Biochemist Emma Caldridge joins Jackson Rand, pharmaceutical CEO, on a humanitarian mission to deliver vaccines to remote villages in Africa. But after narrowly escaping a crew of trained assassins, Emma realizes that there is more to this mission than she anticipated. Rand is keeping secrets from her, information that could cost both of them their lives…not to mention millions more.
After its eradication nearly forty years ago, the smallpox virus is once again threatening the world. With no known cure and limited stores of vaccine, the highly contagious, deadly and disfiguring disease has the power to wipe out entire cities. Rand’s company was hired to secure the last known vials, but some have gone missing in Africa and a ruthless government now hunts them for use as a biochemical weapon.
Emma must locate these vials before the killer plague is unleashed on the innocent, ravaging a world that never expected to see it again. She runs to the border, finding and freeing hostages as she does. But an insurgency is rising around them, blocking their every attempt to escape. Surrounded and with no choice but to head to the desert, Emma must stop the virus and lead her ragtag team to freedom…if the Sahara doesn’t kill them first.
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Three Hundred Miles East of Dakar, SenegalEmma Caldridge gazed out the open SUV window at the beauty of the savannah, unaware that in the tall grasses a man lurked. She rested her folded arms on the door’s edge while she watched the baobab trees fly by. The dry wind, filled with the smell of pounded dirt and grass and sun, whipped her hair around her face.
For his part, the man in the field smelled only the dirty oil and grease of the rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. The wooden heat shield, smooth from years of use in the wars of Africa, nestled against his neck. He watched the black Escalade approach, its wheels kicking up a dust cloud, and noted the woman leaning out of the rear passenger-side window. Her light brown hair flicked and spun in the wind. For a brief second, he regretted having to kill her, because his primary source of income came from kidnapping and a Westerner paid well. But the Arab had commissioned this job, and no one crossed the Arab.
The Escalade rocketed past and he rose up, his sudden movement startling a couple of grasshoppers into fleeing. He ignored them as he stood among the swaying grass to aim. Right before he pulled the trigger, he glanced behind him, a reflex from years of experience, because he knew the weapon would shoot hot gas and smoke from the back as the grenade launched.
Emma glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see the man rise into view, the long weapon pointed at her. She jerked back inside and hit the button to close the window. The bulletproof window began its electrical slide up just as the man fired. She saw the backblast explode out from the weapon and heard the whistling of the rocket.
The armored car took the first hit on its hatch door. A Kevlar net spread across the back deflected the grenade, and the heavily plated vehicle absorbed the impact with a creaking, shrieking, metallic sound. She pounded on the glass divider between her and the driver.
“Go, go, go,” she yelled at him.
The top-heavy vehicle lurched forward and careened around a tight corner and Emma tumbled across the back seat and slammed into the opposite door. Her arm hit the row of rocks glasses set in holders and the top half of the nearest one sheared off. The broken section flicked into the air. She glanced back and saw more attackers on various vehicles emerge from the high grasses on the side of the road.
The now closed window thudded near her head as a bullet hammered into it. Emma jerked back, afraid that the bulletproof glass would shatter. It dented with the force but held. She was relieved to see the lack of spalling, because it meant the glass was resistant to a higher level than the guns being fired, at least for the moment. Multi-hits in a twelve-centimeter triangle would cause it to fail. It was the driver’s ability to keep the car moving that would spread the hits across the vehicle, giving them a chance for survival. But he was also the one they would try to kill first.
The woman in the plush bench seat in the row behind Emma started screaming. The third occupant in the car was Jackson Rand, the billionaire owner of Rand Laboratories.
“Climb in the back,” he said. “The walls and windows are bulletproof.”
The woman scrambled over the seat and into the cargo portion of the extended car. Rand joined her and they pushed the luggage aside to make room for them both. He collected the screaming woman into his arms and shielded her with his body. She was his secretary of ten years, as she’d proudly told Emma by the light of a campfire.
The heavy car shuddered when a second grenade exploded near the roof, and another rain of bullets hit the driver’s side window. It failed in a shower of tiny glass slivers and shrapnel. Emma watched in horror as a splash of red washed over the clear divider between the driver and the passenger area.
“The driver’s been hit,” Emma said to the two others.
She pressed the button to lower the glass divider, like those found in limousines, to access the front seat. She was glad that it still moved. That meant that the car hadn’t yet lost power. She knew that a car taking fire, even an armored car, had seconds to escape the first hit. A vehicle that didn’t move while under attack would eventually be breached, no matter how extensive the armoring.
The lowered partition revealed the driver slumped over the wheel. Blood poured from his left ear and the glass next to his head was shattered by multiple rounds in a tight firing pattern. The man remained still and the SUV was slowing. Emma slid through the narrow opening, scraping her ankle across the metal lip, and leaving a skid mark of broken skin. She shoved the chauffeur back to an upright position and as far as she could against the door, then squeezed herself into the seat with him. She hammered her left foot on top of his, which was still on the gas pedal. As she did, she leaned against his body to gain better access to the steering wheel. To her profound relief, the heavy vehicle picked up speed.
They were on the RN1 between Kayes in Mali and Tambacounda in Senegal, which was the only passable road for miles and a route notorious for its potholes. The SUV’s run-flat tires would have fifty miles left in them after being hit by a bullet or flattened by a puncture, but not at the speeds that they were traveling. The vehicle hammered into a pothole and it jerked, throwing Emma against the driver’s body. She tamped down the revulsion she felt being pressed so close to a corpse and concentrated on driving. The man’s position in front of the steering wheel forced her into an awkward angle, and she prayed that the road stayed straight because, if it didn’t, she would need a longer reach to maneuver it. The driver had a gun in his right hand, and Emma kept her left hand on the steering wheel while she used her right to pry it from his fingers.
“Can you shoot?” she yelled back to Rand.
Rand’s head appeared in the partition’s opening. He reached a hand through and placed it on the driver’s shoulder, jerking it back when he touched blood. He stared at his hand in horror.
“I said. Can. You. Shoot?” Emma ground out the words. Rand tore his eyes from his bloody hand and shook his head.
“Not that well. But I can drive.”
That’s an understatement, Emma thought. Rand owned a racing team and rumor was that he occasionally raced his own Indy car in lesser venues.
“Then you drive and I’ll shoot,” Emma said. She wanted more than anything to keep the car moving and kept her attention on the road.
A quick glance in the side mirrors revealed four attackers—two on motorcycles and two in a battered convertible of undetermined make. The SUV’s faster pace had increased their distance from the convertible, but that was a mixed blessing because the trees lining the road left little room to maneuver and even less to escape. The faster they went, the more Emma needed to concentrate on driving. A herd of goats rambled across the road far ahead and she laid on the horn to make them move. A skinny goatherd plodding behind them looked up at the noise and started waving a long stick to hustle them across.
Rand pulled off his jacket and squeezed through the opening. He was slender, about six feet tall, with wavy, precisely cut, dark hair that reached the top of his collar. He landed in the passenger seat and fell against the door as Emma turned a tight right corner. More bullets hit the back window, and Emma swerved to keep them from attaining that multi-hit jackpot that would shatter the glass completely. The motorcyclist on her left edged forward and she swerved that way to force him off balance. He braked, choosing to fall back rather than be pushed off the road. The second motorcyclist appeared in the right-hand mirror and aimed a weapon at them. He began firing. The gun kicked up with each round, ejecting silvery cartridges into the air. Emma heard the thuds as the bullets hit, but couldn’t tell if they were concentrated in one area. The attack reached the seven-minute mark.
“Get close. I’ll rise up, you maneuver under, and put your foot on the gas as soon as you can,” Emma said to Rand. He slid next to her, and she moved over him and onto the passenger seat. She was forced to lift her foot off the pedal, and the SUV began to slow. The driver’s body stayed slumped against the door. Rand put his foot on the gas, and they accelerated again as he settled into position. His longer reach gave him a better angle on the steering wheel, but his face revealed his distaste at being flush up against the dead driver. Emma turned to watch behind them.
“New car just entered the road ahead,” Rand said.
Emma glanced up and saw a heavy sedan bounce up onto the road in front of them from the dirt shoulder, raising a cloud of dust. The red brake lights glowed. She had little doubt that it was a blocking vehicle.
Rand nodded, never taking his eyes from the action. “Hold onto the gearshift. I’m going to accelerate into the right rear tire well to spin it.”
Emma snapped on her seatbelt, grabbed at the shift to hold it in place, and placed a hand on the dash to brace against the impact.
Rand corrected, lifted his thumbs off the steering wheel, and aimed at the vehicle. They surged forward and hammered into the smaller sedan. Rand’s aim was true, and the reinforced radiator cover and bumper acted as a battering ram. Emma’s teeth cracked together with the force of the whiplash as her body moved forward, was caught by the belt, and then reversed backward. She heard Rand’s secretary scream. The car in front of them spun off the road and slammed into a baobab tree, but the SUV took the hit with a minimum of damage and surged forward. The remaining shards of the driver’s side window shattered and fell onto the dead man in a shower of glass. Wind streamed into the car and Emma’s hair whipped with the force, covering her face, and blocking her vision. She scraped it back and twisted it to keep it in place.
The road curved around some trees. Rand took the bend well, despite the heavy vehicle’s lack of agility. When they were once again on the straightaway, Emma saw a disabled bush taxi sitting dead center on the road ahead of them. Two men crouched at the wheel well changing a tire, and a large group of passengers milled around or lounged on the grassy shoulder. Rand leaned on the horn as they barreled forward. The people scattered. The man holding the tire upright let it go, and it wobbled into their path. Rand shot through a narrow channel created by the bus and the tire on one side, and a still running group of passengers on the other. The SUV’s right tires fell off the road onto the shoulder, and the vehicle vibrated and shuddered as it did. Rand muscled it back, nearly clipping an ancient red pickup truck that carried a jumbled cargo of old metal. The pickup’s driver laid on the horn in an extended blast.
The attacker’s convertible cleared the pickup but pulled onto the shoulder with a lurching, uneven motion that indicated a blown tire. After a quick glance behind them, both motorcycle drivers slowed to a stop, abandoning the chase. One turned back to assist the convertible. Emma kept her eyes on the side-view mirror until the attackers appeared as dots in the distance. After another minute more, they disappeared from view.
“They’re not following. Blown tire on the convertible,” Emma said.
Rand nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. Emma inhaled a deep breath in an attempt to stop her body from shaking, slow her breathing, and calm down. The whistling wind and the roaring engine were the only sounds. Emma glanced at the body of the driver, still slumped against the door.
“Is it just me or is the engine louder than it should be?” Emma asked. “I think the muffler kicked loose on one of the potholes,” Rand said.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m not hit. But I’d really like to stop and move the driver.”
Emma didn’t blame him. “Perhaps in a few minutes. Let’s try to get some distance between us first. Is a tire blown?”
Rand nodded. “Dash indicates left rear.”
“Yes. At least fifty miles.”
“That Kevlar net on the back saved us. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure the grenade would have pierced it.”
Rand shook his head. “It’s not Kevlar. It’s a new fabric that we’re developing to compete. Not as heavy as plating, and when it ‘catches’ an RPG it acts as a buffer.”
“Someone in your R&D department deserves a bonus for saving the boss,” Emma said.
Rand took a deep breath and nodded. Emma turned to talk to the woman behind them.
“Are you all right?” The woman was still on the floor with her back pressed against the far seat. She swallowed and nodded. “Do you have a cell phone that will get a signal?” Emma asked her. “Mine hasn’t since I landed here.”
“I think it will,” the woman said. “But I don’t know who to call. We’re nowhere near Tambacounda and Dakar’s even farther. I don’t know the emergency number in Dakar, if there even is one.”
“Dial this.” Emma recited the digits. “The man’s name is Edward Banner. He’s the owner of a contract security company that works with the Department of Defense. Tell him where we are and that we were just ambushed.”
Rand glanced at her. “Where to? And let me know when you think it’ll be safe enough to pull over and move the driver’s body to the back of the car.” Rand sounded calm but a muscle bunched in his jaw, revealing his stress. Emma did her best not to look at the corpse.
“Let’s hear what Banner has to say first.” She kept her eyes on the side-view mirror and the gun in her hand. “For now, you can just keep driving. And, while you do, you can explain to me what just happened. That was a professional crew and this is your car, so they weren’t after me.”
“They’re after me.” Rand’s quick answer surprised Emma. She had expected him to be puzzled, or at least outraged, by the attack. He was neither. She frowned.
“I know too much.”
The cryptic answers made her want to shake him. “Please be specific.”
Rand shook his head. “I can’t.”
“I thought this was a humanitarian mission. Registered and approved. No one should be shooting at us.”
They were only miles from the border with Mali, and Rand Pharmaceuticals was to provide the vaccines that would inoculate the country’s children against polio. She hadn’t expected an attack when she’d agreed to be part of this mission.
“It’s more than that,” Rand said.
“How much more?” Emma asked.
“Enough to keep those attackers on the hunt. They won’t quit. And, if they do, others will take their place. They won’t stop until we’re dead. And once we’re dead, they’re going to destroy everyone else.”
2Emma struggled to keep her anger at bay. She hated the thought that she’d been duped into the charitable mission, but until she knew the facts she needed to keep a cool head. Rand’s secretary put her hand through the partition.
“It’s Mr. Banner,” she said.
“Thank you, Ms.…” Emma let her voice trail off. In the panic, she’d forgotten the woman’s name.
“Thank you,” Emma said again as she took the phone.
“What are you doing in Senegal?” Banner asked.
Just hearing his calm, steady voice emanating from a quiet office somewhere in the United States gave Emma a bit more hope than she’d had in the past half hour. She wanted to yell, “Get me the hell out of here!” into the phone but reined in her first impulse. As a former military officer and current head of Darkview, Banner managed crews in hot areas around the world and did it without breaking a sweat. Emma sometimes took assignments from him, and neither of them acted in panic. This attack had been so sudden and unexpected that she was having a hard time wrestling her emotions to the ground.
“You’ve traced the phone,” she said, modulating her voice to match his even tones.
“I’m at the DOD’s offices. Routine procedure. Calls are recorded, as well. Why are you there?”
Rand waved a hand to get her attention and pointed to the gas gauge on the SUV’s control panel. Emma leaned over to get a closer look. They had less than a quarter of a tank. Emma nodded her understanding and sat back.
“I’m on a humanitarian mission with a group that’s sponsored by Rand Laboratories. We were just leaving a nearby village, after a presentation on vaccines, when we were followed and attacked.”
“Jackson Rand and his secretary, Rhonda Sinclair. The driver is dead. Mr. Rand has informed me that they may be attacking him for reasons that he can’t—” She looked over at Rand. “—or won’t reveal.”
“All right. That’s interesting. How can I help?”
“I need backup and bodyguards. Do you have any available?”
Banner also maintained a network of paid contract security personnel spread across the globe. They were the best in the business.
“I don’t have anyone in Senegal. They’re all to the east, in Mali, since the last insurrection broke out.”
Emma’s initial relief fled with this response. “I’m on the RN1 headed to Dakar through Tambacounda.”
“I can see that from the transmission, but I have bad news for you. The insurgents have blocked every road out in a five-mile radius around Dakar, with repeated blocks on major incoming arteries starting at Thiès. The first outer rim is roughly an hour and a half from Dakar.”
“Which insurgents? From Mali or the MFDC in Casamance?” Emma watched Rand’s head jerk toward her at the word “insurgents.” He shot her an alarmed glance. Emma switched the cell on speaker so that he could follow the conversation.
“Both, actually. A second arm of the same group that’s operating in Mali ringed Dakar, and the MFDC is pissed at the intrusion. They’re on the march to intercept, along with the Senegalese forces. We expect shelling to begin soon. The whole thing has formed up very quickly, though there’s been chatter about it for months.”
The driver’s corpse twitched, and Rand yelled an incoherent oath and jerked away. The SUV swerved.
“I heard something,” Banner said.
“That was Mr. Rand. The driver’s corpse moved,” Emma said.
“Is he alive after all?” Rand asked.
Emma shook her head. “It’s a motor system response, nothing more. He’s dead.”
“Are you talking about the driver?” Banner said.
“Yes,” Emma said. “They targeted him first.”
“Pros, then,” Banner said. “Not just a bunch of locals firing away at random, hoping to score a hit.”
“Absolutely,” Emma replied.
“Can you get back to the N2 at the Mali border? Don’t go over the border, because that’s where my guys are and the situation there is full-on war, but you can take the N2 north to Mauritania.”
“Isn’t that a death sentence as well? Mauritania’s a mess.”
“I agree it isn’t great but the Al Siva in the Islamic Sahel forces there are scattered, with more distance between them. You just might be able to thread your way through. But be careful, ASIS makes its money off kidnapping and targets Westerners.”
“We’re not going to thread anywhere unless we can get some more gas,” Rand said.
Which wasn’t a surprise given the vehicle. Emma had questioned the use of the massive, modified SUV. West Africa’s roads were marginal at best, and assistance between villages was nonexistent. Most of the humanitarian missions used old Land Rovers or Mitsubishis, but those weren’t generally armored. Now Emma understood why Rand had insisted on that particular car. He must have been worried about just such an attack. She would demand some answers from him later but, first, they needed to focus on getting out of the danger zone.
“What about the train to Bamako?” Emma asked. “Didn’t some company buy the rail line and vow to restore it?”
“Yes, but they went bankrupt years ago. Your only other option is bush taxi.”
Which might not be a bad option, Emma thought. Bush taxis usually jammed thirty people into a minibus licensed for sixteen and, if the three of them worked their way into the middle of the vehicle, they could be well hidden from anyone on the road.
“We’ll probably run out of gas soon. There was a bush taxi with a blown tire behind us and pointed toward Dakar. Maybe we’ll flag them down when they show up and try to talk them into turning around.”
“Warn them that if the insurgents take Dakar, they’re expected to push outward. If you can get through Mauritania and north to Marrakesh, you’re home free.”
“That’s twelve hundred miles from here.”
“I know. Sorry for that,” Banner said.
Rand shot her a serious look. The car’s dashboard made a dinging sound, and a gas pump icon appeared on the display.
“Ten miles left,” Rand said.
“Shall I call you on this number or your cell?” Banner asked.
“It’s Ms. Sinclair’s. Mine’s been spotty. I’ll have her text you Rand’s, as well.”
“Good enough. I’ll try to get someone to meet you in Nouakchott, Mauritania.”
About five hundred miles away, Emma thought. Better, but still a long way through dangerous territory.
“That’s almost a ten-hour drive. Easily three times that if we’re stuck using bush taxis,” Emma said. “But I’ll take whatever help I can get.”
“Are you armed?”
Emma nodded, then caught herself when she realized that Banner couldn’t see her. “The driver had a pistol.” She looked at Rand. “I noticed that trunk in the back. Any weapons in there?” Rand shook his head. “And that appears to be it,” she said.
“Well, at least it’s something. I’ll keep you posted by text and let me know when you’ve crossed into Mauritania.”
“Will do,” Emma said. She ended the call and handed the phone back to Sinclair, who leaned through the partition to accept it.
“What about the heli service? Should I call them?” the secretary asked.
Rand nodded. “Worth a shot.”
Sinclair disappeared into the back of the car to make the call.
“You have a helicopter nearby?” Emma asked. Rand had flown into two different villages by helicopter several days before.
Rand shook his head. “It’s a service I’ve chartered on prior trips. We didn’t use it this time because it flies out of Dakar and we’re out of range now. The bus and limo seemed a better way to go.” The entire mission consisted of twenty-five aid personnel from various countries. Most had left in a bus three hours before Rand’s ride. Sinclair appeared once again in the window.
“They said they’re sorry, but they’re in Dakar and swarmed with people begging to be flown out of the war zone. He said people will pay anything. They’re offering outrageous sums.”
“You tell them I’ll top their highest offer and throw in a new helicopter as well,” Rand said.
Emma raised an eyebrow. Being a billionaire had some clear advantages. She heard Sinclair relaying the offer to the charter company.
“They said that they would love to accept but they would have to fly over the insurgents’ perimeter to get to us, refuel, and then fly back over the perimeter out of the danger zone. They’re not willing to risk it. From Dakar, they’re going to head out over the ocean, south to Banjul and then out over the water again, landing to take on fuel as needed. It’s the safest evacuation route.”
“Ask them if there’s anyone they know who’d be willing to take the risk. Planes, helicopter, anything,” Rand said.
Sinclair relayed the question. “They said most have already left and the rest are in the process of leaving. They don’t know anyone crazy enough to try it.”
“I do,” Emma said. Both Rand and Sinclair looked at her in surprise. “Ask them if they know Wilson Vanderlock and whether he’s in Africa right now.”
Sinclair asked the question. “They said they do know him and Vanderlock’s crazy enough to try anything, but they think he’s in South Africa, not West Africa. They’ll leave a message for him. What do you want them to say?”
“Give him my name and both our phone numbers, and have him contact us the minute he can,” Emma said.
Sinclair relayed the message and hung up. Emma sat back and mulled over their options. Rand glanced at her.
“Who’s Vanderlock? A member of Banner’s security group?” he asked.
Emma shook her head. “Freelance. He’s South African. Used to fly the khat drug route from Kenya to Somalia.”
“Legal drugs. At least here in Africa.”
“The charter company thought he was crazy. Is he?”
“Not insane crazy. More like a risk-taker crazy.”
“Would he be willing to help, despite the risk?”
“Yes,” Emma said.
Rand gave her a focused look. “For money, or for you?”
Emma again checked the rearview mirror before answering. “Both, I guess.”
“And if we had no money?” Rand seemed keenly interested in the answer. Emma looked him in the eye.
“Then he might do it for me. But money doesn’t sound like it’s a problem, judging from your offer to the charter company.”
“There are some things money can’t buy.” Rand raised his hand off the steering wheel. “Not many things, but definitely some. And we’re going to learn that lesson right now because money can’t buy us a refill.” The warning lights on the car dash started beeping repeatedly.
Emma leaned over to look at the display. They were on empty. Rand pulled the car off the road and over to a stand of trees. He maneuvered into the shade and killed the engine. They sat in the sudden silence and Emma took stock. They were in a war zone with no gas, no food, and no assistance in sight. They did have a band of professional assassins chasing them, insurgents massing from every direction, a corpse, a gun, a phone…and access to more money than the gross domestic product of Senegal for the year.
Which could buy them absolutely nothing.