“Sorry to pull you off the hunt for Azmi Sarraf, gentlemen, but this can’t wait.”
Lieutenant Commander Tom Evans points up to the screen. “This is a civilian recovery of Miss Tracy Martinez and Miss Emily Taylor. Miss Taylor is the twin sister of CIA operative Evelyn King.”
Pictures of the women flash up on the screen, together and alone.
Petty Officer Second Class Paul Ryan sits up in his seat as the picture of Emily Taylor appears on the screen.
She’s a willowy redhead with a bright smile on her face and lively green eyes that flirt with the camera.
Paul’s heart rate picks up.
“They were part of a group of friends vacationing together in Costa Rica. Three of them were out shopping when they were taken.
“Since they were close to a bank at the time, we were lucky to access the security video.”
The image on the screen changes to a video in which masked men grab women and toss them into a van.
Paul’s gaze lands on the redhead as she fights against the man dragging her to the van.
“They were hauled north, to a camp in a forest in Nicaragua. According to intelligence, of the three taken, two are still alive.
“They found the body of Miss Carrie Evans yesterday. The assumption is Emily Taylor was mistaken for her sister Evelyn and is being held captive for information.”
Paul meets his master chief’s narrowed eyes and thinned lips. Joe has been on enough of these missions to know what they’re walking into.
His gaze travels around the table to find his teammates with the same expression on their faces.
News agencies might love to hear about missions like this when they’re over, but the teams don’t enjoy them. It’s guaranteed to be a shitshow.
“Considering the political tensions in the region, this will be a night drop. You will hike the remaining distance to the compound, remove any threats, and secure the location.
“Once you’ve acquired the targets, unless they are critical, a truck will be standing by to take you back into a neutral zone, where you will be airlifted back to base.
“Only if either woman is critical will a helo evac be called.”
Joe lifts his hand to gain attention. “What do we know about the compound and number of combatants?”
“Not much. We know the compound has multiple small buildings. It has water and occasionally electricity.
“From what intelligence could gather, there’s anywhere from ten to twenty-five combatants at any given time.”
“What about roving patrols?” Joe asks.
“Don’t have any intel on that, but it doesn’t mean they’re not out there, so watch your asses.”
Paul jumps in. “What kind of weapons on target?”
“Don’t know for certainty. While we don’t believe they have any heavy weapons, be ready for them. Get your shit together. Wheels up in one hour.”
Staring out into the inky darkness, Paul stands next to his teammates, waiting for the command to jump.
“Two minutes to drop.”
Hearing the update in his headset, Paul takes a step forward.
“Ready for this, old man?”
Paul glances behind him at Romeo, who gives him a toothy grin. He flips him the bird.
“One minute to drop.”
“Come on, old man. It’s okay to admit you’re scared.”
“Only of following your dumb ass, which is why I’m in front of you,” Paul retorts, but the smile on his face belies his tone.
“Shut it.” Joe steps forward and holds up his hand, ending the good-natured fight before it can really get started.
Paul pulls his oxygen mask and goggles into place.
When the light overhead turns red, they run down the ramp and jump into the inky-black sky in pairs.
The air rushes past him as Paul falls, tugging at his fatigues. With the help of his night vision goggles, his gaze moves over his falling comrades.
Time suspends during the short drop. He watches the first chute open, then another and another. After another second of dropping, he pulls his own cord.
With the ground coming up fast, he pulls on his toggles to change direction and lands several feet away from one of his teammates in the tall grass.
He surveys the area with night vision as he steps out of the gear. In a world of green, tall grass surrounds them, limiting their visibility, and trees are nearby.
He finishes getting ready by tugging a hat over his head. Lifting his rifle into his arms, he follows the others into the tree line, out of the open field.
They spread out and move silently through the trees, the sounds of insects and nocturnal animals echoing in their ears.
Over an hour later, Joe puts his hand up, signaling everyone to stop. Paul crouches down into position and waits.
Ahead, Joe and Shiner confer, then his earpiece crackles with Joe’s whispered “Target site just ahead. Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie teams, get into position. Extraction in twenty.”
He copies Mick’s hand single to the men behind him and follows Mick to the east. The only sound they make is the quiet crunching of their boots on the grass and rocks.
His gaze shifts from Mick’s back to the space around him and back, constantly moving. Dim lights appear through the brush as they approach the rear fence.
He crouches next to Mick. Beside him, Rock, Shiner, Red, and Romeo crouch and wait.
They watch a guard armed with an assault rifle move toward them and pause. He gazes past the fence as if sensing their presence.
A light flashes above their heads. Beside him, Mick takes aim and waits. The light turns off, and the guard shuffles around and goes back the way he came.
“Alpha team in position,” Paul whispers into his mic.
He surveys the area. There are six buildings spread out in the compound. Alpha team is responsible for the two nearest the back fence.
He studies them from their position. All are single level. The smallest is a wood building with multiple windows and a bad roof. The building to the south is more like a large tin shed.
Tall grass surrounds the buildings and the fence area, but otherwise, the ground is nothing but hard-packed dirt. No places out in the open areas to hide.
That’s both good and bad for both sides.
Several minutes pass before they hear “Bravo team in position.”
“Charlie team in position.”
“Copy that. Move on target in five.”
“Roger,” Paul whispers, and he hears the other teams repeat, “Roger.”
He shifts, resetting his footing. He takes a deep breath and slowly releases it, keeping his heart rate in check. With his mind calm, he is ready to go.
The clock ticks down, and he’s aware of the time without having to check his watch.
The guard returns, ambling along the fence, gazing into the surrounding darkness.
Time to go.
He doesn’t hear the shot, but thanks to their sniper, Paul watches the guard’s body slam against the fence before he drops to the ground, dead.
They move forward. Mick stands watch as Paul pulls a wire cutter from his pocket and gets to work on the bottom of the fence, while Red works on the top.
They move quickly and quietly. Finished, Paul pulls back the fence so his teammates can get through. He follows and swings his rifle back into position, bringing up the rear.
They split off, moving past the tall grass. Red, Shiner, and Rock head for the larger building to the south. Paul and Romeo follow Mick to the smaller building to the north.
He points the muzzle of his rifle at the windows as they pass until they reach the steps leading up to a back porch that has seen better days.
The stairs creak under Mick’s weight. The men freeze, rifles aimed and ready. When nothing happens, he takes another step up onto the porch.
Paul steps up to the side to avoid making noise and joins Mick on the porch. Once Romeo gets into position on the other side, Mick reaches for the door handle.
Paul nods to Romeo, then squeezes Mick’s shoulder. The door swings open, and Mick moves in and to the right.
Paul follows, sweeping the space to the left for potential targets, and shoots a man standing near a counter.
They are in some kind of crappy abandoned kitchen. On the far side of the room stands a scarred table with a missing leg. A rat scampers across the floor and disappears into a hole in the wall.
A quick scan reveals two doors in the room, one smaller than the other. Loud sounds, like a sporting event on television, come from behind the larger door.
Paul nods to the smaller of the two doors. He approaches it with Mick behind him, while Romeo stands guard near the other one.
In response to the squeeze on his shoulder, Paul opens the door and steps inside an empty pantry.
He turns around to Romeo, who is still waiting at the door. He and Mick approach from the other side.
They open the door, and Paul hears silenced gunfire before he gets around the corner to see a man drop backward onto a couch, the weapon in his hand falling to the floor.
A door is on one side of the room, and a short hallway is on the other. Romeo moves to cover the door as Paul and Mick head for the short hallway.
Two doors on opposite sides. He takes one, while Mick takes the other. They open them at the same time, and Paul rushes in to find no moving targets.
His gaze falls on a naked figure lying on its side on the bed. Long, dirty, matted hair trails off the pitiful excuse for a pillow. He can smell her from where he stands.
Still, he has to confirm it. He steps forward and reaches for the pale shoulder and tugs her over.
Unmoving blue eyes stare back at him, a bullet hole in her forehead. Shit. He presses the button for his mic and whispers, “Target two is dead.”
He hears Mick swear behind him. Leaving her, they return to the living room. Mick steps behind Romeo as Paul takes the other side of the door. He follows them through to an entryway.
He glances at the closed front door, then down a long hallway with three additional doors. He goes past the first one to cover the second as Mick and Romeo clear the first room.
He waits until Mick approaches from behind and squeezes his shoulder. Opening the door, Paul enters to find the world’s most disgusting bathroom.
Looking at all the cobwebs, rust, and dirt, he thinks he wouldn’t feel safe using it if his life depended on it. He steps back and brings up the rear as Romeo and Mick head for the third door.
The sound of the floorboard creaking behind them has Paul whirling around. He barely notes the barrel of the weapon before pulling his own trigger.
A Black man falls to the floor near the now open front door, a rifle landing loudly next to him. The sound of gunfire echoes down the hall.
Paul hears more than sees bullets hitting the wall behind him as he dives for the floor.
He flips onto his back to point his rifle at the last door. Across from him, Romeo sits on the floor with his hand covering his bleeding arm. Mick crouches beside him.
They hear movement behind the door and wait. It squeaks open a crack. Paul sees the tip of the muzzle before the man appears and fires at the same time as Mick.
The man falls forward into the hall, the rifle clattering across the floor. Mick takes a step forward to cover Paul as he rises.
He receives a thumbs-up from Romeo, then follows Mick to the open door.
Paul squeezes Mick’s shoulder, and they enter, Mick going to the left. Paul moves to the right. “Clear.”
At the end of the room, another door. Paul takes the lead, crossing the room. He waits for the squeeze to his shoulder before opening the door and sweeping to the left.
A man whirls around to point a rifle at him. Paul fires two rounds, knocking the man to the floor. “Clear.”
He looks past the man to the corner of the room. On a pathetic excuse for a bed lies a shivering figure. He lowers his weapon and approaches. “Eyes on target.”
He finds Emily Taylor covered in sweat, blood, and bruises, wearing only a stained sports bra and bikini underwear. Wire encircles her bloody wrists and ankles, tying her to the bedposts.
Sliding his weapon behind him, Paul lowers himself to the bed. “Emily Taylor? I’m with the United States military. We’ve come to take you home.”
She doesn’t answer beyond a pathetic moan, her head dropping to the side.
He hears Romeo enter the room. “Got her?”
“Yeah, man. How’s the arm?”
“Flesh wound. Hurts like a bitch.”
Paul doesn’t acknowledge the men behind him as he asks, “Emily, can you hear me?”
His earpiece crackles with Joe’s order. “Get a move on in there.”
Pulling the wire cutters out of his side pocket, Paul leans over her. “Emily, I’ll get you free.”
He reaches over and snaps through the wires holding her right wrist to the bedpost. As gently as he can, he pulls the wire apart until he can ease her hand out.
He lowers it to the bed, then bends over her to free the left.
Out of nowhere, something smashes against his mouth, and his head jerks back.
Tasting the blood sliding down his throat from his split lip, he grabs Emily’s wrist as her fist comes at him a second time.
Keeping it tight with one hand, he uses the other to pull the hair away from the woman’s face. One terrified green eye stares up at him, or more accurately, through him.
He lowers himself over her so she can see into his face. “Emily, I’m here to help you, not hurt you.”
His earpiece echoes with yells from the other teams. “Tango in the wild! Tango in the wild! Heading south-southwest.”
“I’m on it…”
Paul resumes trying to loosen Emily’s wrist. The damn wires are so tight he’s having a hard time getting the wire cutter between her skin and the wire.
“Damn it, I lost him. Tango in the wind. I suggest we haul ass out of here.”
Paul yells behind him, “Mick, help me get her loose!”
In his earpiece, Paul hears Joe yell, “What the hell is taking you guys so long? Move, move, move.”
As his teammate works on the wires at her ankles, Paul finishes releasing her hands. Once free, Emily curls toward him. He looks around the room. “Is there anything to cover her with?”
“Not in this shithole. Everything’s on the truck.”
His earpiece crackles again. “Lights in the distance, coming closer. We need to evac.”
“I’ll get the other girl.”
“Sorry, Emily.” Paul picks her up in his arms and leaves the room.
He waits in the living room until Mick and Romeo appear, Mick carrying the other girl in a body bag over his shoulder. Shaking his head, Paul leads the way to the back door.
They meet up with more members of their team as they exit the building near the door and follow them back into the woods. Paul keeps an ear out for anything behind him.
No vehicle sounds. No more gunshots. They got out before reinforcements arrived.
Joe catches up from behind. As they move through the woods, he asks, “Status?”
“She’s pretty beat up, but not critical.” They don’t speak of the other target.
“Then we truck her out.” Joe eyes the woman in Paul’s arms. “You good?”
Paul nods. “Not a problem.”
Joe moves past him and orders everyone, “Let’s pick up the pace.”
Fingers dig into Paul’s shoulder. He glances down at the woman in his arms, her face pushed into the front of his vest.
Tightening his grip on her, he says, “Hang on, Emily. We’ll have you out of here in no time.”
Changing his pace to a jog to match the men in front of him, he follows them down the path. They reach the trucks twenty minutes later.
Mick hands up the body bag to the guys on the first truck and glances back at Paul before hopping onto the second truck.
Following, Paul climbs in behind Joe and listens as the man orders, “Get her on the stretcher and strapped down. We could be in for a bumpy ride.”
He starts to lower Emily to the stretcher, only for her to dig her fingers into his shoulders as she screams in his ear.
He lifts her back into his arms and sits on the narrow bench beside the stretcher. “Emily, no one is going to hurt you. This is for your safety.”
In response, her arm moves around his neck, her fingernails digging into his skin.
“What’s going on, Ryan?”
“We found her tied down to a bed. She’s panicking.”
“Well, shit. You can’t hold her like that for the next three hours. One good bounce, and you’ll both go flying.”
“Help me with my weapon.”
Paul pulls Emily’s arms away long enough for Joe to pull the strap of his weapon up over his head. He rises. “Get the stretcher out of the way.”
He moves to the front of the truck, puts his back against the wall, and lowers himself down, settling Emily along his legs so she lies against him.
She turns into him, hiding her face against his vest. He meets Joe’s gaze. “I can do this.”
Joe shakes his head at him, but hammers on the roof. “Let’s go!”
“Someone toss me a blanket.”
Instead, one of his teammates snaps the blanket open and settles it over them.
Another teammate confers with Joe, then approaches with his medical kit. “Let me look at her.”
Rubbing her back, Paul says, “Emily, this is Doc. He needs to check your cuts.”
If anything, Emily curls into him even more.
Stifling a groan, Paul reaches in and pulls one arm out. When she tries to yank it back, he whispers in her ear, “It’s all right. We need to take care of the cuts. You’re bleeding.”
Thankfully, the arm relaxes. Doc takes out antiseptic wipes and goes to work. He shakes his head. “Some of these are going to need stitching.”
Behind them, Joe orders, “Do what you can for now, Doc.”
Doc moves the blanket as needed to access Emily’s limbs, his expression grim. Paul can imagine what he’s thinking. Some sick bastard enjoyed using a knife on her.
Doc pauses on the other arm, then pulls out a flashlight. “Let me see her eyes.”
A brief struggle to turn Emily around ensues. Holding the trembling woman down, Paul grits his teeth as he holds her in place.
Doc flashes the light into her eye, then swears. “They jacked her up on something. Her pupils are dilated, and there are needle tracks on her arm.”
Behind them, Joe swears.
Paul tightens his hold on Emily. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Joe hoped Doc could give her a sedative so they could strap her down onto the stretcher.
The truck lurches as it hits a pothole. Paul lands hard on the truck’s floor. Emily cries out as she falls against his chest.
Doc falls back against the bench beside them with a groan.
Across from them, half the team is rising from the floor. Joe hits the speaker by his throat. “What the fuck are you guys trying to do up there? Break an axle?”
From his earpiece, Paul hears the reply. “Sorry, Bear.”
In his arms, Emily curls onto her side, crying. He swears, then works at the buckles of his vest. “Doc, help me get this off.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Ryan?”
Paul pushes Emily up long enough to pull his vest over his head and sets it aside. “Keeping Miss Taylor from further injury if we hit another bump like that.”
He ignores the grumbling from his commanding officer as Emily curls into his chest.
Doc shakes his head at him and resumes cleaning up her injuries. As he wipes down another cut, he asks, “What happened to your lip?”
He reaches up to touch his bottom lip and winces. With everything going on, he’d forgotten about it.
“She clocked him.”
He glares across the truck at his teammate. “Thanks, Mick.”
“That little thing down there gave you a fat lip?”
As the rest of his teammates laugh and joke, Paul does his best to ignore them. It will take months—hell, years—for him to live this one down.
Beside him, Doc holds out an antiseptic pad. Ignoring the humor in his eyes, he accepts it and presses it against his lip.
It stings like hell, but damned if he’ll give his teammates any more ammunition against him by whining about it.
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