She has nothing to lose, except her life.
Some days you wake up glad to be alive. Some days you wake simply glad not to be dead. Today was still up for grabs.
I was prone on the ground at a frustrating stakeout in Rwanda for the IR Agency, as I shoved my waist-length braid out of my way and stretched against the powder-fine earth; the scent of dust, old death and charcoal-fueled fires layered over the early morning tang of eucalyptus trees.
I was Alexis “better call me Alex” Noziak, part witch, part shaman and a long way from home. Home being Mud Lake, Idaho.
How the hell had I ended up here?
The IR Agency—I for Invisible, R for Recruits—we were all new to the world of counter-intelligence, all committed to making a difference of sorts, plus we possessed talents and skills—some acknowledged, some unacceptable—that allowed us to work on a level apart from our all-human counterparts.
Our official job was to infiltrate an arms smuggling meeting and secure enough information to bring the smugglers, arms-dealer and insurgents before an International Tribunal. There was something about the individuals behind this meeting that gave Ling Mai, our director, the idea that this would be a great chance for us to stretch our wings.
By the Great Spirits, I knew we needed the experience.
It hadn’t been long since a few exceptional humans started recognizing how truly fragile their existence on earth was, or how many among us weren’t fully human. We deal with magic every day—electricity, flight, medical technology. We didn’t care how it worked, but only whether it could help or hinder us.
As a species though we’d mostly ignored that non-humans walked among us. Shifters, fairies, vamps and demons–and those were just the tip of the iceberg. Some were benign, if left alone, but many were pure predators. Evil disguised but active, and more and more active in some parts of the world.
So the Invisible Recruit Agency was born. Humans, and mostly humans like myself, against preternaturals and non-humans finding a way to co-exist in the world.
I possessed a dual gift, being both born to magic and shamanism. One of the ones willing to fight to hold the world together, and maybe even improve, our human condition.
This op was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants mission inserted between the last one where I’d gone head-to-head with a certain sexy warlock and got his preternatural and nasty cousin killed, and the next mission, which involved tracking down my brother who’d been kidnapped and supposedly still held in Paris.
Sounds glamorous. It wasn’t; but the need to help my brother was driving me to get this current mission wrapped up. So here I was, with five teammates, isolated in the heartbeat of Africa, going after a gun-smuggling SOB.
It was that the smuggler—or one of his associates-—was doing more than simply selling guns to the highest bidder. He was pitting tribes and factions against each other, to the point that everyday people who were struggling just to survive were now tinder-primed, ready to resort to the genocide that rocked this part of Africa not all that long ago.
The only guy on our team—M.T. Stone, and the only member who didn’t appear to have any otherness about him unless it was his do-or-die approach to life—was the infiltrator into the core of the smugglers, while the rest of the team acted as backup. We didn’t have enough experience to do much more.
Stone, who was our Agency instructor and as scary a dude as you’ve ever met, my IR teammates, Vaughn, Jaylene, Mandy, Kelly and I, each of us came from an ordinary background, one that made it easy for us to blend in where other undercover operatives—trained in law enforcement or as federal agents—still stood out like cop cars in a parking lot.
We didn’t bring a lot of training as operatives, but what we did bring were abilities beyond the average human; Jaylene was a psychic, Kelly could turn invisible, Mandy was a spirit-walker and Vaughn, while being fully human was so drop-dead gorgeous it counted as a lethal weapon, especially around guys. We’d been brought together, mostly by coercion, to see if individuals like ourselves who had some extra abilities could go up against the truly nasty non-humans.
So far we’d survived. Mandy was still recovering from a small echo-demon mishap that happened when I’d been practicing calling forth demons for training purposes. She still hadn’t forgiven me for a broken arm.
Shaking myself back to my current mission, I focused on the ramshackle hut where Stone was embedded with the bad guys. I repositioned myself again, reminded that there was no way packed earth was going to feel like anything but hard. That was me, an incurable optimist. Not.
The Kagera River behind me cut us off from Tanzania, safely hidden by a hillock of dusty yellow grasses. The Akagera National Park, a swath of green on the eastern sleeve of war-recovering Rwanda, lay dead ahead. Giraffe heads bobbed like misshapen balloons twenty meters out. A hunter’s moon had given way to a blood-red sun, still creeping over the horizon.
“You can show yourself any time, Stone,” I mumbled under my breath. The sooner he reported in and we extracted him, the sooner we could leave to start hunting for my brother.
“You say something?” buzzed in my commset. Jaylene Smart, my only backup on the ground, helped focus me on why the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.
“You think the Yoruba witch doctor inside the hut is hinky?” I asked.
Jaylene sounded only partially awake as she mumbled, “As if a witch doctor wouldn’t be hinky?” Then seemed to remember who she was talking to. I might not be a witch doctor, but I sure as hell was a witch. “Didn’t see that much of him last night. Why?”
“Just a gut feeling. Something’s not right here.” I shook my head, as if Jaylene could see the movement. “Any motion from inside the hut?”
“Not yet.” Jaylene perched on a limb in a stand of acacia trees across the lone dirt roadway leading into a compound of wood and mud-packed cottages, one of which held Stone. The others were too decrepit to count. She’d earned her position by losing the coin toss last night. Mighty uncomfortable for a night’s stay, twice as unbearable for a Chicago born and bred woman like Jaylene.
Massaging a kink in my right hamstring, I cast a glance at the hand-held tracking device I carried as the sun crawled over the horizon. Stone had disappeared into the crumbling mud hut last evening and the damn piece of equipment was supposed to give me a reading on his movements.
“Time to rise and shine,” I muttered again, not that he could hear me.
No movement. Because he was sleeping? Or because he had a bullet buried in his skull?
Not a good visual.
Stone had chosen to enter the hut without another team member. Not that we’d be allowed such an action, but then Stone was leagues ahead of us in experience and authority.
All team members wore a special silver ring. If we were within ten feet of a non-human would give us a heads-up as to the fact we faced some kind of preternatural danger. Sort of like one of those radioactive badges folks wore who messed around with nuclear waste material.
So far the device hadn’t warmed the skin of my fingers; but then I hadn’t been close enough to any of the bad guys rubbing shoulders with Stone to give me a strong reading.
Dawn’s gray light filled with shifting shadows. Foggy mist, cooking smoke, a dry-season fire set by poachers to flush game from the Park, all hung low and heavy against the savannah landscape of browns and muted gold. Somewhere nearby a herd of elephants bludgeoned across the earth, their footsteps like heartbeats, the sound of trees ripped and devoured marking their passage.
I stretched stiff muscles and ignored the creepy crawly feeling of fear cat pawing across my skin. I hadn’t gotten the most ideal stakeout location either. What little sleep I’d snatched was tainted by the cries of leopards, hyenas, lions and buffalo. Even being an Idaho-bred farm girl who was used to roughing it made me wonder if there hadn’t been another way to accomplish this mission.
On the other hand, the meeting between the gun-smugglers and Hutu insurgents bent on revenge for the massacres of the nineteen-nineties was proceeding as planned and was meant to be as secret as possible. But was it more than a human-to-human bad guy meeting? If that’s all it was we could report Stone’s eyewitness account of who was doing what to whom and be on our way to Paris.
“H E double chopsticks,” Jaylene cursed through the commset.
“You ever try peeing from a tree?” came the disgruntled answer. “How in Hades am I—”
I swallowed a smile, accepting the break in the tension, even if it only lasted a few seconds. “All set now?”
“Sure. Till the next time. Why couldn’t these bastards meet somewhere with flushing toilets,” Jaylene continued to grumble, “I’m so done with these bugs and the huge beast BS.”
“They’re not all huge beasts.” I glanced around. “There’s a herd of ostrich not thirty feet from where I am.”
“Girlfriend, if it has a hide, hooves or feathers, it’s a beast in my book. I do cities. I do not do Outward Bound.”
“Maybe you should come visit my hometown. It’ll give you a whole new perspective,” I offered, not surprised when Jaylene snorted.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” The snort got louder. “I so do not do Mud Spot in the boondocks.”
“It’s Mud Lake, not Mud Spot, and it’s in Idaho.”
“That’s what I said.”
A rustle and a grunt issued from the commset before Jaylene’s voice came back on. “Give me a cardboard box and asphalt to sleep on before I play Tarzana in a tree again. There’s a reason our ancestors crawled out of these branches to walk on the ground and I know why.”
Jaylene was giving the mission her best shot, and no one besides me and Kelly on the other end of our communication devices would ever know how the model-tall black woman felt about our assignment or having to prove the team could carry it out.
Mandy and team leader Vaughn had disappeared last night to procure a helicopter from the nearest airfield. Our primary chopper had a killer landing on the airfield when we arrived and wasn’t going anywhere for two days. Our secondary chopper had been commandeered by the Rwanda government sometime around midnight. Sort of a what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine attitude.
Of the eight airfields in Rwanda, three of them lacked a permanent surface. Come rainy season they were more swamp than asphalt and hard-packed mud. So having a helicopter just sitting on a field waiting for crazy Americans seemed too much a gift to pass up.
I cast a wary glance skyward, half expecting a deluge, but only the promise of a bright, open-blue sky met my gaze. So where were Vaughn and Mandy?
A copter for the team was vital if the men meeting with Stone decided to take off early and disperse. Given the location of the meet, disappearing north into the Hutu hotbed refugee camps, or east into somewhat stable Tanzania, or even west into the hilly and mountainous parts of Rwanda wouldn’t be difficult. Any of those options meant failure for the mission.
Stone had decided to go in without a wire or transmitter after a close call when he thought the one he was wearing was about to be discovered. Instead he’d opted for a seismic tracker, based on motion. If he moved, anyone within a two-hundred-meter radius could trace his movement. But no one had taken into account the nearby elephant herds that were supposed to have been on their annual trek away from here. Evidently a very recent brush fire had changed their plans and now ours. Deciphering human movement from elephant activity was proving almost impossible, like trying to trace the sounds of a small rock rolling down an active volcano.
And that wasn’t the only fubar impacting the mission.
The thermal-imaging NVG binoculars we’d been allocated to use for night vision and heat tracking also proved a bust when several huge bonfires were lit around the meeting hut—effectively sabotaging both night-activity monitoring and thermal monitoring. No doubt a very cagey and intentional move to block clandestine surveillance. That left us with the seismic tracker. The one that hadn’t moved for some time.
Last night the lack of movement on Stone’s part was worrying me. Now I was near panic, not a normal response for me.
The time it was taking Vaughn and Kelly to find air transportation wasn’t helping either. Unfortunately it had meant them taking the Land Rover, leaving Jaylene and me on point and on foot. Without any other backup.
That’s if Stone and friends decided to move, Jaylene and I were as stranded as cattle in a May blizzard. Waiting.
The alternative was to knock on the hut’s door and find a reason to pull Stone out. Not that he’d given the pre-arranged sign to do so, so we waited. Damn it.
If forced to face the half-dozen goons meeting with him in a shoot-out the odds weren’t good for any of us if we had to approach via the chokepoint of the one lone doorway. I carried a Glock 19 compact, equipped with fifteen rounds. Jaylene packed a Glock 17. Between us we had thirty-one rounds without reloading and no way to breach a wall. But something told me that with the guys in the hut, reloading wasn’t an option. Bullets didn’t always work on preternaturals, if that’s what they were.
We had some silver bullets but not all preternaturals, or non-humans, responded to silver, either. Fae, Weres, shifters and the like did, but a witch doctor? If that’s what the Yoruba was?
If he were a human who simply called himself a witch doctor we might be okay. But if he was something else, using the name to cover his true identity, then who knew what could stop him?
“Where the hell is Vaughn?” I mumbled, scratching at a new insect bite on my elbow while keeping an eye on the still silent GPS tracking device. Come on Stone, shake a leg.
“She and Mandy probably went for some cold beers.”
Jaylene didn’t cut anyone a lot of slack, especially Vaughn; but the fact she made such a comment meant she was worried. And she was right. Getting a chopper in place shouldn’t have taken all night.
But then again, this wasn’t Idaho, this was Rwanda, where unsafe was a way of life.
“Heads up,” Jaylene’s voice crackled across my headset.
“There’s movement right side of the hut.”
I slowly burrowed into the dust and grass, pressing my mini-binoculars to my eyes. The flash of a chestnut-coated impala leapt across my vision before I zeroed in on the compound hut. There were three partial mud buildings with no roofs and crumbling walls and the larger, central building that could hold a dozen people easily. That’s the one I zeroed in on.
A rebel was moving the dented and modified Land Rover that Stone had arrived in yesterday from the side to the front door. Not good. Last thing we needed was a departure.
“See Stone at all?” I asked.
“No. Nor Gahutu.”
Gahutu was the Rwandan pharmaceutical student who introduced Stone to the smuggling group; an introduction paved smoother by the fact Stone had deep cover as an international munitions dealer with a reputation for working with the highest bidder, no questions asked.
Gahutu had been raised Hutu, though he’d had a Tutsi mother, one killed a few years ago before his eyes, along with his father. The boy was now almost a man without a country, without a tribe, and without family. But he had his own mission–to put an end to the cycle of violence. Sometimes that’s all that kept a person going. A dream for something better, someday.
I pressed the binoculars closer, as if manipulating them could make me see beyond the dried-brown, mud-plastered walls. What the hell was going on? Why were some in the group moving? Why was Stone’s position not moving? And where the hell were Vaughn and Mandy?
As if answering my unspoken demands, a voice broke over the headset. “Alex?” Vaughn sounded like she was in a wind tunnel. “Come in, Alex, you there?”
“Here,” I replied. “Where are you?”
“About twenty-five minutes out. North-northwest. Finding air transport in this country is like finding a five-star hotel.”
Only Vaughn, a former debutante and daughter of an ex-Ambassador would even think in those terms.
“What’s up?” she asked, her voice borderline between demand and impatience.
“Movement.” I stared harder. Two of the Hutu men were in an argument near the front of the open-topped vehicle.
Concern tinged Vaughn’s voice. She and Stone were an item, though the relationship was supposed to be hush-hush. Co-agents involved with each other could put operations in danger if personal bias overcame the good of the team. But hell, as far as I could see Vaughn was also the only one getting any nookie-nookie. Between 24/7 training at our compound in Maryland—and back-to-back recent ops, there was zilch time for any extracurricular activity. Besides, I liked the fact that Stone made Vaughn smile.
“Haven’t seen Stone yet.” I didn’t mention the lack of movement on the GPS.
“His Tarot cards warned trouble,” Jaylene interjected.
Now was not the time Vaughn needed to hear Jaylene’s dire prediction details.
I cut in. “How fast can that bird you’re in fly?”
“Depends on how long the scotch tape holds together.”
“That bad?” I burrowed deeper into the fine dust, trying not to cough as I focused on the two men who were gesturing wildly now.
“For the bribes I had to spend to get this crate I expected something that was gold plated and included a rocket launcher.” A pause, followed by words in French, I presumed directed to the pilot. Vaughn spoke French like a native, and French and Kinyarwanda were the two official languages of the area. She spoke again. “We’re talking fifteen minutes now. Should I head straight in or have us set down and wait to the north?”
“Put down now. North,” I’d barely gotten the words out before I watched one man pull a snub-nosed revolver out of his waistband and shoot the other.
Bang. Bang. You’re dead.
First guy not only died, he dissolved. Poof, one second looking like a human, next second an outline of ash dispersing in the breeze.
I knew it. No wonder Interpol had been screwed every time they turned around. Uninformed humans fighting non-humans got ugly. Fast. And deadly even faster.
“Damn, you see that?” came Jaylene’s voice.
“Copy.” I bit my lower lip hard enough to taste blood. This wasn’t looking good. A vamp? Possibly. I’d heard that the older ones scattered like wind-blown dust, but not dissolve. What the hell had that thing been?
“See what?” Vaughn demanded.
“There’s trouble in paradise.” I propped myself on my elbows, hoping to see something more.
Two other rebels raced from inside the hut. They paused by the dead man’s ash stain long enough for one of them to kick the smudge away, the other to hustle around and jump into the front seat of the Land Rover. Then the witch doctor exited, scanning the area as if he expected an ambush. Behind him another man exited. Taller, cloaked all in blue like a Tuareg tribesman from the Sahara, face and all features effectively shaded. Only his hands showed, hands so black they carried a bluish sheen.
I hadn’t seen him enter last night. Who the hell was he?
The moment I spied the witch doctor my ring finger began to heat up. The preternatural warning device? From this distance? Crap with a capital C.
“Jaylene, check your ring,” I whispered, as if speaking low meant Vaughn couldn’t hear me.
Jaylene whistled. “I thought these rings were only supposed to get activated up close and personal?”
“Whoever, or whatever that witch doctor is, he’s powerful.”
“Enough to set off the warnings this far away?”
“Looks like it.” I paused, then added. “Unless they’re reacting to the other man.”
“Fuck,” Jaylene breathed and I couldn’t have agreed more. “Who’s the new guy?”
“Don’t know.” But I was going to find out. I glanced at the GPS unit again. Stone’s position inside still didn’t move.
“Come on, Stone.” I shook the instrument as if that was going to help. Nothing. This so wasn’t unfolding according to plan A, B or C. “I’ll give you to the count of three to get out here.”
But no Stone emerged. Instead five men clambered aboard the Land Rover and revved the engine. From this distance the witch doctor and the new guy both looked human. Heck, they probably looked human up close, which is what made these predators so dangerous.
When the newest villain lasered his gaze in my direction I felt it. Power. A ball of sticky, dark-energy slamming against me. What was he?
“Kelly, you hear me?” I spoke into the commset, each word pulled from my mouth like slow, thick taffy.
“I’m here.” Kelly was headquartered in Kigali, seventy-four miles from Akagera Park—the nearest city with access to the outside world, coordinating the mission, so for once I hadn’t been worried about her. Everyone else—yes.
Her ability to turn invisible seemed like it’d be a great asset, but like me, she’d never had any training in it so she tended to wink out when she got stressed or scared. Then for every minute she was invisible, she’d lose her ability to see for twice the amount of time when she popped back into sight. Talk about leaving you vulnerable and blind-sided, another pun intended. But it was good to hear her voice.
“Need intel. New unsub. Not human.” Like an asthmatic I could barely think, much less speak.
Then the stranger turned away and I almost staggered with relief. “Kel, guy’s not human. Able to throw a power search for 200 yards. Gotta know what he is to take him down.”
I raised high enough to snap an image with a digital camera with a sat phone hookup just small enough to fit in my utility belt and transmit images. I sent the snaps off to Kelly. At least that connection worked.
“Got it. On it,” came Kelly’s immediate reply. From her location she could access a compiled database of known preternaturals and non-humans. Unfortunately the information was as sketchy and vague as my options were to stop these guys if they left. Fraulein Fassbinder back at the agency headquarters was our walking-talking grimoire of all beings non-human, but even she spent a lot of time telling us her intel was lacking. I’d read fairy tales with more information, but then I’d also been raised in a family with four shifter brothers and a father who was both shifter and shaman. I was lucky that way.
As if conjured from my thoughts the vehicle started moving. They were leaving. Where were Stone and Gahutu and the other Hutus?
I scrambled to my knees. The Land Rover and its six passengers faced north, their backs to my location. The heat from the still-smoldering fires obscured any thermal images inside the building. No way to tell if anyone was alive and waiting inside, or dead and cold.
“What now?” Jaylene’s voice deepened in intensity. She was east of the road and closer to the compound than I was.
“Update? Now,” Vaughn demanded.
Damn and triple damn.
I scanned the area. Nothing. Not even a bike to chase down these bastards and stop them. Two of us were needed to take a building. That’s what Stone had taught us. Always two. So what now? Go or stay?
Too bad Jaylene’s psychic abilities didn’t include the ability to see through mud walls.
First lesson Stone tried to drill into us recruits was that most choices on a mission were suck and suckier. This was a perfect example.
“Jaylene, check out the hut. See if anyone’s stirring. Move in low and slow, as close as possible without exposing yourself. Do not breach until I join you or Mandy and Vaughn arrive. Got that?”
“No telling what’s happening in there.” I mumbled, not liking what was coming down.
I rose, adrenaline pumping through my system. The Land Rover was already bucking over the pockmarked road, which made for slow going, but once it reached the main road ahead it could disappear into the brachysteria bush and acacia trees. They’d be impossible to spot from the air and could vanish in any direction.
That gave me only moments to stop them.