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Grant Reese jumped out of the Jeep at the edge of the dirt road behind Antonio, praying his friend's intel was right. Maddie Gilbert's lifeas well as their own livesdepended on it. Gray shadows hovered around them like formless figures as they left the car behind and stepped into the thick bush. Already, the last whitish glow of sunlight was preparing to vanish into darkness. There was no dusk here. Just a few moments of shimmering color along the horizon, then nothing but blackness. And even then the vast network of stars hanging across the African night sky wouldn't be able to compete with the extensive canopy of trees that intertwined above them.
"You know this is a suicide mission." Antonio's whisper competed with the hum of insects around them as they forged ahead through the thick undergrowth.
Grant frowned at his friend's comment. Antonio might have agreed to help him, but he'd also made it clear he believed it was foolish to try to rescue Maddie from the middle of an insurgent camp on their own. Grant didn't need anyone to convince him he was about to step into a minefieldboth literally and figuratively.
If only a fraction of the rumors he'd heard about this area were true, anyone with half an ounce of intelligence would be running in the opposite direction. Because while it was impossible to tell where the rebels were, he knew they were out there. And if the insurgents didn't get them, one of the dozens of land mines that'd been laid by the local drug traffickers to protect their crops and processing labs very well could.
Yet even those risks didn't outweigh the urgency simmering in his gut to find Maddie. He'd made a promise to her brother and, even with the odds against them, he still had no intentions of breaking it.
"You could wait back at the car," Grant threw out.
"I'm not afraid of dying." Antonio's tone was straightforward. "I'm just making sure you're fully aware of what we're stepping into."
A blade of razor-sharp grass sliced through the back of his calf. Grant reached down to slap at the stinging cut and felt the wet trickle of blood. He'd known the stakes when he signed up to serve his country more than a decade ago. Knew his chances of returning home in a body bag were far higher than average. But he wasn't the one they'd laid in the ground that cold Chicago winter six years ago. Darren had stepped on a land mine they were trying to clear. And nothing he'd done had been able to save his friend.
Grant tried to clear his head of those memories as he stumbled midstride over a rotten log, regained his balance and then continued through the thick undergrowth beside Antonio. "You know I'd rather have you with me, but either way, Maddie's out here somewhere, and I intend to find her."
She'd already been missing for five days, and he knew that with each hour that passed the probability she was alive decreased. But even that fact hadn't managed to deter him.
"You were always stubborn. I just hope she's worth it," Antonio said. "You and I both know what they'll do to us if we're captured."
Grant slapped at the mosquito buzzing in his ear, knowing exactly what they'd do. And if he didn't die tonight at the hands of those they were trying to stop, he still risked dying from some tropical disease. He laughed inwardly at the irony of the situation as the sun dropped beneath the horizon and darkness quickly closed in on them like a thick wool blanket. No longer able to clearly see the path ahead of him, he slowed his steps and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Winged insects buzzed around his face, a monkey shrieked in the treetops and something growled in the distance.
He shivered despite the stifling humidity. Maybe he was foolish, but he'd never wavered on his decision when he'd first heard the report that Maddie Gilbert was missing. Never faltered on his resolve to keep his promise to his best friend, who'd died beside him in a combat zonea death he still blamed on himself.
Three nights ago he'd received a phone call from Frank Gilbert. He was worried sick over his daughter, frustrated with the government red tape and asking for Grant's help. Maddie had been abducted near the hospital where she volunteered, and the body of a coworker had been found nearby. No one knew yet if Maddie was dead or alive, but Grant hoped that her skill as a doctor ended up being the one thing that kept her alive. And that italong with the prayers of hundredswould keep her safe until they were able to rescue her.
Within an hour of the phone call, he'd bought his tickets and contacted Antonio, who'd promised to pick him up once he'd arrived. Three planes laterincluding an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic and a stopover in Dakar, Senegalhe'd arrived at Guinea-Bissau's international airport on Africa's west coast. It was a country most people had never even heard of.
But he knew it well. He'd been a part of a Special Forces military training operation in the region for eighteen months, helping to mentor and instruct local troops intent on curbing drug trafficking. He'd trained new recruits on how to clear the land mines drug traffickers had buried, taught them about the types of mines they would find, offered paramedic courses and further trained section leaders to ensure that the country remained safe.
Antonio had been one of his best students, and to this day was still a close friend. And he had connections. Four hours ago, they'd finally tracked down where Mad-die was being held on one of the islands off the mainland. And while they might be on their own, Grant had every intention of bringing her out. Alive.
His mind shifted as they trudged through the thick undergrowth toward the reason he was here. Maddie had been like a younger sister to him, too. She'd always been there at the Gilbert Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners he'd managed to make. And while he'd made an effort to keep in touch with Darren's family, it was mainly Maddie's mom, Alyce, who kept him up-to-date with what was going on with them.
Most of what he knew about Maddie was what her mother had told him over the years. How she'd excelled through medical school, found a position in a well-established practice and finally met a man she'd planned to marry. The last time he and Alyce had chatted about family she'd told him how Maddie called off her wedding two months before the date, a decision that had surprised everyone. Then she'd joined Doctors International.
A wave of jetlag washed over him. He ran his hand across the back of his neck and wiped away the perspiration. Despite the little sleep he'd gotten over the past few days, he couldn't afford not to be alert. Years of working with explosives had taught him that. All it took was a moment's lapse.
"How much farther until we reach the camp?" he asked.
Antonio pointed to a row of dim lights in the distance and slowed down. "That's the camp, just ahead of us. It's got to be less than a kilometer."
Grant glanced at his friend, knowing exactly what he was thinking. Getting here was the simple part. But now they had to find a way into the camp, rescue Mad-die and get out without being caught.
Maddie knew it was dangerous to venture into the compound. But even at the risk of running into one of the armed guards, grabbing a moment of fresh air was worth it. Between the intense smell of chlorine and sewage, the plastered walls of the twelve-by-twelve makeshift infirmary had begun to close in around her.
She hesitated briefly in the doorway of the grass-thatched structure and studied the moonlight filtering through the cracks in the wooden window frame.
Clothes hung on twine strung diagonally in the corner. A small table that held a candlestick pooled with wax. And six thin mattresses on the floor where her new patients lay.
Cholera might be what was trying to snuff out the lives of the rebels, but it was also the one thing saving hers.
She stepped outside and immediately drew in a deep breath of humid air that was tinged with smoke. With the sun now below the horizon, the only sources of lightbeyond the moonlightwere the cooking fires, a couple lanterns and a few bare light bulbs strung across the open courtyard bordered by individual sleeping huts.
Men huddled in a small circle around the fire, while a handful of women finished preparing dinner. Above the boisterous conversation was the constant noise of goats and chickens, used to supplement the rebels' diet, and the distant sounds of the forest beyond.
Over the past five days, she'd done everything she knew to contain the unraveling situation, while giving specific instructions how to rid the camp of the disease. She'd taught the women to boil all water used in the camp for drinking and cooking, and gave them all strict instructions on waste management, hygiene and food safety. She even managed to find what she believed to be the origin of the choleraa contaminated water source less than a kilometer south of the camp. But finding the source was only the beginning of stopping the disease, as more of the men continued to come down with the symptoms.
Without the option of replacing fluids with IVs, she'd opted for a simple homemade oral rehydration recipe using precise measurements of sugar, salt and boiled water, hoping it would be adequate. At least until she could get her hands on some proper medical equipment.
Though containing the epidemic was essential to those in the camp, escape was still in the forefront of her mind. And escape was not going to be easy.
She'd studied the layout of the large compoundindividual huts arranged in a circle that surrounded an open space in the middle. Men armed with automatic weapons patrolled the walled perimeter on a rotating basis. Inside the camp, they watched her carefully. The only place they left her completely alone was inside the room they'd given her to treat the sick.
She leaned against the rough bark of a palm tree, thankful for a few moments to refocus her thoughts and pray. Thankful the men were ignoring her for the moment while the women served their spicy yam, onion and tomato stew with rice for dinner.
Her gaze shifted to the walled edges of the camp that were shrouded in darkness. Even if she escaped beyond the compound, that wasn't the only problem she faced. She had no idea where the camp was located, and no way to communicate with the outside world. They'd flown her in and then brought her here blindfolded in an old Jeep. Which was why whatever was out therebeyond the forested edges of the campscared her as much as what was inside.
I have no idea what to do, God. No idea how to get out of this alive
She'd heard stories of Latin America's organized drug runners seeking new routes to Europe via West Africa. Up to two-thirds of the cocaine that moved between the two continents traveled through these small countries, where many of the dealers controlling the trade now lived. The result had been to turn the African coastline into a haven for drug traffickers who could easily afford their safety by recruiting local policemen and paying off government officials. And now they had her.
She fingered the locket secured around her neck to insure the flash drive was still there. According to journalist Sam Parker, local officials weren't the only ones tapping into the profits. Sam had died with a secret connecting a prominent US State Department employee to this dark world of drug running. As he lay dying in her care from a gunshot wound, he'd whispered to her in ragged breaths how easy it was to organize frequent drug flights, front companies and fake business deals of government officials. The local government claimed it was insurgents involved in trans-Sahara drug trafficking, not their own officials. She had no idea who was telling the truth, but she did know that Sam Parker had died for the information he'd passed on to her.
And if they found out what she knew, she'd be dead as well.
A young girl, Ana, who couldn't be more than ten, stumbled past her lugging a heavy pot of boiled water. Maddie caught her glistening ebony skin in the moonlight.
"Ana?" Maddie reached out to press her hand against the girl's forehead, speaking in Portuguese. "You're burning up."
"No, you're not."
Maddie took the heavy pot from her and motioned for her to go inside the room. Cholera wasn't choosy with its victims, but was highest when poverty, war or natural disasters were involved. It only took hours for severe dehydration to set in that, if left untreated, could quickly lead to death. Maddie followed the girl into the stuffy room. Maddie wasn't the only innocent one caught in the crossfire of this drug war. Ana was now infected.
"Lie down, sweetie. We need to get you started on some of the rehydration solution."
She nodded at the one clean bed near the wall and started praying again, wishing she had some antibiotics for her. If given at the beginning, they could shorten the symptoms. But even with all her efforts to disinfect the bedding and dishes, boil all drinking water and monitor the food preparation, the disease was still continuing to spread. Before she'd arrived, three of the men had died from dehydration and renal failure. The ones she was treating now slept in between treatments, still too weak to even sit up.
And it was possible this wasn't the epicenter of the disease. She'd watched the coming and going of the men. If this camp was affected, more than likely so were any nearby towns and villages.
Maddie gave Ana one of the last doses of pain medicine she had, hoping it would bring down the girl's fever, and began asking questions to verify her symptoms. Fever, chills, headache and fatigue, but no diarrhea.
The symptoms didn't match up.
"I don't think you have cholera, but I'm still going to give you some of the rehydration mix. Drink as much of this as you can."
Ana took a sip. "If I don't have cholera, then what is it?"
"I don't have a way to test you, but it's a good chance it's malaria."
Cholera had a way of spreading quickly through a community, but malaria killed hundreds of thousands of people every year, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. And Maddie had no drugs to fight the parasite. All she could do was monitor Ana closely, make sure she stayed hydrated and try to keep the fever down.
"How long have you lived here?" Maddie asked, taking the opportunity she'd been hoping for to talk to Ana away from the listening ears of her captors.
She shrugged; wide chocolate-colored eyes looked up at Maddie in the flickering light. "As long as I can remember. My mother married one of the men in the camp."
"Where is she now?"
"She died a year ago giving birth."
Maddie caught the sadness in her expression. "And your father?"
"He's dead, too."
"So now you cook and do their laundry." Ana nodded.
But Maddie knew one day soon the men would start coming to her asking for more than just clean clothes.
"What about school?" she asked, taking the empty cup.
"I liked school, but now
there is too much work to be done."
"Don't you have any other family? Someone else you could live with away from the camp?"
"Before she died, my mother told me I should find a way to get to the capital where my grandmother stays. She lives upstairs in a blue-painted house that has a balcony on a narrow street." A slight smile settled on her lips. "But the mainland is far, and I have no way to get there."
Maddie turned to pour some more of the rehydration drink into Ana's cup and stopped. A figure stood in the darkened doorway. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
God, I need You to intervene in this situation