At the Sharp End . . .

The World of ZoŽ Sharp − Author of the Charlie Fox Thriller Series

Excerpt from FOX HUNTER: Charlie Fox book twelve (Chapter 9)

FOX HUNTER UK

The woman did not want to give us her real name. I couldnít blame her for that.

She says the doctors here call her Najida," Dawson said, her voice soft and respectful as we sat alongside the bed. "It means—"

—Brave," I said. "Yes, I know. It suits her."

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The woman was, in truth, little more than a girl. She was in her late teens or early twenties perhaps, and had once been beautiful. Dark thick hair, dark eyes with an almond tilt to them, eyelashes with no need for cosmetic enhancement, good bones.

But the arrangement of her features was distorted by the wound to her face. It had ripped open her cheek, now bloated and discoloured, leaving the corner of her mouth torn, as if by a giant fishhook. Dressings and strips of micropore tape held the damage together. How well it would all heal was another matter.

But she met our gaze without arrogance or shame, just a calm acceptance of what had happened to her, of what might be still to come.

I made sure to maintain eye contact while her words were translated. I could follow a little of what was said, enough to know that Dawsonís Arabic was nuanced and fluent. And also that she was giving me the story straight.

"She was going to the market," Dawson said. "With her mother and her sister."

Do they wear the burqa also?

Not the veil. Just the hijab. Her sister is younger. She would like to dress more Ö Western. But now she is confused … and frightened.

"Did you feel unsafe before this? Uncomfortable to be out?"

Without translating first, Dawson glanced at me. "Are you asking why she wore the burqa?"

"Yes."

She relayed the question, put more directly than I would have done.

Najida hesitated, then began to speak, looking at me rather than Dawson, as though she knew I was the dubious one. One eye was clear, the other bloodshot and swollen.

"When she was younger she didnít mind the stares of men," Dawson said, her tone bloodless, slightly hollow. "But after she went to university she started to resent them looking at her. They had no right. And she wanted to be judged not for how she looked."

I nodded, didnít quite trust myself to speak.

The undamaged half of Najidaís face gave a twitch approaching a sad smile. "You do not agree," Dawson said. It was not a question.

"It is not my place to agree or disagree," I responded. "Your culture is far different from mine … but not your experience."

Out of my peripheral vision I saw Dawsonís head snap around, but I kept my eyes on Najida as the translation was made.

She let her own gaze drop away and nodded, as if that made sense. As if no Western white woman would have bothered coming to see her without such a connection.

Knowing my arguments would not persuade her otherwise at this stage, I said nothing. After a minute or so she let out a breath and started into her story.

They grabbed her without warning, she said. One moment she was walking along the side of the street. Her mother was in front. Her sister had dropped a little way back—something on one of the stalls had caught her eye. Najida stopped to wait for her.

The next thing, she was taken. Not hard to bind her hands, to gag and blindfold her. They used her own clothing—the very clothing she wore to give her a feeling of safety, of privacy.

They were very fast—practised, even. They shoved her into a van that had stopped beside her before her sister looked up or her mother looked back. The van did not hurry away, but moved off slowly. So slowly the two women paid no attention to it, even as their surprise at Najidaís sudden vanishing act turned to alarm.

Her abductors drove with her for what seemed like a long distance. There were many turns, and the road was rough—she was thrown around on the floor of the van. The man who had grabbed her stayed in the back of the van with her throughout the journey. He held a knife at her throat. She was too frightened to struggle, but she pleaded, over and over, for them to let her go unharmed.

"Even though she knew it was probably too late for that already," Dawson reported.

"Is that your opinion or hers?

"Hers.

I nodded to Najida. "Tell us only what you feel able to."

The one with the knife, she said, was a big man—tall and muscular. They both smelled … foreign. When I queried this, she came back with:

"Of foreign food, maybe? Different spices. He did not smell like her brother, or her father."

And their voices were foreign, too. They spoke English. She knew enough to recognise a few words, but couldnít say if they were Americans or Brits.

Eventually they stopped the van. The driver climbed into the back. Between them they stripped her, cutting away her clothes. They secured the blindfold in place with tape.

Then they raped her, taking turns. And while they did so they laughed and goaded each other. It seemed they were more … excited if she cried out. She did her best to keep silent. It was not always possible.

When they were finished, they took her to within half a kilometre or so of where she had been abducted. There they dumped her, naked and bleeding, on the roadside. She had been a virgin.

"Was there any kind of investigation?" I asked. "If these men were indeed foreigners, surely the police—"

"La alshshurta!" Najida said.

I got that without any need for Dawsonís language skills. No police.

"Whose choice was thatóyours? Or your familyís?"

Her father said she had brought great shame onto the family name, that she must have done something to provoke these men. He told her she was … soiled, that no good man would ever want to take her as his wife." Dawsonís voice was flat, level, but still betrayed the barest hint of her contempt. "Her mother wept and said she now had only one daughter. They would not let her into the house."

I stared at the woman, saw the untold sadness in every line of her body, in the acceptance of her disfigured features, and said slowly, "The men who attacked you did not do that to your face, did they?"

"She would not leave the family home. She was distressed, crying for her mother," Dawson said. "So her father and brother took up their guns, and they chased her away. And when she fell, still crying, her father walked up to her where she lay, and shot her in the head. She flinched at the last minute, and the bullet hit her in the face—knocked her unconscious but didnít kill her." Dawson swallowed as if her mouth was suddenly dry, or to combat a rising nausea. "And when she came to, she had to dig her way out of her own shallow grave."