that it hadn’t been booby-trapped, which would make their life easier.

There was a metal cage around the staircase that led to the upper floors and the three-man demolition team hurried over to it and began attaching charges while the rest of the Seals cleared the ground floor. There were four rooms including a kitchen and a bathroom, a sitting room with an old-fashioned television and karaoke machine, a bedroom with single beds. The Seals were thorough, opening all the cupboards and overturning the mattresses.

When they were satisfied that the ground floor was clear they moved to the far end of the hallway while the demolition team finished attaching the explosive charges.

Shepherd walked up to the house with Henderson in tow. Behind them Henderson’s team fanned out, covering the upper floors of the house with their M4s. Shepherd stared down at the dead man and woman on the patio. Blood was still pooling around the woman’s chest as she lay face down on the tiles. ‘We’re shooting women now, are we?’ he asked.

Henderson gestured at the AK-47 by the dead man’s feet. ‘What do you call that?’

‘You’ve been around as long as I have, Guy,’ said Shepherd. ‘The only shots we’ve heard have been fired by suppressed M4s. No AK-47s have been fired.’

‘Maybe that’s because we got our defence in first.’

‘Yeah, well, that doesn’t explain the woman. When did Seals start killing women?’

‘We can’t take any chances — under those baggy clothes she’s wearing she could be rigged up with a suicide vest.’

‘It’s a nightdress,’ said Shepherd scornfully. ‘It’s well after midnight. They were in bed and they came out to see what was going on.’

‘With an AK-47?’

‘Guy, mate, you’re from Texas. I’m betting you’d have a gun in your hand if you heard noises in your garden late at night. We’ve just crashed a bloody helicopter in theirs.’

They heard two dull thuds from inside the house, small explosive charges. Shepherd looked across at Guy, wondering if he’d been right about the suicide vest.

Henderson read his mind and shook his head. ‘That’s C4. Our guys are blowing the staircase cage.’

Shepherd nodded. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, and he headed inside. Henderson hurried after him.

Croft pulled open the mangled mesh cage and led the charge up the stairs. As he got to the halfway point he saw a man peering round the corner at the top and he pulled the trigger of his M4, sending a bullet smashing into the wall inches away from the man’s ear.

The man jerked back. Croft had recognised him from the photographs they’d studied back in the States. It was Bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son. He’d been seen in the compound most mornings lifting weights and doing push-ups.

Croft ran up the stairs just in time to see the man reach the end of the hallway. He fired again as the man turned but his shot went wide. Croft cursed, then he flinched as a gun went off behind him, two shots in quick succession. Seal Bravo. Both shots hit the man in the chest, just above the heart, and he fell backwards, hit a wall and then slid down it, his eyes wide and staring as blood spurted from the two wounds. He was one of four adult males that the Americans knew were living in the compound. Now three of them were dead.

The Seals piled up the stairs and began clearing the rooms. There were four, including a foul-smelling bathroom. They found two women hiding under a double bed in one of the bedrooms and roughly patted them down for explosives before one of the Seals hurried them out and down the stairs. They screamed and cursed and spat at him every step of the way.

The stairway leading up to the top floor was caged too and the demolition team went to work, attaching charges to the metal frame.

Shepherd ducked as he heard the shots, then smiled ruefully as he realised that it was his instincts that had taken over. The gunfire was upstairs. Then he heard rapid shouts and Arabic cursing and saw two middle-aged women being pushed down the stairs by one of the Seals. The women were both in their fifties, with weathered skin and bad teeth and hooked noses peppered with blackheads. Their faces were contorted with hatred and one of them spat at Shepherd as she went by, then screamed something at him in Arabic.

‘Nice,’ said Henderson. ‘Something about your mother.’

‘Hearts and minds,’ said Shepherd sarcastically as he wiped away the phlegm with the back of his hand.

‘We tend to find shock and awe works better,’ said Henderson. ‘We don’t have time for please and thank you and tea and crumpets. And don’t think for one moment that those bitches wouldn’t blow you away in a heartbeat if they were the ones with the guns.’

They went up the stairs to where Croft was watching the demolition team attach their charges.

‘You guys get down the hallway,’ said Croft. ‘We’re just about to blow the cage.’

Henderson put a hand on Shepherd’s shoulder. ‘Come on, we need to get away from the charges.’ He pushed Shepherd down the hallway. They almost stumbled over the dead man lying there. Fresh blood glistened greenly through Shepherd’s goggles, a slightly darker green than the man’s T-shirt. Two black dots showed where the bullets had struck home. Shepherd looked around the floor but there was no sign of a weapon.

He ducked involuntarily as the explosive charges went off.

The charges had wreaked havoc on the cage around the stairway, mangling the metal frame and twisting the hinges, but it was still in place and blocking the stairs. Tommy and his number two on the demolition team grabbed it and pulled hard. It came away from the wall and they dragged it into the hallway.

Croft led the charge up the final staircase. As his feet pounded on the concrete steps a door opened on the top floor. Croft caught a glimpse of a bearded man and then the door slammed shut.

He reached the top floor, hurried along to the bedroom door and paused for a second for the rest of his team to join him. He stepped to the side and Seal Delta kicked the door hard, just below the handle. The jamb splintered and the door crashed open.

Croft went in first, just as they’d rehearsed, bent forward to keep his centre of gravity low, his carbine sweeping the room. One step into the room then a quick shuffle to the right so that the next man had a clear view.

There were three targets in the room. There was a man standing by the bed. A craggy face with a long straggly beard. Two women, both wearing long cotton nightgowns.

The women began screaming in Arabic. The younger one took a step towards the Seals, her hands curved into claws, her face contorted with hatred. ‘Neek Hallak!’ she screamed. Croft knew enough Arabic to know that she was telling them to go fuck themselves.

The older woman stepped to the side, putting herself between the soldiers and the old man. Her husband. They were both his wives, and both would die to protect him.

Seal Charlie shouted at the younger woman. ‘Shut the fuck up, bitch!’

The woman continued to scream at the Americans in Arabic, shaking her fist, her eyes blazing. Then suddenly she charged at Seal Bravo, wailing like a banshee. Seal Bravo lowered his aim and shot the woman in the left calf. Her leg collapsed and she staggered against the wall, her screams of anger turning into howls of pain.

The older wife grabbed hold of the injured woman and she too began to curse. Seal Charlie let his weapon fall on its sling and he dashed forward, shoving the two women against the wall.

Croft brought his gun to bear on the man, who was still standing next to the bed, a look of quiet serenity on his face. There was no fear, no anger, just blankness as if he couldn’t comprehend what was going on around him. Croft raised his weapon, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Off to his left, the injured woman had slumped to the floor, blood streaming from the wound in her leg, and the second woman was trying to stem the flow with her nightdress. Croft was barely aware of the women; he was totally focused on the man in front of him. Two more Seals moved into the room, their M4s sweeping left and right.

The man was still raising his arms, and now he stood almost as if he was crucified, his palms open, fingers extended. His eyes stared blankly at the soldier and a smile slowly spread across his face. It was the smile of a man at peace with himself. Croft pulled the trigger and a small dark-green rose blossomed in the centre of the man’s chest and his whole body shuddered, and even before he began to fall Croft fired again, this time at the man’s face. The bullet blew away most of the man’s skull above the eyeline, splattering blood, brain and bone over the wall behind him. The target fell backwards on to the bed, his arms still outstretched.

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