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Jonah Baker heard the chatter of a Kalashnikov, then another weapon returning fire. The sound was familiar in the craggy brown hills of a country where warlords ran rampant over the land, fighting each other for prestige and territory.
The sun played over the top of his helmet, and sweat crawled down his back under his flak jacket. For a man who'd grown up in Grown up in
He struggled to remember the place where he'd spent his childhood. He had to have come from somewhere. But he couldn't bring it into focus. Not the town. Not his house. Panic tightened his chest. Then he reminded himself that the past wasn't important right now. He had to focus on this village. These people.
They knew who had come here to harvest the viscous fluid from the immature poppy plants, then ship the darkened, slightly sticky mass called opium to middlemen.
He caught a flicker of movement to his right, but it was only a woman peering out from the doorway of her stone house.
Her whole body was hidden by a burkaa blue robe with a face screen that allowed her to view only a narrow slice of the world. But he saw her small hand clutching the wooden door frame. In her other hand she held a metal box with a crank. She let go of the woodwork and began to turn the crank. As she did, music started playing. It sounded foreign and exotic, something the men might dance to on a village feast day or at a wedding celebration. It should have been pleasant, but it sent shivers along his spine.
"Stop," he said, wanting to clamp his hands over his ears. "I mean you no harm," he added.
The woman eased back into the shadows beyond the doorway, but the tune kept grating at him until he strode away, scanning the street for trouble.
A few houses away, a group of men with dark beards, loose-fitting shirts, and colorful turbans stepped into view and stood facing the American soldiers. Some of them had lined, weatherworn faces that made them look as if they were in their seventies. But he suspected they were decades younger. Life in
Again his mind drew a blank. And then it came to him. He was in Afghanistan. Tramping through the back of beyond, where there were no passable roads. Trying to cut off the source of funding for the Taliban.
"We won't punish you. We just want to know who harvested the opium," Lieutenant Calley said.
Wasn't he someone from another conflict, decades ago?
"Damn," he muttered.
"Quiet. Don't interrupt," Calley ordered.
Jonah's head swung toward the man. "You don't give the orders. I'm the major. You're the lieutenant."
"But I'm better at the language. That's why I'm handling the questioning."
Jonah focused on the scene. Everything seemed normal. But something bad was going to happen. He felt it all the way to the marrow of his bones.
The villager doing the talking took a step back, his eyes darting away for a moment. "We don't know the men who came for the opium," he insisted.
"But you watched them work."
Somehow Jonah could understand perfectly what the guy was saying.
"There were a lot of them. They said they would kill us if we interfered."
"Uh-huh," Calley muttered.
Jonah saw him reach for his gun. "Don't!"
"I know how to get them to talk." Calley pulled out his sidearm and shot the old man.
A sick feeling rose in Jonah's throat. "What the hell are you doing?"
"No. You started it." Jonah backed away in horror. "Stop. Stop," he kept pleading, but Calley had gone mad.
He saw the woman in the doorway clutch her chest and fall. Red blood spread across her blue burka as she lay on the ground.
A bullet slammed into his thigh and he went down. Then another one caught him in the arm.
Horror swirled through his mind, through his soul. He was still screaming "No" when his eyes opened and he found himself lying on a narrow bed in a darkened room.
Sweat drenched his skin and the T-shirt and briefs he was wearing. The bedclothes were tangled around him. Dim light filtered in under the crack at the bottom of the door.
He'd awakened from a nightmareabout Afghanistan. His last assignment.
He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.
No, he corrected himself immediately. That wasn't his last assignment.
The dream was so vivid, that it had seemed like reality. But he knew he had made it up. It wasn't real. Lieutenant Calley was a soldier from Vietnam, notorious for having ordered the mass murder of innocent villagers. That was how he had ended up in a nightmare about the massacre of a village in the Afghan hills.
Or was there something real about the dreamand his mind had twisted the facts? Like the lieutenant's name.
He moved his arm and found it was sore, as though he'd suffered a recent injury. Fumbling beside the bed, he found a table and a lamp attached to the wall. He switched on the lamp, then sat blinking in the sudden light.
When his vision cleared, he looked at the upper part of his right arm and saw a round red scar from a recent bullet wound.
Like in the dream.
And what about his leg?
Quickly he pulled the covers aside and found another scar on his right thigh. Just where he'd been hit in the nightmare village.
So where was he now?
Was this a prison? An asylum?
Once again, panic gripped his throat and he pushed himself off the bed because he needed to get away from the place where the dream had grabbed him.
When he stood up, pain shot through his injured thigh. He caught his breath, adjusted the weight on the leg, then staggered to the door.
To his vast relief, when he turned the knob, the door opened.
Thank God. At least he wasn't locked in. He stared down a long corridor, lit only by dim emergency lights. Like those in his room, the walls were of cinder block painted an institutional green. And the lights were spaced about every fifteen feet, leaving pools of darkness between them.
If he had to guess, he'd say it was night, and they'd turned the lights down because most people were sleeping. Or maybe that was the norm in this place.
He closed the door and leaned against it, trying to bring the recent past into focus.
He felt a wave of relief when details came zinging back to him. He'd been in Thailand. That was his last assignment.
Images flooded his mind. Beautiful gold-and-red temples. Fifteen-foot-high statues of Buddha. Lotus blossoms. Peaked roofs so different from the architecture of any other country he had visited. A wide river where fantailed outboard motorboats zipped past each other. Streets clogged with cars and trucks and little three-wheeled open-air cabs with a driver on something like a motorcycle in the front and a bench seat in the back for the passengers.
He'd taken those cabs. And he'd ridden on an elephant, feeling as though he was going to fall off the bench seat swaying on top of the lumbering beast.
Yeah, Thailand. But what was he doing there?
Once he had the name of the country and remembered some of the things he'd seen and done, the answer supplied itself. He'd been working security for a diplomatic mission to Bangkok. The diplomats wanted to see the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, burned by the Burmese two hundred years ago. The stone buildings were still standing, like ghosts of their former selves.
But while the party was away from the city, they got word that bird flu had broken out in the area. A deadly airborne strain. And the only sure way to avoid getting infected was to go under-groundinto a secret bunker.
As news of the epidemic had spread, panicked citizens had attacked them, trying to get to safety. That's where he'd gotten shot, defending the diplomats. He remembered that very clearly now.
He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to come up with more details. They evaded him.
But he knew he'd made it to safety.
In the bunker?
A secret bunker in Thailand?
Yeah, the U.S. government had dug them for the king at various locations around the country. Or that was the story. What else would they be for?
He looked around the little room. It was maybe seven by ten feet, just big enough for a single bed, a night table bolted to the wall and a small chest of drawers. Besides the door to the hall, there were two others. When he checked them, he found a shallow closet where uniform pants and shirts hung. Not his usual uniform. These were navy blue.
The bunker uniform?
He had some vague memory of having someone strip off his clothing, then take him through a special biological decontamination area. When he came out and dried off, he was issued all new clothing.
He kept moving along the wall and found that the other door led to a small bathroom. Switching on the light, he looked around and saw a toilet, sink and narrow shower stall.
On the shelf over the sink were toiletries, including a tube of toothpaste that was half used up. How long had he been here?
A time frame came to him. Three weeks. He'd been here healing and waiting out the epidemic.
They'd separated the security detail from the diplomats. He remembered that now. And Dr. Montgomery was in charge of this section of the bunker.
So the story about Afghanistan was something he'd made up, a dream. Or had that happened, too, farther back in his past?
He ran a shaky hand over his face, as though that would clear his mind. It didn't help. But at least he could use logic. If he'd been part of a village massacre in Afghanistan, he'd hardly be the choice for a diplomatic mission. Probably he'd be in the brig instead.
Maybe he could ask Dr. Montgomery about that. The name brought back vague memories of being in the doctor's office. Not for medical treatment. The man was a psychologist or something like that, and he was supposed to be helping Jonah cope with post-traumatic stress.
Except that Jonah didn't trust the guy, even when he kept saying what sounded like the right things.
So did that make Jonah Baker paranoid?
He leaned over the sink, staring at his reflection in the mirror. At least he recognized the man who stared back, although he got the impression from the lean look of his face that he'd lost some weight in the past few weeks.
Picking up the glass from the shelf above the sink, he filled it from the tap and took several swallows of cold water. Then he turned off the bathroom light and went back to the twin bed, where he straightened the covers again, tucking in the bottom corners with military precision.
The pillow was half off the bed, and he saw something that had been under it. A pill.
What the hell was a pill doing there?
Wait a minute. It was something he was supposed to take. Only it had made his head fuzzy. So when the sergeant had given it to him, he'd pretended to swallow it. Then he'd spat it out and tucked it under his pillow.
But what was he thinking? He couldn't leave it there. With a dart of panic, he grabbed it and flushed it down the toilet. Climbing back under the covers, he turned off the bedside lamp and tried to go back to sleep. Instead he lay there staring into the darkness, unanswered questions swirling in his mind.
As he listened to the sound of his own breathing, a noise riveted his attention.
Focusing intently, he thought he heard the knob turn. Then the door opened just far enough for someone to slip into the room before it closed again. Someone who assumed Jonah Baker was sleeping and they could sneak around without him being the wiser. So what the hell was the intruder up to?
Too bad Jonah hadn't checked the quarters for a weapon. He had nothing but his handsand surpriseto defend himself. For the moment, all he could do was remain very still, feigning sleep. He heard the sound of harsh breathing.
So the guy was nervous.
Was he planning to shoot the sleeping man? No. He could have done that already. So maybe he had a knife? That would certainly attract less attention.
When the assailant came softly across the floor, Jonah forced himself to stay where he was. He'd been shot recently, so he wasn't exactly in top fighting form. But in the dim light, this guy looked small, and maybe Jonah could take him.
As a hand reached out, Jonah made his movespringing up and grabbing the outstretched arm, twisting it over and back.
The guy tried to cry out, but Jonah clamped a hand across the man's mouth, pulling him back against his own body.
"Call for help and I'll kill you," he rasped.
Still holding the arm in a grip that would dislocate the guy's shoulder if he moved the wrong way, Jonah slid his other hand downward, searching for weapons.
He didn't find a knife or a gun.
Instead his hand closed over a woman's breast.
She spoke as though she knew him well, and the mingling of fear and determination in her voice was like a punch in the gut.
"You're hurting my arm. Let me go."
He eased up a little, but he didn't loosen his hold on her. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
In the darkness, he heard her swallow hard. "I'm Sophia. Sophia Rhodes."
He hadn't expected to hear a name he recognized. But the effect was that of a baseball bat to the chest, knocking the breath from his lungs.
A few minutes ago, he had remembered nothing about his early life. But the mention of her name sent a bolt of lightning through his brain. The lightning crashed through a mental barrier, releasing a dam of memories into his mind. Not just memories. Vivid physical sensations.
He remembered a night in her bed. A night of passionate kisses and touches. And then two bodies joined in ecstasy and desperation. A night that had branded him for life.
He summoned the breath to speak and managed to gasp, "You can't be."