All the Queen's Men by Linda Howard


  Their transportation, an old Renault, had died on them the first night, and all of Tucker’s mechanical expertise could not repair a broken axle. Hadi glanced worriedly at Niema. She hadn’t faltered during the two days they had been moving; she was like a robot, keeping pace with them no matter how hard Tucker pushed them. She spoke when they asked her a direct question; she ate when Tucker gave her food, drank when he gave her water. What she hadn’t done was sleep. She would lie down when he told her to, but she hadn’t slept, and her eyes were swollen with fatigue. Both men knew she couldn’t go on much longer.

  “What are you going to do?” Hadi asked Tucker, keeping his voice low. “Do we split up as originally planned, or stay together? You may need help getting her out.”

  “We split up,” Tucker said. “It’s safer that way. A woman traveling with two men would attract more attention than a man and his wife.”

  They were traveling northwest, through Iran’s most populated area, but that was the only way to get to Turkey, and safety. Iraq was due west, Afghanistan and Pakistan were to the east, the splinter nations left by the breakup of the Soviet Union to the northeast, the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south, through very inhospitable desert. Turkey was their only feasible destination. From here on out, Niema would have to wear the traditional Muslim chador.

  They had traveled at night at first, the better to avoid detection if there was any pursuit, though it was possible Sayyed and Dallas were thought to be the only saboteurs. It was even possible, Tucker thought, that no word of intruders had gotten out. The facility had been remote, with only one phone line going in. Dallas could well have pushed the button before anyone got to the phone, assuming any of the workers thought to make a call anyway.

  The building was charred rubble. Tucker himself had reconnoitered, leaving Niema under Hadi’s worried and watchful eye. As always, Dallas had been thorough; what the plastique hadn’t destroyed, the fire had.

  That was the one time Niema had spoken without first being asked something. When Tucker returned she stared at him, her dark eyes fathomless, haunted, somehow hopeful. “Did you find him?” she asked.

  Startled, keeping it hidden, he said, “No.”

  “But—his body . . .”

  She wasn’t clinging to an irrational hope that Dallas was still alive. She wanted his body for burial.

  “Niema . . . there’s nothing left.” He said it as gently as he could, knowing there was nothing he could do to cushion the blow but trying anyway. She had been a trooper all through the job, but now she looked so damn fragile.

  Nothing left. He saw the words hit her, saw her reel with the shock. She hadn’t asked anything since, not even for water. His own stamina was so great he could go for long periods before he was aware of thirst, so he couldn’t rely on his own needs to remind him of hers. He set a time limit: Every two hours, he made her drink. Every four, he made her eat. Not that there was any making to it; she accepted whatever he gave her, without protest.

  Now it was time for them to split up, as planned, but instead of Niema going with Dallas she would now be staying with him, while Hadi made his own way out of the country.

  Tomorrow they would be in Tehran, where they would blend in with the population. Tucker would then make secure contact and, if there was no trouble, acquire transportation. Another day after that, and they would be just across the border from Turkey. He would abandon the vehicle and they would walk across during the night, in a remote location he had already scouted. Hadi would cross over at another point.

  Hadi scratched his beard. Neither of them had shaved for two weeks, so they were decidedly scruffy. “Maybe I could scrounge around tomorrow when we get to Tehran, find a pharmacy, buy some sleeping pills or something. She’s got to sleep.”

  They had stopped for a brief rest, sheltered by the lone remaining wall of a small mud house that had long since been abandoned. Niema sat a little way off to the side, alone in a way that went far beyond the slight distance between her and them. She didn’t fidget. She just sat. Maybe if she cried, Tucker thought. Maybe if she let some of it out, exhausted herself, she would be able to sleep. But she hadn’t cried; the shock had gone too deep, and she hadn’t yet recovered from that enough for tears. The time for crying would come later.

  He considered Hadi’s suggestion, but didn’t like the idea of drugging her, in case they had to move fast. Still . . . “Maybe,” he said, and left it at that.

  They had rested long enough. Tucker stood, signaling that the break was over. Niema stood too, and Hadi moved forward to help her over some loose, unbaked mud bricks. She didn’t need the help, but Hadi had become as protective of her as a mother hen.

  He stepped on a loose board. It tilted up and dislodged some of the bricks just as Niema stepped on them, shifting them out from under her feet. She staggered off balance, slipped, and landed on her right shoulder in the rubble.

  She didn’t cry out, her training not to make any unnecessary noise still holding. Hadi swore softly, apologizing as he helped her to her feet. “Damn, I’m sorry! Are you all right?”

  She nodded, brushing at her clothes, her shoulder. Tucker saw the slight frown knit her brows as she brushed her shoulder again, and even that much expression was so alien to her face these past two days that he knew immediately something was wrong.

  “You’re hurt.” He was beside her before he stopped speaking, pulling her away from the rubble.

  “Did you jam your shoulder?” Hadi asked, frowning with concern.

  “No.” She sounded puzzled, no more, but she twisted her neck to look at the back of her shoulder. Tucker turned her around. There was a small tear in her shirt, and blood was welling from it.

  “You must have fallen on something sharp,” he said, and thought maybe the damage had been done by a shard of brick, but then he saw the rusty nail protruding about an inch out of a rotten board.

  “It was a nail. Good thing you had a tetanus booster.” He efficiently unbuttoned her shirt as he spoke. She wasn’t wearing a bra, so he only undid the first few buttons, then pulled the shirt off the injured shoulder.

  The puncture wound was purplish and already swelling, sullenly oozing blood. The nail had gone in high and right of her shoulder blade, in the fleshy part just beside her arm. He pressed on it to make the blood run more freely. Hadi had already opened their meager first-aid kit and extracted some gauze pads, which he used to mop up the blood as it ran down.

  Niema stood motionless, letting them tend to the wound, which Tucker supposed was minor in relation to the concern both he and Hadi were showing. Any wound or injury that caused a delay was dangerous, because it would force them to stay in Iran even longer, so their concern was based in logic; but the biggest part of it, Tucker admitted, was the male instinct to protect the female. Not only was she the only woman with them, but she was already wounded, emotionally if not physically. Add in the fact that she was a lovely young woman who had quickly endeared herself to the team with her guts and wit, and of course they were jumping to protect her.

  Mentally, he knew all the reasons, instinctive as well as personal. On a gut level, he knew he would move mountains to prevent anything from adding to the load of pain she already carried. He had promised Dallas he would take care of her, and no matter what it cost, he would keep that promise.

  Sunlight gleamed on her bare shoulder, turning her skin to pearl. She had a pale complexion, despite the darkness of her hair and eyes. The elegant slant of her collarbone was exposed, and even as he applied an antibiotic ointment to the wound, Tucker couldn’t help admiring the graceful structure of her body She was remarkably feminine, despite her rough clothing and the fact that she wore no makeup, her hair wasn’t combed, and all of them really, really needed a bath. She looked so female and elegant, he had constantly been surprised by her toughness.

  “She looks like someone you want to put on a pedestal and keep from ever getting dirty or hurt,” Dallas had said, before Tucker ha
d ever met Niema, when he was putting the team together. “But she’d kick you in the teeth if you tried.” He’d said it with intense male satisfaction, because she was his, and Tucker had shaken his head in wonder at seeing Dallas Burdock so obviously, unabashedly in love.

  Tucker plastered a large adhesive bandage over the wound, then drew her shirt back up onto her shoulder. He would have buttoned the garment for her but she did it herself, her head bent over the task, her fingers slow.

  Her reaction time was way off, dulled by shock and fatigue. If anything happened that necessitated quick action, he didn’t think she could function. She had to get some sleep, he thought, one way or another.

  He motioned for Hadi to step aside with him. “I’m not going to push her any further. According to the map, there’s a small village about fifteen miles north of here. Think you can liberate some wheels for us?”

  “Is the Pope Catholic?”

  “Don’t take any chances. We can’t risk any pursuit. Wait until late at night, if necessary.”

  Hadi nodded his assent.

  “If you aren’t back by dawn, we’ll move on.”

  Hadi nodded again. “Don’t worry about me. If I don’t make it back, just get her out.”

  “I plan to.”

  Hadi took some food and water with him and soon was out of sight. Niema didn’t ask where he was going; she simply sat down and stared emptily at nothing. No, not emptily, Tucker thought. That would be easier to bear than the bottomless well of suffering reflected in her eyes.

  The day wore on. He spent the time constructing a meager shelter for them, something to block the sun during the day and the wind at night. As they worked their way out of the mountains, the temperature had risen, but the nights were still damn cold. They ate, or at least he did; Niema refused more than a couple of bites. She drank a good bit of water, though, more than usual.

  By nightfall, her cheeks were a little flushed. Tucker felt her face and wasn’t surprised to find it hot. “You’re feverish,” he told her. “From the nail.” The fever wasn’t especially high, so he wasn’t worried on that account, but her body didn’t need this fresh assault.

  He ate by flashlight. The fever robbed her of what little appetite she had, and she didn’t eat anything that night; again, she drank a lot of water. “Try to get some sleep,” he said, and obediently she lay down on the blanket he had spread out for her, but he watched her breathing for a while and knew she didn’t sleep. She was lying there staring into the shadows, aching for the husband who wasn’t there and never would be again.

  Tucker stared at her back. She and Dallas had been circumspect in their behavior, refraining from public displays of affection, but at night they had slept next to each other, with Dallas spooned protectively around her and his big arm draped around her waist. She had slept like a baby then, utterly secure.

  Perhaps she couldn’t sleep now because she was alone and could feel the chill on her back. It was a simple thing, the kind of routine married couples seemed to develop so easily: the comfort of human warmth in the night, the sound of a loved one’s breathing. Perhaps it was the trust, the intimacy, that meant so much. Intimacy didn’t come easily to Tucker, trust even less so, but he knew it had existed between Niema and Dallas. Dallas’s death had left her bereft, and she no longer found comfort in the night.

  Tucker sighed inwardly The sigh was for himself, because he knew what he had to do, and knew the cost.

  He got a bottle of water and silently went to her, lying down behind her on the blanket and placing the water nearby. “Shhh,” he murmured when she stiffened. “Just go to sleep.” He curved his body around her, giving her his heat, his strength. Pulling a second blanket over them to keep out the cold, he anchored her to him with his arm around her waist.

  He could feel the fever inside her; the heat emanating from her body wrapping around them both like a third blanket. Still, she shivered a little, and he pulled her closer. She lay on her uninjured left shoulder and held her right arm very still so as not to jar it.

  “The fever’s fighting the infection,” he said, keeping his voice low and soothing. “There’s aspirin in the first-aid kit, if you get too uncomfortable, but unless the fever gets a lot higher I suggest letting it do its job.”

  “Yes.” Her voice was thin with fatigue, listless.

  He stroked her hair, his touch gentle and tried to think of some way to occupy her mind. Maybe if she could just stop thinking she could sleep. “I saw a solar eclipse once. I was in South America.” He didn’t get any more specific than that. “The weather was so hot the air felt sticky. Cold showers didn’t do any good; I was sweaty again as soon as I got toweled off. Everyone wore as little clothing as possible.”

  He didn’t know if she was listening; he didn’t much care. He kept that soothing, gently monotonous tone, his voice just barely above a whisper. If he could bore her to sleep, so much the better.

  “It had been on the radio that there would be a solar eclipse that day, but the heat was so miserable no one much cared. It was just a little village, not the type to attract any eclipse chasers. I had forgotten about it myself. It was a sunny day, so bright the light hurt my eyes, and I was wearing sunglasses. The eclipse slipped up on me. The sun was still shining, the sky was blue, but all of a sudden it was as if a cloud had passed over the sun. The birds all stopped singing, and the village pets hid.

  “One of the villagers looked up and said, ’Look at the sun,’ and I remembered about the eclipse. I told them not to stare, that it would blind them if they looked too long. The light was eerie, if you can imagine dark sunshine. The sky turned a really deep shade of blue, and the temperature dropped at least twenty degrees. It kept getting darker and darker, but the sky was still blue. Finally the sun was completely covered, and the solar halo around the moon was . . . spectacular. On the ground we were in a strange, deep twilight, and everything was quiet, but overhead the sky glowed. The twilight lasted for a couple of minutes, and during that time the entire village stood still. Men, women, and children; none of them moved, or spoke.

  “Then the light began to come back, and the birds started singing again. The chickens came off roost, and the dogs barked. The moon moved on, and it was as hot as it had been before, but no one bitched about the weather anymore.” Two days later everyone in that little village was dead—massacred—but he kept that to himself.

  He waited. Her breathing was too shallow for sleep, but at least she wasn’t as stiff as she had been before. If she relaxed, her body might take over and let itself sleep.

  Next he told her about a dog he’d had when he was a kid. There was no dog, but she didn’t know that. The dog he made up was a Heinz 57, with a long, skinny body like a dachshund and a curly coat like a poodle. “Ugly little bastard,” he said comfortably.

  “What was his name?”

  Her voice startled him. It was low, almost hesitant. Something painful grabbed his chest and squeezed. “She,” he said. “I named her Fifi, because I thought that was what poodles were named.”

  He told her tale after tale of Fifi’s exploits. She’d been an amazing dog. She could climb trees, open most doors by herself, and her favorite meal had been—God, what was some kid’s cereal?—Fruit Loops. Fifi slept with the cat, hid shoes under the couch, and once really did eat his homework.

  Tucker embroidered on the fictional Fifi for half an hour, keeping his voice to a melodic rhythm, pausing every so often to check Niema’s breathing. It got slower, deeper, until finally she slept.

  He let himself sleep, but lightly. A part of him remained alert, listening for Hadi’s return, or for any suspicious sound. He woke completely several times, to check on Niema and make certain her fever wasn’t getting higher. She was still too warm, but he was satisfied there was nothing critical about the fever, just her body healing itself. Still, to be on the safe side, he roused her enough each time that she could drink a little water. As he had suspected, once she let herself go to sleep nature got the
upper hand, and though he woke her easily enough she went right back to sleep the moment she closed her eyes.

  The hours passed and Hadi didn’t return. Tucker was patient. People slept soundest in the hours before dawn, and Hadi would probably wait until then. Still, every time he woke from his doze, Tucker checked his watch and considered his options. The longer he let Niema sleep, the stronger she would be and the faster she would be able to travel. He couldn’t, however, afford to wait too long.

  At five o’clock he turned on the flashlight and drank some of the water himself, then gently roused Niema. She drank the water he held to her mouth, then snuggled against him and sighed drowsily. “Time to get up,” he murmured.

  She kept her eyes closed. “Not yet.” She turned to face him, and slipped her arm around his neck. “Mmm.” She nestled closer, pressing her face into his chest.

  She thought he was Dallas. She was still drowsy, her mind dulled by the hard sleep, and perhaps she had been dreaming about him. She was accustomed to waking in her husband’s arms, to cuddling even if they didn’t make love, and given the short time they had been married Tucker bet there hadn’t been many mornings when Dallas hadn’t made love to her.

  He should shake her completely awake, get her fed, check her shoulder, and have her ready to move whether or not Hadi returned. He knew exactly what he should do, but for once in his life Tucker ignored the job. He tightened his arms around her and held her, just for a moment, something in him desperately hungry for the feel of her hugging him in return.

  No, not him. It was Dallas she was holding, her husband she was dreaming about.

  It cost him more than he wanted, but he took a deep breath and eased away from her. “Niema, wake up,” he said softly. “You’re dreaming.”

  Slumbrous dark eyes opened, as black as night in the dim glow of the flashlight. He saw the dawning of awareness, the flare of shock in her eyes, followed by horror. She pulled away from him, her lips trembling. “I—” she began, but no other words came.

 
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