Painter’s voice grew hushed at the horror of it all. “So they cut out the baby.”
“Exactly. And disposed of it to cover their tracks. I also smelled an accelerant soaked into the bed. I think that’s what the last soldier was doing here, prepping the remains. They wanted to assure the body was burned so thoroughly that no DNA could be extracted. But we caught them off guard before they could complete their task.”
“Why would Amanda’s kidnappers go through such effort?” Painter asked, but it sounded more like he was pondering the question, thinking out loud.
Still, Gray answered. “They obviously wanted to throw off anyone still looking for her. If the world thinks she’s dead, the hunt ends here.”
“True. But I fear our enemy is even smarter than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. They knew you were closing in, forcing their hand. They had to move her, but they turned the situation to their own ends. Staging Amanda’s death—but also achieving another goal.”
Gray’s mind raced alongside the director’s line of reasoning. He knew everything that had befallen Painter at the White House. He suddenly understood. “The enemy was able to blame Amanda’s death on our operation.”
“At least partially.”
As Gray considered who might have such an end goal, his blood went cold. There was only one organization harboring such a vendetta against Sigma.
“Director, are you suggesting the Guild is somehow involved in Amanda’s kidnapping?”
Gray felt his vision narrowing, picturing his mother’s casket lowering into the cold dirt.
“Commander Pierce, we don’t know that for certain. But either way, it gives Sigma a black eye—if not a fatal blow.”
Gray knew that had been an ultimate goal of the Guild for years. They had tried multiple times to destroy Sigma, once even leading an assault upon their headquarters.
He closed his eyes.
Have I played right into their hands here, done their work for them this time?
“What are we going to do?” Gray asked.
“Your mission objective remains the same. To find Amanda. That’s all that matters at the moment.”
Gray choked down the anger that flared inside him. He forced his fingers through his hair, triggering a twinge of complaint from his blistered back. The director was correct. He had to stay on mission, which meant answering one all-important question concerning Amanda.
Where to begin looking for her?
Painter voiced the same question. “Were you able to get any clue from inside the cabin, anything that might point to where they were taking Amanda?”
Gray stared at the smoking pile of debris. “We didn’t have any time. She could be anywhere.”
Painter let out a long sigh—not in defeat but in renewed determination. “Then we start from scratch. We’re not giving up. I’ll see what I can do at my end. You and Captain Alden canvass any locals in the area. Someone must know something. In the rush to evacuate, something might have fallen through the cracks.”
Gray agreed. The enemy clearly hadn’t expected his team to arrive at the camp so quickly—if at all.
“Pierce!” The call came from Tucker.
He turned and found the man waving to him from the road that exited the camp. Tucker stepped aside to allow a small figure to run into view. It was Baashi. Gray had last seen the boy diving into the forest after almost getting shot.
Seichan had gone out to look for him.
She appeared steps behind him, dragging a prisoner with her, clutching him by the shirt collar as he stumbled alongside her.
Gray spoke into the phone. “Director, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. We may have caught a break.”
Signing off, he strode over to the group. Captain Alden headed over there, too.
Seichan met Gray’s eyes as he reached her. “I found Baashi leading this kid back out of the forest, heading our way.”
Baashi vigorously nodded. “I tell him you all good.”
Tucker looked pale. “It’s the same boy I jumped earlier by the creek.”
Gray saw he was right. It was the child Tucker had strangled and hog-tied. So the bound boy had been discovered by the enemy. No wonder the crew had hightailed it back to camp.
“Kid must’ve fled during our attack on the third truck,” Seichan said. “But Baashi tracked him in the woods and convinced him we were okay.”
From his wide, scared eyes, the new boy must be wondering if he’d made the right decision.
“Mr. Trevor!” Baashi burst out brightly and ran to meet the British captain as he joined them. He patted Alden on the chest and spoke to the other boy. “This the man I tell you about.”
Seeing the confused look on the captive’s face, Baashi repeated what he said in Somali. Then he stepped over like an excited tour guide and patted Kane, too, ending with “He good dog.”
Gray sidled next to Alden during all of this. “See if Baashi could ask the boy if he knows where Amanda was taken.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Gray had to wait while a fervid series of exchanges commenced. It involved a lot of back-and-forth and not a few suspicious glances cast his way. Finally, the boy seemed to relent. Pointing this way and that, he spoke briskly in Somali.
Alden eventually straightened and rejoined Gray.
“It seems, like with Baashi, people are willing to speak more openly around a child. He overheard some of the medical staff at the camp talking, making preparations to move the young woman to an airfield used by drug-runners. He says he heard them speak of flying to Dubai. But I don’t know if that’s just a stopover or a final destination because he also said they’re planning to go to heaven.”
To go to heaven? What did that mean? Was it some sort of suicide pact?
That didn’t sound like the enemy—and certainly not the Guild. Alden must have read his confusion and shrugged. He had no better explanation.
Still, Gray’s mood lightened. “At least, Dubai gives us a solid place to start looking. To hopefully pick up her trail again.”
Alden stared over at Jain, on a stretcher, one pant leg cut away. “Good luck, commander. I’ll see to the boys here.” He motioned to Baashi and the other kid. “In the meantime—”
The thumping of a helicopter cut him off, drawing his attention skyward.
“I believe that’s your SEAL team,” the captain said. “A bit late to the bloody party, but they can help secure the area. I’d suggest you and your team borrow that helo of mine. Clear out before too many questions get asked.”