Date: Unknown. Location: Unknown
The uncertainty was the hardest. The waiting. He would come again, that was a given. He enjoyed her pain, her fear. Her panic. When he tramped into the room, loudly, deliberately, already laughing at her, Heather felt almost relieved to be done with the suspense. Almost.
“Filthy American whore.”
She tried to remain strong, she really did.
She rose on shaking legs, lifting her chin with what bravery she could muster. Standing made her feel less vulnerable, but she couldn’t stop herself from shrinking back against the coarse mudbrick wall. Her shoulders, numb from being pulled behind her for so many hours, screamed in agony as she tried to use them.
He fell silent, the twisted bastard. Stalking her in the small space. Tacitly urging her to run, to try to escape. She strained to hear what her blindfolded eyes couldn’t see. Any inhalation. Any noise.
He gave her a clue. A scrape of a heel. An expelled breath.
When she’d first been captured, she’d been defiant, aiming solid kicks where she thought he stood. When she missed, he laughed. When she connected, he beat her. Now, days later, she merely stumbled away from him, keeping her back to the wall, trying to avoid his fists.
The stink of sour sweat was her only warning before he rushed her, crowded her, pressing his body to hers. His odor penetrated the stench of urine and rotting food that permeated her prison cell. She twisted away from the wall to avoid being pinned. He grabbed her hair, which had long since fallen out of its French braid, then allowed her to wrench away, scalp stinging, dread pulsing with each thud of her heart. Disoriented, hampered by the ropes digging into her wrists and the tight blindfold, she tried to find the wall.
He went soundless again. Circling her. Stalking. Playing with her until she screamed her fear and frustration. Her impotent fury. Her screams were no longer the battle cries of a soldier, an officer in the United States Army. Instead, she sounded desperate, pitiful.
He came for her, his scraggly beard and traditional wool headdress rough against her face as his hard hands bit into her shoulders.
Heather didn’t know how much longer she could hold on. She was nearing the limits of her endurance; she could feel it.
How long had it been since she’d been captured? Days and nights of little sleep, little food, little water. No sanitary facilities.
And him. Always him.
August 15. 8:38 p.m. Kongra-Gel Terrorist Training Site
Jace Reed’s ass had fallen asleep. In fact, he could no longer feel his legs, his feet, or his right elbow. That’s what he got, he guessed, for not moving in three hours. Eyes trained on the compound in front of him, he made a minor adjustment to his night vision goggles. The greenish-gray view didn’t change. It hadn’t changed the entire time he’d been here.
Sighing a little, he pressed his throat mike, and murmured, “Tag.”
The almost inaudible response was immediate. “Yeah, boss.”
“Let’s switch for a while. I can’t feel my balls any more.”
“No one’ll miss ’em,” said Tag.
“Except yo’ momma. Get your ass up here.”
Sergeant First Class John McTaggert slid silently over the barren ground to the rock outcropping where Jace crouched. Just as silently, Jace descended, forcing his stiff limbs to cooperate. The rock had cooled with the darkness and no longer burned. Once on the ground, he locked the night vision goggles onto his helmet and waited, allowing Tag to wedge into place on the rock as blood returned to his own extremities. He keyed his mike.
His other four men, deployed at various strategic points around the camp’s perimeter, responded instantly to his almost silent command. No one had gone in or out of the compound in the past twenty-four hours. The roving guards couldn’t find their asses with both hands. The aroma of goat stew simmering in the building closest to Archangel’s lookout had him weeping for his mother’s cooking.
Their intelligence had Omaid al-Hassid arriving sometime within a twelve-hour window. Jace and his team had now been on-site well over fifteen hours. Looked like their intelligence was wrong. Again. If circumstances forced them to extract before they’d accomplished their mission, his boss would blow a gasket. That wasn’t even considering the mammoth sandstorm headed their way, due to arrive in roughly seven hours. Their timeline was fixed.
Jace wriggled himself into Tag’s blind, arranging the dusty shrubs so there was no trace of his passage, and resumed his surveillance, this time of the west side of the camp. A broad sweep of desert scrub giving way to rocky hills. A clump of straggling buildings in the shadow of a steep hill; what were probably the mess hall and barracks, three tiny mudbrick houses. A huge tent toward the center of the compound. Two lax guards at the security outpost in the hills, chatting together while they smoked. An old farm truck; and, incongruously, ten bales of hay.
“Contact! Movement at two o’clock.” The voice came from Sergeant Alex Wood, the newest member of his team. His whisper was tinged with a quiet, controlled excitement. Finally, something was happening. “Three vehicles. Two Jeeps and an open-bed truck, looks like. I got four warm bodies in the front Jeep, three in the second. Five in the truck. That’s two in the cab, three in the back. Truck’s piled in the back, too. Cargo.”
There was a pause. “Can’t see yet, boss. They probably have ’em at their feet. But I bet they got the usual assortment of garbage.”
“Don’t guess. Verify.” Jace resisted the urge to shift around the perimeter so he could see for himself. “All teams, eyes sharp.”
It would be just their luck if this was a random supply drop. Murphy and his damned law at work again. Still, it didn’t get him anywhere useful to believe that. He waited, senses straining, knowing all five members of his team did the same. Information came in low, grim tones as Alex relayed what he saw.
“Confirm automatic weapons on four tangos in the lead Jeep.” Tango, the phonetic letter T, used as slang for terrorists. “Confirm automatic weapons on three tangos getting out of the flatbed truck. Movement in Jeep two.” Pause. “Three tangos getting out. Two moving forward. One … positive ID! I say again, positive ID on our target. It’s al-Hassid. I guess we know what’s in the back of the truck, yeah?”
Jace let the adrenaline course through his body, recognizing it wouldn’t do him any good just yet but knowing he couldn’t stop it. “Record where they put it all. Count the boxes, Alex.”
Boxes weren’t the only thing coming off the truck. The driver also yanked two females wearing loose abaya robes and hijab head scarves to the ground, and shoved them in the direction of a slightly larger building, probably the mess hall. They stumbled inside.
Jace’s muscles bunched. Unconsciously, his hand brushed his breast pocket. “Alex, can you get a good look at those women?”
“These two are natives, boss. Not her.”
Grateful that the almost subliminal mental connection between his teammates allowed Alex to know instantly the direction of Jace’s thoughts, he let his attention flicker even while keeping sharp eyes on the portion of the compound he monitored. To the recent ambush of a military convoy outside of Eshma, at the other end of Azakistan. The taking of an American female soldier.
Not an Azakistani, but a fair-skinned redhead. She’d been in Eshma for the past four weeks, volunteering as an interpreter after someone bombed the Ubadah Government Center, the worst terrorist attack Azakistan had ever seen. If she hadn’t been in Eshma, if the convoy she was on hadn’t been attacked, she would still be safe on al-Zadr Air Force Base, with him.
He touched his pocket again, where her picture nestled. Well, not exactly with him, since they’d never actually met.
The United States Central Command had deployed her likeness far and wide, hoping for information that could lead to her liberation. The probability she’d show up in this part of the country, nearly three hundred miles from the site of the convoy attack, was slim, but that wouldn’t stop any of them from looking.
Dipping two fingers inside, he withdrew the battered photo. The darkness couldn’t erase his memory of flashing eyes and a stubborn chin, the skin of her oval face looking as soft as peaches. The head shot, clearly a staff photo, revealed long hair pulled back from her face and plaited into some sort of complicated weave. Even the severity of the hairstyle and a military uniform couldn’t disguise her beauty. First Lieutenant Heather Langstrom. Jace traced her cheek in the dimness.
He’d seen her around the commissary buying groceries—for just one person—and at the base exchange buying Maui Jim sunglasses and a juicer. Always stared at. Usually shadowed by panting hopefuls, though she never gave her admirers so much as a glance. It was astounding how many male soldiers chose to run at dawn, at the exact moment she laced up her cross trainers and started the ten-mile perimeter loop of the base. They ran in front of her, flexing and posturing, hoping for her notice. They ran behind her, admiring her long legs and tight ass. The braver ones ran alongside, trying to engage her in conversation until summarily dismissed. He, idiot that he was, took his team out of the Delta Force compound at Forward Operating Base Hollow Straw for long, looping runs that crossed paths with her at least once. Pride had kept him from approaching her, fear of being rejected along with the others. Now he wished he’d at least talked to her. Heard her voice.
Wherever she was being held, he prayed her captors treated her with decency. Experience told him, though, it was unlikely. Prisoners of a war declared on the United States by terrorists around the world tended not to be treated with dignity. They were tortured and videotaped. As much war and death as he’d seen, he just couldn’t stomach the thought of those pretty blue eyes brutalized.
He glanced up and caught Tag giving him an odd look from his spot on the rock. Shaking his head, he unclenched his fingers from the photo and stuffed it back into his pocket, returning his focus to the trucks. He didn’t know her, for God’s sake. She wasn’t even the first female soldier to be captured. Something about her tugged at him, though. Kept her in his thoughts.
He let out a breath. Get a grip, Reed. He’d better get his head in the game, or he’d end up dead. Or worse, captured and in the cell next to her.
The six men of Alpha Team waited through the interminable delay while the soldiers unloaded the boxes and crates and carried them, one at a time, into a small building at the edge of the compound. The soldiers bitched and complained the entire time, dragging out the task past the point where Jace seriously considered going out there and helping them.
“Idiots,” murmured Gabriel ‘Archangel’ Morgan. “They’re putting it right under my nose.”
Jace agreed. The insurgents, part of the Kongra-Gel, had made a classic mistake. Rather than securing their weapons within reach, they stockpiled them as far away from themselves as possible, in some misguided sense of safety. As though light antitank weapons fired themselves. Their stupidity made his team’s job simpler.
The Kongra-Gel, formerly the Kurdistan Worker’s Party operating primarily out of Turkey, had expanded its scope from mere armed violence to include drug trafficking in northern Iraq and Europe. Their terrorist tactics included suicide bombings, kidnappings, and targeting tourist sites with violence. They were bad news on a major scale, and the US Special Operations Command and Delta Force had a vested interest in crippling their operations.
His Delta Force team was the best. Hard-core, stealthy, fast. Lethal. Despite the inherent dangers associated with ops deep in enemy territory, this one seemed straightforward enough. Get in. Destroy the rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-launched light anti-tank weapons al-Hassid had just brought home to his base camp. Get out. Extract in front of the wall of sand blasting toward them. Piece of cake.
But he knew better than most how fast an easy op could go bad. He flexed his left arm, phantom pain flickering through his bones from where a piece of the helicopter’s tail boom had broken his arm during the crash in Kamdesh. That mission should have been a cakewalk, too.
“Shit!” Gabe breathed. He clicked his mike twice in succession, a prearranged signal of danger. “More company, guys.”
“What is it?” Had he summoned bad luck with his gloomy thoughts?
“Big-ass truck. Looks like it might be … holy fuck!” His harsh whisper sent alarm flooding down Jace’s back. Gabe was shocked; not something that happened often. “It’s a missile transporter. Jace, Holy Christ! They have a SCUD.”