I was this boy, she thought, abused and tortured into bloody servitude.

But she also knew there was one distinct difference between them. She pictured Baashi playing with the dog, carefree and happy. Unlike her, he was still young, malleable enough to rediscover his humanity.

She let her fingers drop from the dragon pendant, the memory of her mother dissolving away into faded whispers in the night and soft kisses on her cheek—but even then there had been tears, as if her mother knew she was about to lose her child.

The memory sparked a sudden insight regarding their current mission. “She’s a mother, too,” Seichan said, drawing Gray’s attention. “The president’s daughter …”

His eyes narrowed on hers—then widened with understanding. His fingers found her hand and squeezed his thanks, then remained there.

She stared down, wanting to feel more, but at this moment, all she felt was loss—for her childhood, her mother, even Gray. How could she ask more of his heart when she wasn’t sure what was left of her own?

“Amanda’s not only unusual because she’s white,” Gray explained to the others, “but also because she’s pregnant.”

Alden nodded. “Such a condition is rare in a kidnap victim. Someone might have made note of it.”

“And hopefully talked about it.” Gray turned to Baashi. “Have you heard anything about a pregnant woman being moved into the mountains near here? Someone with a large belly?”

To emphasize, Gray pantomimed a swollen stomach.

Baashi twisted his lips in thought and sat quietly for a moment, then slowly sagged. “No. I hear nothing about a big-belly woman with the pirates.”

Seichan studied the boy. He stared too hard at the map, kept his attention diverted away. Even his arm fell from around Kane’s neck.

“He knows something,” Seichan said. Tucker wasn’t the only one capable of reading emotions buried under the surface.

Especially this boy.

I was this boy.

“He wouldn’t lie to me,” Alden said.

“He’s not lying,” Seichan agreed, but angrily. “We’re just not asking the right question.”

Baashi’s gaze met hers. Fear shone there—and resistance.

How many times had the same emotions warred inside her?

Tucker came and sat next to the boy. “It’s okay, Baashi. Kane and I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

A silent hand signal followed: a flick of fingers, a digit pointed at the boy’s lap. Baashi didn’t see it, but Kane obeyed. The dog came forward and rested his muzzle on the boy’s knee.

Baashi placed his palm on the dog’s shoulders, drawing strength there.

“It’s okay to tell us,” Alden said softly. “No one’s mad.”

Baashi glanced sheepishly up at his father figure. “I no lie. I hear no stories about big-belly woman.”

“I never thought you did, my boy. But what is scaring you? What are you so afraid to tell us?”

He finally broke down. “I hear other stories. Of a demon man in the mountains. He make a place like this.” Baashi waved his other arm in a circle.

“Like the hospital here.”

Baashi nodded. “But he only look after the big bellies on the woman.”

“He takes care of pregnant women?” Alden asked, repeating Gray’s pantomime of a swollen stomach.

“Yes, but they say bad things. Mothers go there. Never come back. A very bad place.”

Tucker patted the boy on the shoulder. “You did good, Baashi.”

The boy refused to look up, showing no relief.

Gray shifted to the map. “Do the stories say where in the mountains this doctor works?”

“Yes,” Baashi said, but he still wouldn’t look at the map.

“Can you show Kane?” Tucker said.

The boy glanced from soldier to dog—then slowly nodded. “I show you. But it’s a bad place.”

As the boy reached for the map, Kowalski burst into the room. “We’ve got a chopper inbound.”

Alden seemed unconcerned. “They have medical drops all the time. Could be another patient, supplies, or—”

Major Jain shoved past Kowalski and dove inside. “Incoming! Get down!”

Gray rolled Seichan to the floor. Tucker and Alden sheltered the boy, pinning him under their bodies. Baashi clung tightly to Kane.

A sharp whistling screamed across the roof of the hut—followed by a massive explosion that shook thatch from the roof.

Jain returned to the door.

Another sharp scream of a rocket erupted.

She leaped back with even worse news. “This one’s coming straight at us!”


July 2, 5:04 A.M. EST

Washington, DC

Painter woke to the ringing of his cell phone, a crescendo of escalating notes that set his heart to thudding hard in his chest. He lay in bed next to Lisa, their naked limbs tangled together, his hand resting on the curve of her backside.

She sat up with him, going instantly alert, trained from years of being on-call at a hospital. The sheets shed from her breasts; her eyes shone in the predawn darkness. She also knew that particular ringtone, set for extreme emergencies.

Painter grabbed his cell phone from the nightstand and answered it.

“Director, we’ve got a problem.” It was Kat Bryant, calling from Sigma headquarters. He glanced at the clock. It was barely after five in the morning.

When he’d left last night with Lisa, Kat had still been in the bunker, running logistics for Gray’s operation and coordinating the various intelligence branches. Had she ever left?

“What’s happened?” he asked.

“I’m fielding some frantic S.O.S.’s out of that UNICEF camp in Somalia, where Gray was headed. Reports of rocket fire. Some sort of attack.”

“Do we have eyes on it?”

“Not yet. I’m already working with NRO . I tried to raise Gray, but so far there’s been no response.”

Likely a tad busy.

“What about support? We have the Navy SEAL team cooling its heels in neighboring Djibouti.”

“I can get them airborne, but it’ll still be forty to fifty minutes for them to reach that inland camp.”

Painter closed his eyes, his mind racing through various parameters and scenarios. If he called in the SEAL team, it could threaten the entire mission, expose his hand too early. SEAL Team Six had been assigned here specifically to extract the president’s daughter—not to play UN peacekeepers.

“Do we have any idea who is attacking?” Painter asked.

“The camp has been raided twice in the last ninety days. Both drug runs. And two months ago, a doctor got kidnapped by one of the local warlords. This attack may have nothing to do with Gray or the search for Amanda.”

Painter wasn’t buying it. He pictured the assassination of Amur Mahdi. The enemy seemed to know their every move. With all of the various intelligence agencies engaged in this mission—and now the British SRR—something was leaking out.

Painter trusted his own organization, but there were too many cooks in this international kitchen—not to mention the president’s family. The leak could be coming from anywhere.

Painter had to make a tough decision. He could not lose focus. He had to preserve the SEAL team and its operational readiness for a possible fast extraction.

“Director?” Kat asked.

He kept his voice firm. “Get me eyes in the field as soon as you can, but for now, Gray’s team is on their own.”

A short pause followed, then Kat responded, “Understood.”

Lisa’s hand slipped into his. She didn’t say a word, offering only her warmth.

“Should I delay the mission to South Carolina?” Kat asked.

Painter remembered the scheduled investigation into the clinic where Amanda had her in vitro fertilization performed. He could not escape the feeling that Amanda’s sudden flight to the Seychelles had something to do with her child. First, the assassination of Amur, and now this new attack on the hospital camp—somebody intended for Amanda never to be found.

“No,” he said, glancing at Lisa. “We’ll head over to Sigma command right now. I want you both out on that first flight to Charleston.”

A longer delay followed. Painter wondered if he’d lost Kat—then she came back on the line. “Director, I’ve got a few captured still shots of the camp. From a French weather satellite. They’re not the best, but I’m sending them to your phone.”

Painter pulled the device from his ear and switched to speaker as he waited for the image to fill the small screen. Line by line, the horror of the situation in Somalia revealed itself.

The image offered a high aerial view. Few details were discernible, especially with the thick pall of smoke obscuring most of the camp. Tiny dots represented people and vehicles trying to escape the attack. Overhead, the blurring image of a helicopter hovered above the chaos, like some predatory bird, waiting to pick off the weak.

Kat’s small voice emerged over the speaker. “Did you get the sat-photo?”

“Got it.”

Lisa peered over his shoulder, covering her mouth with a hand.

Painter struggled to keep to his original plan. It was easier to abandon Gray’s team to a bad situation when it wasn’t staring him in the face. But no matter how tough or callous, he knew his original decision was the correct one.

With a few final instructions, he signed off with Kat and lowered the phone. He stared out into the darkness.

Someone desperately wanted to stop Amanda from being found.

But who?

12:12 P.M. East Africa Time

Cal Madow mountains, Somalia

Dr. Edward Blake held the radio handset to his ear. He stood in the communications tent, crammed with gear and festooned with satellite dishes. The swelter of the day drew beads of perspiration down his forehead.

But he knew all of that sweat was not from the heat alone.

He even held his white safari hat in his other hand—not because he was indoors, but because of the presence at the other end of the line. Few personages ever intimidated him. He had been raised in an aristocratic family in Leeds, whose lineage included earls and dukes, all distantly related to the royal family. At estate dinners throughout the ages, their home had hosted famous figures of past and present, from the wartime leader General George Patton to entertainers who had been knighted by the queen. In Oxford, his roommate had been a billionaire’s son, a prince out of Saudi Arabia, a deadly man who would eventually head a Muslim fundamentalist group until he’d been caught and hung.