Bobbie had managed quite well on the unsightly motorcycle and two days ago, she had had left it safely parked in Siem Reap, where she planned to have it returned to its owner in Bangkok as soon as she was sure she didn’t need it any longer.
She was now trekking through the jungle, assisted by a couple of local men whose job was mostly to spot snakes, when her aides both stopped dead.
“What’s the matter?” she asked in French, which everyone locally spoke to varying degrees.
“We go no further,” one of the men told her.
She sighed. Clearly there was some sort of superstition or other nonsense, but Bobbie didn’t have time for it.
“Suit yourselves. I have a job to do.” She paid them then, as they hastily retreated, she pulled out her map and compass and was double-checking her route when she heard footsteps approaching.
“You’re doing a rather poor job of sneaking up on me, and there’s no need for the sword, either,” she said in exasperation. It was going to be one of those irritating times when someone wanted to speak with her, and instead of doing the decent thing and arranging an appointment, they had sent a lackey who had been hired for his size and brute force rather than his positive attitude or potential leadership skills. It was the sound of the blade being slid out of its sheath that had given it away, otherwise the footsteps might have been that dogged Scotsman trying to sneak up on her.
She turned and absolutely did not roll her eyes when the brute brandished his sword at her and said, in broken English, “You, captive.” Slightly put out by the sheer bloody nuisance of this whole thing, she gritted her teeth and allowed the man to take her prisoner. She would escape later, and anyway, it would be useful to know who else was involved and what they wanted.
The lackey with the sword had taken Bobbie to a makeshift encampment of animal-skin tents. It screamed local tribe, but Bobbie suspected that this was more than a simple village. For starters, animal skins weren’t generally used for tents in the humid jungles of this part of the world. Suspicions aroused, Bobbie was led at sword point to a big tent, where she was pushed inside.
At first, everything looked pitch black, as her eyes tried to adjust to the new lighting. Then, she saw that she was not alone.
“Why is a western woman wandering through the jungle alone?” The voice, against all probability, was speaking English. But it wasn’t Sean’s voice that cut through the darkness: the heavy accent said the man was local. Bobbie squinted then opened her eyes widely to try and pick out more detail on the man in the tent with her. He had a huge beard but otherwise she couldn’t make out a lot.
“Why did you kidnap me?” she countered.
“I asked first,” he said, and she felt her pulse quickening at the force beneath his words. If he chose, he could snap her in half.
“I’m looking for a snake cult.”
“There are better ways of achieving spiritual one-ness,” he remarked.
“I’m an antiquarian. An explorer of the past. I want to find the snake cult that was in these parts a thousand years ago and, possibly, still exists today.”
“And then what?”
“What do you mean, ‘and then what’? And then I’ve found it. I can write about it. Put this place on a map.”
“That is all?”
“Is there anything else?” She felt a little nettled at the implication that her life’s work—exploration, and subsequently sharing her findings with the world—wasn’t purposeful enough to be a legitimate reason to find a snake cult.
“You’re in the way, little girl,” he said, speaking to a part of her that she didn’t want to know existed. “I’m going to have to put you somewhere safe, until current events are over.”
“What events?” Bobbie asked, still infuriated at being referred to as a little girl. She hated this man. All she wanted to do right now was to fight him, to prove that she wasn’t helpless just because she was a woman. Subtly, she tensed her right leg. The garter where she held her revolver was reassuringly tight. She was about to reach for it when the brute with the sword burst in and started speaking in an unfamiliar language.
The tone of the conversation was hurried and tense, and eventually, the huge man growled, “On your knees, woman, and stay in that corner. Be silent, or so help me, I’ll give you to the man who’s about to arrive.”
Despite her irritation and the general feeling that she was being dismissed, Bobbie was far too interested in finding out more about what was going on, because she sensed that there was a deeper mystery here than trying to stop an Englishwoman from finding an ancient snake cult. She decided to obey, for now. Anyway, it would be easier to escape if the redheaded chieftain was talking to someone else.
Kneeling in a corner passively, Bobbie watched a fair-haired man with blotchy pink skin enter the tent. He was flanked by two men who looked similar, but were clearly lackeys.
“Gottag, hövding Chen,” the man said. Bobbie’s brain took a moment to register that he spoke in Swedish.
“Good day, Herr Gunnarsson. How is the arms trade?” Chen ran his fingers through his beard nonchalantly. Nothing about this entire setup made any sense, and Bobbie intended to figure it all out.
“Very good. I got your message. I’m here to make my latest acquisition.” The blond man’s voice was cold and suggested that he had hurt many people in the past. The other man was going out of his way to be respectful. Bobbie wondered how people like this ever met one another in the first place. It wasn’t like the souks or bars were filled with them in the corners of the world where they all seemed to be hiding out.
“Which item were you interested in?” Chen asked.
Bobbie had heard the name before, but struggled to place it.
“The snake summoner.” Chen’s jaw clenched, and Bobbie watched him carefully arrange his countenance, but Herr Gunnarsson didn’t seem to notice.
“Indeed. There’s rumours of a snake cult around here,” the creepy Norseman remarked.
Bobbie’s heart paused for a moment as she listened intently. This sounded like the sort of thing that always seemed to find her eventually. Nine times out of ten, the legends surrounding any given artefact were poppycock, but Bobbie was fascinated that cultures grew up around even the craziest stories.
“They’ve had a revival lately.” Chen summed up everything Bobbie knew about the snake cult. She sat in silence, hoping he might give away their location.
“Indeed. According to my research, once every thousand years, a seven-headed giant snake can be summoned with the right ritual. It can be controlled by a special artefact.” Herr Gunnarsson sounded so serious that Bobbie had to try very hard not to snort with derision when she was supposed to remain unseen. She wasn’t sure why Chen was protecting her from Gunnarsson, but she had no wish to try her luck.
“And you think the Naga-Seik is that artefact,” Chen said. Gunnarsson nodded.
Bobbie silently looked heavenwards. She would be highly interested to know what had gone wrong inside the Scandinavian’s brain that he had made a leap in logic from here are some rumours of a snake cult all the way to this artefact must work exactly as the stories say, and it will be mine. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d come across people with these sorts of ideas, but it never ceased to astound her.
“So… let’s talk price. I could probably get a lot for selling it to the snake cult. Or a lot more if I put it on the open market.” Chen was shrewd and seemed to know his business.
“Indeed. But then, if you don’t sell it to them, I’m certain they won’t pay you a night time visit and burn down your entire encampment, along with everyone in it. Name your price.” The menace in the man’s voice was obvious, and despite her usual bravery, Bobbie shuddered.
“One hundred pounds.” Chen spoke a little too quickly and Bobbie thought he was eager to get rid of the Norseman.
“Good. Let’s trade.” Some words were exchanged with henchmen, then the Swedish ones brought money and Chen’s lackey brought the artefact. It was a little statue of a seven-headed snake. Bobbie thought she must be mistaken, but the eyes seemed to glow. When the Norseman touched it, the look on his face was disturbingly maniacal. “Perfect.” He pulled a gun on Chen. Bobbie pressed her lips together as fear gripped her.
“Time to go, young lady,” a voice whispered into her ear, then a hand clamped over Bobbie’s mouth and she was very firmly pulled under the bottom of the animal-skin tent, where she was released.
“You!” she whispered furiously, more from shock than anything else. Sean simply didn’t know when to quit. From the tent, there was no sound. Bobbie wondered what was happening, whether Gunnarsson was going to take the snake artefact or not, but she didn’t have the opportunity to find out. Grudgingly, she conceded that Sean had just saved her from a sticky situation, although she was sure she would have thought of something.
“Just in time by the looks of it. C’mon, lass.” Keeping low to the ground, he led the way out of the encampment. When they were almost at its edge, a shot rang out, then another. Birds flew up into the sky and Sean began to run, holding Bobbie’s hand so she had to follow. They were about a quarter of a mile away, ensconced in jungle once again, when they finally stopped running.
“We can’t just leave,” she said, trying very hard not to think about Chen, or what might have happened to him.
“Yes, we can. My motorbike is waiting for us in Siem Reap—thank you for the touching note you left for the owner—and I’m looking forward to riding it out of here. Those gunshots… it’s too dangerous.”
She groaned. “That was your motorcycle? Of course it was. How on Earth did you get it around the world?”
“It went in the baggage car of the various trains I’d taken, and I rode it in the places where there were no railways. When you left me on that platform in Rangoon, then hopped back on the train at the last minute, it went without me, but I got the next train instead, and I sent a telegram ahead telling them to keep the bike until I could claim it. You’ve caused me no end of bother, lass.”
She bridled at the accusation. “It’s not one-sided! You’ve caused me rather a bloody nuisance, too.”
“Little madam, you have a serious bottom-blistering due. D’you really want to make it worse by acting like none of this was your fault?”
“It wasn’t. I never asked you to be here.”
“Right, we’ll have less of that, Roberta.” She bristled as he used her full name. He quickly had her pinned face down on the jungle’s soft ground, and he flipped her skirt back. The next sound she heard was his belt being unbuckled.
“You can’t be serious. You’re a complete and utter oaf.” She tried to kick free but he paid her no mind.
“Aye, I’m dead serious. The last one didnae seem tae do the trick so I’m taking my belt to ye harder, this time.” His brogue had become less refined, and Bobbie guessed it was because he was too annoyed to speak correctly.
The belt landed over her thin underwear and she gasped. This was much worse than before, and it had taken her by surprise. He must have put a lot more force into it, and perhaps the fact she was lying flat rather than bent over something also made a difference, because it burned furiously in a wide line. His belt was made of a heavy leather, which didn’t help.
When it landed again, she stopped being so patient with him, and began struggling to get free. She wriggled her hips and kicked her legs backwards in the hope of catching him unawares and getting him off her. The third lick was harder, and she growled as she flailed her arms, still fighting him like an angry lioness. Unmoved by her struggles, he merely pinned her wrists to the small of her back and continued punishing her.
Her bottom was seared with angry welts, and a furious burn underscored it, with the separate welts aching on top of the overall heat that emanated from her cheeks.
“You’re deplorable!” she shot at him.
“I’ll have less of the insults, lassie. I can keep belting you for as long as it takes.”
“This isn’t fair,” she retorted, her face growing hot. How did he have this effect on her, when she usually managed to face down all sorts of sticky situations with dignity and tact? Breathing carefully, she tried to temper herself, but inside she was in turmoil. There was no way out of this, and she had never been forced to submit to someone before the Scotsman had appeared in her life. It was almost too humiliating for words. The stinging swats of the belt kept coming, but the pain seemed to die down a little as she accepted that this was inescapable. He stopped, and she remained where she was, gasping for air and trying her damnedest not to cry.
“Are you going to be more amenable, now?” he prompted.
“All things considered, I feel that I have been a veritable paragon of good behaviour.” She spoke into the leaves, too exhausted to raise her head. He had thoroughly taken her in hand.
Another sensation broiled beneath the lingering burn: she hardly dared put a name to it. Normally, when it came to men, she was very forthright about what she did or didn’t want, but how could she possibly admit that she was aroused by the severe rump-roasting he’d just delivered? It hardly bore thinking about, even as her sex throbbed and ached for some relief. With a start, she remembered that the same thing had happened on the train, too. What was wrong with her? Ashamed, she sheepishly looked up at Sean and for some reason her gaze lingered on a bulge in his trousers. She gasped, then caught his gaze.
“Do you feel it, too?” she asked, struggling to form coherent words.
“Yes. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon.”
“Spanked a lot of women, have you?” she retorted, her desire suddenly overshadowed by a fit of jealousy. It didn’t make any sense. She didn’t even like him… did she?
“A gentleman never kisses and tells.”
She snorted derisively. “And you’re a gentleman?”
There was a long pause, as Bobbie digested the easy cheek of him calling himself a gentleman. He’d clearly grown up middle class, probably gone to a good school, but he could hardly be called landed gentry.
“I would have gotten along just fine without you,” she said at length, although the fire from her earlier words was dampened by the sting in her derriere.
“Where would you be, right now, if it weren’t for me?”
“In that tent, planning my escape.”
“Wrong. You’d be in Bangkok looking for a tuk-tuk driver or elephant wrangler willing to get you into Cambodia. Don’t forget the motorcycle.”
“How did you get here so quickly without it?” It was something she’d wondered about ever since he pulled her out of the tent. There was no way he could have got here so fast.
“Scotch mist.” He winked at her. It was disarming. In her time on the run from a mundane life, there had been numerous occasions when Bobbie had been leered at, towered over, and glared at, and she had also caused many raised eyebrows, but to her knowledge, this was the first time in her adult life that a man had winked at her. Somehow, beneath the staid Boy Scout trying to doggedly drag her back to Blighty, there was a charming and possibly playful man who was amused at the situation.
That was when Bobbie finally admitted to herself that she really had caused him a lot of trouble.
“I am sorry about the fact you’re involved,” she told him. “It was nothing to do with me; my parents won’t listen to reason, but all the same, it must be a tad inconvenient for you to have ended up in the Orient when you thought you just needed to fetch a girl back from Italy or some such.”
“I was rather hoping you’d head home after Istanbul,” he said wistfully.
“Constantinople. Fascinating, but the Turks won’t let it be anybody else’s business.” There were plenty of mysteries about Constantinople, but they wouldn’t be solved until the Turks allowed foreigners to investigate.
“Shame, it’s been gone for such a long time, you’d think they wouldn’t mind.”
“Apparently not.” She imagined how nice it would be to sit in a Turkish bath house after a day like this, with the hot water soothing away her troubles. Any bath would be wonderful about now. It would be nice for an hour or two, but what then? Dinner parties, dress shopping… where did it end? All the cripplingly boring in-between times when she was expected to wait quietly for the next event. If she went back to civilization, she would have to do all the things she was trying to get away from. “Anyway, this place is far more interesting,” she added.
“It must be, if you’ve come all this way, but what could possibly be out here, in the middle of a nondescript jungle in an out-of-the-way French colony?”
“Oh, there’s so much here. You would scarcely believe all the things I’ve read about. There’s been a deep-rooted culture here for over a thousand years; an incredible blending of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and then there’s the fragments of evidence that a snake cult might have existed, too. I would love to find some evidence for it all.”
“You like evidence, don’t you?” The tone of his voice implied that he thought this was a peculiarity. Bobbie supposed that even amongst scholars, it wasn’t always the case that they had a shred of evidence to support their longwinded writings. In fact, many of them would take the evidence and say whatever they wanted about it. Often, facts were sacrificed to make way for romantic conjecture. While she didn’t think over-hesitance was a virtue, she tended to be more pragmatic than most when she wrote about the sites she’d worked on, preferring to state what she found and cross-reference it with historical notes rather than inventing entire narratives based on one-off finds.
“I thrive on it. If there’s no solid evidence, something might as well have never existed. History can’t be trusted unless the artefacts are there to support it. And people shouldn’t conveniently ignore evidence, either.”
“And this snake cult?”
“Chen—the chieftain; I don’t know what his story is, but he’s probably dead now—said he’d found a site that pertained to it. You dragged me out of there before I learned where it was.”
“I’m not sorry.” He sounded almost proud of the way he’d rescued her. She supposed he would be, and she knew she ought to be grateful, but really she hadn’t exhausted every possible means of saving herself so it was a little jarring.
“Well, I am. He sold an artefact from the site to a Swedish arms dealer, Gunnarsson, who thinks the item in question can summon a giant seven-headed snake. I don’t know how one grows to be an adult with ideas like that, but there you have it.”
“Aye, it certainly seems a bit farfetched. Look, I can see that this is important to you, but the jungle is dangerous and you shouldn’t be out here on your own. You’ve already been kidnapped once. We are going to stay in this area for a few more days. Look for the evidence you wanted, and regardless of if you find anything or not, we will set off for Britain on Friday morning.”
Bobbie sighed. “You’re going to keep hounding me, aren’t you?”
“Yep. You’re stuck with me until I get you home. And that means you have to do as I say from now on.”
“Or else what?”
“I’ll take my belt to you again. Or perhaps I’ll find other ways to punish you, instead.”
His tone made Bobbie thrill. It was filled with so much promise of dark consequences, and even though she didn’t want to be belted again, some part of her was curious about what else he might think of.
“If you irritate me too much, I’ll tie you up, put you in a sack, and take you back to England regardless of whether you’ve had ample time to investigate snake cults or not.”
That got her attention, and she didn’t like being over a barrel, but some part of her wanted him to overpower her, simply to prove that he could do it. If only the consequences of submitting to him weren’t her return to Britain. She nodded slowly. “All right. But you should know I’ll just make off again the very next time I want to go and investigate a far-off land.”
“And I’ll come after you again.”
“Why does it matter so much to you? I’m just going about my life, minding my own business, and I don’t understand why that bothers so many people to the extent that they insist on conspiring behind my back to make me fit a mould I will never occupy.”
“That’s no concern of mine. Your parents are worried, and they asked me to protect you, and that’s the start and end of it. If you want to gallivant around the world, you should do it safely and respectfully, not being kidnapped and who knows what else, so your parents aren’t sitting at home at their wits’ end.”
“Did anyone ever tell you something? You’re a crashing bore,” Bobbie knew she was being contrary, but she couldn’t help it. He was annoying her.
“Did anyone ever tell you something? You act like a whining child when you’ve lost. You should be more sporting.”
“Usually, I am.” She flushed furiously as she admitted that. Something about him really did seem to bring out her churlish, competitive, and above all, worst side.
“Come, let’s head back to the nearest village and get some supper, then we can rest for the night and you can keep looking in the morning. Hopefully by then the arms dealer is long gone.”
Bobbie bowed her head in acquiescence, then Sean led her back to his motorbike. They rode over the rough terrain until they reached the village.
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