FRIDAY. UNKNOWN, IRAQ.
ERIN LOPEZ BALANCED HER weight on the ball of her right foot, doing her best Olympic gymnast impression. The crate had to be at least a decade old and wasn't structurally sound. She pressed her ear to the side of the building and listened to the vibrations transmitted by the stone. She willed them to tell her something, impart her captor's secrets, but all she got was a very cold ear for her trouble.
When she'd first been dumped down here, she'd told herself that someone was coming to get her. As poorly organized as this group was, NexGen's security would find her.
She'd held fast to that idea for all of twenty-four hours.
The last day hadn't provided her with any reason to believe someone was coming for her, and that meant her chances of getting out of here were getting fewer by the second.
The reality of her situation was that to these people she was a foreigner working for a foreign company taking what should belong to the local people. If NexGen was going to save her, they'd have shown up by now. Which meant one of three things: they weren't sending anyone, which would result in a sob story campaign and her parents getting some money, the US military was involved, and anything they did would take months of planning, or there was a third party, and she had no idea what their true goal could be.
Erin didn't like any of those options. What she wanted was to talk to her kidnappers. Understand them. If she could hear them out, get to the heart of why they'd kidnapped her, maybe she could help them. So far, her attempts to communicate had been met with hostility. These were going to kill her, it was just a matter of when and how.
Voices reverberated through the stone walls.
Erin pressed closer, the chill seeping into her skin and bones, robbing her of all warmth. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but the tone was enough of an indication for her to feel as though her assumptions were justified. She stepped down off the crate before she broke it and paced the three steps across her prison.
No one was coming to save her.
If she was going to survive, she had to be smart. She couldn't let the darkness rob her of her senses. There was a way out of this. Everyone wanted something.
What did she know about them? Could she guess at what they wanted?
A team of seven men and one woman had abducted her from NexGen's newly acquired site. They'd had explosives, guns, and a getaway vehicle. Erin hadn't seen their faces, but they'd spoken Arabic. Not that they'd said much around her except for the yelling at each other.
Even that told a story.
Whoever these people were, they weren't unified, and they didn't speak Kurdish.
When Erin had first taken the job and moved to Kurdistan she'd struggled with the language barrier. Though the region was part of Iraq, most of the people her age and younger didn't speak Arabic. Since the 70s, when the Kurds were banished to this corner of the country, one of the ways the people had fought back was by holding onto their culture. They spoke Kurdish to the point that anyone thirty and younger couldn't communicate in Arabic. Her kidnappers were in their twenties, at most. Which meant her kidnappers weren't Kurds, they were Iraqi, and they knew her name.
Her stomach clenched.
There was only one connection that made sense, and if she was right... Erin was in some deep s**t.
When NexGen hired her, they'd sent her to the Iraq-Kurdistan border where they'd been developing new oil fields and the tensions between the two people groups was tense. If she'd known what would happen, would she have turned the job down? It was hard to say.
There weren't many reasons for a group of unfamiliar people to know her name, though.
Shit. f**k. And damn it.
Erin paced three strides, turned and paced again. She was in what was little more than a cellar of some kind, dug directly into the rock. At night she shivered and lost feeling in her fingers and toes. During the day she'd sweat until her clothes were soaked through.
She was a bargaining chip. That was the best answer to why she was here. She was something to use to get what they wanted. It wouldn't be comfortable for her and she'd probably be here a while, but it was the least dangerous option.
The best option after that was to be sold to one of the insurgent groups-ISIS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, it didn't matter-who would then use her to try to get something in return. Prisoners, resources, it didn't matter. It still wouldn't be a comfortable stay, but at least her value was in being alive.
The worst option was if this was personal, and she knew for a few poor souls out there, this could be. She'd done the right thing. The events that led to that disaster proved her case. But that didn't matter. All these people had seen was her face speaking those words, and it was her fault.
Erin sat on the lowest step and cradled her head in her hands.
None of it made sense. She still didn't understand how a group this disorganized had managed to breach the facility perimeter and get to one of the main buildings. They had new weapons. Explosives. Even the flash grenades were too sophisticated for a rag tag group of insurgents with no clear affiliation or support.
This shouldn't have happened. Perfect attacks existed, but for the site security to allow those men through and her personal security to be in the toilet at the time?
None of this made sense.
And now the people holding her were probably back to fighting about what to do next. In the few glimpses she'd had of them since being tossed down here, everyone was fighting.
A door banged somewhere in the house and voices speaking over one another came closer.
Erin pushed to her feet and turned, backing against the opposite wall.
Someone clanged pots around, muttering to themselves.
She tilted her head, listening to more than the words. The scrape of feet. The rustle of clothing.
"That should be enough," the one moving around said in Arabic.
"I don't see anything," another replied.
And what were they looking for?
Footsteps heralded a third and fourth person.
"Where is she?" one of the newcomers asked. Still another man.
"I don't see anything," the same voice said again. "Are we sure we have to move?"
"Yes," the newcomer snapped.
Erin knew these four voices. If she saw their faces, would she recognize them? She swallowed and glanced around the darkness as though she could find a way out she hadn't discovered yet. She'd combed every inch of the wall, wearing her fingernails down to the nubs trying.
"Come on. Get her out of there. We're going." The newcomer in charge stopped outside the cellar door.
A key fit in a lock. Metal rattled. Another lock undone.
The cellar door swung open.