Before she could understand what nagged her, the Brit pulled open her door and held out his hand to assist her.
“Home sweet home,” he said without any sarcasm in his voice.
She climbed out, unsteady, supporting her belly, and searched around. The steady chug of a diesel generator mocked the wild beating of her heart.
Men and women climbed out of tents to eye the new arrivals. Most of those faces were black, African, but they didn’t have the starved and desperate look of the pirates. Even the weapons in view looked modern and well-kept.
What is going on here?
The other faces matched the Brit’s: white, European, professional. This last assessment came from the number of them wearing blue scrubs, like they’d freshly stepped out of a modern hospital for a smoke break.
The Brit led her through the circle of tents and toward the makeshift cabin, trailed by her guard. She climbed the steps to the small porch.
A spring-loaded door opened as they reached the cabin. A tall woman joined them, her blond hair trimmed into a short, athletic bob. She was young and fresh-faced, as if she just slipped out of a swimsuit ad and into surgical scrubs. Belying that image was the severity of her expression, especially her narrowed eyes. She took in everyone with a single steel-blue glance, barely noting Amanda. Her gaze settled on the Brit.
“Everything is ready, Dr. Blake.”
Amanda swung toward the Brit, surprised.
The man noted her consternation. “I’m sorry. I never did properly introduce myself.” He held out his hand. “Dr. Edward Blake. Ob/gyn.”
She didn’t take his hand. Instead, she stared beyond the blonde’s shoulder and into the cabin. A hospital bed rested against the far wall. Beside it stood an IV pole and a bank of monitoring equipment. On the other side, a technician lubricated the transvaginal probe of an ultrasound unit.
Dr. Blake seemed to take no offense that Amanda had refused his hand. Instead, he rubbed his palms together.
“Okay, then, Mrs. Gant-Bennett. Why don’t we step inside?”
Amanda bit back her shock at the mention of her name.
He knows who I am …
Dr. Blake motioned with his arm. “We should check on how your baby boy is doing after the long journey. We can’t let anything happen to him, can we? He’s much too important.”
Amanda backed away in horror, her worst nightmare coming true.
Not only did they know who she was, they knew what she carried.
Hands gripped her shoulders from behind and shoved her toward the open door.
Please, she prayed. Please someone help me.
July 1, 8:34 P.M. East Africa Time
“They’ll take good care of her,” Amur Mahdi promised. “At least for now.”
“Why do you say that?” Gray asked.
Seichan looked equally doubtful. She was dressed handsomely in jeans and a local guntiino, a bright length of crimson cloth, knotted at the shoulder and draped to the waist. The look must have worked, because Amur kept casting sidelong glances in her direction.
Next to her, Kowalski, outfitted in regular street clothes, simply swirled his tea, looking inattentive.
The four of them shared a table at a seaside restaurant overlooking the Somali port of Boosaaso. The open-air patio looked out onto the Gulf of Aden, the moonlit harbor crowded with massive ships bearing flags of various Arab states, along with the triangular sails of hundreds of smaller, wooden-keeled dhows.
Gray’s team had arrived at the Bender Qassim International Airport outside of Boosaaso forty minutes ago, traveling under the cover of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. The relief group maintained a presence here in Puntland, the northeastern state of Somalia, where most of the country’s lawless pirates operated. Boosaaso was the main crossroads for this region and the best base of operations to begin gathering intelligence.
This introductory meeting was with Amur Mahdi—a former pirate turned CIA asset. He was an older man dressed in regional attire, which included loose trousers and a sarong-like kilt, known as a macawiis. He also wore a traditional embroidered cap atop his grizzled hair. The man had lost one leg at the knee several years back, an injury that sidelined him from his former profession as a pirate.
The sight of the prosthetic limb reminded Gray of his father, who’d been similarly disabled. A twinge of guilt flared at being half a world away from him, but he fought it down and concentrated on the conversation.
The meeting had been arranged by Director Crowe, channeled through various intelligence agencies. The goal of this meeting was to evaluate the current situation in Somalia. While word was still pending on the search for the raiders’ ship via satellite, Painter wanted eyes on the ground.
Meanwhile, a pair of Black Hawks idled at a U.S. base to the north, in the neighboring tiny East African nation of Djibouti. SEAL Team Six, under the operational orders of Joint Special Operations Command, waited to be summoned once Amanda’s location was determined.
But where was the First Daughter?
Amur explained his lack of concern for the hostage’s safety. He didn’t know about the victim being the president’s daughter, only that she was an American woman. “For the most part, Somali pirates make decent hosts. Beatings are rare, but they do occur. Otherwise, they keep their guests protected and well-fed. It does no one any good if a hostage dies. In fact, the feeding and housing of captured crews help maintain the economy of Puntland.”
Gray knew how lucrative the piracy trade was. Last year alone, Somali pirates collected $160 million in ransom. And that was only the tip of the true cost of piracy in the region. The shipping industry and governments spent $7 billion during that same time, accruing additional expenses from insurance premiums, from heightened security, even rescue missions, like the recent one that secured the safe return of an American and a Danish citizen.
“And what about the Somali government?” Seichan asked. “What are they doing about the rampant piracy?”
Amur leaned back in his chair and lifted his arms hopelessly in the air. “What Somali government? The central government fell back in 1991, throwing the country into chaos. Without anyone patrolling our territorial waters, the tuna-rich seas around here were plundered and stripped by foreign fishing fleets, stealing the food and livelihood from our local people. Is it any wonder our fishermen armed themselves, becoming their own militia, and confronted the illegal boats and crews?”
Gray had read the briefings on the flight out here. “And those confrontations eventually led to the fishermen confiscating ships and personnel and demanding ransoms—”