Rob emerged from the ensuite shower room at the guesthouse where he was staying and pulled his long-sleeved T-shirt over his head before opening the curtains with a flourish. The room was spartan, furnished only with the bare essentials, but it was perfectly adequate for his purposes.
“Damn, that’s bright,” he muttered, crinkling his eyes into a squint.
The blackout curtains had certainly done their job. That, coupled with the poor lighting in the room, made the morning sun breaking through the clouds appear very bright. Instinctively, Rob suddenly stepped to one side of the battered, loose-fitting window. Without looking, he brushed off the blistering paint that had caught on his shirt and continued to look down to the street below.
“What is it with this place?” he thought aloud to himself as he noted yet another twenty-something man wandering along the street. The man was as equally out of place as himself in the small town. But there was a distinct difference; Rob was a legitimate tourist, and these guys did not give that appearance.
Despite himself, Rob Krane tensed as the adrenalin rush of butterflies hit his stomach. It was exactly the same feeling he got before going into a meeting with a senior executive. Well, that had been until a few weeks ago, when he had lost his job. Of course, it was also the same feeling he had prior to a bout in one of the many championship fights he entered as he anticipated an unknown combatant’s moves. Shaking these thoughts away, he recalled how uncomfortable he had felt the previous evening and during his morning’s exercise when he saw these characters wandering the streets of Postojna.
Everyone he had spoken to and all he had read in the guidebooks and on the official websites had clearly indicated the general safety of travelling around Slovenia. However, the number of walk-past encounters he had experienced with these out-of-place, twenty-something, lone men was distinctly disconcerting. The similarities were evident. Their dress-sense, swagger, and expressionless faces all resembled those of the guy who was currently disappearing from Rob’s sight. They were certainly not locals, so who were they? And why were they here in such numbers?
Okay, there had been similar men in some of the villages he had passed through en route to Postojna following his visit to Predjama Castle the day before. But this was different. Something was up. He knew it. Regardless, why should he be bothered? Rob was on holiday and having a great time, courtesy of both his redundancy and his fight winnings two weeks before at Wembley Conference Centre in London. Rob recalled standing on the podium to collect the gold medal for the European Combined Martial Arts and Unarmed Combat Championships.
A sufficiently loud gurgle from his belly reminded him that he was hungry. “Breakfast,” he said aloud, reaching down to pick up his iPhone off the bedside table. “Damn it,” he cursed as he scanned the screen, looking at the time and to see if he had received any texts.
The low-battery indicator was flashing. Rob pulled a small day sack from a far larger backpack, smiling as he rubbed a thumb over the flexible solar panels on the face of the bag. It was a new toy for him—one that he had been unable to resist for this holiday because he was planning a few days of camping. After looking out of the window again at the weather, Rob decided he would go out for breakfast. It was warm enough and certainly bright enough for him to test his new purchase. He could also check e-mail instead of having an ingratiatingly painful conversation with his hosts.
Lightly jogging down the stairs, Rob waved to the unconvincingly jovial owners of the guesthouse. “No breakfast today, thank you. I ate too much last night.”
Whilst that was partially true, the pleasant weather gave him the opportunity to avoid the unnecessarily large and unhealthy breakfast Madam Kos insisted upon rustling up, and of course, he would avoid having to converse with the elderly couple.
Closing the door gently behind him, Rob turned down the street and headed towards the Kras Hotel. He had noted the previous night that breakfast was served outside in the square, and since it was the only four-star hotel in town, he hoped he would get reasonable fare. Unlike at most places he visited, he didn’t bother looking around at the buildings and the general environment. He had seen enough during his exercises. The area in which he was staying was really rather bland, the house frontages having very limited architectural appeal.
Few of the exterior tables were occupied, and those that were all clearly contained tourists. Schools had restarted after the summer holidays, so the number of tourists was dwindling, which was by far Rob’s preference. There was little movement inside the hotel foyer. All he could see was an attractive woman with a fidgety young girl sitting down and looking out into the square. The mother, he presumed, appeared a few years older than he was and had pleasant but not striking features, shoulder-length, straight blond hair, and the tired looks of a concerned, caring mother. Rob recognised the signs from his sister-in-law. He settled himself at a non-shady table not far from the hotel door, set up his solar-panelled backpack, and plugged in his iPhone, iPad, and other gadgets to recharge.
The pretty waitress who served Rob gave him more attention than he really wanted, distracting him from his e-mails and catching up on the day’s news from the BBC website. Not that Rob really minded. The girl was possibly a few years younger than him, and engaging her with some idle banter and reciprocating her playful flirtations was fun. Rob felt good as he noted her name, Irina Vidmar, and ensured he used it as they chatted. He made a mental note to come here more frequently, particularly after he returned from his planned hike in the hills and mountains to the south and east of Postojna.
Half an hour later, Rob was relaxing as he read the news headlines from the BBC website and drinking his coffee when, from outward appearances, a distinguished, well-built man in a dark tailored suit and open-neck shirt walked into the square and straight into the foyer of the hotel. Only the tanned face and purposeful, almost-cold demeanour suggested something entirely different. Rob chose to ignore him and continued to read the ridiculous intrigue and implications of the latest political sex scandal involving one of the government’s ministers. Shaking his head slightly Rob wondered, Why do they always dice with the illicit? Eventually the press always finds out.
A few minutes later, the same man left the hotel, holding the young girl’s hand, with the mother walking along beside them. The girl was smiling, half-skipping, and happily chatting away to the man, whose demeanour had softened markedly. Rob followed their progress across the paved, pedestrianised square. Their direction suggested they were headed for either the Karst Museum or transportation for the Postojna Caves. Rob presumed the latter, as a museum of predominantly archaeological collections was unlikely to be of interest to the young girl, who did not have the grumpy air of a child going somewhere that in her mind would be dull and boring. Well, that would have been his attitude at that age. Instead, her demeanour exuded excitement and joy. As they approached halfway, one of the young men Rob had noted appeared at a far corner, talking on a mobile phone. Moments later a black saloon followed by a red four-door Nissan four-by-four pickup with white cover over the rear charged into the square, tyres squealing.
The man froze, with his spare hand inching into his jacket. He also glanced at the woman and young girl beside him, at which point his hand dropped to his side and he became a spectator to the impending horror in which he would play a central role. The black saloon raced over towards him whilst the Nissan screeched to a halt adjacent to the hotel. Young hooded men jumped from all doors of both vehicles, each wearing the same uniform of dark jeans and shirts of all those lone men Rob had noticed over the past couple of days. In their hands they held a variety of machine pistols. Those from the saloon approached the man, woman, and girl whilst the others turned their attention towards Rob and the others having breakfast. There was no hesitation. Grabbing his belongings, Rob flipped his and a neighbouring table over to provide a semblance of cover. As the other hotel guests looked on with bemused, uncomprehending expressions the square was filled with bursts of gunfire and bullets slamming into walls and pinging off the metal tables.
The realisation that his cover was decidedly limited was rapidly reinforced as bullets started piercing other nearby tables. Quickly assessing his position, Rob glanced over his shoulder towards the hotel lobby and the relative safety that being behind its walls would bring. Screams from the others who had been sitting outside with him punctuated the racket hammering in his ears, making thinking hard.
As more bullets whined overhead, ripping through the windows and glazed doors, Rob rolled over to the next table behind him, drawing closer to the hotel entrance and the hoped-for shelter. With a whooshing, chinking sound, all of the glass of the doors collapsed in a myriad of glistening beads and gleaming shards, spraying across Rob’s back.
With his heart thumping, he shuffled on hands and knees behind the next table, scrunching painfully over the pieces of glass. Groans from the injured hotel guests gave a constant, disconcerting background sound reminding him that each and every move could determine his fate. Looking around the edge of a table to check the route for his next dash, Rob recoiled as he came eye to eye with Irina, whose lifeless body was surrounded by pieces of broken crockery and food from her tray. Summoning all of his willpower, Rob shook his head to remove this nightmarish vision to focus on his next move. Then, with a final roll and dive, Rob made it through the door, into the hotel lobby, and behind a wall, followed by a volley of bullets.
Rob watched, mesmerised, in horror as the apparent terrorists went about their business, spraying bullets in all directions. The smell of cordite floated into the lobby on the gentle breeze, making him shudder.
One of those from the Nissan flung the tailgate open, hauled out a couple of large sacks, and ran over to his accomplices in the centre of the square, who had surrounded the man, woman, and girl. As the man was unceremoniously punched to the ground and gagged and a handgun removed from his jacket, the girl was shoved into one of the sacks, kicking and screaming, before also being gagged and the sack firmly tied. The mother, standing in a frozen and dazed state, was grabbed roughly by one of the men and brought face-to-face with another who, after the briefest of looks, summarily shot her twice in the chest. The man holding her then thrust the body away to flop onto the stone slabs, where a pool of blood began to form around her. The man in the suit reached out a hand from where he was lying and caressed her face. He was then bundled, struggling, into the second sack, and both writhing sacks were dragged slowly back across the square towards the Nissan truck.
The other terrorists meanwhile fanned out across the square, firing in all directions, at passing cars and the windows to all of the surrounding buildings, including the hotel. Two were headed towards the hotel as they fired. Calmly walking between the carnage of the upturned tables and chairs, the two periodically lowered their guns and took single shots aimed at the heads of those lying helpless on the ground, whether apparently already dead or not.
These guys don’t want witnesses, Rob thought as he once again slid across the hotel’s floor. All the others there were momentarily frozen in disbelief. Milliseconds later, however, they were screaming and running in all directions as the two men from the Nissan came walking into the lobby, calmly spraying bullets all over and cutting people down. Rob had no choice but to jump up and dive through one of the broken windows to head back outside. Rolling over, Rob came to a halt behind a table and some chairs, his back sack cradled in his arms.
Once outside, Rob wormed his way quietly through the morass of up-turned furniture, seeking an escape because he had no doubt the area would be thoroughly checked for survivors. Looking about it became obvious that there was no opportunity to make a run for it down the street, and not far away was the open tailgate of the Nissan, which was between him and the men dragging the sacks his way, their intention obvious. It might well have been suicide, but Rob sprinted to the rear of the vehicle and leapt in, relief flooding through him as he saw a cluttered interior. It didn’t take long to slide a large toolbox out slightly from the rear and duck behind it, covering himself with other sacks and cloths that were lying around.
Every sinew was tensed virtually to the point of snapping, if that were possible, as Rob tried to control his breathing and listened to the approaching footsteps.
For the first time, Rob heard voices.
“All taken care of in there.” came the response and Rob surmised that the speaker had referred to the hotel.
“No survivors, then?” said the first voice again brusquely.
A third voice replied, “We think not. We thought one jumped through the window but didn’t see anyone when we got to look.”
“Idiots!” the first voice yelled. “Boss will deal with you later if that turns out to be correct and details reported. Orders were no witnesses!” After a momentary pause, he continued, “Get those two into the truck, and let’s get moving before we get company. Stephane! You’re in the back to watch over the packages!”
They had all spoken in rough English but with varying accents, suggesting differing nationalities.
There were grunts of exertion followed by two soft thuds as the sacks were heaved into the rear, and the truck jiggled slightly in the process. Rob heard the sound of sackcloth being pushed over the bare metal of the truck floor before he was squeezed by the large toolbox as the man and girl were shoved as far in as possible. Rob barely suppressed a groan. A third jiggle signalled that Stephane had climbed in before the tailgate slammed shut with an eerie finality.
Doors slammed, engines started, and they moved off quickly. The sound of the tyres thrumming upon the road surfaces acknowledged that. Hard braking compressed the heavy toolbox against Rob, alerting him to either a road junction or corner, and he braced himself against the sides to avoid slipping and potentially giving himself away. After a while, there was no hard cornering, which suggested they had joined one of the nearby main roads. It was also telling that judging by the steady thrumming of the tyres, they were not travelling at breakneck speed anymore. He could only presume the kidnappers were hoping that no one had survived to describe the vehicles to the local police, or policija, and therefore did not want to draw attention to themselves by travelling too fast.
There was no way of knowing in which direction they were travelling, but judging by the periodic slowing down followed by gentle acceleration, Rob decided they were going through other small towns or villages. That suggested he was not on the A10 highway between Italy and the capital, Ljubljana. Instead, from his recollection of the maps, they were travelling either north, further into the heart of Slovenia, or south towards Croatia.
From time to time the thug, who Rob presumed was Stephane, shifted his weight and asked, “You still alive in there?” as he thumped the larger of the two sacks, soliciting a grunt or moan, and subsequently chuckling to himself. Occasionally there was a gentle whimper from the young girl.
Rob’s limbs started to ache from his cramped position, but he dared not stretch, let alone move to try to alleviate his discomfort. This was a trifle compared to whatever would befall him were he to be found.