Danielle Laidlaw awoke to a soothing voice. “Can you see me?” the voice asked.
She squinted against a blinding light and her eyes began to focus. She saw a face, with brown eyes framed by dark gray hair. She didn’t recognize it.
“Can you see me?”
“Yes,” she said. The details of the face sharpened a bit as a jolt of pain ran through her body. The figure backed off, pulling his hand away from the side of her head. It held a rag soaked in blood.
“From your ear,” he explained.
Her head was pounding, the sounds around her were muffled, but her field of vision had begun to expand; she saw the blue sky behind the face and realized she was outside. She noticed that the man was wearing a safari jacket and that other men surrounded him, holding rifles and dressed in camouflaged fatigues. The past hour came rushing back to her and she felt a sudden onset of anger. “You’re the people who attacked us.”
“I’m afraid we are,” the man admitted, reaching toward her.
“Relax,” he said, reaching out again and grabbing a small black device off her belt. “You won’t be needing this.”
Her hand went to her belt. He’d grabbed her transponder, a device that each member of the NRI team carried to prevent the sensors of the defense system from alerting of them and their movement. As he tossed it to one of his men, she slid her hand down farther, to the cargo pocket of her khakis. It was empty.
Kaufman caught her. “Yes, I have them too,” he said. “Nice of you to return them to the scene of the crime.”
Danielle felt a sudden panic and wave of energy flow through her system. She tried to get up, as if she might attack him, but she became instantly light-headed and fell forward to her hands and knees.
“An effect of the drug,” he told her. “You seem to have gotten the worst of it. But it should wear off in a minute or two. Don’t worry, you’ll be tied up before that happens.”
She glared up at the man. Try as she might, she didn’t recognize him. “What the hell do you people want?”
“I think you know what I want. Care to discuss it with me?”
So these were the players who had been shadowing them, the unseen opponent who’d sent men to attack her at the harbor. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but I promise you, you do not know who you’re screwing with.”
“Actually,” he said, as calmly as if he were correcting a clerical error, “I know exactly who I’m screwing with. And though you might think there is a rescue to wait on, I promise you there isn’t. I’ve blocked your communications suite, and your helicopter and pilot were shot down and left burning in the jungle, thirty miles from here.”
She looked past the man; the black NOTAR sat on the dry ground a hundred yards away. The gun pods were clearly visible.
Her captor seemed to guess her thoughts. “After what happened at the docks, I couldn’t let your friend interfere a second time.”
Danielle said nothing; she was stunned. But the bad news continued.
“I tell you this so you’ll understand the nature of your situation,” he said. “You’re beyond the reach of help now. Even from the States.”
She glanced up at him, fearing his next words.
“Arnold Moore is dead as well.”
Her reaction was instant: a sick, falling feeling and a wave of uncontrollable rage. She swung at him, but he grabbed her arm and held it. She spit at him, trying to pull away.
Still holding her arm, Kaufman calmly wiped the spit from his face, and then he slapped her, sending her back to the ground. Her cheek stung and reddened like it was on fire.
“I can be reasonable if you can,” he said sharply, putting away the handkerchief. “Or I can make your life hell. If you want to get out of here alive, along with your people, you’ll cooperate. If you’re as stubborn as I’ve been told, well, then I guess you’d rather die.”
Taking note of her silence, he waved one of his men over. “You’ll change your mind in time.”
Across from her the NOTAR began to power up, generators first, and then the engine. Slowly the blades began to turn. She watched it with anger, until two of the armed men helped her up and led her across the clearing to a large tree at the edge of the forest. The tree was burned in places by the Chollokwan fire. A heavy chain, secured by a padlock, encircled it, and the other survivors were there, sitting with their backs to the trunk and their arms pinned behind them.
As the NOTAR lifted off and buzzed out over the forest, Kaufman’s men forced her to sit with her back to the tree, laced a pair of handcuffs through the inner side of the chain and then cuffed her wrists. The closed loop of her arms and the cuffs interlocked with the closed loop of the heavy chain like a pair of rings. She could move around freely, even slide along it, but unlike a set of magician’s rings, this connection could not be released without breaking one of the chains; a simple but effective prison.
She counted heads; McCarter and Susan were there, along with Verhoven, one of his men and Brazos, the lead porter—everyone who’d been inside the temple, including her, the lucky six. There was no sign of the others. Verhoven’s lieutenant, whose name was Roemer, bled from a bandaged wound on one arm, while Susan sobbed quietly and McCarter tried to comfort her.
“Who are these people?” he asked. “What is this all about?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“They’re mercenaries,” Verhoven explained. “Eastern European, from the sounds of their accents. I’ve heard some Croatian dialect, but mostly German. The leader is older, probably an Ex–Stasi crew chief, who had to flee when the wall came down.”
“Stasi?” McCarter asked.
“Old East German secret police. Like the KGB. Only worse.”
“What the hell are they doing out here?” McCarter demanded. He turned back to Danielle. “What the hell is going on?”
Danielle stared at him, her worst fears now realized, her mind willing him not to ask her anything else. They didn’t need that. “We need to be calm,” she told him. “We’ll find a way to get out of this.”
Whether McCarter believed her or simply sensed that this would be a bad time for a discussion, she didn’t know. But he said nothing more.
She looked around at the group. “Anyone else?”
“Only Devers,” Verhoven replied.
“Where is he?”
Danielle scanned the clearing, suddenly realizing that she hadn’t seen Devers during the attack. “Doing what?”
“Getting paid, would be my guess,” Verhoven said.
So Devers had sold them out. The why was easy, the how more difficult. Devers was a low-level employee from Research Division. He had little access to the technical side of things and couldn’t possibly understand what they were after. In fact, it made little sense at all, until she began to realize that Devers must have been involved with the project from a distance ever since the word go. Gibbs and Moore had consulted with him regarding the Chollokwan and other tribes as soon as they’d decided to come down to Brazil. And he’d had several extensive consultations with Dixon and his team. She doubted that Devers knew what they were after, but it didn’t take much to realize it was important. Just as Hawker had said, the presence of her and Moore working the case on the ground level was enough.
“That greedy son of a bitch,” she said.
Verhoven nodded. “He is. No doubt. And when I get my hands on him, I’ll make him bleed for every penny.”
Danielle sat back, trying to figure out a way to give Verhoven that chance, watching as the man who’d slapped her and two of his men walked toward them.
“My name is Kaufman,” he said. “I’d like to give you my apologies for what happened here this morning. It wasn’t supposed to occur like this. But from here on out, you have my word that you’ll be treated well.”
“You’d be wise to let us go,” Danielle insisted, her cheek still burning from his slap.
“Wise?” he repeated. “No, I don’t think that would be the word. But eventually, you’ll be released unharmed—as long as you cooperate. In the meantime, I need the freedom to operate unhindered. And some help from Ms. Briggs.”
As Kaufman’s soldiers moved to release Susan, McCarter became alarmed. “What do you want with her?”
The soldiers unlocked her cuffs and pulled her to her feet.
“What do you want?” she said, meekly echoing McCarter.
“You have nothing to be afraid of,” Kaufman insisted. “We just want to borrow your expertise for a moment.”
One of the soldiers took Susan by the arm and dragged her off. She looked desperately back toward McCarter, but there was nothing he could do.
Kaufman led Susan to a makeshift table in the form of an overturned crate. He offered her some food, which she refused, and then some water. She hesitated.
“It’s okay,” he insisted, taking a sip of the water himself. “It’s not Pellegrino, but it’s drinkable.”
Susan pulled back at first but then accepted. Her throat was very dry.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he said, his tone calm and soothing. “The events of this morning were an aberration, a mistake.” He pointed to the soldiers. “These men reacted somewhat overzealously and I wasn’t here to stop it. But now that I am, I can promise you it won’t happen again.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of this. “They killed people.”
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“I wish I could tell you,” he said. “But that would make things worse for you.”
She spoke honestly. “I don’t want to help you.”
“I can understand that,” he replied. “But I need your help. If you cooperate with me, I’ll give your friends food and water and a chance to live out the remainder of their lives. If you don’t, then I have no choice but to force you. They’ll go thirsty and hungry until you change your mind.”
She looked down at the table, reeling and dizzy from everything that she’d witnessed and strangely finding comfort in Kaufman’s reassuring voice. She was smart enough to realize that he wanted just that, but she couldn’t stop the feeling. She didn’t want to make him angry, didn’t want to hear any more gunfire or see any more blood.
“Ready to listen?” he asked.
She looked up at him and nodded reluctantly.
“Good,” he said. “There are some very important items on the grounds here somewhere, probably inside the temple. I want you to help us locate them.”
“You’ve been in the temple?”
“Your friends, then, they’ve been in there?”
“Professor McCarter and Danielle.”
He nodded. “Did they remove any items from inside? Anything metallic?”
He paused for a moment, as if he wanted her to be sure of her answer. “I want you to go in there with us, show us around.”
Now she had a reason to protest. “I can’t go in there. I can’t breathe in there because of the fumes.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’ve heard all about the fumes. A terrible smell, but I think we can remedy that for you.” He reached into a box beside them and produced a military-style gas mask. “Will this help?”
Susan stared blankly at the mask. What else could she say—of course it would help.
From his spot at the prison tree, McCarter tried desperately to keep an eye on Susan. “What do you think they want with her?”
“Her mind,” Verhoven said. “She knows what you know. But she’s smaller and weaker. That’s what they’re after. You saw them going through our things. They’re looking for something, and they want her help to find it.”
“I would have rather they take me,” McCarter said.
Verhoven agreed. “Well, if she’s smart enough to play dumb, maybe they’ll come back and ask for your help.”
“What about the police, the army?” Brazos asked. “They can’t do this here.”
“We’re so far out,” Danielle said, “I doubt anyone will ever know.”
“What about Hawker and Polaski?” McCarter said. “They know we’re here.”
“We can’t wait for them,” she insisted. “We have to do something ourselves.”
“He’s dead,” she said bluntly, feeling the pain of the words she hadn’t wanted to speak aloud. “According to that son of a bitch who took Susan, Hawker and Polaski were shot down long before they could make it to Manaus. That same goddamned helicopter that attacked us.”
As she spoke, Danielle felt the chill of her words hit the others, the realization that they were truly on their own. She noticed Verhoven grit his teeth, but otherwise he was nonresponsive. She guessed he had assumed that fact from the start.
As the others fell silent, Danielle tried to get ahold of her reeling mind. It was hard for her to fathom the depths of what had just happened, the speed and severity of the sudden reversal. Twenty-four hours ago she’d been on the verge of success, and now …
Now they’d been attacked and made prisoners by some kind of paramilitary group. Mercenaries of some kind watching them, while dead members of her team lay in the clearing covered by tarps. Somewhere in the jungle Hawker and Polaski lay in a mangled, blackened wreck. And Moore … his kind face flashed through her mind; a good man, an honest man, who’d been like a father to her. It seemed like some absurd nightmare from which she couldn’t wake. She began to seethe with anger, a silent fury building in her, and she vowed to find a way out of this madness, to make these men pay for what they’d done—or die trying.
“Verhoven’s right,” she said. “We have to use every advantage, no matter how small.” She realized that McCarter might be such an asset. “There’s a chance they might need you,” she said to him. “If they take you, grab anything that might help. Maybe one of your tools or something we could use to work on this chain. That would make our chances better.”
“Better?” McCarter said. “Better than what?”
“Better than they are now.”
McCarter breathed in heavily. “This is insane,” he said, shaking his head. He didn’t seem to be handling the situation well. Another reason they should have never brought along civilians.
She turned to Verhoven. “Did you see the soldier who held the keys?” She hadn’t thought to look. She’d still been groggy at the time. But as her wits came back to her, she knew that man would have to be a target.
“Yeah,” Verhoven said, slyly. “I got a good look as he unlocked the girl. He’s got a scar above his left eye, like someone cracked ’im once.”
Danielle turned to McCarter again. “You’re the only one they’re likely to use. If they give you any kind of freedom, you remember him and see what you can do.”
Verhoven chimed in. “And if you get a chance, you talk with Susan, tell her to be ready.”
“Ready for what?” McCarter asked.
“For anything,” Verhoven said. “And when you come back, you look me in the eyes. I’ll spit if it’s time to try something.”
Danielle nodded her agreement.
He breathed heavily, looking hopelessly up at the sky, and Danielle prayed that he would hold it together.