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Lt. Tristan Sawyer whispered into the mic that brushed the corner of his mouth. "Rock, are you in position?"
Night hung over him like a blanket, wrapping up all of his senses, except his hearing, as he waited for the sound of his senior chief's voice. "Affirmative."
Across the street Petty Officer Will Gumble lurked next to the window of a crumbling single-story home. The housenot even a mile from the Persian Gulfhad been cleaned out, probably weeks ago, and Willie G. had swept it again to make sure there wouldn't be any surprises when they moved in on their target.
He took two short breaths and lifted his night vision goggles, giving the street another check. It was deserted except for the five stonelike figures hidden along the street. He spotted them only because he knew they were there. He'd scouted and scoped each location in preparation for this moment. He'd studied the maps and floor plans, packed his gear and prepared his mind.
All for this moment.
His blood began to pump harder, picking up speed. He tightened, then loosened his grip on the weapon in his hand, forcing his breath into a steady rhythm and his heart into an even pattern.
He was ready. But he had to wait for the signal that their boats were nearly in place at the extraction point. If they moved too soon, they'd recover the "packages"three American hostagesbut have no place to deliver them. If they waited too long, they left the inflatable boats open to discovery.
Timing was everything, so he schooled his muscles, keeping them alert yet relaxed until the signal. A double click came through his earpiece. Time to rock and roll.
"Let's go." Just like they'd practiced, he swung around the back of the building where Senior Chief Matt Water-stone, also known as Rock, wrenched open a window on the basement level and slid into the darkness below. Tristan followed suit until his shoulder caught on the frame. He wiggled, his feet still not quite on the floor.
The team was on radio silence for this part of the mission, but he didn't need to see or hear his best friend to know Matt was laughing at him.
After what felt like an hour suspended by the snagged shoulder of his battle dress uniform, he reached across his body and yanked on it until it let go with a tear.
He dropped to his feet, squatting and squinting into the dark, his weapon at the ready. On the far side of the box of a room, the door cracked open and light filtered in. The weak sliver of a stream made it only halfway across the floor, but it did illuminate Matt's gloved hand on the edge of the door.
Tristan moved forward, staying low. They'd done this enough to know the drill. He would move first down the hallway, Matt positioned at his sixcovering his blind spot. Back-to-back, they'd sweep the basement, looking for the packages. Intel said there were two women and a man.
They had been held here for at least three weeks, though word of their captivity had just reached the SEAL teams.
Only God knew what the three had endured. At least two of them were in their sixties. The people of Lybania tended to respect their elders. As for the girl in her twenties
A shiver ran down his spine. He couldn't think about that. He had to get her free and secure first. Once they were all safely out of this pit and away from men who kidnapped aid workers for no reason, he'd let the ones trained to deal with her situation handle it.
For now, he'd do what he was trained to.
Matt motioned for them to stop, opening a door with the toe of his boot. He must have encountered less resistance than he expected, since it flung open like a piece of paper on hinges, flapping against the opposite wall.
Tristan shook his head at Matt, who shrugged a shoulder and offered a smirk by way of apology for the unnecessary noise. Luckily, the walls of the building could have been from the biblical era, all crumbling blocks that muffled errant doors and shuffling feet. Matt led the way into the room, clearing it before stepping back into the hallway.
With two fingers, Tristan pointed toward the stairwell at the end of the hall. Matt nodded, taking the rear as they climbed from the dimness of the basement into relative light. It wasn't much brighter than a full moon, but compared to the inky darkness below, the second floor radiated, removing any possibility of hiding in the shadows.
His earpiece clicked twice, and he swung his fingers in a quick barrel roll at Matt. They had fifteen minutes to get the American prisoners and get them to the extraction point on the gulf. No time to waste.
Matt nodded, held a hand to his ear and motioned to the door on his left. At least two voices carried through the wall, their Arabic words getting louder.
"Cards," he mouthed. Apparently someone was cheating. If there was no honor among thieves, there was less among kidnapping terrorists.
Tristan motioned that they should pass the door without incident if possible. Their mission wasn't to take down this cell or alert anyone to their presence. Their only job was to snatch and go.
The door to the room with the card game stood open about three inches, so he held up his hand, waiting for another argument as a diversion. They didn't disappoint, tempers exploding like one of Matt's C-4 bricks. In the fray the two SEALs bolted down the hall, passing three closed doors on each side.
An empty chair sat outside the last door on the right, the guard most likely wrapped up in the card game they'd passed.
Tristan jiggled the handle of the door, but it stuck in place. In a flash Matt was there by his side, his lock-picking kit in hand.
Tristan had known Matt since the first day of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training and in all that time, he had yet to see a lock his friend couldn't pick. Man, it was a good thing Matt was on the teams. He'd be dangerous on the wrong side of the law.
Tristan held his weapon at the ready, standing guard until the old lock popped and the door swung in. He backed into the room, letting Matt take the first sweep and shutting out most of the noise and light from the hall with the closed door.
The space was empty save for two figures huddled in the corner, hands clasped together. He held a finger to his lips as he squatted in front of the shadowed, grandfatherly man. "I'm with the United States Navy." He whispered the words, which seemed intent on filling the entire room. "Are you Judith and Hank Timmons?"
The man's gray hair bobbed into the shard of light coming from the hallway. "Yes." It seemed to take all his energy just to utter the single syllable, and he slumped against his wife.
Tristan offered them both a reassuring grin and gently squeezed the man's bony elbow. "We're going to get you out of here. But I need you to move quickly and quietly and do exactly what I say. Do you understand?"
The couple nodded in unison, their faces drawn and weary but their eyes alight with hope. For good reason.
"This is my teammate." He motioned to Matt's towering shadow. "Ma'am, this is the senior chief. He's going to help you up and out the window."
She shook her head, holding on to her husband's arm with both hands. "I won't leave him."
"He'll be right behind you."
Matt squatted down in front of the woman and held out his hand. "I promise you'll be okay. There are more of our team outside, waiting for you. You don't want to make them miss the boat out of here, do you?"
She frowned for a split second before Matt had her on her feet and shuffling toward the window. Mr. Timmons wasn't going to let his wife out of his sight, so he pushed himself off the dusty floor, following closely behind.
Tristan glanced over his shoulder toward the empty hallway before whispering into his mic, "Second story, northwest corner."
"Copy that." Then a short pause before Willie continued, "We see you."
As Matt slipped a harness around Mrs. Timmons, she clutched at his flak vest, shaking him. "You have to help Staci. They took her last week."
"Do you know where they took her?"
Mrs. Timmons looked out the window she was about to be lowered through. "No."
"It'll be all right. Hang on tight and walk down the wall or you'll scrape against it. Got it?" Matt scooped the nodding woman into his arms, sliding her feet-first through the window, lowering her on the rope that slipped expertly through his hands.
The rope went slack for a moment, and then it was tugged twice, the signal from Willie G. that the package had arrived to them. Matt pulled it back up and immediately hooked it to a harness under Mr. Timmons's arms.
Tristan pressed his mic to his lip. "Second package on the way. The third has been moved. We'll search the rest of the building and meet you at the extraction point."
Willie clicked his mic twiceroger thatas Mr. Tim-mons slid through the window with a little help from Tristan and Matt.
Just as the rope went slack again, the door behind them cracked with the force of an angry kick. He and Matt both dove to the darkest parts of the room along opposite walls.
As he rolled, Tristan pulled his knife from his boot. Gunfire would draw unwanted attention from neighbors, which the team on the ground didn't need as they hustled two dehydrated, malnourished seniors down dark alleys.
The two new occupants swore loudly in Arabic as they ran into the room. They asked over and over where the old man and woman had gone, their words carrying down the hall where several more angry voices joined the fray.
Tristan caught Matt's eye across the room and didn't even have to signal. They knew what they were doing, knew what had to happen. Simultaneously, they each aimed for the man closest to them, quickly rendering each harmless with a blow to the neck.
His hand tingled as his Lybanian targetor "tango," as Tristan had been trained to call themcrumpled to the ground, and he wiggled his fingers. But there wasn't time to think about it more than that as five more men barreled into the room.
Letting his training and survival instincts take over, he spun to the left and dropped to the floor just as one of the men fired his semiautomatic into the wall. So much for avoiding gunfire. With a sweep of his leg, Tristan took the tango down at his ankles, even as his gun continued to discharge.
Caught by one of the stray bullets, another tango yelped and crashed into the wall, shaking the whole house, as though the ancient mud blocks were just waiting for an excuse to give way.
As he slumped to the floor, the tango yelled at one of the others to go kill the girl. The last to enter the room spun and ran back the way he had come.
"Be right back," Tristan yelled at Matt, who just grunted in response.
He charged down the narrow corridor toward the stairwell, praying he wouldn't be too late to save the last package.
Staci Hayes clutched a scrap of paper to her chest with both hands as the voices in the room below her rose to frantic cries, punctuated with the unmistakable sound of gunfire.
She sucked in a breath, fear making her shiver despite the heat that pushed her to the lowest point in the room.
Dear Lord, help Judy and Hank if that's where the guards are headed.
Something popped beneath her feet, and she scrambled into a corner, tucking her knees under her chin and staring into the impossible darkness. Always darkness.
A voice screamed a Lybanian curse, but his words were cut off in the middle of his rage. Something banged into one of the walls, shaking the whole house once again.
In the stillness that followed, she held herself together only by a string of prayers, her eyes still searching the thick darkness for any sign. Of what, she wasn't sure. This was clearly more than just another card game gone wrong. But what was causing such a struggle?
On shaking legs she pushed herself to stand, tucking the piece of paper beneath her collar and into the lining of her undershirt. She ran empty hands along the crumbling wall and turned the corner when she reached it. Silence still prevailed below as she reached the door, jiggling the locked handle for the hundredth time.
But this time when she pulled her hand back, it rattled again. Someone was out there.
Scurrying backward to her safe corner, she tripped on her floor-length robe and fell sprawled on her backside.
Just as she landed, the frame around the door splintered and the panel flew open. She threw her hands over her eyes, protecting them from the sudden glare of light added to her world, but not before she made out the silhouette of a man whose broad shoulders filled the empty frame.
He screamed at her in Arabic as he ran toward her corner, his words drowned out by the ringing in her ears.
And then there were two men, a second silhouette materializing behind the first. Her eyes were stinging from the light, blurring the images, but the second man pushed the first man, who crumpled to the ground.
It was a dream. It had to be. Or maybe her eyes without her contacts or glasses were playing tricks on her.
But no matter how hard she squinted, there were still two men, one on the ground and the other standing over him, looking gigantic and ominous with the backlighting casting his face in shadows. Breath catching in her throat and heart pounding painfully, she pulled her knees even closer, pressing her forehead against them and praying, not for the first time, that she had dreamed the whole ordeal.
She heard the second man cross the room and squat down at her side. "Are you Staci Hayes?" His words were so soft that she looked up to read his lips, but she couldn't miss her name there or the American accent she had only heard once in the previous week.
She nodded, but words failed her.
His white teeth flashed, and he pointed at himself. "I'm with the United States Navy. I'm here to get you safely back to the States." His ice-blue eyes flashed with a strength that expected to be obeyed.
She tried again to speak, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. He put his hand on her arm, gentle yet firm. "Ms. Hayes, I'm going to get you out of here, but I need you to do everything I say quickly and without question."
"Whatwhat about Judy and Hank?"
"They're safe." He looked over his shoulder at the guard he'd taken down, who still lay motionless. "Can you run?"
"Yes." But the shaking in her knees threatened to make her a liar, and she rubbed her hands up and down her shins.
"We've got to rock and roll, L.T."