My stomach churned as I listened to the punches landing. My mind raced as I feared for what this could mean for our mission and our overall safety. I couldn’t help but think that DC put out lives in jeopardy. We needed to get out. We needed to run before it was too late. I tried to calm myself down before calling the other agents into the room. If they thought I was hysterical they wouldn’t take me seriously.
I stood at the door and peered into the living space. The three men I was on this assignment with were playing card and talking, oblivious to the news that I was about to deliver. “Hey, guys, can you come in here? We need to have a meeting.” Their heads turned my way and they nodded solemnly. My tone had been even, but I think they knew that by summoning them into the surveillance room that something was off.
I was the odd man out on this mission in more ways than one. I had never worked with these men previously, while they’d been on missions together numerous times. Gregory Neil was the eldest of the three. He had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and had been recruited while in college. David Hennings was the second eldest and was actually the least tenured on the team. His specialty was linguistics and had been the most successful in getting information from the villagers. The third member of the team was Zach Ackerman. He was my roommate since he was the only other married agent on this mission. Our cover was that he was my husband and I was following him on his religious journey. Zach was from Texas and worked hard to lose the twang. Although, when he got worked up, it was easy to tell where the boy was from.
While they had not been thrilled with the idea of working with me, they could appreciate the knowledge I had on Yusef and what I brought to the team. During our time in the house, we’d become close friends and trusted one another with our lives. They could tell from the expression on my face as they entered the room, that I had information that would change the course of our mission.
“I’m sorry I pulled you away from your game, but I think we might have a problem.” My eyes moved around the room and made contact with each one of them. “I’ve been listening to the audio feed and things are heating up at the compound. The gun shipment in Somalia was intercepted, DC confirmed via a transmission that they took action. But I knew about it before the transmission, Yusef came in and starting yelling at his team and is concerned he has a mole.”
The room was silent and I could tell that my words were weighing heavily on each man.
“Did he come out and accuse a member of his inner circle?” Ackerman asked.
“Not exactly. He asked if the villages that haven’t been paying for security are turning on him. He wanted to know who said what and to whom. When no one spoke up, he began to beat the crap out of the men in the room. I almost got sick listening to it.” I was honest with them, they needed to know the score.
“Shit,” Ackerman said as he raked his hand through his hair. “We need to get out of this village, like now. But we can’t leave Joseph behind.”
“I agree, we need to move on but exactly how do you anticipate getting him out?” Hennings asked.
Neil rubbed his hands up and down his face and then looked at me, “What else did you hear?”
“That’s all, but I think Yusef is going to seek retribution on the villages since he thinks they are a risk. The problem is, we have no idea which villages are in danger. We’re blind on this.” I started to pace and stopped to look back at Neil, “You know if Yusef thinks he has a mole he is going to be tight-lipped about any of his movements from here on out.”
Ackerman stood up, “I think we relay what you’ve heard back to DC and in the morning we pack up and hit the road. It’s getting dangerous, if we get caught in the cross-fire, we aren’t getting rescued.”
Hennings stood up and chimed in, “I’m with Zach on this one. I know our mission was to bring him down, but we’ve given details to get close, by now they’ve called in the cavalry. They can’t expect us to bring him in single-handedly.”
I didn’t want to agree with them, but I was going to. I didn’t like the heat being turned up on us, I was worried we might not make it out. I heard the tone of Yusef’s voice, I wasn’t willing to risk it by sticking around. “Why not leave now? Why wait until the morning?”
“If we leave tonight we have no visuals of the surroundings. We don’t have night vision goggles or anything, we could be ambushed. Not to mention it would be harder to look out for IEDs that have been recently buried. It’s safer if we leave in daylight. We can leave at first light.”
I turned in my seat and fired off a transmission to DC. An official notice that we were pulling the plug and moving on due to the volatility of Yusef and his threats against the villages. We were packing up the materials but would be leaving it behind in case we were captured. We’d be each wearing a device that could allow the Agency to track our whereabouts and help get us home.
As soon as the email was sent, I picked up the phone and called Simon.
~ * ~
Simon had been worried but agreed with the assessment of Ackerman and Hennings. He thought getting out was the best move. He wished he could send in the military to get us, but that would blow the operation and set us back. He did say, however, that if we left and moved southwest from the village, we’d be heading in the direction of a military camp. If we were to remain on foot, it would take a few days to get there. But if we could commandeer a car, we’d be there in a day’s ride. From there we could be flown home without an issue. I was so excited to hear that and I knew the guys would be elated.
I told Simon that I loved him and to tell Nick, Roger, and John the same. As I was preparing to hang up, I said something to Simon that I wasn’t expecting to say. “You know, I was wrong about something.”
“Hold on, let me write this down,” Simon joked. “What were you wrong about, bug?”
I could feel the tears beginning to prick my eyes. “I was wrong the way I handled things with Chris. I should have talked to him, I should have told him I loved him before he left.”
“You’ll tell him when he gets back. If his mom called to check on you, you could rest assured he hasn’t given up hope on your marriage. Maybe when you get back home you could turn your phone back on and maybe answer when he tries calling you.” Simon noticed I was quiet. “You’ll make it back home, Lauren. Quit inviting worry, you’ve realized there’s an issue, and you’re all getting out. Be careful, I’ll see you soon.”
I hung up the phone, I knew he was right. It does me no good to sit and get myself worked up. I went back to packing the electronics and making sure everything was good to go. Once we were out, we’d send a unit back to pick up our stuff, if the village survived. If not, nothing that was found here could be used against the United States. Everything was encrypted, we’d pulled the SIM cards with the data and had already destroyed them.
Ackerman was on sentry duty tonight while Hennings, Neil, and I tried to get some sleep. Ackerman had taken a nap during the day so he could be awake tonight. We had everything down to a science over the past four months or so. I never fell asleep first, and it was always hard falling asleep when Neil and Hennings took to snoring. We might not be in the same room, but the walls were thin enough that I could hear them clearly. They swore up and down that they didn’t snore, but I’ve got audio proof. I had been counting sheep and had started to doze off when I heard a noise followed by a thud. Before I could react, I felt a hand on my face and I was being told to ‘not fight.’
As I was pulled out of the bed and down the hall, I noticed Hennings and Neil were being dragged out of their room behind me. We’d been taken off-guard and had not been able to fight back. As we entered the small living room, I saw Ackerman’s body on the floor. I realized the thud I heard was the sound of his body hitting the floor. From the position of his body, I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. My blood ran cold, I knew what this was, and I knew there was a good chance I wasn’t going to survive.
We each had a device that was to act as a homing device. It was to help the Agency keep track of us when we were in the field. We were supposed to keep it on our person at all times. Mine was inside my bra strap, but I wasn’t sure where the guys kept theirs. I’d been able to activate mine when the man who had his hands on me let go and turned around for the briefest of moments. It wasn’t enough to let me fight back, but I could press the button without it causing a scene or raising suspicion. Now I had to hope that someone in the office would see that it was transmitting. Actually, I did more than hope, I prayed. I prayed harder than I had ever prayed in my life.
~ * ~
My head was killing me. I raised my hand and felt along the side of my head to the knot that had formed when one of the captors hit me with the end of a pistol. My vision was blurry and I was having a hard time focusing. Within a few moments, I was able to discern that I was in a small room and Neil and Hennings were on the floor next to me. There were three small mattresses on the floor, but that was it. There was a small window at the top of the room, well out of the reach of any of us. The door appeared to be a heavy wooden door, not a prison door or metal door. I was certain it was locked and there was probably an armed guard on the other side. I had no clue where we were, although I could guess that we were somewhere in the compound of Adnan Mohammed Yusef and we most likely would never get out alive.
Seeing that Zach Ackerman was not with us, I had to assume when the insurgents had overtaken the house that they’d snapped his neck to neutralize him. If that was the case, he was dead before he hit the ground and he thankfully did not suffer. It wasn’t much, but I knew that his wife would like to know that. It was something she could cling to, because, unfortunately, she’d never get his body back.
We were pushed out of the house and into the street to huddle with other villagers. Everyone had been roused from their sleep and we were all confused as to what was happening. I took a quick glance around and realized that all of the women had been hastily removed from their homes and were left without their traditional coverings. This was horrifying to them, but I knew it was so they could ferret out any western women. Yusef was confident that there were westerners involved in the attempts to take down his operation, so he was on the hunt.
The insurgent men, operatives for Yusef, began yelling, wanting to know why the village stopped paying for security. They wanted to know if the village was working against Yusef and if they’d been talking to the military. When the men of the village didn’t answer, they were shot. Every shot rattled me, I’d jump at the sound which would immediately be followed by the wail of someone in the crowd, most likely that person’s loved one. The buildings were torched, the heat from the fire was intense. I wondered what would happen next and I got my answer.
Hennings, Neil, and several other men were pulled out of the crowd and beaten within an inch of their lives. They were then hooded and thrown into the back of a truck, and driven away. I was pulled out along with several women. We were not touched, other than to have a hood placed on our heads and then led to a vehicle. We were helped into a transport truck, and then we heard the bullets ring out. I took that to mean that the remaining men, women, and children in the street were all gunned down. I wanted to be sick. I began to thrash about and fight to get free, that’s when I was hit. Everything went black, and now, here I am.
I crawl over to Gregory Neil and feel for his pulse. He was alive, although barely. He has bruises all over his face, and when I lifted his shirt, I could see boot marks on his torso. Evidently, the men took their turns stomping on him. I could feel the bile rising in my stomach, I begin taking deep breaths to keep myself from getting sick. I move over to David Hennings and find his body to be in similar shape as Neil’s. As I started to move back to my mattress, it dawned on me that I should check for their homing devices.
When our technical team first gave us these devices I balked, gently reminding them that we were people and not pigeons. “Homing devices are used to find wayward birds, you realize that, right?”
“Yes, Harrison, but they work extremely well for petulant agents, too.”
I took a deep breath and put my hands in Hennings’ pants pockets. I was glad he was passed out because this was awkward and probably bordered on sexual harassment. The device wasn’t in either pocket. I gently rolled him on his side and pulled his thin wallet out of his back pocket, hoping it would be there. Sure enough, tucked in the back was the device.
The homing device is about the size of a watch battery, flat and circular, with a push-button activation. Once you activate it, the signal will display on the screens in DC as a GPS coordinate and will move as the individual wearing it moves. They only stay active for a few days, so I hoped that someone was watching for them. With Simon knowing we had planned on escaping the village, it was a safe bet to believe they would watch for us.
Once I activated Hennings’ device, I moved over to Neil and repeated the routine. Although, with him, I actually started with his wallet. Figures, because he had his in his front pocket. Damn him! With all three devices active it should let DC know that there was a problem. Primarily because there are three, not four devices, and they are stagnant and not moving. I could also expect that the location on the map would not be anywhere near the military camp Simon had let me know about. I prayed one of the techs would see this information and get it to Simon or the Director right away. Although, the words from the Director came back to haunt me, “This is a black ops mission, that means if you are compromised or captured, your disappearance will not be acknowledged, and an extraction team will not be sent for you.”
I could only hope that the pull of Simon and Nick Harrison could help change the Director’s mind and could get my fellow agents and me out of this hell-hole.