Read an Excerpt
"You getting this?"
Haley Engen looked up from the intel file to see the monitor on her laptop computer. Her partner, Travis Todd, had a video camera disguised as a button on his shirt. It had audio capability, but he hadn't spoken to her until now. The camera focused on the forty-something Lebanese man who ran a market on United Nations Drive. He was arguing with someone she didn't recognize. Standing behind his checkout counter, the Lebanese glanced around the four-aisle market as though worried he'd be heard. He passed over Travis without any sign of suspicion and then turned back to the stranger. For as big as Travis was, he could blend in when he tried. Right now he was fingering a candy bar.
"Yeah," she said. "Who is that he's talking to?"
"Never seen him before," he answered in a low voice. He never talked during surveillance, but the stranger presented a possible new twist to the mission.
They'd been tracking the Lebanese man in Monrovia, Liberia, for a few days now, watching his daily routine. The file in front of her said he was a diamond merchant named Habib Maalouf who had family history with Hezbollah. That made him worth a closer look. Which was the reason for this little endeavor into the fine, forsaken land of extortionists and murdering rebels. Diamonds didn't wash through the country the way they did in Sierra Leone, but it was filled with people who'd do anything to get their hands on them.
"I'll send something to Odie and see what she can come up with." She cropped a picture of the man who'd resumed his heated discussion with the Lebanese merchant. Too bad they hadn't bugged the checkout counter.
Travis passed the front counter and the two men stopped talking. Then the monitor filled with passing cars and people walking along the street.
Haley spotted a man leaning his shoulder against the white wall of a hat vendor across the street. His height and size made her notice him. He was very tall and big. Not overly muscle-bound, but solid and strong. Broad shoulders filled his white T-shirt. Round biceps. Sinewy forearms. Thick black hair and dark stubble. The way he perused the activity on the street gave her a chill. He gave nothing away. Didn't smile. Didn't alter his expression. Just watched. His gaze landed on Travis and then moved on.
Haley still-framed the digital recording and cropped another picture. She couldn't explain why, but the guy gave her a funny feeling.
Travis left the busy activity along United Nations Drive. No one appeared ahead of him.
"You heading back?" She didn't want to alert Travis to the man. Certain men scared her, and this one was no exception. He had a rugged, hard look that intimidated her. Maybe it was the lack of emotion that got to her. It reminded her of the way the Iraqi insurgents who'd captured her five years ago had looked at her. She couldn't expunge it from her memory any more than she could overcome the lasting effect of her ordeal.
"Yeah. I'm hot and sweaty and hungry."
"Yeah?" She smiled. "So where do you want to risk food poisoning tonight?"
He chuckled. "Let's stick with seafood."
"Agreed. I'm never going to want to eat meat here again."
She pasted an image of the man with the merchant into an e-mail message and typed a quick note to Odelia Frank. The Army operations captain was the glue that held Tactical Executive Security together, and the reason many of their counterterror missions were so successful. Haley didn't send her the image of the man outside the hat shop.
"See you in two."
"Over and out." She pulled off the headpiece to her radio. By the time her laptop shut down, Travis came through the door of their bland hotel room. At least it was clean.
He'd insisted on one room with two beds. He always did that. Overprotected her on TES missions. Sometimes she appreciated it, but only when she felt weaker than usual. Which, since Iraq, she occasionally did.
"We'll need to keep an eye on that man our merchant met today. You think that button will look good on one of my blouses?"
"Are you suggesting you should do the ops next time?"
He knew she was, and that sparked her ire. She kept it in check. "They might recognize you."
"You're the comms and intel specialist. It's what Cullen hired you for."
"I can do more than that and you know it. I have training."
"If we need a closer look, we'll rely on Odie and get it electronically from her files."
"Don't do that, Travis." There he went again, overprotecting her.
"I'm not arguing, Haley. If you don't want to do this my way, you'll have to take it up with the boss."
"He'll only say what you ask him to say." Cullen McQueen was one of the toughest men she'd ever met, but when it came to women, he didn't budge on safety factors.
"It isn't my fault he agrees with me. And he's only watching out for you."
"Why? Because I'm a woman?" She told him what she thought of that in French.
"Stop that," he said.
He didn't like it when she spoke in French because he didn't know what she was saying.
"What did you say?" he asked.
"You always do that when you get mad."
That wasn't the only time. She'd learned French at a young age and it came in handy at times.
"What did you say?" he demanded this time.
"I said you men are all the same."
"Haley, you know I wouldn't want anyone else on the other end of my radio. You're the brains of every operation."
She got up from the hard wood chair and walked over to him. "Flattery doesn't work on me. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
"Why are you always so eager to put yourself in danger?"
That took her aback. "I'm not."
His mouth curved into a doubtful frown.
"I just want to make a difference," she said, wondering if she sounded defensive.
He didn't comment further. He didn't have to. And she was glad he didn't press the issue. Everyone at TES knew about her capture. She'd never admit how much the possibility of remembering everything scared her. She didn't know what happened after the insurgents started beating her, and she never wanted to. But she did remember the special forces soldiers who came to rescue her. Joining TES had given her the closest thing to retribution she could find. It was her way of fighting back, something she hadn't been able to do when the insurgents had attacked her.
"I can't think of you as one of the guys," Travis said, "so don't ask me to."
She rose up onto her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "You're like a brother to me."
He smiled but didn't say anything, softness still in his eyes. When she'd first met him, he'd intimidated her the same way the man outside the hat shop had. Once she got to know him, though, she wasn't afraid anymore. They'd grown closer and had become friends.
They'd come close to more once, but she didn't feel that kind of chemistry with him. That was why she hadn't had a relationship with him—which would have been the first since her attack. Even if she were physically attracted to him, the idea of sleeping with him made her wince sometimes. He wasn't an unattractive man, he was just, well, big. And always so careful around her. Like he might break her if he touched her. So he did all he felt he could do. Protect her.
If she couldn't be intimate with someone as gentle and considerate as Travis, despite his looming appearance, would she be able to be intimate with any man? Iraq had changed her. The doctors had told her plenty. More than she wanted to know. Not having a memory of the torture didn't erase the fact that it had happened. That was the part that bothered her most. She didn't know what would have been worse, knowing how her body had been abused from a medical perspective or remembering it in vivid detail.
"Come on." Travis headed for the door. "Let's drive over to Broad Street. There's a place I know that has good seafood."
She picked up her Walther P99 Quick Action 9 mm pistol and tucked it in her belt holster, covering it with her short-sleeved white T-shirt. Like Travis, she wore jeans.
Travis led her out of the room and down the stairs leading to the Mamba Point Hotel lobby. If one could call it a lobby. It looked more like the entrance to an office building, which was what it had once been. Crossing the dark wood floor, she followed Travis outside. A large gravel parking area was enclosed by an eight-foot white cement wall. They got into a Jeep the hotel had retrieved for them and drove to the solid iron gate at the entrance of the parking area. The guard opened the gate and Haley waved as they passed.
Travis drove to United Nations Drive and made a left onto Newport. The Jeep was open, and the wind messed the tendrils of hair that had loosened from her ponytail. When they reached Broad, Travis turned right. Wondering why he passed the restaurant, she saw him glance at the rearview mirror and apprehension reared up in her.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"We're being followed."
Her heart jumped into an alarmed rhythm. She twisted on the seat and saw a beat-up blue SUV filled with several men. How had this happened? She didn't understand. Travis was always so careful.
"You couldn't have been followed to the market," she said.
He was thinking what she was thinking; someone else had been keeping watch outside the market. Had that someone seen him watching the market owner?
Haley remembered the man outside the hat shop and wondered if she'd made a calculated error not telling Travis. Her judgment may have been clouded by her reaction. Did the man work for the stranger who'd met the market owner? Without more to go on it was hard to tell. She and Travis were here only to gather information. It was just the two of them. But somehow they'd been discovered.
Travis pounded the steering wheel once with his palms and swore. Stepping on the gas, he skidded into a right turn. Battered buildings whizzed past them.
Gunfire exploded. Travis swerved when the back tires gave. The men chasing them were aiming for the tires.
Haley fought the horribly familiar rush of fear and dread. She closed her eyes against memory, then pulled her P99 from her waist holster and twisted in the seat to fire back at the SUV.
Travis turned onto Benson. The U.S. embassy was too far away. As he turned onto Lynch, more gunfire rang. The front left tire blew and Travis couldn't hold the Jeep. They spun and jerked to a halt.
Haley scrambled out of the Jeep. She aimed over the hood of the vehicle as gunshots splattered the other side of it.
"Travis!" she screamed and fired her gun over and over, trying to cover him.
She heard him moan a swear word.
Dark-skinned rebels holding automatic rifles emerged from the other side of the SUV. She registered other things, dirty clothes, unkempt hair, very little muscle-weight, but kept her mind on defending Travis. She reached into the Jeep and yanked open the glove box for another clip. Reloading, she crouched with her back against the Jeep door. Seeing a hand stretching past the front of the Jeep, she realized Travis had crawled there, but now he wasn't moving. With the angle of the Jeep, he was safe, for now at least.
Rolling so she could fire over the hood of the Jeep, she saw the men were drawing closer. She took careful aim and fired. She got two of them before she had to duck. There were four left.
Crawling toward Travis, she came around the front of the Jeep. She didn't have time to check for his pulse. Rising slowly, she fired again. They were so close. One. Two. But she only got the second man's arm. She ducked again as they fired back, then rose to continue shooting. She ran out of bullets.
The first dark-skinned man approached the front of the Jeep. He was thin and wore a dirty tan shirt that hung to the thighs of his equally dirty jeans. The second went around the back of the Jeep. He was shorter but just as thin. The third followed him, just a young boy, maybe thirteen. Sick fear gave a stark beat to her pulse. She fought it. They weren't big men. She might be able to overpower them. She'd become a good fighter since Iraq.
Still holding her gun, she moved away from Travis as the three surrounded her. She turned, keeping them in sight. The tallest one wore a leer she would have loved to blast off his face with a bullet. There was an ugly space between his two big front teeth. The one she'd injured said something in his native tongue, something angry. The young boy looked around, keeping watch for any interference. But what people had been on the street had fled with the first round of gunfire.
"You will come with us," the gap-toothed man said in a rolling West African accent.
She said nothing, just kept backing away.
The gap-toothed man walked faster toward her. Instead of running as she was sure he expected, she waited for him to get close enough. Then she angled her leg for a kick, catching him on the chest and throwing him off balance. He stumbled backward. She whacked him high on the back of his neck with her P99. He dropped to the ground unconscious.
The one she'd injured pushed the barrel of his rifle to the side of her head. She had no choice other than to go still. If she moved at all, would he kill her?
At least she'd die fighting.
"You come quiet or we kill you now," he said.
The insurgents had told her that in Iraq, too. Back then, she'd gone. This time…
Two moves, one with her hand slamming the barrel of the rifle upward, the other driving her elbow back to give his solar plexus a good jab, were enough to distract him. A shot rang out but she didn't pause. She pivoted just enough and drove a hard kick to the man's groin. He dropped in agony. Not so tough after all. Skinny bastard.
She went for his gun, but before she reached it, the kid appeared in her peripheral vision, raising his rifle and hitting her with the end of the handle hard on the back of her head. She lost coherency for a minute. Blinking, she realized she was sprawled on the ground. She rolled onto her butt, unable to focus very well. She searched the ground for a gun. One lay a few feet from the man she'd kicked in the groin, who still squirmed in pain. The other lay near the gap-toothed man's unconscious body, but he was farther away.