Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Adventure, #Thriller
He must have noted her attention and turned to her as they reached the starboard rail.
“What do you want with me?” she asked, fixing him with a hard stare, suddenly glad that all the papers aboard hid her true identity. “I’m nobody.”
The Brit’s gaze lowered from her steely resolve—but not out of shame or remorse. “It is not
we want.” He stared at her belly. “It’s your baby.”
7:00 P.M. EST
Takoma Park, Maryland
Balancing a bag of groceries on his hip, Gray pulled open the screened back door to his family’s home. The smell of a baking pie, rich in cinnamon, struck him first. On his way back from the gym, he got a text from Kenny to fetch some French vanilla ice cream and a few other odds and ends needed for tonight’s dinner—the first family dinner since the tragic loss of their mother.
A glance at the stove revealed a large pot of bubbling Bolognese sauce; by the sink, a drying bowl of spaghetti in a strainer. A hissing pop drew his gaze back to the pot. Only now did he note the vigorous boil to the sauce. Unattended and forgotten, red sauce roiled over the lip, dribbled down the sides, and sizzled into the gas burner.
Something was wrong.
That was confirmed when a loud bellow erupted from the next room:
“WHERE’S MY KEYS!”
Gray dropped the groceries on the counter, turned off the stovetop, and headed to the living room.
“SOMEONE’S STEALING MY CAR!”
Passing through the dining room, Gray joined the fracas in the living room. Overstuffed furniture was positioned around a central stone hearth, cold and dark at the moment. His father looked skeletal in the recliner by the picture window. He’d once filled that same seat, commanding the room. Now he was a frail shadow of his former self.
Still, he remained strong. He attempted to push out of the chair, but Kenny held down his shoulders. He was assisted by a petite woman with a brownish-gray bob, dressed in blue scrubs. Down on one knee, she held his father’s hand and urged him to be calm.
Mary Benning was an R.N. at the hospital’s memory-care unit. During his stay there, his father had taken a shine to her. Gray was able to hire her away, to serve as a night nurse here at the house, to be on hand when his father had the most trouble. The plan had been for Kenny to keep an eye on Dad during the day, until Gray and Mary could interview and hire a day nurse to cover a full twenty-four-hour shift. It would be expensive, but Director Crowe had arranged adequate compensation, a death benefit, to help cover the costs and keep Gray’s father in his own house.
“Harriet! Let me go!” His father yanked his hand free of Mary’s, coming close to elbowing Kenny in the nose.
The nurse kept a hand on his knee and gave it a squeeze of reassurance. “Jack, it’s me. Mary.”
His eyes found hers, a confused look passed over his face, then he sagged as memory washed back over him.
Mary glanced at Gray. “Your father caught you pulling up with the groceries. Saw the Thunderbird. Just got a little panicked and confused. He’ll be fine.”
Kenny straightened, a stricken look on his face. He’d not really seen Dad get like this before. Shook up, he stumbled away.
The motion drew his father’s attention. His eyes got huge. “Kenny, what’re you doing here?”
Kenny didn’t know what to say, still stunned by the Swiss cheese that was his father’s memory.
Mary covered for him, not hiding the truth, only patting his knee. “Jack, he’s been here all day.”
His father searched their faces, then leaned back in his chair. “Oh, yeah, that’s right . . . I remember . . .”
But did he? Or was he only acquiescing in an attempt to feign normalcy?
Kenny shared a glance with Gray, glassy with shock.
Welcome to my world.
“I’d better get back to finishing your dinner,” Mary said, standing and dusting off her knee.
“And I’d better finish unpacking,” Kenny said, seeking a hasty retreat.
“Good idea and wash up,” his father ordered with an echo of his former bluster. “Your room’s up—”
“I haven’t forgotten where it is,” Kenny cut him off, blind to the callousness of such a remark to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
But his dad merely nodded, satisfied.
As Kenny stepped away, his father finally seemed to notice Gray standing there. The confusion on his face faded, but a stab of old anger took its place. It had taken his father almost two weeks to finally acknowledge and ultimately remember the death of his wife, so, to his mind, the wound was still raw. He also knew the source of that loss.
he always remembered. There had been many bad days in the intervening weeks, but what could either of them do? No words could bring her back.
A knock at the door startled them all. Gray tensed, expecting the worst.
Kenny, already headed to the front stairs, opened the door.
A lithe figure stood out on the porch, dressed in black leather and a loose motorcycle jacket over a maroon blouse. She carried a helmet under one arm.
The gloominess of the day lifted at the sight of her as Gray headed to the door. “Seichan, what are you doing here?”
His father interrupted. “Don’t leave the lady standing on the stoop, Kenny!” He waved the visitor inside. He might be losing his memory, but he knew a handsome woman when one landed on his doorstep.
“Thank you, Mr. Pierce.” Seichan entered, slipping inside, moving with the leonine grace of a jungle cat, all sinew, muscles, and long curves. She cast an appraising glance toward Kenny as she stepped past him—whatever she saw there, she found lacking.
Her eyes found Gray’s face next and visibly hardened—not in anger, more like protection. They’d barely spoken since they’d shared a kiss and a promise three weeks ago. The pledge was not a romantic one, only the assurance that she’d work alongside him to expose those who had a hand in his mother’s murder.
Still, Gray remembered the softening of those lips.
Was there more to that promise, something yet unspoken?
Before he could dwell on it further, his father pointed to the table. “We’re just about to sit down to dinner. Why don’t you join us?”
“That’s very kind,” Seichan said stiffly, “but I won’t be staying long. I just need a word with your son.”
Those almond-shaped eyes—marking her Eurasian heritage—fixed on Gray with plain intent.
Something was up.
Seichan was a former assassin for the same shadowy group responsible for his mother’s death, an international criminal organization called the Guild. Its real identity and purpose remained unknown, even to its own agents. The organization operated through individual cells around the world, each running independently, none having the complete picture. Seichan had eventually turned against it, recruited by Director Crowe to serve as a double agent until her subterfuge was exposed. Now—hunted both by her former employers and by foreign intelligence agencies for her past crimes—she was Gray’s partner and his responsibility.
And maybe something more.
Gray stepped close to her. “What’s up?”
She kept her voice low. “I got a call from Director Crowe. Came straight here. There’s been a kidnapping off the Seychelles by Somali pirates. A high-value American target. Painter wanted to know if you were up for a mission.”
Gray frowned. Why was Sigma involved with a simple kidnapping? There were plenty of policing and maritime agencies that could attend to such a crime. Sigma Force—made up of Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in various scientific disciplines—was a covert wing for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Sigma teams were sent out into the world to protect against global threats, not to address the kidnapping of a single American.
Seichan must have read the suspicion in his face. Her eyes bore into his. She plainly knew more but was unable to speak freely in front of the others. Something big was happening. The realization set his heart to beating harder.
“The matter is time sensitive,” she added. “If you’re coming, there’s a jet already fueling, and Kowalski is on his way to pick us up. We can swing by your apartment on the way out. Otherwise, we’ll be briefed en route.”
Gray glanced at the chair by the cold hearth. His father overheard their talk, his gaze fixed to his son’s face.
“Go,” his father said. “Do your job. I’ve got enough help here.”
Gray took comfort in that gruff permission, praying it represented some small measure of forgiveness by his father. But his next words, spoken with a harsh bitterness, dashed such hope.
“Besides, the less I see of your face right now . . . the better.”
Gray backed a step. Seichan took his elbow, as if ready to catch him. But it was the heat of her palm, more than anything, that steadied him, the reassurance of human contact—like that kiss weeks ago.
Mary had stepped into the room, drying her hands on a towel. She’d also heard those harsh words and gave Gray a sympathetic look. “I’ve got things covered here. You take some time for yourself.”
He silently thanked her and allowed Seichan to guide him toward the door. Gray felt the need to share some parting farewell with his father. The desire burned painfully in his chest, but he had no words to voice it.
Before he knew it, he found himself out on the front porch. He halted at the top step and took in a deep, shuddering breath.
“Are you okay?” Seichan asked.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ll have to be.”
Still, she continued to search his face, as if seeking a truer answer.
Before she could find it, the squeal of rubber on the pavement announced the arrival of his transportation. They both turned as a black SUV came to a hard stop. The window rolled down, allowing a pall of cigar smoke to waft out. The shaved head of a gorilla followed, chewing on a stump of a stogie.
“You coming or what?” Kowalski called hoarsely.
As much as the man aggravated him, Gray had never been happier to see his brutish teammate. He headed down the steps, only to have Kenny come rushing out after him, blocking his way.
“You can’t leave now. What am I supposed to do?”
Gray pointed back at the house. “It’s your turn. What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”
He shoved past his sputtering brother and crossed toward the waiting SUV and Seichan’s parked motorcycle.
She kept beside him, slipping on her helmet.
“Who else has been assigned to us?” he asked.
“We’ve been ordered to pick up another two teammates, local assets already in the region, with unique skills to help us on this mission.”
“Who are they?”
She offered a ghost of a smile as she snapped down her helmet’s visor. Her words echoed out from inside, darkly amused.
“I hope you’ve had your rabies shots.”
July 1, 6:32 P.M. East Africa Time
Republic of Tanzania
he low growl warned him.
Already on edge, Tucker Wayne flattened against the brick wall of the narrow street and slid into the deeper shadows of a doorway. An hour ago, he noticed someone following him, watching from afar. He had managed to lose the tail quickly in the labyrinth of alleyways and crooked streets that made up this crumbling section of Zanzibar.
Who had found him?
He pressed his back against a carved wooden door. He intended to stay lost, undiscoverable. He had been adrift in the world for the past three years, now one year shy of his thirtieth birthday. Two weeks ago, he had reached the archipelago of Zanzibar, a string of sun-baked islands off the eastern coast of Africa. The name alone—
—conjured up another time, a land of mystery and mythology. It was a place to disappear, to live unseen, and where few questions were asked.
People knew better than to be curious.
Still, he often drew second glances here, not because he was white. The ancient port of Zanzibar remained the crossroads for people of every race and color. And after a full year traveling through Africa, his skin was burned as dark as that of any of the local merchants hawking wares in the spice markets of old Stone Town. And he certainly struck a tall figure, muscular—more quarterback than linebacker—though there remained a hardness to his eyes that made any curious glance toward him skirt quickly away.
Instead, what attracted the most attention to him was something else, someone else. Kane brushed up against his thigh—silent now, with hackles still raised. Tucker rested a hand on his dog’s side, not to calm him but ready to signal his partner if necessary. And that’s what they were.
. Kane was an extension of himself, a disembodied limb.
While the dog looked like a hard-bodied, compact German shepherd, he was actually a Belgian shepherd dog, called a Malinois. His fur was black and tan, but mostly black, a match to his dark eyes. Under his palm, Tucker felt Kane’s muscles tense.
Half a block away, a thin shape burst around the next corner, careening in a panic. In his haste, he collided off the far wall and rebounded down the street, glancing frequently over his shoulder. Tucker sized him up in a breath and weighed any danger.
Early twenties, maybe late teens, a mix of Asian and Indian, his eyes wide with terror, his limbs and face sickly gaunt—from addiction, from malnourishment?
The runner clutched his right side, failing to stanch a crimson bloom from seeping through his white shift. The scent of fresh blood must have alerted Kane, along with the panicked tread of those bare feet.
Tucker prepared to step out of the shadowed doorway, to go to the young man’s aid—but the pressure against his legs increased, pinning him in place.
A heartbeat later, the reason became clear. Around the same corner stalked a trio of large men, African, with tribal tattoos across their faces. They carried machetes and spread to either side of the empty street with the clear skill of experienced hunters.
Their target also noted their arrival—igniting his already frightened flight into a full rout—but blood loss and exhaustion had taken their toll. Within a few steps, the victim tripped and sprawled headlong across the street. Though he struck the cobbles hard, he didn’t make a sound, not a whimper or a cry, simply defeated.
That, more than anything, drew Tucker out of hiding.
That, and something his grandfather had drilled into him:
In the face of inhumanity, a good man
—but a great one
Tucker tapped three fingers against his dog’s side, the signal plain.
Kane leaped over the prone body of the young man and landed in a crouch on the far side, tail high, teeth bared, growling. The shepherd’s sudden appearance caused all three attackers to stop in shock, as if some demon djinn had materialized before them.
Tucker used the distraction to fold out of the shadows and close upon the nearest of the three men. In a swift capture of wrist, followed by an elbow strike to the chin, the machete ended up in Tucker’s grip. He flat-handed the man away as the second assailant wielded his blade in a roundhouse swing. Rather than leaping clear, Tucker lunged forward, entering the man’s guard. He caught the deadly arm under his own and snaked his hand fully around the limb and immobilized it. With his other arm, he slammed the butt-end of the steel machete into the man’s nose.
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.
The man crumpled backward, half his skull shattering away. The blade flew away harmlessly. Tucker stared at his pistol. The shot had
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
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.
Gray cut to the chase as time was running out. “Captain Wayne, during your military career, your expertise was extraction and rescue. Your commanding officer claimed there was none better.”
The man shrugged.
“You and your dog—”
“Kane,” Tucker interrupted. “His name’s Kane.”
A furry left ear pricked at his master’s voice. The small shepherd lay sprawled on the floor, looking drowsy, inattentive, but Gray knew better. His muzzle rested against the toe of Tucker’s boot, ready for any signal from his partner. Gray had read Kane’s dossier, too. The military war dog had a vocabulary of a thousand words, along with the knowledge of a hundred hand gestures. The two were bound together more intimately than any husband and wife—and together, with the dog’s heightened senses and ability to maneuver in places where men could not, the two were frighteningly efficient in the field.
Gray needed that expertise.
“There’s a mission,” he said. “You would be well paid.”
“Sorry. There’s not enough gold in Fort Knox.”
Gray had prepared for this attitude, readied for this eventuality. “Perhaps not, but when you left the service, you stole government property.”
Tucker faced him, his eyes going diamond-hard. In that gaze, Gray read the necessity to speak warily, to play the one card he had with great care.
Gray continued, “It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless man-hours to train a war-service dog.” He dared not even glance toward Kane; he kept his gaze fixed on Tucker.
man-hours,” Tucker answered darkly. “I trained both Kane and Abel. And look what happened to Abel. This time around, it wasn’t Kane who killed Abel.”
Gray had read the brutal details in the files and avoided that minefield. “Still, Kane is government property, military hardware, a skilled combat tracker. Complete this mission and he is yours to keep, free and clear.”
Disgust curled a corner of Tucker’s lip. “No one owns Kane, commander. Not the U.S. government. Not Special Forces. Not even me.”
“Understood, but that’s our offer.”
Tucker glared at him for a long breath—then abruptly leaned back, crossing his arms, his posture plain. He was not agreeing, only willing to listen. “Again. What do you need me for?”
“An extraction. A rescue.”
Gray sized up his opponent. The detail he was about to reveal was known only to a handful of people high in the government. It had shocked him when he’d first learned the truth. If word should somehow reach her captors—
“Who?” Tucker pressed.
Kane must have sensed his partner’s growing agitation and let out a low rumble, voicing his own complaint.