“We can’t do this on our own,” Seichan said, striding fast next to him. “A guarded camp ahead of us, mercenary soldiers behind us—not great odds.”
Gray had already come to the same conclusion. He had to trust his gut that Amanda was here, that there was a reason for such lethal and overt reaction to their presence in the mountains. He shifted his shoulder pack and removed his satellite phone.
It was time to call in the cavalry.
That meant reaching Washington.
Gray dialed up Sigma command, hoping the quantum encryption built into the phone would keep the call from reaching the wrong ears. After a long moment and a series of passwords, he heard a familiar voice.
Gray let out a hard breath of relief. “Director, I believe we’ve found where Amanda was taken. I’m not sure she’s still here, but as a precaution, we should mobilize SEAL Team Six to my coordinates, so they’re ready when—”
“Already done,” Painter said, cutting him off. “I got approval from the defense secretary a few minutes ago. The SEAL team is en route to your position with orders to engage only if the president’s daughter is positively identified. They’re about forty minutes out.”
Forty minutes? That may be too late.
Confirming this, the roar of engines in the distance grew steadily louder. Amanda didn’t have forty minutes.
A disconcerting question rose in Gray’s mind. “Director, how do you know our position?”
“We’ve been monitoring your progress for the past half-hour.”
Gray searched around him, then saw Tucker send his shepherd running ahead, hugging the forest’s edge.
Tucker must have left his dog’s camera running since the roadblock.
“It was Kat’s idea,” Painter explained.
Of course it was. If anyone had the brains to find them without raising an alarm, it was Kat Bryant. She had proved countless times to be an elusive and crafty spider when it came to the intelligence web.
“Kat set up a passive search algorithm, set to the wireless frequency of the dog’s camera. Nothing that would trigger any alarm bells. We could watch over your shoulders without giving away your location.”
Gray was grateful for the covert support, but it also made him vaguely uneasy. In the future, he’d have to make sure to circumvent that ability if he wanted total privacy.
“Audio is bad, though,” Painter finished. “Cuts in and out, so keep that in mind. We can see you, but not always hear you.”
Ahead, Tucker came running back toward him.
That had to mean trouble.
“Have to sign off,” Gray said.
Painter’s voice went hard. “I can see why. Go. But be—”
Gray cut him off before he could warn him to be careful.
It didn’t need to be said—shouldn’t be said. It was like wishing an actor good luck instead of break a leg.
Tucker came up, breathing hard. “Another Land Rover is blocking the road ahead, counted six men around it. Another handful in the camp.” A worried frown creased his face. “Look at this.”
Tucker held up his phone, displaying a dog’s-eye view of the facility.
A large tent-cabin, raised on pilings, stood in the middle of a cold camp. Around it, ash pits marked old bonfires. Garbage, rusted stakes, oil stains, along with a few collapsed tents, abandoned in haste, were all that was left of a large campsite. A few shreds of camouflage netting still draped from the trees at the forest’s edge, but that was it.
“Looks like most of the camp bugged out already,” Tucker said. “I’d say no longer than an hour ago.”
Gray felt the pit of his stomach opening to despair.
Were they already too late?
“But I did see shadows moving inside that cabin,” Tucker offered. “Someone’s still there.”
Seichan overheard. “Maybe they left their victim here, fearing reprisals, and scattered.”
Gray grasped at this thin hope.
Kowalski joined them. “So, what are we doing?”
Jain stood at his shoulder, bearing the same question on her face.
They needed a plan from here.
He ran various scenarios in his head. “We can’t risk panicking the remaining soldiers. We also don’t want to needlessly expose ourselves to the enemy combatants if Amanda has already been moved. We’ll do her no good dead.”
“Then what?” Kowalski asked.
Gray turned his focus upon Tucker. “We need to see inside that cabin.”
July 2, 3:24 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Tucker lay on his belly with Kane at the edge of the forest. Forty yards of open space stretched between his position and the cabin. With men milling at the entry road and three more soldiers scavenging the grounds ahead for anything of value, any attempt to cross here would be readily spotted.
Even a dog on the run.
Tucker stared through his rifle’s scope, studying the terrain. A lone soldier pushed a dented wheelbarrow past his field of view, stopping occasionally to pick something out of the discarded debris.
The radio scratched in his ear. It was Kowalski, reporting in from his post down the road, acting as rear lookout. “Company has arrived. Trucks—three of ’em—are reaching the turnoff.”
Gray responded on all channels. “Kowalski, rally back to our position.”
The rest of the team—Gray and the two women—had crept forward through the forest and lay in wait several meters from the lone Land Rover that guarded the ruins of the camp. They all waited for Tucker’s signal. If Amanda was in the tent, they’d ambush the vehicle, trusting the element of surprise and the cover of the jungle to overcome the enemy’s superior odds. If Amanda wasn’t here, they’d all retreat into the woods and regroup.
Gray spoke with a note of urgency. “Tucker, now or never.”
“Still, not clear,” Tucker whispered under his breath.
Thirty yards away, the man with the wheelbarrow picked up a sleeveless DVD, judged it, then flung it away with a flip of his wrist.
It seemed everyone was a critic.
Keep moving, asshole.
“Tucker,” Gray pressed, “the other trucks are turning and heading this way. You’ve got two minutes, or we have to start shooting and hope for the best.”
Tucker stared at the AK-47 slung over the soldier’s shoulder as the man continued sifting through the debris.
I’m not going to send Kane out just to be killed.
Tucker flashed back to that painful moment in Afghanistan. He again felt the pop of his ears as the rescue helicopter lifted off, felt the rush of hot air. He had been clinging to Kane, both bloodied by the firefight, by the exploded ordnance. But Tucker had never taken his eyes off Abel, his partner’s littermate, who’d knocked them both clear before the buried IED detonated. If Kane had been Tucker’s right arm, Abel was his left. He’d trained them both—but he’d never readied himself for this moment.
Abel raced below, limping on three legs, searching for an escape. Taliban forces closed in from all directions. Tucker strained for the door, ready to fling himself out, to go to his friend’s aid. But two soldiers pinned him, restraining him.
Tucker yelled for Abel.
He was heard. Abel stopped, staring up, panting, his eyes sharp and bright, seeing him. They shared that last moment, locked together.
Until a flurry of gunfire severed that bond forever.
Tucker’s grip tightened on his rifle now, refusing to forget that lesson. He had a small black paw print tattooed on his upper left shoulder, a permanent reminder of Abel, of his sacrifice. He would never waste another life like that, to send another dog to certain slaughter.
“I need a distraction,” he radioed back fiercely to Gray. “Something to pull attention away from here. Kane’ll get shot before he can get halfway to the cabin.”
The answer to his desperate plea came from an unexpected location—from directly behind Tucker.
“I do it,” said a squeaky voice with the strain of forced bravery. “No want Kane shot.”
Tucker rolled around in time to see Baashi dart away into the forest. Cursing under his breath, he radioed Gray. “Baashi followed us. Heard me. I think he’s going to do something stupid.”
Kowalski responded, “See him. I’ll grab him.” Then, seconds later, defeat tinged his voice. “Kid’s a friggin’ jackrabbit.”
A shout cracked across the forest, coming from the direction of the narrow road. “ISKA WARAN!” Baashi called out. “HA RIDIN!”
Tucker pictured him approaching the Land Rover, hands in the air.
A rapid exchange followed in Somali.
Jain translated via the radio. “He’s telling them his mother is sick. He came a long way from his village to see the doctor here.”
Tucker’s fingers tightened on the stock of his rifle. The three soldiers adrift in the camp moved toward the gate, drawn by the commotion. For better or worse, Tucker got his distraction.
He reached and gave Kane a warm squeeze on his ear. They didn’t have time for their usual good-bye ritual.
With a twinge of foreboding, he flicked his wrist, leaving a finger pointing toward the cabin.
Kane took off like a shot, dashing low across the open field.
“DAAWO!” Baashi called out.
“He’s asking for medicine,” Jain said.
He got something else.
A savage spat of gunfire burst forth.
Seichan watched Baashi dance backward, dirt exploding in front of his toes. Laughter followed from the soldiers gathered in front of the Land Rover, enjoying their sport.
A hard man with a jagged scar splitting his chin and turning his lower lip into a perpetual scowl waved the others to silence and sauntered with the haughtiness of a reigning conqueror. He had his helmet tilted back, his flak jacket open. He rested a palm on a holstered pistol as he approached Baashi, who cowered, half-bowed under the other’s gaze.