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.
And, plainly, this was going to be a brawl.
With Painter as the punching bag.
“That looks like shock to me, director,” Gant said. “And I’m certainly not awed by such a ham-fisted operation as you’re running. Not when my daughter and unborn grandson are at risk.”
Painter bore the brunt of this tirade without breaking eye contact with the president. The man needed to vent, to lash out. He waited for the fire to die back, enough to let reason slip past the panic of a frightened parent.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Gant finished, running fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. His voice cracked on the last couple of words.
That was his opening. He kept his response just as blunt and direct. “Mr. President, the kidnappers know they have your daughter. I suspect they’ve known from the very beginning. For some unknown reason, she had been targeted for abduction.”
His statement both deflated the president and flared the fear brighter in his eyes.
“From this attack,” Painter continued with a nod to the wall, “and other incidents, it’s clear Amanda’s kidnappers have forgone hiding their knowledge. The boldness of this assault suggests two things.”
He ticked them off on his fingers. “One. The enemy must be spooked to act so brazenly, which suggests my men are closing in on her true location. Two. Amanda’s best hope for recovery lies with that same team.”
Support came from a surprising source. Painter’s boss cleared his throat. “I agree with the director, Mr. President,” Metcalf said. “We have no other assets available. Even the fast-response SEAL team in Djibouti needs a hard target—something we don’t have. As much as this operation has blown up in our collective faces, we have no other viable options for securing your daughter.”
Okay, it was lukewarm support, but Painter would take that from his boss. After bumping heads, the two of them had a professionally respectful but uneasy relationship. And Metcalf was savvy enough in Washington politics not to stick his neck out—at least, not out too far.
“But how do we know your team is still out there?” Gant asked, getting a nod from his brother at the table. “They might all be dead.”
Painter shook his head. “They’re not.”
“How can you be so certain?”
Painter stepped forward, took the remote, and tapped in an encrypted code. He’d preestablished the feed with one of the Situation Room’s watch team. On the wall-mounted monitor, a grainy video appeared, stuttering, full of digital noise.
“I apologize for the reception. I collected this feed via an ISR plane cruising at thirty-eight thousand feet above Somalia.”
Teresa Gant stirred enough to ask, “ISR?”
Her brother-in-law answered, “Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Basically, ears in the sky.”
“From there, I patched through the NRO satellite in geosynchronous orbit.”
Warren Duncan sat straighter. “This is live?”
“Maybe a six-second delay. I acquired the feed only half an hour ago.”
The president squinted a bit. “What are we seeing?”
The view was low to the ground, racing along a dirt track. Fleeting images of trees and leafy bushes flashed past at the edges.
“From the GPS coordinates transmitted, we’re seeing a road through the highland forests of the Cal Madow mountains.”
On the screen, the view zoomed up to a pair of legs, then the face of a small black boy. Audio was even worse, cutting in and out.
“… here … over by … hurry …”
The boy fled from the camera, racing away with the exuberance of youth.
“Who’s filming this?” the defense secretary asked.
Painter allowed a moment of self-satisfaction. “One of my newest recruits.”
3:08 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Kane chased after Baashi.
“Come see!” the boy exclaimed and skittered to a stop. His arm pointed toward the jungle, to a rutted track that cut off the main road.
If you could call it a road, Gray thought.
His team had been hiking into the highlands for the past forty-five minutes, leaving the ambush miles behind. They had returned to the gravel road after giving the murderous choke point a wide berth.
Gray kept a continual ear out for the growl of truck engines behind him as he set a hard pace into the heart of the mountains. Slowly over time, the gravel under his boots gave way to dirt, then, once into the misty highlands, to nothing more than tire tracks worn into the sandy silt.
Soon, the arid lowlands were a forgotten world. Here, verdant high meadows rolled down into valleys filled with misty forests of junipers and frankincense trees. And all around them, like broken dragon’s teeth, jagged peaks thrust toward the sky.
“That Shimbaris,” Baashi said, pointing to the highest peak in that direction. It looked like a toppled skyscraper covered in emerald forest. “They say the bad doctor in Karkoor Valley. That way.”
He thrust his arm again toward the rutted track off the main road.
Tucker crouched at the turnoff, picking up clods of freshly turned dirt. “Been recent traffic through here. Mud tires.”
“The Land Rovers at the roadblock,” Gray said, meeting his eye.
They were on the right path.
Gray turned to the boy. “I want you to stay here, Baashi, off the road, hidden entirely out of sight. You don’t come out until you see one of us.”
“But I help!” he said.
“You’ve helped enough. I told Captain Alden I’d protect you.”
Seichan pointed a finger at the boy’s nose. “And you promised him you’d listen to us, right?”
The two of them sounded like scolding parents—and got the usual sullen teenager response. Baashi sighed heavily, crossed his arms, expressing his disappointment with every fiber of his being.
With the matter settled, the boy went into hiding, out of harm’s way, while Gray and the others headed down the shadowy turnoff, a tunnel made by a canopy of woven branches. They’d not taken more than a few steps when Major Jain called from the rear.
Gray turned; the British soldier still stood at the edge of the main road in the sunlight. She held a hand up, then pointed it toward her ear.
Gray cocked his head, listening. He first heard Kane, rumbling deep in his throat, sensing something, too. Then in the distance, echoing off the surrounding peaks, the deeper groan of truck engines.
“Company coming,” Kowalski said.
Jain ducked off the road and into the shadows to join them.
Tucker grimaced. “Must’ve found the boy I tied up.”
“Or they’ve had enough killing for one day,” Kowalski said.
“Or they’re looking for more,” Jain added.
Kowalski grimaced. “You had to say that, didn’t you?”
She shrugged. “No matter how you cut it, boyo, we’re bloody screwed.”
Gray couldn’t argue with her, but they had no choice. They had to forge ahead, find Amanda, and do their best to survive.
“Let’s go.” Gray pointed his arm forward. “Tucker, I want Kane’s eyes and ears ahead of us. I’ve had enough surprises for one day.”
Tucker gave a curt nod and went to his dog.
They hurried down the road, staying at the periphery. The forest to either side offered better protection, but the dense growth would slow their progress, make too much noise.
Right now, he needed to put some distance between them and the approaching trucks.