Vengeance Online - Russell Blake

Prologue

Two weeks before, Alatfain Valley, Yemen

The battered gold-tone Toyota Land Cruiser ripped down the dirt road, throwing up a cloud of yellow dust as it approached the desolate hamlet, which was deserted except for a Mercedes sedan – the lavish vehicle incongruous amid the wind-torn walls and half-collapsed structures of what had once been a hopeful little village, long abandoned to the encroaching desert.

The SUV rolled to a stop near the car and the rear doors flew open. Two men stepped out holding assault rifles. The front passenger door swung wide and a figure in a navy-blue pinstripe suit, carrying a briefcase, climbed from the cab and moved towards the nearest building, his black eel-skin valise gleaming in the harsh sunlight.

The gunmen surveyed their surroundings with suspicious eyes, though there was nothing to see but the dizzy haze of the ravaged land, distorted by the heat waves rising from the sand. A few miles in the distance, a ridge of hills shimmered with the same washed-out palette as the rest of the landscape.

The sand and dust permeated everything eventually. Even in the rarified atmosphere of the SUV, with filters for the filters, the fulvous essence of the desert seeped in, coating everything with a desiccated film.

The suited man seemed unfazed by the brutal heat, appearing for all the world to be a successful banker or businessman on his way to the office rather than an interloper in the inhospitable landscape. He stepped gingerly over the bloated corpse of a dead dog, ignoring the swarming congregation of black flies. Glancing around, he strode into the building past his bodyguards, whose postures conveyed agitation at this solitary rendezvous, their weapons sweeping the horizon.

“That’s far enough. Tell your men to stay back. Only you approach.” The sandpaper voice was abrupt, the accent harsh and foreign. Russian was obviously not the man’s forte.

“Of course. They are merely here to ensure we aren’t interrupted. I have no doubts about you, or I wouldn’t be here,” the suited man assured – his insincere half-grin tugging at his wormy lips. His Russian was fluid, languorous, musical, with the cadence of a native speaker. He made a gesture, and the gunmen took positions in the shade just inside the clay brick entrance, one of them eyeing the aperture overhead where the roof had collapsed, the victim of an errant mortar round.

“You have brought what was agreed?” the robed man demanded, his thawb gathered around him as he sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. Armed with machine guns, three guards clad in the distinctive dress of the local tribesmen stood in the shadows at the far end of the room.

“Yes. A token of our intent. Enough so that you can verify our claims. And to save you some trouble, I also brought you some footage of the effects on a volunteer.” The corners of the suited man’s mouth twitched with the beginnings of a smile.

“Very well. Show me.” The seated man gestured for the suited man to approach.

As he reached into his suit pocket, the guards bristled, watching him as he slowly extracted a cell phone and held it out. The seated man rose and stood facing him, eyes fixed hawk-like on the screen.

A date and time indicator ticked away in the bottom right corner, indicating that the footage had been captured three days prior. Static gave way to the drab gray of a room with raw concrete walls, where a young man sat on a bunk behind bars, sipping a bowl of soup, obviously unaware that he was being filmed. The lighting changed subtly as the images jumped ahead an hour. The prisoner was pacing his cell, wiping perspiration from his face, his ragged shirt drenched with sweat stains, screaming in a panicked voice for his captors to help him. The time indicator jumped ahead another two hours: the man was now lying on his bunk, shaking and moaning, his body racked by tremors. Two more hours and he was convulsing, his face distorted by agony. Two hours further and his nose, mouth, and ears were seeping blood; his pants were soaked with it, a trail of crimson vomit on his shirtfront as he lay gurgling on the floor in a pool of his own making.

The robed man’s eyes flickered from the screen to the suited man’s steady gaze, then back to the image. One hour later: The corpse’s skin was discolored, bluish-black, already bloating from the pressure of internal gasses.

The final frame was of something barely recognizable as