By Don Mann
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Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Crocker of SEAL Team Six’s Black Cell is in Las Vegas after conducting a training exercise in the desert with new members of the team. Lounging by the pool at Caesar’s Palace, he witnesses an argument between hotel security guards and three Asian men in corporate attire that quickly turns physical. Giving chase, he soon corners the businessmen, who claim to be Chinese diplomats under the protection of diplomatic immunity. Except the men don’t respond when the head of hotel security — Crocker’s old friend — addresses them in Mandarin.
That night, someone hacks into the Nevada Power Company system, and Las Vegas goes completely dark. The businessmen set their hotel suite on fire and escape amidst the chaos. At the same time, James Dawkins, a brilliant scientist with top-secret clearance, disappears from a conference in Geneva and wakes to find himself in a North Korean bunker with instructions to solve an engineering problem that will enable North Korea to launch nuclear attacks on its enemies worldwide.
Chasing a trail of evidence that takes them from U.S. soil to international waters to China and North Korea, Crocker and the rest of SEAL Team Six find themselves in the middle of an international plot with dangerous geopolitical ramifications. The North Korean government will stop at nothing to realize its long-held nuclear ambitions — but it’ll have to get through some of America’s most highly trained warriors first.
Perfection is a road, not a destination.
It was supposed to be a quick snatch-and-grab. Raid the old farmhouse ten klicks east of the Donetsk airport, take Igor Fradkov, leader of the Russian rebels, and turn him over to Ukrainian authorities. According to Jim Anders of CIA’s Special Activities Branch, Fradkov’s real name was Sergei Sokolov and he was deputy director of Zaslon—a special operation (Spetsnaz) unit of Directorate S of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, SVR. Anders claimed the Russians were currently more active in opposing and infiltrating the West than they were during the Cold War.
That seemed obvious to Crocker, leader of Black Cell—a special deep-cover unit attached to SEAL Team Six/DEVGRU. The Russians under President Putin had already bitten a chunk out of independent Ukraine, seizing Crimea after the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Several months ago pro-Russian “insurgents” shot down a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER, killing all 283 passengers and fifteen crew members, using a Russian-built Buk missile system. Now they were launching attacks on cities in eastern Ukraine.
Recent developments had brought him here, kneeling on the ground behind a clump of bushes, the half-moon glowing beyond his right shoulder, clutching the stock of his specially modified AK-47. His goal: impeccable execution, which had become more difficult due to the number of vehicles parked outside—four, to be exact, two UAZ-452 jeeps, a newer GAZ Tigr, and a UAZ Hunter (a Russian-made version of a Land Rover) that supposedly belonged to Fradkov. Anders had told them to expect two, max.
They were told this would be a weekend getaway with Fradkov and his exotic-dancer girlfriend. He might have a personal bodyguard with him. But this was something else. What it was wasn’t clear right now.
All Crocker had observed so far were the four stationary vehicles and a lone armed guard wearing blue camouflage—which made him look like a cartoon character—sitting beside by the front door drinking from a bottle of vodka. So security sucked, which ruled out the likelihood of an important operational meeting.
What’s going on?
Crocker in his many deployments in the past ten years had asked that question many times. Realities on the ground were often different than those described in intelligence briefs. Part of what made him successful was his ability to take unexpected contingencies in stride. Simple might be better, but it wasn’t the norm in his line of work.
His right-hand man Mancini (alias Big Wolf) had deployed behind a stone well fifty feet left and close to the gravel path that formed an S leading to the farmhouse. The third member of the four-man team, Akil (Romeo), was out of view, having just slipped around the right corner of the rectangular structure. Suarez (Padre) hid behind a tree on the rear right, covering Akil with his AK.
They hadn’t brought microphones and surveillance equipment, which weren’t the usual tools of their trade anyway. They left those tasks to the Activity—the surveillance arm of U.S. Special Operations also known as the Intelligence Support Activity. They were tip-of-the-spear surveillance operatives who had helped track down drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in Colombia in 1993 and locate Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Activity guys weren’t going to help them this time.
Through his head mike Crocker asked, “Romeo, you read me?”
“Deadwood, loud and clear. Over.”
“What have you got in terms of visuals?”
“A half-naked chick dancing on a table. Out of her mind on coke and vodka, probably.”
Interesting, and typical Akil, distracted by a pretty girl. Correction: any female between the ages of seventeen and eighty. Interesting for another reason, too. It confirmed that this wasn’t an operational meeting. It appeared that Fradkov, their target, was “entertaining,” if he was there at all.
“Romeo, Fradkov, our target. Have you located him? Over.”
Is he even inside?
Some guys liked to spend their downtime with their feet up, drinking a beer and watching a football game on TV. Others preferred naked girls and orgies.
“Padre, Deadwood. You read me? What do you see?”
“Roger what Romeo said. Over.”
“Our target has close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Burly. Five-foot-ten. Deep-set blue eyes. Stop staring at her tits, and focus. Is he in the house or not?”
They had been told to expect Fradkov and his Ukrainian girlfriend—a tall ash-blonde named Katrina, like the hurricane. Maybe she was the one dancing on the table.
Something always went whack on every op. Crocker secretly liked it that way—the chaos, the rush of the unexpected challenge. The only easy day was yesterday. Haha, boom. Bring it on! Plans always changed the second the first round was fired.
Like a coiled snake ready to spring, he waited. Checked his watch. Five-point-five MOTs (minutes on target). Their PLO (patrol leader’s order) had allotted ten.
In his head he was trying to figure out how to create a diversion, snatch Fradkov, if he was there, without engaging the other soldiers and women inside, and get back to their vehicles, a 2002 Chinese-made ZAZ Forza sedan, and two Royal Enfield Bullet Electra motorcycles parked on the main road, three hundred feet past the ridge at Crocker’s back.
Only this morning the Russian “rebels” had attacked the airport and seized the eastern suburbs. Putin’s PR people put out a press release that described them as Ukrainian separatists, which was complete BS. These guys were Zaslon operatives dressed in hunting gear, armed with tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and automatic weapons. Cheeky bastards were now celebrating in the house.
The opening chords of “Start Me Up” ripped across the landscape and hit his ears. It was one of Crocker’s favorite tunes.
“Deadwood, Wolf. Sounds like someone invited the Stones.”
“Very funny. Has anyone established visuals on Fradkov?”
He and his estranged wife, Holly, had danced to it at their wedding. He pictured her for a second throwing her head back, her eyes filled with joy and even ecstasy. What was she doing now? He couldn’t be distracted into thinking of Holly but couldn’t help scratching that itch. All the mental discipline he had acquired frayed when it came to her.
She’d left two months ago and was living with a female friend in DC, Lana was her name—an athletic blonde beauty who had sworn off men after a series of bad relationships. What her sexual ambivalence meant in terms of Holly, he didn’t know. Tried not to speculate.
Some wise guy on Team 2 had made a remark shortly after the Leap Frogs—the Navy SEAL jump team—landed before the Ravens’ season opener about Holly turning lesbian. Crocker kept his cool until he left the stadium and followed the big dude into the parking lot. Pulled him out of his pickup and kicked his ass in front of fans with cell phones. Bad move.
He was called on the carpet. Agreed to pay medical expenses, damage to the vehicle, attend anger management sessions with the team shrink, and make a personal apology.
His CO, Captain Sutter, remarked, “I know you’ve got some issues with your personal life, but you’ve got to stay in control.”
Less than a year ago he’d broken into the apartment of a young woman who had been taking money from his father, and in the process assaulted a Fairfax County policeman who he’d caught smoking meth with her. Charges were still pending. He tended to take matters into his own hands, single-minded as he was, driven by a wild primitive energy. At least he knew that about himself.
Now he was here, peering through his NVGs, growing restless. The house and landscape all appeared in eerie shades of green. Light spilled out of the window, white. Everything like a weird, still dream, except for the young woman’s surprised scream ripping through the night air like a knife.
He heard his alias through the earbuds. “Deadwood?”
“Yo. Why’s the girl screaming? Pain or pleasure?”
“Unclear. Romeo’s at one o’clock.”
“See him. Thanks. Over.”
They’d gone in zero footprint. Canadian tourists from Toronto on a fly-fishing expedition to the Lyutyanka River. Nothing to identify them as Americans, including the gear they carried.
Akil arrived by his side and knelt there, followed by Suarez, the former smiling, wearing a black hoodie over his head, his hand holding a Glock, finger above the trigger guard, barrel down. Tall, square-jawed, muscular. Not what you’d expect when you imagined an Egyptian American. This one was into judo, Metallica, Mexican food, and off-road vehicles. Weekends he liked to take his tricked-out 2002 Toyota 4Runner and jostle his insides over Virginia trails with names like Rocky Run and Dictum Ridge.
“What’d you see?” Crocker asked him.
“Lots of female flesh and bottles of vodka. Man, those Russians know how to party.”
“Forget the party. You see Fradkov?”
“Rear left bedroom, getting his knob polished.”
“You sure about that?”
“Fradkov. Our target. Burly dude, five ten—”
“I know what he looks like. He’s in the back bedroom with some brunette.”
“Brunette? Not a blonde?”
“What the fuck does that matter?”
“The bedroom have a window?” Crocker asked.
“Yeah, two. One facing back, one looks right.”
Crocker nodded. “All right, here’s what we’re going to do.” He looked up at Suarez, the breacher on the team, and asked, “You got something to light up their rides?”
“Brought an RPG-7. It’s hidden in the trees beside Mancini. Got a couple strips of C-4, too.”
“The RPG should do the trick.”
Suarez made a very quick sign of the cross with his right hand, kissed his fingers, and looked up as though checking with God.
Crocker continued, “Akil and I are going to circle around back. When I give the signal, you’re going to launch the seven at the vehicles.”
Then into his mike, “Manny, wipe the boogers out of your eyes, because you’re gonna cover the front. Make sure the guard goes down.”
Crocker heard Mancini’s response through his earbuds. “Boogers in my eyes? Is that the best you can do? I got him.”
“Soon as you take him out, I want you to run up to the road, start the Forza, and get ready to bug out.”
“Suarez, you cover the front. Engage the enemy if you have to and pull back. We’ll meet you on the road.”
“God is good.”
“We need to move fast. We all clear about that?” Crocker asked.
A chorus came back. “All clear, boss. Pedal to the metal, yeah.”
Crocker slapped Akil on the shoulder and pointed. He ran in a crouch, AK chambered and ready, his teammate following. Skirted some bushy pine-type trees, and picked up the sound of women laughing that sent a jagged chill up his spine. Reminded him of nights alone with Holly, having fun. Silly tickle games, messing around under the covers naked like a couple of kids.
His right foot hit a branch, causing it to snap. The laughing from inside stopped. He wanted to scold himself but couldn’t afford another distraction. Dumbass!
He needed to focus. Spirit lives in the doing and the perfection of the task.
He and Akil froze behind some trees. Somebody inside poked his big head out. Crocker noted long ears and freckles. The man muttered something in Russian and two female hands reached out and covered his eyes. He grunted and pulled his head back, laughing.
More fun and games. The SEALs continued. Behind the house they saw a broken patio with a warped Ping-Pong table, lounge chairs with missing plastic lattice, and a large birdcage—unoccupied.
To the right of the rear window stood a weathered blue door, which Akil had failed to mention. Crocker hugged the back wall and tried the knob. Locked. He removed the laminated card he kept in his pocket and slid the long end into the doorframe just above the bolt, then firmly pulled the card toward him while turning the handle. It opened.
Turning to Akil, he signaled with his hands: Move the table under the window, get on it, stand ready to crash through.
Then he whispered into his head mike. “Go! Go now!”
Crocker waited several seconds for the distinctive whoosh of the 93mm PG-7VL rocket, and pushed in moments before its impact. KA-BLAM!!!
The farmhouse jumped, shook, and settled. Dust, debris, and pieces of the vehicles flew everywhere. Screams resounded from the front rooms. He heard feet scurrying, shots, all in a flash. He was already in the bedroom. Through the dust quickly IDed Fradkov on the bed by his gray hair and eyes, pulled the woman off him, tossed her aside like a toy, jumped on his bare chest, put him in a headlock, and pulled so tight the Russian couldn’t speak.
The girl backed up against the wall and covered her mouth. Naked except for a pair of heels; her little breasts shaking. Akil crashed through the window and pushed her into the corner, Glock to her forehead, left hand over her mouth. Quickly slapped some tape over it. Tie-tied her wrists behind her back and pushed her to her knees.
Bursts of automatic gunfire and strains of “Torn and Frayed” accompanied Crocker out the door with Fradkov, holding him with his left arm, dragging the Russian, semiaware his captive wasn’t wearing pants and had a funny black belt around his belly. AK ready, heart pounding, Crocker was so charged with adrenaline he pulled Fradkov up the embankment like a rag doll. He lived for moments of pure excitement like this, better than anything, with the possible exception of sex.
Heard an urgent voice through his earbuds, “Deadwood, contact. Enemy right!”
Soon as he hit the ground and turned, he heard a burp of automatic fire. Rounds tore up the branches and dirt around him. One ripped into Fradkov’s right thigh four inches above the knee. Blood splattered. Crocker’s hand muffled the Russian’s scream. Simultaneously, dirt in his mouth, he fired back, trying to locate the target through the dense brush.
More rounds came zinging past, burning through the night air, then a muffled burst from a distance, and a groan.
“Got him, Deadwood. Over!” Mancini’s voice through the headset.
Manny was solid. He’d depended on him all these years in scrapes all over the globe, like his right arm and leg.
Crocker pulled Fradkov to his feet. His eyes had become slits of fear, self-loathing, and pain. The Russian had pissed himself. Blood and urine ran down his leg to his foot. No time to attend to the wound now.
He hoisted him into a fireman’s carry, up the embankment that grew even steeper over loose and loamy ground, through shrubs and ground cover, sweating profusely, breathing hard. The firing below let up, replaced by the sound of crackling flames and a woman calling out in Russian. The heavy smell of burning rubber, metal, and gasoline filled his nostrils.
One last burst of energy and he emerged from the trees to the road with Fradkov on his back. His heart thumped fast. Looked left, then right. Familiar-shaped bodies approached out of the shadows. He flashed his Maglite twice, then heard something hit the ground near his feet.
He looked down and saw the black polyester belt Fradkov had been wearing around his stomach. Bent down and retrieved it with the Russian still on his back.
“Boss, you okay?” Suarez asked.
“Fine. Get him in the car.”
“Fucker is covered with piss and shit.”
Mancini leaned into the wheel, driving at full speed, headlights out. Suarez in the passenger seat looked back to see if they were being followed. Akil on one of the 345cc four-stroke Bullet Electras zoomed up behind them, on their right rear bumper.
On the backseat Crocker brightened at the growl of the single-cylinder engine as he set the Russian’s injured leg. Reminded him of his own bikes over the years and the feeling of freedom, wind in your face, tearing down country roads.
He watched the rise and fall of Fradkov’s chest and on his thigh saw a splotch of dark red reflected in the moonlight. Reaching for his med bag on the floor, he opened it with his right hand and ripped the plastic off a blowout patch with his teeth.
“Romeo, anyone following?” he asked into his head mike.
“Nothing but road, Deadwood. All fucking clear.”
“Watch your language.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He smiled, fixed the patch over the wound to Fradkov’s thigh, and saw the sneaky look in the Russian’s eyes. He was reaching for the belt, which Crocker had tossed on the floor.
“Mine,” the Russian groaned.
“Not anymore.” Crocker snatched it away from him and unzipped one of the pockets, which was stuffed with money. Brand spanking new hundred-dollar bills.
“Give me!” the Russian grunted.
Crocker pushed his hand away. “Keep quiet.”
It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.
It was already 1013 and Crocker was running late, which he didn’t like. But the DC Beltway was jammed and the 395 not much better, and he was in a lousy mood despite the fact that “Tumbling Dice” by the Stones was pouring out of the stereo.
For the past several days he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about next week’s pretrial hearing on the breaking-and-entering and aggravated-assault charges that had been filed against him in Fairfax County, Virginia. Like the court was tossing the ivories with his fate.
He assumed the meeting he was now rushing to concerned that. News of it had been texted to him last night by an aide at ST-6 headquarters. Simply: “Presence required. 1711 17th Street. 1030hrs.” Since returning from the Ukraine, he’d been feeling anxious, trying to settle into his new apartment and get his life together.
It didn’t help his current state of mind that his wife had left him after his previous very difficult deployment to Syria and Turkey.
The sky hung milky gray over the glass-and-steel towers along the K Street corridor—very un-April-like for DC. Crazy city had been built over a swamp—actually “wetland with trees,” according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
As he turned up 17th Street, he told himself that there was no way he would serve time in jail if convicted and he would appeal if he received something even as light as a three-month sentence. In his head he was already planning his escape to Patagonia or New Zealand—two raw, sparsely populated locales where he imagined an individual could still carve out his own destiny without interference from corrupt cops and narrow-minded public officials.
Not that he really wanted to. He loved the United States and what it stood for.
Crocker gripped the steering wheel so hard the muscles in his back and neck tensed. He was getting himself worked up, just like ST-6 psychiatrist Dr. Petrovian had warned him not to do. According to the doc, repeated trauma had produced symptoms of PTSD, including erosion of his faith in God, justice, and predictability. His psyche needed time to process and integrate some of the shocking shit he’d experienced. Some of it haunted him day and night—the human degradation and destruction in Syria, the surprise attack on his teammates, the Dear John letter from Holly when he returned home.
The only people he trusted these days were his Black Cell teammates, who had suffered through some of the same shit he had, minus the rejection from his spouse. But they weren’t here now and couldn’t help him with this—a personal, judicial matter. An unjust stupidity.
Pigeons looped in front of the windshield as he spotted the address on a brick office building on his left and turned his pickup into the entrance to the underground parking lot. Screeched to a stop at the barrier, maybe a little too abruptly, so that a second later an armed African American man emerged from the booth looking alarmed.
“ID, sir?” the guard barked.
Crocker lowered the stereo and understood why the big dude in the blue blazer might be concerned. Based on his appearance—the beat-up fifteen-year-old pickup, his head-to-toe casual black attire (jeans, tee, pullover, boots), and unshaved face—he could easily be mistaken for some angry wacko with a beef against the federal government. DC was full of them—anti–gay marriage protestors on Capitol Hill, antiabortion advocates across from the White House, free speech activists in front of the Supreme Court, angry veterans demanding better and more timely medical attention.
He showed the guy his Virginia license, and the guard frowned.
“Sir, this is a federal building. Do you have an appointment?” he asked, placing his right hand on the holstered pistol at his side.
“Yeah, but I don’t know who with. Maybe an attorney.”
“Sir, this is a government facility. Entry requires a government ID or prior appointment. If you don’t have one of them, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Crocker reached into his wallet and produced the laminated card that identified him as a Tier One U.S. military operator with a TS (top secret) SCI (sensitive compartmented information) Rainbow 9 clearance.
The guard nodded. “That’s better, sir. Thank you.”
He felt unprepared as the guard scanned a list attached to a clipboard.
What the hell am I gonna say? That I didn’t know I was breaking the law when I broke into that lady’s window?
“Sir, proceed to Level B. Park anywhere you find an empty space, then take elevator one to the fourth floor.”
He descended into the dark garage, still not knowing what this meeting was about. Thinking ahead to the pretrial hearing, he decided he couldn’t trust his attorney—a sharply dressed recent grad from Georgetown Law School. Nice kid, but maybe a tad too sure of himself. He had tried to convince Crocker that the charges would be reduced to a misdemeanor and he would escape with a slap on the wrist.
What if he was wrong? Overconfidence didn’t sit too well with Crocker. Besides, the circumstances of the case were so absurd he shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. Sure, it had been wrong to break into a woman’s apartment, but how could the court ignore the fact that she had been ripping off his seventy-six-year-old father, and that Crocker had caught her smoking crystal meth with a Fairfax County cop—the same one who had filed the charges?
His blood pressure rising, he stood near the back wall of the elevator, staring at the perfectly pressed uniforms of the two officers—one female, one male and Hispanic—standing in front of him whispering to each other about the long-term value of investment property on the Eastern Shore. He had a vacation house there as well, which he had used so many times with Holly. It had been their refuge. She had been his safe place. His harbor in the storm.
People, even military officials with desk jobs like the two riding with him now, didn’t understand the perils the United States faced around the globe, and the stakes. He didn’t blame them: How could they be expected to if they hadn’t seen the horror, violence, and human misery he had? How could they appreciate the razor-thin line between civilization and chaos, good and evil, free society and forced obedience that men like him fought to protect?
Dr. Petrovian had warned him not to let his mind spin wildly like this. He tried to catch himself as he exited the elevator and stepped into the over-air-conditioned lobby. But how could you trust a justice system in which pampered superstars like O.J. Simpson got away with murder and poor people were shot for driving with a broken brake light—a story he’d just seen reported on CNN?
The male clerk behind the desk dressed in civvies examined his ID again, then asked him to sign a ledger and follow him down a gray hallway lined with photos of former secretaries of the Treasury.
Where the hell am I?
No signs on the walls or plaques beside the doors.
- "For the Tom Clancy/Dale Brown genre fan, Mann and Pezzullo provide enough excitement to while away a weekend."—Kirkus Reviews
PRAISE FOR THE SEAL TEAM SIX SERIES: "The pace is relentless, and the inside knowledge of how the SEALs operate again gives this series its appeal. . . . For action fans, Crocker continues to deliver."—Jeff Ayers, Booklist
- "Pulse-pounding.... A great series."—Howard E. Wasdin, New York Times best-selling author of SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper
- "A suspenseful, action-filled novel written by the 'real deal'."—James Blount, former supervisor at the Central Intelligence Agency
- On Sale
- May 17, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Mulholland Books