,” he said with a smirk, and then he too left, locking the door behind him.

“Well, we’re in it now,” said Abby with a subdued laugh.

“At least we’re in it together,” replied Marcus, and then they were both laughing, because there wasn’t really anything else to do.

Chapter Text

“Do you think they’ve gone?” said Abby as she took a sip from a bottle of water Marcus had given her.

“Their vehicle definitely drove away, or at least one did.”

“I only saw one car before I was captured.”

“Yes, that turned up about five minutes before you did.”

“I didn’t see that guy at first but then suddenly he was there.”

“And no sign of Lightbourne?”

“Not then, no.”

“They didn’t come in here, so what were they doing for five minutes?”

“Maybe they heard me when I came over the fence. I hurt my ankle and I think I made a noise.”

Marcus frowned with concern. “You hurt your ankle? Which one?”

“This one,” she said, pointing to her right leg.

“Let me see.”

“I’m the doctor!” she said, laughing. She removed her boots and socks and examined her ankle. It was swollen and there was some pain when she tried to rotate it. “It’s a slight sprain,” she said, showing it to Marcus.

He reached out, gesturing for her to put her leg on him which she did. He massaged her ankle with his free hand and it felt nice, not what he was doing so much as the connection with him, his touch.

“Thanks,” she said, closing her eyes briefly.

“We need that cufflink,” he said afterwards. “If I’m free I can smash the boards out and we can escape.”

“I dropped a bag outside. It has medical supplies in it, food and drink, my phone. If they haven’t found it we can use that to call Indra. She’s searching elsewhere for you.”

“Indra’s helping?” Marcus looked surprised.

“Yes, you know she likes you.”

“I knew my good looks and charm would come in useful one day.” He grinned smugly at her.

“Those things have no effect on me,” she said primly.

“And yet you’re here.”

She ignored him, dug into her pocket with her free hand, pulled out the cufflink, handed it to him.

“Perfect.” He opened the part that went through the cuff, tried to insert it into the lock on the chain around his waist. “Damn, it’s too wide I think.”

“Let me try.” Abby took it from him, tried the same thing but the fastener wasn’t pointed enough to get more than a millimetre inside the lock. She tried it on her handcuff, but it was the same.

“Fuck!” said Marcus, thumping the floor in anger.

“We just have to think of something else.”

“I’ve been thinking for two days! Don’t you think I’d have escaped by now if I could.”

He was frustrated and it came out in his words. Abby stroked his stubbled face gently. “I know you would have, but there are two brains now with different qualities. We might come up with something.”

“Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry.” He put his hand on hers, held it against his cheek, then he took her palm and kissed it.

“It’s okay.” She settled next to him, their bodies touching. It was warm in the hut, stifling, and the contact made her even more hot and sweaty but she needed it, wanted to feel him close to her at all times.

“I’m glad you’re here. I don’t want you to be, but I’m glad you are, if you know what I mean,” Marcus said.

“I do.”

They sat in silence for a while. Abby contemplated their situation, tried to think of ways out but nothing came to mind. She twirled the cufflink between her fingers. No wonder Marcus liked doing this, it was calming, helped her think.

“These were a gift from a friend you said?” She held the cufflink up and it glinted in a shaft of light.

Marcus took it from her, turned it over, ran his thumb over the eagle. “In a way, yes.”

“A friend from the army days?”

“No, his wife.”

“Oh.”

Marcus looked at her sharply. “Not like that.”

“I didn’t mean like that. I’m sorry if it sounded that way.”

He nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry for snapping.”

“Are you going to tell me the story behind them?” she said softly.

His warm brown eyes bored into hers, his brow creased, and he sucked on his bottom lip. “It’s the story of everything,” he said.

“I know.” She caressed his cheek with her thumb, careful of his cuts and his swollen nose. “You can tell me. I think you need to.”

Marcus took a deep breath. He grasped her hand, held it between them.

“I enjoyed the army for the most part, the first few years at least. I told you I didn’t know what to do with my life and right away at basic training I felt at home. It gave me the discipline and structure I’d lacked, and I really responded to that. It’s something that’s defined my adult life I suppose.”

“That’s one of your main features for sure,” said Abby smiling. “It drove me mad how disciplined you were when I first met you.”

“Rigid you mean.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No, but that’s what I became. It was a way of coping, I guess.”

“It’s one of the things I like most about you now. It shows your integrity.”

“Thank you. Anyway, I ended up at Fort Bragg at Airborne School and that’s where I met Sinclair. He was the same age as me, very different background. My family were old money, pretty wealthy I guess, and he was solidly working class. We had nothing in common, didn’t even like the same music or movies, but there was a mutual respect. A meeting of the minds I suppose you could call it. He was really sharp. He could see connections no one else could, was technically gifted. A huge asset to the US Army.

“He got married while we were still in basic training, had two kids pretty quickly. The Army and his family were his life. We both were in the Eighty-second Airborne Division and when I made captain and got my own team, I was delighted he was in it. He never wanted to be a leader, but I was always ambitious that way.”

“You sound like a good team, like he was a great friend,” said Abby, aware now of where this was going.

“Yeah. We were army friends, you know. We didn’t hang out at each other’s places all the time and we mainly did things with the rest of the team. I don’t think I’ve ever had a close friend. I’ve never been open enough I suppose. Until I met you, Sinclair was the closest I got to that.”

Warmth flushed through Abby at his characterisation of her as his friend. “I’m proud to be your friend,” she said.

He smiled at her, wiped something from the corner of his eye.

“We got deployed to Germany first and then Iraq. I had a great team. Sinclair was my second in command, and there was Diyoza, who I told you about. She was fierce. I mean, you’re pretty strong-minded but she’s a cut above even you I think.” He laughed, mainly to himself. “There was this asshole, McCreary, who was a pain in my butt twenty-four seven, and a couple of other guys. We were tight. Went out drinking a lot. It was an intense life. You never know what’s going to happen next. Other units got into a lot of trouble, people were killed. I lived day to day, and I guess I took that to extremes at times, you know, with women.”

He looked at her sheepishly and Abby squeezed his hand.

“I do understand that. It gets intense here at times, and before, back in Chicago. I get the need for a release.”

“You don’t fuck loads of men, though.”

“No, but there are reasons for that.”

“What reasons?”

“I’ll tell you later.” As she said this she realised that her time was coming. She’d encouraged Marcus to talk and she couldn’t back out on him after this. She had to face her demons as he was his.

Marcus examined her closely for a second, and then he seemed to accept her promise.

“When we were in Iraq there were rumours of a planned insurgency from the Taliban based in Afghanistan. We went in as friendlies at first, trying to get information through the locals who wanted nothing to do with the insurgents. I told you the goat story. It was manageable at first and then a couple of our artillery teams were ambushed and it became clear that there was a leak somewhere. The insurgents knew where we were going to be before we did. I decided we needed to get behind enemy lines, get some first-hand observations.”

He stopped talking, took a sip of the water. “My team were dropped into the mountains and we started the reconnaissance and surveillance. It turned out there was a leak. One of the translators we were using was working for the Taliban, feeding them information. We noticed that he had a very specific routine, same route, same day, same time, to and fro between the Taliban and the main Army base. I decided to intercept him along this route so we could catch him in the act. That turned out to be a terrible mistake.”

“What happened?” said Abby, stroking his hand.

“It was a set-up, the whole thing. Yes, he was feeding them information, but he wanted to be caught. They wanted us to try and capture him. It was an ambush. I realised something was wrong because he was just too calm when we grabbed him, but it was too late. There were insurgents all around us and we got into a fire fight. I was hit in the leg and I fell to the ground. I scrambled up again and a bullet whizzed past me and I turned to follow its trajectory and Sinclair was a few metres away and it hit him square in the chest, took him down. I got to him but he was already gone. I was too late. It was my fault. It was all my fault.”

He looked at her with tears in his eyes and Abby put her arm around him, drew him to her.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she murmured.

“It was. I was in charge. It was my interpretation of the intelligence, it was my decision to implement the plan. I wasn’t thorough enough. I sent my people into that trap and I got Sinclair killed and two other guys wounded.”

He sobbed and Abby held him, stroking his hair. “I understand blaming yourself, I do. You have to forgive yourself, Marcus.”

“I can’t. I’ve thought about it every day since. I go through what I did wrong, what I should have done, how different it would have been if I’d done this or that. Sinclair would be alive, his boys wouldn’t be fatherless.”

“That’s the life you were living, though, the risks you all knew you were taking, Sinclair included.”

“I know. I know that, but it doesn’t change things, Abby. It doesn’t alter what happened, and the fact that he’s dead.”

“No, but if you can’t forgive yourself then you have to learn to live with it.”

“I did, but that turned out to be even more self-destructive. It hurt so much to lose him and to realise what a massive failure I was that I stopped caring. I hated myself, I hated everyone and everything and I got out of the army as soon as I could, and then I basically just weaved a path of destruction everywhere I went.”

“Like in Paris?”

“Yeah. I didn’t care about that woman or her husband. I didn’t care if we got caught or what that would mean. The sex wasn’t even good, it was the thrill of it or what I think now was a desire deep down to be caught. I think I wanted him to hurt me, physically, punish me.”

“I can see that. And the cufflinks? Where do they fit in?”

“They’re Sinclair’s. He always wore them with his dress uniform. They were his dad’s I think, who’d also been in the army. His wife gave them to me afterwards, said he’d want me to have them.”

His tears were flowing now, dripping down his cheeks leaving streaks in the dirt.

“That means she didn’t blame you, though, doesn’t it? That’s a lovely gesture.”

“I didn’t deserve it, Abby. I didn’t deserve her forgiveness or her kindness. I took them because I thought they’d be a constant reminder of what I’d done, and... I don’t really know. Diyoza says I’m punishing myself by wearing them all the time, but they’ve become a kind of weird comfort now.”

“Oh, Marcus. I’m glad you’ve told me. You should have talked about all this a long time ago.” She kissed the tracks of his tears, brushed the new ones from his eyelashes. “You’re a wonderful man. Brave and caring and so strong.”

He laughed bitterly. “I’m not strong at all.”

“You are. You’ve borne this weight all this time and you’ve survived. You’re here.”

He shook his head. “I’ve been looking for ways out for years now.”

“Well, I for one am glad you’re still here. It’s a test of metal to make tough decisions when they matter. Just because it went wrong doesn’t make the decision wrong. You were unlucky. I think you’re incredible and nothing you say will change that opinion.”

She pulled a funny face at him and he smiled. He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “You don’t hate me?”

“God, no. I’d be a hypocrite if I did.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve done the same myself.”

“Was this back in Chicago?”

“Yeah. It’s amazing how easy it is to tell other people not to blame themselves, but not so easy to take your own advice.”

“You’re looking at it from outside I suppose; the view is less cluttered.”

“And guilt isn’t a rational thing.”

“God, no.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing her fingers. “What do you blame yourself for?”

Abby paused, fought back the tears that were already forming. It had been five years since she’d told the story, and back then she’d been fighting for her life, her reputation.

“I was married for a while. I know that’s probably a shock because I’ve never said anything about it or him but I can’t. I mean the whole reason I’m here is because I can’t.”

“I knew you were running from something.”

“Yeah, but you can’t run from yourself as you know.”

“I do.”

“We met in college, got married after I graduated from UoC. We weren’t young really - I mean I was mid-twenties - but we were in a lot of ways. Because I met him I never really lived at university, never really explored everything life had to offer because I only had eyes for him and being a doctor. We set up home. He was an engineer, I was a surgeon. We were doing okay, or so I thought. Looking back now I don’t know if I really was that clueless or if I was in denial, because I never saw it coming.”

“You’re a good person. You see the best in people.”

“And look where that’s got me!” She gestured to the hut. “I thought Lightbourne was good and I was wrong.”

“Abby, your heart is your greatest strength. To have belief like you do, I think it’s powerful. You don’t want to be jaded like me.”

“I think being a little more like you wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

“That’s something I never thought I’d hear you say.”

She laughed. “It’s a day for firsts. Anyway, about eight years ago he was in a minor car wreck. It left him with some back pain, and I prescribed Vicodin. It took him a while to recover but the pills helped and he got back to work and all was fine. I was working long hours at the time so we didn’t see each other a lot and I guess I didn’t notice what was happening with him.

“One day I came home early having had a surgery cancelled and I found him on the floor in the bedroom. I tried to save him; I did everything I could.”

A sob escaped her as the memory of walking into that room surfaced like it did whenever she thought about Chicago and the past.

“I’m sure you did,” said Marcus. He put his hand on the back of her head, pulled her closer, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

“It wasn’t enough. He’d overdosed. Turned out he’d got addicted to the Vicodin and that turned into a full-blown addiction to painkillers. He’d been forging prescriptions using one of my pads he’d stolen, and I had no idea! He hid it well and I wasn’t there enough to see the signs. I should have paid more attention; I shouldn’t have been so focussed on my career!”

“You’re not responsible for what he chose to do,” said Marcus.

Abby pulled away so she could look him in the eye. “Of course I am! I gave him the drugs in the first place! I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. I didn’t even know he needed me! It was all my fault, and I wasn’t the only person who thought so.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was an investigation by the police and the American Medical Association. I was censured for allowing the prescription pad to be used but they cleared me of any other wrongdoing. His parents took me to court, sued me privately for negligence and causing his death. I didn’t want to fight it at first because I knew they were right. I deserved to be punished for it, but then I found out they were saying I’d written all the prescriptions and tried to make out I was trying to get rid of him! I had to fight that, and so I did. I won, but I couldn’t stay in Chicago after that, or the US. I just wanted to get as far away as I could. I signed up to Global Doctors and I went to England for training and then I ended up here.”

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a second. “So, you see, you’re not the only one blaming themselves.”

Marcus kissed her head again, let his lips linger there. “I’m so sorry you had to face that. It wasn’t your fault. Addiction is a disease,” he whispered into her hair.

“And I’m a doctor.”

“You can’t fix everyone, and we’re all responsible for our own actions, you, me, him.”

“I know you’re right, but accepting it is hard. I decided after that all happened that I wasn’t going to do both again. It was job or relationship and I chose job.”

“And then I came into your life.”

“Yeah, and I tried really hard not to like you. I kept telling myself we were just friends.”

“We are friends. You’re my best friend, the only one I’ve ever had.”

“I know. That means a lot to me.”

“I think I always knew we were the same deep down.”

“You mean self-blaming, self-haters.” She laughed softly. “I am at fault for parts of it, no matter what you say. There are things I should have seen and done.”

“My decisions caused what happened in Afghanistan. I made the wrong ones, there’s no denying that.”

Abby sighed, looked at Marcus. He was a good man. If he wasn’t then he wouldn’t blame himself like he did. Perhaps it was the same for her.

“Maybe our decisions don’t have to define us though.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re a part of us, what we’ve done, but they’re not the whole us.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“We’ll have to make it true.” She sat back, shoulder to shoulder with him. It was a relief to have told him, to know that they shared this burden, knew what it was to carry it. She should have told him a long time ago.

---

Kane sat in a comfortable silence, Abby by his side, and contemplated what she’d said. She’d shouldered all the blame herself, hadn’t said a bad word about her husband but she’d been betrayed and lied to by him. No wonder she’d been so upset about Kane’s lies. If he’d known he never would have lied to her, but then he probably wouldn’t have had to – he’d have told her his story too. They should have talked weeks ago, been open with each other. He’d known she had a secret too, should have trusted that she’d have understood. He was an idiot, though, they both were.

They’d wasted time, and now they didn’t have any. He wished he could put his arms around her, hold her to him, but the configuration of the chains made that impossible, unless she sat on top of him, and that probably wasn’t a good idea. It felt strange to have the story of Sinclair and the cufflinks out there. He’d never spoken of it, not even with Diyoza who was the only other person who knew. She tried to bring it up, but he always brushed it away. It was hard to admit to failure and responsibility, not that she’d ever blamed him. No one had except for Kane himself. That had made it worse really.

Abby was right, though; it didn’t have to define him for the rest of his life. He could be a good man, the man she deserved. It was ironic that he finally felt free when he probably only had hours left to live.

“What are you thinking about?” said Abby, nudging him to make him look at her.

“I’m thinking about you, and how little time we have left.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

“It feels like I only just found you, and now...”

Abby turned so she was resting more on her side, looked at him. She was a vision in the half light, despite the grazes on her face and the twigs in her messy ponytail, or maybe because of them. “We shouldn’t waste any more time, then.”

She leaned towards him and they kissed, and it became passionate quickly, tongues probing deep in each other’s mouths. He held her face with his free hand and she held his with hers and it was like they were one person. Abby groaned, slid her hand down to his jacket, started unbuttoning it.

“What are you doing?” Kane murmured.

“I want to touch you.” She undid his waistcoat, started on the shirt beneath. “So many layers,” she whispered, and his heart thumped against his chest. He wondered if she could feel it beneath her hand.

When his shirt was half unbuttoned, she slipped her hand inside, caressed his skin, her thumb circling his nipple. She left his lips and bent to kiss him there instead, her tongue flicking at the sensitive nub.

“God, that’s nice,” he said, and his cock throbbed painfully.

She manoeuvred as far as her cuff would allow, managed to swing a leg over his thigh so she could straddle him. She leaned forward, kissed him again, and then she sat back, unfastened her dirty white blouse. She grabbed his hand, put it beneath her vest and he slid it up over her firm stomach until he found a breast and caressed it. Her nipple hardened beneath his fingers and he tweaked it, making her moan.

She lifted the vest, baring herself to him, and pressed closer so he could capture a nipple with his mouth. He sucked on it, rubbed the other with his thumb. Her hand was on the back of his head, pressing it to her, and she started rocking, rubbing herself slowly over his groin. God, she was trying to kill him. They shouldn’t be doing this because where was it going to go? They were going to end up frustrated, but he found he couldn’t stop. He’d dreamed of her breasts and here they were, beautiful and firm. They felt good in his hand, beneath his lips.

He protested when she moved away so she could sit back and regard him. Her ponytail was even more loose, stray hairs everywhere, caught in her eyelashes, at the side of her mouth. Flecks of grit or soil were caught in it along with the twigs. He brushed the strands from her lips, picked the most prominent twig out.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, and she laughed, looking tenderly at him.

“So are you.”

She surprised him by grabbing the waistband of his trousers, teasing the button out. She pulled down the zip, squeezed her hand into the narrow gap afforded by the chain and got beneath his underpants, touching the root of his cock with her fingertips.

“Abby...” he whispered.

“Shush.” She forced her hand lower over his length, stroking it. Her touch felt good but it also hurt a little. He tried not to wince as she pressed harder. “I want you,” she said.

“Abby, I’m filthy. I stink.”

“So do I. I don’t care. If we’re going to die, I want to have made love with you.”

“I don’t know if I can do this, physically.”

“Why not?”

“He kicked me there, over and over again.”

“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.” She stopped her stroking, looked up at him. “Am I hurting you?”

“No,” he lied, because he wanted to do this now, even if it hurt. They’d gone too far to turn back.

“Let’s try, and if it gets too painful, we can stop.”

“Okay,” he said.

She pulled his pants apart as far as she could, reached back in and eased out his cock. He was glad to see it seemed normal. It could be bruised or swollen but it was hard to tell in this state and the dappled light.

“It looks good,” she said, lowering her head and examining it as only a doctor would, and Kane laughed hard because if he’d ever hoped she might say something like that, it certainly wasn’t in these circumstances. “It doesn’t look more swollen than usual to you?”

“That’s its natural state,” he said, grinning.

“Oh, well, in that case I think we should test it out.” She stroked him, gently at first, watching his face for his reactions. It did hurt a little, but the sight of her looking at him while stroking his cock made all thoughts of that go away. She increased the pressure and tempo of her strokes.

“Is it okay?” she whispered as he closed his eyes and groaned.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Then hold that thought.”

He felt her weight lift from him and he opened his eyes. She was sitting beside him, fiddling with her jeans. She got the button open and the zipper down but wriggling out of them was proving difficult with one hand chained and little room.

“Close your eyes. This isn’t sexy,” she said.

Kane did as she asked reluctantly, because seeing her wriggle around was hugely sexy to him but he didn’t want to take what little dignity there was left to her. He opened his eyes again when he felt her hand around his waist, trying to pull down his trousers. He lifted his hips so she could ease them under him. She couldn’t reach far enough to take them all the way down but that didn’t matter. The most important part of him was free.

She swung her leg over him, settled on his thighs, took his cock in her hand again. She leant forward and they kissed. Kane caressed her back, over the ridge of her spine and down to her ass.

“We don’t have protection,” he whispered.

“If we die it won’t matter.”

“And if we don’t?”

She shrugged and half-smiled. “Then what will be, will be,” she said, before sinking down onto him with a sigh. “Feels like I’ve been waiting for this forever.”

“I thought I’d lost you.”

“No. Never.”

She started rocking, her hand pressed to his chest. Kane gripped her ass to keep her steady.

“This is not how I imagined our first time to be,” he said.

“This is exactly how I imagined it. Not the setting, but this, how you feel, how you make me feel.” She kissed his cheek, whispered to him, her lips feathery against his ear. “I love you.”

A small cry escaped Kane because he’d wanted to hear that for so long and a part of him still didn’t think he deserved it even after what they’d talked about. Her words pierced his heart, lifted him.

“I love you too. I adore you.”

He wrapped his arm around her back, held her tightly to him as they rocked together. She came with an unfettered cry, and his own release was like nothing he’d felt before. It was beyond the physical pleasure. He felt relief in his body and soul.

“That was something else!” said Abby, breathing heavily and smiling at him. She was pink-cheeked and beads of sweat were gathering on her forehead from her exertions and the heat of the hut.

“It was amazing.” Kane kissed her, then rested his sweaty head against hers. “Thank you.”

“I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than I am right now.”

“It’s not ridiculous. I know what you mean.”

They stayed in that position for a moment, and then Abby got off him. She struggled into her jeans and fastened her blouse before pulling up his pants. Kane fastened the buttons on his shirt but left his waistcoat and jacket undone. It was too hot for all these clothes but he couldn’t take them off because of the handcuff.

“At least we’re decent if they come for us,” said Abby.

“I never even gave them a thought.”

“Me either. I was focussed only on you, on us.”

Kane caressed her face, kissed her softly. “Now that we can die happy, I have an idea about how we might get out of here.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. We will probably die trying. Do you still want to hear it?”

“I do.”

She nestled next to him, her head resting on his shoulder. Kane smiled.

Chapter Text

Time passed in sun shadows that moved slowly across the hut. They disappeared as darkness fell, and arrived again when dawn broke the following day, beginning the same journey again. Abby had been awake through most of it, thinking about all the things that had led her here, and what was ahead when this was over, if she survived. A life that had Marcus in it, she hoped, although she didn’t know what that would look like. She wasn’t cut out to be an Ambassador’s wife, attending functions and pretending to be nice to people. Then again, Marcus had faked it pretty well the last few years. Was he cut out to be a doctor’s husband, with the long hours spent apart, the exhaustion? They’d have to find a compromise. Of course, this was assuming either of them had a job left to go to.

She turned carefully to look at him. He was sleeping and she didn’t want to disturb him. This was his third day captive now, and all he’d eaten was an energy bar he’d insisted on sharing with Abby. She’d pretended to eat her share but had saved half of it just in case. It was in her jeans pocket along with the cufflink. They’d run out of water last night, the small amount too tempting when they were sweating and thirsty in the heat of the hut. Marcus had become increasingly listless, and Abby was praying that someone would come today, sooner rather than later, so they could end this, one way or another.

She listened carefully, hearing nothing but the sounds of the bush. No big game roars thankfully, but the birds and the monkeys had been tweeting and chittering for a couple of hours now, greeting the dawn with more joy and hope than Abby was feeling. She fingered the cufflink in her pocket, tried not to think about how hopeless their plan was.

The thought that Indra was out there provided little comfort. She would have known for hours now that Abby was missing, knew the road Abby had taken, might even have driven along it looking for her. There’d be nothing to find, because Lightbourne had instructed his man to move their cars, and it would have been dark anyway. What were the odds of her finding this hut? They were some distance from the road, on the edge of a vast territory.

She also didn’t want Indra to find them, because then she would get caught up in this as well, and Abby didn’t want anyone else getting hurt because of this. She and Marcus had made this mess, and they had to be the ones to get out of it or die trying.

Marcus stirred beside her, opened his eyes into narrow slits against the light. He mumbled something incoherent. Abby leaned towards him, put a gentle hand on his stomach.

“Don’t speak. Don’t waste the energy.”

“M’okay.”

She wasn’t sure if he was agreeing with her or saying he was okay. She stroked his face, kissed his dry, cracked lips.

“I love you,” she said, putting every ounce of affection she felt for him into her smile.

His lips twitched. “Love,” was all he managed.

“I know. We’re two idiots in love, who’d have thought?”

His lips twitched further and then he closed his eyes, drifted to sleep again. Abby watched him carefully. His breaths were shallow, and when she put her fingers on his wrist his pulse was weak, both signs of dehydration, which wasn’t a surprise but was concerning. If he didn’t get water soon it would cause problems with his kidney function, might already have done because he hadn’t peed since she’d been here. Abby had managed to do it in the bucket while he was asleep, well mostly in the bucket. The place probably stank, but they were both immune to it so it didn’t matter. She’d smelt worse things than stale pee in her career.

The second time Marcus woke up he seemed brighter, struggling into a better sitting position with Abby’s help.

“They’ll be here soon, I know it,” said Abby, trying to stop her leg shaking. It had a mind of its own, wouldn’t stop jerking. Frustration maybe, or the lack of water affecting her muscles. It was the waiting that was hard, she’d always found that. She was a practical person, liked to be doing something.

“They’re leaving us to die,” said Marcus morosely.

“No, they’re not. What use are we then? They’re weakening us that’s all, so we won’t fight back, but we will, won’t we?”

She was pleased to see him nod in agreement.

The sun’s shadows and rays moved another few inches and they talked about their early meetings, how frustrating they’d found each other. Marcus admitted being attracted to her but supressing it. Abby told him how Jackson had teased her but she hadn’t believed him until the boxes arrived with the items from the embassy.

“What about when you kissed me after the party?”

“I was drunk.”

“Hmm.”

They’d lapsed into their own thoughts when the rumble of tyres on gravel drifted into earshot, followed by the sound of an engine.

“Fuck, they’re here!” said Marcus, sitting straighter and dragging Abby with him.

“Here we go.”

“Yeah.” He looked at her, his brow furrowed, eyes dark. “You have your cufflink?”

Abby stuck her hand in her pocket, pulled it out. “Yeah.”

“Me too.” Marcus showed her his. “I love you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“I love you too. We’re going to have a great life together when this is over.”

He nodded, smiled wanly. Abby kissed his lips, wetting them, softening them. “I mean it,” she said.

“I know.”

---

It was Lightbourne of course, the first in, him and his henchman, who had a gun. Kane was glad, because they only had one shot at this and there was no one he’d rather try and take out. He’d been so tired all morning, since yesterday really, but now he felt a surge of adrenaline and it gave him strength. Of course their plan of action was entirely dependent on Lightbourne and his man doing certain things, but all that was out of his control. All he could do was be alert and ready.

“God, it stinks in here,” said Lightbourne, wrinkling his nose. “Look at you both, wallowing in your own filth.”

“Let’s get it over with, Lightbourne,” said Kane, manufacturing a resigned tone to try and fool the man into thinking he was beaten.

“Do you think I’m here to kill you?”

Kane shrugged. “I can’t think what else you’d want.”

“Oh, I could want a lot of things. What if I wanted Abby? What if I took her now?”

He nodded at his henchman who crossed to Abby. Kane stuck his leg out, tried to trip him just to annoy him. He stumbled but didn’t fall. Kane received a hard kick to his shin for his trouble. He grimaced, but didn’t cry out.

The man removed Abby’s handcuffs, dragged her to her feet. She struggled instinctively. Kane shook his head imperceptibly, trying to tell her not yet. She understood, stopped fighting.

“What if I took her in front of you, hmm? Right here in the hut. Be the last she ever has, and the best of course.” He smirked at Kane.

“I’ll bite it off,” said Abby, glaring at him.

“Hard to do if you’re gagged and bound, dear,” he said.

“It will be the last thing you do,” said Kane.

Lightbourne came closer, kicked Kane’s foot hard for no reason than he obviously felt like it. “You know that threat would be worth entertaining if you weren’t tied up like the dog you are. I could fuck her and kill you, and neither of you would be able to do anything about it.”

“You’re a disgrace of a human being,” said Kane, his lip curled into a snarl.

“Quite. Well, luckily for you, I wouldn’t go near a dirty whore like her, and there are people waiting out there who have plans for you both. They’d prefer it if you were intact for the next part of our mission.”

He knelt beside Kane, unfastened the handcuff letting it clatter to the floor. Kane glanced at Abby, saw the gun was hanging by the man’s side. He obviously didn’t see her as a threat. Neither did Lightbourne. Kane nodded at Abby, and then everything happened in a blur.

She yelled “get off me!” and Lightbourne half turned to see what was happening. Kane had already secreted the cufflink between his knuckles, sharp end pointing out, and he swung his arm now, caught Lightbourne right in the eye. Blood spurted, and Lightbourne screamed in agony.

“You’ve fucking blinded me!” he yelled.

“Good!” Kane left him writhing on the floor, hurried across to Abby who had done the same thing with the henchman. He was made of sterner stuff, however, was still on his feet, blood pouring from his damaged eye, the gun waving around dangerously.

Kane grabbed for it and there was a tussle. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lightbourne trying to get to his feet.

“Abby!” he shouted. “Get him.”

Abby ran to Lightbourne, Kane fought with the henchman. He was losing, but then the man drew back as though getting ready to lay a heavy blow on Kane, leaving his body open. Kane took his chance, kneed him in the balls as hard as he could. Oh, revenge was sweet! The man blew out a wounded breath, started to double over. Kane grabbed the gun, moved so he was between them and the door. Abby was sitting on Lightbourne and was reaching for the handcuffs.

“Tie them both up,” said Kane, pointing the gun at Lightbourne’s head. His eye looked ruined. Kane felt neither satisfaction nor guilt at his condition. It was war; these were the consequences. Abby on the other hand was grimacing. She wasn’t used to hurting people, but this was a kill or be killed situation no doubt about that. Lightbourne wouldn’t hesitate. She turned him onto his side, found a handgun tucked into his belt. She held it up to Kane.

“Good work!” he said.

She got off the prone man, headed over to Kane.

“We did it!” she said, her breaths staccato from the effort.

“Just the first part. There are people outside, they may have heard the yelling.”

“I know.”

“You know what to do next?”

“Yes, we use them as leverage or if that fails as shields.”

“Keep your man in front of you at all times. If there’s shooting you must be prepared to keep behind him. Let him take the brunt of it.”

“I will. I can do it,” she said, pursing her lips and not looking convincing to Kane. He’d kill everybody within a mile if he had to.

“You got this.”

She nodded. “Let’s do it!”

Kane checked her gun, made sure it was ready to fire and handed it back to her. He went over to Lightbourne, dragged him to his feet.

“You’ll never get away from here alive,” he said, smirking, the dark blood on his face and lips making him look even more of a monster than he was.

“I was in the army, as you probably know. Our motto was Honour, Fidelity and Courage. I’ll admit I’ve struggled with the first two since leaving, but I’ve never lacked the last, and neither has Abby. We’ll die trying.” He glared at Lightbourne, held the gun to the man’s head to emphasise his point.

The henchman seemed prepared to cooperate, probably hoping to get out of here alive, although Kane didn’t trust him. Abby had her gun trained on him.

Kane went to the door, took a settling breath, then opened it a fraction, peered out. He took in the lay of the land quickly, shut the door again. There were nine, no ten men with guns, six of them sitting in the back of a pickup truck, the other four flanking Jaha, who was talking with one of the men. No one seemed concerned about what was happening in the hut so they mustn’t have heard the yelling, which was good. They’d at least have the element of surprise. He wondered if they could sneak out, but two of the men with Jaha were looking in their general direction if not directly at the hut. They’d be seen.

He turned to Abby. “We’ve got six in a truck at nine o’clock, armed with rifles. Jaha and four others dead ahead, hundred yards max. Jaha appears unarmed but I doubt he is. When we go out, we move to three o’clock. Hug the side. I don’t want the hut behind us if possible. You keep my six at all times, okay?” He’d slipped easily into his military language, forgetting Abby wasn’t Diyoza, wouldn’t understand him.

“What’s your six?” she said.

“My back. Keep my back, watch it. When we get outside and to the side of the hut, you’re going to need to keep looking behind and around you as well as keeping an eye on me and this goon.”

“I got it.”

“Okay. Let’s move out.”

“This is going to be fun!” said Lightbourne gleefully.

“Speak again and you’re dead,” said Kane.

He opened the door quietly, pushed Lightbourne out in front of him. He left a gap behind him so Abby could get out and to the side under his cover. No one seemed to have noticed them, and he had hope that he could revise his plan, get to the fence after all, but that hope was dashed when a shout rang out, and everyone turned to look at them. The men in the truck jumped out.

“Move and I’ll kill him. I’ll kill you all,” shouted Kane, pushing Lightbourne to the front, his gun trained at his head.

“You and whose army?” said Jaha, signalling to a couple of his men to get behind the hut.

Kane fired a shot at their feet to deter them. “I don’t want to kill anyone today if I don’t have to. All I want is safe passage out of here for me and Abby. This could all be over easily.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You’re integral to our plans.”

“What plans?” said Kane.

“Later today our forces will converge on the Presidential Palace with the aim of restoring the government of this country to its rightful rulers. You’re going to endorse us on behalf of the American Government.”

Kane laughed, the idea was so ludicrous. “I’m never going to do that.”

“Oh, I think you will, if it means the lovely Doctor Griffin gets to live. I’m sure you wouldn’t want her in the hands of these men for too long. There’s not a lot of female company around here.” He gestured to his men, but Kane wasn’t sure they’d understood what he’d said as they just stared blankly at him.

“Don’t worry about me,” whispered Abby behind him.

“It’s not going to get that far. I’ll kill them all first,” he whispered back. Louder, he said: “Even if I did that, it would be pointless. The US Government is going to issue a denial, and if you think they care about me after the trouble I’ve caused them then you’re very wrong.”

Jaha started walking, not closer to Kane and Abby, but into a different line of sight. Kane glanced at the men who had got out of the truck. They were still in the same position, weapons pointed at him.

“It won’t matter what the US Government says because by then we’ll have taken control of all media, so the last thing the people of the Republic will hear on the subject will be the United States Ambassador telling them to support their new masters.”

“This is never going to work.” Kane glanced again. There were four men where previously there had been six. Fuck!

He turned briefly to Abby to get her attention. “Abby, two of the men are coming round the back of the hut. You need to be ready,” he said, not at all confident that she’d be able to pull the trigger when it came down to it. He’d trust her with his life in any other circumstance, but she was trained to save lives, not take them.

“Okay,” she said, her voice shaking.

It was coming down to the wire now. If they got pinned down on two sides they were done for. It had always been a crazy gamble, but it was the one they’d decided to take. They’d agreed they weren’t going easily, wanted to give themselves every chance to get away. Now it came down to it he wondered if that had been the right decision. He didn’t care so much for himself, but Abby didn’t deserve to die like this. He’d have to take the men down himself.

“Keep the goon in front of you and watch the back of the hut,” he said.

“Why don’t you give up now, Kane?” said Jaha. “You’re only making things worse.”

Two more men were creeping to the right of Jaha, trying to get to the other flank. Kane shot close to them, his bullet pinging off a tree right next to the first of the guys.

“Fuck!” cried a startled Abby behind him.

“It’s okay,” he said.

“Jaha’s right,” said Lightbourne. “You’re not going to get out of here alive like this.

“Shut up. Be ready, Abby.”

The men he could see were closing in. Kane shot the nearest one in the leg, hoping it might deter the others. It didn’t. They kept coming. His heart was racing now. He could feel Abby’s body heat as she stood back to back with him. They were sandwiched between their hostages, guns at the ready like some middle-aged Bonnie and Clyde. The urge to laugh crept over him and he suppressed it.

Suddenly a shot rang out and wood splintered above Kane’s head. One of Jaha’s men. A warning shot.

“Come on, Kane. Give up. I don’t want to shoot you; it’s not in my best interests.”

“Let us go, Jaha. I’m not going to wound with my next shot.” He trained the gun on Jaha, who seemed unperturbed.

“Marcus.” said Abby in a frightened voice.

He turned, saw a man grinning at them, his gun raised, finger poised on the trigger. Kane shot him, sending him flying backwards, landing in a heap on the floor. Another shot from Jaha’s direction, this one close to Abby’s head.

“Our next one won’t miss either,” said Jaha.

“If you kill Abby, I’ll never do what you want.”

Jaha sighed. “So be it.” He signalled, and his men shouldered their rifles, moved towards Kane and Abby.

Kane was reluctant to fire the next shot, because that would definitely start a firefight, and they wouldn’t win it. Suddenly, two of the men advancing towards him fell to the ground as the crack of a rifle echoed around. It hadn’t come from Abby and he knew he hadn’t fired it himself. Who the hell was it?

Jaha’s men stopped and looked around. Kane shot another two so that was five of the ten down. Two more shots and two more men hit. The rest were running for cover.

“Marcus there’s another one!” cried Abby, and he spun around.

“Get down!”

She flung herself and the henchman to the ground just as the man who’d come from behind the hut fired his gun. Luckily, Kane had brought Lightbourne round with him, and the bullet hit him first, going straight through him and into Kane’s shoulder. Kane staggered but stayed on his feet. He shot the man, killing him, then he spun around again, dragging an injured Lightbourne with him, and saw Jaha and his remaining two men had retreated to the shelter of the truck.

“Kane!” His name echoed like the bullets had a moment ago, coming from beyond the hut, beyond Jaha’s truck, somewhere further down the track. It was Diyoza’s voice. What the hell?

“Who’s that?” said Abby, trying to get to her feet.

“Don’t get up. It’s Diyoza.” He peered around the front of the hut again. “Diyoza!”

“There’s three remaining. We’ve got them pinned.” To illustrate her point a shot hit the truck, making a loud metallic sound. Jaha and his men cowered behind it.

Kane looked at Lightbourne and the henchman. Lightbourne was half dead, a bright red blood soaking his shirt. The henchman nodded at Kane as though in surrender. They were both still handcuffed.

“You okay with these two?” he said to Abby.

“Yes. Marcus you’re bleeding!”

“Don’t worry about that now.” He left her, advanced from his position behind the hut towards the truck, gun pointed.

“I’ve got your six!” shouted Diyoza.

“So have I!” said another voice. Indra. This was getting stranger by the minute.

---

Abby stood, the unfamiliar gun in her hand pointed at Russell and his man, watching with her heart in her mouth as Marcus advanced towards Jaha and the remaining two men. They put their guns down and when Marcus reached them he kicked them away. From the path came a woman dressed in combat fatigues, long brown ponytail swinging behind her. That must be Diyoza. When she reached Marcus she knelt beside him, helped him turn the men over, zip tie their hands behind their backs.

“Doc,” came a weak voice from beneath her.

She looked down, saw Russell’s one good eye staring at her.

“What?”

“Help me,” he wheezed.

Abby glanced again at Marcus. He was hurt too and all she wanted was to go to him, help him, but he was at least moving around, wasn’t in imminent threat of death, unlike the man before her. She knelt beside him.

“You don’t deserve my help,” she said, unbuttoning his shirt and looking for the source of the blood. He had a large bullet wound in his chest and the blood was pumping weakly now. His heart was failing. She ripped part of his shirt, stuffed it into the wound. “Hold that.”

Her backpack should still be nearby if nobody had found it since she’d been captured. She ran over to the bush she’d hidden behind, found it there, brought it back to Russell. She cleaned the blood from his wound with antiseptic wipes so she could assess it better. It was a mess. She knew the bullet was a through and through because it was embedded in Marcus, but it had done most of its damage to Russell on its journey. His breaths were ragged now and there was a sucking sound coming from his chest. She pulled from her bag one of the chest drains he’d given her. Oh, the irony!

Before she had a chance to use it he started convulsing, turning blue. She held him down, tried to keep him calm, but it was clear there was nothing she could do.

“I hope you find peace.” She stroked his hair and smiled gently at him, because everyone deserved to feel cared for as they died, no matter what they’d done. She truly believed that.

He gripped her hand with the last of his strength, and then he was gone. She let go of his hand. “It didn’t have to be like this,” she said.

“Abby!”

Abby looked up to see Indra marching towards her, gun slung over her shoulder. Jojo and the other Rangers were behind her. Abby got up to welcome them.

“I’m so happy to see you!” she said, pulling Indra into a hug the woman couldn’t avoid. She received a pat on her back in return.

“I’m glad to see you. I wasn’t confident you’d still be alive.”

“I’m not sure we would have been much longer if it weren’t for you.” She looked around for Marcus. He was dragging Jaha and the men to their feet. “Can you look after him,” she said, pointing to the henchman. “I need to check Marcus. He was shot.”

She picked up her backpack without waiting for a reply, ran over to Marcus.

“Marcus!” she said, and he turned, smiled warmly at her.

“Hey.” She fell into his arms, forgetting until he winced that he was injured. “Sorry.” She tried to pull back, but he held her to him.

“No. Don’t go.” They stayed in their hug for a moment. He kissed her face and then her lips.

“So, you’re the wife,” said the woman, who’d been putting the men in the truck. She gave Abby a thorough onceover, blue eyes sharp and critical, then she nodded. Abby felt as though she’d passed an inspection.

“Abby, this is Diyoza. Diyoza, Abby,” said Marcus.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Abby, wondering why Diyoza had called her Marcus’s wife.

“Likewise. I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s good to meet the woman who’s tamed the boss. You’re smaller than I expected.”

Abby laughed, couldn’t help it. “That’s my disguise,” she said.

“You came out into the middle of a war zone to look for him and that takes a lot of cajones. I can see what he likes about you.”

“Thank you, and thanks for turning up when you did. You’ve saved our lives.”

Diyoza shrugged nonchalantly. “The boss has saved mine plenty of times. Figured I owed him.”

“If you two have finished getting acquainted we need to get going. There’s a coup about to happen at the Palace. We need to warn the President and tell them they’ve got a spy in their midst, Minister Miller,” said Marcus.

“You’re not going anywhere until I’ve looked at your shoulder,” said Abby.

“It’s fine. A flesh wound.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

Marcus sighed. “Fine.”

“I’ll get everyone rounded up,” said Diyoza. She grinned at Marcus and Abby. “I never thought I’d live to see the day the boss was out-bossed,” she said, clapping her hands with glee.

When she’d gone, Abby sat Marcus on the floor, knelt before him. She took off his jacket and waistcoat and then his shirt. “I think all these layers have slowed its trajectory,” she said, making Marcus chuckle.

“I think going through Lightbourne did that. How is he by the way?”

“He’s dead.”

“Good. He got what he deserved.”

“Yes.” Abby didn’t really believe in retribution like that and she suspected neither did Marcus deep down, but he was angry and so was she. Lightbourne had been responsible for so many deaths, not just here but all over the Republic and who knows how many other countries he’d plied his weapons of destruction in.

The bullet really hadn’t lodged very far in Marcus’s shoulder and she teased it out, handed it to him.

“That can go with the one from my leg,” he said, slipping it into his pants pocket.

“You were lucky.” She took out a sterilised needle and thread, started sewing up the small entry wound.

“It’s just how it goes,” he said modestly.

He’d been so confident throughout it all, so sure, so steady. She, on the other hand, hadn’t exactly fallen apart, but when it had come down to having to shoot the enemies, she hadn’t been able to make the decision quick enough. She knew if Marcus hadn’t shot them both she’d be dead. It all seemed surreal. She was used to having to make snap decisions, but they were usually about how to save someone’s life, not take it. When it had come down to it, she’d failed in that regard.

“I’m sorry I didn’t shoot that guy. If I had, you wouldn’t have got shot and Russell would be alive.”

Marcus put his hand on her head, stroked her hair. “Hey, now don’t you think like that. None of this was your fault. He knew what he was doing when he started selling arms to the rebels. What’s happened today is the consequence of his decisions, not yours. You save people, that’s what you do. I never expected you to kill, I just wanted you to have some protection if you needed it.” He kissed her cheek. “I’d take a bullet for you any day, every day if necessary.”

“I hope it never comes to that,” she sniffed, grateful for his reassurance, overwhelmed with her love for him. She took his face in her hands, kissed him passionately. “I love you.”

“I love you.”

“Hey, lovebirds, you can put on a show for us later. We’ve got work to do.” Diyoza’s shadow loomed over them and Abby looked up to see her standing with her hands on her hips, a smirk on her face.

“Nearly finished,” she said, getting a sterile dressing and taping it over Marcus’s wound.

“Thank you, Doctor Griffin,” he said as she helped him back into his multiple layers of clothing.

“You’re welcome, Ambassador Kane,” she said, grinning.

They sat in the front of the truck on the way to Edenville, Diyoza driving, Jaha and the men in the back with one of Indra’s Rangers as guard. Indra was in her Land Rover behind them. She’d already alerted the Palace to the threat via her radio.

“How the hell did you two meet?” said Marcus as they bumped along the track. His mouth was full of an energy bar Diyoza had given him and his words came out muffled.

“Pure luck,” said Diyoza. “I was already on my way back to you when I got Abby’s message. Tried you both on the phone, no answer. I figured if they were holding you it might be in the hut or at the docks. I decided to check the hut first, being more secluded.”

“A good decision!” said Abby, drinking some water. It was warm but she didn’t care; it was the most amazing thing she’d ever tasted.

“You get a feel for these things. We’ve done a number of rescue ops, haven’t we boss?”

“Yeah. Not usually the ones being rescued though.”

“No. Anyway. I saw your friend Indra when I got to the track. She’d found some tyre tracks off the road and was investigating them. Thought at first she might be the enemy so there was some minor unpleasantness, but after that we got on okay. Found you just as it was all kicking off but didn’t want to come in guns blazing, so we set up sniper positions on each side. Indra’s a crack shot,” she said, smiling approvingly.

“You did a good job,” said Marcus. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“No need. HFC,” Diyoza replied.

“HFC,” said Marcus bumping fists with her.

“What’s that?” said Abby.

“Something you’ve got plenty of,” replied Marcus, putting his arm around her.

“Honour, Fidelity and Courage,” said Diyoza. “Our motto. Guess you’re an honorary member of the Eighty-Second Airborne now.”

“I don’t think I’d make a good soldier,” said Abby, pleased nevertheless with Diyoza’s acceptance of her.

“No decent person does. Being a soldier makes you, ain’t that right, Kane?”

Marcus looked at Abby. “I’m not sure it’s being a soldier that makes you who you are, or who you’re meant to be,” he said, his dark eyes roaming Abby’s face tenderly.

“Please don’t say it’s the love of a good woman, I might throw up!” said Diyoza.

“Then I won’t say it,” he said, squeezing Abby’s shoulder. “You’ll know one day.”

“I hope to God not.”

Abby and Marcus looked at one another and smiled. Abby laid her head against his uninjured shoulder, watched as the truck ate up the miles between Tonshasa and Edenville. One more thing to do and then they’d be free. To do what, she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful to have the opportunity to find out.

Chapter Text

Twenty-four hours after they’d left for Edenville, Kane opened the door to the Embassy and he, Abby, Diyoza and Indra trooped wearily inside. How long had it been since he was last here? Five days maybe? Felt like a lifetime. The boy greeted them, jumping up from his chair with a broad smile on his face.

“Mr Kane, you alive!” he said. He stared in wonder as the three women crowded into the hallway behind Kane. “You got more sexy ladies!”

“It’s good to see you,” said Kane, ruffling his hair which was about all he had the energy for. “Bring coffee and tea to my dining room, please.”

He trudged up the stairs, holding onto the railing because he felt weak, had only eaten a couple of energy bars and some chocolate since Tonshasa. The bright yellow room hurt his eyes as he entered. He flopped into his usual chair at the end of the table, Abby next to him, Diyoza and Indra at the opposite end.

“Feels strange being back here,” said Abby, looking around.

“Didn’t think I’d see it again at one point I have to admit.”

There was a strange smell in the room, putrid almost, and he wrinkled his nose before realising it was him, and probably Abby. He looked her over. She was pale and drawn, huge dark circles beneath her eyes, specks of what he thought was probably blood on her cheeks. Her white blouse was grey and filthy, her jeans streaked with dirt, blood and sand. If she looked like that, he could only imagine what state he was in. They both needed a shower and some rest.

“The President has a lot of work to do now. I don’t envy him the task,” said Indra, who looked alert and as if she could do everything all over again, even though she too had been awake for two days now.

“He’s lost a large portion of his Government, and I expect there will be more losses to come,” said Kane.

They’d arrived at the Palace to scenes of chaos, hadn’t been allowed in for ages until the President himself had finally been contacted and gave his approval. The coup had been thwarted with only minor bloodshed. Once Miller and Jaha were in custody and paraded on television, the rebellion had collapsed, most of the fighters who’d been amassed in a small village outside Edenville had fled into the surrounding countryside. Miller had given up the names of some of his high-level co-conspirators and they were in the process of being rounded up.

Kane had been interviewed for hours by the President’s men and eventually the President himself, far longer than Abby and the others because he knew so much more than they did, but they’d insisted on waiting for his release. They’d made it to the front steps of the palace when the President of the United States had called him for a debrief. The sun was long past its midday point when they were finally able to leave for the Embassy.

“He will prevail, I have faith in him,” said Indra.

“You think he’s a good guy?” said Kane.

“I think he tries to be. Now that these people who were whispering dark things to him have gone there’s a chance he can lead this country with more integrity.”

“I hope that’s the case.”

Indra pushed her chair back and stood. “We will try to make it so. I must go now; the wildlife doesn’t care about the affairs of men.”

Kane dragged himself to his feet along with Abby. He walked around to Indra, shook her hand. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You saved our lives. I’m eternally grateful.”

“You’re a good man, Kane. I would do it again.”

“I hope you won’t have to.”

Abby came up to Indra, flung her arms around her. “Thank you again,” she said, kissing her cheek.

Indra looked startled at the gesture. “Of course, well. Anything for you, Abby.”

“I will see you soon.”

“We have a wildlife count coming up. You and Kane should come along.”

“We will.”

The boy came through the door Indra had opened, set a tray with tea and coffee and some sugary cookies on the table. He looked from Diyoza to Abby and then to Kane.

“You have fun, mister,” he said with a wink.

“Maybe if I had your energy,” said Kane. “Now, scoot.”

The boy left and Kane poured tea from the teapot for himself, picked up a couple of the cookies and ate them ravenously. Abby and Diyoza took the coffees, Diyoza putting four cubes of sugar into her cup. He’d forgotten her sweet tooth.

Abby took a sip of her coffee straight away. “Aah,” she said, closing her eyes. “I might feel human in a minute.” She took a cookie and nibbled at it.

“Coffee has kept me going more than anything else,” said Diyoza. “I never knew how the boss could survive on that dishwater he drinks.”

“Tea is the nectar of the gods. It doesn’t hit you over the head like coffee. It soothes and caresses you into wakefulness.”

“I NEED hitting over the head,” laughed Diyoza.

“I’m the same,” said Abby, and the two women chinked cups.

“You’re both uncivilised.”

“Hard to argue with a man who goes to war in a three-piece suit and tie,” said Diyoza.

“He’s rarely parted from that,” said Abby.

“There’s nothing wrong with always looking sharp,” said Kane, sipping his tea demurely and looking at them both over the cup.

“Hey, I’ve seen you in nothing but your skivvies, remember. Ain’t nothing sharp about that first thing in a morning.” Diyoza turned to Abby. “I don’t mean, you know. We were never... I’ve never seen him out of them nor would I want to, so don’t worry on that score.”

“I wasn’t worried, it’s fine,” said Abby with a smile.

“It’s a shame that Lightbourne guy is dead,” sniffed Diyoza. “What I found in South Africa would have had him locked up for life, or executed more likely.”

“What did you find?” said Kane, who hadn’t had a chance to catch up with Diyoza about it.

“I infiltrated one of his factories. They make equipment there themselves, it’s not an external supplier. It’s RL Medical owned and operated.”

“Like the chest drains he gave me, and the new equipment I saw at the conference,” said Abby.

“Yeah, I guess. So this factory is like a warehouse as well. The supplies come in from all over the world and get redistributed or some of them are used in the manufacture of the equipment. There’s a room in that factory that’s restricted access, but I managed to get in, you don’t wanna know how. The supplies that are heading for the areas where he’s selling arms go through this room. The weapons come in via a secret entrance, and they’re packaged up along with supplies like yours, Abby, and then they go off to the docks. There’s no way Lightbourne didn’t know about that. My contact there told me he sometimes comes and inspects it in person. I can’t confirm that cause he never came while I was there, but I got plenty of other evidence.”

“We need to tell INTERPOL, give them what you got,” said Kane.

“I’m on it.” Diyoza drained her coffee then stood. “I’m gonna leave you two to do things I don’t wanna think about.” She grinned.

Kane went over to her, gave her a brief hug. “Thank you,” he said.

“We’re brothers.” She stood back and regarded him. “Abby is the real deal. Talk to her. Tell her about Sinclair.”

“I have, but yes, I will. I’ll talk more.”

“Good.” She turned to Abby. “You can get your hug over with,” she said, standing stoically while Abby put her arms around her.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

“You can thank me by giving this one hell for the rest of his life,” she replied, grinning broadly.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Seriously, though, you picked a good ’un. He’ll always have your six.” She opened the door, turned to look at them. “Stay frosty!”

Kane sighed when she’d gone. “Just the two of us at last,” he said.

Abby put her arms around him and held him tight. “It’s so good to be able to do this.”

Kane pressed a kiss to her matted hair. “God, we’re a state!” he said. “No offence.”

“Oh, I know. I kept seeing people screwing up their noses when they were talking to me at the palace. Took me a while to realise it was me that smelled bad.”

“I didn’t realise until we got here, and then I got a whiff of myself.”

“Maybe we should shower.”

“Mmm, maybe we should,” he said with a glint in his eye, not that he had the energy for anything a glint might promise.

In his bathroom they shed their clothes quickly, got under the warm stream of the shower together, letting the worst of the blood and dirt wash off them. Abby lathered up the soap, washed him with it, her hands roaming his entire body. Kane felt himself stir despite his tiredness. She must have felt the same because she spent more time on his growing erection than she did elsewhere on his body, stroking it, squeezing it gently, making him groan. Kane soaped up his hands in turn, ran them over her, massaging her firm breasts, tweaking the hard nipples. She moaned, kissed his cheek, working her way across his face until she found his lips. Kane moved his soapy hand lower as they kissed, over her sex, between her legs. He slipped a finger inside her. She was wetter there than on the outside. She groaned into his mouth.

“That feels good,” she whispered.

Kane added another finger, fucked her slowly with them while his tongue was deep in her mouth, tangling with hers. She moaned when he stopped kissing her, sighed happily when he sank to his knees and put his mouth on her sex instead. The warm water splashed off his head as he explored her. He closed his eyes to it, concentrated on Abby, on the hard centre of her, licking and sucking until she cried out and her legs buckled, had to grab onto his head to keep from falling.

“I don’t have the energy to lift you,” he said with a quiet laugh as he got to his feet.

“That’s okay,” she said, and she raised a long leg, wrapped it around him. Kane guided himself inside her, pressing her back against the tile with his thrusts. It felt amazing to be with her like this again. He held her leg up with one hand, put his other arm around her back, kissed her passionately while they fucked. It wasn’t a refined performance, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to be with her, to get lost in her, to feel alive and vital. He came quickly, his seed washing away with the water.

They collapsed in an exhausted heap on his bed together afterwards. Abby stroked his damp hair. Kane caressed her soft skin.

“You’re beautiful,” he murmured.

“You’re even sexier without all the layers,” she said.

“Mmm,” said Kane, leaning in to kiss her.

She nestled into him, nuzzling his neck, her hand on his chest, stroking it. He’d never really had this feeling of being loved and cared for before. It made his heart beat erratically. “I love you so much,” he said, pulling her tighter to him.

“Love you too,” she mumbled, her arm going around his back until there was no space between them.

Kane closed his eyes, let himself drift to sleep, comforted in the soft, soapy warmth of her embrace.

---

Abby was surprised when she woke up to find sunlight streaming through the open curtains in Marcus’s bedroom. She felt rested, but it could only have been a couple of hours since they fell asleep if the sun was still up. She checked her phone which was on the bedside table. It said seven-thirty, which couldn’t be right. It should be dark if that were the case. Then she noticed the date. It was seven-thirty in the morning! They’d slept through the afternoon and the whole night!

Beside her Marcus stirred, opened his eyes, blinking as she had in the harsh light.

“Hi,” Abby said, stroking the side of his face.

“Hi. What time is it?”

“We’ve slept more than twelve hours! It’s seven-thirty in the morning.”

“Oh, wow,” he said yawning. “No wonder I’m starving.” He eased himself onto his elbow, reached to his bedside table and checked his own phone. “Five missed calls from the US. I’m glad I put it on silent.”

“I guess we’d better get up,” said Abby, not really wanting to.

“In a minute,” Marcus said, rolling towards her.

It was another hour before they finally got out of bed. Abby’s legs were shaking when she stood on them. She wasn’t sure if that was the remnants of the orgasm Marcus had just given her or the hunger that was now making her belly rumble and churn. Both, probably.

She headed to the bathroom, had another quick shower, picked up her clothes and brought them to the bedroom. Marcus was dressed in black jeans and a grey t-shirt. His eyes grew wide when he saw her.

“You can’t walk around naked like that and expect us to get to breakfast anytime soon!”

“I don’t have any clothes except these and they’re ruined.” She dropped her jeans, blouse and underwear on the bed.

“There are still some clothes in the room you stayed in last time, though there won’t be underwear. You’ll have to wear something of mine.” He rummaged in his drawers, pulled out a black pair of his underpants and a black vest.

Abby put them on. The vest was way too big, though she filled out parts of it well enough. She tucked it into the boxers. “What do you think?” she said, modelling it for Marcus.

“I think you’re killing me.”

“You can take them off me again later.” She folded the blouse and the jeans. Something fell out of the pocket and landed on the floor, glittering in the light. It was the cufflink. “Oh, wow.” She picked it up, showed it to Marcus. There were a few spots of blood on it and she wiped it on her dirty jeans.

“I wonder if I’ve still got mine.” Marcus picked up his own clothes, felt in the pocket of his jacket. “Yes!”

He sat on the bed, turning the cufflink over and over. Abby sat next to him, handed him the other one.

“Sinclair saved us,” she said.

“He did,” said Marcus, a sob escaping him.

Abby put her arms around him, held him to her. “It’s okay,” she crooned, stroking his hair. “You did him proud.”

“Yeah?” he said, looking up at her.

“Yes. Definitely.” She kissed his temple where the hairs were fine and soft.

“I might return these to his wife. His kids should have them.”

“If that’s what you want.”

He nodded. “I think it’s time.”

“Okay. Maybe don’t tell them what they were last used for.”

“No,” he said laughing. He wiped the tears from his eyes. “Shall we go get some breakfast? I’m starving.”

“I’d better find some more clothes to put on. Don’t want to scare your staff.”

They ate enough for two people each. Eggs scrambled with salmon on thick rye bread. French pastries. Some melon slices just so Abby could feel healthy about it. Two coffees that ordinarily would have had her bouncing off the walls, but which barely made a dint in the overall exhaustion she still felt.

The boy served them, smirking and smiling each time he brought something in. Abby caught him before he left the final time.

“Thank you for looking after us so well,” she said.

“You’re welcome, missus.” He grinned, showing perfect, and quite large, white teeth.

“What IS your name?” she said.

“He won’t tell you,” said Marcus from behind the morning’s newspaper.

“You’ll tell me, won’t you? We’re friends after all. I’m Abby.”

The boy moved nearer, put his lips so close to her ear his breath tickled. “Tumaini,” he whispered.

“That means Hope, is that right?” Abby said.

Tumaini nodded.

“That’s a beautiful name. Thank you for telling me.”

“You would be Angavu,” he said.

“Oh, thank you for that!” said Abby, her face warming. “What would the Ambassador be?”

“Sokoro,” he said, wiggling his thin eyebrows at her.

Abby laughed. “I think that’s very appropriate.”

“What’s that? What did he call me?” said Marcus.

The boy, Tumaini, put his finger to his lips and winked.

“What’s his name? What did he call us?” Marcus said when Tumaini had left.

“His name is Tumaini, and he called me Angavu, which means Shining One.”

“I suppose that’s better than sexy lady. You know he has a thing for you?”

“I think it’s sweet. You’re Sokoro.”

“What does that mean? Idiot one?”

Abby laughed. “No, it means Lucky One.”

“Oh, well he got that right.”

“Speaking of people giving me names. Why does Diyoza call me your wife?”

“She was with me that night you called from South Africa. I was briefing her on the mission and then you video called and it was kind of awkward because I didn’t want you to know she was there.”

“I remember that. I thought you were tired.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about all that,” he said, looking sheepish.

“There’s no need to be sorry. We’re past all that now. We can talk about it. There are no hard feelings, okay?”

“Okay. Well, she could hear you obviously and afterwards she referred to you as my wife, and when I said you weren’t she said you sounded like a wife because you were worried about me, and then that’s just what she carried on calling you, mainly to wind me up.”

“You don’t like the thought of me as your wife?” said Abby, teasing him.

Marcus looked horrified that she would even suggest that. “No! It’s not that. She just, you know, with my past and everything. She likes to tease. It’s what she does.”

“Relax. I understand. I like her. She’s funny.”

“She’s hilarious,” he said sarcastically.

---

In the afternoon they went for a walk along the beach to get some fresh air and stretch their legs, followed closely by an army of bodyguards as Marcus was still considered at risk by the President of the Republic. He was on his phone most of the time talking to his bosses in America so Abby took the opportunity to call Jackson.

“Abby, oh my God!” he said, almost crying into the phone. “I was hoping you’d call. It’s been over a day since you texted.”

“I had a long sleep and then it’s just been so busy,” she said, feeling guilty for not calling him sooner.

“Of course, of course. How are you? How’s Kane?”

“We’re both fine. We’re good, honestly. How are things there?”

“We’re barely missing you,” he said with a laugh. “No, we are, we miss you loads, but Malia’s stepped up and she’s helping me, and all the volunteers have come in so we’ve got it covered.”

“Oh, that’s good. Have there been a lot of casualties?”

“Some, but most of the final fighting was down near Edenville so they’ve gone to the hospital there. We’re about half full but I don’t expect to get many more.”

“I don’t know if the rebellion’s over completely or just the coup. I guess time will tell.”

“When are you coming back? No rush or anything, I’m just dying to see you.”

“I don’t know. There are a few things to tie up here with the government and I don’t know what’s happening with Marcus. He’s on the phone now with his boss. Probably another day at least.”

“Okay. Well, we miss you and love you.”

“I miss you and love you too. Take care.”

“Yes, you too. Give Kane a kiss from me.”

She could hear the smirk in his voice. “What would Nate say about that?”

“He won’t know.” Jackson laughed.

It was good to hear his voice; for some reason it made Abby feel nostalgic even though he wasn’t in the past, was still very much a part of her present.

“I have to go, but I’ll let you know when I’m coming back.”

“Okay. Bye, Abby.”

“Bye, Jackson.”

Back at the Embassy they lay on Marcus’s bed, which was the only place they were guaranteed privacy. Gaia had waylaid them with hugs and a long list of calls Marcus needed to make. He’d put her off gently, told her to make excuses until tomorrow.

“I just need one more day,” he said to Abby as he lay looking at her. “I still don’t feel a hundred percent.”

“You were severely dehydrated, sleep deprived and you have a bullet wound. You need some time to recover.”

“I just want more time with you really,” he smirked.

“I know what you mean. Jackson was asking me when I’m going back to camp.”

“What did you say?”

“Another day at least.”

Marcus pulled a face. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I know. I don’t want to either.”

They lay in silence for a moment. Abby’s mind a whir of thoughts and possibilities.

“It’s probably just as well for a few days at least. I’ve got a list of tasks longer than my arm from my boss, and all those calls to return from Gaia. God knows what my inbox is like.” Marcus sighed heavily.

“Same for me I suppose. Jackson said he’s not expecting a lot more casualties, but we were in the middle of that training programme, people are expecting us and I don’t know what’s going to happen with all that now that Lightbourne is dead.”

“I guess we have to face reality soon,” said Marcus.

“Mmm. Not yet, though.”

“No, not yet,” he said, rolling on top of her.

---

Five days later and Abby was hopping from foot to foot, watching the road the other side of the fence from the camp, looking for tell-tale clouds of dust that would signal a vehicle was approaching.

“You’re jumpy today, Doctor Griffin,” said Kioko.

“I’m waiting for Marcus, Ambassador Kane. He should be here by now.” She expected to receive a scowl in reply because Kioko had never taken to Marcus, but he simply nodded.

A minute later and there was a dust cloud followed by the sound of an engine. Marcus pulled up outside the gate, which remained closed.

“I’m here to see Doctor Griffin,” he said, getting out of the car and waving at Abby.

Kioko left his booth, which he never did, and approached Marcus. Abby’s heart was in her mouth. He surely didn’t dislike him enough to attack him, or not let him in at all!

“We don’t need you people here,” said Kioko.

“Okay—”

“But you have done a good thing. You have helped my country. Now we have a chance to build again.” Kioko held out his hand to Marcus who took it, glancing with surprise at Abby through the chainlink.

“Oh, erm, thank you. I—” but Marcus didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Kioko turned and went back to his booth. The gate opened. Marcus got back in his car, drove through.

“What was that?” he said when he got out of the car again on the other side.

“I think that was acceptance,” she said, putting her arms around him and kissing him long and hard. “I missed you!”

“God, I missed you too, it’s been torture!”

“Let’s not waste any more time.” She took his hand, dragged him along the rows towards her tent.

Inside they pounced on each other, clothes ripped off and discarded, bodies grabbed and pawed. They didn’t even make it to Abby’s cot, sinking to the floor instead, their fucking animalistic in its raw need.

“Jesus!” said Marcus, rolling onto his back afterwards, his chest heaving from the exertion.

“I’ve been thinking about that for days,” puffed Abby.

“Not like that, though!”

“No. The intensity was a surprise.”

“It’s almost worth being apart from you for a few days.”

“Don’t say that!”

“I said almost.”

---

Later they sat by the campfire, bellies full of braai food, limbs warmed by the fire and the palm wine.

“I spoke to Pike yesterday,” said Marcus, throwing a pork bone into the fire.

“How is he?” The mine owner wasn’t Abby’s favourite person in the Republic, but he’d helped them in his own small way.

“I think he’ll be fine. He’s managed to disentangle himself from Miller quite successfully, is already sucking up to the President and his new team.”

“People like that always seem to land on their feet.”

“It’s how they get ahead in the first place.”

“You know Indra’s been asked by the President to advise him on environmental matters?” said Abby.

“No, I didn’t know that!” Marcus laughed. “Pike will have to up his game, then. She won’t let him get away with not planting the trees he’s supposed to have as mitigation.”

“We can talk to her about it next week when we go on the wildlife count.”

“I’m looking forward to that.”

“So’s she I expect.” Abby smiled at him teasingly.

“She knows I only have eyes for you.”

They sat in a companionable silence, watching the fire sputter and spark.

“The Secretary of State wants to move me to a new post,” said Marcus, his comment coming out of nowhere.

Abby looked sharply at him. “Move you? Where to?”

Marcus shrugged. “God knows.”

“Is that what you want?” Her heart thumped against her chest and her pulse started racing. She’d imagined they’d decide their future, not have it forced upon them.

He let out a long sigh. “My heart’s not in it anymore, if it ever was.”

“What do you mean? You want to leave the diplomatic service?”

“I think I’m ready for a change. I’m tired of pretending to be interested in people who are only out for themselves.”

“You’ve done a lot of good work as well, helped people, changed lives,” said Abby, not wanting him to downplay his achievements over the last few years.

“I know, but I’m not sure diplomacy is my strongest suit or the best way for me to do what I want.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to make a difference, I guess. Somewhere, somehow. I’m vague on the details,” he said, smiling at her.

Abby returned his smile, took a sip of her drink to give her a moment to think. “I’m not sure there’s a role for me here in the future,” she said.

“Why not?”

“The ceasefire seems to be holding so far. I know it’s early days, but my contacts in the field say the signs are looking good. We’ll probably reduce staff if it continues.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to go.”

“I know, but I think maybe it’s time for a change for me as well.”

Marcus looked carefully at her, his dark eyes sparkling in the firelight.

“What does this mean for us?”

“I did have an idea, if you want to hear it.”

“Of course I do,” said Marcus, leaning forward.

“As much as I hate to say it, Lightbourne’s idea about the first aid training courses is a good one. If done properly it can empower people who live in small, remote communities, make a whole network of trained first aiders. In fact, I was thinking of increasing the level of training, almost to paramedic level, so there are first responders in key towns and villages throughout rural areas.”

“That sounds amazing.”

“Yeah, so it would take a lot of funding, obviously, because it’s unlikely we’d get local governments to fund the people. We’d have to do it ourselves, and provide the training.”

“Who’s we?”

Abby looked hopefully at him. “Me and you. We could set up a charitable organisation, raise funding. We could either concentrate on a particular area or country, keep it small at first. I could do the training, you could manage everything, raise the funds, use your considerable charms on local businesses, get sponsorship, things like that.”

“You’ve been thinking about this!”

“A little, maybe.”

Marcus stroked his chin, which had a couple of day’s stubble growth on it, which she thought suited him, and it felt good when he was being intimate with her.

“Where would you want to do this? Here?”

“No, I think it’s time to move on like you say. I don’t know where, still in Africa maybe. That’s something we’d have to research.”

Marcus nodded, stared at the fire. He didn’t say anything for ages and Abby was starting to wonder if he thought it was a crazy idea and didn’t know how to tell her when he spoke.

“I could set up a foundation. I inherited a substantial estate and business interests from my father. I haven’t really had to touch any of it. It could provide us with enough to get started, and then like you say I could get funders interested, national and local. International probably. I’ve made good contacts over the years, not all of them hate me.”

“I’m sure no one hates you, Marcus.”

He smiled wryly. “There are definitely a few, but yes, I’ve got the contacts, I’ve got the money, but most importantly of all, I’ve got you. I want to be with you, and the thought of doing something together, something that draws on our individual strengths, well it’s exciting. I think it’s a great idea!”

“Oh, good!” said Abby, relieved. “I’ve got loads of ideas.”

“Of course you have. I would never doubt you.”

Someone put on some music, and the sounds of Africa filled the air. Abby looked sideways at Marcus. “Do you want to dance?”

“Out here?” he said, looking at the few people who were sitting around the campfire. A couple of them were dancing on the far side.

“Why not? No one cares. It’s just us here.”

Abby held out her hand, and he took it reluctantly. She pulled him up, drew him in tight to her. She put her arms around his neck, Marcus snaked his around her waist. They slow danced to the music.

“This is nice,” she said.

“Mmm,” he replied, his hands slipping to her ass.

“Did you ever think we’d end up here?” said Abby.

“Dancing by a campfire?”

“Well, yeah, but I mean planning a future together. Me and you?”

“I think on some level I knew when I first met you that you’d change my life. Probably didn’t think it would be this much.”

“I didn’t think I’d meet the love of my life out here in the African bush, nor that he’d be dressed in a three-piece suit.”

Marcus nuzzled her ear with his lips, his kisses soft and ticklish. “I like being the love of your life. You’re definitely mine. The only one.”

“We’re lucky.”

“We are.”

He found her lips and they kissed, tongues tangled, bodies entwined, swaying lazily in front of the fire. Somewhere out in the bush beyond the fence a lion roared, and a hyena cackled. Monkeys chittered in the acacia trees, unconcerned with the humans, who in turn were unaware of them, lost only in each other.

 

THE END