The first steps in Karl Barber’s hunt for the leaders of a human trafficking ring land him in the ancient city of Cairo. His investigation takes an unexpected turn when the fate of a single girl compels him to strike before he’s ready.
tags: Jon Mollison, action/adventure
|Publication Date||May 04, 2017|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
by Jon Mollison
A symphony of destruction sounded in Karl’s ears. The angelic tinkle of breaking glass interspersed with a demon scream of twisting metal, all underscored by the heavy crunch of vehicle on-vehicle collision. The truck’s head rest hammered the back of Karl’s head, and the brilliant blue of the morning Sahara sky flashed to jet black.
No sooner had the rusted pick-up truck come to its abrupt halt, than Karl leapt out of the driver’s seat. His work boots hit the hardpan of the desert and drove him toward the gleaming silver SUV whose crushed front leaned against the back end of Karl’s stolen pickup. Steam hissed and billowed out of the silver engine compartment.
The driver of the SUV lay insensate in his seat, his face pressed against the bent upper arc of the wheel. The rear door started to open, and Karl’s stride turned to a leap. He hit the swinging door with both feet, driving it back into the large man clambering out of the SUV, firearm first. He had one foot on the ground, but no leverage to withstand Karl’s assault. The door smacked him in the face and chest, and the gun spun away into the desert. The stunned man’s motion carried his body to the ground where it threw up a thin cloud of dust.
Karl landed on both hands as well. Quick as a cat, he pushed against the ground, and rose to a crouch. He glanced under the carriage of the SUV and spotted two sets of black boots backing away and spread out to circle around the wreck from either side.
Armed only with his knife, he stood no chance against the two men, each sure to be armed to match the unconscious man that lay next to him.
The rear door of the SUV had bounced open after stunning hired gun, and remained so. The portal into the cool, dark interior of the luxury ride showed Karl a means of salvation. In the center-rear seat sat a spindly man dressed in a western style suit, nothing like the local attire of his four hired guns. His thinning gray hair was close cropped and the bulging eyes and knife-edge sharp chin seemed familiar, but Karl had no time to search his memories. He dove into the back seat of the vehicle, whipping an antique knife from the horizontal scabbard that held it in place against his lower back. The man didn’t flinch as Karl’s grabbed him with one hand and used the other to press the point of his eight-inch blade against the man’s neck.
Karl heaved the man out of the SUV. He accommodated the indignity with surprising grace. He shoved the man against the side of the vehicle, braced him there with his left forearm. Pressed chest to chest with the man, Karl found himself face to face with evil. The man’s eyes were as dead as a shark’s. Even in this moment of moral peril, they were shockingly inhuman.
Of course, Karl’s judgement was most likely clouded by his knowledge of the man’s business.
Karl hated Cairo for the same reasons he hated New York City. It was loud, dirty, crowded, and foreign. As a child of the wide open Montana spaces, every city was foreign to him. But third-world cities always aroused in his heart a bleak feelings of hopelessness for the future of humanity. The cloistered bustle of the people around him, their rabid selfishness and laziness and desire to wrest what they could from everyone around them by hook or by crook always left him longing for the friendly, open, and trusting citizens of his small home town.
He longed to be there, chopping wood to prepare for a long winter or maybe riding through the wide open spaces, but hiding from the world wouldn’t solve its problems. You had to get out into it and grapple with the world’s evil with your own two hands if you wanted to make a difference.
And Karl wanted to make a difference.
One man couldn’t solve all the world’s problems. He knew that. He also know that most of the civilized world saw little difference between criminals and the vigilantes who delivered justice to them. None of their arguments could convince him that he was the bad guy here. Maybe they could convince the dozens of children Karl had ripped from the hands of human traffickers over the years, but he doubted it.
Waiting was always the worst part of the process. He sipped at the small ivory mug of what the locals assured him was coffee, and grimaced. The ambiance of the run-down and near empty nightcafé was as bitter as the brew in Karl’s cup. The lingering heat of the afternoon had been chased out by a cool desert breeze that carried the scent of dry dust and ancient tombs. The breezes did nothing to cool the cold anger that burned in his chest as he waited across the street from an unmarked building that careful inspection revealed was built like a fortress. The depravities he knew occurred inside its walls filled him with a righteous wrath that was not reflected on the still features of his face. He could do nothing about that building tonight, he thought, turning a page of the unread book in his hands.
He only grudgingly tolerated making discreet inquiries of the concierge at his tourist hotel, but it was the only reliable first step he had found. He disliked posing as the sort of degenerate who preferred to purchase the sexual favors of minors, but that was the only way to reassure the purveyors of said flesh that he could be trusted. He detested the need to add more American dollars to the city’s underbelly, but that bait was necessary to gain access to the consumer facing portion of human trafficking.
But most of all, he hated the waiting. His corded muscles ached to spring into action, to grab the man he had been following and throttle him to within an inch of his life. He longed to beat the information out of the man. He would have done it already if he could have gotten away with it here and now, but Karl was a foreign man in a foreign land. Worse, his size and demeanor marked him as the worst of all foreigners in this city–an American.
The only justice he could count on finding in this stinking city would be justice wrought with his own two hands. The only instrument of justice he would rely on in this city was the eight inch Marine knife that rested reassuringly against his lower back. His great-grandfather had carried it across the length of Europe in his day, then passed it to his grandfather who carried it through Asian jungles and then passed it on to Karl. Karl had carried it through desert storms before quitting the military in disgust. The knife was as much a part of him, combined with a diminutive of his full name–Karl Barber—to inspire the men of his company to christen him with the nickname, K-Bar.
As he turned another page, a weather beaten white pick-up truck squealed to halt across from the café. Its brakes needed work, Karl thought, as it backed into a dark alley to one side of the nondescript building. A familiar face climbed out of the cab, circled around, and knocked on the steel door across the way. Karl gulped the last of the thick, black brew, and threw a trio of tattered dollars on the table. He snapped the book shut, and casually left, just another tourist dressed in dark jeans and a black shirt, walking back to his hotel, oblivious to the dangers of the Cairo night.
The café owner shook his head as he watched the naïve American leave the café. That one would be lucky to make it back to the hotel still in possession of his wallet. The generous tip the American had left distracted him then, and he did not notice when the man ducked into the dark alley across the way.
The back of the creaky pickup truck was stifling and smelled of diesel and old tobacco. While hiding in its dark shadows, Karl had found a small pink plastic barrette. It lay amid the loose detritus scattered about the truck, lost among the bolts and empty soda cans and cigarette butts. He fingered the pink plastic flower and eyed the blacked out windows, grimly amused that the precautions the man had taken to shield his young, unwilling passengers from prying eyes provided a hiding place for the instrument of the man’s doom. As usual, evil had planted the seeds of its own destruction.
After a wait of twenty minutes by Karl’s watch, the man arrived. Karl kept his face turned to the bed of the truck, an un-necessary precaution given that the man never glanced his way. He opened the passenger door, thrust a girl inside, and slammed it shut. The truck rocked and squeaked as the man clambered into the driver’s seat, and they were off. The high warble of rock music played with an Arabic flavor sounded from the truck’s speakers. In the bed of the truck it sounded tinny and distant, and Karl dozed for a time.
After an hour, the jerking and swerving and irregular passage of the truck changed to a more consistent hum as they left the city streets behind and passed onto one of the major highways leading out of Cairo. Karl didn’t dare lift his head to check their direction, as the driver might have spotted him through the window into the cab of the truck. At least the window allowed a draft of cool night air that eased the stink of the atmosphere.
The ride grew rough when they left the highway to travel by roads barely worthy of the title. They bounced along dirt tracks and open terrain for another hour before grinding to a halt.
The soft clicks and pings of the cooling engine sounded loud in the still night air. Karl heard the creak of the springs in the driver’s seat as he shifted. The man drummed on the steering wheel and muttered something in Arabic. Long minutes passed.
Karl heard a slap and the glottal staccato of the man’s voice raised in anger. Another slap, the girl’s soft cry, and Karl reached for his knife.
He told himself not to be stupid. Killing the bottom rung suppliers of this organization, furtive men meeting in the trackless Sahara by night, would do little good. In order to cut the head off this snake, Karl needed information, and that required him to remain hidden until the girl was delivered to the next link in the chain. Saving this one girl from a night of terror might well cost the lives and innocence of dozens or hundreds of others. The smart play was to sit and wait until he had the information he needed, and then deliver his own brand of rough justice.
That might be the smart play, but it was a cold and ruthless thing to do. In the cold desert night, Karl couldn’t mistake the tear choked cry of that one real girl just a few feet away. The fate of countless victims up and down this supply chain hung in the balance as his rational mind fought to control his empathic heart.
The sound of the man fumbling with his belt buckle sealed his doom. Silent as a wraith, Karl rose up. By the pale light of the dashboard, the man gripped the girl by the back of her head and pulled her towards his lap. The man had to lean to his right a little, and this put his head directly in the square frame of the open window between the cab and the covered back of the truck.
The driver’s death was relatively painless. He felt on two heartbeats of shock when a hand covered his mouth. Two heartbeats was all the time it took for the sharp severing of his spinal column to end all feeling, forever. Karl held the man steady for two long minutes as blood and clear cranial fluid sluiced down behind the bench seat of the truck.
It was a humane death, and too good for an animal like him.
The girl’s sobs turned to a wail when she spotted the ghostly hand holding the scary man’s face still. She flinched away, unable to see through the dark windows to the man who had delivered her from evil. She fell into a fetal position and covered her face with both hands, terrified into silence.
It wasn’t until she felt a gentle hand on her back that she slowly turned around. Instead of the hawknosed and dusky skinned man with the knit white cap leering at her, she found the fierce, yet sad, eyes of a westerner – an American by his size and dress. He reached his arms out to her. When she hesitated, he wiped her tears away with two gentle thumbs. The dam broke and she leapt into the safety of his arms. He muttered something reassuring. She did not speak his language, but she understood their intent, and tears of fear turned to tears of relief.
Then the stranger placed her back into her seat, straightened her hair and dress, and snapped off the cacophonous radio with a sneer. He had dragged the dead body out of the truck, and now left to stuff it into the bed of the truck. Returning, he slid the dividing window behind them shut. She did not understand when he settled comfortably into the seat and began watching the trucks mirrors and the horizon like a caged animal waiting for its next meal. They could leave now. Just drive off into the night. Was he a simple thief who meant to sell her into slavery too? Her mind began to race, what if he was just another –
His hand patted her on the knee, and smiled her way. He had seen her growing distress, and sought to ease it. She looked into his face. He was a good man, she decided. He hadn’t hurt her yet, and deserved her trust. It was a poor reward, but it was all she had. So she pulled his hand over her shoulder and nestled into the crook of his arm. After a moment of tension, he chuckled and held her close.
She did not know how long she dozed, but the sky was bright when the man startled her awake. He thrust her away, and his hand darted to the ignition. As he gunned the truck’s engine he held one arm across the young girl’s lap and barked a command. Steering one handed, his eyes glued to the rearview mirror, he aimed the rear of the truck straight at the grill of an on-rushing SUV. There was a crash, and then he was gone into the desert.
“The only way we survive this is together,” Karl hissed at the dead eyed man as he pressed him against the hot side of the silver SUV.
The man spoke in a flat voice, dry and sardonic. “Do you know who-–,” but the gleaming steel of Karl’s knife pressed hard against his neck, and he fell silent.
“Tell your men to turn around and start walking,” Karl growled.
The slender man did as commanded, and added a reassurance that he’d be fine. Karl peeked around the back end of the SUV. The one man in his field of vision looked to his unseen companion, nodded, and then turned and began making his way across the hardpan toward a towering yellow sand dune.
After a minute, the second thug came into view as well, matching the first’s pace and direction.
“Get in the truck,” Karl ordered his prisoner. “Wait. Grab your laptop case first.”
The man sighed and complied, straightening his cufflinks as he allowed himself to be led to the battered white pickup truck.
Getting into the cab of the truck required a subtle and dangerous dance that involved Karl entering first through the driver’s side door, then pulling the older gentleman in after him. Doing all this onehanded was not easy, but it wasn’t Karl’s first trip to this deadly rodeo. The old man wasn’t fazed fazed by the presence of the frightened young girl crouched on the floor boards. When the two were seated and Karl buckled in–he denied the older man’s request to buckle up, as he wanted the old man as vulnerable as possible–Karl ordered the old man to drive.
The pickup had borne the brunt of impact on its rear, and after a short grinding, burst loose of the ruined SUV. The two bodyguards turned and ran at them, the barrels of outstretched pistols winking in the distance.
Karl’s tight lipped grin was savage. The SUV would never drive again, and it was a long walk back to Cairo. Even if the pair had satellite phones and plenty of water, they were in for a bad day.
Either way, they would pose no more threat to him.
For his part, Karl’s prisoner followed every order with a dry, sardonic look on his face.
When they were a few minutes away from the wrecked SUV, Karl snapped at the man, “Where were you taking this girl?”
He chuckled, “She is beautiful, isn’t she? A rare find in this part of the world. A Yazidi by the look of her.” Karl agreed. He had expected the dusky skin so common in the middle-east, but was struck by her brilliant green eyes and blonde hair. “There’s no reason not to tell you, you won’t survive long enough to tell anyone. I’ve been charged with taking her to a small private airport just outside of Cairo. A plane is waiting there, a Lear jet, to take her to a small Greek island where she will be put to use entertaining the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. She is the finest of those taken from Syria. Unspoiled, she is worth a small fortune.” His dead eyes did not match the dry laughter that followed.
“Who do you work for,” Karl demanded.
He laughed again and rattled off a list of powerful CEO’s and politicians, men whose faces appeared on the covers of magazines.
“You’re lying,” Karl accused the man.
“There’s no reason not to tell you. You’ve already signed your death warrant.” “Not the first time.”
“Indeed. Took me a moment, but I know you now. You’re Karl Barber.” An icy feeling washed over Karl. Anonymity and solitude were part of his strategy. One unknown man could often do things well known and massive organizations could not. “You’ve been some trouble in the past, but my superiors were content to let you chip away at the edges. When they learn you are trying to work your way higher up the organization, they’ll end you.”
“And how are they going to learn in time to stop me?”
“Easy. I’ll tell them.”
“Dead men don’t–”
The man’s sharp laughter stopped him. “Please. You’re no murderer.”
Karl jerked a thumb towards the bed of the truck and the corpse it contained. “You sure about that?”
The man’s reply was as swift as it was painful. His right elbow shot up and under the hand that held Karl’s knife. It circled and caught his jaw at the same moment the vehicle’s engine revved. The truck bucked, and threw Karl backwards, and in that moment of distraction, the man threw a vicious backhand with the knife-edge of his right hand.
It caught Karl on the bridge of the nose, and blood exploded in his sinuses. Karl lost his knife in the confusion, and he lunged at the man barehanded. He got one hand on the steering wheel, and fought to control it. The rocks and ruts of the hard ground raced past at breakneck speed.
The old man was a wiry bastard, and convinced Karl that maybe he didn’t know every trick in the book after all. His arms writhed like snakes, and even seated he used his hips and shoulder and elbows like a surgeon. The man’s experience and cunning negated Karl’s size and strength as they grappled. Somehow Karl wound up with his chest between the man and the steering wheel. One hand held the stability bar over the passenger side door, the other vainly sought purchase on the driver’s door. He snatched at the door lever and the driver’s door cracked open.
The old man grinned triumphantly and stamped on the brake. The momentum carried him into Karl, crushing him against the steering wheel. The door flew open wide, and Karl felt the back of his head crack against the door frame.
Karl had shifted his right hand to the wheel, and with his left still gripping the emergency handle above the girl’s head, he was able to pull himself away from the old man. The old man stamped on the accelerator and the pickup leaped forward. Karl heaved himself across the cab, got his knees up, and thrust out with both feet. The old man’s eyes bloomed as he pitched, hips first, against the swinging door of the truck. It gave instantly, and the man tumbled out onto the dusty desert floor. Karl fumbled at the buckle of the lap belt that still held him fast, and finally managed to squirm over into the driver seat. He pulled the door shut, and checked the side mirror.
In the distance, and rapidly growing smaller, the old man lay on his hands and knees amid rocks and scrubby grass. The bright white sand dunes towering behind the man made a silhouette of his form, and Karl regretted that he could not make out the expression on the man’s face.
The old man stood up and dusted himself off. He had gotten a good look at the trouble maker. Whoever he was, he would be dead within 48-hours. All it would take is one phone call. He sneered and reached for his jacket pocket. He shook his head at the damage the fall had wrought on his suit. Italian. It would cost a fortune to replace, but he had several fortunes squirreled away in banks across Europe. He’d pay extra to have that man taken alive, just as soon as he found his satellite phone. It had to be here in one of his pockets. His casually certain search became frantically futile.
His face fell as he spun about, nothing but sand and scrub in all directions. He was already sweating from the hot desert sun. An hour’s drive meant a sixty mile hike. Two days of travel in the best of circumstances. In these shoes, and with no water…
A ring of black shadows took to their wings and began to form overhead.
Karl grinned and smashed his hand down on the dashboard of the truck, shattering the man’s satellite phone. Men like that never understood that fighting to kill was a fool’s errand when more subtle matters were at play.
He let the shards of the broken phone fall to the floor and smiled reassuringly at the green-eyed girl. He didn’t know how to reunite a Christian girl in a Muslim land with her far-off people, but a Coptic priest in a Cairo suburb he trusted would know.
He also knew a guy that could crack whatever security the old man had installed on his computer. It hadn’t gone as planned, but he was satisfied. He had hit the mother lode of information about this human trafficking ring, and the future looked bright.
He smiled again, broader now, and held the girl in one protective arm. She nestled in a little closer and sighed in contentment. This was always his favorite part.
“Desert Hunt” is copyright © Jon Mollison.
Jon Mollison serves as a proud front-line fighter in the Pulp Revolution. He has previously written the well received “Sudden Rescue”, “Five Dragons”, and the newly released “A Moon Full of Stars”. He works as a scientist in Honolulu where he dedicates his time away from the keyboard to a loving wife and large number of children. Additional Karl Barber adventures can be found in “Street Fight: The Karl Barber Collection”.