2:13 P.M.

The heat of the day, even in the shade, wore on Gray. He kept a watch on the phone screen, viewing the feed from Kane’s camera. The assault team remained a quarter mile up the road. He watched them mill, heard their harsh laughter. But at any time, they might send a scout or one of the trucks down this way.

They needed to be gone before that happened.

He checked the clock on the corner of the small screen. Tucker had been gone for ten minutes. No word. That was long enough. He raised his fingers to activate the radio mike at his throat.

Before he could speak, a rustle drew his attention back to the woods.

Seichan raised her pistol.

Tucker shoved through some bushes and into the open. His eyes had a wounded, tired look. “Found a way,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Gray quickly gathered the others. He and Seichan flanked Tucker as they hurried into the forest. Kowalski and Jain followed with Baashi between them. The woman had an arm around the boy, intending to keep him safe.

“Any problems?” Gray asked Tucker, sensing something troubled the man.

“Only a small one,” he said sourly.

They reached a tiny creek and followed it uphill, moving as quietly as possible. The waterway led to a steep ridge, eroded throughout by a series of cataracts.

“Who is that?” Jain asked, pointing the muzzle of her rifle at a soldier gagged and hog-tied—out cold—sprawled beside a small pond at the base of the falls.

Seichan moved warily closer, searching the remaining woods.

“He’s alone,” Tucker said dully. “Came for water. But someone could come looking.”

“Why didn’t you just kill him?” Kowalski asked. “Hide his body?”

Tucker mumbled. “Almost did kill him. Caught me by surprise.”

Seichan dropped to a knee and examined the soldier, then glanced at Baashi. Her voice held a sharp edge. “He’s only a boy.”

Gray got a better look at the soldier’s face. He looked even younger than Baashi.

“I jumped him,” Tucker said, breathing harder. “I moved fast, barely thinking. Didn’t want him to alert the others. Had my arm around his neck, ready to snap it like a twig—only then saw he was a child. Still, I squeezed him until he passed out.”

Tucker stared down at his arms in disbelief and shame.

Gray remembered the fly Tucker had spared back in Tanzania, blocking his hand from swatting at it. The man clearly had enough of killing, any killing—unless it was in self-defense or to protect others.

To the side, Baashi stared at the boy on the ground, unblinking.

Did he see himself lying there?

Baashi looked at Tucker—and took a step away, scared.

That fear, more than anything, wounded the man.

“C’mon,” Gray said. “He’ll be fine. Someone will find him, but we don’t want to be anywhere near here when that happens.”

Tucker radioed his dog as the others climbed the steplike cataracts through the ravine. Gray waited beside him.

“You had no choice,” Gray said.

“We always have a choice,” Tucker answered bitterly.

Kane came silently into view, rushing forward, not gleefully but subdued. He sidled next to his handler, rubbing against his legs, as if sensing Tucker’s dark mood. Tucker patted him, reassured him.

Gray suspected some of that went both ways.

He had worked with military handlers and their dogs in the past. They had a saying—It runs down the lead—describing how the emotions of the pair became shared over time, binding them together as firmly as any leash.

Watching Tucker and Kane, he believed that now.

The two consoled each other, supported each other, found reserves of strength that could only be forged by such a deep connection.

Finally, Tucker stared over at Gray; so did Kane.

He nodded back at the pair.

They were ready.

They were soldiers.

All three of them.

And they had their mission.

14

July 2, 8:01 A.M. EST

Washington, DC

Painter found himself back in the Situation Room. His boss, the head of DARPA, General Gregory Metcalf, had summoned him to this early-morning meeting. The other attendees gathered in the president’s private conference room.

General Metcalf was already seated. He was African-American, a graduate of West Point, and though in his midfifties, he was as sturdy as a linebacker. The general leaned his head toward his superior, the secretary of defense, Warren W. Duncan, who wore a crisp suit and whose stark gray hair looked oiled and combed into rigid submission.

The three remaining members of this intimate summit were all of one family. Two were seated opposite the military men. The First Lady, Teresa Gant, looked like a faded lily in a beige twill dress. Her dark blond hair had been piled neatly atop her head, but strands had come loose and hung along the sides of her face, framing eyes that held a haunted look. Next to her, resting a large hand on hers, was her brother-in-law, the secretary of state, Robert Gant, sitting stiffly, defensive. His steely gaze upon Painter hid daggers.

And the greeting from the final member of the group was no friendlier.

President James T. Gant stalked the far side of the table. With his usual crisp directness, honed from his prior years as the CEO of various Gant family enterprises, he laid into Painter.

“What is this about an attack on some hospital camp in Somalia? Why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”

Painter had suspected this was the reason for this sudden call to the White House. The intelligence communities were already abuzz in regards to this attack, further complicated by the involvement of British Special Forces. Painter had hoped to keep a lid on this smoking powder keg for at least another couple of hours, to keep its connection to Amanda’s kidnapping secret.

That wasn’t to be.

Warren Duncan put a nail in the coffin. “I heard from the British Special Reconnaissance Regiment. They said they had men in the field there, that they were assisting some covert American team.”

James Gant pointed a finger at Painter. “Your team.” He swung around, unable to hide his disgust. “Show him, Bobby.”

The president’s brother tapped a video remote and brought up a live satellite feed from the UNICEF hospital. The camp was a smoky ruin, pocked by mortar craters. Survivors rushed about, seeking to aid the injured, or kneeling over bodies, or trying to put out fires.

President Gant shoved an arm toward the screen. “You said to avoid shock-and-awe, to keep Amanda’s kidnappers from knowing they’d acquired a high-value target—my daughter!” This last boomed out of his barrel chest, making him sound like a Confederate general rallying his troops to a fight.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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