November 12—0609 Hours GMT+3
The light of dawn was beginning to penetrate the jungle canopy, dispelling the darkness that had become so comfortable. Lt. Craig Rivera slipped past the man in front of him, wanting to take point personally until the confusing twilight finally gave way to day.
The condensation on the leaves was already starting to heat up, turning into mist that weighed down his clothes and felt thick in his lungs. He eased up a steep, rocky slope, dropping into a prone position at its crest. More than a minute passed as he scanned the tangle of leaves and branches for a human outline. Nothing. Just the endless shimmer of wet leaves.
He started to move again but froze when a voice crackled over his earpiece. “Keep your eyes on the sky.”
Rivera pressed himself against the broad trunk of a tree and looked up, putting a hand to his throat mike. “What have you got?”
“Bahame could swoop down on us at any minute shooting fireballs from his ass.”
The quiet snickers of the men closest to him were audible in the silence, and he started forward again, trying to decide how to respond. “Radio discipline. Let’s not forget what happened to the other guys.”
An African Union team had gotten a tip on Bahame’s location and come after him about six months ago. All that was left of them was an audio recording.
He’d never admit it to his men, but Rivera could still hear it in his head — the calm chatter and controlled fire devolving into panicked shouts and wild bursts on full automatic, the screams of attackers who sounded more animal than human. And finally the crash of body against body, the grunts of hand-to-hand combat, the bloody gurgles of death.
After he and his team had listened to it, they’d blown it off with the expected bravado. African Union forces? Hadn’t they gotten taken down by a Girl Scout troop in Cameroon? Weren’t they the guys whose mascot was a toy poodle?
As team leader, though, Rivera had seen the dead soldiers’ files. They weren’t reassigned meter maids from Congo as one of his men had suggested after polishing off the better part of a twelve-pack. They were solid operators working in their own backyard.
Rivera threw up a fist and crouched, aiming his AK through the trees at a flash of tan in the sea of emerald. Behind him, he could hear nothing but knew his men were fanning out into defensive positions.
He eased onto his stomach and slithered forward, controlling his breathing and being careful not to cause the bushes above him to sway with his movement. It took more than five minutes to cover twenty yards, but finally the jungle thinned and he found himself at the edge of a small village.
The woven straw wall of the hut in front of him was about the only thing that hadn’t been burned — and that included the residents. It was hard to determine precisely how many blackened bodies were piled next to what may have once been a soccer goal, but forty was a reasonable guess. It seemed that their intel was good. This was Bahame country.
Behind him, he heard a quiet grunt and something that sounded like a body hitting the ground. Swearing under his breath, he headed back toward the noise, finger hooked lightly around the trigger of his gun.
“Sorry, boss. Nothin’ I could do. She came right up on me.”
The woman was cowering against a tree, holding her hands in front of her in frozen panic. Her eyes darted back and forth as his men materialized from the foliage and surrounded her.
“Who you figure she is?” one of them said quietly.
“There’s a village up there,” Rivera responded. “Or at least there was. Bahame got to it. She must have given him the slip. Probably been living on her own out here for the past few days.”
There was an infected gash in her arm and her ankle was grotesquely twisted to the right, bones pushing at the skin but not quite breaking through. Rivera tried to determine her age, but there were too many contradictions — skin the color and texture of an old tire, strong, wiry arms, straight white teeth. The truth was he didn’t know anything about her and he never would.
“What are we going to do with her?” one of his men asked.
“Do you speak English?” Rivera said, enunciating carefully.
She started to talk in her native language, the volume of her voice startling in the silence. He clamped a hand over her mouth and held a finger to his lips.
When he pulled his hand away, she spoke more quietly, but still in the local dialect.
“What do you think, boss?”
Rivera took a step back, a trickle of salty sweat running over his lips and into his mouth. He didn’t know what he thought. He wanted to call back to command, but he knew what Admiral Kaye would say — that he wasn’t there on the ground. That it wasn’t his call.
“She’s no friend of Bahame’s based on what he did to her village.”
“Yeah,” one of his men agreed. “But people are afraid of him and don’t want to piss him off. They think he’s magic.”
“So what are you saying?” Rivera said.
“If we let her go, how do we know she won’t talk? Hell, we can’t even tell her not to.”
He was right. What was it their contact had said? That Bahame could see through people’s eyes? Legends had roots in reality. Maybe people were so terrified of the man that even the ones who hated him told him everything they knew in hopes of working their way into his good graces.
“We could tie her to the tree and gag her,” another of his men said.
This was stupid. They were exposed and wasting time.
“We can’t tie her to a tree. She’d die of thirst or an animal would get her.”
The man standing behind her silently unsheathed his knife. “She’s not going to last out here on her own anyway. We’d be doing her a favor.”
Rivera stood frozen for what he knew must have seemed like far too long to his men. Indecisiveness was not a particularly attractive quality in his profession.
The knee-jerk reaction was always to fall back on his training, but this kind of situation had never been dealt with in a way that meant anything when actually faced with contemplating ending the life of an innocent woman.
“We’re moving out,” he said, turning and starting in a direction that skirted the burned-out village. There would already be a lot of explaining to do in the unlikely event that he ever laid eyes on the Pearly Gates. Murdering helpless women wasn’t something he wanted to add to his list.