‘Come on, Dan. .’ said Henderson, putting his hand on Shepherd’s shoulder. He tried to move Shepherd away from Croft but Shepherd wouldn’t budge.

‘You could send a team over the wall at the side,’ said Shepherd. ‘If you go through the main gate you only get to the first courtyard by the guest house. You still have to get into the courtyard where the main building is. That’s going to slow you down. But if you send men over the west wall they’ll drop straight into the main courtyard and they could move around the west side of the house. If you come under fire they could deal with it.’

Croft took out a small laminated map of the compound and realised that Shepherd was right. But he still didn’t appreciate having his orders questioned. ‘Last time I looked that wall’s eighteen feet high,’ said Croft.

‘There’s a stack of oil drums over there by the cowshed and we can pull down some of the planks of wood. That and the ropes from the helo should get us over.’

‘That would work, Adam,’ said Henderson.

The two Seals stared at each other, looking for all the world like two giant insects about to attack each other, then Croft nodded. ‘Let’s do it,’ he said. ‘Leave four men watching the perimeter but take the rest over the west wall. And stay in radio contact; we don’t want any surprises in there.’

‘Roger that,’ said Henderson. He nodded at Shepherd and the two men ran back to the Black Hawk.

Croft paced up and down outside the gate. The ground was rough red dirt that had turned to mud in recent rain and it sucked at his rubber-soled boots. Tommy and his team had finished attaching four charges the size of cigarette packs at the four corners of the gate.

‘Ready when you are,’ said Tommy, running wires from the charges to a safe distance. Croft crouched down on one knee and turned his head away. ‘Fire in the hole!’ shouted Tommy, and he blew the charges. The gate fell inwards and slammed into the muddy ground.

Croft led the way, his boots thudding over the gate. His men followed. There was an alleyway some twenty feet long with another locked metal gate at the end.

Croft pointed at Tommy, and then at the gate. Tommy nodded and went forward with his demolition team. As they fixed charges to the second gate, Croft looked at his watch. It had been seven minutes since the Black Hawk had crashed. According to their game plan they should have been inside the house already. As it was they were still outside the residential part of the compound and whoever was inside would know that they were under attack.

There were two explosions and the second gate was down. ‘We’re almost at the outer courtyard,’ Croft said into his radio mic.

‘Roger that,’ said Henderson. ‘We’re just about to go over the wall.’

Croft led his team over the second gate into a courtyard. There was a small building to the left. It was a guest house, used by a fifty-year-old man and his family. At the far end of the courtyard was another metal gate. Croft’s heart was pounding and sweat was dripping down his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his left hand. He was finding it hard to visualise the layout of the compound. All the training had started with him doing a fast rope drop directly into the residential compound and then storming the building. Everything they’d done since the helicopter had crashed was totally new and unplanned. He reached into the top pocket of his tunic and pulled out the laminated map again. He stared at it, trying to get his bearings. According to the map, the third gate led to the inner courtyard and the house.

A three-man team headed by Seal Golf peeled off to secure the guest house as Croft waved at Tommy and pointed at the third gate. ‘Last one and then we’re in, Tommy.’

Tommy and his team rushed forward and started attaching C4 charges.

Henderson and Shepherd studied the platform that the Seals had built against the perimeter wall using oil barrels and planks taken from the animal compound. There were three barrels at the bottom with planks on top, then two more barrels on top of that. Standing on the top barrels they’d have to jump only a few feet before scrambling over the top.

‘They’re just about to access the inner compound so we need to go now,’ said Henderson.

‘I’ll go first,’ said Shepherd.

‘You’re here to observe,’ said Henderson.

Shepherd tied a rope round his waist. ‘It was my idea so it’s the least I can do,’ he said. He handed the other end of the rope to Henderson. ‘Just be gentle with me,’ he said. ‘Eighteen feet isn’t that big a drop but I don’t want to go breaking an ankle at this stage.’

Another Seal was also getting ready to go over the wall but Shepherd slung his MP5 on his back and beat him to it, clambering up on to the wooden planks and then carefully climbing on to one of the barrels. He reached up to the top of the wall, grabbed it with his gloved hands and dragged himself up with a grunt.

Henderson played the rope out between his fingers, keeping a careful eye on the Englishman as he straddled the wall and dropped down into the courtyard. Shepherd’s knees scraped against the concrete wall as Henderson lowered him down. As soon as Shepherd’s feet touched the ground he turned and reached for his MP5, checking that the immediate area was clear.

A small cat with a broken tail ran away but other than that the courtyard was deserted.

The Seal dropped down next to Shepherd, unhooked the rope from his waist and pulled it twice to let the man on the other side of the wall know that he was down. Shepherd did the same and the two ropes snaked back over the top.

The rest of the Seals came over the wall in pairs, with Henderson bringing up the rear.

‘We’re in the compound,’ Henderson said into his mic.

There was a burst of static then he heard Croft. ‘About to blow the third gate and then we’re in.’

Henderson motioned for his team to move forward.

‘Fire in the hole!’ shouted Tommy and the four charges attached to the third gate blew. The gate buckled but remained in place so Tommy and one of his team rushed forward and finished the job with two hard kicks.

The gate went down and the Seals stormed through into the inner courtyard.

A man appeared at a doorway, holding an AK-47. He was short, portly and bearded, wearing a long nightshirt. It was the courier, Croft realised, recognising him from the dozens of surveillance photographs they’d studied in North Carolina. Three red dots from the laser sights of the M4 carbines danced on the man’s chest then three shots rang out and the courier fell back, the AK-47 tumbling to the ground. There were screams from a woman and children inside the house as four Seals stormed in, stamping over the body in the hallway.

Croft looked round, checked that the rest of the Seals were ready, and pointed at the main house. ‘Here we go,’ he said. ‘Home stretch.’

As they approached the main house a heavyset man with a thick moustache appeared on the patio. Next to him was a middle-aged woman in a nightdress. The man was holding an AK-47 in one hand, and he was holding up his other hand as if telling the soldiers to stop where they were. The three-man unit to Croft’s left fired as one and three bullets slammed into the man’s chest. He slumped to the ground and almost immediately the woman’s face imploded as she was hit. Even with the suppressors the noise of the shots echoed off the courtyard walls as dull thuds.

Three small children ran out of the house screaming. The soldiers let them go, keeping their weapons trained on the entrance to the house.

Croft waved his men forward. ‘In we go,’ he said.

Henderson flinched at the sound of shots. ‘They’re taking fire,’ he said, ducking down into a crouch.

‘All suppressed M4s,’ said Shepherd. ‘And they weren’t from the house.’

They came round the corner just in time to see Croft and his men burst through the front door.

Shepherd looked up at the upper levels of the building. All the windows were in darkness. If the occupants had any intention of fighting back the best time would have been when the Seals moved into the compound. Then they’d have been firing from cover and with the advantage of the high ground. Now that the Seals were moving inside the advantage switched to the Americans. They were highly trained in close-quarter combat and the night- vision goggles gave them an extra edge.

Shepherd moved forward but Henderson held him back. ‘They go in first,’ said Henderson. ‘You’re an observer, remember?’

Seal Alpha moved through the hallway with his team, using their weapons to cover all the angles. They had spent hours practising clearing the mock-up house in Afghanistan, and the exercises had always included dealing with booby traps — tripwires, alarms and explosives. But the fact that there were children in the house suggested

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