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Nine hours earlier. 06:02 Zulu. Friday, November 8. Ubasi airport. West Coast of Africa Perspiration dampened Dr. Emily Carlin's blouse as she neared one of two customs checkpoints.
There was no electricity in the cramped Ubasi arrivals room this morning. Fans hung motionless from the ceiling, the only light in the terminal coming from doors flung open to white-hot sunlight. Even at this early hour everyone was already dulled into slow motion by the rising temperatures and humidity.
The line of passengers shuffled slowly forward and Emily moved with it, people jostling her on all sides. She'd been informed Ubasi possessed no X-ray equipment and the additional lack of power made it even less likely they'd find the knife strapped to her ankle under her jeans.
It was small protection, but she didn't expect much trouble. Her mission was simply to get into the beleaguered war-torn country wedged between Nigeria and Cameroon and assess the sociological situation. Most importantly, she was to compile a psychological profile of notorious mercenary Jean-Charles Laroque, known on this continent as Le Diable, a fierce and deadly guerrilla war expert, master military strategist, and now, a dictator.
She had exactly one week to do her job. Laroque's life depended on her assessment.
Just over twelve months ago the Parisian-born Laroque had sailed into Ubasi on a Spanish boat with a scruffy black Alsatian at his side, a rough band of mercenaries under his command, and a cache of black market weapons in his hold. After putting up a weak fight, the beleaguered Ubasi army had surrendered to Laroque.
Xavier Souleymanthe despot who had overthrown Ubasi's King Douala eight yearspreviously and ruled the country with a bloody hand ever sincehad escaped Laroque's capture and fled the country with the aid of a small band of loyalists.
Laroque had wasted no time moving into the royal palace, installing himself as de facto leader, and after negotiating with the rebels who had seized control of the northern jungles of Ubasi during Souleyman's reign, Laroque had assumed personal ownership of massive tracts of land where his geologists had proceeded to strike oilenough to potentially rival production in both Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea combined.
That fact alone had catapulted the once-forgotten country and renegade warlord instantly onto the world stage.
In less than a year Laroque had managed to broker unheard-of treaties with disparate rebel factions over the border in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinearadical militants who opposed their own corrupt governments'financial ties with Western corporate interests in the Gulf of Guinea.
This placed Laroque in an exceedingly powerful anti-status-quo position. He now had the power to spark a major civil war in the region that could cut off oil supply to the rest of the world for decades to come oil that had recently become critical to U.S. foreign policy, given the current tensions in the Gulf ofArabia.
On top of this, four deep cover CIA agents in Ubasi had just been slaughtered, their bodies displayed using the same gruesome signature technique once employed by Laroque's mercenary father as he'd cut an increasingly bloody swath across the continent before meeting his own violent end two years ago.
Laroque seemed to be sending a message to the U.S.: Get out. Stay out. Or else.
And here Emily was going in.
She mopped her brow with a damp and tattered tissue as the queue inched forward again and heat pressed down.
Emily was a Manhattan-based expert in tyrannical pathology with a military background of her own. The minds of dictators, organized crime bosses, renegade warlords and murderous despots were both her passion and her professional specialty. Alpha Dogs, she called them.
She'd been contracted by the Force du Sable, a private military company based off the West Coast of Angola, to profile this particular Alpha Dog. The FDS in turn had been retained by a CIA-Pentagon task force in a clandestine bid to control the Laroque "situation." His threat in the region was becoming too great for corporate and political comfort.
The U.S., however, could in no way be overtly involved in a bid to oust the new Ubasi tyrant. Nor could the CIA trust its own at the momentthe source of the intelligence leak that had resulted in the deaths of the four CIA agents represented a grave internal security breach, which was why the FDS had been brought in.
Emily's assessment of Le Diable would be used by the FDS to formulate strategy. She needed to identify where the tyrant's psychological weaknesses layand in her experience, they always lay some-whereand she had to pinpoint what fired him. While much was known about Laroque's military exploits in Africa, virtually nothing was known about the man himself.
No one knew what made him tick.
Emily's job was to figure out what did.
She also needed to ascertain whether taking him captive would exacerbate an already volatile situation in the Gulf. To do this, she'd have to determine how his subjects viewed himas evil despot, or charismatic leader. Tyrants wore both stripes, and the last thing the U.S. wanted was to make the man a martyr.
If taking Laroque prisoner was not an option in Emily's opinion, the result would be death by assassination before midnight on Thursday, November 14.
Meanwhile, a team of FDS operatives was infiltrating Ubasi from the north. They would gauge the power of the exiled Souleyman faction, and start negotiations to back Souleyman in another coup to overthrow Ubasi. The FDS team on the ground would also get Emily out of Ubasi if she ran into trouble.
Emily didn't like the idea of swapping one murderous tyrant for another, but the U.S. did. Souleyman was easy to control. Laroque wasn't.
The oil business made strange bedfellows, she thought as she removed her water bottle from her bag, but politics was not her concern. Her sole interest was the Alpha Dog.
But while Alpha Dogs like Laroque were her intellectual thrill, they were also highly unstableand dangerous. And she hadn't been on a mission for a while.
A combination of anticipation and anxiety shimmered through her stomach as the queue inched closer to the customs checkpoint. She uncapped her water bottle and took a swig of the warm contents.
She could not afford to screw this one up.
She couldn't afford to screw anything up. She'd left enough of a personal mess in Manhattan as it was. She needed this job. And she needed to do it rightfor both professional and personal reasons.
Her nerves tightened as she glanced at the line of passengers on her left, the one with the rest of the Geographic International science crewher cover. It was moving much faster.
She'd been separated from them by a soldier who called himself the "document man" and roughly shunted to the line on the right. Emily wondered if she'd have been assigned to the faster queue if she'd given the "document man" cash. But she was saving her two hundred dollars in bribe money for the big important-looking guy manning the customs booth ahead. She had another two hundred dollars U.S. stashed in her Australian-style bush boots as backup.
Perhaps she should have brought more.
She was uncharacteristically hot and edgy this morning, and it was not a sensation she enjoyed. Emily liked to stay cool and in controlalways. She tried to shrug off her uneasiness, putting it down to the pathetic mess she'd left in New York. She was tired, emotionally drained, still reeling from her recent relationship fiasco.
The angry heat of humiliation once again flushed her cheeks. She'd been lured over the boundary ebony skin. "And what have you got for me today, Dr. Sanford?" he asked in deeply accented English, using her alias.
She slid a hundred dollar bill across the counter, watching his face. He stared at the money, his smile fading.
She pushed another note slowly across the counter. "It's all I have," she said in English.
"Vous êtes Américaine?"
Her heart beat faster. It was patently obvious from her passport what her nationality was, and now he was refusing to speak English. "Oui, je suis Américaine."
"Raison de visite?"
A ball of insecurity swelled suddenly in her throat.
"I'm here with the Geographic International science team," she said firmly, in English, wishing to hell the crew hadn't left without her. She unfolded and handed him another piece of paper that had the Ubasi palace stamp on it. "See?" She pointed to the signature. "We have permission from the Laroque government."
The official didn't even pretend to look at the piece of paper. His eyes continued to hold hers. "Currency declaration form?"
"I gave it to you, with the passport."
"I did! Look, it's right there," Emily said, pointing. The man shook his head, raised his hand high above his head and clicked his fingers sharply. Two armed guards left their station at the exit doors and started making their way toward his booth. Emily's heart pounded wildly against her rib cage. "What's going on?" she demanded.
"There is a problem with your currency declaration," the customs official said in French, before turning to the next person in line. "Passeport, s'il vous plaît?"
"No, there isn't. Wait! You haven't even looked at my form. You"
The guards took her arms roughly. "Venez avec nous."
Emily jerked back. "Why? Why must I go with you? Where to?"
But the guards hauled her briskly away. "What about my luggage?" she snapped, dangerously close to losing her temper. "I haven't collected my bags yet."
But they remained mute as they forced her through a crushing crowd of people, all of whom studiously averted their eyes. The reaction of the crowd wasn't lost on Emily. She saw it as a blatant sign of fear of government authority. These people were terrified of Laroque's goons, she thought as the guards forced her into an interrogation room. She whirled round as they shut the door and locked it.
Stay calm. Breathe.