By the time the helicopter settled on its skids, half its occupants were already out on the pad, duck-walking away from the disc. As the pilot cut power to the rotor, the leader of the group slid to the ground, lighting a cigarette as he paused by the door. He glanced up as his men returned with a stretcher, crouching over again as they ran up to the bird. Satisfied with their loading of the woman, he issued a few commands and then turned away, headed for a small building on the edge of the landing zone.
The door opened before he could reach for the latch, and he paused for a moment, wary eyes tracking around the compound and finding nothing out of the ordinary. He proceeded through the door and pulled it closed behind him.
"What did you find, Mahmood?"
The voice, smooth as silk, rolled toward him from the far corner of the room. The only light in the place emanated from multiple computer screens and one large flat-panel television. A movie played silently on the tv, a poorly made western starring unknown Pakistani actors. Mahmood glanced at it briefly, snorting, and turned his attention to the man reclining on a battered sofa that crouched against the wall. Guards stood on either side, sidearms holstered but clearly watching Mahmood's approach warily.
"What did you find?" The man sat up, dropping his feet to the floor and leaning forward impatiently.
Mahmood moved closer and kept his hands in sight. He drew a final drag from the cigarette and then stubbed it out in an ash tray next to an array of computer equipment. The young man shot him a dirty look which Mahmood ignored.
"I retrieved the woman. Of the two men who took her, one is seriously wounded and will not last more than another hour. The other will not last the night. If the cold doesn't finish him off, or the wolves," he allowed himself a tight grin, "we will take the chopper back. In the meantime…" Mahmood gestured to the young man and pointed at the big screen. A moment later, the movie pixilated and became a shot from a stationary camera of a black SUV on its side. A black man crouched by it, his back to the camera.
"Terrible focus." The voice, though gentle, hinted of retribution if the picture wasn't fixed. A second later it was.
The man was tending to another man trapped beneath the SUV. Surely dramatic music would have swelled in the background, instead there was the steady rush of wind.
"Very nice, Mahmood." The man caressed his goatee, eyes glinting behind his overlarge glasses.
"Thank you, sir. He doesn't know about the camera."
"I didn't think he would. You don't disappoint, Mahmood."
"Thank you." Mahmood inclined his head slightly, as much of a bow as he would permit the man, despite knowing his life was on the line at any moment's displeasure.
"You may go now. Please check the condition of my…prize. If these two look like that," the man pointed at the screen, "she may need medical attention herself."
"Yes, sir." Mahmood wasted no time backing out the door and vanished into the lengthening shadows of early evening.
The man settled back on his sofa, never once taking his gaze from the screen.