CHAPTER ONE OF THE FREEDOM BROKER
500 feet above Kwale, Nigeria
Thea Paris knew the drill.
If the mission failed, no one would retrieve her body. She’d be left to rot in the jungle, unidentified and forgotten. And that wouldn’t do. She couldn’t miss her father’s 60th celebration.
Her gloved hand glided over her flak jacket and M4 with practiced ease. Night vision goggles, flares, grenades, extra magazines—all easy to access. The weapon had been tested, cleaned and oiled, ready to combat the humidity of the jungle. Pre-mission checks done.
The hypnotic purr of the resurrected Hughes 500P helicopter set the tone for the operation. Black, in every sense of the word. Sound, movement, light, all kept to a minimum. They were flying Nap-of-the-Earth; low, utilizing the terrain to stay below the radar.
As operational commander, she’d led her seven-man team through endless rehearsals, using a model of the targeted area. Now it was time for execution. Brown listened to Hendrix in his earbuds, his way of psyching up. Johansson stared into space, probably thinking about his pregnant wife who wasn’t happy he’d accepted this mission. Team A, following behind in the other gutted chopper, consisted of twin brothers Neil and Stewart—yep, born in Scotland—and a wizened former French Foreign Legionnaire named Jean-Luc who could outshoot them all. She’d handpicked each one from the pool of operatives at Quantum International Security.
Except Rifat Asker, her boss' son.
Who was staring at her. They’d known each other since they’d been kids, as their fathers were best friends. Rif had serious combat skills, but they often locked horns on methods of execution. She traced the S-shaped scar on her right cheek, a permanent reminder of Rif clashing with her brother Nikos.
She pressed a special app button on her smartphone. The glucose monitor read 105. Batteries were fully charged. Perfect. Nothing screwed up a mission more than low blood sugar. She slipped her phone into the pocket of her fatigues beside her glucagon kit. Rif’s assessing gaze still focused on her. Did he suspect she had diabetes? She’d done her best to keep her illness under wraps. Competition was tough among this elite group, and she didn’t want anyone thinking she wasn’t up for the job.
The pilot's voice crackled in her earpiece. "Three minutes to touchdown."
"Roger that. We're green here."
The second helicopter followed somewhere behind them, but the stormy sky obliterated all evidence of its existence. She wiped her damp palms on her fatigues. Rain rattled the chopper's fuselage, and the turbulence unsettled her stomach. Flying had never been her strong suit. The reduced visibility worked in their favor, but the cloying humidity and heat degraded the airtime and performance of the chopper. To compensate, they'd reduced their fuel load to stay as light as possible, but that left only a minimal buffer for problems.
Rif shifted to face Brown and Johansson. "Okay, boys, let's grab this 'Oil Eagle'."
The hostage, John Sampson, an oil executive based in Texas, earned high six figures to visit remote drilling sites and increase their output. Sampson had two kids, and his wife taught third grade. He coached baseball every Thursday night, but he'd missed the last ten weeks because he'd been held captive in the swamp by MEND—Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta. Seemed like every terrorist group had some catchy acronym, like they’d hired PR firms to come up with them.
This Nigerian militant group wouldn’t budge from a three-million-dollar demand, and Sampson’s kidnapping insurance topped out at one mil. That left one option. Rescue. But one out of five was the success rate for extractions.
"One minute until touchdown," the pilot warned.
She slipped on her night vision goggles and clutched the straps anchored to the cabin walls.
"You sure there's no leak?" Black camo paint emphasized the tension in the lines around Rif's eyes.
"Roger that.” She concentrated on the positives—always better than bleak thoughts when descending into hellfire. They should have the element of surprise, and she’d selected a crackerjack team. Every member would put his life on the line for the others, and their combined combat experience read like the Ivy League of special ops.
The pilot threaded the riverbed using the narrow view provided by the FLIR camera mounted near the skids. Flying into the thick jungle on a moonless night was far from optimal, but their intel was time sensitive. They had to get Sampson out tonight.
"Thirty seconds." The pilot's warning was like a shot of caffeine injected into her veins.
They’d arrived at a small clearing in the triple canopy jungle two miles from the rebel camp. A film of perspiration coated her back. Her body tingled. Alive, awake, adrenalized.
The pilot raised the bird’s nose, flaring to a hover, then settled onto the grass. She nodded to her team, and they hit the ground and rolled away from the chopper. Heat emanated from the rotorwash, as their transport rose up and away.
A moldy stench flooded her mouth and nose, the residual effect of endless rainy seasons. They huddled in the thick bush while the other Hughes dropped off Jean-Luc and the two Scots. She scanned the area. The choppers faded into the distance, their peculiar silhouettes showcasing the modifications for stealth.
Night sounds returned. Crickets chirping, water gurgling from the nearby river bed, the ominous roar of a hippo. She checked her GPS, signaled Rif, and entered the dense foliage. Forty-two minutes to execute the rescue, rendezvous with the helicopters, and get the hell out of here. She circumnavigated the heaviest brush, then froze.
A sound. Scuffling in the bushes. Her hands tightened on her M4. A sentry so close to their launch point?
She glanced over her shoulder. Rif's large frame crouched two feet behind her. Brown and Johansson squatted beside him while Team A covered the rear. The shrubbery to their left rippled in the brisk breeze.
Silence. A mosquito implanted itself in her neck. She ignored the sharp sting.
A branch snapped. She flicked off the safety.
Crunching footsteps. A shrill cry.
She scanned right, left. Movement flashed in front of them at ground level.
Her finger hovered beside the trigger.
A porcupine scurried across their ingress route, its quills in full attack mode.
She exhaled a long breath and gave Brown a half-smile. Dammit to hell. She’d almost shot the prickly creature, which would have blown their cover. Brown touched the rabbit's foot around his neck and nodded. Good luck charms were an operational must. She always wore the St. Barbara silver pendant her father had given her on her twelfth birthday. It hadn't let her down yet.
The two teams traversed the unfriendly terrain, minimizing any disturbance of the bush. Animal sounds punctuated the night, the rainfall a constant backdrop. She scouted the path, moving cautiously in the darkness. At the edge of the ridge, she paused. Faint flames from a fire kicked her heart into overdrive. The outskirts of the MEND camp lurked below.
She scoured the area. No sign of sentries along the bluff. She squeezed Rif's arm, signaling him to lead Team A down the escarpment. They’d have a rough time of it. The earth was thick, muddy, slick.
Thea, Brown, and Johansson remained on the curved ridge. As commander, she needed a bird's eye view. Brown and Johansson flanked her, positioned to counter any patrolling rebels.
She cloaked herself in shrubbery and settled into her hide. They'd mapped all the major landmarks from satellite images: the rebels' weapons hut perched beside the acacia trees, a large shelter to the west sequestered in the jungle, and five small buildings rooted in the southwest quadrant. Outbuilding Tango held their hostage, a quarter mile away.
She waited and watched for what seemed to be an eternity, rain seeping into her shirt mixing with sweat, leaving her skin clammy and cold. Her mind went to the weirdest places during missions—she pictured this sodden landscape as an ideal backdrop for a waterproof mascara ad.
A tiny shiver darted across her shoulders. The world was preternaturally still, quiet—like death had already arrived. Twenty-five precious minutes had evaporated. Not good.
Precise and measured, she nestled her rifle into the overhang. Her breathing slowed. She scanned the area, pursing her lips, the familiar taste of camo grease comforting her.
A soft hiss whispered in her earpiece, then Rif came on. "Going for the Eagle." Team A hovered on the outskirts of the camp.
Muffled laughter echoed in the distance. A few rebels huddled by the campfire, undoubtedly trying to ward off the dampness with some kai-kai, a 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 rebel headed straight for her.
Time for cocktail hour. She eased her hand into her 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. She waited, keeping her breath even, her body motionless. He stepped into range. In one motion, she twisted her body, lifted the tranquilizer gun, and fired. The rebel grunted and slapped 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 duct tape on his mouth. They should be long gone before he woke.
Thea's skin was slick as the 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, she waited for Rif and his team to return with the hostage, anxious to hear the code “gusher,” meaning the hostage had been found.
Minutes ticked by, and nothing. Her nerves were tighter than the strings on a Stradivarius.
Her radio 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’ve 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 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."
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 U.S. Army. She was in charge of this mission, and he was defying orders.
Before she could respond, shots fired below at the base camp. 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’s vision 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 cliffside, 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.
“Cover me, Brown.” She jumped up from her hide and ran down the slippery hillside, her footing uncertain in the muck. Before the rebels could react to her presence, she pressed the trigger on her M4, rattling off round after round. She slammed in a fresh magazine and kept firing. Several men fell, others ran for cover. She continued the barrage. The egress route was clear. At least now Rif and the others had a chance of getting out.
Her radio buzzed. "Bravo four, hit." Johansson's voice was reedy. He'd been shot.
The northeast wasn't covered, and Rif was AWOL. It was up to her to help Jo.
She pressed the talk button. "Coming, Jo. Brown, watch my back."
Sprinting back up the hill, she traversed the ridge toward Johansson, mud sucking at her combat boots.
Fifty feet. She pushed harder.
Bullets peppered the air around her. She dove behind the tree.
Her forearms bore the brunt of her landing, the pain rumbling up to her shoulders. She scrambled forward on her belly and checked Johansson. Blood seeped from his shoulder. His face was ashen, his eyes unfocused. She grabbed a quick clot from the first aid kit in Jo’s backpack and placed it on his wound. "I’m too scared to face your hormonal wife alone, so keep your shit together."
He gave her a weak smile.
She secured the morphine syringe from his front pocket and injected him. He’d be lost in the hazy world of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon soon enough.
A group of rebels climbed the embankment. Brown maintained his disciplined fire, but couldn't keep up. She aimed at the oncoming attackers and pressed the trigger. Several men fell. She shoved a fresh magazine into her M4.
Figures appeared in the mist, the heat of their bodies a hazy green through the night vision goggles. She counted them. Four. The tallest one, Rif, had a body slung over his right shoulder. Sampson. They'd found him, but she couldn't tell if the hostage was dead or alive.
"Jo, Team A's back. Can you walk?" Her breath was rapid and shallow.
Not sure she believed him, given he was on morphine. She was strong for a buck thirty lightweight, but couldn't run while carrying over two hundred pounds. They'd be an easy mark for the rebels.
Rif's team had reached the ridge.
"Stand up, Soldier."
Johansson groaned. "My wife’s going to kill me."
"No time for marriage counselling." She helped him to his feet. He stumbled, unsteady in the mud. She wrapped his arm around her shoulder, supporting his weight. "Let's get you home, Papa-To-Be."
The faint sound of incoming rotorwash spurred her. They only had a few minutes to reach the clearing.
A burst of nearby gunfire startled her. She looked up, prepared to shoot, but she recognized Rif’s lanky frame running across the ridge. He joined them behind a massive tree. Rain had smeared the black camo paint, giving his face a sinister look. "Team A's headed back to the clearing with Sampson." He slung his rifle across his back and hoisted Johansson over his shoulder. "Cover me."
She stormed after them, heart and rifle on full auto. The rebels dove for shelter as she and Brown laid down suppressing fire. She shouted at Brown. "Chopper!" All of her teammates needed to be on the Hughes before she would jump in.
The three of them sprinted for the clearing as another onslaught of bullets barraged the surrounding trees. She used a large mangrove for cover and returned fire, giving Rif time to help Johansson to safety.
She zigzagged across the open field. Her chopper rested in a valley a hundred meters away. The other Hughes holding Team A and Sampson lifted off into the rain. Bullets whipped by. A sharp sting flared in her arm as she plowed through the thick underbrush. She ignored the pain and ran faster.
She scrambled down the gorge and dove inside the chopper. Johansson, Brown, and Rif were already on board. She ripped off her night vision goggles and grabbed her headset.
"Go!" she yelled at the pilot.
The winds gusted from the east, which meant they had to power up while heading straight into the barrels of the rebels’ AK-47s. The rotorblades strained as a group of armed men ran toward the Hughes. Come on, come on. Her fingernails dug into her palms. They plunged straight into live fire like a flying piñata.
She kept her gaze straight ahead, willing the chopper to reach 60 knots so they could turn. Seconds felt like hours as they finally accelerated and swerved away from the camp. She glanced into the cockpit. The pilot's shirt was soaked.
Rif glanced at the blood on her sleeve. "You hit?"
"Just a graze." She stared at the holes in the fuselage, realizing just how close a call it’d been—and how Rif changing the plan mid-mission could have cost her teammates their lives.
"Is Sampson okay?" After all this, she prayed the hostage was alive.
"He's dehydrated and a bit roughed up, but he'll make it."
"Amen for that." Saint Barbara had done her job again. Thea slumped against the fuselage, grateful the rebels didn't have an RPG. She checked her phone. As expected, the intense stress had skyrocketed her blood sugar levels. But the insulin would counteract that soon enough.
She inhaled a deep breath. Another hostage safely returned by Quantum International Security. Looks like she’d make Papa’s party, after all.