Today's Reading

They hear a scrambling and the squeak of rubber soles on tile, and four of their mates burst out of the house, sweating, all dressed much like Dez and Rafik. Two of them are carrying a filing cabinet horizontally, like a coffin. They thump it down none too gently, draw their Belgian FN Minimi assault weapons, which are strapped to their bodies by leather cords. Two men stand and scope out the compound; two take a knee, eyes to their gunsights, and do the same.

One, a surly Basque, hunkers over, fists on his knees, dragging air into his lungs. Sweat pours off his face. He has a puckered scar running from his hairline, down his left cheek, to the point of his chin. He rasps, "Got it."

"Most excellent, squire." Dez, in fact, has no idea what it is. None of his business.

Fourteen went in, and so far five have emerged. Nine have not.

Rafik eyes the four newcomers. "You were with her. Where is she?"

The four shrug. The her in this case is the shot-caller from elsewhere for this little caper. They do not know her name. They do not know where elsewhere is. They do not know why she gets to call the shots, but they accept that she does. Well, most of them do.

The unidentified woman provided the details and the intelligence. She set the objectives. She established the definitions of win for this job.

One of the guys wipes blood off his lower lip with the back of a gloved hand and spits a pinkish gob on the oyster-shell walkway. He says, "The intel was shit."

Dez laughs. "The intel's always shit, sweetheart."

"Fucker's soldiers are supposed to be in Algiers."

Dez nods. So they'd been told. Oh well.

Two more of their group step out of the house and one of them, a Swede, has been shot in the thigh. He's cursing a blue streak. He's holding a hard drive the size of a hardback novel, two wires still dangling from the back of it, showing copper, ripped rather than disconnected from one of Djamel M'Bolhi's computers. The Swede waggles it in the air, shows Dez he has what he went in for. Plus, apparently, a bullet. His left fatigue pant leg glistens black in
the darkness. 

Seven out, seven still inside.

Rafik eyes the big red double gates of the walled compound. "They be on us soon, chef."

Dez sits and says, "Them lot? Nah."

Outside the compound, seven Jeeps have arrived and two dozen armed men are dismounting. Dust roils and swirls in the air. Their radios crackle, telling them of the assault on their master's compound. One of the leaders of the group marches up to the great iron handles of the red double gates of the compound wall, grips them both in calloused fists, then screams, his body in spasm, swirls of smoke escaping his palms. His body stands, rigid, long muscles locked, a
rictus of death transforming his face into a carnival mask.

Dez points to the car batteries that he's attached to the gate. Nobody on the outside is going to be opening those gates by hand. And Djamel M'Bolhi, that most paranoid of criminals, has hardened the gates so much that it would take a tank to knock them down.

The Basque spots the jerry-rigged trap. "You do that?"

Dez bunches up the right sleeve of his shirt and proudly displays the tattoo of Janus, the two-faced Roman god, on the inside of his forearm. He thrusts a chin toward the thick stone wall. "Doors an' gates, friend. Doors an' gates."

Three more of their team come scrambling out of the great house. One is wounded, hopping on one foot, supported by the other two. They carry an attaché case with a digital lock and half of a built-in handcuff.

The Basque says, "We got to go."

Dez says simply, "Can't."

Fourteen entered. Ten out. Four to go.

"Got what we came for. The boat's waiting."

Dez nods. They'll be heading due north via a small fishing boat, set to rendezvous with a larger boat steaming their way from the Spanish city of Adra.

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