As the third transmission echoed in his headset, the North team leader turned and signalled to the men crouching around him. Coming alive almost as one, the fourteen fighters swarmed across the wall and raced across the garden towards the house lying still and silent before them. The night vision gear strapped around their heads lent them an eerie, outlandish appearance.
None of them could have known that one of the occupants on the first floor would choose to get up and head for the toilet just then. The man was crossing one of the windows overlooking the front garden when he spotted the dark, ghostly shapes rushing silently across the lawns. The man was no genius, but it did not take him even a second to realize that they could mean nothing but trouble.
The solitary shot rang out in the still morning air with extraordinary loudness. Hard in its wake followed the loud cry of alarm as the shooter alerted the other occupants of the house. But this was no ragtag bunch of soldiers. They were superbly trained and reacted with all the speed, skill and ferocity at their command.
North team raced ahead in sharp, irregular spurts, returning the fire with short bursts, instinctively aiming at the pinpricks of light that had begun to illuminate the dark house.
‘Eagle, we’re going in hot now,’ the team leader hissed into his headset as they ran forward.
‘Roger that, North. We’re on our way.’ Eagle’s tinny voice was almost lost in the rapidly escalating thunder of gunfire as a continuous volley of shots followed the brief lull after the first one. Every now and then, a scream punctuated the cacophony.
The first three commandos fell almost immediately. Two of them were saved by the Kevlar jackets cocooning their torsos. They stumbled to their feet and followed their comrades who were racing towards the house. The third one was beyond caring. The two neat holes near his right eye put him beyond any help.
Pausing briefly near the window, the first commando tossed two Flash-and-Bang stun grenades through it. The strike team counted down the mandatory four seconds before they slammed against the door, blowing it open just a fraction of a second after the grenades exploded.
The team rushed in with weapons primed. Figures in various stages of undress greeted them. They were cut down almost instantly as the commandos swept through the house.
The man they had come for was on the first floor of the house. He was still in bed, trying weakly to unhook the infusion pump attached to him. The man’s disease-wracked face was pale and he was breathing torturously. He seemed to be in tremendous pain, but that did nothing to diminish the hate smouldering in his eyes.
He wasn’t wearing the flowing white robes that he was always photographed in, nor was his flowing beard as well-groomed as it appeared in these photographs. But there was no mistaking the sharp angular features, which for the past few years had adorned the pages of almost every newspaper and magazine in the world.
For a long moment North leader checked the face in the light of the small torch as the two others in the room kept guard at the door.
There was no doubt about it.
‘It’s him,’ he said tersely, unable to keep the triumph out of his voice. ‘Doc, he is all yours now.’ He nodded at the medic as he turned and got on to his radio set. ‘Eagle, we have him. Get your ass here pronto. LZ One.’
‘Great job, North.’ Eagle’s voice crackled with excitement. ‘We’re already on the way. LZ One. ETA in three.’
The team leader watched as the medic rapidly checked out the man on the bed. He began with the mouth, checking for suicide pills. Then he moved on to the rest of the body. The captive watched with hatred and helpless anger glowing in his eyes.
‘Hurry up, damn it, we don’t have all day.’
‘I’m done.’ Hurriedly finishing his examination, the medic motioned to the team leader. ‘Help me get him onto the stretcher.’
‘What’s this fucking contraption?’ North grabbed at the infusion pump connected to the captive.
‘Hey, careful! Gimme a moment. Let me check….’
‘Fuck it! There’s no time. We need to get the hell out of here.’
‘Just give me a….’
‘Move it, doc!’ the commando grated harshly, chucking the still connected infusion pump onto the bedsheet. ‘You can do all that shit on the chopper. Grab the sheet from that end and let’s move him. Now!’
They used the sheet to pick him up and move him onto the stretcher. Grabbing opposite ends of the stretcher, they began to shuffle out with their catch, moving as rapidly as they could.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ North hustled as they went down the steps and out into the front garden.
In the heat of the moment the medic did not notice that the nitroglycerine drip in the infusion pump was running dry. The doctor attending to the sick man had been getting up to replenish the drip when the assault began. Now he lay just a few feet away, three bullets embedded in his chest.
By now the gunfire had almost petered out. Barring a sporadic shot here and there, an uneasy silence had fallen upon the house.
They were bringing the barely conscious captive out into the lawns when the SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter swept out of the now lightening sky and settled noisily onto the lawn. The North team leader and the medic got into the chopper with the captive. There was a very brief delay as the body of the fallen commando was taken on board. The chopper took off immediately. The remaining commandos of North Team raced back towards their waiting vehicles.
‘Eagle to Dominos. Get your butts out of here. Code Red. I say again, Code Red.’
A series of taps acknowledged the transmission as South, East and West abandoned the positions they had taken up around the house as a precaution to ensure that no one got away. Then the wagons pulled back and raced away into the gathering light. Moving out of the area rapidly, they split up and moved along predetermined routes, though all of them had the same destination to reach.
Precisely eleven minutes had elapsed since the vehicles had drawn to a halt outside the house. In a mere eleven minutes a handful of men had achieved what thousands of soldiers had been trying to do for the past few years. The man with a twenty-seven million dollar reward on his head had been taken.