With Ralph Pezzullo
By Don Mann
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When a cargo ship is captured by pirates off the east coast of Africa, SEAL Team Six is called into action. What looks at first like a simple search and rescue turns much more perilous when the ship’s cargo is revealed to be yellowcake, a critical component in nuclear weaponry. Thomas Crocker and his squad are dispatched to Libya with a clear objective: to secure the dangerous materials before terrorists can unleash nuclear havoc on the world.
Hunt the Scorpion is a lightning-fast thrill ride – a bold new chapter in the Thomas Crocker SEAL Team Six adventures. It will leave readers breathless, charged, and ready for the next op.
To those who do not know that the world is on fire, I have nothing to say.
The first thing she noticed when she walked across the deck was the case-hardened locks on every outside door. Heavy-duty solid steel. Even on the smallest hatches. Also, the skylight over the engine room was cinched tight by a stainless-steel chain and secured with a padlock.
When she asked her husband, Jake—the captain of the forty-thousand-ton cargo ship—about them, he shrugged and mumbled one of his typically short answers. "No big deal. A simple precaution."
"Aliens and peeping Toms."
They stood side by side on the navigation bridge of the MSC Contessa looking out at the rising moon, glowing mustard yellow. The sky was an iridescent shade of dark blue bleeding into purple. A swath of even darker clouds formed an arch above the moon like some mischievous child had smeared the sky with black ink.
"Stunning, eh?" Captain Jake McCullum offered.
"Breathtaking, darling, yes. How much longer until we reach Marseille?"
"Three days, maybe four, depending on winds and currents."
From the moment they met, Tanya had felt herself drawn to his quiet strength, his confidence. Those qualities continued to give her comfort, even if the two of them had been married for less than a year and had spent only two months of that time together.
He'd been working almost nonstop, taking all the ship captain assignments he could get, so they could cobble together a down payment for a flat in their native Melbourne.
The 450-foot Contessa was thirty-five miles off the east coast of Africa, approaching the island of Socotra. Not only was this a busy shipping lane, but the waters up the coast and into the Gulf of Aden were typically crowded with trawlers from Taiwan, South Korea, India, France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and other countries. Together with local Somali fishermen in smaller dhows, they mined the seas for high-value tuna, lobster, deepwater shrimp, whitefish, and even shark.
Tonight dozens of small vessels dotted the dark sea ahead of them, which caused the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) alarm on the Furuno radar to ring and flash. Captain McCullum walked to the radar on the long console, flipped a switch, and the bridge turned quiet.
"That's better," he said, wrapping an arm around Tanya's narrow waist. "Now we can enjoy the night."
Just the hum of the engine and the sound of waves slapping the metal hull.
The navigation bridge was a spacious, somewhat sterile chamber with large reinforced windows that were tilted open on this warm night. The raw, salty musk of the ocean mixed with the faint smell of tropical flowers inspired dreams of romance and adventure in Tanya's head.
She glanced at her husband's lean, chiseled face and saw that his eyes were focused on Socotra, specifically the flashing red light on the southwest extremity.
Tanya was about to say that the island's dark shape reminded her of a sleeping elephant when the captain turned to the officer on duty and barked, "Port, thirty."
"Port, thirty, sir," the handsome young Sikh officer echoed back.
The navy-turbaned officer slowly turned the ship's wheel, causing the dial of the electric compass to click off degree by degree as the cargo ship responded to the change of course.
"Steady at twenty knots," the captain said.
"Yes, sir, full away," the first officer responded.
To see her husband in his role as captain, to watch the way the crew of twelve responded to his quiet authority, made her love him even more. To Tanya's mind, he was an old-school man of the world, a leader and adventurer. A rare species in modern society.
The constellations Orion and Pleiades glittered overhead. Nature felt close.
"Wind out of the south-southwest, sir, steady at fifteen to twenty knots. Latest report has rain squalls blowing in from the south," the Sikh officer reported.
"Tell the third mate, deck lights fore and aft, spotlights on the poop deck," the captain ordered.
"Don't want those fishing boats to miss us. You've got the radar. And keep an ear out for the radio."
"Aye, aye, captain," the officer responded, reaching for the phone that was embedded in the long center console, along with numerous dials, gauges, readouts, and radar screens.
"Keep sharp. Call me for any reason. I'm going below."
He turned to her and smiled.
"Time to walk the plank, my lady."
"What do I have to do to get you to spare me?"
He rubbed his rugged-looking chin. "Let me think…"
Anticipation fluttering through her body, Tanya followed her husband down the metal steps and into a narrow corridor one deck below. Ever the gentleman, he stopped at a white door, turned the handle, and stepped aside so she could pass through first.
Before she did, she read the warning stenciled on the door in red: DANGEROUS SPACE, TEST AIR BEFORE ENTRY.
"What's that mean?"
"Then why does it say 'dangerous space'?"
"Because I sleep here."
Her husband smiled his Marlboro Man smile and said, "We put it there to ward off uninvited visitors."
He had never answered. It really didn't matter, because Tanya's mind stopped the moment Jake removed the towel from her freshly showered body and sighed in a low voice, "God, you're lovely."
"You think so?"
"I missed you, Jake."
"Missed you, too, sweetheart. And you smell delicious."
His strong hands touched her skin. Their lips met. Then he picked her up and lowered her to the bed as if in a movie.
"Please, Captain. Be gentle. I'm a young, inexperienced lass," she said, keeping up the game.
"Gentle, eh? Not in my nature, miss. Grrr."
It was a modest twelve-by-twenty-foot cabin with small portholes that looked out to a large expanse of deck and the sea beyond. Nothing remarkable about it except for the large silver-framed wedding photo of the two of them getting pelted with rice as they emerged from St. Bartholomew.
Attached to the bedroom was a much larger captain's dayroom equipped with easy chairs, a sofa, bookshelves, a desk, a large flat-screen TV, and a refrigerator. That's where Jake spent most of his free time, surfing the Internet, reading, writing in his journal.
It didn't matter that the cabin smelled of mildew, or that the mattress felt hard against her back. Tanya was exactly where she wanted to be, feeling the ship roll from side to side beneath her as they made love. Usually an unemotional woman, she was surprised to find herself on the brink of tears.
She reached up and took her husband's face in her hands. "Oh, Jake…What is it about you that makes me so happy?"
"My bounteous gold treasure? My undying love for you?"
"The latter, darling. Ahh…"
Gazing into his eyes, she felt as though their souls were intertwining. Then she heard something that sounded like thunder. Her husband stopped moving.
"What is it?"
He placed his hand over her mouth, slid off her, and rested on his elbow. "Ssh."
More loud, muffled sounds followed—a metallic thud against the hull, a hard sound like steel barrels rolling on the deck outside.
He got to his feet quickly and picked up the phone, leaving her naked, covered with sweat.
"Just a minute."
"Sorry, sweetheart. Probably nothing. Might be some rowdiness among the crew."
For some reason, she didn't think so.
The noise increased. She heard the sound of feet running along the deck below.
He dropped the phone because no one answered, held up a finger to his lips to tell her to be quiet, then ran naked to the porthole.
Along the starboard side of the ship he saw a small boat without lights motoring alongside them. Even odder, he noticed that the lights of his own ship were off.
Then a bright orange flash lit up the night sky.
Tanya gasped. "Oh, God! Have we struck something?"
"No. No. Not at all."
He scooped his pants off the floor and pulled them on. "I'm going up to the bridge," he said urgently. "Lock the door behind me. Don't let anybody in under any circumstances."
"No one! You hear me? I'll be back."
Captain McCullum climbed the steps to the navigation deck two at a time, hoping that this wasn't what he thought it was. But the moment he reached for the door to the bridge, reality flew out at him—six strange men armed with knives and guns. Pirates!
They grabbed him by the neck and started punching him and shouting like wild animals. All wore ski masks and a motley mix of jeans, shorts, T-shirts, military-style shirts, and scarves. Some had footwear; others were barefoot. All had eyes that were fierce and threatening.
Two of them dragged the young Sikh officer behind them by the hair, blood dripping from a wound in his stomach.
Jake moved toward him. "No! Dear God. He's seriously hurt. Let me tend to him. Get my medical kit. There's no need for that."
Before McCullum could get another word out, he felt a knife blade at his throat. A cacophony of voices screamed in his face in guttural, primitive English. "You fight, we kill! We cut you up! We kill everyone! Everything!"
"Alright. Okay…whatever you want."
"Whatever! What you mean?"
"Tell me what you want."
He tried to remain calm, aware that it was his primary responsibility as captain to protect his men and save the ship. He was willing to sacrifice the cash that he kept locked up in the ship's safe, and even the cargo, if necessary. The dark-skinned hooligans most likely wanted American dollars, and they were probably as frightened as he was.
Nodding as much as the blade against his skin would allow, McCullum said evenly, "No fight. No resistance from me. Tell me what you want. I'll oblige."
"Money!" the tallest of the men said emphatically. A thin black face covered with beard, eyes the color of copper.
"Of course. No problem."
Another fellow, a little wiry man wearing an Ohio State T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, stepped forward and smashed Jake in the face with the butt of his pistol.
Next thing he knew, rough hands were pulling him up, going through his pockets, tying his wrists together behind his back with a piece of rope. The men were shouting at one another in their native language. Somali, probably, which he couldn't understand.
The tall pirate was the only one who made sense. He said in broken English, "Money. You show the money. We give the mercy. No kill. No." His dark skin was streaked with grease and sweat.
"Sounds bloody good to me."
"Yeah. I show. This way."
Jake stumbled down the metal stairs, wondering what had happened to the wounded Sikh officer and the rest of the crew. When he saw the dayroom door, his attention shifted to his wife and he stopped, felt a stab of panic. He had to find a way to protect her from these criminals.
He said, "I'll give you money, but you can't harm my crew."
"Money!" the man in the Ohio State T-shirt shouted.
"Nobody gets hurt. No hurt. That's the deal."
"What you say?"
"I give you money. You let us go."
"No kill, yes."
"No injure, either."
"Money! Give the money!"
"Where's the rest of my crew?"
The moment he unlocked the door, the pirates pushed past him so violently that he lost his footing and fell to the floor. Looking up through the fog in his head, he beheld a scene of savage frenzy. Two pirates were in the process of ripping the flat-screen TV out of the wall. Others were tearing through the drawers of his desk, the books and DVDs on the shelves, throwing papers everywhere.
Another was trying to kick in the bedroom door while holding Jake's laptop under his arm.
"Wait. Please, listen. Stop!"
They ignored him completely.
In the midst of this madness, the tall pirate stood calmly, surveying the room. He wore a webbed belt and red bandana around his neck. Stuck into the belt were a rusted machete, a coil of nylon rope, a hammer, and a screwdriver—the tools of his trade.
As the others ripped the room apart, he walked to the walnut cabinet behind the captain's desk, opened it, and found the safe. Then, stepping back with his hands on his hips, he screamed, "SHEEL! SHEEL!!!!" in a voice so shrill it hurt Jake's ears.
The other five pirates stopped.
The tall man pointed to the safe and said, "Arkid!"
Now they picked up the captain and dragged him to the cabinet like a rag doll, shouting, "Money! You open! Now! FAST!!!!"
He decided that he was ready to sacrifice his own life if it meant saving Tanya, who was only a few feet away in the adjoining room. In the chaos he had forgotten to ask if anyone was manning the bridge. If not, his ship was charging down a major shipping lane unattended, out of control.
"If there's no one on the bridge, the ship will crash," he said to the tall pirate.
"Yes, it will. Believe me."
The pirates cut the rope around his hands and danced at his sides like a pack of hungry wolves.
"Someone needs to steer the ship," he repeated. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"The ship will crash into the rocks, and we'll all drown!"
Like a bloody broken record. Better to get this over quickly and return to the bridge.
McCullum lowered himself to his knees and turned the dial of the safe, praying he could recall the combination.
Twenty-one right, two spins left to five, then right to sixteen.
He pulled the handle, but the door didn't budge.
One of the pirates kicked him in the back so hard he fell forward and his face hit the door of the safe. Blood trickled from his mouth.
"No open, you die!"
"Fuck you, mate."
"We kill now."
"Hold on. I'll give it another go."
Stars spinning in his head, the captain righted himself and, fighting through the pain in his face, spun the dial once more. This time when he pulled the handle, the heavy door swung open and the pirates screamed with delight. One of them started singing in a high voice. Others joined in.
Bloody hands reached into the dark space and pulled out three stacks of bills bound together with rubber bands. Jake estimated that it came to roughly twelve hundred dollars. It had been fifty thousand at the outset of the voyage, but he'd paid the crew in cash.
"There's the money. Now I've got to return to the bridge," he said, standing.
The tall pirate stopped him. "No."
"That's all we've got. The ship will veer off course and crash."
As the pirates huddled together counting, McCullum wondered what had happened to the other members of his crew. The pounding he heard from a lower deck indicated that at least some of them had been locked in one of the lower cabins.
Several pirates grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head toward them. "More! More money!" they shouted.
"That's all there is. Everything."
"More money? Where?"
"That's the whole lot. I promise."
To the captain's alarm, their attention now turned to the bedroom door. Several of them were kicking at it and trying to force it open. Another lifted a fire axe that had been affixed to the wall outside the dayroom.
"There's nothing in there!" the captain shouted. "No money!"
The axe smashed into the door, releasing a shower of sparks.
"I said, there's nothing in there, dammit. It's my bedroom. I…sleep. You might find jewelry and watches in the crew's quarters, one deck down."
"Yes! Go down. Downstairs."
The pirate pointed at the cabin door. "Open!!!!"
The pirate responded with a fist to the captain's mouth. Another pirate dragged his long knife along his forehead, causing warm blood to drip into his eyes.
"You open or you die!"
He shook his head, which produced a frenzy of kicks and punches from the pirates.
Through the pain he heard Tanya sobbing, "Jake, darling! Jake, oh my God, are you alright?"
He winced at the sound of her voice and quickly shouted back, "Don't unlock the door. Whatever happens. Don't! You hear me?"
Someone stabbed him in the back of the neck. The shock caused him to shout in pain. "Bloody…fuck!"
Now he had trouble raising his head. He heard a lock turning, and managed to twist his body sideways to look.
Pirates were rushing through the bedroom door, howling. Seconds later two of them came out pulling Tanya by her strawberry-blond hair.
Their eyes met, and he saw the panic in hers as the men pawed her skin and ripped away the shorts, T-shirt, and bra she was wearing. One of them cupped her pale white breast and pointed to the little blue heart tattoo she had gotten during their honeymoon.
He heard the pirates' shouts and his wife's pleas for mercy. In her horrible distress he loved her more than ever, and wanted to tell her that this was his fault. He should have been a better captain and a smarter husband. It was his job to protect her. He should never have invited her on what he knew was a dangerous voyage.
If he ever got another chance, he'd make it right.
Please God. Spare her. She's a good woman. She doesn't deserve this. She's never done anyone any harm.
A sharp noise reverberated in the tight metal space. His ears rang. His head hurt. Everything seemed to stop. Ignoring the excruciating pain from the back of his neck, he turned to see where the sound had come from.
Standing in the door were three men—all Middle Eastern–looking, all dressed in black. They held automatic weapons.
Who the bloody fuck are they?
It was the short one in the middle with the blazing black eyes who seemed to be in charge. He shouted at the pirates in a foreign language—Arabic maybe, or Farsi or Urdu.
The pirates cowered and backed against the wall. They let go of McCullum's terrified, half-naked wife and lifted him into a chair.
"What's…what's going on here?" he asked in a daze.
The Middle Eastern man with the dark eyes and short black beard walked over to the wounded captain and addressed him in broken English: "We take over now. We navy."
"Which navy?" the captain asked, trying to remember which Arab country was nearby. Egypt maybe.
"You safe now. Very safe."
"Thank you. God bless you. But who are you, exactly?"
Tanya ran to his side and crouched beside him. He held her trembling body.
"If you cooperate, your woman and crew will be free. But we need see cargo first."
"The cargo? What country did you say you were from?" McCullum asked, relieved.
"Your cargo, yes."
"Are you Egyptian?" he asked.
The little man smiled. "Egyptian, yes."
"Then be my guest."
Act in the valley so that you need not fear those who stand on the hill.
Chief Warrant Officer Tom Crocker of SEAL Team Six looked up at the moon rising over the mud-walled compound, which was roughly two hundred feet in front of him. Then he turned to Davis, the blond-haired comms man to his right, and asked, "Any news?"
"The drone is on its way."
"How much longer?"
"Ten minutes max."
"Ten additional minutes?"
"That's what HQ said."
The SEAL Team Six assault leader looked down at his watch. It was 2202 hours local time, which meant that they'd been waiting for nearly an hour behind the dry scrub that grew around an outcropping of rocks on a hill in South Yemen.
It was a minor miracle they hadn't been discovered. They sat smack in the middle of al-Qaeda territory only a dozen miles south of the city of Jaar, which had been seized by the terrorists in March 2011.
The lights of a little Yemeni village sparkled in the distance to his right.
This was supposed to be a simple insert-and-destroy, the target a Sunni mullah named Ahmed, formerly a citizen of the UK and currently a vocal leader of al-Qaeda in South Yemen.
Because of U.S. political considerations the target had to be ID'd first, which involved an elaborate trail of digital connections that began with the SEAL team on the ground and ended in a trailer in the parking lot of CIA headquarters, where an officer from the CIA Directorate of Operations had to peer into a video monitor connected by satellite feed to a camera on the drone and confirm that the image on the screen likely corresponded to the intended target. Then, and only then, could he give the order to Crocker and his team to take out the target.
How was the officer in Langley supposed to establish Mullah Ahmed's identity with any degree of certainty when he was probably bearded and wore a black turban like all the other al-Qaeda terrorists? Why was the Agency being so careful?
These were questions of DC bureaucratic politics Crocker had learned to avoid, as much as they seemed to want to drive him crazy.
Instead of complaining, which he knew would do no good, he focused on applying his extensive training, experience, expertise, and instincts to the mission at hand.
- On Sale
- Feb 19, 2013
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown and Company