By Don Mann
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"In a moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams."
Monkeys called to one another from the trees past the high aluminum fence, crickets chirped, and other insects buzzed to the beat of "Smile for Me" by Simi from a distant radio. At 2208 the temp and humidity had dropped to a bearable ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit and eighty percent humidity as Crocker jogged around the AFSF (Armed Forces Special Forces) base in subtropical eastern Nigeria for the third time.
He recalled some of the facts he'd gleaned from a briefing three weeks earlier at SEAL Team Six (DEVBRU) headquarters in Dam Creek. Nigeria was the most populous country on the continent of Africa with an estimated 180 million people. It was also mind-blowingly diverse—five hundred different ethnic groups, three hundred languages, and more than ten thousand spoken dialects, according to the Ministry of Arts and Culture, and divided equally between Christian and Muslim. Christians dominated the south; Muslims in the north. Alive in practitioners of both faiths was an underlying loyalty to ancient tribal beliefs.
The area southwest of where he was now was home to the Yoruba ethnic group and the location of the ancient city of Ife, where, according to Yoruba mythology, the first human being, Oduduwa, climbed down from the heavens, threw a handful of dirt on the primordial ocean, and created life on Earth.
Everything seemed to hum around him—the earth under his feet, the air, the dark Prussian-blue sky.
Why is it that the world feels more vibrant and alive at night?
It's why he'd always liked it best, all the way back to his shit-kicking, wild-riding teenage years in western Massachusetts—gangs, fights, running from the cops, chasing girls. The freedom and danger.
He loved them both. That effervescence. That sense that everything was alive and changing constantly. And your actions, your thoughts, your mere presence played a small part in creating the future whether you were aware of it or not.
As Crocker picked up speed, his left knee started to burn.
Arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid, the team orthopedist had told him. "Time to slow down and settle into an office job."
To which Crocker had responded, "Not happening, Doc."
He ignored the pain—or weakness leaving his body, as he called it—and kept running. He didn't want to think about time and possible ravages to his mind and body, or how he felt about his career after the nastiness that had gone down in Syria four months ago, or where he stood with his new friend Gayle, the widow of a SEAL friend, or Cyndi, who had called him unexpectedly hoping to rekindle their romance.
He wanted to keep pushing forward into new challenges, through additional barriers, always focused on his personal mission of fostering and preserving freedom and protecting the good and innocent. Tonight he couldn't resist thinking about one of them. The Frenchwoman, Séverine, who he'd met in Kurdistan and had died in Raqqa, and the affection he still felt for her. A special woman, she possessed the best qualities—kindness, intelligence, inner beauty, courage, and a commitment to helping others.
Séverine, I miss you…
He had failed to protect her. In fact, she'd died thirty meters from where he was fighting, crushed under falling debris from a US drone attack.
Nor did he go back to try to rescue her. The circumstances in Raqqa had made that impossible—he was injured himself, ISIS terrorists were on their tail in overwhelming numbers, he was carrying a young hostage he and his men had rescued. But the circumstances didn't serve to assuage his guilt, which twisted in his head.
"Sweet Séverine…I'm sorry."
He said it out loud as he ran, sweat running down his face to his chest, and tried to imagine what she would think of this part of Africa. Then he sensed an almost imperceptible pause in the insect cacophony from the trees beyond the fence.
He almost expected to hear Séverine speak to him. Tonight, in this exotic, life-affirming place, everything seemed possible, even communication from beyond the grave.
Instead the silence ended with the distinctive rat-ta-tat of an AK-47.
Crocker automatically stopped in his tracks and crouched low to the dirt. What the fuck was that?
Was the gunfire directed at me?
His focus sharpened and he scanned three-sixty. Trees, a fence, a flagpole with its green-and-white-striped flag, a cluster of barracks, a brick HQ building and canteen, several guard towers. The guards manning the tower ahead waited a half minute before they swung a beam across the tree line, but didn't return fire. Nor did the three boys kneeling outside the fence look up from the lizard they were playing with.
Their nonchalance didn't surprise him. Crocker understood that he was in a different country with people who played by a different set of rules. A strange corner of the planet, where it was hard to distinguish the terrorists from the local militiamen, tribal vigilantes, and armed farmers who patrolled the bush. The shots could have come from any of them.
After two weeks he'd seen how locals seemed to take most things in stride—even the savage Islamic radical insurgency, Boko Haram, that operated with impunity throughout northern and eastern Nigeria, where he was now.
When no more gunshots came, Crocker swatted away the flying insects, wiped the sweat from his brow, tightened the laces on his Saucony Liberty ISOs, and continued running.
Welcome to the jungle, we've got fun and games…
Axl Rose could have been singing about Nigeria.
Welcome to the jungle, watch it bring you to your knees…
As the local military official who'd greeted him two weeks ago at the Lagos Airport had put it, "Nigeria is an inward-looking country waiting for God to rescue it from itself." The gulf between rich and poor was staggering, as was the contrast between old traditions in rural parts of the country and modernity in the major cities. Nothing seemed to work, but somehow it did—starting with baggage claim at the airport, where Crocker and his teammates had waited two hours for their luggage, and were told that was normal.
Chaos was the norm, too. Nobody seemed to follow rules. Like one of the soldiers the SEALs had come to train, who showed up an hour late wearing flip-flops instead of the combat boots he'd been issued. Crocker had asked, "Where are your boots?"
"I lent them to my brother."
"Because he needed them for work."
Crocker and his men were on a six-week assignment to teach CQD (close quarter defense), intel gathering, and counterterrorist tactics to elite AFSF operators. They'd been trained to adjust to circumstances and make the best of all sorts of conditions. Their goal: To coordinate smoothly with members of the 133-man brigade they'd come to train, even though it often moved like a car stuck in rush-hour traffic.
Not that the Nigerians weren't polite, respectful, intelligent, and extremely good-natured—always up for a joke, a prank, a good meal, or sharing a story about some beautiful woman they had met at a club. They were. They spent their downtime reading, watching movies, and playing soccer and abula—a local game similar to volleyball, except played with bats.
The operators of AFSF 72 he'd gotten to know didn't expect their government to work. They accepted that it was corrupt and controlled by the elites who ran the country. Since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria had endured six coups, a civil war, seven military dictatorships, and four constitutions.
Yet the people he'd met in nearby farms and villages seemed content and optimistic, even in a hard place like Yola—a sprawl of corrugated tin-roofed houses and diesel-choked streets, fiercely hot in summer and a sea of mud during the rainy season. As poor as most of them were, they were exuberant in spirit and expressed themselves in music, dance, jokes, stories, and the colorful clothing they wore.
On the radio in the distance, "Smile for Me" ended and "Fallen in Love" by a different Nigerian woman singer began. Another contagiously happy tune that invited him to laugh, dance, make love, and enjoy life.
Why not? After the grim destruction Crocker had witnessed in Syria, he was up for a party. He promised to spend the next four weeks familiarizing himself with the local culture, and hopefully getting to know the friendly British-born teacher, Ndidi Collins, from the nearby American University campus he'd met one morning during a drive into town in a three-wheeled taxi, called a tuk-tuk. She'd recommended his first meal in Nigeria, jollof, the one-pot West African rice dish made with tomatoes, onions, nutmeg, ginger, cumin, chili peppers, and grilled chicken or fish. She described it as "unicorn dust and love mixed together."
Passing the three boys playing with the lizard again reminded him of his brother Michael—once a coke addict and dealer, now a successful car dealer with kids, houses, and business investments—and their childhood hijinks with rodents, lightning bugs, and other insects in rural Massachusetts. Back before Crocker had become a gangbanger, and before he'd tasted jollof.
Another peal of gunfire echoed from the trees, followed by what sounded like a cry of anguish behind him. Realizing that it was a young person calling out in Igbo, the local language, Crocker stopped and turned. One of the boys now stood grasping the fence, his face in distress.
Things could change on a dime. Crocker accepted that. He welcomed it. And now his hands were covered with blood. As he felt for the boy's pulse, his mind was focused on two immediate goals: keeping the boy alive and saving his leg. Boys like the one he was attending to now needed to run and play. It was important.
He was a skinny kid with a big head, maybe seven years old. The playmate who stayed by his side and wept whispered his name, "Azi." The other boy had fled, as boys in all parts of the world did when they were scared.
"Azi?" Crocker asked. "That's his name?"
"Ee…" It meant "yes."
Not that it mattered now. The AK-47 round had entered from the rear at an angle about four inches above the knee, and had exited out the back outer side of the thigh, probably after glancing off the femur and maybe shattering it. The wound wasn't superficial, as evidenced by the boy's elevated and weak pulse.
First thing to do, and quickly, was stem the bleeding.
Crocker turned to his teammate Akil, who had just arrived and was carrying an MP5. "I'm going to need my medical kit and some QuikClot." QuikClot Combat Gauze contained a hemostatic agent impregnated with the inorganic mineral kaolin, which promoted clotting in a matter of minutes.
"What the fuck just happened?" Egyptian-American Akil asked. "We heard the shots."
"Get the QuikClot."
"Where'd the bullets come from?"
"The QuikClot and my med kit."
"Boss, you're exposed here. We'd better move him first."
"Go! And alert the major."
Seconds later, an emergency siren wailed from the front gate. The boy shifted and moaned as though he were trying to escape his body. In his periphery Crocker saw armed AFSF commandos leave from the gate and enter the woods. Others fanned out around the base perimeter.
Crocker wasn't thinking about his own safety. Maybe he should have been. Instead he was laser-focused on saving the boy and his leg. He pulled off his sweaty shirt and ripped it in half. Wrapped one piece above the exit wound to serve as a tourniquet. The other half he carefully placed under Azi's head. Then he grabbed the boy's feet and lifted them over his head, elevating the wound above his heart.
Azi's friend watched through the opening between his fingers.
"Onwu?" he asked.
"What's that mean?"
No time to bridge the communication gap as precious seconds ticked by. Crocker wore no surgical gloves, his hands and wrists were sticky with the boy's blood. Flying insects circled. It was a hard to make out detail in the minimal light from the posts above the fence.
Reaching with his free hand, he felt the blood continue to ooze from the wound.
If the bleeding didn't stop soon, the kid would slip into a coma, suffer brain damage, and die. More shots rang out from the line of trees. A grunt of alarm came from the friend's mouth.
"Don't worry…Follow me…"
Crocker took him by the shoulders, held a finger up to his lips, and pushed him to his knees. The boy's natural impulse was to resist.
"Stay," Crocker whispered, "Listen…" knowing there was a very slight chance the kid understood English.
He lifted Azi's feet and placed them on the kneeling boy's shoulders as more gunfire sounded. He couldn't tell if it was coming from the soldiers or someone else.
The younger boy's flight impulse activated again, and Crocker held him in place.
"Stay still. You'll be okay."
The kid didn't seem to agree. Crocker used one hand to hold him in place, and the other to feel for Azi's brachial artery by reaching under his arm just below the armpit. Soon as he found it, he pressed down firmly with his ring and middle fingers.
The bleeding slowed, but not enough. So he moved his fingers closer to the boy's heart and applied pressure there.
That's when he heard footsteps to his right and the little friend's sharp intake of breath. Crocker didn't bother to look up.
Heard: "Boss! Boss! What the fuck…"
Familiar voices. Akil, Tiny Chavez, and CT arriving armed and carrying the medical kit.
"You bring the QuikClot?"
"Possible Boko Haram probe, southwest."
"Tell me you brought the QuikClot!"
"Boss, we got to get you outta here."
"Rip one open and hand it to me. Now!"
"If thy enemy wrong thee, buy each of his
children a drum."
An hour later Crocker reentered the AFSF base camp in a fugue of exhaustion. Guards at the gate waved, raised their thumbs, and shouted, "Ezi oru!" and "Good job! Good man!"
He tried to smile. After surgery to stop internal bleeding at a bare-bones local hospital, the boy's life and his leg had been spared, at least for the time being. The next few hours would be critical.
Azi's condition was weak. Even the smallest infection could cause him to slip into a coma or die. Crocker would check on him first thing in the morning. Now he needed rest.
He needed to be briefed, too. He wanted to know who had fired the shots, why security at this critical base continued to be so lax, and why the locals had been so slow to respond.
His legs carried him across the dusty PT grinder to the old concrete structure where his DEVGRU Black Cell team had set up: Akil (navigator), Mancini (second in command and weapons), Rufus "Tiny" Chavez (explosives), CT (comms), and newcomer Gator (sniper) who was temporarily taking Rip's place while he recovered from injuries sustained during their last deployment. Crocker was the team leader and primary corpsman or medic.
Soon as he walked in the door, and the breeze from the overhead fan hit his skin, he saw that all of the men were awake even though it was an hour past midnight. This surprised him, because they had to be up at 0500 for an hour of PT before sunrise, then chow, showers, and the start of training at 0730. And Tiny, who hadn't been feeling well, liked to sleep.
"What's going on?" Crocker asked.
He blinked, and Tiny Chavez was in his face. He'd abandoned his game of Overlook, a multiplayer game that one could play as a detective robot trying to find and destroy normal robots, or an overseer seeking and eliminating defective robots.
Their teammates called him Tiny because of his massive arms and shoulders, the right one displaying a colorful tat of Jesus. He wore baggy shorts and a Gold's Gym T-shirt and vibrated with nervous energy. His dark hair was clipped close to his skull.
"How's the boy?" Tiny asked in his incongruous high-pitched voice.
"Lost a lot of blood, but I think he'll live. They locate the shooter?"
"No, but they just handed us a can of snakes."
Tiny's nostrils flared and his mouth twisted right, typically a sign he was upset. He was a skilled, soft-spoken operator with a little crazy in his eyes.
"What's that mean?"
A quick glance around the rectangular room showed CT on a bunk peering into his laptop and Akil listening to music. Both had buds in their ears. Gator and Mancini were missing.
"Where are Gator and Manny?" asked Crocker, blinking, then staring at his bunk as though it was some kind of siren calling him to sleep.
"That's what I was about to tell you about," Tiny answered.
"Tell me. What happened?"
Tiny's head was still halfway in the gothic landscape of Overlook tower, where the action had taken place tonight.
"What happened is…this—"
Akil cut him off. The big Egyptian-American former Marine saw Crocker standing on the tile floor near the doorway and removed the buds from his ears.
"Yo, boss, something big is going down. Major Wally's looking for you."
Tiny protested, "That's rude, dude. I was talking."
"I'm talking now, bro."
Major Walfor "Wally" Martins was their primary liaison with the Nigerian 72 Special Forces battalion they'd come to help train.
"What's Major Martins want?" asked Crocker, crossing to his bunk, sitting, and unlacing his Saucony running shoes. They were spotted with blood.
"Yo, boss…Didn't say. But Paige Spiranac, the golf goddess I told you about? The one I'm gonna marry. She's got a rad spread in the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition."
Crocker turned to Chavez, who stood fuming. "Tiny…You were saying?"
Tiny, visibly pissed, turned to Akil and growled, "No way Paige Spir-ass, or whatever the hell her name is, is gonna want any part of your hairy Egyptian ass."
That got a chuckle from CT. "You got that right!"
Tiny hitched up his shorts and addressed Crocker. "You know that Nigerian J-2 guy Gator's been working with?" J-2 was intel.
"Uh…Lieutenant Peppie, yeah…"
"You know how they've been developing, organizing, and assessing intel from various local sources?"
Crocker's head hurt. "Yeah, yeah. So?"
"Well, tonight they were going over some scenarios together and this local farmer comes in with intel about some Boko Haram troop movement near the Cameroon border."
"Wait a minute…This happened while I was gone?"
"While you were at the hospital, right. And when he hears the intel, Gator's antenna goes straight up, like never happens with Akil's dick."
"The fuck it doesn't!"
"Stop horsing around."
Tiny continued. "Boss, Lieutenant Peppie was real reluctant to take it to 72 HQ because of what he says are politics. Everything with the brigade is politics, politics…Besides, it's Saturday night, and a bunch of the command guys are in town attending someone's bachelor party. And he's like, afraid to interrupt."
Typical Tiny, Crocker thought, takes half an hour to get to the point. "So?"
"So, Gator…You know Gator when he locks his teeth on something…He practically drags Lieutenant Peppie over to the 72 HQ. And when they present the intel to the duty officer, a Captain Mobido, or Mopito, or whatever, he like waves them away like he can't be bothered. And you don't do that with Gator."
"Don't tell me."
"Because now that whacked-out Cajun gets up in the captain's face, and tells him he's a disgrace to his uniform and like a thousand other insults."
Crocker groans. "No…"
"Reads him the riot act, and calls him a coo-yawn."
"What's a coo-yawn?" Crocker asked.
"It's Cajun," Akil cut in. "Roughly translated means something like 'dumb fucking asshole.'"
"The captain took it as a racial slur."
"Got hysterical and shoved Gator. Gator smacked the captain a couple times, then backed off."
"Of course the Nigerian captain runs straight to Major Wally. And now the whole Nigerian command is up in arms."
"Just what we need…" Crocker rubbed his face to get the blood moving. Last thing he wanted was to deal with shit like this now. But he had no choice.
"Where's Gator?" Crocker asked.
"Manny took him out to blow off steam."
Tiny turned to Akil, who turned to CT, who shrugged. "Beats me…"
"Get 'em both back here! Now."
Crocker started relacing his running shoes. Considered changing out of his soiled shorts and the medical tunic he'd borrowed, but decided not to bother.
"I'm going to talk to Major Martin. The rest of you coo-yawns go find Gator."
As he walked beside Akil to 72 AFSF HQ, Crocker noticed a wind had started up, indicating that the weather was changing. The air revived him. He tried to remember what he had learned about Boko Haram from the CIA official who had briefed them before they left ST-6 headquarters in Virginia.
Boko Haram was a radical Islamist terrorist group that had wreaked havoc through northern and eastern Nigeria, seizing big parcels of territory, massacring entire villages, killing more than twenty thousand civilians, and creating millions more refugees.
Their name, literally translated, meant "western education is forbidden," which is why they aimed their savage brand of religious fundamentalism on teachers, schools, and schoolchildren—brutally slaughtering the boys and their teachers, and kidnapping the girls to turn them into concubines and slaves.
Much akin to ISIS in the Middle East, Boko Haram's goal was to install an Islamic state in western Africa based on Sharia law. The analyst who had briefed Crocker also said that despite their religious beliefs they earned money from drug and human trafficking.
Akil stopped when they got within a hundred feet of the concrete building. "Boss, there's another part of this that bothers me."
Crocker was so tired he wasn't sure his brain could absorb new information. "What?"
"Our mission is to train, advise, and support, right? But we've spent the last two weeks running exercises, and haven't done shit to take the fight to the Boko bad guys."
"You saying the Nigerian military isn't doing its job?"
Akil grinned. "Now Gator gets a report of some Boko Haram movement near the border, and the AFSF guys are too busy being insulted to see the bigger picture. That seem upside down to you?"
Crocker was trying to remember the rules of engagement (ROEs) of their JCET (Joint Combined Exchange Training). If he recalled correctly, the SEALs were allowed to accompany the Nigerians on live missions in an advisory capacity, and shoot back at the enemy if they took fire.
"The thing is, boss, we need to tread carefully."
It was strange to hear a warning of restraint from the usually uber-aggressive Akil.
"Lieutenant Peppie told me something the other day that might be pertinent."
"Pertinent? I'm impressed."
"The current president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, is a former military strongman who describes himself as a converted democrat, and previously supported the implementation of Muslim Sharia law throughout the country. Pertinent, right?"
PRAISE FOR THE SEAL TEAM SIX SERIES"The most authentic military thrillers on the market. Period. End of discussion."—Douglas Laux, former CIA Field Operative and New York Times bestselling author of Left of Boom
- "The pace is relentless.... For action fans, Crocker continues to deliver."—Jeff Ayers, Booklist
- "Pulse-pounding reads filled with the kind of knowing, immersive detail that can only come from someone with real-life experience in the field. A great series."—Howard E. Wasdin, New York Times best-selling author of SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper
- "Riveting and accurate... A suspenseful, action-filled novel written by the 'real deal'."—James Blount, former supervisor at the Central Intelligence Agency
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Mulholland Books