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The Mercenary Option
     

The Mercenary Option

4.0 3
by Dick Couch
 

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After losing his son in the September 11 attacks, wealthy industrialist Joseph Simpson forms the Intervention Force (IFOR) -- a surgical strike team led by former Navy SEAL Garrett Walker. Officially, the group is a rogue operation with no government affiliation. But when the impossible becomes absolutely necessary, IFOR is...
THE MERCENARY OPTION

Overview

After losing his son in the September 11 attacks, wealthy industrialist Joseph Simpson forms the Intervention Force (IFOR) -- a surgical strike team led by former Navy SEAL Garrett Walker. Officially, the group is a rogue operation with no government affiliation. But when the impossible becomes absolutely necessary, IFOR is...
THE MERCENARY OPTION
Shortly after the terror attacks on America, the American president announces the construction of an oil pipeline across Afghanistan. To stop this, and deter further Western encroachment in Central Asia, a vindictive Saudi prince retains ex-KGB terror broker Pavel Zelinkow -- a prime mover behind al Qaeda's 9/11 attack. Zelinkow plans to steal two nuclear weapons, detonating one of them among the pipeline construction crews and their military guardians, while the target of the second bomb is a mystery. U.S. special operations forces cannot be used against the terrorists hiding in Iran, so IFOR is called into action for the first time on a mission that will test them to their limits: take out the terrorists, recover the nukes, and get Zelinkow -- dead or alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743480116
Publisher:
Pocket Books
Publication date:
11/06/2003
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
265,040
File size:
424 KB

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

Early Thursday afternoon, February 21, 2002,

Martha's Vineyard

A tall, sparse man stepped slowly from the limousine. A blowing northeaster tugged at his thick, well-groomed hair, occasionally pulling the silver thatch away from his ample forehead. It had snowed the previous night, but much of that had melted, leaving scattered patches of soggy, wheat-colored grass pushing through the icy crust. Light rain and large flakes now slanted down from the brooding sky. A somber, well-tended man in an expensive topcoat and bowler hovered at the tall gentleman's elbow.

"This way, please, Mr. Ambassador."

He proffered a large umbrella and, walking slightly ahead, led his charge from the limousine up a shallow rise through several rows of granite markers. Another man, a clone of the one with the umbrella, quietly closed the door of the limo and followed a few steps back. Barnett & Sons had handled these affairs for the Boston Brahmins for close to two centuries. The firm was by no means an inexpensive funeral director, and had the reputation of always being discreet and thorough. Joseph Simpson, former Ambassador to Russia, now made his home on Martha's Vineyard, but he was still considered a Bostonian. Barnett & Sons had known of the death well before most in Boston; they made it their business to know when there was a death in a wealthy or important family. When the call from Simpson's office came, they asked a few polite questions and then quietly set themselves to making the arrangements.

Joseph Simpson was an impressive man in his late fifties. Normally, he exuded confidence and authority, but not today. His features were drawn, and his blue eyes, usually sharp and highly focused, were now clouded and myopic. He moved stiffly, as if with great difficulty, and he looked old and vulnerable. If Simpson seemed lost and lacking direction, the man from Barnett & Sons did not. He guided Simpson to the open grave and stepped quietly to one side. The careful distribution of artificial turf around the rectangular opening in the earth did nothing to blunt the coldness or finality of its purpose.

At Simpson's request, there had been a simple burial mass and now a small graveside ceremony at the family plot. There was no striped awning to protect close friends and business associates of the bereaved. They gathered around the grave site under a sea of umbrellas. Moments later, Simpson was joined by a stunning young woman, dressed in black. She stood near Simpson, but not too close, and clung to the arm of another man who bent to comfort her. Then six men, all but one in their mid-thirties, struggled forward with a polished walnut coffin and slid it onto a trolley at the foot of the grave. After they had joined the band of mourners, two Barnett men guided the casket smoothly over the opening. With a faint creaking, the nylon lowering straps took the strain. For several moments, the water-beaded wooden box claimed their attention. Then an elderly priest at the head of the grave cleared his throat.

"May the good Lord God bless you and keep you," he began in a thick Irish brogue. "We are gathered here to commit the worldly remains of Joseph Patrick Simpson, Jr. Please join me in prayer."

The old priest's voice strained to be heard above the wind, but true to his heritage and calling, he was most eloquent, and his words came from the heart. He asked a merciful God to receive the immortal soul of the departed and to bring comfort to the family. Joe Simpson Sr. heard almost none of it. While he stared at the box that held his firstborn, his mind flashed back to better times -- his son's first communion, teaching him to drive long before he was of legal age, fishing for stripers around Buzzards Bay, shooting ducks together along the Chesapeake, his graduation from Phillips Exeter, the commencement in Harvard Yard. The images flipped through his mind like a jerky, silent black-and-white film. These reflections were punctuated by lengthy gaps of time, for Joe Simpson was a man whose business interests kept him away from home much of the time. I'm sorry, Joey. Dear God, why couldn't it have been me instead of you? You had so much to look forward to, and I have so little. Why was it you?

"...dust to dust, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen."

"Amen," murmured the group of mourners. There was a collective motion as a number of the bundled forms crossed themselves.

"Good people, thank you for your prayers at this difficult time. And now, the family would like a few moments to themselves."

The gathered mourners moved away quickly, for the weather was every bit as bitter as the event that had brought them there. In pairs and small groups, they made their way to the line of limousines that stretched along the paved access road. The priest watched them go, then moved around to the three figures who remained. He first took Simpson's hand and squeezed it with both of his own. There was surprising strength in the old man's cold, bony fingers.

"I'll pray for him, Joe, and for you." He said no more. Experience had taught him that grieving fathers have little interest in hearing that the loss of their sons is God's will or part of His divine plan. He moved on to the young woman.

"Annie, dear, I'm so sorry," he said, also taking her hand. "I loved him, and I love you. We'll miss him." Words like these, often difficult between family members, are quite natural for an Irish priest, spoken with absolute and complete sincerity.

"Thank you, Father. Uh, Father Kelly, this is my husband, Matt."

He grasped the offered hand once again with both of his own. Father Kelly had a need to touch people. "Matthew, even at this difficult time, I'm happy to meet you." Kelly had baptized and confirmed Anne Simpson, but he had not married her. He also knew she had left the church and married away from it. Still, there was not the least hint of censure or judgment in the old cleric's voice. The priest stepped back from the three, mentally embracing them for a moment. Then he blessed them with the sign of the cross: "May Almighty God be with you and ease your burden." He raised a wide-brimmed hat, the kind worn by rural clergy in the old country, and set it firmly on the nearly bald pate, graced only with translucent wisps of white hair. Then he took his leave.

For a while, no one spoke. Then Joe turned to his daughter and son-in-law.

"I have to go, Dad," she said before he could ask her to stay. "We have to catch the next ferry if we're going to make it to Logan in time for our flight."

He started to speak, to say that if she wanted to come back to the house for a while, his helicopter could easily get them to Logan International for their flight. Or for that matter, his private jet could take them back to St. Louis. Instead, he just nodded, knowing in his heart that nothing had changed. In most ways that counted to a father, he had lost his daughter as well as his son.

"I understand, Annie. Thank you for being here."

"Good-bye, Dad." She stepped forward, kissing him lightly on the cheek, and walked away.

Joe Simpson held himself erect with some difficulty and extended his hand. "Take care of her, Matt, please." There was a pleading in his voice, and Joseph Simpson was a man who seldom had to ask for anything.

"Yes, sir. You have my word on it." Matt looked Simpson straight in the eye as he spoke, then followed his wife to the waiting car. Strangely, amid the torrent of sympathy that had washed over Joseph Simpson during the past several days, these were the only words in which he took any measure of comfort. Simpson turned and nodded to one of the many, but seemingly invisible, attendants from Barnett & Sons.

"Now."

"Now, sir?" Family members customarily left at this time.

"Now."

Simpson watched impassively as the coffin was lowered into the ground. The spools of strapping paid out evenly so the casket remained level in its slow descent. The squeal of a single faulty roller bearing was the only sound, save for the persistent howl of the wind. This accomplished, two of the attendants returned to the waiting hearse. The others waited at a discreet distance. Joe Sr. stood there without moving, long enough for those attendants who remained to begin to lose feeling in their gloved fingers.

"Good-bye, Joey," he said, quietly enough for only the wind and the spirit of the boy at the bottom of the grave to hear.

Simpson turned and walked a few feet to a nearby marker. He stood for a moment at the base of the small monument, then dropped to his knees. His wool trousers immediately wicked the melting snow up around his knees and shins. It was a simple granite slab with deeply-carved black lettering: "Prudence Simpson, 1944-2000." The stone engraving continued, "Beloved Wife, Loving Mother," but the words remained blurry, no matter how much he blinked. As if he no longer had the will to remain upright, he sat back on his heels and bowed his head. Tears cut parallel tracks down his smooth cheeks, gathering briefly at the corners of his mouth before continuing down around his chin. There were no sobs or cries of anguish. He simply folded his arms across his chest and wept quietly, and as he allowed himself to cry, he finally allowed himself to grieve. Joe Simpson remained that way, kneeling at the grave of his wife, for perhaps a half hour -- long enough for the day to sink into deeper shades of gray and for the wet snow to begin to collect on the shoulders of his wool topcoat.

"Joey's coming, Pru. Look after him," he said finally, realizing that if this were indeed true, Joey was probably already there. Then he added, "Please, God, in your world, let neither of them know the loneliness I now feel without them." It was the first time Joseph Simpson had asked God for anything since he prayed for the repose of his mother's soul.

With that he leaned forward and began to push himself to his feet. It was a difficult task, as he had almost no feeling below his waist. One of the attendants started forward to help, but Simpson waved him away. Then, with as much dignity as he could muster, he methodically made his way across the soggy ground toward the single waiting limousine.

On the way out of the cemetery, he glanced from the limo window at the well-known grave of John Belushi, perhaps the Vineyard's most celebrated decedent. Another time, any thought he might have had for the little cemetery's most famous resident would have been distaste for the careless manner in which he felt Belushi had lived and died. Simpson cared little for celebrities; he himself was a very private man and anything but careless. Joey and John Belushi had lived very different lives, he reflected, and yet here they were, sharing the same fate and small plot of land on a little island off Cape Cod. Just what the hell is it all about anyway? he thought. Is this all it comes down to? To be put in the ground and forgotten? I'll be damned if that's the end of it! It's not revenge I want; it's justice. There needs to be a reckoning.

Late Thursday afternoon, February 21,

Coronado, California

The tall man at the end of the bar sat hunched over his glass, staring straight ahead. He was in his late thirties, but looked much younger. There was an intensity and presence about him that suggested he might have been a trial attorney or corporate executive, but neither description really quite fit. When he leaned to one side to fish a twenty-dollar bill from his jeans, his movements were smooth and economical. He had large and powerful hands, with heavy knuckles, yet he moved with a great deal of natural grace. His thick brown hair was freshly barbered -- clean, short, and neatly parted. He had handsome, open features, yet he possessed a certain aloofness that invited neither contact nor conversation.

Along the bar, an agreeable banter rose from those who had just left work and those who didn't have to work. The Brigantine was a semi-local Coronado watering hole that attracted a brisk five-o'clock crowd. Some were there for the generous shots the bar poured, and some came for the half-price fish tacos served from the bar menu during happy hour. A few of the Brig regulars made the drive over the bridge from San Diego, but most were Coronado village regulars. It was not a young person's place, and several middle-aged men scanned the growing crowd, making no attempt to be subtle. The divorcees made their way in, hoping to find an empty table so they wouldn't have to float along the edge of the bar. They came in twos and threes, some apprehensive and ill at ease, and some not. The man at the end of the bar was aware of all of this, for he had highly developed situational awareness skills, but he remained detached, isolated.

I still can't believe it. I simply can't believe I'm out. Master Chief Garrett Walker tapped the empty glass in front of him, and within seconds the bartender slid another tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black Label in front of him, neat with a splash and a twist. He nodded his thanks. Holding the base of the glass delicately between his thumb and middle finger, he began to make slow wet circles on the polished wood surface. Normally, he drank very sparingly, but this evening he was feeling anything but temperate. He smiled wryly; he had never been one to feel sorry for himself, but that was exactly what he was doing now. In fact, it's downright ironic. All things considered, I'm better now than I was five or even ten years ago. He smiled again. You'd think all those years of training and time on deployment -- all that experience -- would count for something. Especially now -- now I'm really needed. But the doctors, the first, second, and then third opinions, had been unanimous; he was finished. Of course, there were the not-so-strenuous, nonoperational options, but the thought of riding a desk while others went off to do the real work did not sit well. For me it would be damned insulting, he thought; that's not who I am. I'm not a goddamn cripple, and I'll not have people treating me as if I were.

It had been ten months since it happened, nine since the last surgery. An Iraqi bullet had taken him in the side and clipped the lower portion of his right lung. The reconstruction had cost him two inches of that lung, but no more. The surgeons who had operated on him pronounced the operation a success and released him for light duty. Light duty for Garrett Walker was easy conditioning runs on the beach. Only ten days after he left the Balboa Naval Hospital, he seriously began working out -- not just running and calisthenics, but a training regime carefully designed to allow his injuries to heal while he hardened other parts of his body. Then when he had fully mended internally, he began to push himself: open-ocean, cold-water swims in the cove at La Jolla, forced marches with combat load in the mountains in the La Posta Mountains, and sand runs in combat boots. He had a reputation for being hard, and he was fiercely determined to bring himself back stronger than ever. And he had done just that.

This was not the first time Garrett had pounded himself back into shape after major surgery. He had been wounded in the Gulf War, taking a round in his elbow that had sent him into a series of reconstructive surgeries. Then there was the incident three years ago with his brother. His twin brother had lost his kidneys, and Garrett had been flown back from an overseas deployment to provide his brother with one of his own organs. Apparently you could do the job with only one kidney, but not with a partial right lung.

"Jesus H. Christ," Walker said to himself. And he again thought about all those years and all those deployments. Now the real thing was here, and men like him, men with combat experience, were desperately needed. His country was at war -- from the looks of it, a long war where there would be a premium on special operations. And he was out of it!

It had been real enough last year when his platoon was on a reconnaissance mission in northern Iraq, looking for evidence that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction in the northern desert. The Iraqi ambush of his platoon had almost worked. Since they were in Kurdish-controlled territory, the Iraqis had taken them completely by surprise. But the rear element of his squad had immediately flanked the enemy position. So intent had the Iraqis been at shooting at the point element of his squad that they neglected to note the movement of the rest of his squad until it was too late. While he and the lead members of the squad had been pinned down, the guys bringing up the rear of the file made it look like a training exercise. When it was over, his men had killed a dozen of them. But there was a cost to the skirmish. Lieutenant Williamson had been killed in the first volley; a single AK-47 round had entered his left eye and opened the back of his head like a melon. And Garrett had also taken a bullet in his right lung. An inch or two lower, and it would have missed the lung, but it didn't. A second round had punched a perfect hole in his right ear. Involuntarily, he raised a fingertip to the ridge of his ear and felt the scar tissue. It was now a notch, as the outer portion of skin had died off and left him a U-shaped cleft instead of a circle. He smiled to himself, thinking that had the bullet been an inch or two to the left, he wouldn't be on a bar stool in the Brigantine feeling sorry for himself. But a firefight, like life itself, is unpredictable. Their Kurdish point man, closest to the ambush, had five bullet holes in his clothes and equipment, but amazingly didn't get a scratch to himself. Garrett sipped his drink and permitted himself a slight grin. But the squad, his squad -- the men Garrett Walker had personally trained -- had performed flawlessly, which allowed them to turn the ambush into a killing zone for the Iraqi patrol. The engagement was just one of the many unreported engagements in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq -- and Garrett Walker's last firefight. His smile quickly faded as he realized again that he would never again lead men in harm's way.

It's unfair, he told himself for the hundredth time; I've never felt better or been more fit. He tried to be philosophical about it, for Garrett Walker was a man who knew all too well that life is not always fair. Afghanistan had shown that special operations was now a pivotal element in modern warfare. And now he was about to become a civilian; he felt so frustrated.

He went back to his drink, trying to shake off the events of the recent past he couldn't change. As he did, two men stepped through the entrance and to either side of the door, scanning the bar and the nearby tables. They were dressed in blue jeans, T-shirts, and Nikes. Without a word, the two began to work their way through the crowd. They had the same hard, athletic look as the man at the end of the bar, as if all three belonged to the same professional sports team. In many ways they did; all were members of SEAL Team Three.

"Thought we might find you hiding out in here," said one of the new arrivals. "A few of the guys down at Greg's would like to buy you a beer." Of the two, he was the younger but a powerfully built man. He glanced around at the "civilians" crowded along the bar with a measure of disdain. "C'mon, Master Chief, you don't belong here."

Garrett swung around on his stool to face them. "Now that's where you're wrong, Lieutenant. I do belong here. You're team guys, and I'm a civilian -- almost." He gave a helpless gesture that revealed an intricately tattooed dragon on his forearm.

The second man gave a quick snort and smiled. "Yeah, right, and I'm a fuckin' social worker." He was older, with a touch of gray at his temples and a hard, gravelly voice. "Look, Tag, they can put a man out of the teams, but they can't take the teams out of the man. The day you can't call yourself a SEAL, none of us can. Now are you gonna sit there like a bottle of urine and drink with these weenies, or are you gonna come have a beer with us?"

Garrett gave them both an even stare that caused the younger man to look away and smile. "You know, Master Chief, there's close to a full platoon of your men down at Greg's, and they'll follow just about any order I give them. Now, you can un-ass that stool and come along with us peaceably, or I'll send them in here to get you." He again glanced around the bar. "It won't be pretty, 'cause I know you can be a little recalcitrant when you want to be, but they will drag your sorry butt out of here."

Garrett regarded the two intruders for a moment, then knocked back his drink. He set the empty glass on the bar and slid from the stool. He waved to the bartender to keep the change. "Looks like we're all going to Greg's for a drink."

As they threaded their way out, they raised a few eyebrows, but not many. Coronado, California, was considered home base for the West Coast Navy SEAL teams. The SEAL complex occupied a stretch of Pacific beachfront less than a half mile south of Coronado on the Silver Strand, a thread of sand that connected Coronado to Imperial Beach, just above the Mexican border. They didn't have to be in uniform to be positively identified as Navy SEALs.

McP's Irish Pub was on Orange Avenue, less than a block east of the Brigantine on the same side of the street. The owner, Greg McPartland, was a Vietnam-era SEAL, and over the years McP's had become the off-duty hangout for nondeployed Navy SEALs. Greg served good sandwiches, thick Irish stews, and plenty of beer and stout. Promotions, wakes, and even wedding receptions of team members were held at McP's. The main bar area seated thirty or more, with standing room for four times that many. Tables crowded along one wall up to a small bandstand and an even smaller dance floor along the back wall. A large SEAL insignia, an eagle clutching a trident and flintlock pistol superimposed on an anchor, hung over the bar. On most weeknights, the crowd spilled out from the main bar area onto the patio, a large walled area that was twice the size of the interior. The lieutenant led Garrett and the other SEAL around to the back entrance of the patio.

"Hooyah, Master Chief!" shouted a young SEAL standing at a bar set in an alcove to the main building. He was drawing a beer from the tap of an iced keg of Bass Ale resting on the counter.

"Yo, Tag."

"Good job, Lieutenant."

"Bong-bong; E-nine, arriving."

The three new arrivals were absorbed into the group. Someone handed Garrett a fresh schooner of beer that sent a wave of foam cascading down across his hand and fingers. There were about twelve of them, all in jeans or shorts and T-shirts. Some wore sandals, others sneakers. He quickly surveyed them with a measure of pride and sadness. This was his last platoon. He had trained these men, worked them hard, and made them into a combat team. Most of them he had taken on deployment. Soon all of them would be back in the thick of it, but he would not be with them. Navy SEALs are tough and smart, but they're also very independent. Teamwork sometimes comes hard to them. Often, getting these individuals to function as a unit requires advanced ego-management skills. Garrett did this well. He knew when to push, when to pull, and when needed, when to threaten. For the most part he had led by quiet example, but not always. As he took a long pull on the ale, he realized that was what he would miss the most: taking a bunch of rowdy, freewheeling, independent Navy SEALs and hammering them into a fighting unit -- a team.

"Here, Master Chief, let me top that off for you." A young SEAL refilled his glass and quickly returned it.

"Don't know what we're gonna do without you, Master Chief. Who's gonna teach us how to loot and shoot?"

Garrett smiled. Barnes was young, just out of training and new to the platoon, but already a solid performer. "How many times do I have to tell you, Barnes -- first comes the shooting, then the looting."

"Oh, yeah, Master Chief." He grinned. "I always get them backward. So what are you going to do now?"

Garrett put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "You know, Barnes, I'm going to deck the next guy who asks me that." Then, in a quieter tone, "Because I really have no fuckin' idea. And why don't you lose the 'Master Chief' and just call me Garrett, or Tag, if you like."

The young man stepped back and drew himself upright. "Oh, I don't know about that, Master Chief."

"Well, you work on it, Barnes."

Garrett moved about, taking a moment with each of his platoon mates. Gradually he worked his way to the side of the patio, where several senior enlisted SEALs were seated around a table.

"Well, look what the cat, I mean, look what the lieutenant dragged in."

"Have a seat, Tag."

"Yeah, Tag. An old guy like you shouldn't try to stand up and drink beer at the same time."

Garrett "Tag" Walker had grown up in Arkansas and had gone to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship. He was there for only two years, but gained a reputation as a vicious hitter. During his freshman year, he sidelined a star Ohio State wide receiver, knocking him unconscious. It was a clean but devastating tackle. "I only tagged him," he was heard to say as they wheeled the fallen Ohio State man from the field, and the name stuck.

Garrett kicked a chair out, spun it around, and sat down, resting his forearms across the backrest. "You know, my forced retirement does have an upside. I won't have to sit around and listen to you old ladies whine all the time."

"You know, Frank," one of them said, turning to his companion, "even though Tag here is something of a no-load and a sea lawyer, I'm gonna kind of miss him."

"I hear you, Bobby," Frank replied. Frank was one of the few black men in the teams, built like a wall but

with an easy grin. "He is kind of a lightweight, but I've grown a little fond of him over the years, just a little, mind you."

The comments around the table continued at Garrett's expense, but it was a forced bonhomie. These were senior SEAL operators and all chief petty officers. They were the best of their breed, which meant they were among the elite of the world's special operations forces. Each could only imagine his own personal trauma if he were to be suddenly separated from the teams. Unlike the young SEAL, none of them asked about Garrett's plans. They all knew he would talk about his future in his own good time.

"Well it's not going to be an easy adjustment," Garrett said reflectively as he finished his beer. "No more long deployments, no more lousy Navy chow, no more weekend duty, no more night training exercises, no more long cold-water ocean swims. I'll just have to find some other way to spend my time." He signaled to a passing waitress. "Cindy, could you bring myself and these other pretenders each a double shot of tequila." A slight grin played on his lips as he surveyed the other SEAL chiefs around the table. "I don't suppose you heroes object to having a drink with a lightweight, do you? Certainly not on his last night in the teams on active duty, right?"

When Cindy arrived with a tray of double shots, Garrett immediately sent her back for another round. Two more chief petty officers joined them, along with the lieutenant who had corralled Garrett at the Brigantine. They pulled a chair up to the table before they realized what was up; all were honor-bound to drink with Master Chief Garrett Walker, USN, soon-to-be USN retired. While the younger SEALs wandered into the main bar at McP's to check out the girls who invariably appeared when the music started, the others sat with the lame-duck Master Chief and drank shot after double shot of Jose Cuervo. At closing time, about 1:00 A.M., Garrett pushed himself up from the table and surveyed his glassy-eyed companions.

"Well, gentlemen, it's about that time." He studied his wristwatch. "I see by my deep-diving, washer-proof Navy SEAL chronometer, we have quarters in about six hours. I'll be very dish-appointed if I don't see you all in formation. Good night."

With that he left the patio at McP's and walked out onto Orange Avenue. It took him no more than five minutes to cover the six blocks to his studio apartment that overlooked the Coronado Yacht Club. He let himself in, carefully set the alarm clock, and fell onto the sofa, fully clothed.

Friday morning, February 22,

Pokhara, Nepal

While it was Thursday evening on the West Coast, it was late Friday morning in Nepal. It was a clear day, but there was still a bitter chill in the air. The mountain village was now buzzing with activity as bundled women moved among the street vendors in search of daily produce. Across from the marketplace, Bijay sat at a table outside the café enjoying the morning sunshine in spite of the cold. The tea had been properly served to his specification, but it needed to steep for several more minutes before it reached the rich proportion he relished. He had not grown up in Pokhara, but several kilometers to the northwest, almost in the shadow of Annapurna. He had only been back six months, and already he was restless. Restless was too strong a term for Bijay; he was far too disciplined to become restless from inactivity, yet he knew that his spirit was not entirely at peace, and the inactivity did not help. Still, the sunshine and the prospect of enjoying the warm brew steaming in the pot in front of him helped to settle him.

Bijay was in much the same situation as Garrett Walker, but his circumstance could not have been more different. Garrett was rated by his peers as one of the best, but outside the small fraternity of Navy SEALs he was an unknown. In the kingdom of Nepal, Bijay Gurung was a national hero.

As the last vestiges of the British Empire were snuffed out, Britain's need for a large standing military force decreased. This was especially true for her light infantry and expeditionary forces. Perhaps the most expendable of those units, although those best loved by the British people, were the Gurkhas. The British Army and the tough little men from the hills had carried on a mutual-admiration affair for close to two centuries. The Gurkha regiments had served under the Union Jack in both world wars and numerous conflicts before and since. But when the Brits returned Hong Kong to the Chinese, the last of the British Army Gurkhas were brought home to England. At one time, more than 120,000 Gurkhas served in the British military. Today there is a single brigade of less than 6,000 men. All are now garrisoned in England, with a small contingent in Singapore and a battalion in Brunei. It was in Brunei, where Bijay served as battalion sergeant major, that the unfortunate incident had taken place -- the incident that sent Bijay from that desert kingdom back to his home in the hill country.

"Mr. Gurung? Bijay Gurung?"

Bijay looked up. "Yes?"

"May I please have a moment of your time?" The speaker was dressed in a Western-style business suit, but he was clearly a man out of uniform. He had close-cropped, shiny black hair and rounded features. His complexion was smooth and dark, almost as dark as that of Bijay himself. Bijay could see that he was Hindu, and as he moved closer, could also smell that he was Hindu. The faint distinctive odor that Bijay recognized was not, however, unpleasant. Bijay felt that in some previous life, he too had been Hindu.

"Your presence is most welcome. It is a fine day, and there is room at the table for more than myself."

"Thank you," the newcomer replied, and as a show of courtesy and respect, he inclined his head with hands folded, fingers straight under his chin.

Another cup appeared immediately. The proprietor kept close watch on his most important patron and assumed that his new companion might be equally important. He also knew he could learn little from Bijay's manner, for he would treat a king or a beggar with the same polite respect.

"For my own taste, the tea has reached its proper time." He poured for the stranger. "I hope you find it pleasing."

The man murmured his thanks. Courtesy required that they first attend to the tea, each taking the next few minutes to sniff, blow, and sip at the pungent brew. After an appropriate interval, Bijay's guest cleared his throat.

"Without my having to state my business, I am sure you know who I am and why I have come to see you." For an Indian, his Gurkhali was very good. Gurkhali was not Bijay's native speech, but few outside his home village spoke his dialect of Gurungkura. "And I am sure," he continued, "that I am not the first to seek you out." Bijay inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment. "My name is Mikki Singh, Major Mikki Singh. I serve as adjutant with the 9th Indian Gurkha Rifles." He lowered his head. "My colonel sent me personally to speak with you, both as a gesture of his respect and as a tribute to the esteem with which you are held by the men in my regiment."

Bijay also lowered his head. "You have traveled far, Major Mikki Singh," he said neutrally, "and you do this humble soldier honor. But I fear you have made your journey to no avail; I will not again serve in the regiments." As a show of respect, Bijay was careful to make no distinction between the British Gurkha regiments and the Indian Army Gurkha regiments.

British Raj began the custom of hiring Gurkha mercenaries in 1814, following a bloody border war with Nepal. They found the tough little tribesmen a formidable enemy. After the fighting, the British quickly sought them as retainers. Thus began the long attachment that the British have for the doughty, reliable Gurkhas. While the British were drastically reducing the size of their Gurkha brigade, as well as their forward-deployed forces, the Indian Army still paid for close to a hundred thousand Gurkha troops, a complement of eight full regiments. India paid their Gurkhas less than the British, and the Indian Gurkha regiments were considered inferior to those of the British brigade. Moreover, the Gurkhas genuinely liked the British, due to the quality of the British officer corps, while they often only tolerated the Indians. Still, the Indians needed Gurkhas. India has a long border with Pakistan and China, and the Gurkha regiments, even under Indian officers, were more reliable than native troops. America's pursuit of terrorists had done little to quiet tensions on the Indian-Pakistani border. More than a million men were under arms in and around the disputed state of Kashmir. If fighting broke out, India wanted as many Gurkhas under arms as possible.

"I am very sorry," Bijay concluded, "but it seems that your visit here has been for nothing."

It violated protocol for Major Singh to continue, but he had no alternative. "If you will permit me, may I speak?" Bijay nodded politely; the man had, after all, traveled a great distance to see him.

"My regiment, the 9th Indian Gurkha Rifles, will offer you a commission as a subadar, a captain in the Indian Army, plus a generous signing bonus. We will also offer you a monthly honorarium equal to what you have been paid by your previous employer." Major Singh paused for a moment while Bijay digested this. "We are also prepared to honor your years of service toward an Indian Army pension."

Singh studied the man across the table. He was tall for a Gurkha, but then he was part Indian with some Persian blood -- an oddity for a Gurung from the mountain tribes. Like many who served in the British Brigade of Gurkhas, Bijay's last name was the same as that of his tribe, the Gurung. Warrant Officer First Class Bijay Gurung was a famous warrior and known throughout Nepal. During the Gulf War, a small detachment of Gurkhas had been seconded to an elite force of the Special Air Service. The SAS, perhaps the best ground special operations unit in the world, is reluctant to work with outsiders, but they welcomed the Gurkhas. Since Bijay spoke flawless Arabic, he proved quite useful. One night they inserted into the western desert to pick up a downed Tornado pilot. It proved to be a Republican Guard trap. When they reached the pilot, they found themselves surrounded and badly outnumbered. Good as they are, the SAS is not infantry; Gurkhas are. Bijay led four other Gurkhas in a ferocious attack. The startled Iraqis fell back, thinking they had ambushed a company rather than a squad-sized unit. All five Gurkhas were wounded, but they broke the Iraqi line. The SAS troopers, along with the Tornado pilot, scrambled through the breach. The Gurkhas fought a rearguard action that allowed them to be rescued by an American special operations Pavehawk helicopter. On extraction, two of the Gurkhas were again hit by Iraqi fire and died of their wounds before the helicopter landed. For his bravery, then Corporal Bijay Gurung became the fourteenth Gurkha to be awarded the Victoria Cross, England's highest award for bravery.

Britain pays its retired Gurkhas who hold the V.C. the sum of one hundred pounds sterling per month. Only a few of them are alive today to collect their monthly bonus. Major Singh and the Indian Army were offering to match the hundred pounds Bijay now received, and this was in addition to his British pension. It was a very attractive offer, and Singh knew it. He also knew Bijay Gurung's enlistment in an Indian Gurkha regiment would be worth all of that and more. The Indians had experienced difficulty of late in finding good recruits from the hill tribes. In spite of the draw-down by the British Brigade, few veterans wanted to soldier with the Indians; they felt it demeaned them. That could all change if Bijay Gurung joined an Indian Gurkha regiment.

Bijay considered Singh's offer. It was more than generous. With his pension from the British, along with the Indian Army pay as a captain and the double bonus, he would make more in a month than most prosperous businessmen in Kathmandu. Bijay tried to picture himself in the uniform of an Indian Gurkha regiment with the pips of a subaltern on his epaulets. He would have smiled at the notion, but that would have been impolite.

"Major Singh, do you know why I no longer serve in the British Brigade?"

"I do," replied Singh.

"Then you must know why I can never again serve the regimental colors, any regimental colors."

Major Singh started to speak, but Bijay's features had suddenly hardened, so he remained silent.

Thursday evening, February 21,

the White House

The vacuum system quietly and gently removed the cigar smoke from the room, but not quite fast enough for Armand Grummell. He sat in one of the leather chairs, polishing his glasses. That they were very fine cigars -- Dominican, not Cuban -- did not alleviate his displeasure at having to deal with the acrid smell. The stewards removed the last of the place settings and returned with after-dinner drinks. The ashtrays were already in place. The pleasure of each of the four men around the table was known to the servers and quietly placed in front of him. For Grummell, it was decaf coffee; for the others, their particular brand of scotch or bourbon. It was known by a select few, which included those present, that the ferocity by which Armand Grummell buffed his spectacles was a clear indication of his level of anxiety. This evening he burnished them as if he were trying to make fire. Their work done, the servers withdrew from the room.

"Armand, why don't you tell us about it?" the President said gently. "It will make you feel a little better."

Grummell snapped the Commander in Chief a sharp look and quickly returned to his cleaning task. The President had a mild exchange of eye contact with the other two men around the table, not without a hint of amusement. But it was very guarded. All three knew too well that if Armand Grummell was apprehen-sive or fearful, only a fool would ignore his reasons for being so.

"Sir, I'm not so sure that this will not cause us more problems than it will solve." Grummell had been the Director of Central Intelligence for close to fourteen years. He was rapidly becoming to the CIA what Hoover had been to the FBI, although Grummell's intellect and integrity were in keeping with his tenure. He served the nation, not the administration, but that did not mean he was disloyal to his president. One of the first duties of any new Chief Executive during the last three decades was to see if he could convince Armand Grummell to stay on. He was close to seventy-five, a widower, and enjoyed a level of trust among the political establishment of both persuasions that rivaled Walter Cronkite.

"Go on," William St. Claire prompted. President Bill St. Claire, or Saint Bill as his friends called him behind his back, respected, admired, and genuinely liked his DCI. If Grummell was troubled, then he had good reason for concern. Bill St. Claire was well into his first term. He had had his beefs with an opposition Congress, but by and large, his constituents considered him a good steward of the state. He had been accused of being a caretaker president on domestic issues, but consistently received high marks on foreign policy. One of the reasons for his good start was Armand Grummell.

The other two men around the table were no less appreciative of Grummell's talents, nor could they rest easy with an issue with which he was having problems. James Powers had been a classmate of the President's at Choate and Cornell. He had proved a capable Secretary of State, due more to his managerial skills than his ability at statecraft. He was totally loyal to Bill St. Claire and a little envious of the esteem in which his president held his DCI. But Powers could find little fault with Grummell. He was certain Grummell knew how he felt about him, but the older man had always treated him with dignity and respect. But then he treated everyone that way. Anthony Barbata thought Armand Grummell was a stitch. He treated Grummell with exaggerated deference, like a Mafia don, but there was a twinkle in his eye as he did so. In some ways Grummell reminded Barbata of the butler in the movie Arthur -- perceptive, polite to a fault, honest, and wise. Yet he respected and genuinely admired Grummell, and they understood one another. As a result, there was a spirit of trust and cooperation that was seldom found between the Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense. Barbata could ask him anything in confidence, and Grummell would respect that confidence. All of them knew Grummell was a professional and a team player, but above all, he was a patriot.

These four men, meeting informally like this, made most of the major foreign policy decisions that affected the United States. They also passed final judgment on most national security issues. That they did so in the absence of the National Security Adviser was a testimony to the faith the President placed in these three men.

"There are too many variables. To begin with," Grummell said, grasping his left index finger with his right hand, "there are the Russians. One of the keys to stability in Central and Southwest Asia, and much of the Middle East, is Russia. Putin and his crowd stand to make a lot of money if the Caspian product goes north." He moved to grasp two left fingers. "Secondly, Iran wants the project to come across their territory. They have done little to merit our consideration, but by offending Iran, we put off any hope we may have had to advance the cause of the conservative mullahs. Thirdly, anything that benefits Pakistan will put us at odds with the Indians. And I don't have to remind you that India is the only democracy in the region. Then there is due consideration we must afford Turkey. They have stood by us in the region, and allowed us bases to stage military operations into northern Iraq. They will want to know why we do not bring this their way, to a Black Sea port and on through the Dardanelles. The Turks have been our friends; this will put that friendship at risk." Apparently satisfied with his work, he paused to hook an ear with one wire shank of his glasses and dragged the spotless lenses across his face to the other ear. Spectacles in place, he continued. "But it's the Saudis I fear the most. The Saudis cannot like the fact that a fully developed Caspian region could reach more than half their production in ten years. The House of Saud is not fully in control of their country, but so far they have been able to buy off their opposition. This Caspian venture will threaten that, which means it will threaten the royal family."

A weighty silence hung in air. President St. Claire trusted these colleagues implicitly, and he liked the dynamic by which they worked through issues. None were afraid to speak their mind, and none took a slight away from the table if their opinion ran contrary to the consensus or the decision of the President. President Bill St. Claire wanted to know how they individually felt about the issue.

"Jim?"

"I agree with Armand...up to a point. I am concerned about Russia and Turkey, but what choice do they have? And this will help both of them regarding their problems with Islamic fundamentalists -- problems primarily funded by the Saudis." James Powers looked like a Secretary of State -- rich silver hair, generous eyebrows, and a face that was pink, firm, and well-proportioned. He gave the impression of firmness, not rigidity, and power rather than strength. And he was a very good thinker. "I do have some reservations regarding our relations with Iran. Iran is probably the closest thing to a representative form of government in the region. They still support Hezbollah and terrorism, but that support has been waning of late. We're making progress with Iran; I'd hate to see that progress end or be reversed by all this. The Indians, well, the Indians will settle with the Paks at a time and place of their own choosing, and there will be damn little we can do to stop them. Even with my reservations about Iran, I say we do it."

"How about you, Tony?"

Anthony Barbata had brought a reputation of brilliance and perseverance from the courtroom to the defense department. The senior members of the uniformed services either loved or hated him, but few were ambivalent about the fiery SecDef. He had been a passionate and tenacious trial lawyer, and now the Department of Defense was his client. But he had always demanded total honesty from his clients. That hadn't changed. A few admirals, generals, and service secretaries had been slow to grasp this, and tried to be less than candid with him. They were now wearing suits and serving on boards of directors for defense contractors or working as lobbyists. Barbata had a degree in engineering from MIT, an MBA from Harvard, and a law degree from Columbia. He looked like an older, very fit version of Sal Mineo.

"I got special operations people all over Afghanistan, northern Iraq, and even a few in western Iran chasing these al Qaeda thugs. It's like herding squirrels. We chase 'em, we kill a few, but I'm not sure we're staying ahead of the breeding grounds in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, let alone the smaller camps in Iran and Iraq. If we build it, we will have to guard it. And that will give us a clear reason for a strong presence there. We have a lot of technology at our disposal, but we will still have to have people on the ground. We'll be in a position to help the Paks clean their own house, and the basing to effectively move anywhere in Southwest Asia or to launch into Iran if and when we have to. It will allow us to carry a bigger stick and use it to better advantage. And it will scare the living shit out of those warlords that think they can outlast our special operations probes. I like it."

After a long pause, the President spoke. "So do I. The nation seems to be putting 9/11 behind them. We're losing popular support for preemptive measures, and we have to be in a position to respond. At this juncture, there seems to be a great deal to recommend this course of action. I am, however, sorry that you oppose the plan, Armand."

"Oh, I didn't say that I opposed the plan, Mr. President. And I agree that we may have no other alternative. I simply wanted to point out that there are many variables. And that equates to a great deal of risk." Grummell was again aggressively polishing his glasses.

The President was silent for several minutes. This was what Barbata and Powers secretly between them called the moment of truth. A decision was coming from Bill St. Claire, and they would all get behind it.

"Very well," the Chief Executive proclaimed after a heavy sigh. "I'd like to announce this in a press conference in two weeks. Jim, get me a prioritized list of the key heads of state within NATO along with the regional players, and when you feel we should let them know. Since most of these are calls I will have to make personally, I'll want the hard ones first. Tony, get your service chiefs on this as soon as possible. I'll want to know the scope of our deployed posture to begin the project, through the construction phase and when we go operational. And Armand, I want you to stay skeptical and be the devil's advocate on this. I'd like to front-run as many of the problems as possible." He paused for just a moment. "Okay then, let's make it happen."

The President rose, as did the other three men. "One more thing," James Powers interjected. "What are we going to call this project? Perhaps it should have a name of our choosing."

They paused and looked at Bill St. Claire. "How about the Trans-Afghan Pipeline?" he offered. "Or TAP for short."

There was a general murmur of agreement as they filed out of the small West Wing conference room.

Late Thursday evening, February 21,

Martha's Vineyard

The Simpson estate occupied a large tract of land near Chilmark. Considering the size of the property and quality of the grounds, the turn-of-the-century Cape Cod saltbox was modest. The house rested on a gentle knoll with an excellent view of South Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. For sheer grandeur, it was an unremarkable dwelling when compared with other estate homes on the Vineyard, but Prudence Simpson had restored it to the last detail. The home was dated, yet it had a charm and warmth that were hard to replicate with modern construction. Joe felt it was her legacy to him. After her death, he was not so sure he could bear it, seeing her empty chair by the fire -- listening for her to call to him from the kitchen. But then he and Joey had spent part of that first lonely summer there together, and that had helped. It would never again be a place he could call home, but it was the place he always seemed to come back to. Now that he had just buried his only son, the familiar surroundings had become that much more distant.

Several concerned friends had tried to violate his request to be left alone that evening. He had turned them away as graciously as possible. Joe Simpson was quite used to being by himself, and now he desperately felt he needed solitude. He was not sure he could bear to again hear whispers behind his back -- "That poor man, first Prudence and now Joey."

As soon as he reached the estate, he had poured himself three fingers of bourbon, then made straight for the bedroom to shed his wet clothes. He stood in the hot shower for over fifteen minutes before he stopped shaking. Now, dressed in corduroy slacks and a wool Pendleton, he sat before the fire with a second bourbon. A shudder passed through him, causing him to spill some of the amber liquid on the hand-tied rug, but he took no notice. Then the intercom to the entrance buzzed, announcing that someone was at the front gate. Simpson tried to ignore it, but the caller was rudely insistent. Finally, he pushed himself from the wingback to answer.

"Who is it?" he asked impatiently, ready to be polite but firm if it was a friend seeking to comfort him, and not so polite if it was another reporter.

"Joe, it's Frankie. Open the gate."

"Oh, hello, Frank. Listen, it's late, and now's just not a good time. I really -- "

"C'mon, Joe, open the fuckin' gate. I'm freezin' my nuts off out here. Don't make me hop the fence and walk all the way up there in this weather."

Simpson smiled and shook his head. He tapped in a code and pushed a large button on the gate release panel. A half mile down the lane from the house, an electrically operated solenoid dragged back the heavy iron gate. A sensor noted the passing of a single car and automatically rolled the gate back into place. Simpson opened the door to a short, balding man who was stomping the snow from his shoes on the front mat.

"Christ, what a night. It's supposed to turn really cold and ice up." He handed Simpson a paper bag that contained a bottle. Without preamble, he shucked his overcoat and slung it on the hall tree. Then he retrieved the sack from Simpson's hand and headed for the bar in the living room. Simpson followed. There the shorter man poured two healthy measures of Wild Turkey and handed one to his host.

"Salude, old friend."

"Salude, Frank."

The two men moved to the fire and sipped at their whiskeys, neither feeling the need to speak. Simpson had met Frank Filoso in the summer of his junior year in high school. The two of them had worked as soda jerks at an ice cream parlor in Eggertown. They served up frappes and sundaes and chased after the daughters of the wealthy who summered at the Vineyard or anchored their yachts in the Eggertown harbor. It was a friendship that had endured. Frank had gone to Boston College and Simpson to Northwestern, but they roomed together at Harvard during graduate school. They had gone to Vietnam together, and after the war they began their business careers together.

Filoso quietly recharged their glasses. After another comfortable silence, he took a cautious sip and turned to his friend.

"Y'know, as I think about it, I only saw Joey maybe a half dozen times after you guys moved out here permanently." There was no hint of condolence in his voice. "Tell me about your boy, Joe. Seems like I hardly knew him."

"Well, I...I'm not sure where to begin." Simpson pinched the bridge of his nose, searching for a place to start.

"I do remember the first time I saw him," Filoso added. He took a careful sip and continued. "He was playing club soccer against one of my boy's teams. As I recall, he was a pretty fair midfielder, even in grade school."

"He could move the ball," Joe Simpson admitted and began to talk about his son -- haltingly at first, but he did talk. Each time the conversation lagged, Filoso nudged him gently with a question. Filoso himself enjoyed a large family, but he had lost a daughter in an automobile accident. Neither man referred to it, but it was yet another tie that bound them together. They were well into the bottle and now sharing anecdotes about the outrageous things that sons do to make their fathers crazy. There were silences that would have been awkward had they not been such close friends, but they also allowed themselves to share a laugh. For Simpson, it was the first time he had done so in what seemed to him like an eternity. Occasionally the talk drifted back to their own youths, or to the attack on the United States by terrorists, but Filoso easily steered them back to Joey.

The first bottle lasted them almost two hours. Filoso inspected the liquor cabinet and wondered aloud why a man like Joe Simpson kept nothing on hand fit to drink. Then he retrieved a second bottle of whiskey from the pocket of his overcoat. Simpson slipped out to the kitchen and pulled a plate of sandwiches from the refrigerator that friends and neighbors had packed with food. The sandwiches gave them a break from the liquor, and somewhat revived them. Soon they were once again gathered by the fire with their glasses charged. They both had had a lot to drink, but the alcohol had little noticeable effect.

"You know, Frank," Simpson began, "I didn't say anything at the time, but I was against him coming to New York. I wanted him away from the corporate headquarters. I thought he might do better at a regional office where he could get a better grassroots perspective. But he wanted entry-level corporate."

"If you'd spoken up, you think Joey would have listened?"

Simpson shrugged. "Possible...it's hard to say. When we did talk, we always listened to each other. But would he have listened this time? Probably not, but I wish to hell now that I had at least tried." After a long pause, Simpson continued with a grim smile. "You know, Frank, he was doing pretty well. Not because he was the boss's son, but because people genuinely liked him. It was clear to everyone in the office that he had a great future with the company; everyone liked and respected him. I dunno, maybe I should have insisted that he start at a regional office."

"It was his decision, Joe. Kids don't listen to their dads. Remember when our dads tried to talk us out of going into the Marine Corps, out of going to Vietnam?"

Simpson smiled wryly. "They couldn't believe it when we threw away our deferments and joined up."

"We saw some shit over there, but that was a long time ago." Filoso hesitated a moment before he continued. "Now the shit happens here. Never thought we'd see that, Joe, I really didn't."

"But Joey wasn't a soldier, Frank, he was just another bright young man going to work in a tall building in the city. One minute it was there, the next it was just a pile of ashes."

Filoso wanted to say, At least they found him, but he demurred. Joey's remains had been discovered only ten days ago, among the last that were pulled from World Trade Center wreckage. "Wrong place, wrong time," he offered, "and bad luck."

Simpson looked at him sharply. "Just what is the right place and the right time for the United States these days? 'Pay any price, bear any burden,' that's what Jack Kennedy said. Hell, Frank, we're not the sole remaining superpower; we're just a super eunuch. Somalia, Bosnia, the Gulf War, Kosovo, and now this al Qaeda group that has become an international infestation. We simply don't have the wherewithal to deal with these problems effectively -- and with finality. So we cleaned out the Taliban; now what? When it comes to major states that sponsor terrorism, there will always be too much debate followed by too little resolve. We'll always be kissing ass at the UN. Our nation has the resources, but we don't have the killer instinct. We have to take the gloves off. I tell you, Frank, somehow this has just got to stop. We can't let these people do this to us."

Simpson rose and made his way to the side bar for the bottle. He returned and recharged their glasses, then slumped back into his chair.

"Sorry to go on like this, old friend, but this is not just about Joey's death. Sometimes the folly of our nation's affairs gets to me. How many other fathers will be made to grieve over their sons because our country has lacked a coherent foreign policy for most of a decade? For too many years we did nothing. After the Soviet Union died, we just stood around gloating over the corpse and watching our stock portfolios. Bill St. Claire's not a bad man, but he was left with too many years of bad decisions. Now they've brought their war to our doorstep, and we seem incapable of running them to ground. Now bin Laden and most of his senior aides have slipped away. Saddam's still thumbing his nose at us. We put on a good show in responding to terror and aggression, but we have no plan to preempt it. We just respond, and that's not enough."

Filoso spread his hands in agreement. Who was he to argue? Joe Simpson had served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia for close to four years. He was widely regarded as an expert on foreign affairs. Senior career foreign service officers still called him for advice, although he had left his ambassadorial post over a decade ago.

"How's Annie?" Filoso ventured. "I saw her only briefly at the service."

"About the same, as near as I can tell. Joey's death has changed little between us. This morning I found myself thinking it might, but I was wrong. She wants her own life now, and very little to do with me." Simpson pulled his hand across his face and sighed. "She still blames me for Pru's death, and I'm not going to change that. It's like I don't have a daughter, Frank. God help me, but it's like both of my kids are dead. But I think she's got a pretty good man. There's something to be said for that."

Filoso nodded in a knowing way. He too had daughters, and they were often a mystery to him. Sons and sons-in-law were much easier to understand and deal with. Filoso also knew that no price could be put on a good son-in-law, one that loved and cared for your daughter.

Prudence Simpson had been horseback riding alone while Joe was out of town. It was late fall, and the weather had been much like it was today, only colder. She and her mount had taken a bad fall, and the horse had rolled on top of her. Her injuries were serious, but she had died of exposure trying to crawl back to the house. Annie had been out late with friends and thought her mother had gone to bed early, as she usually did when Joe was gone. It was Annie who found her mother the following morning, near one of the barns.

Filoso knocked back the last of his drink, drawing his lips tightly across his teeth and savoring the warmth of the whiskey.

"How's the business?"

Simpson shrugged indifferently. "Doing well. Very well, as a matter of fact. I expect our earnings to be up twenty percent from last year." He sighed and drained his glass. He didn't really want to talk business; he was just going through the motions. "How many stock options are you still sitting on?"

Filoso shrugged and feigned a bewildered look. "I'm not sure. The share prices keep going up, and you keep declaring stock splits. I can't keep up with 'em."

Joe Simpson was one of the wealthiest men in America, and Frank Filoso had had a hand in it. Simpson was to beef what Boeing was to commercial aviation. At Northwestern, he had taken a degree in business, but he often visited the stockyards in Chicago. He studied the ranching and meatpacking business, and quickly learned that the United States raised the highest quality beef in the world but was not terribly efficient at it. Simpson thought he knew how it could be done better. But there were severe export limitations on American beef, and the dynamics of the cattle business was changing rapidly. Government subsidies were soon to be a thing of the past, and the government was becoming more mercenary about grazing rights on federal land. With a keen understanding of the cattle business, capital markets, joint ventures with multinational corporations, and sound business instincts, he'd built a meatpacking empire. Iowa beef was now on the tables in Kobe and Stuttgart, and Joe Simpson collected a small fee on nearly every steak and hamburger that came from America. The dominant players, Conagra and Archer Daniels Midland, never took Simpson and his Ameribeef enterprise seriously until it was too late. Demand quickly began to exceed what he could supply. In the beginning, he and Frank Filoso had been partners, the first two employees of Ameribeef. Years later, after their first public offering, Frank wanted to take more time off with his family, and Joe wanted to take the business to the next level. So they parted ways, financially; Joe got the company, but Frank, so as not to take cash from the business, had taken out-of-the-money stock options. He believed in Joe Simpson. His holdings were now valued in the tens of millions. Joe often thought that Frank had made the better decision. Tonight he was sure of it.

With Frank's departure, Joe reorganized the company using advanced production and distribution technologies and the principles of total quality management. He quickly began to attract some of the best young management talent available. Ameribeef now ran smoothly and efficiently with little direction from Joe Simpson. He still held the title of CEO and Chairman of the Board, but the capable managers he had trained over the years saw to the day-to-day operations of the company and made high-level management decisions. It had been the crowning achievement of his business career -- the development of a bright and talented corps of managers to continue what he and Frank had started. Some achievement, Simpson thought bitterly. A number of those fine young managers had been lost last week, along with Joey, but others in the regional offices could step up; they already had. The Ameribeef New York corporate office had been up and running at an alternate location two days after the disaster.

Suddenly he flung his glass into the fireplace, sending shards off the firebrick and into the dying embers. Filoso raised an eyebrow and regarded him thoughtfully.

"What's it all about, Frank? I mean, what's it fucking all about, anyway?"

"Life and death, my friend, life and death. You've just had more than your share of death." The smaller man opened his hands in resignation. There was nothing more to say. Filoso glanced at his watch; it was 11:45. "I gotta get on the road."

"And go where?" Simpson said. "The roads are ice, and you're probably still driving that ridiculous Italian sports car, right?"

Filoso shrugged. "Angie'll be waitin' up for me."

"So call her. You know where the guest room is. If the roads are still bad in the morning, I'll take you back in the Jeep."

Filoso shrugged again. The two men slowly made their way up the stairs, clipping lights off as they went.

* * *

For the next week or so, Joe Simpson stayed very close to home. Each morning he checked in with his corporate offices, but the business was running quite well without him, as he knew it would. The reconstituted management team had done wonders in the wake of the disaster. So he stayed on the Vineyard.

Simpson was a man who relished a harsh climate and was more comfortable during the off season in a resort town. In the evenings he would drive into Eggertown or over to Ipswich for a quiet dinner. About half of the establishments on Martha's Vineyard were closed for the season, but those that did remain open seemed to accrue a measure of warmth in their perseverance. Most days he simply wandered over the estate or along the cold, deserted beaches. There is something very sober and candid about a New England winter beach, something that urges a lone trespasser to be honest with himself and about his place in the world. Joe Simpson did a lot of thinking while he walked on those beaches. He visited the graves of his wife and his son one more time before he caught the ferry for Woods Hole. It would have been more convenient to call for the corporate helicopter, but he decided against it. He was a different man from the one that had buried his only son ten days ago. Joe Simpson was once again a very focused man, one who moved with a great deal of assurance and sense of purpose.

Friday morning, February 22,

Coronado

At 6:45 A.M., Garrett Walker wheeled up to the front of the imposing three-story building just off the Strand Highway. The sun was not quite up, but there was a pink glow behind the skyline of San Diego. Lights still twinkled through the clear morning along the sweeping arch of the Coronado Bridge, and it promised to be another gorgeous southern California day. There was a series of parking slots with "E-9" painted on the curb -- slots reserved for cars belonging to the command's master chief petty officers, enlisted pay grade nine, the most senior enlisted rank. Normally he would have simply ridden his bike through the chain-link gate near the door and placed it in the bike rack just inside the compound. But today he parked it in one of the reserved spaces out front. He didn't bother locking it; no one in his right mind would steal a bicycle from in front of the SEAL Team Three compound. Garrett replaced his helmet with a khaki garrison cap, set at a rakish angle down on his forehead, and walked through the entryway to the quarterdeck.

A young petty officer behind a counter that guarded the front door got to his feet. "Good morning, Master Chief."

"Morning, Mantalas. How're you today?"

"Not bad, Master Chief. The skipper was asking for you; said for you to go right on up to his office."

"Thanks, Manny."

"Uh, Master Chief, I got one of the guys from Team One coming over to relieve me. I'll see you out back with the others."

Garrett nodded. He punched the key to the cyber lock and slipped through the security door that led up to the second deck. He paused at the entrance marked "Commanding Officer." Garrett rapped twice on the doorjamb and stepped inside. He was dressed in a fresh set of summer khakis with six rows of colored ribbons neatly arranged under his SEAL pin. Two stars and a fouled anchor, the insignia of a master chief petty officer, rested on each collar point. His belt buckle was buffed to a high gloss, the shoes spit-shined. The garrison cap, now neatly folded, hung flat from his belt. He was scrubbed and shaved, and if the large amounts of tequila he had consumed the night before had any effect on him, he didn't let it show. Garrett Walker was the very picture of a squared-away chief petty officer in the United States Navy.

"You wanted to see me, sir."

Behind the desk, Commander Gary Stennis looked up at Garrett. He was an impressive man, even in his canvas swim trunks, faded blue T-shirt, and desert boots. Stennis was a Naval Academy graduate and relatively new to Team Three. At one time he had been a nationally ranked triathlete, and he still placed well in local events. He was tough, demanding, and fair, which was what SEALs expected of their commanding officers. Stennis also tended to let his junior officers and senior petty officers handle the day-to-day running of the team, which made him a respected leader. He rose from the desk and walked around to face Garrett.

"Master Chief, it's a sad day in this man's Navy when we lose an operator like you." He paused, trying to find the right words. His features were firm, but there was genuine compassion in his eyes. "You don't need to again hear how much we'll all miss you here at Team Three." He looked away from Garrett and pursed his lips. "I'm just sorry, that's all. If there's something you need or anything I can do, you call me, here or at home, understood?"

"Understood, Skipper. And thanks for your endorsement on my request for a medical waiver. You did what you could, sir. It just wasn't in the cards."

Stennis nodded. There wasn't anything more to say, and he knew it. He reached back to the desk and retrieved a starched desert-cammie fatigue cap, pulling the bill within a few inches of his nose.

"SEAL Team Three will be standing by at zero seven hundred. At your pleasure, Master Chief." He stepped past Garrett and left the office.

Garrett slowly made his way to the adjoining building and up to his platoon's bay of lockers. This wasn't a fancy athletic club, but the Navy recognized the importance of an adequate locker facility for their SEALs. Each SEAL had his own wire-mesh storage bay. The floor was tiled, and there was ample room to house swim gear, wetsuits, and personal field equipment. Garrett had cleaned out his storage bay earlier that week; all that remained were his PT gear and a change of civilian clothes in one of the wall lockers. He had not looked forward to this day, but he had planned for it.

This was the painful part, and Garrett knew it -- the ritual of doing, for the last time, some of the things he had done by rote for so many years. His only comfort was that he was a man who seldom took the routines of a Navy SEAL for granted, and he certainly didn't on this day. He didn't rush, nor did he let the empty feeling that occasionally surged through his bowels slow his movements. Carefully, he removed his uniform, hung it on the front of the locker, and donned his blue-and-gold T-shirt, blue side out. He pulled on the standard-issue canvas UDT trunks. Then he laced on his tan jungle boots and carefully rolled the socks down over the top, wrapping the lace ends in the folds. They were well broken-in and as comfortable as moccasins. All the other SEAL teams wore green jungle-pattern camouflage fatigues and green and black boots. Since most of their

recent deployments had been to the Middle East, the men assigned to SEAL Team Three wore desert-pattern fatigues and tan boots. Finally he stepped to a full-length mirror and pulled on a freshly starched fatigue cap.

A blackened master chief petty officer emblem was pinned to the front panel, just above the bill. Garrett quickly inspected himself. He was just as lean and muscular as the day he walked onto the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to play football for the Wolverines. And that was twenty years ago. The waist was the same, the stomach perhaps harder, and if anything, he had added bulk to his chest, shoulders, and thighs. Except for a few scars and the lines at the corners of his green eyes, he still had the physique of a college athlete.

"Well, fuck it," he said aloud. "Just fuck it."

The sun was up but had not reached the blacktop in back of the SEAL Team Three grinder, a large open area lined on either side by Connex boxes, trucks, Humvees, and equipment trailers. Only a tall chain-link fence segregated the compound from the beach and the Pacific Ocean.

"SEAL Team Three, a-ten-HUT!"

Close to ninety men, all dressed like Master Chief Garrett Walker, came from a parade rest to attention. Full strength, Team Three numbered close to 120 men, but some of the SEALs were on training away from the team area. Already, the prospect of accelerated deployments to the Middle East expedited the platoon training cycle. Garrett walked across the compound and faced Commander Stennis. Behind Stennis and to either side were Team Three's Executive Officer and the Command Master Chief. The Exec was small and wiry, as were many SEALs, but the Command Master Chief was a very large black man.

Stennis saluted Garrett. "Sir, Team Three is standing by for inspection and instruction."

"Thank you, Skipper," Garrett replied as he returned the salute. He glanced from the Exec to the CMC. "You going to be okay, Frank?"

"Hooyah, short-timer," he said in a game, gravelly voice, but he was obviously feeling the effects of the previous night at McP's and far too many tequila shooters.

"Well, let's see if we can do something about that." Then to Stennis. "Skipper, would you and the others please fall in."

"Aye aye, sir."

Stennis again saluted and led the other two men to the rear of the formation. Garrett took a step forward and regarded the men arrayed before him. Tradition held that a SEAL who retired after a full career, or retired early for medical reasons, be allowed to inspect the team and lead them in PT on his last day. More than one maimed SEAL, even an amputee, had bravely put his teammates through their paces on his final day. But Garrett Walker was neither maimed nor visibly disfigured; he simply couldn't pass a SEAL diving physical. With his damaged lung, he could handle just about anything except the Navy treatment tables for recompression sickness. Since he couldn't dive, he could no longer be an operational Navy SEAL.

"Good morning, gentlemen!"

"HOOYAH, MASTER CHIEF!"

"We'll dispense with the inspection today, gentlemen. Otherwise, half of you would be out doing push-ups in the surf with the BUD/S trainees for improper haircuts or poorly starched caps." An amused murmur passed through the ranks. "But since we're all out here on this fine morning, why don't we do a little light PT?" Another murmur swelled into a collective grumble. "Okay, girls, circle up!"

The formation broke, and the men melded into two large concentric circles. An undercurrent of quiet joking and easy banter accompanied the SEALs as they moved to the perimeter. More than a few rolled their eyes at the thought of what lay ahead of them. Fortunately, they were men who could endure and sometimes even enjoy pain. Garrett moved to the center, rubbing his hands together as he turned to watch the SEALs settle into the expanded rings. They shifted and moved, raising their arms until they touched the fingertips of the man to either side, expanding the large circles. Garrett stood with his feet apart, hands on his hips, and the other SEALs did the same.

"Ready!"

"HOOYAH!"

"Push-ups!"

"HOOYAH, PUSH-UPS!"

Garrett dropped to the leaning rest position, and the rings of men followed him down.

"A-down!"

"ONE!"

"A-down!"

"TWO!"

"A-down!"

"THREE!"

Garrett took them through a hundred push-ups, and more than a few of the SEALs had difficulty with the last dozen or more. Then he took them methodically through a series of squat thrusts, leg levers, stomach crunchers, and a few sadistic exercises that only SEALs visit on one another.

"A-one, two, three, ONE!"

"A-one, two, three, TWO!"

"A-one, two, three, THREE!"

Every five exercises, he took them back for fifty push-ups. He punished them. When he sensed that some of the less able were at the breaking point, he would say, "C'mon, girls. It's only a few push-ups," then drop them for another fifty. Many of the SEALs lagged the count, but none of them stopped. About the time even some of the better-conditioned men were starting to falter, he took them to a soothing routine of neck rotations, trunk benders, and stretches. The push-up count went down to twenty-five, then to ten.

"All right, ladies, let's hit the bars."

By the rear entrance to the compound was a long, well-supported horizontal metal bar with room enough for twelve SEALs at a time to do pull-ups. They lined up in eleven files, eight deep.

"Ready, up!"

Garrett and eleven other SEALs leaped up to the bar and hung by their arms, like a line of bats in a sleeping cave.

"Up!"

"ONE!"

"Up!"

"TWO!"

"Up!"

"THREE!"

After fifteen reps, "Re-cover!"

"HOOYAH!"

"Next group!"

"HOOYAH!"

The team moved through the bars, each man doing his fifteen pull-ups. To the amazement of even those who knew Garrett Walker well, he led each group through their fifteen reps.

"Okay, girls, let's fall in and go for a little stroll on the beach."

The team assembled outside the chain link in running formation of six across, fifteen rows deep. Garrett led them at a comfortable pace across the berm to the hard sand near the water's edge. There he turned north. The tide was dead low, so an expanse of flat wet sand provided excellent footing. A gentle surf pooled and receded at the edge of the wide smooth beach. It was an easy run to the rocks just seaward of the Hotel del Coronado. Normally, they ran through a break in the rocks to cross the del Coronado beach. Today, Garrett took them seaward around the rocks. The water was only knee deep at best, but wet boots and socks make for a different kind of run. Then he took them up to the soft sand as the formation continued north up the beach. Garrett never changed the pace, but every hundred yards or so he took them back into the water and back up into the soft sand. He led them past the North Island fence and out to the North Island jetty, a man-made extension of boulders that marked the entrance to San Diego Bay. In the elbow where the beach gave way to the rocks, the wave action had created a treacherous mudflat. Again, the pace never increased or slackened, but SEALs sloshed in close formation through four inches of black silt. Save for Garrett at the head of the pack, each SEAL was spattered with mud from head to foot.

They made the trip back to the team compound entirely in the soft sand. The beachcombers in Coronado are used to formations of SEALs and SEAL trainees running along the public beaches between the del Coronado and North Island. Those few out this early morning stared openmouthed at the obviously fit but very dirty group of men who struggled south just above the high-water mark. A hundred yards north of the team complex, less than two dozen men were still in formation. The others were strung out behind, but none had quit. Two men stopped briefly to throw up, but they kept running.

"Quick-time, march!"

Garrett brought the lead ranks to a walk. The formation began to swell as stragglers caught up and rejoined the group. Many of the SEALs walked on rubber legs, but they carried themselves as well as they could. Garrett timed their pace so the formation was intact when they reached the team area.

"Team Three, halt!" The formation lurched to a stop. A collective mist of steam rose from the blue-shirted mass. Each man did his best to stand tall.

"Right...face!"

Garrett walked slowly around to face his teammates. He pushed the billed fatigue cap a few inches back and surveyed the formation. The sun was full up now, illuminating his face and the gentle Pacific swells behind him. He stood at rigid attention. The SEALs in the front ranks could see that he was sweating, but not breathing heavily.

"Gentlemen, thank you for joining me this morning. I will always consider it an honor that I once counted myself as one of your number. It has been a privilege to serve with you." He saluted, and the SEALs collectively drew themselves up and returned his salute.

Garrett dropped his hand. "You are secured."

"HOOYAH, MASTER CHIEF WALKER!" It was a throaty, exhausted bellow, but one charged with emotion.

They surged around him, and tired, strong arms lifted him up over their heads. They carried him out to the surf line as if he were a fallen Viking in funeral procession, and on the count of three, tossed him facedown into an oncoming wave.

Thirty minutes later, Garrett Walker was performing yet another ritual. With this one, there was closure. He had cleaned out his personal locker many times before, but only to move on to another SEAL assignment, another team, or an overseas deployment. This time he would not return. He put the wet boots and PT gear into a plastic bag and pushed the bag to the bottom of a light backpack. Then he rolled his dress shoes in his uniform and crammed them in. The few remaining toiletries rounded out the load. He knew he would not be coming back, nor did he want to, not as a civilian. Garrett made his way from the locker room to the quarterdeck, pausing only for a quick checkout at the team supply and administration offices. He nodded a greeting to the SEALs he passed. Several wished him well, but few could meet his eye. Suddenly Garrett began to feel confined, almost claustrophobic; he just wanted to be out of the building. It was a long journey from the locker room to the entrance of SEAL Team Three. As he stepped onto the quarterdeck, he was met by the shrill cry of a boatswain's pipe.

"Attention on deck! Master Chief Petty Officer, arriving!"

The two remaining SEAL Team Three master chiefs and four senior chief petty officers were dressed in choker whites and posted by the door. They were arranged on either side of the entrance in columns of threes. Garrett could see that some of them were still sweating, having only had time to towel off, dress quickly, and be down here to meet him. Commander Stennis, also in a starched white collar, stood at the head of one column. Behind him, in a white jumper and bell bottoms, a first-class boatswain's mate waited with his pipe at the ready. Stennis glanced at the others and stepped forward.

"Master Chief, I know you specifically requested no formal ceremony, but this was the doing of your fellow chief petty officers." He hesitated as he surveyed Garrett. He was dressed in jeans, sneakers with no socks, and a faded aloha shirt. "I was honored that they asked me to take part. No long speeches, but we want you to know that this door is always open to Navy SEALs, and that means it's always open to you. Oh, and here's a little token from your teammates. God forbid that you ever become a nine-to-fiver, but if you do, we wouldn't want you to be late."

Stennis handed Garrett a small case. Garrett let his pack slip from his shoulder to the floor and opened the case. It was a Rolex oyster-shell diving watch. Many SEALs conveniently "lose" their team-issue diving watch when they leave the teams, but Garrett Walker was not one of those. Only a few minutes ago, he had unstrapped his own and dropped it by the Team Three supply department. He looked up at the two files of chiefs in their dress whites; they stood at attention, but each looked at him, grinning broadly.

Garrett took the watch and carefully strapped it to his wrist, then dropped to one knee to slide the case into his pack. As he rose, he swung the pack across one shoulder. He paused for a long moment to regard the SEALs in white on the Team Three quarterdeck.

"Thanks, guys," he said to his former shipmates. "This means a great deal to me." He would have said more, but there was a lump building in his throat. Then to Stennis, "Thank you too, sir." He held out his hand, and Stennis took it. "Good luck to you and this fine SEAL team."

As Garrett took a step for the door, Stennis nodded to the quarterdeck watchstander, who stood holding the handset to the team public address. The boatswain began a long two-toned trill on his pipe. As the uniformed chief petty officers and their commander saluted, loudspeakers echoed throughout the Team Three spaces.

"Master Chief Petty Officer, U.S. Navy, retired...Departing."

Garrett walked across the quarterdeck between the two files of chief petty officers and out the door. He reclaimed his bicycle and pedaled away without looking back. About halfway along the strand toward Coronado, a wry smile crossed his face as he glanced down at his new watch. They retire me from the Navy because I can't pass a diving physical. And the guys give me a diving watch as a retirement present. Go figure.

Copyright © 2002 by Dick Couch

Meet the Author

Dick Couch, a 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served aboard ship and with the Navy UDT and SEAL teams. While a platoon commander with SEAL Team One in 1970, he led one of the few successful POW rescue operations of the Vietnam War. On release from active duty in 1972, he served with the Central Intelligence Agency as a case officer. He retired from the Naval Reserve in 1997 as the senior reserve SEAL officer with the rank of captain. He is the author of six novels -- SEAL Team One, Pressure Point, Silent Descent, Rising Wind, The Mercenary Option, and Covert Action -- and the nonfiction works The Warrior Elite, The Finishing School, and Down Range. He lives with his wife, Julia, in central Idaho.

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Mercenary Option 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Great book
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