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17 years later, Kambia, Sierra Leone
This was the placethe small house with the light purple facade that looked like every other tin-roofed pastel-colored one that lined the wide dirt road. The market that ran nearly down the center, allowing a small area for cars to lumber through, teemed with people, none of whom seemed to notice or care that it was hotter than hell at 0800. Music blared from one of the opened windows, an incessant fixture, as if it covered the violence and misery and fear and lightened the worry.
Maybe it worked. This area was more prosperous than most and the feeling of hope remained here. Or maybe that was his own projection.
From out of his pocket, he took the pictureworn from carrying it around for the better part of six monthsand shoved it at the African man who waited at the door.
The man stared at it, frowned, then nodded. "Yes. I've seen her."
"Where? Show me."
"She is there." The man pointed to a spot on the equally worn map that was held out to him, then took the moneyAmerican dollarspressed into his opened palm. "You are military? Soldier?"
"Just a tourist. Here for the scenery."
The man furrowed his brow, not believing a word of that. "You are not the first one to look for this woman today."
But I'll be the first one who gets her, Zane promised himself. It was the third town he'd visited in less than twenty-four hours. He'd done this one on foot because the last driver refused to come this far out into the bush. But he'd known he would hit pay dirt here.
The man stepped back into the shadows after drawing a crude map of the exact location Zane needed, even as the children who'd been eyeing him from afar ran past when they thought he wasn't looking and then circled around to approach him.
One of them didn't turn away when Zane eyed him. The brave one, who'd lost his fear years earlier.
Zane recognized the look, chin jutted with bravadoreal or faked, it didn't matterit was an I'm not scared of you attitude.
"Money?" he asked in English as he held out his palm, defying Zane to say no.
Zane dug into his pocket, pulled out some crumpled bills and watched the kid's eyes widen as he handed them over. Then he turned and walked away.
Stick with those you can save, because you sure as hell can't save them all.
He stood taller than most here, looked over the crowds as the smell of cooked fish and rice floated through the warm airwomen and men tried to sell him everything from carvings to homemade falafel. Even weapons were fair game, with those vendors whispering to him from darker corners as he strode past in search of any kind of goddamned vehicle to take him farther in-country.
He'd have to pay in order not to have a driver, but he didn't need the added burden of another person. And when he found an old Land Rover, he bargained with the owner until he was able to drive away alone, kicking up dust behind him, his roll of money a lot smaller.
But he had cans of gasoline and the engine was decent. With the windows rolled down and his weapons hidden under a false third seat, an added bonus, he was prepared for various checkpoints and other assorted fun times in this country.
He should check in with his brother Dylan, would when he got farther along. Right now, there was nothing to report other than he was closer to his goal.
They'd been closer to the doctor for months now. Frustrating as hell, and Zane wasn't about to jinx it.
When Dylan had told him about this newest intel on Olivia, Zane had taken leave and insisted on going to West Africa. Didn't give a fuck that Dylan and Riley couldn't join him immediately.
He wouldn't waste a day waiting for backup. Not in this case.
If Dr. Olivia Strohm had truly spent the last three months successfully evading DMHan extremist group with terrorism ties and businesses all over Africa, ranging from skin trade to black market weaponsrescuing her was something he could damned well do on his own.
We'll meet you in seventy-two hours, Dylan had promised. That should give you plenty of time.
He would meet his brother at the port in Freetown. A place he'd never thought he'd go to again.
In his time with the military, he'd traveled to many cities along the western edge of Africa, including in the Ivory Coast and Liberia. Freetown was always avoided, mainly because it was a major porttoo crowded for stealth.
The crowds had been the thing that saved him once. Now, the thought of going back made his blood run cold. The Kambia District was close enough, the market smaller than he'd remembered and far more dangerous than he could've known when he was merely a boy.
Thank God for small miracles.
His life had been built on small and not-so-small miracles, from his adoption to his live-for-the-moment lifestyle that had worked really damned well for him. For Zane, time off had always equaled troublehe liked to keep busy, keep moving, and when he was on leave, his brother, the spy for hire, could always find him something to do. Black ops, gray ops, it didn't matter, and he'd been on as many missions with both the SEALs and his brother in an unofficial capacity. But this was by far the most important one he'd ever done.
The party facade he'd built up like brick walls around his past crumbled down last year with no warning and he'd barely had time to roll out of the way and avoid the fallout.
Most of it anyway.
Maybe if he found Olivia, things would go back to normal. His normal. So he took the leave because his brother promised they were close to finding her, since finally, after three months of dead fucking ends, they had a bead on Dr. Olivia Strohm.
Which would've been great if it hadn't been a possible death report.
"A clinic was bombed in Morocco. No patients died, but DMH staff did," Dylan informed him. "The papers said it was a suspected illegal clinic. There was no noteno one ever claimed responsibility for the bombing."
"That's strange." Groups who did shit like that always wanted to take responsibility. It was what they didthey wanted the notoriety, making a name for themselves was a huge part of their deal.
Then again, no group would be stupid enough to go after DMH in that capacity. No, most of them wanted to work with them.
"Rumors were that the clinic was involved in black market organ trafficking," Dylan said. "All the staff was identifiedall except one. A female."
Zane shook his head hard, as if Dylan were right in front of him as opposed to across the lineand the continent.
Zane. That's what Mom and Dad named him in the hotel. Dad was a huge Zane Grey fan. Wanted his new son to have a fresh start. "Olivia didn't deserve what she got."
"Most of the good ones don't."
But then, just last month, reports started trickling in, that DMH had been offering rewards for the capture of a woman. That she'd been spotted in different African villages and towns. Some called her a healer, and some a killer, but they all agreed on one thingshe was American and danger surrounded her.
Now he planned on following that lead, no matter where it led him.
Some people might consider this place hell, but Olivia Strohm knew it wasn't. No, Kambia was far from it, and since she'd been to hell on earth twice already, she considered herself something of an expert.
It was nearly dark, but the heat wasn't retreating. Wouldn't.
She wrapped the rag around her hair and rubbed another cloth over her neck. She took a long drink of water because her body demanded it, even though she'd long grown used to ignoring most of her body's needs in exchange for freedom. She had work to do, and that superseded anything else.
She hadn't needed much money here. No, with her services, she'd been able to barter for the more important staples, like food and clothes and places to stay. This house was hidden behind two others, abandoned long ago. But the women she'd met had hustled her back there and helped her settle in without question.
Later that first night, they came back. Shy. With questions, with medical problems, some she could help with and some she couldn't. There was a clinic twenty miles away that she could refer some of them to. For women like Dahia, who'd lost her child to typhoid two months earlier, Olivia had to be the one to reiterate to her after an exam that more children were impossible, just like the midwife had.
Sometimes, she felt as if she did more harm than good, but Dahia brought her cassava and bread later as a thank you.
For the last two days, there had been ripples of gossip in the small village that a pregnant woman was looking for help and running from an important man who followed, intent on taking her back.
Olivia had run too, and she'd learned that no man was that important.
In the past months, she'd killed several menon purposeand in the aftermath, struggled with her conscience. Wondered if she could even function back in the real world, and decided no.
She was safer here. Alone, with no real ties. And even though the local women insisted that she shouldn't get involved with the pregnant woman heading her way, that the men who ran the human trafficking ring would take her away and lock her upor worseshe didn't listen. Told them her home was open to give shelter to whomever needed it.
She'd survived so much alreadyshe would not let the threat of a random stranger take her down or destroy her will.
Outside the small, three-room house, she heard a rustle in the bushes. It could be an animal . . . or it could be a woman, too frightened to come inside.
She'd left a candle burning outsidea signal, Ama once told her. Ama, the angel who'd helped her for a month after she'd escaped and taught her some of the ways to survive this harsh place.
Ama, who had not deserved what had happened to her.
The lump rose in her throat but she pushed it down ruthlessly. No, not now.
She grabbed a heavy iron skillet before she stepped outside onto the creaky porch and stared out, unable to see anything but shadows.
"Come, come," she said, her voice low and urgent in the dark. She repeated herself in Krio as well, kam naya, to encourage the woman to come forward.
You can't save them all. But you can help some.
Those words from her first year of residency rang in her ears more often than she'd like to admit.
And so she waited, impatiently shifting from one foot to the other, fighting not to let her nerves get the better of her. But it wasn't a woman who came forward. No, it was the outline of a man. She saw the fatigues and the guns and thought it might be one of the soldiers coming to try to close down her makeshift office.
She would have to payor close up and move. Or possibly fight for her life.
She tightened her hand around the cold handle of the skillet held behind her back and waited for the bark of an order.
But this man stepped into the light with his hands in view, free of weapons. Blond. Blue-eyed. Face of an angel and the devil mixed, and the throb in her belly overrode the sudden, sharp fear.
She was being rescued. And that was the worst thing that could happen to her now.
"Dr. Strohm? Olivia?" The voice was deep and dark, washed over her like a sudden rain.
He knew her. But she'd never seen him before in her lifeshe would've remembered. "What do you want?"
He came closer, through the tangle of bushes and up the small red dust path to the house she'd taken over. She'd moved in, swept it out and cleaned it as best she could. It didn't matter what it looked like. It was temporary.
Everything about her life now was temporary. "Who are you?"
"I'm Zane Scott. A friend of Skylar's."
Skylar. Her former patient. Her friend. One of the reasons she was in this mess to begin with, and yet she felt no malice toward the woman. Only the hot stab of fear at being found. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to help you."
There was a calm in his voice that nearly mesmerized her. He'd gotten close now, was in front of her and had extended his hand toward her. When she glanced down, she saw that she was actually holding out her free hand as well.
She pushed it down by her side again.
"Has anyone else come here tonight?" he asked.
"No, you're the only one." Her voice came out more softly than she'd intended. Fear, she told herself. Nothing to do with the contact with someone who might be from her not so distant past.
The wind rustled the bushes again, and when Zane turned to check that no one was behind him, she struck, surprised him with a blow to the side of the head.
He sank to the ground with a heavy thump and her heart beat wildly because she had no plan. There was nowhere for her to go tonight. No, she'd have to wait until morning to leave, to escape this seemingly well-meaning man.
Which meant she'd have to keep him with her.
Zane Scott was tallover six-foot-threeand heavy with muscle, although he wasn't overly broad when he'd stood in front of her. No, he was just right.
It took all her strength to get him inside the door and close it behind them. She stood, panting, realized that she'd only been here for three weeks.
How had she been found?
Trouble comes in pairs, Ama used to say. A warning for Olivia that just because one bad thing had happened, she was not to let her guard down against the possibility of more.
That was rare. Even her sleep was broken and uneasy. Dreams replaced by nightmares. If she could physically do so, she'd stay awake all night, every night. As it was, the few hours cost her. Her hands shook and her focus was off.
Good thing the medicine she practiced here was battlefield, because oftentimes, it wasn't pretty.