Chapter 24: Leaving Africa

"She is not here."

"What do you mean, she's not here?" Flint took a narrow-eyed look at the cargo containers stacked on the decks of the ship behind the Congolese official.

"Monsieur, we have checked every container, every ship. If she was on a container heading out of this port she was gone before we closed the port. According to you, she went missing two days ago; your…friend…last saw her two days ago. The order to close the port only came down an hour ago. In that time we have had ten cargo vessels leave this port, five per day, most of them carrying raw ore and manufactured goods. We took dogs onto the ships currently docked here to check them; as they are the same dogs we use to hunt rogue militia through the jungle, they would alert to any scent of a human on these ships. We actually did find a couple of cargo containers of tobacco that had escaped taxes and tariffs, and did find a small cache of illegal drugs, but we found no trafficked persons, and certainly no American women with bright red hair as you described." The man was keeping a wary eye on Snake Eyes, standing just behind Flint; Snake Eyes' silent, hovering dark presence plainly unnerved him, and made it more likely that he was indeed telling the truth.

"Can you give us a list of all the ships that have left in the last two days, when they left, and what their destinations were?" There was no point in arguing, they would take the list and hurry to Cabinda. It had been 25 miles from the quarry to Matadi, almost two hours given the rainy weather and the condition of the roads, and now they had to turn back to Kinshasa and get back on the transport, then fly to Cabinda. The authorities there had been instructed to hold incoming ships but Flint didn't know how long they would continue to do so, so it was imperative that they get there as soon as possible.

The Congolese official turned and snapped an order to his aide, who ran off. "My aide will bring the list of ships, their owners, and as much of the cargo manifesto as we have access to. We understand you want your soldier back, and we are very, very sorry that this has happened at all, especially as you were so instrumental in rescuing a number of our most helpless children." Alex had explained to him why the Americans had been on Congolese soil, and that ICC badge seemed like a magic wand that produced cooperation whenever she waved it. Flint was fervently glad Alex had come on this trip.

Barely five minutes later the aide was back with a stack of papers, some handwritten, some computer-generated, all copies and none, he noted with surprise, had been redacted. They were serious about their desire to help the American soldiers, and he sighed as he nodded. "You can release the ships you currently have here. We'll head to Cabinda and hope she's there." He started to get up and head for the door, then turned and said quietly, "Thank you, very much, for your cooperation. I realize we've inconvenienced you by holding up your port's business, and I sincerely hope this doesn't cost you business."

"Not at all, not at all," the man waved a hand at Flint. "When the order first crossed my desk I will admit I didn't understand. But when you explained to me that you have lost a valued friend and fellow soldier, and that she was female, we all understood. This country has been a hotbed of strife and war and, as is the case with all conflicts like this, it is the children and women who suffer the most, and I am more sorry than you could ever know that your friend and fellow soldier was caught up in this." He swallowed hard. "My mother was visiting some friends in a village halfway across the country. Raiders attacked it. My mother was gang-raped many, many times, and was so badly damaged that to this day she is unable to sit comfortably for long periods of time and suffers from frequent female infections due to the injuries she sustained. She says she is lucky to have survived, but having seen what she goes through every day I hate these people as much as you do and I hope that your friend will not have to go through what my mother did."

"Thank you," Flint said quietly, and that was all he could manage; he left the room with a lump in his throat and stinging eyes.

Every minute it took to get to Cabinda was another minute of worry. Every hour it took felt like another year added to his life. Even when he caught an hour of exhausted sleep in the back of the C4 while they flew from the DRC to Angola, it was an uneasy sleep, dogged by the urgency that overwhelmed his conscious and his subconscious; hurry, hurry, hurry.

They were all exhausted by the time they got to Cabinda, and it took a minute for Flint to process what the port authority official said to them when they got there.

"We have found no such individual as the one you say you are looking for."

Flint's heart twisted in his chest, and he was afraid to turn and look at Snake Eyes. "There must be some mistake, or maybe they aren't here yet," he said desperately. "She's been captured by rogue militia members and they said she'd been sold to traffickers; they also said the cargo vessel she would have been loaded onto would have come here before continuing on up the African coast and up to Europe."

"We have held every cargo vessel that has come into our port for the last day, and searched it carefully from top to bottom. Yes, one of the cargo containers held a shipment of women and children, but none of them was a white woman with red hair. None of them were even white, so it is unlikely that they could have dyed her hair to disguise her—her skin would have given her away. There is no disguising that."

"Do you have a list of the ships that have come in? I have a list of the ships that left Matadi within the last two days; if I can compare the two lists…"

The man dug around the piles of paper on his desk for a moment, coming up finally with a list of ships. "Here is the list of all the ships currently in our harbor. But, Monsieur, keep in mind that not all the cargo vessels that come down the Congo River actually pass through Cabinda. Some go south, to Angola, Namibia, and on to South Africa, where there is a white population where a white woman could easily be sold for domestic slave labor. If the woman soldier you seek was on one of those, she would be well out of your reach by now; it would be difficult to know what ship she is on and what port she has been offloaded at."

Flint stared, openmouthed; it hadn't once occurred to him that the ship might have gone further south; he'd taken it for granted when Zimurinda said it would go north. I should have asked for them to close the southern ports too! Shana, Jesus, I'm so sorry… How could he have forgotten something so basic?

Cam stepped forward, eyes narrowing. "Monsieur. The friend we are looking for is physically very distinctive; she has very fair skin, red hair, and green eyes, all natural; the red hair and green eyes combination is rare in the human population, and she was also in perfect physical condition, barring some bruises acquired during her capture. Knowing this, what are the chances that she would be sold in, say, Cape Town or Port Elizabeth in South Africa, as opposed to Amsterdam, where we were told by a captured militia leader that that is where they would have taken her? He said it with what I believe is a fair amount of certainty."

The man thought for a moment. "If she is as distinctive as you say, then yes, she would have been taken to Amsterdam. It would be very, very hard to sell her on the African continent; she would be too distinctive, would stand out too much. Someone would eventually see and report her. It would be too high a risk; you could not keep such a woman hidden in any African country. Also, I do not know of any who would be able to afford such a distinctly beautiful slave."

Cam nodded, as if she'd expected that very answer, and nodded to Snake Eyes. He in turn dug in his pocket for something, coming up a moment later with his wallet, from which he extracted a photo of Shana. The picture had been taken in an unguarded moment; Shana was laughing, her green eyes sparkling with humor, her long red hair blowing in an invisible wind, forever captured by the click of a camera shutter. He passed it to the man slowly, as if reluctant to part with it.

The man looked at the picture for a long time before passing it back. "No," he said slowly, almost reverently, as he handed the photo back to Snake Eyes. "There is nowhere in Africa that one could sell a woman like that. Not only will it be impossible to keep her a secret, but it would be impossible to find someone here that could afford her price. The slavers would have taken her to Amsterdam via a sea route."

"Why Amsterdam?" Flint frowned.

"It's the biggest port in Europe. And it's the crossroads of almost all shipping and trading in Europe. You can ask ten people what language they speak and get twenty-five different answers from just as many countries. And since it is a major tourist spot and it is a busy port, many, many things can be smuggled in and through there. It's one of the richest cities in the world." Alex spoke quietly.

"The tourists who come have money, the businessmen who come have even more. You can find anything for sale in Amsterdam, from goods to commodities—to slaves. One of the largest slave auction houses in the world is located there in the Amsterdam underground," Cam supplied quietly.

"If they're so big, how come they haven't been shut down yet?" Flint cursed. "Don't tell me slavery is condoned there."

"It isn't. But you'd have to know where it is in order to get in; the only clients who can are the ones who are already in and word of the commodities offered is spread by word of mouth and carefully constructed brochures with code words not understandable by those who aren't 'in'." She looked at Flint and her expression was unreadable. "I haven't been there, but I knew a slave who came from there. There is no way 'in' unless you are already 'in'."

Flint had been scrutinizing the lists; now he turned to the port official. "I see four vessels who left Matadi who are not on your list of arrived vessels here; the Kutu, the Kabela, Akula, and the Mokata. Let's assume that one of these had our friend on it, and let's assume that they are heading for Amsterdam. Let's also assume that they somehow heard about the port check, knew they were carrying human cargo, and decided not to stop here. Where would be the next likeliest port of call?"

The official looked at the map Flint spread out of the west coast of Africa. "It is difficult to say, Monsieur. The next large port would be Port Gentil, in Gabon; however, they could also stop at Libreville, also in Gabon; or Cogo, Mbini, or Bata in Equatorial Guinea; there is also Porto Alegre in Sao Tome; Kribi, Douala, or Limbe in Cameroon; and Port Harcourt or Lagos in Nigeria."

"Would a cargo ship be carrying fuel enough to make it that far?" Cam asked.

"Madame, assuming they filled up completely in Matadi, they could conceivably go all the way to Amsterdam if they made no stops and went straight there. However, they will need to make stops; to unload legitimate cargo and take on more; to offload slaves in a different country; to take on provisions. While cargo vessels don't carry as much crew as a manned ship, there are still a skeleton crew for whom they must provide food and drink."

Flint slammed a fist down on the desk. "Damn it. I don't want to leave Africa until we find her!"

"What will you do, Monsieur? Stop traffic at every port?"

"You can't do that, Flint." Cam's voice was level. "You couldn't get that many governments to agree to cooperate; both Angola and the DRC have been extraordinarily helpful so far but we can't assume everyone else will be. And if the captain and crew of the cargo vessel are aware of the port closings, chances are they could be aware of the reason why. And if every port they come to is blocked, they could decide the potential payoff isn't worth the trouble; they need food and drink and fuel and they could simply kill her and drop her over the side."

"Stop it!" Flint whirled on her, anguish sharpening his voice. "Stop giving me worst-case scenario predictions. What if they put in at the next stop," he consulted the map, "Port Gentil? It's only a few hours by plane up the coast. What if we could catch them there?"

"And what if they don't stop there? What if the authorities there won't cooperate? What if our motives are mistaken and we start an international incident?"

"So what do we do? Go home? Forget about Shana? I can't do that, Jesus Christ, she's not only my soldier, she's my friend too!"

"But this is not the way to do it. We can't do this alone, Flint," Alex said gently. "Let's call Hawk. Tell him what's going on, find out what he wants us to do."

Hawk snatched up his phone on the first ring. "General Hawk here."

"Hawk, it's Flint." No preamble, no pleasantries. Hawk recognized the voice as Flint's but he sounded strange, worn and tired and somehow old. He'd never heard his Warrant Officer sound like that before. "We checked the ports in the Congo and the most likely route out of the Congo. We can't find her. The port official here says they likely heard about the port blockade and decided to go on to another port, but at this point we don't know what that will be, which one they could have gone to, and not all of the countries could be as willing to help us as the Congolese and the Angolans are. The port official here says if they had a full tank of fuel they could potentially go all the way to Amsterdam without stopping."

"Amsterdam?" Hawk's voice rose on the last syllable. "Jesus—why Amsterdam?"

Flint made a split-second decision. "Word is that Amsterdam is the hub of the European slave trafficking trade. The tourists who come have a lot of money to burn, and the rich businessmen who come can afford whatever they want to buy. And word is that only someone who is 'in' can get in, or you have to know someone who is in on the trade." He rushed on before Hawk could ask where that particular piece of intel came from. "The recommendations flying around here are for us to come home."

"Come home and we can try legal channels. INTERPOL and the US military's African Command can get Shana's photo, description, fingerprints and relevant identification out to all those countries, all those ports, faster than we can call ahead and get through the bureaucratic red tape. Also, I can ask Lieutenant General Johnson to step in for us and intercede on our behalf to get Homeland Security and FBI or CIA cooperation for an inter-agency effort. Perhaps they'll have contacts who are involved with the human trafficking trade, people who can get us 'in' that slave market to look for Shana—or perhaps they can agree to look for us."

Hawk sat down heavily in his chair. Jesus, Shana as a captive slave—he had no illusions what a female slave would be used for or subject to. "Consider yourselves ordered to come home. All of you. I know someone's going to want to stay there to keep looking for her, but at this point if she's left Africa and your intel source is reliable, we won't be learning anything else from anyone there. So get your asses back here. All of you." He stressed the 'all'.

"You heard him. Pack up. We're going home to regroup and try a different strategy." Flint turned to his group; Alex, Cam, and Snake Eyes had come with him, and now he fixed Snake Eyes with his version of Hawk's glare.

Snake Eyes folded his arms, resolution in every line of his body. I am not leaving without Shana.

"You don't have a choice. Hawk just ordered us home."

Damn the orders.

"Watch your language, Master Sergeant, you are still under my orders! General Hawk has ordered us to return to base and I will ensure those orders are followed even if I have to slap you in chains and haul you back in the brig!"

Then do it. I'm not leaving voluntarily.

Flint opened his mouth to howl some more, but Cam stepped forward quickly. "Snake Eyes. You won't be returning from Africa with Shana because she's no longer here. We'll have to look for her where she's going to end up, not where she's been. We know where they're taking her, it's just a matter of getting there first. All right? Can you accept that's true? Then come home with us and work with us on getting her back. You won't be able to do her any good waiting here, she's already gone."

A long, tense moment; and then Snake Eyes finally, reluctantly nodded.

Author's Note: And here ends the first part of 'Secrets'. The first three chapters of the second part are going up concurrently to this one, so look for it.

Now I wanted to address some concerns aired by various reviewers via the reviews page and in a few private messages. No, I am not taking each of the Joe women through the same experiences that Alex, Cam, and Olivia have been through thus far. Shana has been captured by human traffickers, yes, but she will be found and brought back, and what happens to her will be nothing that she won't (reluctantly) agree to in order to protect her rescuer until they can be retrieved by the Joes. This is the last book out of the five that will have any form of non-consensual sex happening to any of the characters.

I will not get graphically detailed, and certain chapters will be available only by email request in order to conform to ratings compliance rules on . I will say, however, that if you choose to not read the rest of this book or the rest of the series, you're going to miss out on some very tender, touching scenes between Snake Eyes and Shana (including his proposal of marriage to her) and some of what happens will have a direct bearing on how Shana manages to get pregnant while on their honeymoon in Book Four, and how she and Snake Eyes wind up as retired military raising their red-haired twins in California in Book Five. There IS a happy ending at the end of all of this, I promise!

Please feel free to PM or review if you have any questions or concerns; I can tailor the books more toward what you as the reader want (and don't want) to see before I post it. At this moment, I'm 65 chapters into Book 4; Shana's about to have her (and Snake Eyes') twins in the middle of the New York superstorm and Hawk is about to make a decision that will affect the future of his command over the G. project.

On to Part 2!