Muffled laughter echoed in the distance. A few rebels huddled by the campfire, undoubtedly trying to ward off the dampness with some kai-kai, the local palm liquor.
"Six hostiles by the fire with AK-47s. You're good to go." Her voice was barely audible. They had to assume MEND had guards posted. Double-crosses dominated the rebels' lives, making them especially paranoid.
Footsteps sounded nearby. She froze. Definitely a human cadence. The soft glow of a cigarette caught her eye. A lone rebel was up on the ridge, headed straight for her.
Time for cocktail hour. She eased her hand into the pack and pulled out the tranquilizer gun, her fingers brushing the ballistic syringe loaded with an immobilizing drug.
The rebel cleared his throat and continued his patrol, oblivious he was walking straight toward her position. She waited, keeping her breath even, her body motionless. The man stepped into range. In one motion, she twisted her body, lifted the tranquilizer gun, and fired. The rebel grunted and swiped at his neck, as if swatting an insect. Seconds later, he slumped to the ground.
She scrambled over to him and poked him with the toe of her boot. No response. She crushed his cigarette into the wet earth and secured his hands and feet with plastic cuffs, slapping a strip of duct tape over his mouth. Her team should be long gone before he woke.
Thea's skin was slick. Rain continued to batter the earth. She glanced at her stopwatch—another four and a half minutes had passed since Team A had entered the camp. Glancing to the southwest, anxious to hear the code word "Gusher" in her earpiece, meaning the hostage had been found, she waited for Rif and his team to either signal or return.
Minutes ticked by, and nothing. Her nerves were tighter than the strings on a Stradivarius.
Her earpiece buzzed. Rif's measured voice came through. "Dry well. The Eagle isn't in Tango."
She sucked in air. Intel from two hours ago had confirmed Sampson's location in that outbuilding. He must have been moved.
"Abort." It killed her to do this, but she couldn't endanger her team members' lives by ordering an exploration of the camp. There wasn't enough time. They'd tried—and failed. The intel was bad. End of story. End of mission.
Silence greeted her. Dammit. Rif was a pro; he knew to respond to her command.
"Abort mission. Confirm." She scanned the camp. A few more rebels had joined the group around the fire.
Rif's voice filled the silence. "Give me three minutes, over."
No way. Three minutes was a lifetime. They needed to leave immediately to meet the choppers.
"I repeat, abort mission, over." Silence.
Her earpiece finally crackled. "Wait, out." Operator speak for Bugger off, I'm busy. Rif had spent years in Delta Force, but this wasn't the US Army. She was in charge of this mission, and he was defying orders.
Before she could respond, gunfire erupted below at the campfire. No more hiding in the shadows. Time to bring it.
"Go active," she commanded her team.
The men from the campfire scrambled for their weapons while Brown and Johansson blasted their M4s from their positions on the ridge. Figures dropped to the muddy earth.
Bullets ripped through the night, and the scent of gunpowder flooded her nostrils.
"Brown, take your shot." He was responsible for disabling the rebels' ammo hut with the grenade launcher.
"Eyes shut," Brown warned, protecting the team from the bright lights of the explosion, since they all wore night-vision goggles. Seconds later, the building erupted in a burst of crimson flames.
The sound of metal hitting rock sharpened her focus. Bullets showered the area around her. She pressed her chin into the mud, flattened her body, and returned fire.
A group of rebels stormed toward the cliff, but the team's NVGs made the figures easy targets. Blasts reverberated across the valley as muzzle flashes flared.
"Return to home base, over." Her voice remained calm, but four-letter words ricocheted through her brain.
Where was Rif?
She spotted rebels at the base of the hill, the men cutting off Team A's egress route. Dammit to hell. Well, all in was obviously the theme of the day.