The Heart of a Mercenary
The Man: Hunter McBride—he’d buried his past and his emotions long ago to become the ultimate warrior.
The Mission: Get the only proof of a deadly toxin out of the Congo jungle—with or without the innocent beauty who possessed it.
The Woman Who Changed the Rules: Just one look at Sarah Burdett and long-dead feelings stirred in Hunter’s heart. She was just supposed to be part of the package—nothing more. But with every minute counting down to disaster, Sarah showed Hunter how to live again. Could he discover how to love again before their time—and the world’s—ran out?
Read an Excerpt for: THE HEART OF A MERCENARY
03:09 Alpha. Congo.
Monday, September 22
Hunter McBride floated silently through the thick air, the nylon chute above him a dark blot against the star-spattered heavens.
As he descended, the sounds of the rain forest swelled to a soft chorus below him. He could hear the shrill chirp of crickets, the hollow drumming of chimps hitting buttress roots of trees as they hunted in the predawn. Moist heat and the rich scent of fecund growth wafted up on soft currents of air as the jungle itself seemed to exhale, alive and hungry and waiting below.
His nostrils flared sharply at the familiar scent of primor-dial life. Somewhere down there was the American nurse, Sarah Burdett.
And a deadly pathogen.
His job was clear. Find the nurse, dead or alive. Locate the pathogen and get it back to the Force du Sable base on São Diogo Island off the coast of Angola, where a level 4 biosafety lab was being set up to identify it. And he had to do it quickly, because the clock was ticking down on a global threat of almost incomprehensible proportions. Failure at any stage of this mission would trigger a series of events that could topple the U.S. government, bring death to millions and end democracy as the world knew it.
The Force du Sable—a highly secretive and deadly efficient private military company that Hunter had helped found—was all that stood between the status quo and a grave new world order. And they had until midnight on October 13—just twenty-one days from now—to complete what, until they’d intercepted the nurse’s distress call, had appeared to be a mission impossible.
He double-checked his GPS coordinates and guided his chute toward the Ishonga clinic clearing, skimming over spiked raffia palms and towering Bombax giants that punched up through the forest canopy. The FDS knew the pathogen was being tested somewhere in centralAfrica, but they hadn’t been able to pinpoint where. The nurse’s Mayday had changed that. Now they had a location, and possibly even a witness—if the nurse was still alive.
Hunter landed with a soft thud on the packed dirt along the outskirts of the compound. He adjusted his night vision gear and quickly gathered his chute. He removed his combat pack, extracted a respirator, positioned it carefully over his nose and mouth and checked the hose connections. From the intel they’d received, the pathogen was not likely airborne, but they weren’t sure. They knew only that it was one hundred percent fatal.
He checked his watch and pulled neoprene gloves over his hands. Almost immediately the extra gear peaked his core temperature, and perspiration dampened his torso. The humidity in this region didn’t allow a body to cool itself. But Hunter knew how to handle the heat. Guerrilla warfare in tropical climates was his area of expertise.
He made his way toward the charred, skeletal ruins of the clinic buildings, where wisps of smoke still trailed up from hot spots. Burned corpses were scattered across the hardened earth between gutted buildings, the bodies twisted into shapes made all the more grotesque by the eerie gray-green monotones of his night scopes.
Hunter hunkered down next to one corpse, then another. He noted with detached interest that the bodies were untouched by machetes. These people had been shot and then burned—not the usual practice of local rebels. The victims had been massacred by someone else, for some reason other than civil war or tribal conflict.
He worked his way methodically through the compound, looking for signs of life, for clues, for the nurse. He found the burned-out radio in what appeared to be an operating room, and stilled. This must have been where she’d sent out her Mayday call. The FDS had traced her immediately to the Aid Africa organization, which had provided her electronic file instantly. Sarah Burdett, 28, divorced, a pediatric nurse from Seattle, had been the lone American stationed at Aid Africa’s Ishonga clinic. She’d signed on with the nongovernmental organization only three months ago and had arrived in the Congo exactly two weeks ago. She was a complete neophyte in some of the most hostile terrain known to man.
The digitized image of Sarah Burdett suddenly sifted into Hunter’s brain, and for a second all he could see were her soft brown eyes gazing down from the LCD screen in the situation room. Warm eyes. Innocent eyes. His jaw tightened.
That woman was not equipped to deal with whatever had happened here.
He quickly scanned the rest of the room. Broken vials and medical equipment were scattered everywhere. A metal cabinet had been toppled and the door of a generator-operated fridge hung on its hinges. Hunter noticed a hole had been dug in the dirt floor, a plank and a bunched-up rug pushed to the side. Had she hidden in there while her colleagues were massacred within earshot? Where was she now?
Hunter found more bodies in what must have been a hospital ward, judging by the wire beds and smoldering mattresses. The bastards had even killed the patients.
He crouched down and studied the victims. They were not likely to be harboring the disease. If the pathogen had indeed found its way into the general population and to this clinic, the soldiers would have gone to great lengths to remove the infected bodies. They’d have wanted to leave no trace of the pathogen’s existence. He suspected that was the reason behind this attack.
He needed to find the nurse. She alone held answers that could help save the U.S. president and his nation.
Hunter picked his way to the outer buildings of the compound. In all, the fire had been swift and superficial, fueled by an accelerant, probably petroleum. Parts of one building on the east end had barely even burned. It looked like a storage shed.
He made his way over to the structure, pushed aside a fallen rafter, and poked at the blackened edges of a packing crate with the barrel of his AK-47. The charred container fell open in a cloud of soot that cleared to reveal tins of baby formula.
Hunter stared at the cans. The cherubic face of an infant on the labels smiled happily back at him in ghostly green night-vision hues. His throat tightened. He shut his eyes, and for a brief instant lost the rhythm of breathing through his respirator. It shocked him instantly. His eyes flashed open and he abruptly turned his back on the tins, on the smiling babies.
Keep your cool, buddy. Stay focused. Locate the critical personality. Extract the package. He’d done it a hundred times. It should be no different now.
So why had soft brown eyes and an infant’s face suddenly rattled him? He drew a breath in slowly, willing his body to calm. He didn’t want to think about why. He didn’t want to recall the unborn child in his dark past. He didn’t want to think about what the woman he’d once loved with all his heart had done. He had no intention of going anywhere near those ancient memories. They belonged to another man, the man he used to be. He checked his watch again. He needed to keep moving. The sun would rise in less than three hours.
He quickly broadened his search to the perimeter of the compound, and almost immediately spotted something small and white lying on the ground along the edge of the thick jungle fringe. He crouched down, lifted it with the muzzle of his gun. It was a surgical mask. A pair of protective goggles and bloody latex gloves lay next to it.
He studied the ground carefully. He could make out faint scuff marks in the packed earth, small footprints strangely blurred along the edges, as if the shoes were covered with something. His eyes followed the odd trail. They led to a break in the vegetation up ahead, a path.
Hunter skirted along the forest fringe, following the tracks to the path entrance. He dropped to his haunches. Someone else had been here. Several sets of heavy military boot prints virtually obliterated the smaller sets of fuzzy ones. He studied the new tracks, the crushed vegetation, and he saw something else in the dirt. He lifted it carefully with his fingers, sniffed. A hand-rolled cigarette.
He looked up.
If these smaller prints belonged to Sarah Burdett, she was being followed by at least three men. And they weren’t far behind her.
04:58 Alpha. Congo.
Monday, September 22
She was drenched in perspiration. Her heart hammered so hard she could barely breathe. She couldn’t go on. She had to rest, hide somewhere.
Sarah groped blindly at the dank soil as she crawled through the foliage, and felt something hard and smooth under her fingers. Roots. Using them to feel her way toward the base of a monstrous Bombax tree, she maneuvered herself into a sitting position and pressed her back deep into a crevice formed by the giant buttress roots. She dragged the biohazard container close to her feet and tried to remain still, but she was still shaking uncontrollably.
She’d been moving as fast as she possibly could for what seemed like hours, stumbling wildly down a crude forest path, guided only by the tiny halo of her flashlight. She’d heard men coming after her, yelling. And then she’d tripped and fallen onto damp ground and lost the flashlight. She’d crawled off the path, into heavy primary jungle where there seemed to be less under-growth to hamper her movements. She’d kept going, blindly fumbling through the darkness, dragging the heavy container behind her, stopping only to listen for the soldiers. They must have heard her distress call and come back for her. She had no doubt they would kill her if they found her.
All around her she could hear sounds of terrifying, unidentified things, but the shouts of the soldiers seemed to have faded. She must have lost them by leaving the main path.
Her breathing began to slow a little, but with the momentary respite came a sinking sense of utter despair.
How in heavens was she even supposed to get out of this jungle, let alone get this container all the way to Atlanta?
Perhaps she could get it to a U.S. embassy. But the American embassy in Brazzaville was closed because of violence in the capital, the staff operating out of the embassy in Kinshasa for safety reasons. Even if she managed to get as far south as Brazzaville, she’d still have to take a ferry over the Congo River to Kinshasa in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. And even if the unreliable ferry service was running, she still didn’t have the Brazzaville exit permits she’d need to get out of the country, or a visa for entry into Congo-Kinshasa…or the money she’d need for bribes to get the necessary travel papers.
She didn’t even have a passport now.
The U.S. State Department warnings began to play through her head. Travel to these regions is not recommended…. Night travel outside of towns and cities should be avoided…. She looked up into the impenetrable night that surrounded her. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t even begin to think of getting through this jungle. She didn’t know a damn thing about surviving in it. She had no compass. No map. Nothing. She’d been flown into this darkest heart of Africa by chopper and dumped into a patch of dense equatorial jungle barely known to Western man. It was an area still steeped in Marxist dogma, tribal sorcery and civil violence.
What had she been thinking even coming here? She didn’t know anything about Africa, or aid work. She was a pediatric nurse who lived in civilized Seattle, a misty and cool city with paved streets, electricity and water you didn’t have to boil before drinking. A city where leaves were turning gold and days were getting short and crisp. She should be there now. She should be shopping in a mall, wearing lipstick and a coat, buying something nice for dinner…and eating chocolate. Tears welled in her eyes.
Don’t delude yourself, Sarah. You know exactly why you came here.
She’d come to escape that old life. She was trying to piece herself together after a bitter and humiliating public divorce. She was trying to hide from the echoes of an emotional nightmare she’d embarrassingly endured for years at the hands of her ex, trying to come to terms with the reality that she’d never have what she’d always wanted—children of her own, a loving husband, a big family, a white picket fence…the whole shebang. Her dreams had been shattered and she’d gotten lost somewhere back in that old world. So she’d run away, toAfrica, to find some real purpose in her life, to validate herself as a worthwhile human being. To do some good for people who actually needed her…
Sarah blinked back hot tears. Now she was more alone, more blind, more lost than ever—not just emotionally, but physically. Coming to the Congo had been the boldest move she’d ever made, and it had turned out to be a terrible mistake. She’d never find her way back now, not unless God dropped some angel from the sky….
A soft sound jerked her back to her senses.
Sarah held her breath.
Then she heard it again, a quiet crack of twigs, barely distinguishable from the other noises. Her heart leaped straight back up into her throat and hammered hard. She peered into the solid blackness, trying to identify the source, but she couldn’t see a thing. And she couldn’t run.
She was trapped.
She pressed her back deeper into the roots of the Bombax and slid her hand into her pocket. Quietly, carefully, she drew out the gun. She grasped the handle with both hands, found the trigger, curled her finger around it and aimed blindly into the darkness with shaking hands, praying she wouldn’t have to use it. She’d never fired a gun before.