A father’s risky profession, and the secrets of his trade, endanger those he cares for most…
by: Mahnoor Khurram Abdullah
Monday. The last day of the curfew. Everyone was relieved. The threat was still there, but, after two weeks of being stuck in the house with seven other people, we were all ready to risk it.
The guards, however, were not. Despite what we were up against, the precautions seemed excessive. Two Land Cruisers with bullet-proof windows. Five heavily armed guards. I knew people would talk at school. With a father part of an intelligence agency, however, there were some things we had to deal with.
The three of us felt squashed. We were seated in the back seat of one of the vehicles, a guard right next to us. The blinds were drawn. Ahmed, my little brother, tried to open one of the windows for some fresh air, only for a grim-looking guard with a scowl fixated on his face to pull him back. When Ahmed looked at him angrily, he shrugged and said. “I’m being paid to do my job. You kids don’t know how dangerous these terrorist groups are.”
None of us knew what the threat was about. One night, I had heard bits of my parents’ conversation. I heard the phrase “transnational terrorist group” and had no idea what it meant until I Googled it.
One thing was certain, my father had accidentally leaked some classified information. This had caused a terrorist group to find out that the agency was onto them. Since then, my father’s job had become more dangerous. Especially since his family was being threatened.
As we approached the school building, I mirrored the guards as they looked around suspiciously. I had not given this threat a lot of thought, but now that we were out, I was suddenly worried.
A guard escorted each of us — me, Ahmed, and my little sister, Sana — to the school gate. They left, flashing concerned glances at us and yelling out safety precautions and protocols from the car windows. A few students stared back at us but no one said anything.
The first few hours of classes went by smoothly. Then, while I was in my Social Studies class, the receptionist, Miss Salma, came to the door and knocked. “Is there a Haaniya here?” Confused, I raised my hand.
“Your father is here to collect you. There is some kind of emergency and you need to get home.” Worried, I got up, hastily collecting my books and stuffing them into my bag. The stares started again. Miss Salma waved her hand dismissively and I stepped out.
I followed her across the hallway. After a few minutes, I noticed that she was taking a different route to the exit. I asked her about it and she muttered something about work in progress. I felt suspicious but dismissed my worries, telling myself I was being paranoid.
We entered a darker hallway that led to the Nurse’s room. Something was going on. Before I could say a word, I felt a firm grip on my arm from behind me. I opened my mouth to scream but then another hand was placed over my mouth. I felt dizzy. The last thing I saw was someone handing Miss Salma a stack of money. I felt my eyes close as I collapsed into darkness.
I woke up to a blinding pain in my arm. With some difficulty, I opened my eyes, finding myself staring at a grey ceiling. The smell of rust greeted me as I struggled to sit upright. It was difficult. I looked at my arm and found out why it hurt. I was tied to a nearby pole, my arms bound. Using my leg, I pushed myself into a sitting position and took in my surroundings. The room was not much to look at. There were two chairs in front of me, inches apart. The floorboard was cracked, the planks of wood loose. Apart from that, the room was empty. I pulled at the ropes desperately but my efforts were in vain. They were tied on much too tightly. I leaned against the wall, sighing.
Just then, the door flew open and a middle-aged, slightly balding man entered. He had brown eyes and very fair skin. His hair was a dark shade of brown. He seemed to be chewing something, likely tobacco.
He walked towards me and grinned, showing his yellow teeth. When he spoke, I noticed that he had a posh, British accent. “How are you holding up, sweetheart?” I said nothing, just looked at him in disgust. He grabbed one of the chairs and sat down, a little too close. The stench of tobacco was more evident.
“I’d love to get to know you better, but let’s get down to business first. Haaniya right?” I nodded. Fear had suddenly crept into my body. I may not have known much about my dad’s work, but I knew one thing. This man wanted information. Classified information.
“So here’s how it will work. You’re going to tell me everything you know about your father’s work.” He held up a hand as I opened my mouth to protest. “Yeah, I know he isn’t supposed to tell his family, but there must be something you know. Contacts, sources, phone calls you may have overheard?” He looked at me eagerly.
I shook my head. “If you think my father goes around telling his agency’s secrets to everyone and their dog, maybe even a terrorist group should have thought twice before hiring you.”
His grin faded. Before I could foresee his next move, he gripped my arm at the exact spot it was hurting earlier and twisted. I gasped, swallowing a scream of pain. I looked up at him, my teeth gritted, struggling to keep a brave face on. “Why do you think we’ve been after your family? Your father accidentally leaked information they had gathered about our group. If he’s stupid enough to do that, he must have let secrets slip on other occasions too.” He let go and I gasped again, this time in relief. I looked at my arm, noticing a bruise above my elbow.
He stood up. “Think hard. Or it’s going to take more than your father’s secrets to get you out of here.” He left the room, slamming the door on the way out.
I breathed heavily, tears flooding down my face. I knew my father would be reluctant to give away information that the lives of the public and the credibility of his company depended on, and I did not want to stay in this place any longer. I yanked at the ropes again, but it was of no use. I let out a cry of frustration and slumped against the wall, feeling helpless.
At that moment, I noticed that the man had dropped something near the door. It was a bottle of some kind of liquid. I recognized it from a crime movie. It was the liquid kidnappers put on a pad when they wanted to make someone unconscious.
It was too far for me to reach. I glanced at the loose floorboard and had an idea. Grabbing the nearest loose plank, I yanked and it broke off. Hoping it was long enough, I edged as close to the alcohol bottle as I could. Using the plank, I reached towards it. The wood touched the edge of the bottle. Pulling at my rope a little harder, I moved closer. The plank touched the lid of the bottle. Slowly and carefully, I started to push it towards me. When it was close enough, I pushed harder and it slid right next to me. My heart beating with excitement, I snatched it up and stuffed it into my back pocket. I did not know when or how I would use it, but at least I was getting somewhere.
I heard footsteps outside. Hurriedly putting the plank back in place I leaned back against the wall, trying to look nonchalant. A different man entered, holding a plate of food and a glass of water. He shot me a sympathetic smile and put down the food and water. Remembering the alcohol bottle, I had an idea. Just as he was leaving, I said, “Wait. Can I have a tissue? I’m sweating.” He nodded and fumbled in his pocket. He handed me a pack of tissues and left.
I waited for a few minutes. When no one else came, I took out the bottle, straightened out a tissue and dabbed it with some of the liquid. Folding it up, I stuffed it into my pocket.
I downed the glass of water and tasted the food. It was bland, but I was too hungry to care. I finished it and leaned against the wall again, exhausted.
A few hours passed and still, no one else came. I had heard that most kidnappers waited a few days before calling the family of their hostage. I could not wait. All I could think of was how worried my parents must be after they found out I was not at school. I wondered why the kidnappers had not taken Sana and Ahmed as well. Their faces flashed in front of my eyes and more tears began to fall. I had to do something, and fast.
I remembered how, in the television shows, hostages used a piece of glass to cut off the rope they were tied with. I grabbed the glass of water next to me and banged it against the floor. It shattered. I used the sharpest piece and set to work, hacking at the rope. It was hard, but, after a while, it tore, freeing my left arm. I used that arm and the glass to free my right arm. It took some effort but soon, I was untied.
My heart pounding with excitement, I stood up. It seemed too easy an escape, but it was the only chance I had. I crept towards the door, praying it was not locked. I sighed with relief as it opened. As quietly as possible, I stepped out, taking in my surroundings.
I was greeted by a dim hallway. I moved another step forward. There were narrow corridors on either side of me. The one on my right was clearer, as there was light at the end of it. The other one looked creepy. I could have sworn I saw the shadows of spiders in there. However, the brighter corridor probably meant that someone was there.
I took the darker hallway and, my heart racing, began to make my way across it. I reached a corner. Cautiously, I peeked around it. I heard a sound nearby and whipped around.
I stopped myself from screaming out loud as I stood, face-to-face with the same man who had twisted my arm earlier. I swallowed, my heart sinking. His face was a mixture of rage and triumph. I opened my mouth but before I could say a word, he clamped his hand over my lips, and, once again, I fell into darkness.
This time, when I opened my eyes, I found myself already sitting upright. I looked down. I was seated on a metal chair. My arms were chained to the legs. I felt defeated. I may have escaped from the ropes, but there was no way I was going to get out of those cuffs. I cursed myself for not waiting longer before leaving the room.
I looked around. I was in the same room. This time, however, I had company. The man who had brought me food earlier was standing a little further from me, cleaning what looked like a metal cup. He looked to be younger than the other man. His hair was jet black, his face was clean-shaven and his eyes were a bright shade of brown.
He saw that I was awake and smiled. He seemed kinder than the other man, but I was still cautious. “Hey,” he said. “I’m Jeremy. I’m sorry about Marius. Although, in his defense, you did try to escape.” He chuckled and set the glass down.
The rage piling up inside me suddenly rose to the surface. “And in my defense, I was lured out of class by a psychopathic receptionist and kidnapped by a man with a fragile ego.”
Before he could reply, Marius entered again. This time, he was holding someone by the collar. My heart sank when I saw who it was. “Ahmed!” I screamed. Marius grinned and Ahmed looked up at me, his face filled with fear. He was wearing his school uniform. His shirt had a brown stain and his trousers were rumpled and dusty.
Marius pushed him into a chair and motioned to Jeremy, who tied Ahmed’s arms behind his back. I noticed how gently he was doing it. If there was anyone who I could fool into letting us go, I thought, it would be Jeremy.
My thoughts vanished as Marius took out a gun. Without hesitation, he placed it against Ahmed’s head. I screamed again, as Ahmed began to breathe heavily, his mouth slightly open. Marius smiled at me. “So, thought of anything?”
I realized he was talking about my father’s secrets again. I shook my head. “I swear I don’t know anything. Please, let my brother go.” I could hear the desperation in my voice. Marius pressed the gun harder against Ahmed’s head. He moaned in pain.
It was then that Jeremy stepped forward. He placed a hand on the gun and drew Marius’ hand away. “If she says she doesn’t know anything, she doesn’t. Why don’t you leave her alone until we call their father tomorrow?”
Tomorrow. He had said tomorrow. My heart filled with fear and concern. Ahmed just looked scared. I noticed a bruise on his arm, smaller than the one I had, but on the same spot.
Marius looked at Jeremy angrily for a second, then shrugged and put the gun back in his pocket. “Robert and I are going to run an errand. Watch the kids while we’re gone.” Jeremy nodded and Marius left the room.
As soon as he was gone, Jeremy fished a tissue and a tube of Polyfax out of his pocket. He walked over to Ahmed and began to attend to the bruise in his arm, muttering words of comfort. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Can I have some Polyfax when you’re done? My arm is bruised too.” I said. Jeremy nodded. He walked over to me and kneeled, taking my arm gently and beginning to treat it. Noticing how concentrated he was, I subtly took out the tissue dabbed with alcohol and held it behind my back. He was still focused on the bruise. I shifted a little as I brought the tissue in front of me. Without wasting another second, I slammed it on top of his mouth.
For a few seconds, he did not move. His eyes shot up in horror. Realizing what was happening, he moved back, but I was faster. I grabbed his arm, struggling to hold him in place and pressed the tissue harder, pushing his head against the chair behind him. After a few seconds, his eyes began to look dizzy and then closed. He went limp and fell back.
I fumbled in his pockets and found a bunch of keys. Frantically, I tried every one of them on my handcuffs. Finally, one worked. I was free. Marius, and whoever Robert was, were gone. Jeremy was unconscious. I hoped this meant no one else was on the premises. I fastened the cuffs around Jeremy’s wrists, stuffed the keys in my pocket, and ran to Ahmed. His face was full of horror. I untied him.
I did not have a plan. All I wanted was to get out of there. I told Ahmed to wait by the door and took a quick look up and down the hallway. Finding it empty, I collected Ahmed and began to look for an exit. There were way too many winding corridors in the building. Finally, I took the corridor I had seen earlier, the one that had light at the end of it. There it was. A large door. I tried to open it, but it was locked. I tried all of the keys and one of them worked.
Outside, we were immediately met by a deserted street. I stepped out, Ahmed nervously clutching my arm. I looked on both sides. It was empty. There were a few closed shops around us. I took the left side and began to walk. After a few minutes of walking, we finally came to what looked like the main road. There were many cars. I saw a parked rickshaw a few feet from us. Squeezing Ahmed’s arm, I walked with him towards the rickshaw and asked the driver if I could use his phone.
Hearing my dad’s tearful voice on the other side of the receiver was hard. He told me not to get in with the rickshaw driver and said he was coming to pick me up. I sat down on the footpath, waiting.
All of a sudden, I saw a familiar face some distance from us. Marius. He was stepping out of a car. He motioned to the driver to leave.
I jumped up, grabbing Ahmed by the arm and pulled him into the nearest store. I watched from the glass as Marius began to walk in our direction. I realized with a jolt that he was going to enter the store.
The cashier’s attention was elsewhere so I pulled Ahmed behind the counter. We stayed down as I heard Marius enter and ask the cashier for medicine. I clamped my hand on Ahmed’s mouth. It was then that the cashier moved his gaze to the shelf right behind us. His eyes fell on us and he was about to exclaim when I motioned to him not to talk, a pleading look on my face.
Alas, it was too late. Marius might have noticed the man’s gaze because he leaned over the counter. His eyes were fixed on us. He seemed too stunned to talk. The cashier looked from him to Ahmed and I, confused.
Then Marius found his voice. “Pesky kids. Always running off.” He chuckled, looking at the cashier, then turned to us. “Come on. Your Mom and I were looking for you.”
Ahmed looked at me, his expression full of panic. I shook my head frantically, turning to the cashier. “Please don’t let him take us. He kidnapped us. Please.” I looked at the cashier desperately.
Marius seemed to have had enough. He stepped around the counter and towards the back. “Come with me. Now.” He said, in a deadly voice. The cashier moved to block him as he figured out what was going on. “Don’t you dare touch them. I’ll call the police.”
Marius’ eyes filled with rage as he took out his gun and pointed it at the cashier. “Step away,” he said, threateningly. Startled, the man jumped back.
Suddenly, a voice behind Marius said, “Drop that weapon.”
Still frozen in place, I looked at where the sound had come from. My father stood there, holding a gun to Marius’ head. Behind him were our security guards, all of them looking thunderous. Immediately panicked, Marius dropped the gun. I sighed and felt Ahmed relax against me as the guards began to escort Marius away.
Relieved, I sprang to my feet and Ahmed did the same. In no time, our father had us in a tight embrace.
On the ride back home, everyone was quiet. I leaned back, recalling the events of the past few hours. As the memories flooded across my mind, I thought of what could have happened if I had not done what I did. I began to cry softly. I do not know whether that was because of the trauma or because of how relieved I was. All I knew was that I was glad it was over. I also knew that I would never take our security guards for granted, ever again.