From the white-knuckled grips of his passengers, Gray doubted they’d describe his driving in such a positive light.
Though the dune runners were made for spinning, jumping, and turning—all necessary skills to traverse this torturous terrain—it still felt like riding a jackhammer on top of a cement mixer. And the last quarter-mile journey back to the road was no gentler on his kidneys.
At last, he fishtailed his buggy onto the gravel, which, after the off-road trek, felt as smooth as a freshly paved highway.
He sped gratefully down the road, which climbed in sweeping switchbacks up into the mountains. Over the next hour, he kept a hard pace, passing the occasional slower truck.
The forest slowly grew thicker and taller as they gained elevation. Rounding a sharp turn, he came close to a head-on collision with a camel. The creature dodged around the buggy with a bleating complaint. Gray noted the empty saddle and the bundle of gear tied to it as the beast continued downhill.
Worried, he slowed his buggy to a stop.
Kowalski flew around the corner with a rumble of his engine and a throaty grind of gears. He came close to rear-ending Gray, but swerved to a halt in time.
Gray cut his engines and signaled Kowalski to do the same.
In the silence, Gray strained—then heard a distinct pop-pop-pop.
He pictured the empty saddle.
“Ambush,” he said.
Seichan immediately understood, too. “Someone set up a roadblock ahead. They’re sweeping up after the helicopter.”
Gray nodded. Any refugees who attempted to flee into the mountains were being gunned down ahead. But another cold certainty settled in his belly. It had been nagging him since the first rocket blast. He had hoped the air attack had been orchestrated by local insurgents or warlords. Drugs and medical supplies were as good as gold here, especially in the war-torn south. But this ambush on the road into the mountains removed any uncertainty.
This was about Amanda Gant-Bennett.
And worse …
“This is too bold a move for pirates,” he said. “The chopper attack, now this roadblock. They’re not trying to hide their actions any longer. They’re pulling out the big guns and making a final stand.”
“What are you getting at?” Seichan asked.
“This isn’t defense. This is an endgame.” He turned to Seichan. “They wouldn’t move so openly, so brazenly, unless they saw no further need to keep their mountain enclave secret.”
Realization dawned in Seichan’s eyes.
“Either they’ve moved Amanda already—” she started.
Gray finished, “Or she’s dead.”
Amanda tugged against the padded leather cuffs tying her to the hospital bed. Minutes ago, they’d placed an IV catheter in her right arm and given her an injection that fogged the edges of her mind. A saline bag slowly dripped next to her.
She wanted to panic but couldn’t.
More than the drugs, what kept her calm was the steady beeping of a fetal heart monitor. The nurse had strapped a sensor belt around her belly. It communicated wirelessly to the bedside device.
My baby’s fine … my baby’s fine …
It was her mantra to keep her sanity.
Especially with all the commotion in the room. Blue-smocked medical personnel came and went, busy behind the privacy screen of the other bed. Elsewhere, soldiers hauled out equipment under the direction of Dr. Blake.
Movement to the side drew her muddled attention to Petra. The nurse hauled a portable anesthetic machine to her bedside.
At the sight of the clear mask hanging from the hoses, Amanda fought against her cuffs, but she was already too weak.
Dr. Blake came over and touched her wrist. He raised a syringe filled with a milky fluid. “Don’t worry. We won’t let any harm come to your baby.”
She was unable to stop him as he inserted the syringe needle into her IV line and slowly pushed the plunger.
Petra lowered a mask toward her face.
She twisted her head away. Across the room, she watched one of the medical staff push aside the privacy screen. At long last, she saw who shared the ward with her, who lay in the other bed.
Horror swelled through her.
She screamed as Petra grabbed her head and forced the mask down over her nose and mouth.
“Now, now, it’ll be all over in a few seconds,” Blake promised her. “Three, two …”
Darkness closed around her, narrowing her view of the world to a pinpoint.
Then it was gone.
July 2, 1:55 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Gray paced the shoulder of the road while the sun baked the gravel into a shimmering mirage. He and the others kept to the shadows of the neighboring forest. It sang with the buzz of cicadas and the calls of songbirds. Farther up into the highlands, green forests beckoned, draped in mists, like a sliver of Eden. Emphasizing this, the occasional breeze carried down the scent of wild-growing jasmine.
He clutched a satellite phone in his hand and weighed the risks of opening an encrypted communication channel to Sigma command. From the series of attacks—both in Boosaaso and here—intelligence was clearly leaking to the enemy.
And right now, his team had a thin advantage.
No one knows we’re still alive.
Gray wanted to keep it that way. But more than that, what would be gained in the end if he reached out to Sigma? What support could they offer? To mobilize an adequate response would risk exposing both their survival and their location. Even SEAL Team Six, awaiting word in neighboring Djibouti, could not be activated. Such an overt force had a limited window to get in and get out safely. It was up to Gray’s team to first pin down the whereabouts of the president’s daughter.
If Gray attempted to call the States and if word should reach her captors that his team was closing in on her position, the enemy would be more apt to act rashly, to kill her on the spot.
Knowing what he had to do, Gray shoved the satellite phone back into his pack.
We’re on our own until we find her.
With that settled, he waved Seichan over to him. She approached with Baashi, a hand resting on his shoulder. Gray noticed how protective she was with the boy. He had never seen her bond so quickly to another person.
Gray knelt in front of Baashi. “Can you show us on the map where the other hospital camp is hidden? The one with the bad doctor?”
The boy looked down at his toes and shook his head. “I no can’t.”
Baashi looked scared. Gray imagined the gunfire must have spooked him, likely triggering memories of other firefights he had been in as a child soldier. Kane could probably help soothe those rattled nerves, but Tucker knelt with his dog at the edge of the forest, suiting his partner up in a Kevlar vest. The pair readied themselves for a reconnaissance mission, to get some eyes on the ambush ahead and ascertain what sort of force lay between them and the mountains.