From the terrain they traveled, she understood the necessity for such modifications. The road was little more than a muddy track through the dark jungle. Somalia suffered from an arid climate, but the rainy season—called gu, she’d overheard—had just ended. These highlands, bordering the Gulf of Aden, received most of that rain. And what didn’t fall here as precipitation remained as thick fog.
A jarring bump threw her high. Only her seat belt kept her from flying out of the truck. She had initially thought of doing just that, of leaping free and taking her chances out in the dark jungle. But seated beside her was a heavyset guard, armed and sweating, chewing khat, a local stimulant used by nearly everyone. A second, larger truck followed at their heels, making any chance of escape impossible.
And she ultimately knew that any attempt would put more than her own life at risk.
She pushed the lap strap of the seat belt lower, below the bulge of her belly and above her hip bones. She had to protect her child. The baby boy growing in her womb was more important than her own well-being. He was the reason she and her husband had risked this flight halfway around the world.
To keep you safe …
And now her baby had fallen into another set of hands, becoming a tool to generate a larger ransom by the pirates. She remembered the Brit’s hungry eyes on her belly as she was taken off the yacht. Here, life was a commodity to buy and sell, even the new life growing in her belly.
Oh, Mack, I need you.
She closed her eyes, her heart constricting with the last memory of her husband, the fear and love shining in Mack’s eyes. She shied away from the horror that followed, his severed head tossed upon the bed where they’d made such careful love only hours earlier. But she had no time to grieve for her husband.
She drew a long, steadying breath, taking in the damp and redolent smell of junipers and wild lavender of the dense forest. Though numb with grief and terror, she had to stay strong. In the South, it was unseemly to be caught sweating in public. On the campaign trail with her father, she had learned to maintain a placid and friendly exterior—even when screaming on the inside. Instead, it was all smiles, handshakes, and warm pats on the back. Even with your enemies … especially with your enemies.
So, she continued to cooperate with her captors. Jumping when they said jump, remaining always pliant and obedient. Still, all the while she watched. It was another lesson from her father, his words echoing in her head, explaining the best way to gain the upper hand.
Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.
And that’s what she intended to do. So far, the pirates gave no indication they knew she was the president’s daughter. They’d not even questioned her yet. In fact, they’d barely said a word. A grunt here or there, a pantomimed instruction, a few terse orders. Mostly about drinking water.
We don’t want anything to happen to your baby.
The warning had come from the man seated in the passenger seat up front, the Brit with his thin mustache and impeccable attire. He remained the only consistent presence around her—though he’d ignored her most of the day, bent over a laptop computer attached to a satellite phone and GPS navigation unit.
She studied the back of his head, trying to figure him out, searching for a weakness. He tapped at his laptop and the screen changed to a topographic map. She feigned a kink in her back to stretch forward, trying to peek at the screen, to discern some idea of where she was and where they were going. But her guard yanked her back, his hand lingering over her left breast, which was tender and swollen. She slapped his fingers away, which only earned her a lascivious leer.
Defeated, she stared sullenly out at the misty forest.
Exhaustion and fear had stretched the day’s journey into a blur. At dawn, they’d made landfall at a small coastal town, a booming shantytown of bars, hotels, restaurants, and whorehouses, all serving the pirate trade. And from the number of expensive cars lining newly paved streets and half-constructed villas along the coast, it was plainly a lucrative and thriving business. To protect that industry, militiamen swerved through the streets in Mercedes SUVs, weapons bristling from rolled-down windows, making sure no one attempted to rescue any of their hostages.
And there must have been others like her.
As their boat had entered into port, she’d spotted numerous captured vessels: fishing trawlers, sailboats, a sleek yacht, and, anchored out in the deeper waters, an oil tanker. They’d only remained in town for less than an hour. There, she was handed over to another pirate gang and put on a hot, poorly ventilated Volkswagen bus out of town.
They drove half a day through lands hammered dry and flat by the merciless sun, the featureless landscape only broken by the occasional village of dry huts. They’d stopped only long enough for her to urinate, which was often, and humiliating each time. In the distance, mountains had loomed, seeming to grow higher with each passing mile.
Soon it became clear that the broken spine of rocky peaks was their destination. Upon reaching a village nestled in the scrubby foothills, the gang changed yet again, but not before a heated argument ensued, accompanied by a machismo display of shaken weapons and hurled threats. Finally, the Brit had facilitated the exchange of additional funds, bills banded in thick bundles, and Amanda found herself transferred into this old safari vehicle headed into the misty highlands.
A metallic snap drew her attention forward as the Brit closed his laptop with an air of finality. The reason became clear. A fiery glow appeared in the forest ahead, turning the wisps of fog into crimson trails threaded through the dark-green jungle. She smelled roasting meat and woodsmoke.
With a final haul of fifty yards, the Land Rover broke into an open glade in the jungle. Overhead, camouflage netting masked the camp below, giving the space a cavernous feel. A trio of small bonfires illuminated the hidden glade, along with a few electric lamps on poles.
The Land Rover pulled to the side and parked beside a handful of other vehicles. Additionally, a trio of camels, settled for the night, raised their heads to study the newcomers.
Likewise, Amanda, her eyes huge, tried to make sense of the camp. A neat circle of military-style tents surrounded a larger structure that looked like a picturesque gabled house, raised on pilings a yard off the ground. Across the front, a quaint wooden porch held a pair of deck chairs draped with mosquito netting. It looked like the jungle home of some African missionary. Furthering that impression, a large bloodred cross decorated one side of the building.
But as the Land Rover drew to a halt, the charming illusion evaporated. The house was actually a makeshift tent-cabin, with white tarpaulin stretched over a wooden pole-frame. And the crimson cross was less religious in appearance and more medical, like something borrowed from the American Red Cross. Only this cross had strange markings along its lengths, a twisting and coiling pattern that looked vaguely familiar.