“I spoke to Sijad!” Madari said, yanking the door open as Jahni approached it fumbling for his keys while carrying two bags of groceries.
“Great.” Jahni dropped the keys back into his pocket. Madari took a grocery bag from him and turned back inside. Jahni followed him to the kitchen.
“He’s in Cyprus,” Madari said. “Remember his sister married a Cypriot? Sijad’s been working for his brother in law. But he agreed at once to come on the mission.”
A week had passed since Jahni proposed the idea, and it had been like dropping a snowball at the top of a mountain. He was being swept along in the avalanche of Madari’s plans. Plans he’d clearly been making well before Jahni said anything. When he got on a roll, he could put together an operation faster than anyone except Hannibal.
“That’s almost thirty ex-Royal Guard, most of them from the Special Forces unit,” Madari said, putting away groceries, barely looking at them. Jahni followed him and removed a carton of milk from a cupboard and put it in the fridge. He removed a can of peas from the fridge.
“Should we be taking anyone who isn’t Special Forces trained?” Jahni asked. “I know Sijad was a good soldier, but he hasn’t been in combat for years.”
“Being my driver did rather put him in the line of fire.”
“And will thirty men be nearly enough?”
Madari scowled. “This was your idea.”
“Not to go on a suicide mission.”
“Kahil, we can’t wait too long. She might be executed any day. They’re probably torturing her right this minute.”
“I know.” Jahni sighed. Ride the avalanche. “But we need more men. Or rather, what we really need are officers.”
Madari nodded and poured them both coffee. They took it outside onto the deck and sat at the table.
“You’re right, Kahil. And that’s why I’ve been thinking we should talk to the A-Team about joining us.”
Jahni shook his head at once. “No way. It’s not their fight. They only met her once or twice and…I hate to say it, but they’re too old. They’re not fit enough.”
“Face and BA are no older than me. And I’m not fit enough either.”
“You could always stay behind.” Madari’s expression told him the chances of that were about the same as a snowstorm out of the bright blue sky over their heads. He tried another tack. “But you won’t stay behind, you’ll be there in command. And if Hannibal is there, he’ll want to be in command. Two colonels on one operation is one colonel too many.”
“Hannibal is not some strutting egotist. He’s made way for me before, when we were on my home turf. His tactical experience can only help us.” He shrugged. “Or he doesn’t come and the others do.”
“No chance. They’re a unit.”
“I know.” He sighed. “Kahil, I’ll be honest. It’s not the team I want, it’s Murdock.”
“Ah.” None of the unit’s pilots had escaped Qumar. They probably hadn’t survived. Had probably been murdered in the coup by men loyal to that traitor Kotekar.
“We need an experienced combat helicopter pilot.” He raised a hand as Jahni started to speak. “No, you don’t count. And anyway, you’ll be needed on the ground.”
“Would the team even want to do it? They don’t know Alex and, whatever her motivation, she committed a deliberate murder. They might balk at that.”
“I know. I’m hoping they’ll want to go in order to help us, not so much for Alex. And maybe for the adventure.” He smiled, but Jahni didn’t return it.
“Some adventure if they’re killed or captured. Do you want to have to explain that to Maggie? Or to Mrs Baracus?”
Madari grimaced. “Of course not.”
“America would be too small for us after that. I wonder if Karen’s offer to marry me to get me into Australia still stands? You can marry her aunt.”
“Please, Kahil, this is serious.” Madari leaned over the table. “But you have to agree, or I won’t pursue it. You’re going to be the one leading the force on the ground. If you don’t think you’d be able to rely on them, say so.”
Jahni sat for a while, considering it. Were the team so out of shape? Face and BA were partners in a small health club and made full use of their facilities. Murdock never seemed to age, and certainly had all his old flying skills intact. Hannibal might have to stay on the edges, with Madari, but he still had the old steel trap mind. But, their reaction times must be slower, their eyesight and hearing less than it was.
“Remember, Face, BA and Murdock are no older than Hannibal was when we first met him and he was well able to operate at full capacity in the field.”
“Yeah, but…” Jahni grinned. “That’s Hannibal.”
“He’s a force of nature. I know. We’ll probably have to tie him up to keep him from leading the charge, if he agrees to come. But Face, BA, Murdock, they’re all just as remarkable. I’d trust any of them to back me up, even now.”
“Okay, you’ve convinced me, we should at least ask them. But I get the final say. If any of them don’t measure up, I reserve the right to dump him from the squad.” He drank some coffee as Madari stared at him. “What?”
“Oh, nothing. Just wondering if that’s the bravest or the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
Dump one of the team from the squad. Now he thought of it, he’d rather face a tank armed only with a can opener.
The avalanche tumbled on. Madari set up a meeting with the A-Team for the next evening and meanwhile, he and Jahni spent the time booking accommodation in LA for the men flying in from all over the world.
Jahni did what he could to help, but began to feel frustrated about two things they lacked. Money and intel. He couldn’t plan an attack when they didn’t yet know where Alex was being held and what weapons they’d need to get to her.
He was worrying about this as he came back from his run the next morning, but forgot it all and froze when an Arab man dressed in a dark suit stepped out of a car parked in front of the house. A big man, making Jahni instantly wary. He stopped several yards away.
“Major Jahni?” He spoke in Arabic with an unmistakable northern Qumari accent. A countryman. But a friend or foe? “I have a message for you.” He had an envelope in his hand, held it out. “I was going to post it through the door, but I only just arrived as you returned.”
“Who’s it from?” Jahni asked, not making a move to take it. They’d had death threats before, though never hand-delivered.
“I work for Prince Zahir.”
Zahir? Jahni gasped and sprang forward to snatch the note. At once the messenger got back into his car, and drove away. Jahni made no move to stop him. He tore open the envelope, read the note inside then ran back into the house.
“Faris! Wake up. Get up. We have an appointment!”
An hour later they were heading out in the car, Madari at the wheel.
“I don’t trust him,” Madari said.
“Nobody trusts Zahir. But he must have a good reason to ask to see us.”
He hadn’t contacted them for months and Jahni had been glad about it, knowing Zahir had plans to retake the country, and not wanting Madari involved. America was their home now. Had Zahir simply realised he wasn’t going to persuade them to help him, or was it something else? Had he learned about their relationship and knew they were useless as allies? But he might still be a useful ally, for this mission at least.
“There’s a good chance he can tell us where Alex is being held,” Jahni said.
“There’s a good chance Zahir sent her on this mission.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me.”
Madari glared at him for being so reasonable and stayed quiet the rest of the drive as he negotiated the morning rush hour traffic.
The same man who’d delivered the note met them in the lobby of a five-star international chain hotel and gave them a key card and a slip of paper with a room number.
“Wait in the room,” he said. “You will be contacted.” He melted away into the crowd.
“Well this isn’t at all suspicious,” Madari said as they rode up in the lifts. He snorted. “Of course I should have know he wouldn’t meet us anywhere he might be seen
talking to pair of deviants like us.”
Jahni frowned at the bitter tone in his voice. “He’s probably being security conscious. Even if we’re not watched by the enemy I’d bet he is.”
“Maybe he wants to eliminate any embarrassing former allies. Allies! To think, doing business with that traitor.” He muttered various imprecations, but Jahni wasn’t listening. Zahir wouldn’t call them to a luxury hotel to murder them, would he? Though a man capable of attempting to slaughter his family members wouldn’t think twice about killing two former reluctant allies.
Jahni wished he had a gun. He did have a knife, rather a nice hunting knife he’d picked up at a flea market he’d gone to with Murdock. He also had a cosh and pair of knuckle dusters he’d bought from a less respectable source. Madari carried only a small knife, but Jahni had seen him practice with it. He would do some damage if he used it for real. Nevertheless, Jahni wished he had a gun. Close quarters weapons did you no good if you were shot dead before you got within ten feet of your enemy.
They found “their room” and Jahni opened the door. “Wait here,” he ordered Madari before slipping inside. Madari didn’t wait. He followed Jahni in and didn’t seem to mind the blistering glare Jahni gave him.
“It’s more suspicious for me to be standing out in the corridor.”
“Fine. Don’t come running to me to kiss it better if someone garrottes you.”
He regretted the words as soon as he spoke. Meant as a joke, instead they brought uncomfortable silence. Since that strange night a few days ago, they’d done little in the way of kissing. Madari had come back to sleep in their bed the night after, but some instinct told Jahni if he made a sexual advance Madari would bolt again.
Madari turned away and closed the door. When he turned back the silence became longer and more awkward. The king-sized bed dominated the room, seeming to mock Jahni with its crisp sheets begging to be rumpled. If only they weren’t here on business. If only they were here to make the best use of this bed.
Neither of them went near the bed. Jahni perched on the windowsill and Madari sat in the chair in front of the dresser. They waited, saying nothing, the bed too loud for them to talk over. By the a soft knock came at the door five minutes later Jahni would gladly have opened it if a squad of assassins waited outside to murder them.
But it was only Zahir. Alone too, interestingly. His appearance rather surprised Jahni. He wore a Western style suit and tie, and no headdress. The suit was tailored, but Jahni wouldn’t call it “flashy”. He looked quite the respectable businessman, but not like the multi-millionaire Jahni knew him to be. Low profile.
“Gentlemen,” Zahir said, shaking their hands. “I trust you are both well.”
Madari rose to greet him and shook hands, but he regarded Zahir with undisguised suspicion. Jahni had lost most of his suspicion when he saw Zahir was alone. He hadn’t come to kill them. He’d always had others do the messy work.
“I don’t think you called us here to ask about our health,” Madari said.
Zahir glanced at the bed, its pristine undisturbed surface, and Jahni was glad he hadn’t even sat on it. Zahir probably assumed they’d filled in the time waiting for him by having sex. Chance would be a fine thing. Zahir sat in the chair Madari had vacated. Madari stayed on his feet, Jahni too, staying close to the door.
“Colonel,” Zahir said, “I won’t waste any more time. I know you are assembling a squad of former Royal Guard soldiers. I know Alex Black is your friend. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out you’re planning a rescue mission.”
Madari folded his arms.
“And you think you can stop us?”
“Why no, Colonel, of course not. I want to offer you my help. Even thinking of what that heroic young woman must be suffering appals me.”
Madari snorted. “Please don’t insult my intelligence. Alex means nothing to you. If you want to offer your help then it’s because you’ll gain some kind of personal advantage.”
“Perhaps,” Zahir admitted. “It would be a severe embarrassment to the so-called government, to have her snatched from under their noses.” He smirked. “From under the nose of that stunted rodent Defence Minister Kotekar.” He said the words ‘Defence Minister” as if they were profanities and the man’s name as if it were a blasphemy against the Prophet. Jahni almost smiled at the hatred in the tone. Perhaps Zahir had some passion driving him after all, not only self interest.
“You come to us looking for us to do a dirty job for you,” Madari said. “Even though you stopped calling on us for our support months ago.”
“You made it clear you weren’t interested in going home to fight.”
“And you found out why.”
“I have no interest in your personal life. I respected your wishes not to be involved in the struggle for our country.”
One couldn’t take anything Zahir said at face value. But Jahni didn’t know that it mattered. They wanted to go back, but they all knew it couldn’t be permanent, which probably suited Zahir fine. Madari had made a formidable enemy and an uncomfortable ally. Jahni couldn’t imagine Zahir wanted him back.
“Can we move on?” Zahir said. “My offer is genuine and has no conditions attached. I will fund your operation, provide you with all the equipment you need, arrange transport. Everything. More importantly, I will put you in touch with my agents back home. Yes,” he said, when they looked surprised. “Of course I have men working for the restoration back in Qumar. And gentlemen, even if you don’t need my money, you need my agents.”
“Why?” Madari asked.
“Because they know where she is. And you don’t do you?”
They couldn’t claim otherwise. It was the biggest gaping hole in their plan.
“Where is she?” Madari asked. “Or won’t you tell us until we agree to let you…sponsor the operation and take the credit?”
“Credit, blame, call it what you will. But, no, I’m not withholding the information. I’ll give it to you right now.”
“Then do it. Where is she?”
“Somewhere you’re very familiar with. Both of you. Why this will be quite a nostalgic trip for you. I believe it’s where you first met.”
The phone was ringing as they returned from the hotel and Madari hurried inside, snatching it up, with a breathless “hello?”
“Faris, it’s Clive. Did I get the time wrong, is it the middle of the night there?”
“No, it’s lunchtime. We just walked back in the door.”
“Good. Well, I did what you asked. Went to see Alex’s family. Have to say, old chap, you asked a lot there. Not an easy time for them, not easy for me to go there.”
“I know. I’m so grateful to you. It must have been awkward.”
“They had a policeman on the door. They’ve had death threats apparently. And the reporters keep on bothering them.”
Other people might have left their home and gone into hiding, but if her family was anything like Alex then he knew they’d be the type of people who’d hold their ground.
“I think my rank’s the only thing got me past the door. Good Army family you know.”
“Yes. I hoped that would give you an advantage.”
Drummond snorted. “That and I took Kibibi along. Have to have a heart of stone to resist her smile.”
“An excellent tactical move, Brigadier.” It made Madari smile even to picture it
“Gave me an in to talk about children, you know. Their grandchildren. Got the photo albums out. All Alex’s brothers have nippers of their own, but not Alex. I asked them outright, pretended I couldn’t remember if she had any, and they said no.”
“And there was no sign of a baby in the house?”
Madari sighed. “I don’t know that it makes much difference to anything, but I feel easier in my mind to have it confirmed.” If it truly was. The child could be with one of her brothers, or some other relative or friend Madari knew nothing about. Hidden from the danger of retaliation.
“Good people they were,” Drummond said. “Fine record of service. The British government is doing what they can for the family, but I can’t say I hold out much hope they’ll ever see the lass again.”
Madari wanted to contradict him, but couldn’t be sure of the security of this phone line.
“I know. It’s a horrible situation. We can only pray for her and do what little we can to help practically.”
“Yes…” Drummond sounded a bit dubious. No wonder; the words sounded like a stilted platitude. But Madari hoped anyone overhearing would believe them to be sincere. The only person he knew was overhearing was Jahni, who’d gone into the kitchen once he realised who was on the phone, but had come back, stood waiting for the call to end.
“I’d better go,” Drummond said. “Expensive call. Kibibi and Eshe send their love.”
“Send mine and Kahil’s to them. Thank you again, Clive. I appreciate you doing this.”
They said goodbye and hung up. Madari looked up at Jahni, leaning on the wall, arms folded.
“No baby?” Jahni asked.
“No baby,” Madari confirmed. “Assuming no baby at their home means no baby at all, then Alex lied to get the funding for their operation.”
“Or Mr Raian lied to us.”
“Does it matter?” Jahni asked. “I know it’s…intriguing, but does it make any difference?”
“It might have made a difference to whether we’ll be able to recruit the A-Team. If we could have said they’d be rescuing her to be reunited with her child.”
“Good point. It might have made the job easier.”
“Kahil, haven’t you noticed by now that nothing is easy?”
The team arrived one by one early in the evening and Madari and Jahni plied them with food and drink to soften them up, not mentioning a word of why they were really here. Only after dinner, when those who wanted them had brandy and cigars, did Madari nod to Jahni and then turn to the others.
“My friends, I’m afraid I have to confess to an ulterior motive in inviting you here tonight. Kahil and I are putting together an operation to rescue Alex Black from Qumar. We’ve already recruited thirty-two of our fellow Royal Guardsmen, all exiles like us, many of them Special Forces trained.”
The team exchanged glances, didn’t exactly look surprised.
“One serious problem we have,” Madari went on, “is a shortage of officers and even NCOs. You remember I told you about the tactic of killing the officers that Saifullah’s supporters followed during the coup. Almost no Royal Guard or Special Forces unit officers survived.”
“Spit it out, Faris,” Hannibal said.
Madari rather thought he was, he would normally have danced around the subject much more, working up to his sales pitch. Perhaps there was something to be said for Jahni’s bull in a china shop approach, when it came to dealing with Americans anyway.
“Very well. We would like to recruit all of you to the operation.” The reactions were as he’d expected. Murdock looked interested, keen, Face and BA more openly dubious, Hannibal barely reacted at all.
“Can I ask that you ‘spit it out’?” Madari asked after some silent exchanges of looks between the team. Hannibal spoke around his cigar.
“There’s no question she’s guilty. We all saw her on the TV.”
“She’ll be executed,” Jahni said.
“Gets a trial?” Hannibal asked.
“Do you really think she’ll be given a fair trial?” Jahni demanded in return. His voice was tense, rising in volume. Madari gave him a look that made him sit back and relax his tense shoulders a little bit.
“Not only will her trial be unfair, she’ll be tortured before it, probably has already been. Then she’ll be hanged. They’re carrying out a lot of hangings there. Do you believe they’re all are being done by executioners skilled enough to cause instant death?”
It took him back for a moment to the jungles of Zaire, the discussion about hanging or shooting Sefu, about how hanging a man – or woman – was a specialist’s job if it wasn’t to lead to a slow strangling. He could see the team understood what he meant.
“Or they might put her in front of a firing squad,” Jahni said. Madari winced at that. Three of the team had faced that scenario themselves, he didn’t like Jahni playing on those memories.
“I know Alex chose to carry out this crime willingly,” he said. “But she suffered so much loss at the hands of Saifullah I can’t find it in myself to blame her. I should have…I mean if I was still fit, I could have been driven to do the same myself, for the same motive, for the same people.”
“Saifullah didn’t personally kill her boyfriend though, did he?” Face pointed out. “Or Sophia and her bodyguard.” He grimaced. “Sorry, Faris. But I have to say it. He didn’t kill any of those people himself.”
“He gave the order!” Jahni snapped.
“You can’t be sure of that, not about the bombing anyway.”
They couldn’t it was true, though Madari had long ago convinced himself Saifullah had targeted Sophia and sent a man to kill her. As for the coup, the traitor who killed Raian had certainly been acting under Saifullah’s orders.
“That’s all true,” he admitted. “But he is ultimately responsible for the losses she suffered. I can’t fault her for her choice of target.”
“And he’s a dictator!” Jahni said, leaning in again. “People are being hanged, like Faris said. Or given lashes for violations of sharia law.”
“It ain’t her country,” BA said. “What you’re saying, only works if she’s gotta live there. She don’t. She didn’t have to go back.”
“And come on, kid.” Hannibal shook his head. “We all know her motive was revenge. I doubt she thought for a second about ridding the people of a tyrant.”
Jahni subsided in his chair, and slugged down the glass of fine brandy in front of him, doubtless offending Face’s sensibilities, Face giving him a dirty look.
“I think we should go,” Murdock said, speaking up for the first time. “I’m guessing you’ve got no pilots, right?”
Zahir could probably get them pilots, but none Madari trusted the way he trusted Murdock under fire.
“That’s right,” Madari confirmed. “I don’t think any of our pilots survived the coup. We’ve never managed to contact any of them since then.”
“Who’s fronting you the money for this?” Face asked. “Your men might be volunteers, but it’s going to take a lot of cash. You don’t have that kind of money, even if you sold this house.”
“We’re not selling this house!” Jahni sounded more outraged than he would have at the suggestion he sell a kidney to fund the operation.
“Prince Zahir is funding us,” Madari said, and hated to say it, saw their dubious looks at once. Unsurprising when three of them had been on the wrong end of a missile attack happening on his orders.
“I know,” Madari said, raising a hand, “I don’t trust him either, but he’s attached no conditions to this. I think he’s as grateful to Alex for what she did as Kahil and I are. I’m sure he has some kind of personal agenda, but for as long as it coincides with mine at the moment, I’m willing to deal with him.”
“Where’s Alex being held?” Hannibal asked, which made Madari smile slightly. It showed he was thinking about it, perhaps wanting to know the viability of the mission first. “I don’t fancy racing around the streets of Az-Ma’ir with a machine gun.”
“Zahir has agents in the country and they are tracking her movements. Right now, she’s at our old base in the desert.”
“Oh then we’ll definitely go,” Face muttered. “I’ve been dying for a return visit to that place.”
“They made it a prison again?” Hannibal asked.
“No, not technically. Only for very special prisoners.”
“Like presidential assassins.”
“Have they been moving her around?” Hannibal asked, looking thoughtful.
“Not so far. She was held in the city for a few days then taken there to await trial. It’s a secure facility, there’s no reason for them to move her again, especially by road where they might be ambushed.”
“Shame,” Hannibal muttered. “So with your thirty men, you’re going to attack a base you once held against three hundred?”
It was an uncomfortable question. “We know the camp as well as any man stationed there. And with elite troops, we might as well be double that number.”
“Overconfidence is a killer, Faris.”
Madari grimaced. “I know. I’m sorry. Of course it will be hard, that’s why I want you to help us.”
“You take Americans along and this has the potential to turn into a diplomatic incident,” Face said. “I think we’ve used up all the favours in Washington that helps us get out of those.”
“Can we have some time to talk about it, alone?” Hannibal said, nodding to Madari and Jahni.
“Of course.” Madari rose, gathering up the last of the dishes left on the table. Jahni did the same and taking them into the kitchen, they left the team to talk.
“Do you think it went okay?” Jahni asked. “Hannibal is so guarded, I can never tell.”
Madari knew him better, but even he couldn’t be sure if Hannibal was buying into the plan. “We can only wait and see.”
The source of the funding certainly seemed to worry all of the team. It worried Madari too, but he had no other choice if he wanted the best chance of success. He needed Zahir’s money and contacts.
They washed the dishes and Madari left Jahni putting them away while he took the garbage out. One of the cans was turned over and he righted it and put in a bag that had escaped. Back inside he went to the kitchen to wash his hands. Jahni wasn’t there, but the door to the deck stood open, letting in a cool breeze. Was he smoking a cigar out there? He’d developed more of a taste for cigars lately. They usually avoided smoking in the kitchen.
“Kahil?” He stepped onto the deck, took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark before he saw Jahni, talking to a figure that could only be Murdock. Jahni turned to Madari and his moonlit face had a distinctly guilty look. Murdock moved away with a nod at Madari and stepped back through the open door into the living room.
“What’s going on?” Madari demanded.
“Nothing,” Jahni said, “We were talking about the mission that’s all.”
“He had some questions?”
“He…Look, I asked him if he’d come even if the others didn’t.” Jahni’s guilty look turned defiant. “We need him most of all.”
“You approached him away from the others? Kahil, you said it yourself, they’re a unit.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he’d come alone. It’s worth asking.”
“You shouldn’t have asked him like that. It’s disrespectful to Hannibal.”
“How do you think I would feel if Hannibal tried to recruit you for a mission without consulting me?”
The defiance on Jahni’s face changed to anger. “Consulting you? Why do you have to be consulted about what I do?”
“Commander? Not any more, Faris. That’s the past.”
“I wasn’t going to say commander.”
“Whatever you were going to say I don’t want to hear it. I don’t need your permission to do whatever I want to do.”
“I thought we were a unit, like the team.”
“Are we, Faris? Are we?”
“Guys,” Murdock appeared at the French doors again, before Madari could ask him what exactly he meant by that. “Ah, sorry to interrupt. Come on in, we’re done discussing it.” He vanished back inside. Madari followed him, and heard Jahni make a small sound, almost a growl of frustration. Didn’t matter. They could talk later. This was more urgent.
He stepped into the room, Jahni behind him, shading his eyes from the lights for a second, before he could take in the looks on their faces. BA and Face looked grim, but Hannibal smiled and held out his hand.
“When do we leave?”