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Jennifer Blackfoot climbed out of the air-conditioned Land Rover into a muggy night echoing with the maniacal laughter of hyenas. She jumped as something screamed in the dark nearby. Whether it was a howler monkey or maybe a big cat, she couldn't tell. Nuwazi, Ethiopia, was about as far removed from the New Mexico homeland of her people as a person could get.
The African mercenaries with her were nervous, swinging their AK-47s from side to side like they expected a lion to leap out of the bush at any second. It was not reassuring that even the natives were unsettled.
A broad strip of dirt road stretched before her, thick with underbrush on both sides. "You're sure this is the place?" she asked her driver.
"Aye, Missy. 'Dis de place."
She glanced at her watch. Ten minutes till midnight. Her counterparts from the Ethiopian government still had a few minutes before they'd be late for this clandestine rendezvous.
American entrepreneur Leland Winston was one of the wealthiest men on the planet if the rumors were true. His fortune supposedly extended into the hundreds of billions of dollars. She snorted. It was enough, apparently, to buy her personal services as a CIA field agent.
Winston's grandson, some kid named Jefferson Randall Stanley Winston, was in trouble with the Ethiopian government and needed extraction from the East African nation. Why Leland couldn't have just bullied the State Department into collecting the kid was beyond her. Repatriating American citizens fell under the State's formal auspices, not the CIA's. Although this wasn't exactly a normal repatriation. In point of fact, it had turned into a prisoner trade.
To that end, she gestured at the hired muscle with her to remove her prisoner from the backseat of the Land Rover. He was an Ethiopian national who went only by the moniker, ElMari. Big surprise, it meant The Leader in Ethiopia's primary language, Amharic. The guy looked and acted like a warlord of some kind. Although he'd been mostly silent on the ride here, an annoying gloating quality clung to him.
Whatever. Her job was to get Winston's grandson and bring him home. She seriously doubted Rich Boy was worth turning loose the man now standing beside her on the good citizens of Ethiopia. But it wasn't her call to make.
Headlights came around a bend in the road at the other end of the long clearing. A big flatbed truck with bare metal ribs arching over the cargo bed came into view. The mercenaries arrayed across the road at her side tensed, pointing their weapons at the vehicle.
"Stand down, gentlemen," she murmured.
They relaxed only fractionally, as if they knew something she didn't. Her tension climbed another notch.
The truck stopped about a hundred yards from her Land Rover. Green-camouflage-clad Ethiopian Army soldiers swarmed from the truck in a flurry of activity. She watched, perplexed, as they used a motorized lift on the back of the truck to lower a large wooden crate to the ground. Its side was pried open with crowbars and a dozen machine guns pointed at its contents.
Jennifer gasped as a tall, muscular man staggered out of the box. He was filthy, bearded and long-haired, and looked more like a wild animal than a human being. What in the world had they done to Rich Boy?
As the American stepped away from the crate, her shock intensified. He was wearing some kind of heavy leather collar around his neck, and four soldiers wielded what looked like long broomsticks attached to the collar. They wrestled him forward between them toward her. The American's hands were cuffed with metal bracelets to a chain around his waist, and his ankles were shackled. Just how dangerous was Rich Boy?
Unaccountably, the prisoner beside Jennifer laughed. It was a deep, full-throated thing that resonated with cruelty.
"It's not funny," Jennifer hissed. "How would you like it if we'd done that to you?"
He scowled over at her. "I am not crazy son-of-bitch." He lifted his chin toward his American counterpart and muttered in disgust, "Mwac aramamad."
The hired guns around her surreptitiously held up their hands, making tribal warning signs against evil. Mwac aramamad? Dead Man Walking? Her Amharic was rudimentary at best, but she was fairly sure that was what it meant. She glanced back at Rich Boy as one of his guards warily unshackled his ankles. Greasy strings of hair obscured his face as he staggered forward. He did look pretty close to dead at the moment. Or at least pretty savage. Nothing that a shower and a shave wouldn't correct, though. No one had told her Jefferson Winston was that huge and strong. The guy was over six feet tall and looked like a walking muscle. Alarm skittered across her skin. Was she taking custody of some sort of violent psychopath?
"Let's go," she ordered her prisoner.
She walked forward slowly with ElMari beside her. The closer they got to the American prisoner, the more appalled she was by his condition. His eyes were unfocused, and his lips drew back from his teeth in a feral snarl. Even the man beside her seemed to cringe a little at the sight of Rich Boy. Dead Man Walking, indeed.
The cluster of soldiers around Jefferson Winston stopped not quite halfway between the two vehicles. At a nod from the Ethiopian Army officer who appeared to be in charge of his side of the swap, she turned to her prisoner. El Mari held out his wrists and she unlocked his handcuffs. They fell away and she stuffed them in her pocket. Oddly, though, the Ethiopians didn't turn Rich Boy loose. Rather they gestured for her men to come and take positions on the collar poles.
Her men moved forward hesitantly.
Not interested in waiting for the handoff of the wild American, El Mari strode toward his own people, passing up her hired mercenaries and sneering at the American prisoner.
As the warlord drew even with the American, all hell broke loose. Rich Boy yanked his fists sharply and the chain around his waist snapped. With a single, violent twist of his torso, he wrenched the poles free from all four guards, leaped forward and pounced on El Mari. His attack was vicious and efficient. In a single shockingly swift move, he knocked the Ethiopian man to the ground and broke his target's neck with his bare hands, all but tearing the warlord's head off. There was no question that El Mari was dead as his body fell at a grotesquely unnatural angle.
Jennifer watched in stunned horror, uncharacteristically frozen in place as the crouching American unclipped the poles from his collar and flung them away. His limbs bunched. He sprang, charging her in a half crouch like a raging silverback gorilla.
He shouted something incoherent and took a flying leap at her, slamming into her just as a barrage of gunfire erupted. He barely knocked her out of the way of the flying bullets in time. Had he intentionally saved her life, or had that just been luck? The American was unbelievably heavy and smashed her flat, his large body completely covering hers. No air could enter her lungs, squashed as she was by his massive weight.
He pressed up and away from her into a bestial hunch. Galvanized into motion, she snatched her pistol out of its holster. Rich Boy's eyes flashed in chagrin as she scrambled to her knees and pointed the weapon at him.
But then she yanked his shoulder down with her free hand and fired past him at his captors, emptying her clip rapidly, and providing much-needed return fire for her men to reload their weapons and resume, effectively if not intentionally, covering their retreat.
The dismay in Winston's eyes turned to gratitude. She shrugged. One good turn deserved another, right?
He nodded briefly in thanks and then growled hoarsely,
"Right." So. There was a man inside the beast.
They sprinted for the Land Rover. A quick glance behind her revealed wholesale carnage on both sides of the firefight. The American shoved her at the passenger door and raced around to the driver's side. They jumped in simultaneously, and he slammed the car into gear without bothering to close his door. Gunfire aimed at them erupted. She ducked as the rear window shattered. The tires spun on the gravel as the Land Rover did a fish-tailing one-eighty and peeled out.
"My men!" she shouted at him.
"Paid to die," he retorted as he horsed the Land Rover around the first bend. The vehicle careened forward wildly for several miles before he finally eased his foot off the accelerator a little.
Terrified, she risked a look at the killer beside her. He truly did look more beast than man with hair hanging in his eyes and most of his face obscured by a heavy beard. What skin was visible was filthy, which only lent to the whole ape-man look. She rapidly rethought her childhood attraction to Tarzan. Jane could have him.
"Where's your plane?" His voice was guttural. Frightening, frankly. She ought to be terrified of him, but that brief glimpse of humanity in his eyes back on the road had reassured her just enough that she didn't bail out of the moving vehicle. Maybe she was stupid to trust him based on a single look, but her gut instinct was rarely wrong about people.
"Akimbe Airport," she replied, her mind racing. How much trouble was the United States in for letting El Mari be killed? What would the diplomatic ramifications be? And what on God's green earth was she supposed to do with Rich Boy now?
He drove on grimly. Since he didn't ask her for directions, she gathered he was familiar with the local area. The intelligence analyst within her duly noted it.
The Land Rover pulled up next to a sleek, unmarked business jet on the tarmac at Akimbe. Hmm, interesting. He knew which plane was the U.S. government bird without being told.
"Get on," he ordered, pointing at the plane.
Was she his prisoner? Was he planning to use her as a hostage to assure landing permission somewhere? Did he plan to kill her when they got wherever he was going? The trick in playing a game of cat and mouse was to make the other guy think he was the cat when he was the mouse all along. But she sensed this man was going to be very tricky, indeed, to manipulate. Where did a savage murderer flee to, anyway?