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, ass**le.
“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.
“Jiifso!” he commanded. “Maxbuus baad tahay!”
Major Jain hid on the other side of the road with Kowalski. The British soldier translated, softly subvocalizing into her radio. “He’s telling Baashi to lie down, that he’s his prisoner.”
Baashi obeyed, dropping to one knee, placing a hand on the ground, groveling in submission.
The soldier grinned, made meaner by his scarred lower lip. He pulled his pistol out.
He’s going to execute the kid—but not before terrorizing him.
Seichan remembered another man, another weapon. He had held a knife at her naked throat, his breath on her neck, twice her weight, thick with hard muscle. They sent him against her when she was seventeen, a training exercise. A sadist of the darkest ilk, a perverse predator, he wouldn’t just kill her; he intended to degrade and savage her before taking her life. To survive, she had to submit, to tolerate his touch—only long enough to secure his knife when he let his guard drop for a hot breath. She had gutted him in the end—but she still remembered the ruin of that day, the utter degradation of the powerful over the weak, and, worst of all, what was destroyed forever in her.
She wouldn’t let that happen to another.
Seichan shifted her SIG Sauer pistol toward the soldier. Gray crouched at her side where they hid, meters into the forest, shielded by a thicket of bushes. He touched a finger to her shoulder, warning her not to shoot, not yet.
Metal glinted as Baashi’s other hand, half-hidden by his thin body, slipped a military dagger out of the back of his pants. It looked as long as the boy’s forearm.
The sight shocked her, proving her earlier assessment. She and the boy were the same.
I was this boy.
But Baashi was going to get himself killed.
Seichan steadied her aim, feeling Gray’s fingers tighten on her shoulder, ordering her not to act. She obeyed, but it left her body trembling with rage—and not a small amount of shame.