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Harres Aal Shalaan tightened his shroud, narrowing the opening across his eyes to a slit. He didn't need more than that to monitor his target.
The midnight wind buffeted him, pelted him with sand as he stilled once more, flattened himself at the uppermost edge of the dune. His cloth-smothered breathing still rivaled the wind's hubbub across the endlessness of the desert in his ears.
He absently reached for his sand car much as he would have his prized horse. The vehicle wasn't there. He'd left it behind over two miles away. Any closer and the engine noise would have transmitted across this sound-hurling landscape. Ideally, he would have dragged it to this vantage point, but that would have slowed him down at least twenty minutes. Twenty minutes he couldn't afford.
He wouldn't let the stationary status of the scene he'd been watching for the past five minutes fool him. Everything could change at any moment. Then it would be too late for him to intervene.
For now, all remained the same. The two sentries guarding the only entrance were huddled around a makeshift container where a fire struggled for survival against the merciless desert wind. Three more guard duos surrounded the weather-eaten, sand-brick cabin. From inside the shabby construction, gaslight flickered through the seams of shoddy wooden shutters.
He had to give it to the Aal Ossaibis. The Aal Shalaan's rival clan had constructed a watertight plan, and at the spur of the moment, too. This cabin was in the middle of nowhere. Literally. The nearest inhabited areas were over five hundred miles away in any direction. It was an ideal place to hold a hostage.
The hostage Harres was here to free.
He only found this place because he'd deduced the identity of one of those who hired the people inside the cabin. Since he'd uncovered the plot early enough, he'd managed to tag all the players in transit. He'd followed their phone signals before coverage vanished two hundred miles away. He'd since employed all the technology at his fingertips, and found this place only through some advanced satellite triangulation.
Anyone with less specific knowledge and less-than-limitless access and power at his disposal would have been stymied. Even with all of his resources, he never would have found it if not for his timely deductions.
And time was running out. From what he'd learned of the enemy's plans he had less than twenty minutes to complete the extraction. It was then that the masterminds of this kidnapping would arrive to interrogate the hostage and they'd be bringing their army of guards along.
Under any other circumstances, he wouldn't have considered this the ticking bomb he did now. He would have been here with his own major strike force. The very appearance of his finest Black Ops men would have forced anyone with any survival instincts to throw down his arms in surrender.
But as Zohayd's Minister of Interior and head of Central Intelligence and Homeland Security, he no longer knew whom to trust. His team tonight consisted of three men from his highest-ranking teams whom he would trust with his life. They didn't just work under himthey were family, prince soldiers who, like him, would give their lives for their kingdom. Though in other circumstances he trusted many of his men the same way, he couldn't afford the luxury of belief right now. There was too much at stake, and mixed loyalties could tip the whole region into chaos. He had to treat everyone else as suspect.
How could he not when the royal palace itself had already been breached? He wouldn't put infiltrating his ministry and operations, the forces responsible for keeping Zohayd secure, beyond the royal house's enemies.
He closed his eyes. He could still hardly believe it.
A conspiracy to overthrow his father as king and the Aal Shalaans as the ruling house of Zohayd had been brewing right under their noses for months now. The priceless Pride of Zohayd jewels, believed universally throughout the tribes to give the royal house the right to rule, had been stolen and replaced with fakes just in time for Exhibition Day, when they were to be paraded in public for all to see. No doubt the thief planned to publicly expose the jewels as fakes and begin the chaos that would see the Aal Shalaans removed from power.
For the past weeks, Harres had been casting his net throughout the region using information his brother Shaheen and his new wife, Johara, had secured. Early that morning, Harres had gotten a lead that might take him straight to the conspiracy's mastermind.
A man claiming to be an American reporter was said to be in possession of all the vital details of the conspiracy.
Within twenty minutes, Harres had arrived at the man's rented condo. But their enemies had already made their move. The man had been gone. Abducted.
Harres hadn't missed a beat since, had followed the trail of the abductors to this desolate place. He had no doubt what the orders of the ruthless patriarch of the Aal Ossaibis were. Extract the info from the man, then let the desert claim him and his secrets.
That alone was reason enough for Harres to be out here. No one would be unjustly hurt on Zohaydan soil on his watch. Not even if it was someone whose agenda was to bring the Aal Shalaans down. Not even if it was this T. J. Burke.
T. J. Burke. The man was an enigma. In his databases Harres possessed up-to-the-moment information on every reporter in the world. He kept tight tabs on each since they wielded the most dangerous weapon of all, the media and its inexorable effect on global movements and the manufacturing of worldwide public opinion.
But T. J. Burke had slipped under his radar. Since Harres had learned of the reporter's existence, the unprecedented had happened. He'd failed to learn anything about the man. It was as if T. J. Burke had come into existence the moment he'd arrived in the region one week ago.
He'd found one reference to the only T. J. Burke who'd ever been in the region, an American IT specialist who'd worked for a multinational corporation in Azmahar. But that man had gone back to the States just over a year ago. A few months later, he'd been tried for the crimes of fraud and embezzlement, perpetrated while he'd been in Harres's region. He was now serving a five-year sentence in a maximum-security penitentiary and was still securely in his cell as of a couple hours ago.
The current T. J. Burke had probably latched on to the name, or else he'd come up with a random persona for his fictional character and it coincided with an actual person's identity.
Which drove Harres to one conclusion. The man must be a spy. An uncanny one at that, hiding his origins from Harres's networks, and his movements and affiliations, too.
But he would save T. J. Burke even if he were the devil. Once he had him safe, he would extract the info he had. If it was what he hoped, what he feared, he would see what impossible price this man had intended to demand for the invaluable info and double it. Then he'd do everything in his considerable power to ensure he'd never resell it.
The sentries were nodding off in front of the fire now. He signaled to Munsoor, his second-in-command. Munsoor relayed his order counterclockwise to Yazeed at the cabin's south side, who then relayed it to Mohab at its west.
Twice they simultaneously fired their tranq darts, each felling their designated sentries.
Harres erupted to his feet. In seconds he was jumping over the guards' crumpled bodies and landing soundlessly on the stone steps leading to the cabin's door. The others were converging on him.
He exchanged a terse nod with his men, seeing only their intense gazes in the eerie combination of steady-as-time starlight and erratic firelight. They'd deal with any surprises. He'd go straight for their target.
He pushed on the door. It swung open with a creak that gutted the silence.
His gaze swept around the dim interior. Burke wasn't there. There was another room. He had to be there.
He bounded to its skewed door, slowly pushed it open.
A slim, trim-bearded man in a sand-colored quilted jacket rounded on him.
A heartbeat stretched as their eyes clashed.
Even in the faint light, Harres did a double take at the impact of the man's gaze, which seemed to be spewing electric azure. Then there was the rest of him. He seemed to glow in the gloom, both with an incandescent tan and a shock of gleaming gold hair spiking around his face.
Next heartbeat, Harres tore his gaze away, assessed the situation. This was a bathroom. Burke hadn't been using it. He'd been attempting an escape. He'd already pried the six-foot-high window open even with his hands tied in front of him. Harres had no doubt his captors wouldn't have made the mistake of tying them like that. Which meant the man had enough flexibility to get his hands where he could use them. A minute more and he would have escaped.
It was clear he didn't know there was nowhere to escape to. He must have been either knocked out cold or blindfolded on the way. But from what he'd seen in Burke's eyes, Harres bet he would have tried to escape regardless. This man was one who'd rather be shot in the back escaping than in the face while he pleaded for his life. He was beyond canny. He was resourceful, fearless.
And he'd be dead if Harres didn't get him out of here.
Harres had no doubt his captors would rather kill the man and lose the info his mind contained than let it fall into Aal Shalaan hands.
Observations segued into action. He lunged, grabbed the man's arm. Next second, he could swear a rocket launched through his teeth and exploded behind his eye sockets. It took him seconds to realize what had happened.
The man had hit him.
Still half-blind, Harres ducked, employing his other senses to dodge the barrage of blows the man rained on him. Harres charged him again, detained him in a crushing bear hug. He had no time for a more intimate introduction to those fists that packed such an unexpected wallop.
The man writhed in his hold with the ferocity of a tornado, almost breaking it.
"Quit struggling, you fool," Harres hissed. "I'm here to save you."
Seemed the man couldn't decipher Harres's words through the shroud covering his mouth. Or he didn't believe him. The man simultaneously delivered a bone-cracking kick to his left shin and kneed him. Harres barely avoided that last crippling impact, marveling at Burke's agility and speed even as he squeezed the man harder. The much smaller, wiry man would give him a run for his money if he had the use of both hands and more space.
Harres wrenched the cloth from his mouth, plastered the man against the uneven stone wall, a forearm against his throat applying enough pressure to make him stop fighting, pushing his face up to his so they again made eye contact.
A buzz zapped through him again as those glowing eyes slammed into his, as the body he imprisoned seethed against his with a mixture of defiance and panic.
Harres shook away the disorientation, firmed his pressure. "Don't make me knock you out and carry you like a sack of dirty laundry. I don't have time for your paranoia. Now, do as I tell you, if you want to get out of here alive."
He didn't wait for the man's consent. But in the second before he wrenched away, he thought he saw the fearful hostility in Burke's eyes soften. He filed away the observation for later dissection as he began dragging Burke back where he'd come from.
A fire exchange ripped the night, aborted his momentum.
Reinforcements must have arrived. His heart stampeded with the need to charge to his men's aid. But he couldn't. They'd all signed on knowing that only securing their target mattered. Anythingand anyone elsewas expendable.
Feeling his blood boiling and curdling at once, he turned to the man. They'd have to use the escape route he'd already secured.
The man was ahead of him, already turning there. Harres snatched a dagger from the weapon belt around his thigh, slashed Burke's tethers, put it away, then bent to give him a boost so he could climb out of the window. And the man did another uncanny thing. He leaped up from a standstill, like a cat, clutched the six-foot-high ledge for the moment it took him to gain leverage and impetus to catapult himself through the opening. He cleared it in one fluid move. In a second, Harres heard the distinctive sound of someone hitting the ground on the other side of the wall in a rolling landing.
Was this guy an acrobat? Or was he a Black Ops agent, too?
Whatever he was, he was far more than even Harres had bargained for. He just hoped the tenacious sod didn't take off, forcing him to pursue Burke once he got out of here. It would take him more than the three seconds flat the man had taken to clear that tiny hatch with his size.
In about ten seconds, Harres flipped himself backward through the opening, the only way he'd been able to get enough leverage to squeeze himself through. As he let his mass drag him down, meeting the ground with extended arms, he had an upside-down view of the man's waiting silhouette. So Burke was intelligent enough to know where his best chances lay.
He landed on flat palms, tucked and flipped over to his feet, standing up and starting to run toward the man in one continuous motion. "Follow me."
Without a word, the man did.
They ran across the sand dunes guided only by Harres's phosphorescent compass and a canopy of cold starlight. He couldn't use a flashlight to find his trail back to his sand car. There was no telling if any of their adversaries had slipped his men's net. A flashlight in this darkness would be like a beacon for the enemy to follow and all this would have been for nothing.
He ran with his charge in his wake, telling himself the others were safe. He wouldn't know for certain until they reached their own helicopter several miles away and entered coverage zones where he could communicate with them.
For now, he could think only of getting T. J. Burke to safety.
Ten minutes later, he felt secure enough to turn his senses back to the man. Burke was keeping up with him. The rhythm of his feet said he was running faster than Harres to make up for the difference in the length of their legs. So not only an agile and ready fighter, but in great shape, too. Good news. He hadn't been looking forward to hauling the guy to the sand car if he collapsed. But it was clear there was no danger of that. Burke was pacing himself superbly. No gasping, just even, deep inhalations and long, full exhalations.