Bone cracked; blood spurted.
The man went limp, but Tucker held him upright by his trapped arm.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the third and largest opponent back away two steps and free a pistol. Tucker swung around, using his captured assailant’s body as a shield as shots rang out. It proved a meager defense at such close range. One of the rounds blasted through his captive’s neck, grazing Tucker’s shoulder.
Then a scream bellowed.
Tucker shoved the body aside and saw Kane latched onto the shooter’s wrist, the dog’s fangs digging deep. The pistol clattered to the street. The man’s eyes were round with panic as he tried to shake the shepherd loose. Blood and slather flew.
Only then did the huge African remember the machete in his other hand. He lifted it high, ready to hack at the dog.
“Release!” Tucker cried out.
The command was barely off his lips when Kane obeyed, letting go and dropping back on the street. But the man continued his downward swing at the dog’s neck with a savage bellow. Kane could not get out of the way in time.
Tucker was already moving.
Heart pounding, he dove for the abandoned pistol and scooped it up. He shoulder-rolled to bring the weapon up—but he was too slow.
The machete flashed in the sunlight.
A gunshot cracked loudly.
The man crumpled backward, half his skull shattering away. The blade flew away harmlessly. Tucker stared at his pistol. The shot had not come from his weapon.
Up the street, a new trio appeared. Two men and a woman. Though dressed in street clothes, they all had the stamp of military about them. The leader in the center held a smoking SIG Sauer.
“See to him.” He pointed to the bleeding young man on the ground. His voice had a slight Texas accent. “Get him to a local hospital and we’ll rendezvous back at the evac point.”
Despite the concern about the injured man, the leader’s gaze never unlocked from Tucker’s eyes. From the hard contours of his face, the close-cropped black hair that had gone a bit lanky, and the stony edge to his storm-gray eyes, he was definitely military.
The leader crossed over to him, ignoring Kane’s wary growl. He offered a hand to help Tucker up.
“You’re a difficult man to find, Captain Wayne.”
Tucker bit back any surprise and ignored the offered hand. He stood on his own. “You were the ones following me. Earlier this morning.”
“And you lost us.” A hard twinkle of amusement brightened the man’s eyes. “Not an easy thing to do. That alone proves you’re the man we need.”
He turned, but the man stepped in front of him and blocked the way. A finger pointed at his chest, which only managed to irritate him further.
“Listen for one minute,” the man said, “then you’re free to go.”
Tucker stared down at the finger. The only reason he didn’t reach out and break it was that the man had saved Kane’s life a moment ago. He owed him that much—and perhaps even a minute of his time.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The offending finger turned into an open palm, inviting a handshake. “Commander Gray Pierce. I work for an organization called Sigma.”
Tucker scowled. “Never heard of it. That makes you what? Defense contractors, mercenaries?” He made his disdain for that last word plain.
That dark twinkle grew brighter as the other lowered his arm. “No. We work under the auspices of DARPA.”
Tucker frowned, but curiosity kept him listening. DARPA was the Defense Department’s research-and-development administration. What the hell was going on here?
“Perhaps we can discuss this in a quieter location,” the commander said.
By now, the man’s partners had gathered up the wounded young man, shouldered him between them, and were headed down the street. Faces had begun to peer out of windows or to peek from behind cracked-open doors. Other figures hovered at the corners. Zanzibar often turned a blind eye to most offenses, but the gunfire and bloodshed would not be ignored for long. As soon as they left, the bodies would be looted of anything of value, and any inquiries would be met with blank stares.
“I know a place,” Tucker said and led the way.
Gray sipped a hot tea spiced with cardamom. He sat with Tucker Wayne on a rooftop deck overlooking the Indian Ocean. Across the waters, the triangular sails of old wooden dhows mixed with cargo ships and a smattering of tourist yachts. For the moment, they had the hotel’s tiny restaurant to themselves.
At the foot of the building, a small spice market rang and bustled, wafting up with a mélange of nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, and countless other spices that had once lured sultans to this island and had fueled an active slave-trading industry. The island had exchanged hands many times, which was evident in its unique blend of Moorish, Middle Eastern, Indian, and African traditions. Around every corner, the city changed faces and remained impossible to categorize.
The same could be said for the stranger who was seated across the narrow table from him. Gray placed his cup of tea onto a cracked saucer. A heavy-bodied fly, drawn by the sweet tea, came lumbering down and landed on the table. It crawled toward his cup.
Gray swatted at it—but before his palm could strike the table, fingers caught his wrist, stopping him.
“Don’t,” Tucker said, then gently waved the fly off before returning to his thousand-yard stare out to sea.
Gray rubbed his wrist and watched the fly, oblivious to its salvation, buzz lazily away.
Tucker finally cleared his throat. “What do you want with me?”
Gray focused back on the matter at hand. He had read the former army ranger’s dossier en route to the Horn of Africa. Tucker was a superb dog handler, testing through the roof in regards to emotional empathy, which helped him bond with his subjects, sometimes too deeply. A psych evaluation attributed such a response to early-childhood trauma. Raised in North Dakota, he had been orphaned when his parents had been killed by a drunk driver when he was a toddler, leaving him in the care of his grandfather, who had a heart attack when Tucker was thirteen. From there, he’d been dumped into foster care until he petitioned for early emancipation at seventeen and joined the armed services. With such a chaotic, unstable upbringing, he seemed to have developed an affinity for animals more than humans.
Still, Gray sensed there was more to the man than just psychiatric evaluations and test scores. At his core, he remained a mystery. Like why he had abruptly left the service, disappearing immediately after being discharged, leaving behind a uniform full of medals, including a Purple Heart, earned after one of the nastiest firefights in Afghanistan—Operation Anaconda at Takur Ghar.