General Wei stared at the young American disguised as one of his own soldiers. No doubt the man had killed to obtain that uniform so he could not consider the polite request to 'remove himself or die' an idle threat, especially as he was unarmed, having already handed over his pistol to Fung. Without any of his own soldiers to back him up, he knew there was nothing shameful in meeting that request. He turned and walked away, leaving the Taiwanese president to face the American bodyguard on his own, only the drugged president of the USA standing between them, held hostage by Fung himself. Moments later he heard gunfire, his own pistol's retort easily recognizable but there were at least two other weapons fired. Most certainly, one of these was from the Chinese weapon stolen by the one called Connelly - and the other? Fung's right-hand man, Craig Thornton had moved into cover not long before the younger American entered the warehouse. Surprising, really. He would have expected this American to have taken advantage of the chaos to slip away. After all, there was nothing tying him to Fung except money, and Wei had never considered that a bought servant could show the same type of loyalty as a patriot, or a fanatic sold to a cause.
Having sent a command for more troops Wei returned to watch the remainder of the exchange between the Taiwanese and Americans from a safe distance, eager to see who would come out of this alive. If Fung was successful then his alliance with the Taiwanese president would continue. They would push both his own people and the Americans towards mutual Armageddon and then he, General Wei, would sweep into power, taking up the reins of leadership of what remained. He had envisaged the beginning of a new era, a return of the old ways with him set up as the new Emperor of China. To this end, the remainder of his troops were already positioned for the coup. However, Wei was nothing if not a pragmatist. By rights the odds should have been stacked against the President's bodyguard, but stranger things had happened throughout history, so he was not overly surprised to see Connelly - alone - walking from the warehouse, the command console briefcase securely in his hand.
But was Fung dead?
The sound of several trucks screeching to a halt nearby called his attention. His reinforcements had arrived - finally - but Wei gave them orders to let Connelly pass unchallenged. Without the American president the console was next to useless and, from his vantage point, he could see Cahill had been killed by another of Fung's people.
With a sharp shout, he ordered a medic in to check on Fung but, even from a distance he knew the Taiwanese president was also dead. He could see the bloodied marks where Fung had been dealt several shots to the body, one directly through the heart. A cry went up from one of his soldiers and he moved quickly towards him, pausing as he took in the prone form with sun-streaked blonde hair falling over the pale forehead. It was Thornton - and the man was still alive.
The temptation to leave the American to die was strong and yet he could not help but feel some respect for a man who had proved his loyalty to his paying master. Financial inducement did not bring that kind of loyalty - staying to the bitter end was not something that could be bought easily. It required a man with integrity; a man with his own set of principles - warped though they may be - to not take the money and run when all went to hell. The fact that he was lying in there, face down, in an ever increasing pool of his own blood was proof of that integrity; that loyalty.
With a sigh and a wave of his hand Wei ordered the medic to see to Thornton. He watched quietly as the man was turned over. There was so much blood. The bullet had struck him in the chest but there had been no visible exit wound so it had to still be in there. The expensive clothing, soaked through with the man's blood, was ripped aside as the field medic worked on the wounded American. Wei grimaced. The chances of the man surviving were pretty slim but he had never been one to tempt the Fates. If 'they' should decide that he would live then so be it, but Wei had more important problems demanding his attention than concerning himself with the life or death of one traitorous American. He had to ensure he had sufficiently covered his dealings with Fung to avoid his own treachery being uncovered.
Wei turned and walked away from the warehouse for a second - and final - time.
Six days later,
Chinese Army Hospital
Thornton gazed out of the small barred window at a cloudy sky, hearing the sound of troops marching in parade formation in the distance. In the six months that he had worked for Fung he had picked up a little of the language - enough to make his needs known, but no-one here was eager to talk with him. In truth, he was treated with disdain. Hardly surprising when he considered the damage an American A-bomb would have made to Beijing. The Chinese army nurse had gleefully told him of the retaliation; the bomb that had leveled Washington DC. She had also told him of the family she had once had living in the Chinese capital - just before she spat into his glass of water.
"How are you feeling?"
Thornton looked up and stared at the white coated doctor, only just able to make out the words through the thick Chinese accent.
The doctor nodded then approached the bed, grabbing his arm roughly and administering an injection with no attempt at care or tenderness. Being strapped to the bed, he had no way of stopping the doctor and tried to relax his muscles, knowing it would hurt ten times more if they were tensed. Thornton hissed as the needle plunged into the biceps but did not bother to ask what drug was being forced into his body. It did no good as, beyond the basics, the doctor really did not give a damn about him. As long as he lived, his personal comfort was of little or no importance. He thought back to the humiliation he had been forced to endure since awakening; the sponge bath carried out by rough hands, with faces that smiled at each renewed cry of pain they elicited from his already pain-wracked body; lying for hours in his own waste when no-one would answer his call for help and then enduring their disgust and slaps as they cleaned him up. They rarely allowed him to move and he could already feel the bed sores forming where his clammy skin rubbed against the sweat-soaked sheets beneath him.
He had asked for painkillers once but the nurse had laughed in his face asking why he should be released from *his* pain while so many of her own people suffered acute agony from radiation burns and grief. It had taken until then for Thornton to truly understand the magnitude of the crime against humanity that he had helped Fung commit. With little else to do, his thoughts returned to all the people he had known in Washington DC during his time there as one of the pre-Cahill Presidential Bodyguards. He recalled the families of the men he had worked with; their wives and children. He remembered the small sandwich stall he had frequented, swapping pleasantries with the woman who ran it. Then there was Keith, the bartender at the local watering hole where many of the off-duty bodyguards would gather to swap stories of indiscretions they had seen while on duty. It was all gone; those people were all gone.
For the first time he wished Wei had let him die.
The door opened suddenly and Thornton grimaced as the regular nurse entered with a bowl of soapy water and several cloths. He sighed deeply. It seemed it was time for another bath, one of the luxuries he desperately needed but felt he could do without if *she* was going to be the one to give it. He closed pain-filled green eyes against the humiliation that was to come, not wanting her to see how deeply her taunts and loathing affected him, and waited.
Sure enough, she whipped away the dirty, sweat-soaked upper sheet and, with little care pulled him first one way then another until she had placed a plastic sheet beneath him. He bit into his lower lip, unwilling to give her the satisfaction of hearing him cry out, yet feeling his face drain of blood as the pain mounted.
The water was freezing cold, but that was almost a relief. She swept the rough cloth up and down his body, digging in here and there for no reason other than to cause him pain. He hated the moment when she started on his genitals, his cheeks gaining the wrong sort of colour at the automatic response of his body to the impersonal touch, and had to endure her scathing tongue as she sneered at his inability to control himself.
For once she did not leave him lying in the small puddle of excess water, instead she dried him with a coarse towel. He sighed softly in relief when she finished, believing the ordeal was finally over but, instead of leaving the room, she went to the top of the bed and started on his hair.
Despite her rough administration, it felt glorious to have his hair washed, the relief from the itchy scalp almost bringing a moan of pleasure falling from his slightly parted lips. His hair was roughly towel-dried afterwards. Her next action brought a wave of suspicion flooding through him. He opened his eyes to watch her as she lathered his face, wary of the sharp-edged razor in her petite hand.
Something told him this was no ordinary concession to his hygiene. He was being cleaned up for a reason.
Two hours passed before the door to his room was reopened and, instantly, Thornton recognized the small form of General Wei who followed in behind the army doctor. They conversed for several minutes, in Chinese, obviously discussing Thornton's physical condition before the General ordered the doctor from the room.
"The doctor tells me you will live. Pity - as this puts me in a predicament. If I hand you over to the Chinese authorities they will learn of my pact with Fung and I will be executed. If I hand you over to the Americans - again - the Chinese people will learn of my pact with Fung... and I will be executed."
Wei sat down on a chair near the bed and casually surveyed the still secured form of the wounded American, noting the pallor of his skin, the pain-dulled green eyes.
"I must commend your loyalty to Fung. I would offer you a position on my own staff if such loyalty could be transferred..." He held up a hand when Thornton opened his mouth to speak. "...but, the use of an *American* on my staff would not be... diplomatic at this time. So what to do with you? Having saved your life it appears wasteful to execute you, even though that would give many of my people great pleasure."
"So... what are you going to do with me?"
Wei smiled and called out loudly, in Chinese. Two soldiers entered, followed by an orderly pushing a gurney. More orders followed and Thornton could only moan in pain as he was released from the bed restraints, lifted onto the gurney and strapped down once more. The gurney was pushed through a long corridor and through a double set of doors at the far end. Outside a truck was waiting and Thornton could only lie there as the gurney was placed into the back. Fifteen minutes of pain-filled bumps passed before the truck stopped and the tailgate lowered.
A small military transport stood on the nearby tarmac, poised at the end of the runway as if ready for take-off. The engines started as he was carried inside; the gurney strapped securely in place. General Wei gave him a knowing smile before he passed by to take a seat further in, along with several other lower ranking soldiers who were probably part of his personal bodyguard.
Thornton had no idea of how much time had passed for soon after take-off a medic had injected the contents of a syringe into his arm, and he had quickly lost consciousness as the sedating drug took hold. Wherever the plane had landed it was hot; far hotter than it had been in China, and it was a different type of heat, dry rather than humid. He could feel the sweat plastering his recently washed hair to his forehead; feel the rivulets of perspiration running down his sides beneath the thin cotton sheet that covered his nakedness. He was still strapped down on the gurney even though he knew he would barely have enough energy to stand up let alone attack anyone.
"Ah, Mr Thornton. I see you have rejoined us. Welcome to your new home."
Craig Thornton gazed around the light, airy room, taking note of the keel arched windows inset with arabesque bars, and of the thickness of the ornately carved door sealing the room. There was a distinctly Middle Eastern feel about the place with its colorful wall hangings and scroll work.
"Where am I?"
"Where you will do me no harm... and have afforded me some financial recompense for saving your life."
Thornton's green eyes narrowed in confusion when Wei stood aside to allow a man dressed in expensive arab-style clothing move forward. The man reached out, pulled away the thin cover and inspected the prone and damaged body lying before him. Thornton hissed as the man prodded and poked him as if looking over an animal at an auction. Once he had finished his inspection, the Arab stood back and grinned, clicking his fingers. Another man stepped forward and handed over a small bag to the eagerly awaiting General. Thornton could only watch in bewilderment as Wei tipped the contents onto his palm, greedily fingering the small rubies and diamonds, holding one after the other up to the light so he could inspect their clarity, and hence their value.
With a growing smile of pleasure, Wei gave his former charge one last look, tilting his head in appreciation as if to thank Thornton, and then he left the room, followed by his own personal guards.
With increasing horror, the American realized that Wei had not only managed to silence him without killing him... but had turned a quick profit at the same time, and, with those fingers of cold fear clenching his heart, Thornton wondered whether his new 'master' would expect him to offer more than just his life this time.