The truth was, my name wasn't Kate Francis, Boone and I weren't newlyweds, we weren't Canadian, and we weren't in Mozambique for our honeymoon. My name was Gemma Hart, Boone and I were partners, we were both American born and bred, and we were not here on vacation. Quite the opposite, we were here to work.
Looking absently in the side mirror, I watched the Land Rover's wheels stir up clouds of dust behind us, distorting the air with an orange haze. Boone drove fast, an arm hanging out of the window, relaxed, as if he really was on vacation. The Limpopo National Park became thicker and wilder the longer we drove, the dense jungle pressing in on both sides of the road.
It was hard to imagine that less than a week ago, we had been operational logistics officers for the Central Intelligence Agency. It hadn't been a glamorous job. For the most part, we had operated behind the scenes, setting up safe houses for field operatives, prepping for missions, providing tech, and procuring local assets.
But five days ago, our job description had changed. Now, we worked for a different branch of the CIA, the Clandestine Service, specifically for a taskforce called Operation 67. The taskforce's purpose was to track and apprehend members of the CIA's Most Wanted list, with a current focus on Vasili Volkov, Russia's biggest illegal arms and drug exporter. But weapons and drugs were small potatoes compared to his recent venture into terrorism sponsorship and his deal with al-Qaeda to supply them with a neutron bomb.
Volkov was the reason Boone and I became involved with Operation 67. We had been setting up an operation in Moscow when one of Volkov's associates made us, killing one of our local assets. I had shot and killed the man, and Boone and I were pulled into Operation 67 to help find the location of the bomb. It took several weeks, several trips to Istanbul, Pakistan, Miami, and Moscow, and several obstacles – like Boone being held hostage by Volkov's men – but we managed to secure the bomb and systematically take out the infrastructure of Volkov's operations. Volkov had gotten away, but his empire had been destroyed. Afterward, Boone and I were offered full-time CS positions at 67, and despite my reluctance to enter the world of covert ops, I accepted the job.
Naively, I thought that had been the end of Volkov. But here we were - thousands of miles away from home and hundreds from civilization - because of Volkov. Apparently, he hadn't disappeared like I'd thought.
Sighing, I pushed the escaped pieces of my ponytail out of my face, turning my attention to the road in front of us. I was beginning to realize nothing really happened like I thought.
We drove for another twenty minutes. The GPS long gone, we had to use the map to figure out the meet point for the contact we were scheduled to see. Considering that there were no signs or landmarks, we had to make an educated guess, which, of course, Boone and I disagreed on. So, we resorted to rock-paper-scissors.
Boone won, so we pulled off to the side of the road when he "thought it was right", parking the Land Rover in a small space under a shroud of trees. I wasn't a petty person, but I did feel the stirrings of vindication as we waited in the underbrush for a good hour and a half.
"He's either late or we're in the wrong place," I said.
Leaning against the front bumper of the truck, I took a sip from my nearly empty water bottle. Even in the shade, it was over 110 degrees. The treetops swung back and forth lazily, letting in some light from the fading sun. The air was humid and still, smelling of wood and leaves and the richness of soil. The sound of cicadas was a constant hum pierced only by the occasional bird call. I might have enjoyed the exoticness of it all if I had been in the mood to try.
From next to me, Boone crossed his arms. The neckline of his white shirt was drenched in sweat. "Defectors aren't known for their punctuality," he told me.
The dirt road was twenty feet away, and we both stared at it. "This guy's name is Tiago Chirindza, right?" I asked, trying to remember what I had read in the operation file at Langley.
"Yeah," Boone replied.
"What do we know about him?"
He took off his sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Native Mozambican, born in Beira, joined up with Sibo Bulani at age sixteen," he said.
I nodded. Sibo Bulani was our connection to Volkov. A South African national, he was Volkov's intermediary for running weapons and drugs throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He was responsible for a significant portion of the guns used in the region's civil wars. Besides his work for the Russians, he was a broker for anything worth selling: diamonds, counterfeit currencies, specialized weapons, humans. To my dismay, the purpose of the mission was not to go after Bulani; it was to find out what Volkov wanted to buy from Bulani.
After the CIA raided Volkov's bases of operation about a week ago, Tiago Chirindza had made contact with the Agency. He informed us that Bulani had been contacted by Volkov six days ago, and that Volkov was offering $20 million for something called the "Chiffer". For the price of a new life in the United States and a nice chunk of change, Tiago said he would get the CIA close to Bulani and the Chiffer.
And getting close to Bulani meant signing us up to volunteer for Bulani's charity organization, MozCare. I hadn't lied to Edmundo; Boone and I really were going to be volunteering there, albeit not for our honeymoon, but to find out what the Chiffer was, where it was, and to deal with it accordingly.
"You think Chirindza is legitimate?" I drummed my fingers against the bumper, and then stopped. "I mean, it's unlikely this is a setup, right?"
"It's not impossible, but it's unlikely, yeah." Boone lifted his head to gaze at the canopy of trees. "I don't think Bulani would want the CIA hanging around his business headquarters."
I took a deep breath. "Yeah, you're right."
"And Langley didn't have any intel that suggested this might be a double-crossing," he added, looking back down. The certainty in his voice was reassuring. "They would have told us."
I nodded, and then drained the rest of my water. "I can't believe Bulani runs a charity," I murmured after a few moments. "Of all the people."
"Charities are good for laundering money," he reasoned, and then waved a hand at our surroundings. "Besides, it makes it look like he has a legitimate reason for being in the recesses of the Limpopo National Park."
"True," I said. "But I'm surprised that he can get away with it."
He made a sound, and then replied, "I'm not. Just think about how much money Volkov has funneled through Bulani. I'm sure the guy can bribe as many government officials and charity inspectors as he wants."
I swatted away an insect. "Not to mention an entire force of Mozambicans that he's armed to the teeth."
"Yeah," he said, running a hand over the stubble on his jaw. "I was expecting a small group of men on his payroll, but if he can spare seven of them to be stationed on a roadblock in the middle of nowhere –" He gestured to his left, where we had come from. "—then that makes me think he's got at least…I don't know, twenty? Thirty?"
Eyes wide, I looked up at him. "That many?" I asked.
"I mean, there's no way to be sure," he said.
I bit my lip. We weren't prepared for twenty or thirty. I thought we would be dealing with ten or less. But Boone was right; if there had been seven at the roadblock, then Bulani must have an excess of people working for him. It made sense, I supposed. Bulani needed people to run both his legal and illegal businesses, as well as protect the land he controlled.
"Hey," Boone said, ducking his head down to meet my eyes.
I blinked. "What?"
"I didn't mean to freak you out."
"You didn't," I replied, shaking my head.
"We're going in under cover. They won't suspect us," he told me. "And then we'll be out as soon as possible—"
"I know –"
"So, you don't need to be worried," he continued. "It might be harder to get access to Bulani, but we'll manage."
Eyebrows knitting together, I said, "I'm not worried."
Smiling slightly, he used the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat off his forehead. I caught a glimpse of muscle and forced myself to look away.
"What?" I said tightly. "I'm not."
He dropped his shirt, shaking his head. "I can read you like a book," he said with a trace of amusement. "You always seem to forget that, Gem."
He wasn't wrong. The man did have an ability to read me, despite all the training I had gone through to prevent just that. It was heartwarming and aggravating at the same time. On one hand, it was nice not having to verbally express my feelings all the time. On the other, it felt a little intrusive and unfair because he was the opposite, and I could rarely see past the blank mask he put on.
A terse, "Yeah, well," was the only response I could come up with.
Suddenly, the buzzing of the cicadas dropped an octave. Heart beating faster, I looked around and listened harder. There was the distant sound of a motor.
Boone pushed himself off the hood of the car, and gestured for me to move away, too. I took a step forward. He reached beneath the steering wheel and popped the hood. Opening it, he leaned down and pulled out a black bag, unzipping it quickly. He tucked a Beretta 92FS into the waistband of his shorts, and then extended another Beretta to me.
"In case it's not Chirindza," he said.
I nodded, taking the gun. I placed it at the small of my back, as well. The puttering of an engine seemed close now. Soon, I could see movement through the trees, and then an old Toyota pickup truck with faded red paint drove toward us. I squinted at its dirty windows, apprehensive.
The headlights flashed five times. That was the first signal Chirindza and the Agency had established.
"Guess I was right about the location," Boone said.
"Guess so," I admitted, pursing my lips.
He shot a grin at me. "Rookie mistake," he said before stepping forward.
"Hmm." Even though we had established on multiple occasions that I wasn't a rookie anymore, he hadn't stopped referring to me as such. In most circumstances, I didn't mind. In fact, it was oddly comforting. But he didn't usually use it as a joke.
The driver's side door opened with a metal screech. A short man in his thirties stepped out. He had a pleasant, round face, like he hadn't lost his baby fat yet. He was wearing a plain red tee-shirt. That was the second signal; red meant he hadn't been compromised.
"Car trouble?" he asked a bit nervously, closing the door. He had a thick accent.
Boone's voice was even as he replied, "Yeah. Overheating."
The man nodded. "You should check the air filter," he said, almost robotically. "The dirt roads can cause problems."
That was the last signal. He had said the words verbatim from the protocol Langley had set up.
Boone went up to him and held out his hand. "I'm Dominic," he greeted.
"Tiago," he replied, shaking Boone's hand.
I walked over to them. "Hi, I'm Kate." It was simpler if he didn't know our real names, even if he was on our side.
Tiago wiped his hand on his shirt, and then shook my hand, as well. "Kate," he repeated. "Good to meet you."
"You, too," I said, offering a smile.
"So, is everything set up, Tiago?" Boone asked.
Forced to tilt his head back to look up at Boone, Tiago replied, "Yes, yes. You are signed up to volunteer for three weeks." He gave a self-satisfied smile. "I have even secured you the best place to set up your tent."
"Thanks," I told him.
"And how close is the campsite to Bulani's operations?" Boone asked.
Tiago wiped sweat from his brow. "Uh, a quarter of a kilometer or so," he responded. "He operates from a single building that he tells people is his office. As far as I know, he stores everything there."
"Heavily guarded?" Boone inquired.
Shrugging, Tiago said, "Of course."
I shifted my weight onto the other foot. "And do you know anything about the Chiffer? Anything about what it is?"
"No. But –" His dark eyes darted to my face and then to Boone's. "But Bulani told us he will be leaving for Johannesburg in eight days to meet with Volkov." The words came out in a rush. "He will sell the Chiffer to him there, I'm guessing."
"What?" Boone said sharply.
"Yes, uh –"
"You didn't convey this information to the CIA," Boone said. "Eight days? That's—"
"I'm sorry," Tiago apologized. "But Bulani only informed me of this yesterday."
"Do you know the location of the meet? Where in Joburg?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No, I know nothing about it."
I exchanged a look with Boone. This changed things. We expected to have a decent amount of time to scout out Bulani and the Chiffer. Director Frederick Nixon, the man in charge of Operation 67, had told us to neutralize the Chiffer – weapon or information or whatever it was – before it got into Volkov's hands. Or at least get a tracker on it.
"So, we've got eight days?" I said quietly to Boone.
He stared at me for a long moment, deep in thought, and then turned to Tiago. "Do you know where Bulani is keeping the Chiffer?"
Again, he shook his head. "No. No, I don't," he said sheepishly.
"Do you have any information that can help us at all?" I asked gently.
He glanced at the ground. "You have to understand, I have not been on good terms with Bulani lately," he said.
"Why not?" Boone questioned. "You told us that you were his right-hand man."
"He thinks I stole money from him," Tiago explained.
"And did you?" Boone said.
Bulani kept his eyes lowered as he replied, "Yes."
Boone made a sound and ran a hand over his jaw. "Christ."
Tiago blinked rapidly. "That's not all. After, in retaliation, he sent three of his men to...to hurt my wife," he told us, trying to sound steely but his words wavered with emotion. It was obvious "hurt" meant something worse.
For a minute, we were silent. I watched Tiago's face, feeling sick. Boone let his hand drop to his side.
"I tried to kill him after that, but Bulani did not even let me get close. He just laughed at me, told me never to steal from him again," Tiago recounted, avoiding eye contact. "My wife…she will not talk to me. She has gone back to live with her mother in Xai-Xai."
I swallowed. "You know our target is not Bulani, right?" I said lightly.
"Yes," he replied. He smiled humorlessly.
"Okay," I said with some doubt in my voice.
"I just want to get away from him, out of this godforsaken country," he told us. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Bulani will get what he deserves. I am sure of it." He closed his eyes, touching the small crucifix around his neck. "Meu Deus will see to that."
"Well," I said, "you're all set up to start a new life in the U.S. You'll be given a new name, a new job."
Eyes opening, he said, "And the cash?" He flashed a cheesy grin, like we hadn't just talked about something so grim. I noticed he had dimples. They complimented his already boyish face. "I can't help it - I'm greedy."
Boone walked back to the truck, and stuck an arm underneath the hood, pulling out the black bag again. He took out a wad of $20 dollar bills. Coming back to stand next to me, he tossed the cash to Tiago. "That's your down payment," he said.
Tiago flipped through the bills. "And the rest?"
"After what?" Tiago asked, looking up.
"After we get what we came for," Boone said. "Details on the Chiffer. That's the deal you made with the CIA, right?"
"Sim, sim," he acknowledged.
"All right," Boone said. "Now, after this, you understand that we act like strangers?"
"Bulani can't think we're friendly in any way," he continued. "If we need to talk, send an SMS." Boone pulled a basic black cell phone from his back pocket.
Tiago dug his own phone out of his pocket. The two of them exchanged numbers, and then he said, "I should get back. I am supposed to be boxing up a shipment." I was positive that the shipment was either guns or drugs.
"We'll give you a thirty minute lead," Boone told him.
Pulling open the door of his car, Tiago raised his hand and gave us a wave before slipping in. He started it, its engine turning over loudly. Glancing behind his shoulder, he backed out of the narrow pathway and out onto the road. Within moments, the Toyota disappeared from view and Boone and I were alone again.
I blew out a long breath and laced my fingers on top of my head. "Eight days," I stated.
"We were supposed to have three weeks," I said. "Minimum."
"Things change quickly in the field, rook," he said.
"We'll just have to do with eight days."
I let my hands drop to my sides, and turned to look at him. "But –"
He met my eyes. "What?"
"It's just…what's our mission now?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Do we try to neutralize the Chiffer – whatever it is – or use Bulani to track Volkov down?" I said. "Because, say we steal the Chiffer, Bulani will cancel the meet with Volkov. And who knows when we'll get a chance to get close to him again?" I walked forward a few paces, and then turned back around. "But then if we wait until Bulani meets with Volkov, we risk the chance of Volkov actually getting his hands on the Chiffer."
He ran a hand through his hair. "Let's take this step by step," he said calmly. "Once we know what we're dealing with, then we'll come up with a plan."
I didn't like not having a solid plan right off the bat. "So, in the meantime…"
"In the meantime, we concentrate on finding out what the Chiffer is," he said.
"With twenty to thirty armed men patrolling around," I added.
"Well, no one said this was going to be easy," he said.
I frowned at him. "You did."
"You said it was going to be easy," I explained.
"When did I say that?" he asked skeptically.
I threw up a hand in exasperation. "Right before Tiago showed up," I said. I deepened my voice to mimic his. "'Hey, you don't need to be worried—'"
"I said 'we'd manage,'" he corrected me. "There's a difference."
I opened my mouth, and then closed it. I didn't have a good retort, and I didn't want to start an unnecessary fight.
An uncomfortable silence settled between us as we stared at each other. After a few moments, he checked his watch, and said, "Well, we've got twenty-nine minutes to kill. I think a nap is in order."
In one smooth movement, he grabbed the Beretta from behind me. He turned, walked back to the Land Rover, and put both his Beretta and mine back into the bag. Fitting the bag underneath the hood, he slammed the hood shut, and then yanked open the driver's side door. Climbing in, he settled into his seat, lowering the back and crossing his arms over his chest.
I took a deep breath and let it out before going over to the truck. I hoisted myself in, noticing that the sky peeking through the jungle's canopy was beginning to darken. It had to be nearly 6:15pm.
Resting my head against the seat, I closed my eyes. Logistics had always had a clear-cut, defined plan that was difficult to stray from. CS was turning out to be exactly the opposite. I should have known; the past couple of months moonlighting at Operation 67 had been rollercoaster. Why would the real thing be any different?
It wasn't that I minded. It was more that I felt underprepared. But maybe that uncertainty was simply a part of starting a new job. I reminded myself that I had been the one to choose Operation 67 over staying in logistics. Despite my protests, Boone had forced me make the decision for the both of us. I had known CS was something he had always wanted, and I hadn't been capable of saying 'no' to CS just because of a little doubt on my part. We were partners – no matter the state of our relationship—and I couldn't let the opportunity slip past him, not when it meant so much to him.
Shifting my head, I looked over. Eyes closed and chest rising and falling steadily, Boone was pretending to sleep. His muscles were still tense, and his breathing wasn't slow enough. He was avoiding the tension between us. I couldn't blame him.
He had this faint spattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and over his cheekbones. The prolonged exposure to the sun had made them more noticeable than before. They were my favorite feature of his. Somehow, they made this big, serious man seem young and boyish, as if he hadn't seen or done the things he had in the past decade of his life. Like he was still innocent, still a kid. Like he belonged in the heat of summertime, relaxed and carefree.
My lips twitched into a small smile. But then Boone shifted and opened his eyes, and I quickly looked away.
"What?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Nothing," I said.
We fell silent again, and for the next twenty-six minutes, Boone pretended to sleep while I rehearsed Kate and Dominic Francis' cover stories in my head.
Night had fallen by the time Boone and I neared the MozCare camp. The dirt road veered off to the left onto a narrower, less used path with overgrown bushes and trees. The headlights of the Land Rover illuminated the way, giving us a limited view of what lay ahead. Bugs buzzed around the headlights, attracted to the glare. As we drove along, the underbrush scratched along the sides of the truck, the sounds loud and eerie, like fingernails on a chalkboard.
With the sun behind the horizon, the air had turned chilly. The hairs on my arms were standing up, partly because of the temperature and partly because of nerves.
Boone shifted into second gear, slowing the truck down. "We're here," he said.
I sat up straight. The road opened up into a small clearing where four vehicles were parked. Beyond it, I saw lights and movement. Boone parked next to a 4x4 Jeep and killed the engine. The headlights shut off and we were submerged in relative darkness. We sat there for a moment, my heart pounding.
"Well," I said.
I blew out a long breath. "Here we go."
"This is going to be fun," he stated, definitely not the words I was expecting.
Exhaling a laugh, I said, "I can't tell if you're joking or not."
"Hundred percent serious." He draped a hand over the steering wheel and turned his head to me. "I love camping."
I got the feeling his attempts at lightheartedness were for my benefit. He must have been able to sense my unease. "Me, too," I said, flippantly adding, "And camping with criminals nearby, even better."
"It'll build character," he reasoned.
"Oh, definitely," I replied. "God knows we need more of that."
He smiled, and I couldn't help but smile back.
We opened our doors and hopped down from the truck, going around to the back. Slinging our backpacks over our shoulders, Boone grabbed the bag that held the tent and his sleeping bag. I took my sleeping bag, clutching it to my chest. I saw him turn toward me, but I couldn't see his face.
"Ready, rook?" Boone asked, voice low.
He always asked me that before an op. It was such a familiar and comforting question. "Yeah," I said. "Ready."
I could tell he wanted to say something else. But after a couple seconds, he shut the tailgate, and said, "All right, let's go."
He led the way toward the camp. Once we cleared a thick section of trees, we stepped into a large, open area about the size of a football field. The floodlights situated in opposite corners of the camp were almost blinding. Eyes readjusting, I had to squint in order to see.
There were five permanent tents set up along the right side, the kind with a wooden frame and a thick tarp attached. Those had to be where the MozCare operations, kitchen, supplies, and makeshift clinic were situated. To the left, ten smaller, traditional camping tents were arranged in a line, most likely where the volunteers slept. In the center stood a fire pit with a grill over the top, and near it, a well. Toward the back, near the trees, was a rudimentary toilet hidden by a flimsy covering. Next to it was an outdoor shower, also thinly veiled by a plastic sheet.
I counted seven people milling about, doing various things. Three armed men were talking to our left. An older woman was exiting one of the bigger tents, holding a clipboard. A man and a woman - a couple by the looks of it - were chopping onions near the fire, talking animatedly. And a man was making his way toward us, brushing hair out of his eyes and grinning.
He raised a hand in greeting. "Hey, there," he said. His accent was English.
I smiled. "Hi."
Breathing a bit heavily, he came to stand in front of us. He was at least ten years older than me, probably in his late thirties, with that sort of endearing disheveled look about him. His khaki shorts had mud stains and the tag on the back of his shirt was poking out. Extending a calloused hand, he said, "I'm Arthur, but call me Art, please. You must be the Francis'."
Boone shook his hand. "I'm Dominic," he said.
I shook his hand, as well. It was warm and dry. "Kate."
"Nice to meet you," Art said. "I'm the chief architect here at MozCare, and volunteer coordinator on the side." His accent was definitely from Northern England. "I was expecting you two a bit earlier. I was about to give you a call."
I shifted my weight. "Well, we had a few navigation issues," I said, quite pointedly at Boone.
Boone cleared his throat gently. "And then we hit a roadblock," he added.
Art winced, but didn't look surprised. "Did anything get stolen?" he asked.
I nodded. "Yeah, our GPS, Dom's iPod, some money."
Sighing, he seemed apologetic. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "I'll – uh, have a chat with Sibo. Sibo Bulani, the man in charge. He's on good terms with a lot of those men. Maybe he can get some of your things back."
"On goods terms" was most likely an understatement. Sibo Bulani was their employer. I just smiled gratefully. "Thanks, that would be great," I said.
"Sure," he said. He jerked his head toward the line of tents. "You guys must be exhausted. I'll show you where to set up."
We followed him to an empty spot next to a big neon green tent. Art stood in the middle and spread his arms. "Hope this suits you guys," he said. "It's the best spot, in my opinion." He pointed upwards. "The trees block a lot of the wind and the rain during the wet season. Which is, uh, now." He smiled, wrinkling his nose. "Sort of a rough honeymoon, eh?"
I laughed. "Nah, we kind of like adventure," I said.
He laughed, too, the sound warm and infectious. "I have to say, I was surprised you guys signed up," he said.
Boone set down what he was carrying. "Why's that?"
Art shrugged. "Well, it's the off-season for traveling and such," he answered. "With the Christmas holidays over, people tend not to have much time off."
"Oh, well, Dom runs his own accounting business back home," I explained. "And I'm in between jobs at the moment, so taking time off wasn't much of an issue."
"Ah," he said. "Where're you two from, by the way? I think I remember Canada from your paperwork?"
"Just outside of Ottawa," Boone responded as easily as if it had been the truth.
"Where are you from?" I asked, sliding my backpack off my shoulders.
"Sheffield, originally," Art answered. "But I've lived most of my life in Manchester."
I nodded. "I've never been to Manchester, but I've always wanted to go there."
"Don't bother," he said, waving a dismissing hand. "Over-hyped, if you ask me."
I let out a laugh. "Okay, I'll take your word for it."
Art grinned, and then inhaled deeply. "I'm so bloody glad to have you guys on board. We've only got six other volunteers at the moment, so building this school has been quite difficult."
"How long have you worked here?" Boone asked.
Rubbing his arm, he made a face as he calculated. "I think it's been eighteen months now," he replied.
"Wow," I said.
"Yeah, I came here right after a cyclone devastated the area," he said. He looked around. "It was more about medical attention and rebuilding homes then, but we've slowly been building more infrastructure." Looking genuinely happy, he added, "Six out of the seven nearby villages have running water again and a building to use as a clinic."
"That's great," I said. "We read up on MozCare before coming, of course, and were really impressed. We were going to go for the traditional honeymoon –"
"—Maui," Boone interrupted.
"Far cry from Maui, mate," Art said, amused.
Boone laughed, low and deep. "Don't I know it."
I shot him a look. "But, we decided to go for a more fulfilling experience," I finished.
Boone smiled with sort of an anything-you-say-dear expression. "Yes," he agreed. "We did."
"Fulfilling is something you'll definitely get here," Art said. He scratched his chin. "By the way, that reminds me. Just a few things…you've got your antimalarial pills, yeah?"
"Yes," I said, nodding. "Malarone, I think it's called."
"All right, good," Art said. "You'll want to make sure you take those. Malaria is endemic to this whole area. We had a nasty experience with a volunteer last summer…" He waved a hand. "Anyway. So, we've got guards here 24/7, but in case of an emergency, there's a tranq gun in that middle tent there." He pointed to it. "Hyenas are really the biggest problems around here. Occasionally, we'll get a rhino, sometimes an elephant or giraffe, but they usually stay away from humans. Usually." He laughed loudly and then shook his head. "No, I'm kidding. There's nothing to worry about."
"Oh, okay," I said, tentative. In addition to volunteering and finding the Chiffer, we had to worry about malaria and wild animals. At least there was never going to be a dull moment on this mission.
"Also, there are a few areas off limits," he said. He turned and gestured in the direction of the parking area. "The road goes off to the right and that's where Sibo's office is and where a lot of the guards live." He made a face. "They don't really like anyone going down there. Privacy and all, you know?"
"Sure," Boone said.
"Of course," I said.
Art smiled pleasantly. He seemed to believe what he had said. "Well, listen, get yourselves set up, have a shower, and then come join us for dinner. Corinne and Jean are cooking burgers tonight. You can meet everyone, and we can go over the plan for tomorrow."
"Great," I said, and then flashed a sheepish smile, pushing my bangs out of my face. "A shower sounds so good right now."
Art smiled, and began walking toward the fire pit. "Just come over whenever," he told us.
"Okay," I said.
I waited until he was out of earshot, and then looked up at Boone. "'Privacy and all?'" I repeated Art's words skeptically.
He crouched down, unzipping the tent bag. "We'll talk about it later," he murmured.
I nodded, biting my lip. He was right; we were exposed at the moment. We needed to keep up appearances. "Okay," I said, and bent to help him lay out the tent.
He stopped me by putting his hand over mine. "I'll do this," he told me. "Go ahead and take a shower."
Taking my hand back, I said, "You sure? I can –"
"Yeah," he said. "I've been setting up tents since I was a kid. I'll have this up in two minutes."
"All right," I said. Secretly, I was beyond grateful. Standing, I grabbed my backpack and headed for the shower.
The shower was contained in a small, green tent-like covering. I set down my bag, and pulled out shampoo, conditioner, soap, and a towel. I stepped into the tent, put my things down on the ground, and peeled off my clothes. Suddenly, I felt exposed. I could hear Art chatting to Corinne and Jean, Boone hammering pegs into place, and the wind whispering in between the trees. After a moment of standing there naked, I turned on the shower – which was a large, mounted bucket with a small spout – and stepped underneath. The water was the same temperature as the air, a bit chilly but a welcome relief. I washed the dirt and sand off, scrubbing hard.
After I was done and had pulled on a pair of old jeans and a loose sweater, I exited the shower. Glancing over, I saw that our tent was up. It was a dark blue, and it was small. Really small. We had gotten it – along with the Land Rover and bag of equipment – from the CIA ground team in Maputo. I hadn't even thought about how big it was going to be.
Picking up my backpack and slinging my towel and dirty clothes over my arm, I walked over. Boone was rolling out our sleeping bags. I set my backpack down, and he looked up at the sound.
"Honeymoon-sized," he stated.
"That's what Art called it when he saw it," he explained.
"Oh," I said, feeling awkward.
He stood up. "Separate sleeping bags, though," he said. "Thank God."
I was slightly offended. Brow furrowing, I said, "Well—"
"I don't want to share with a cover hog. You can't blame me for that."
"What?" I retorted, eyes wide. "That was once. One time." It had been during the operation in Istanbul when we posed as an engaged couple. I had woken up to find all the covers on my side of the bed. In my defense, the house we had stayed in had broken heaters and the nights were freezing.
Shrugging, there was an amused look in his eye. "Still left an impression. Thought I was going to get frostbite."
I shook my head, exasperated. "I'm sure you did. Now, go take a shower so we can eat."
A slow smile lifted the corners of his mouth. He reached down, grabbing his own backpack. "Leave any water for me?" he asked.
I squeezed the water out of my hair. "Oh, sorry, was I supposed to?" I said innocently.
It was his turn to give me a look. He said nothing, though, and headed toward the shower.
While Boone showered, I hung up my wet towel on a clothing line behind our tent, combed my hair, unpacked a bit, and surreptitiously looked around. I noticed that the guards had changed, and I saw Tiago roaming around near the parking area. A gun slung over his shoulder, he was kicking rocks and smoking a cigarette.
I was zipping up my backpack as Boone came back over, wearing jeans and a grey sweatshirt that fit him perfectly. I always hated it when he wore that sweatshirt. For whatever reason, it made me think of warmth and comfort and I knew it probably smelled like him, and it gave me the urge to touch the material, touch him. It was ridiculous and I knew it, because it was just a goddamn sweatshirt.
He rubbed his hair with his towel, tossing his backpack next to me. "What is it?" he questioned, frowning at my expression.
I glanced away. "There's just been a turnover of guards," I covered.
"Ah," he said.
Once Boone had put his things away, we went to the fire pit where Art, Corinne, Jean, and two other volunteers were sitting on folding chairs. Art waved us toward two empty stools, and we sat down.
We were introduced to Corinne and Jean, an older French couple with an impressive list of volunteer projects they had completed since retiring. The young woman to their right, Maria, was a Brazilian-American studying social development. She seemed like a happy-go-lucky type of person, with an easy smile and big brown eyes. Next to her was Yuri who, despite his Slavic name, was an English guy who had just finished a stint as a UN Peacekeeper in Timor-Leste.
Possibly because my last real meal had been eight hours ago, the hamburger was the best one I had ever eaten. The seven of us took the time to get to know each other, asking the usual questions. Corinne and Jean had been in Mozambique for two months, Maria had arrived six weeks ago, and Yuri had been here for two weeks. All of them seemed genuine and eager about volunteering, and I didn't get the feeling that any of them knew MozCare was a front.
Art told us that breakfast was at 6:00am tomorrow morning, and then we would head to the construction site at 6:45am. The site was about a ten minute drive away. Because the floodlights shut off at 9:30pm, he recommended that we stay in our tent until it was time to get up. He said it was because of the wild animals, but I suspected it was because Sibo Bulani didn't want people ambling around afterhours.
When the conversation began to die down and Yuri started to yawn repeatedly, I offered to do the dishes. Art thanked me, directing me to a large plastic bucket to use near the well. I stood up, went over to the well, and filled the bucket with cold water, and set it up on a nearby table. Maria collected plates and cooking utensils, and came over to dump them in the bucket.
"Thanks," I said with a smile.
She smiled back, tucking a strand of long, dark hair behind her ear. "Sure," she said. Before returning to her seat, she added, "I'm glad there's another girl here to talk to. Corinne's really nice, but a little hard to relate to."
As much as I wanted to fit in here and as nice as Maria was, I couldn't have a tagalong friend. That could compromise the mission. A friendly, "Hmm," was all I said in reply.
Washing the dishes, I listened to the muted conversation behind me, something about rain coming through tonight. It was easy to lie to this group of people. They weren't inherently suspicious and had no reason to believe we weren't precisely who we said we were. Being Kate Francis around them wasn't difficult. It was even a little thrilling to pretend to be someone else and have people believe you without question.
As I laid a plate down next to the bucket, I suddenly felt something behind me. I stiffened, and then a pair of arms gently wrapped themselves around my waist. A pair of grey, sweatshirt-covered arms and a gold wedding ring.
My heart skipped a beat at Boone's close presence, something I had been desperately avoiding for the past several days. He stepped forward, pressing his body against mine. It was a familiar gesture, one befitting of newlyweds. I sucked in a breath and forced myself to relax into him.
A good bit taller than me, he had to bend to nestle his face in the crook of my neck. "Bulani's coming to meet us at 9:15," he murmured, his stubble tickling my skin.
"What time is it now?" I asked quietly.
"Just past 9:00," he answered.
He smelled good, like I knew he would, that intoxicating smell of woodsy shower gel mixed with the scent of his skin. "Okay," I said.
His arms tightened around me, just a fraction. I closed my eyes, wondering if he was acting as Dominic or as Boone.
"It's important that we don't make an impression with Bulani," he told me.
Opening my eyes, I said, "What do you mean?"
"He's probably on edge with this meet with Volkov coming up," he explained, voice still low. "We don't want to spook him. We need to be forgettable, boring."
I nodded, swallowing. "Boring. Got it."
"Stick to vague statements, avoid telling him any details, minimal eye contact, but not too little to make him think you're avoiding –"
"I know how to do this," I said.
"—him, and don't attract his attention or ask too many questions—"
"I know," I cut him off. My tone was snippier than I intended, but he was acting like I didn't know how to do my job.
"Okay," he said, a bit defensively. He stepped away from me. "I'll be by the fire." Pointing at a just-washed dish, he added bluntly, "You missed a spot, by the way."
I frowned down at the plate as he walked away. I grabbed it and dumped it back into the bucket, water splashing onto the front of my sweater. "Shit," I cursed under my breath. I heard the distant rumble of Boone's laughter and had an involuntary moment of missing the warmth of him. "Shit," I whispered again.
A/N: Well, here we have a few new characters, some set-up for the mission, and quite a bit of tension between Gemma and Boone, which is one of my favorite things to write...as if that wasn't obvious!
After a couple of you mentioned it, I changed the rating from T to M, just as a precaution. This story will have some explicit elements here and there, similar to Vertigo.
I can't thank you guys enough for the support! Every little bit of feedback helps me so much. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers, too: Leprechaun (you're the best, thank you!), Guest, Pat, Guest, Guest, Guest, A (yes, I'm basing these parts on places I've been to in Mozambique!), Sinelle (sorry about the wait, but I'm so glad you stuck around!), Guest, GiGi, Guest, A, chantra, Guest, Vanessa, Guest, Guest, mylittleprincess, Mtveit (thank you, and I really hope you enjoy this story!), MM, Max, Bookworm (Boone as the hysterical crier would have been so great, haha!), Angela D (thanks for being such an awesome reader), Reviewer, Guest, and tina!
And a shout-out to my friend Luke for the amazing, amazing cover picture!
I'd love to know your thoughts on the chapter! Until next time :)