as he wrestled with the butt. ‘Back to the gate! Back to the gate!’

We burst through the door at the far end and headed across the family courtyard. Screams and movement under the veranda. It was a cluster of bottle-washers. They ducked when they saw us.

I was half-way across when we started taking fire from the follow-up behind us. I stopped, turned, and returned fire into the passage doorway.

Jerry was to my right. He ran past me as I fired controlled shots, trying to stop them leaving the passageway.

I squeezed off two more rounds at the door before Jerry started firing.

I turned on the spot and ran, got about four paces past him, turned again and started to fire. ‘Move, Jerry! Move! Move!’

He didn’t need to be told twice.

He stopped, turned, fired.

I turned, ran, stopped, fired.

As Jerry came past me I squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. Dead man’s click.

I dropped the weapon and kept running. Jerry was already the other side of the door, using the frame for cover as he fired. I passed him, then headed down towards the checkpoint, hugging the wall. I couldn’t see any moving lights. But there were shouts ahead of me in the darkness.

I pulled the Thuraya from my parka and held it to my face. ‘Fire mission! Fire mission!’ Fuck the signal: if I got one, it’d work. I had to get down there to see where the fucking wagon was.

Jerry was not many paces behind me when we started taking fire. The follow-up were through the gate and putting some down.

I swung left and dived into the treeline. ‘On me, on me!’

I just kept going, crashing through the trees, trying to keep parallel to the wall. They ran down the gap, firing into the darkness, their muzzle flashes rippling across the tree-trunks.

We plunged on towards the checkpoint. With luck, the chicane was the only way out.

With no more than twenty metres to go, the follow-up got level with us. I stumbled and fell. Jerry stood his ground and opened up with long bursts. The noise was deafening. His white muzzle flash lit the darkness. Ejected rounds tumbled over my back.

I was still fighting to get up when Jerry let out a high-pitched scream. He collapsed on top of me, still firing, rounds going way up into the canopy before both he and the AK fell silent.

His blood was hot and wet on my face as I pushed him off me. The follow-up were still firing into the treeline, everywhere, anywhere; I grabbed him by the legs and pulled him deeper into the forest.

It wasn’t far, but enough to buy me time. I collapsed next to him. His breathing was rapid and rasping, spraying me with blood at each exhalation.

I ran my fingers over his chest and found the entry wound in his stomach. No need to feel for the exit. My hand slid into it as I turned him over.

More screams from the follow-up.

Jerry gripped my head with both his hands, bringing me down to him with the last of his energy. ‘Fucked up . . . sorry.’

I threw my arms round him and gripped hard as he jerked his last resistance. Seconds later, his body went limp. I checked his neck. There was no pulse.

The follow-up still fired blindly into the trees. They were covering the light I now saw moving out from the guest doorway.

I laid Jerry’s body down and scrambled forward. A vehicle was just pulling out of the gates, guys running all around it, shouting at each other. It was chaos. One of the headlights was shot out.

I kept low and tumbled through the undergrowth to the left, down to where the treeline met the chicane.

The wagon was coming down towards me. I couldn’t see if the target was inside or not.

It got closer and slowly negotiated the first hedgehog. The rear window was open. The target was talking to his protection as they ran alongside, even smiling at them as he pointed towards the follow-up. Then his head went back inside, and made itself comfortable against the headrest. The window powered up.

I looked down and checked the Thuraya. Fucking canopy.


I started legging it, paralleling the wall about twenty metres inside the trees. I needed to get out of the way, well past the family doors, right to the corner of the compound. I needed clear space.

I slipped and stumbled as I scrambled to make the distance. Torchlight now flickered between the trunks.

Fuck the follow-up. I got up and kept running. Aminute or two later, I broke out from under the canopy and made my way behind the rear wall. Kneeling in the grass, gulping down oxygen, I checked the Thuraya. Five bars.

One more deep breath to slow myself down.

‘Hello, this is Nick, this is Nick. Are you up there yet? Are you up there yet?’

Monotone came back. ‘Affirmative, Nick. We see your contact. We see your contact.’

‘In the forest, towards the metalled road – you have a vehicle. One headlight. You see it?’

It seemed to take for ever for the operator to manoeuvre the UAVs thousands of feet above me, their surveillance packages scouring the ground for heat and light.

The phone was glued to my ear. My chest heaved, thirsty for oxygen. I worked my jaw, trying to conjure some saliva into my dry mouth, my head spinning with dehydration.

‘I have it, Nick, I have it.’

‘Roger that. That’s your target. That’s your target. Acknowledge.’

He still spoke as if he was ordering pizza or talking to his granny. ‘Roger. We have a northbound vehicle towards the metalled road.’

‘Roger that. The activity at the front of the house, anything inside. Hit it, for fuck’s sake, hit it now!’

‘Roger that. You might wanna get your people back.’

‘Too late. Look towards the back of the house. You will see me, I’m waving my left arm. Do you see me? Do you see me?’

‘Roger that, we have you, we have you.’

‘I’m the only one. Follow the right-hand treeline. You see a body lying about twenty-five metres from the front of the house?’

‘Yep. Roger that. We have a body. We have a body getting dragged out. That’s three guys, three guys dragging out a body.’ He paused. ‘Target now free of the treeline, on the metalled road. Stand by, Nick. Here they come.’

I ran into the forest, then threw myself to the ground as two explosions rocked the front of the building. The shockwaves were soaked up by the buildings and the woods, but the ground trembled beneath me.

Then another, this time closer. Inside the compound.

The pressure wave pushed through the forest, bringing gallons of water down on me. My ears started ringing as I waited to hear a more distant hit on the vehicle.

Seconds later, it came, and another two seconds after that.

I hoped Nuhanovic was able to see a blur of red in the distant sky as the first Hellfire kicked off. He wouldn’t understand the significance, but it would mean a fuck of a lot to me.

I got back on my feet and turned to head deeper into the forest. I switched off the Thuraya. Best conserve power till I got to the wagon and called George to confirm the slaver was dead.

Not that he would give a shit about that, now. But I would.

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