Northern Uganda
November 25—2018 Hours GMT+3

Mehrak Omidi awoke to the sound of cheering and exited Bahame’s command tent, where he had retreated to escape the jungle’s insidious biting bugs. Young soldiers had crowded around an old pickup, and he was forced to climb onto Bahame’s podium in order to see the two unconscious white men in the back.

The mob kicked and spit on them as they were dragged toward captivity and, soon, death. Charles Sembutu, for all his fearsome reputation, had proven to be an old woman where the Americans were concerned. He had ignored every opportunity to get rid of Smith’s team, and when they’d finally gotten too close, he’d continued to refuse to act — instead calling Omidi with their position and washing his hands of the matter.

The lights of the pickup flickered off, revealing a dim glow approaching through the trees. A moment later, an extravagant four-wheel-drive vehicle came skidding into camp. Caleb Bahame leapt out, ignoring the adulation of his soldiers as he pulled a woman across the front seats and out the driver’s door.

Omidi stepped forward, his gaze moving from the tangle of blond hair to the face so unconvincingly trying to portray courage. The Ayatollah’s continued insistence that they release the parasite on the anniversary of the victory of the revolution had seemed impossible — even with their top biologists working around the clock. And his unwavering belief that God would provide a solution had seemed dangerously na?ve. But Omidi once again found himself humbled by the aging cleric’s wisdom and faith.

He leapt from the podium and retreated to the blackness at the edge of the jungle, unable to take his eyes off the woman. The doubts he’d had about their plans and his fears regarding the American intelligence agencies were suddenly gone. God had made his presence known, and now the success of what lay ahead seemed almost preordained. Sarie van Keuren, the person most qualified to stabilize and weaponize the parasite, had been delivered to him.

* * *

Jon Smith opened his eyes, watching the vague shapes around him slowly coalesce into a stone ceiling, rusted bars, and primitive lab beyond. He still didn’t have the strength to get up, and he let his head loll toward the motionless body of Peter Howell next to him.

“Peter. Are you all right?”

The blow to the back of the old soldier’s head had been vicious enough that Smith suspected he might never wake up.

“Peter. Can you—”

A low moan came from the man and then something that may have been words.

“What? Did you say something?”

When he spoke again, his voice had gained strength. “The easiest fifty grand you ever made…”

Smith hadn’t quite managed to sit fully upright when a piercing scream sounded. The jolt of adrenaline didn’t do much more than amplify the pounding in his head, and he scooted instinctively away from the bars, scanning for the source of the terrible sound.

About ten feet away, a woman was imprisoned in a similar cell built into the opposite wall of the cave. Smith watched through a curtain of blood-smeared plastic as she stretched her arm through the bars, looking like she’d be willing to break every bone in her body to get to them.

“You’re awake.”

Smith turned sluggishly toward the voice, struggling to focus on an old man wearing a canvas apron that looked like it had spent the last fifty years in a slaughterhouse.

“Where’s Sarie?”

“Who?” the man said.

Smith used the depressingly solid-feeling bars to pull himself to his feet while Howell assessed the damage that had been done to the back of his head.

“Sarie van Keuren. She was with us.”

“I don’t know.”

The man clearly wasn’t one of Bahame’s henchmen — he was too white, too old, and, based on his speech, too well educated.

“Who are you?”

“Me?” he said, looking a bit startled by the question. “Thomas De Vries. I’m a retired doctor who was kidnapped to keep a man alive so Bahame could kill him. Then I was put in here and told to find a way to keep a brain parasite alive outside the body so it could be transported.”

“Did you succeed?”

He shook his head. “I’m not a scientist. And even if I was, I wouldn’t do it.” He pointed to the infected woman, who had tired a bit, but not so much that she’d completely given up trying to get through the bars. “Bahame keeps the infection alive by passing it on to successive victims. You’re in the holding tank now. When she starts to die, you’ll be put in with her. And when you start to die, your friend will be. I’m sorry.”

“That’s just outstanding,” Howell said as Smith grabbed him under the arm and helped him to his feet. “Tell me, mate. Is there any way—”

He fell silent at the sound of approaching footsteps, and De Vries ran to a plywood-and-cinderblock table, where he tried to look busy.

The man who entered a few moments later wasn’t the one Smith expected. He was clearly Middle Eastern, and despite filthy, sweat-stained clothing, he had a strange air of meticulousness. When Smith mentally cleaned him up, there was something familiar. He’d seen the face before.

“Colonel Smith, Mr. Howell. I have to say I’m surprised you were captured so easily.”

The Persian accent was the final piece he’d needed. “Slumming a bit, aren’t you, Omidi?”

The man smiled. “Well done, Colonel. Of course, my presence wouldn’t be difficult to predict. Someone has to stop America’s bioweapons division from getting hold of this parasite and using it against the Muslim people.”

“You and Bahame make an excellent team,” Howell commented. “What’s the old saying? Two peas in a pod?”

Omidi ignored the insult, secure in the knowledge that he had the upper hand. “How much does the American government know about what’s happening here?”

“It’s not going to be that easy,” Smith said.

“No, I suppose not. But it doesn’t really matter. You’ve run out of time.”

Footsteps again echoed through the chamber, and Smith counted them, trying to add an estimate of their distance from the cave entrance to the things he’d put together about their surroundings: The bars were solid despite some surface rust, and the lock was modern. Much of the equipment in the lab could be used to cut flesh, but there seemed to be nothing that could be used effectively on steel. The old doctor was certainly an asset but had neither the temperament nor the physical ability to do anything heroic. In the end, Omidi was probably right. Their time had run out.

Sarie appeared first, stumbling into the chamber in a way that suggested she’d been pushed. One of her sleeves was soaked through with blood and her eyes were red and swollen, but beyond that she seemed unharmed.

Caleb Bahame came in behind her and, with the exception of some graying at the temples, looked exactly like the twenty-five-year-old photos Star had included in the dossier she’d prepared.

Howell moved suddenly to the bars, wrapping his fingers around them and glaring at the African as he walked casually to the center of the chamber.

“Peter Howell,” he said. “It’s been many years. You look sick and weak.”

Bahame saw the surprise on Smith’s face and smiled. “Did Peter not tell you? We are old acquaintances. He killed many of my men. Many of my flock.”

“You had a lot to cower behind,” the Brit responded.

“They love me. They understand who I am. What I am.”

“And what is that, exactly?” Smith said, but Bahame ignored him.

“You know, I hired a man in America to come for you, Peter. It’s unprecedented. You should be flattered to command the attention of a man like myself.”

“I remember,” Howell said. “If you’d ever like to visit him, he’s buried out by my shed.”

Bahame’s smile widened. “You must be very anxious to hear what happened to Yakobo. He was a very fine boy and became a very fine soldier. You’ll be happy to know that I eventually found some of his family. An aunt, I believe. I told him to rape her and then burn her alive, though he certainly didn’t need my encouragement. He enjoyed himself very much.”

Howell yanked powerfully enough on the bars to cause dirt to shower down on them.

Bahame laughed. “But now God has delivered you to me. Just as he promised he would. I will very much enjoy dealing with you.”

“Do it now,” Omidi said, speaking for the first time since the African entered.

“In good time.”

“Not in good time. Now. They’re of no use to us. Keeping them alive is an unnecessary risk.”

The African waved a hand dismissively, obviously wanting to savor the sensation of having Howell completely at his mercy. “I said in good time. I’ll use the whites to keep the spirits alive. To show my people that no one can stand against my magic.”

“We have an agreement. We—”

“An agreement? How do prisoners that I captured enter into our agreement?”

“I’m the one who gave you their location. It was my source in the American—”

God told me their location. You were just a convenient messenger.”

He grabbed Sarie by the hair and pulled her to him. She was smart enough not to fight but drew the line at hiding her hatred.

“And now I have the woman. Maybe I don’t need you anymore, eh, Mehrak?”

It was clear that Omidi understood the weakness of his position. Bahame was a mystic and a psychopath, but he had enough of an understanding of biology to know how useful Sarie could be in making the parasite a more practical weapon.

“Perhaps we could strike a bargain for her,” Omidi said.

Bahame looked vaguely insulted. “She isn’t part of our deal and I can make use of her myself.”

“Of course you are right,” Omidi said, his tone softening into something that approached subservience. “But we have the facilities to put her skills fully to use. Certainly there is room for negotiation.”

The African nodded. “There’s always room for negotiation between good friends. Come, let’s drink and we can talk of this more.”