Perched on the easternmost outcropping of a cliff overlooking the red zone, I watched for glimpses of movement through the canopy as my ground team stealthily converged on our target. My cheek was pressed against my rifle, my breathing slow and steady, and my heartbeat controlled. I peered through my telescopic site as my ears caught the microscopic splat of a single bead of sweat that slowly made its way from my temple down my cheek and struck the dirt below.
Located deep in the Amazon jungles of Brazil, we had less than four hours to complete our mission by retrieving our target and arriving at the evacuation point. There, we would catch a ride on the Huey out of this hell hole.
Through my telescope, I watched for unusual movements and tracked my team as they crept silently over the tree roots, rocks, and abundant vines and brambles that covered the jungle floor. The team accepted the challenge without question, but I had no doubt some were grumbling silently to themselves as they approached the red zone.
My spotter and best friend Ben focused a directional microphone on an old blue shipping container strapped to the flatbed of a semi, barely visible through the scrub. “Boss, prisoners in place.” He cocked his head, listening hard to the sounds within before activating the team frequency. “Alpha team, prisoners 600 yards ahead in a metal shipping container.”
I could picture the prisoners huddled together in the metal box, roasting under the harsh tropical sun. It must have been hell in there.
“Boss, patching the mic through to you.” I didn’t move anything but my eyes. My silence acknowledged I’d heard him. We immediately focused on the sounds inside.
The sounds of misery were horrifying as we had to sit and listen to the pleading, moaning, and crying of the trapped children. Through my earbud, a teary young voice asked, “Do you think they will let us out soon?” He sniffled through his tears.
“Shhh… don’t let them hear you!” a second, slightly older voice admonished.
My spotter interrupted the misery. “Boss, based on the number of distinct voices and the ones we have seen enter and exit the space, I count six different people in that container.
The young voice would not be silenced. “But it’s so hot!”
“Keep your voice down! You know the hotter it gets, the closer to noon it is. That asshole guard only lets us out at noon and midnight on the dot.”
“The best ten minutes of the day.” The young boy sighed, as if resigned to the slow torture, and the two were quiet again.
“11:58, boss.” We synchronized our watches at the start of the operation, maintaining a strict schedule until the job was complete. After watching the kidnappers for 72 hours, it was apparent they played by the same rules. They opened the box for exactly ten minutes at noon and midnight, at which time security was tightened, and all the kidnappers converged on the clearing. That made it the perfect time for us to strike.
“You boys know the play. As soon as the last one’s out of the box, we move in.” We had two minutes until go time, and Ben kept us on track.
Each voice on the team rumbled across the airwaves, confirming its understanding. As the seconds ticked by, we maintained radio silence. Our breathing slowed, and we focused inward. Adrenaline honed our naturally sharp instincts as we embodied our personas as elite killing machines.
At precisely noon, the guards opened the doors to the giant steel box. Barefoot, the prisoners shuffled in a line out of the container and toward the back of the truck. A loop of rough hemp rope around each neck connected them and prevented them from escaping.
Their captors surrounded the kids as they lifted their faces to the sun. Tied together, the children and teens could only shuffle a few steps before running into the ring of armed men who stood side by side, leaning against trees, smoking, and fidgeting with their weapons. A man wearing thin-rimmed glasses stood by the open door of the container. I could see him move his lips, and his eyes began flicking between his clipboard and the weary line of resigned prisoners as they trailed back in. Seemingly satisfied that all was well, he swung the door closed behind the last one, a small boy no older than six.
Captives safe but the door still unlocked, I took site on the man in glasses, placing the center of the X right between his eyes. I slowly applied pressure, tightening my finger on the trigger, and exhaled gently. Holding my breath, I stilled completely for a moment and then pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell, striking the firing pin, igniting the powder, and sending the lead bullet down the barrel. It soared across the clearing, and a dark spot appeared between the guard’s eyes. His glasses flew off, and his head exploded in cloud of pink mist. Then the crack of the shot reached my ears.
“Alpha team, move in and begin stage 3.” Releasing my mic, I broke down my rifle, my moves practiced and fluid.
Behind me, all hell broke loose. The clearing erupted with the sounds of battle. I turned back and spotted several of the captors frantically looking for cover. None survived. My men sighted and fired on them in rapid succession.
“Roger, Alpha team out.” Thirty seconds later, my rifle was slung across my back. Ben and I exchanged glances, and he resumed watching the operation. I took off down to the clearing.
“Boss, six bad guys down.” I could hear my team in my ear as I ran, approaching the clearing just as the battle ended.
“Identify the target and acquire the package.” I keyed my mic. “Extraction in seven minutes.”
I swung into the silent clearing where my team stood over and checked the vitals of each man on the ground. I approached the storage container, unable to hear a single sound even though I knew it was full of children. My hand trembled as I reached for the handle. When I pulled, the door swung open with an audible screech.
I came face to face with a small boy standing quietly in the opening. Barely six years old, tear tracks streaked his dirty face and left clean lines peeking through filth. I reached for him to lead him out, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the dark interior. I could barely make out the others huddled inside.
Leo elbowed me out of the way as I stood holding the boy’s hand. He entered the container, gun at the ready as he called for Alissa.
“Alissa? Which one of you is Alissa?” A pre-teen girl stood and raised her hand. Her clothes were torn and soiled, and her stringy hair hid her bruised face.
Leo pulled a photo out of his vest and held it up next to the girl. Pushing her hair aside, he shined his flashlight on her. “Alpha team confirms. Target acquired.”
He looked over at me as he keyed his mic. “Package in hand. Alpha team heading out.” Less than two minutes from the time they entered the clearing, my men had found the girl we were hired to retrieve. Leo hoisted her up over his shoulder and took off at a dead run. My other three men freed the remaining five captives. Two of the pre-teens took off into the jungle, never looking back.
“Boss, two captives did a runner. You want me to go after them?” Ross asked.
“Negative. Take the kids you can. Leave the ones you can’t. Evac in T-minus five minutes.”
“Roger. Alpha team out.” I passed off the boy, my hand feeling strangely empty as I handed him over. My remaining three men each tucked a child under an arm and took off after Leo. The four ran single-file at top speed away from the death and destruction we had wrought.
Ben and I stayed behind—standard operating procedure for us. We erased all signs of our presence, our actions effortless. The dirt and leaves looked completely undisturbed.
He joined me in the clearing, and we shouldered our packs and silently faded back into the jungle. I set a six-minute-mile pace designed to intercept my team at the halfway point. My right leg ached, but my steps never faltered as we closed the distance.
The low thump of the chopper’s blades rustled the leaves around us as we reached the extraction point. I raised a fist, my hand signal halting the team’s progress. I entered the clearing alone, my approach cautious as I searched for danger before releasing the others. We converged on the Huey, and Ben and I jumped in before reaching down to take the girl. Then Ben strapped her in, and we loaded the other five kids with the rest of our team.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
I hammered on the roof of the Huey, signaling to the pilots we were ready to go, and they quickly lifted us up and out.
It wasn’t until we were out of enemy territory that I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Operation Enigma was complete.