Rob Krane emerged from the ensuite shower room at the guesthouse where he was staying and pulled his long-sleeved T-shirt on 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. Add the room’s poor lighting and the morning sun appeared very bright as it broke through the clouds. Instinctively, Rob suddenly stepped to one side of the battered, loose-fitting window. He brushed some blistered paint off his shirt while continuing to look down on the street below.
What is it with this place? he thought as yet another twenty-something man wandered 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 tensed as the adrenalin rush of butterflies hit his stomach. It was the same feeling he had before meeting a senior executive at work. Well, that had been until a few weeks ago, when he had lost his job. He also had the same feeling prior to a championship fight 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 run, when he saw these characters wandering the streets of Postojna.
Everyone he had spoken to and all he had read indicated that travelling around Slovenia was safe. However, the number of times he had seen 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 similarly dressed men elsewhere when he travelled to Postojna the day before. But this was different. Something was up. He knew it. Regardless, why should he be bothered? Rob was having a great time on a holiday paid for from his redundancy and prize money. Two weeks ago he had won the gold medal at the European Combined Martial Arts and Unarmed Combat Championships at Wembley Conference Centre in London.
A sufficiently loud gurgle from his belly reminded him that he was hungry. Breakfast! He picked up his iPhone from the bedside table, scanning the screen to read the time. “Damn it!” 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—one that he had been unable to resist because he was planning a few days 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.
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.”
While 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 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 for 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 run. The area where 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 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, looking out into the square. The mother was a few years older than himself, 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 gave Rob more attention than he really wanted, distracting him from his e-mails and reading the day’s news. Not that he really minded. The girl was 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 broke off from reading the news and drinking his coffee when an apparently distinguished, well-built man in a dark tailored suit and open-neck shirt walked into the hotel foyer. Only the tanned face and purposeful, almost-cold demeanour suggested something entirely different. Ignoring the man, Rob continued to read the ridiculous intrigue and implications of the latest sex scandal involving a government minister. Rob shook his head slightly, 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 suggesting they were headed for either the Karst Museum or transportation towards the Postojna Caves. Rob presumed the latter; a museum of predominantly archaeological collections would be of little interest to the young girl. She did not have the grumpy air of a child going somewhere that, in her mind, would be dull and boring. Instead, she exuded excitement and joy. As they approached halfway, one of the young men Rob had seen earlier appeared at the far corner, talking on a mobile phone. Moments later, a black saloon and a red four-door Nissan pickup with white cover over the rear charged into the square, tyres squealing.
The man froze, his free hand inching into his jacket. Glancing at the woman and young girl, he dropped his hand to his side and became a spectator to the impending horror in which he would play a central role.
The black saloon raced over towards him while the Nissan screeched to a halt adjacent to the hotel. Young hooded men jumped from all doors of both cars, each wearing dark jeans and shirts. It’s like a uniform! Rob thought, remembering the many dubious characters from the past few days. Each also carried a machine pistol. Those from the saloon approached the man, woman, and girl while the others turned their attention towards Rob and the others having breakfast.
Without hesitation, Rob grabbed his belongings and 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 slammed into walls and pinged off the metal tables.
As bullets started piercing nearby tables Rob realised that his cover was decidedly limited. 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 other guests 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 table behind him, drawing closer to the hotel entrance and hoped-for shelter. With a whooshing, chinking sound, the glass 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 injured hotel guests gave a constant, disconcerting background sound, reminding him that each and every move could determine his fate. Looking round 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. 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.
Mesmerised, Rob watched 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 where his accomplices had surrounded the man, woman, and girl. While the man was punched to the ground, gagged and a handgun removed from his jacket, the girl was shoved into one sack, kicking and screaming, before also being gagged and the sack firmly tied. The dazed mother was grabbed roughly by one man and shoved in front of another, who, after the briefest of looks, shot her twice in the chest. Her body collapsed onto the stone slabs, a pool of blood forming, even as her partner reached out a hand from where he was lying to briefly caress her face. He was then bundled, struggling, into another 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 of the surrounding buildings. Two headed towards the hotel as they fired. Calmly walking between the carnage of the upturned tables and chairs, they shot in the head all those lying on the ground, whether apparently dead or not.
These guys don’t want witnesses! Rob realised with horror, as he once again slid across the hotel’s floor. Everyone else was momentarily frozen in disbelief. Milliseconds later, however, they were screaming and running in all directions as the two men walked into the lobby, calmly spraying bullets all over and cutting people down. Rob had no choice but to jump up and dive through a broken window 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 through the morass of up-turned furniture, seeking an escape; he had no doubt the area would be thoroughly checked for survivors. Looking about, it became obvious there was no opportunity to make a run for it down the street. Instead, the Nissan with its open tailgate was nearby and it was directly between him and the men dragging the sacks. Risking becoming trapped, Rob sprinted to the rear of the vehicle and leapt in. Relief flooded through him on seeing the cluttered interior. It didn’t take long to slide a large toolbox out 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, as Rob tried to control his breathing and listened to the approaching footsteps. For the first time, he heard voices.
“All taken care of in there.” Rob surmised the speaker was referring to the hotel.
“No survivors, then?” demanded the first voice 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 the police arrive! 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, the truck jiggling 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 roared, and they moved off quickly, the sound of the tyres thrumming on the road surface. Hard braking compressed the heavy toolbox against Rob, alerting him to either a road junction or corner. He braced himself against the car’s sides to avoid slipping and potentially giving himself away.
When the hard cornering ceased a short while later, Rob guessed 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. However, with the periodic slowing down and subsequent gentle acceleration, Rob was sure they were going through other small towns or villages. That meant he wasn’t on the A10 highway between Italy and the capital, Ljubljana. Instead, he decided, they were either travelling north, further into the heart of Slovenia, or south towards Croatia.
From time to time the thug Rob knew as Stephane shifted his weight and asked, “You still alive in there?” as he thumped the larger of the two sacks. On hearing a grunt or moan, Stephane chuckled. Occasionally there was a gentle whimper from the young girl.
Rob’s limbs soon 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.
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