Necessary Evil preview
AL HAJOF; EASTERN IRAQ; 1990;
If they could reach the village they might stay alive.
All three men knew that.
As they ran over the burning sand they kept their wide eyes fixed on the minaret rising from the cluster of red stone buildings in the distance.
In the heat haze it was like a beacon, beckoning them to what they prayed would be safety.
The sand dunes and the village swam before them behind a curtain of shimmering heat. A product both of the blistering sun at its zenith in a cloudless sky, and also of their dehydration.
They'd been running for hours. Now they sought reserves of energy they thought they didn't have.
But fear was a great motivator. Somehow they forced themselves on. Across sand that was, by turns, as hard as concrete or as soft and shifting as mounds of dust.
Sweat soaked their clothes.
One had discarded his tunic. The raw weals on his back open to the glare of the sun. When he fell, particles of sand stuck to the wounds and the congealed blood. But he hauled himself on, sucking in great lungfuls of burning air. It was like inhaling the fumes from a blast furnace.
All of the men were weak with thirst and exhaustion. The second of them occasionally slowed his pace as the pain in his right leg became too intense. But, despite his suffering he drove himself on. Towards the village that promised shelter, even if it was only for precious minutes.
Minutes out of the savage sunlight. Respite from heat that felt as if it was boiling the blood in their veins. And there might be water there.
The thought spurred all three of them on.
They crested one of the sand dunes, the first of the men stumbling.
He hit the hot sand and rolled to the bottom, coughing and spluttering. He spat the dried particles from his mouth. One part of his mind told him to lie down on the sand and wait for death. Wait for the sun to burn him. To suck what little moisture remained in his body from him. It would all be over then. All the suffering. All the pain.
But the other part of him wanted to live. To continue running.
The other two hurried down behind him, trying to dig their feet into the slope to slow their headlong progress.
Neither waited to help the first man to his feet.
There wasn't time. They couldn't afford to think about anyone but themselves. About no life but their own.
The fallen man clawed his way across the sand for a few yards, the palms of his hands burning on the surface. Then, with a gasp of despair, he hauled himself to his knees. Gasping for breath he managed to stand, swaying uncertainly for a second. Then he began to move again.
Somehow he forced his legs to carry him on across the scorched terrain.
The village couldn't be more than half a mile away now.
Ahead of him, the other two continued on their stumbling way, never once looking back at him.
He stopped for a second. Every breath drawn into his lungs was like inhaling fire.
He wiped sweat from his stinging eyes and blinked to try and clear his vision.
Half a mile.
Something grabbed his ankles.
Something that moved beneath the sand.
It gripped him with incredible strength and now, despite his breathlessness, he found the power to scream.
The other two men turned and looked back at him. Saw him rooted to one spot, his arms flailing, his eyes staring madly down at his feet.
He looked to them imploringly for interminable seconds then, as they watched, he was dragged down into the sand.
With one dizzying movement, he disappeared beneath the shifting particles like a drowning man beneath the waves.
A huge gout of blood fountained up from the place where he'd disappeared, rising like a crimson geyser before spattering the desert all around.
Every muscle screaming, their hearts and lungs on the point of bursting, the other two men ran on.
© Shaun Hutson 2004