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The screeching monkeys in the branches above the lodge patio forced Dalilah Al Arif to lean forward in order to hear what the shorter Chinese diplomat was saying. She smiled and nodded encouragingly, not wanting to ruffle any feathers tonightthis deal that would see Zimbabwe ceding platinum-mining rights to China was unprecedented in scope. For her part, Dalilah was in the country to ensure the provision of clean-water points for the impacted villages was firmly entrenched in the deal when it was signed in Harare tomorrow. ClearWater, the New York-based nonprofit agency for which Dalilah volunteered, would handle the installations over the next five years.
She'd been working on securing ClearWater access in Zimbabwe for almost four years now, and it would be her swan song. Because when she married in nineteen months, she'd be leaving Manhattan, along with her foreign-investment consulting career and charity work, to live in Sa'ud. There she'd be expected to work at her new husband's side as queen when Sheik Haroun Hassan took the throne from his ailing father. This had been her destiny from the day she turned five. She accepted it, but tonight, on the eve of her success, Dalilah was having trouble with the idea of letting go of the things that had come to define her, of losing her freedom.
But the marriage would forge a powerful political and economic alliance between the two oil-rich kingdoms, one in Al Na'Jar in the Sahara, the Sa'ud across the Red Sea in Arabia. It would boost her own country's economy. It would help her brothers, one of whom was king.
It's what her dead father had wanted.
And at least, after this deal was signed tomorrow, she'd be leaving a legacy for hundreds of villagers. It would be a tribute to the freedom she'd enjoyed, and in which she'd prospered.
Most of the serious talks with China had been conducted over the past fortnight in Harare, and now the delegates, including Dalilah, had been flown to a highend game lodge near Victoria Falls as part of the president's show of hospitality. His largesse stuck in her craw when she thought of the country's starving and disenfranchised citizens, but dealing with the devil was a necessary evil if she truly wanted to help. It was like this in much of Africa, and Africa was her speciality. Having been raised in the Sahara, Dalilah understood the precious commodity that was water on this continent, and she understood the complexities of government and corruption.
As she listened to the Chinese delegate, she sipped sparkling water from a glass held in her carefully manicured hand. The evening air was warm against her bare shoulders, the sun sinking to the horizon in a bloodorange ball, colored by haze from surrounding bushfires brought on by drought. The acrid scent of smoke tinged the air, and she could hear drumming from a nearby village. It carried an undercurrent of foreboding, something primeval that lurked under the layers of feigned civility.
"The fires smell close tonight," said a delegate from the Czech Republic as he sidled up to Dalilah and the Chinese representative. The Czech's pores sweated the smell of metabolized booze. He mopped his forehead with a kerchief and pointed his glass of vodka out toward the treed gardens where sprinklers threw graceful arcs of water over lush lawns. A family of warthogs grazed on the grass near the river, and tiny white lights pricked their way through the dusk, marking pathways to the thatched guest cottages, each of which was decorated in different African themes. Lanterns hung in trees where the monkeys chattered.
"At least the wind is blowing away from us," he said. "Our guide said it'll turn tomorrow, but we should be gone before that." He tossed back the last of his vodka, standing too close to her now. "At least we will be safe."
"Yes," she said. Too bad about all the villages and wildlife in the path of the fires.
"It's incredible to think it's so dry out there when Victoria Falls and the massive Zambezi is just a few miles away. All that water."
"It is," Dalilah said, swallowing her real thoughts. The Czech Republic was a cosigner with China on the dealshe had to play nice, only until tomorrow. Once this was signed, she was going to take a long hot shower and scrub the schmooze off her skin.
"A most spectacular waterfall," the Czech said as he waved for a waiter to bring him more vodka. A man in a red fez and white button-down shirt approached quickly with his silver tray and filled the man's glass.
The Czech raised his full glass to the darkening sky.
"Here's to Dr. Livingston for discovering the falls!" Then he tossed back the entire glass.
"The locals call the falls Mosi oa Tunya," Dalilah responded quietly. "It means the smoke that thunders. They called it that well before Livingston ever arrived."
He shot her a sharp look, and she cautioned herself. Be nice. Tomorrow it will be a done deal. But the stress of the week was taking its toll on Dalilah. Earlier in the day, after a game drive, a whirlwind visit to the falls and a lavish lunch, she'd tried to steal a few moments alone, seating herself on a bentwood bench along the high riverbank that ran along the lodge property.
The riverbed was dust-dry, apart from a few deep, lingering, brown pools, and to her delight, a family of elephants had come down on the opposite bank to drink from one of those pools.
Dalilah had watched them for almost an hour, stress easing from her neck and mind, until a crocodile broke the muddy surface and latched onto the baby elephant. The ensuing fight, the raw violence of it, had grabbed her by the throat.
As she'd been held fixated by the death struggle, this same Czech had approached her from behind, his footfalls rustling through the tough grass. He'd stood over her shoulder and made some inane comment about the spectacle unfolding in front of them as he offered her a sweating glass of gin and tonic, ice chinking in the oppressive heat.
He'd stood beside her, watching, sipping his own cocktail, cheeks flushed and eyes bright with the thrill of his own personal reality show.
And something cold and disturbing had settled into Dalilah's chest on that riverbank this afternoon, something she couldn't define. A sense of change coming. Something dark.
Whatever it was, her mood altered the color of the afternoon. The shadows in the trees across the bank had grown a little darker, the shapes of the leaves more prickly, The sun too harsh. The insistent, sad Qwa-waaaaee call of a gray lorie seemed even sadder. Go-a-waaaay. Go-a-waaaay.
The locals called it the go-away bird. It was one of several Botswana birds that issued an alarm call when a large predator came near, although it was difficult to tell whether the lorie was warning of a human in the area or a lion stalking out of sight in the long grasses.
"The danger is everywhere out here," the Czech said at her shoulder. "Always a predator in the shadows, lurking, waiting to kill. You go about your business, then suddenly, it strikes." She heard him sip his drink, ice knocking against crystal, and she couldn't help flicking a glance over to where her two bodyguards stood, watching her discreetly from the shadows of nearby lucky bean trees.
"We're put on this earth to eat or be eaten," he intoned. "To kill or be killed, except with us humans, it's not always about food or water. Sometimes it's just for fun, or revenge. Sometimes an attack comes indirectly through commerce, greed " He trailed off, his words slurring, his philosophical idea blurring around the edges.
Dalilah fingered the mammoth pink Argyle diamond on her ring finger as she thought of the elephant kill that afternoon, of the Czech's ominous words. The diamond was a symbol of her call to duty, her looming future. Was she going to be confined to a life of polite talk and diplomatic function, feigning civility with the likes of this Czech boozer for the rest of her life?
As the sun slid below the escarpment the cloak of darkness was sudden and thick. Small bats flitted out from under the lodge's thatched eaves and a fish eagle cried somewhere along the river. She could hear the rising whoops of hyenasthe sounds of the bush night shift, and violence, beginning.
The dinner gong boomed suddenly and lodge staff politely began to usher guests across the lawn toward the lapa, a fenced-off circular dining area where a huge fire crackled inside a stone circle at the center. Pulsing embers had been raked to one side. Upon them rested several three-legged African cast-iron pots, simmering with traditional game stews, one with a vegetarian selection for Dalilah.
Delegates took their seats at long tables decked with white linen, candles, polished silverware. Wine flowed, and the entertainment beganxylophones and softly throbbing skin drums, voices that sounded like the land itself. Dancers shuffled out from behind the branch fencing, stomping bare feet, nutshells and bottle caps clicking in bracelets around their ankles as they swayed and hummed to the beat. A lone voice rose above it all, a cry, in song.
Goose bumps chased over Dalilah's skin, and she had to resist the urge to close her eyes and just drink in the sounds. Instead, she nodded politely at a representative from Bangkok who'd taken a seat at her side, instantly feeling crowded, which, she suspected, had little to do with this occasion and more to do with her future.
By the time the first song ended and the guests applauded, the night was thick as velvet, stars spattered across the vault of African sky. Nature seemed to be encroaching on the periphery of the camp, closing in with mysterious night sounds. Fatigue slammed down on Dalilah, and her mind turned to her guest suite, the cotton sheets, the hot tub. Sleep. A warm wind gusted, rustling the nyala leaves above, and Dalilah suddenly felt as if she was being watched. She glanced up into the branches, saw the glow of a tiny white owl looking down at her.
Slowly Dalilah turned her attention to the armed and silent bodyguards lining the six-foot-high branch fence, watching. The security detail had been provided by the president to watch over the delegates. Her own men stood behind her at a comfortable distance. Yet the chill of foreboding deepened and she shivered.
Brandt Stryker checked the name attached to a small plate on the bungalow doorDalilah Al Arif, delegate, ClearWater. He knew about the nonprofit that helped bring fresh water and farming aid to impoverished communities in Africa. They did good work. He hadn't known the Sa-haran princess was involved with that work. He knew very little about her other than she was a high-maintenance, high-society player with looks to kill.
The lock was easy enough to pick. Brandt edged open the bungalow door. Inside, the air conditioner hummed, cooling the air. White cotton sheets on the canopy bed had been turned down; a foil-wrapped chocolate nestled on the pillow alongside a miniature bottle of cream liqueur made from the fruit of the African marula tree.
The princess's cell phone lay atop the covers. It was buzzing.
Brandt went over to the bed, the soles of his boots squeaking slightly on highly polished stone. The buzzing stopped. He picked the phone up. Eight unanswered calls, probably from her brother, Omair, trying to alert Dalilah, let her know that he was coming for her.
Irritated, Brandt tossed her phone back onto the covers. Now the job of convincing her to come peaceably would fall to him.
Using the barrel of his rifle, he edged the muslin drapes aside slightly and peered out the window. Down the pathway, under the branches of huge nyala trees, firelight winked through gaps in the branch fencing surrounding a lapa. He could hear drumming, singing, ululating. The dinner would go on for a while yet, he suspected.
His plan was go down to the lapa and identify his target from the shadows. Once he had confirmation Dalilah was among the guests, he'd head back to this bungalow as festivities began to wrap up, and wait for her here.
He opened her closet. Cocktail dresses in exotic and gauzy fabrics hung in a rainbow of colors. He trailed the muzzle of his gun through sequins, sparkles, shimmering scarves. At the bottom of the closet was a highend luggage set and five pairs of sandals with ridiculous heels. The princess's saving grace was a lone pair of sturdy hiking boots, a pair of khaki pants, two T-shirts, a long-sleeved button-down shirt and a sun hat. He tossed those onto the bed. His intention was to gear her up properly before he took her out into the night.
Brandt opened one of her drawers, looking for thick socksonce she returned to the bungalow he didn't want to waste a second getting her changed and out of here. He stalled suddenly at the sight of a black bra and small pile of G-stringsmere scraps of silk. And he couldn't help touching them, the fabric snagging on the rough pads of his fingers. He hadn't seen, or felt, really expensive feminine underwear in years, and the silky sensation of it stirred something in him, a deep rustling of memories. An unspecified longing.
Then he cursed sharply, slamming the drawer shut.
He'd had his fill of women, of deceit. He liked things the way he had them now. He lived solo in the bush for weeks on end, and when his piloting jobs did take him to Gaborone, he found sex. No fuss, no foreplay, no commitment, just pleasure straight up. Until recently he hadn't felt bad about it eitherbut lately, even the mindless sex had left him feeling hollow, unsatisfied, uneasy.
He found the princess's purse, checked the passport picture in her wallet. His heart beat a little faster at the sight of her thick hair, her dark, almond eyes, her exotic features. Her looks alone pushed his buttons. He needed to get this job done fastthis was not a woman he wanted to linger around. She reminded him too much of someone else, of a past he'd worked for ten years to forget, but still couldn't quite shake.
Brandt's mind went to the phone call and the man who had coerced him into this missionSheik Omair Al Arif.
"I won't do it," Brandt had informed Dalilah's brother. "I'm done kidnapping damsels in distressyou know what happened last time."
"Which is why you're going to do this for me now, Stryker, pleaseyou owe me. My sister's life is in danger and you're the only guy in a position to get her out quickly. You'll be in and out in seventy-two hours. Fly her over the border into Botswana, take her to your place out in the bush, let me know she's safe, and I'll send someone out there to bring her home."
"You really trust me?"
"For the moment."
"Stay that way and I trust you. You'll be well compensated."