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First printing, February 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Brad Taylor
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To my daughters, Darby and Savannah, for all the times your mother had to say, “Daddy won’t be here. . . .”
Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do them harm.
The target took a shortcut, unwittingly shaving another four minutes off of life as he knew it. His appearance surprised me, because I had parked in an alley specifically to get out of his line of march, figuring he’d go the long way around the block. He was about fifty feet back and walking at an unhurried pace. A minute later he passed me, unaware of my existence. He was so close that I could have flung open the door and knocked him to the ground. From there, it would have been easy to thump him on the head, throw him in the back, and haul ass. That would have been a bit extreme even for me, so I let him go. Better to stick with the plan.
I keyed the handset of my radio. “All elements, all elements, this is Pike. Target just passed my location and intersected Twenty-second Street. He’s crossing it now.”
Pike’s not my real name. It’s my call sign. We use them because nobody in my unit wants to use military ones like “Victor-Bravo Three-Seven.” I’d like to say that I got mine for doing something badass, but you don’t pick your call sign. It picks you, and usually for something that’s not flattering. In my case it came from a stupid comment I’d made during training. I grew up in Oregon, spending my time hunting and fishing. I was trying to describe how we should do an ambush, but wasn’t communicating things right. I finally said, “You know, like a pike attacks when it catches another fish.” Everyone looked at me for a second in silence, then broke out laughing. For the next two days every time I tried to suggest something, someone would say, “You mean like a pike would do it?” The name stuck. It’s not too bad as call signs go. I suppose I could have been “Flounder.” All in all, it’s much better than my given name, which I despise.
The Foggy Bottom street in front of me was starting to clog up with the noontime lunch crowd, all out enjoying the summer sunshine. This would make it easier for my team to track the target without compromise, but the heat was turning my car into a sauna. Why the hell this guy liked wandering aimlessly around outside was beyond me, but the pattern he had created would be his downfall. Humans are creatures of habit. What looks absolutely random once will look like the same ol’, same ol’ over time. We had reached the same ol’ stage with this target and were within minutes of taking him down.
After crossing the street, the target entered a coffee shop and took a seat at an outside patio. Right on schedule. I saw the team settle around him like an invisible blanket. The crowd flowed around them all without a clue what was going on. That always gave me a perverse sense of pleasure. While rushing to catch the Metro or get lunch, they were brushing past some of the finest predators on earth and didn’t even know it. Sometimes I’m tempted to grab one of them and yell, “Don’t you know what’s going on here? Can’t you see what’s happening? You ought to get on your knees and thank the Lord that people like me are out here protecting your sorry ass.” Yeah, that’s arrogant and unfair. I suppose executing the operation without anyone knowing is pleasure enough. After all, if they did know, that would mean we had failed. In the end, they could go about buying their Starbucks or bitching about the price of gas because my team and I would have prevented something much, much worse, like a suicide bomber at their kid’s school.
In my mind, the world is split neatly into two groups: meat-eaters and plant-eaters. Nothing is wrong with either one. Both are necessary. One contributes much, much more to society than the other. The other is necessary to protect the contribution. I’m a meat-eater. My existence allows the plant-eater to contribute. Some plant-eaters, living in a so-called civilized world, call me evil, but at the end of the day, when the bad man comes and the plant-eater’s praying for a miracle, I’m what shows up.
I scanned behind me after the target passed and was surprised to see another man at the entrance to the alley, large, bald-headed, and looking out of place. He loitered for a couple of seconds, then began moving my way. He’s following our guy.
“All elements, this is Pike, we’ve got a trailer with the target. Stand by.”
Bull, the trigger for the takedown, said, “You sure it’s not a ghost?”
Bull was asking if I was seeing things that weren’t really there. “No, I’m not sure, but he refused to enter the alley until the target was clear, then walked at a pretty fast pace to catch up.”
If he was tracking our man, I had no idea why. We had no intel indicating the target had any security, or that anyone else wanted him. The guy could be police, a rival group, or even a countersurveillance effort protecting the target. Or he could be a lost tourist and I was jumping to conclusions. Either way, Baldy—and anyone else with him—would have to be separated from the target. If he was a tourist, it would take care of itself. If not, that left my team. And once we executed, we would need to be pretty damn swift, because after we got rid of this guy, his people would know someone else was on the ground and interested in the same target.
I gave a description of the trailer and watched him take a seat in the coffee shop, confirming my fears.
“Okay, listen up. We’re going to keep the plan. If Baldy’s not a ghost, he’ll follow our target into the planned kill zone. We’ll let the target go through, then take him out. Acknowledge.”
“Pike, this is Knuckles . . . we can’t duplicate this hit twice in one day. We’re going to lose the target. We need to develop the situation, not start thumping people willy-nilly.”
“We won’t lose the target, because you’re going to tag him at his table. Using that beacon, we’ll take him down at the parking garage to his apartment. That was our contingency plan anyway. It’ll just be two hits instead of one.”
“Pike, that damn beacon hasn’t worked yet. We keep getting false positives. We’re liable to take out some old lady.”
Knuckles was my second-in-command, or 2IC. He’s a Squid, but I don’t hold that against him, since he’s a SEAL. He’s just like me, only he picked the wrong branch of service. His call sign was Knuckles, but it should have been Mother Hen, at least while we were preparing for operations. Once we were engaged it would be something like DeathDealingSlaughterMonster. Right now, Knuckles was in mother hen mode. He was a finicky perfectionist. Someone who wanted to ensure that every piece of kit, tactic, or technique was absolutely perfect before being used on an operation. It wasn’t that he was rigid, since he was one of the best on fluid operations, and he did have a point. If everything’s perfect when you start, then working through contingencies, or what we call “flexing,” is that much easier. If you start with something that’s faulty, then you’ll be flexing from the get-go. The thing is, every operation goes to shit at one point or another—like right now. Doesn’t matter how much you plan. You can either handle the curve ball or not.
“Look, I get the risk, but we’re running out of time. We don’t have enough people to track both guys. Just tag the target and use your judgment. If you can’t get him, you can’t get him.”
“What if the trailer’s not alone?”
Knuckles was thinking right along with me. “I hear you. We’ll develop the situation enough to confirm or deny he’s alone. If he’s got someone else working with him, we’ll pass. If not, we’ll take him down in the primary kill zone, leaving you and Bull with the contingency for the target.”
There was a pregnant pause, then, “Roger. Out.”
“Bull, keep your eyes on Baldy and see if he makes commo with anyone.”
I watched a homeless man approach our target. Jesus, now what? This was turning into a circus. I was about to call Knuckles and warn him when I realized that’s who I was looking at. Pretty damn good job of camouflage.
He shoved a cup at the target, begging for some change. The man ignored him. Knuckles grew belligerent, bringing out the manager. I’m never going to hear the end of this. Knuckles was breaking the cardinal rule of surveillance by interacting with the target. On top of that, he was creating a scene that would be remembered after the hit. He was going to be pissed that I forced this on him.
The manager came out shouting. Knuckles waved his arms, slinging coins from the cup all over the place. Bending down around the target’s ankles, he scrambled to get his precious money. In the blink of an eye, I saw him slip something into the cuff of the target’s pants.
The size of a micro-SD card, it was a passive beacon that worked like an E-Z Pass on a toll road. It would register every time it passed a special receiver. The good part was that the card didn’t need GPS or transmitting capability, along with the requisite battery source, so it could be made very, very small. The bad part was the beacon wouldn’t give a specific location. It would only confirm our suspicions as the beacon passed our receivers, which we had placed throughout the target’s habitual route. The final receiver was in the stairwell of the target’s parking garage. A team, hidden in the shadows, would deploy when the beacon signaled. Unfortunately, with the receivers’ track record, it could trigger if the wind blew the wrong way.
After watching Knuckles get chased away, I gave Bull a call. “Anything going on?”
“No. He’s looking at the target, but so is everyone else thanks to Knuckles’s little play. Hasn’t communicated with anyone.”
“Roger. Retro, you guys ready?”
“Yeah. We just don’t know what the trailer looks like.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll trigger. If it’s no good—”
“Break—break. This is Bull. Target’s on the move.”
Shit. That was quick. Ready or not, the target was going to force our hand.
Colonel Kurt Hale was almost run over by the scrum of advisors leaving the Oval Office. A few years ago, when the West Wing was still a novel experience, he would have felt a little awe. Today, he just felt annoyed that they didn’t bother to say excuse me, too intent in their own little world to notice him.
The president’s personal secretary saw his annoyance and grinned. “You leave the military and you could be just like them.”
Kurt smiled. “No, thanks, Sally. Can I go in?”
“Sure. You and his wife are the only ones he never makes wait.”
Kurt entered and saw President Payton Warren with his back turned, looking out the window, apparently deep in thought.
“Sir, you want me to come back later?”
He saw the president start a little, then turn with a smile. “No, no. Come in. I could use a discussion about something that’s truly important.”
The president shook Kurt’s hand warmly. “Let’s go to the study so we won’t be disturbed.”
Following the president, Kurt once again felt a little amazed at the position he was in. Originally he’d been just one of many men trying to help the president defend the nation, but their relationship had grown into a true friendship—albeit one still grounded in their respective positions. While the president had never served in the military, he had shown Kurt a keen grasp of the application of military power, using it as a scalpel when he could and a sledgehammer when he had to, but always only after he had analyzed all other options. As was not the case with other politicians Kurt had dealt with, he trusted the president’s judgment and commitment.
After Kurt was seated, Payton handed him what looked like a Hall-mark card.
“Something I want you to take back to the boys as a token of my thanks. Happy anniversary.”
Kurt noted the date on his watch. “Yeah, I guess it was today, wasn’t it?”
“Three years ago today. I’ll tell you, I figured I’d be impeached or in jail by now, but Project Prometheus has been pretty much flawless. And largely because of the efforts of you and your men, the country has remained safe.”
“I appreciate that, sir, but they’re your nuts on the chopping block. Not mine. And you were the one with the vision to see that the Cold War system in place wasn’t working for a war in the shadows.”
President Warren shrugged. “Come on. You never take any credit for the success. It’s the three-year anniversary. Take a damn moment to enjoy what you’ve done. I know what happened before I took office. That’s how I found you in the first place.”
Before 9/11 there was little need for an element like Project Prometheus. Everything was clear-cut. Everything was clean. The Department of Defense focused strictly on military endeavors and the CIA focused on what’s called “National Intelligence.” For Kurt and men like him it was the good ol’ days. You tell me if the Soviets are going to attack, and I’ll tell you how to defeat them in battle.
After 9/11, the lines became blurred. Instead of focusing on state systems, everyone focused on the terrorist threat, with both the CIA and DOD thinking it was their mission. Kurt could see both sides, but the architecture in place had no room for the debate. Built for the Cold War, the system wasn’t designed for hunting individual men or small teams. Kurt watched the two organizations push and shove, unilaterally building up their own capabilities. At the time, he didn’t worry. The U.S. had figured out how to win before and would figure this out as well. Right after 9/11, he took the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan, figuring it was only a matter of time before the U.S. got serious on a global scale. Two years into the war, he had still been waiting.
To his disgust, he saw the sense of purpose begin to drift, watching the CIA and DOD do more fighting against each other than against the terrorist threat. He was convinced that they had spent so much time apart during the Cold War that they didn’t even understand each other, let alone trust each other.
Kurt voiced his opinions and waited on someone above him to fix the problems, but nobody seemed willing or able. When terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda conducted the Bali bombings in Indonesia barely a year after 9/11, killing over two hundred people, he realized that the status quo wasn’t going to work. He banded together with like-minded men in the intelligence community and set out to change things on his own.
Their initial proposal was simple: a true joint organization—a blending of both CIA and DOD clandestine assets on a habitual basis. Eliminate the duplication of effort and mistrust at the grassroots level. The end result would be a fusion of intelligence and direct action, a capability that could follow a trail until it died, literally. They eventually got the ear of the National Command Authority and the green light to give it a try.
Kurt smiled at the memory. “Yeah, that first effort was a lesson in futility. I can’t believe how naïve I was. We didn’t get a damn thing accomplished, unless you count making enemies. If you hadn’t come along, I’d have retired and would probably be working at Walmart.”
Instead of hitting the ground running, the unit immediately ran into problems. A new unit, no matter how good, still had to deal with the bureaucracy built for the Cold War.
Kurt had spent an entire year pulling his hair out trying to get men out the door, running into one problem after another. If the military members weren’t denied a deployment order by some pinhead in the Pentagon, his CIA members were denied participation because of a lack of a presidential finding for a covert act. He had felt like he was trying to run a marathon in waist-deep water. No sooner did he break through the red tape on the DOD side than he’d run into issues on the CIA side. Once he got past the Washington bureaucracy, he’d be kicked in the gut by the ambassador of the country in which he wanted to take action. Time after time, the ambassador, either a political appointee or a career diplomat, decided that the current elections in that country, or the coffee harvest, or the latest New York Times article, made it a bad time to go after a terrorist. Kurt knew it was nothing but a bunch of bullshit political quibbling, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it, since the ambassador had the final word on anything involving the U.S. government in his domain.
Kurt finally got fed up. The Taskforce existed for twelve months before he threw in the towel. Not a single operation had succeeded. The unit was disbanded, with great fanfare and hooting inside the clandestine world, as the Cold War assholes reveled in its demise, their little bit of turf now free from threat.
“Yeah, sure,” said President Warren. “You’re not the retiring type. That first effort wasn’t futile. You made a lot of waves. Enough to be remembered, to get your name passed along to me as someone with an idea. The rest is history.”
After the failure of his first attempt, Kurt had taken an assignment to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and had brooded for a while, trying to enjoy the status quo. He probably would simply have retired if it weren’t for the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which caused a presidential candidate named Payton Warren to begin a serious study of radical strategies to defend the nation.
Kurt remembered their first meeting well. When asked for his opinion, he hadn’t held back. Kurt knew things had to change. Al Qaeda wasn’t going to wait for the system to fix itself. What was needed was a shortcut, a revolutionary change. A task force capable of conducting operations on its own, outside the purview of the Department of Defense, the director of national intelligence, or any ambassador. The thought was compelling but dangerous. He knew he was talking about subverting the very thing that made the country what it was—the United States Constitution.
Surprisingly, Warren had listened, and eventually gave Kurt the backing to get it done. Project Prometheus would operate without official government sanction, but with a safety net. Should something go terribly wrong, the president would step forward and take responsibility. The flap would make Watergate look like a glass of spilled milk, but the threat was deemed worth the risk. The price of failure would be the presidency itself, with the repercussions shaking the Republic to its core.
The task force was implemented quietly. Nothing they did had the stamp of the U.S. government. Every action was under deep cover in the guise of an independent business, either American or something else. All the members were assigned to other units around the United States, with the permanent core cadre of logistics, communications, and command either “working” at CIA headquarters or “assigned” to J3 Special Operations Division in the Pentagon. Should the wrong people discover the unit’s existence, they would attack it without remorse. But so far it had operated for three years without a hiccup.
Kurt said, “Yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky. Let’s just make sure that history stays in the shadows. Hopefully I can keep you out of jail for a little while longer.”
President Warren chuckled. “Sounds good to me. Speaking of jail, you got anything going on right now I need to be aware of?”
Kurt was glad to leave the reminiscing behind and get down to business. “Yes, we do. You remember we’ve been tracking a facilitator in Jordan for close to a year, and we’re close to executing a takedown?”
“Yeah. Azzam something-or-other?”
“That’s him. Well, you know we got execute authority for Jordan, but the target’s gone to Tbilisi, Georgia. Ordinarily, I’d just recommend sitting in Jordan with the team in place and waiting on him to return, but I think we need to go after him in Georgia.”
“Why? What’s the rush?”
“We think he’s trying to get nuclear material.”
Why would the target leave so soon? I called Bull. “What happened?”
“Don’t know. Maybe Knuckles spooked him, but he’s leaving.”
“Keep on the trailer and let me know if he moves. Retro, be prepared to go either way. If the trailer’s a ghost, take the target on my command.”
Bull came back on. “Trailer’s paying his bill.”
I felt the sweat start to build. This was going to be close. I had about a ten-second window to trigger the assault on the target—or pull off the assault team and wait for the trailer.
“Roger all. Showtime.”
I exited my car and headed in the direction the target had habitually gone. If he went the other way, the whole thing was off anyway. Knuckles came on. “Target just passed, no deviation.”
Bull said, “Trailer’s going the same way.”
“How far back?” I had to make sure the target was out of eyesight of the takedown. If he saw us thump the trailer, he’d haul ass.
“You’re good. About a hundred meters. If the target follows his pattern, he’ll be out of sight by the time the trailer’s in the kill zone.”
I posted on the corner of the narrow road the target had always turned down, on the other side of the street that he habitually used. From here, I could keep an eye on him without having him pass right by me. We had picked this location because there wasn’t any parking at all on the side road, with the exception of one handicapped spot midway down the street, currently occupied by a van. No parking meant little to no foot traffic, and no witnesses. Once he was on that road, we could take him out. I couldn’t see the trailer, which was good. The target turned the corner, heading down the street away from me, right into the kill zone. I had about five more seconds to confirm Baldy wasn’t a ghost.
“Bull, where the hell’s the trailer? I don’t see him.”
“He’s on your side of the street, about forty meters away.”
Shit. Of course he wouldn’t walk right behind the guy. He was about to bump into me. I started walking away, calling Retro as I went.
“Retro, Retro, let the target go. I say again, let the target go. Knuckles, stay on him.”
“Bull, I can’t turn around. Tell me when the trailer turns the corner.”
I kept walking at a slow pace, starting to wonder if time had stopped. Finally, Bull confirmed Baldy had his back to me. His call was immediately followed by Knuckles.
“Target’s stopped. He can still see the kill zone.”
I turned around and saw the trailer stop as well, proving what he was after. “No issue. Let me know when he moves. Retro, get ready.”
“Okay. He’s moving. Kill zone’s clear.”
“Roger that. Retro, you have execute authority. Bull, Knuckles, the garage is yours. Haul ass.”
I watched the trailer walk down the sidewalk, approaching the van. A man exited the driver side and moved to the sliding door adjacent to the sidewalk. He opened it to reveal another man in a wheelchair. Both began struggling to get the wheelchair onto the sidewalk, with the chairbound man doing what he could to help. When Baldy came abreast of the sliding door the driver asked him for help. He agreed and leaned into the van to get the right side of the wheelchair. When his neck was level with the top of the wheelchair, the man in the chair miraculously wrapped his legs around the target’s waist and crossed his hands, grabbing the man’s right and left collar and violently pulling out. I watched the target try to react as the operator scissored the fabric of the man’s shirt into his neck, cutting off his blood flow and choking him out. While they were locked in the embrace, the driver simply pushed the wheelchair into the van and closed the door. Man, that was probably a surprise.
Retro came on shortly after. “We got him. He’s down.”
“Roger. Knuckles, you copy?”
“Yeah, we’re on the way. Should beat the target to the garage by a few minutes.”
“Good to go.”
“You’d better hope that fucking beacon works.”
President Warren took a moment to process what Kurt had said, then asked the obvious question: “What do you mean by nuclear? He has a bomb?”
“No, nothing like that. We think he’s attempting to get some radiological waste from a contact in Chechnya. But, as you know, that would be bad enough. Setting off a dirty bomb would cause incredible panic.”
“Panic would be the least of our concerns. It could render whole blocks of city into a dead zone. Even if we could clean it up, we would never be able to convince anyone the area was safe. The economic impact would be huge.”
Kurt smiled. “I’m glad you see it that way, sir. Since the target’s changed location, I no longer have execute authority. I need to brief the Oversight Council tomorrow and was hoping for some help.”
Even though Kurt had been given carte blanche to create Project Prometheus, he was cautious in its construction. He knew it went against everything that the United States stood for, and such activities in every country in history had ended up repressing the very people they were ostensibly designed to protect, something he’d promised Warren, and himself, would not happen. To that end, he worked with the National Command Authority to develop the Oversight Council, made up of thirteen people, including the president. They were the only ones who knew of the Taskforce’s existence, and they approved every mission as a single body. All the council members were either in the executive branch of government or private citizens. None came from the legislative branch. Kurt had worked very hard to ensure the right people were chosen. He didn’t mind members who were leery of the unit and its mission—in fact he welcomed them—but wanted to take politics out of the equation. He only needed a body that fully understood the threat and the implications of action. He almost achieved his goal.
President Warren said, “Well, you’re on your own there. You were the one who specifically asked that my vote not have any more weight than any others. I can’t throw my weight around for a specific target. It would set a dangerous precedent and defeat the whole purpose of the council.”
“I wasn’t referring to the council as a whole. I’m talking about Standish.”
Out of the thirteen council members, Harold Standish was the only one who had absolutely no experience in anything related to what he was overseeing. No foreign-policy, intelligence, military, or any other experience that would give him the ability to make qualified judgments on Taskforce activities. That didn’t stop him from thinking he knew better than anyone else, including the president. Given a do-nothing political appointment to the National Security Council by the president, Standish had taken the job and turned it into something dangerous.
He had created what he called the “Deputy Committee for Special Activities.” Kurt thought it should be called the “Deputy Committee for fucking with anything I want,” because Standish provided no useful service but had his fingers into every covert operation the U.S. undertook. DEA, DIA, CIA, you name it. And now, using his position in the NSC, he was involved with Prometheus.
Kurt saw the president bristle but plowed ahead. “Come on, sir, you can’t think he’s an asset for this kind of work. I don’t understand why the hell you appointed him to anything in the first place.”
“Slow down. Not everyone gets to live in the black-and-white world of the military. The political world has its own unique laws. I agree that Standish is a weasel, but that weasel played a significant part in getting me elected. He can just as easily play a significant part in hurting my administration. Prometheus isn’t the only thing on my plate.”
“Jesus, sir, listen to yourself. You’d let a weasel in on the most secret things in the U.S. arsenal? I’m telling you Standish is a threat. He needs to be reined in.”
Kurt saw the president’s face cloud over and knew he had overstepped his bounds. “Kurt, I didn’t get to this position by being blind. I’ve seen Standish’s type over and over again. He’s power hungry, but he does have his uses. Just deal with him, and remember—if it wasn’t for his work, there would be no Project Prometheus, because I wouldn’t be president.”
Kurt started to say something else, but the president held up his hand. “That’s it. End of discussion. I’ll have Palmer keep him in check, but I’m not going to fire him.”
Kurt backed off. “Okay, sir. But the immediate problem is the guy in Tbilisi. No telling what Standish is going to say about that. He’ll probably only agree if we say we’re going to smoke every Arab within twenty miles.”
Warren laughed. “Come on. He isn’t that bad, and he’s only one vote. Who’s in the hopper for the mission?”
“Pike’s team. He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m recalling him now.”
Kurt had handpicked every member of Prometheus, and the president had made it a personal duty to meet every one of them. He knew Pike, which meant he knew his reputation.
“And you’re worried about Standish. I’ve never seen Pike’s team do anything without drama.”
“Yeah, but he’s the only one with a perfect record.” Kurt smiled. “Terrorists can run from him, but they just die tired.”
“Well, there you go. Let me handle Standish. You handle the terrorists. It’s worked pretty well so far. We haven’t had another major attack in close to ten years.”
Kurt grew somber. “Don’t kid yourself, sir. We’ve been lucky. Ever since 9/11 we’ve been hunting terrorists more concerned with their place in history than conducting a well-thought-out attack. They’ve been happy just to shove some explosives in their underwear. This guy getting so close to radiological material scares the shit out of me. Some lone wolf gets his hands on WMD and his place in history won’t have to be well thought out.”
“I know. It keeps me up at night, too, trust me.”
“What keeps me up at night is another Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Someone who understands the second- and third-order effects of an attack and has the patience and skill to make it happen. Someone who isn’t satisfied with just bringing down a single airplane.”
Kurt went to the windows overlooking the Oval Office patio. “That man is out there. Planning right now. Studying our weaknesses. If he gets his hands on a weapon of mass destruction, we’ll learn the real meaning of terror.”
Knuckles was coordinating the garage hit when I felt my pager vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw a word I never would have expected: ENDEX. Huh. That’s never happened before.
We were on our culmination exercise, something that was considered sacred. This was the final exercise after three months of working out tactics, techniques, and procedures before deploying overseas on a specific mission. Now we were being ordered back in the middle of our last training run. It’s like someone telling the Super Bowl team that they had to vacate the field on their final practice before the game.
“Break—break—break. All elements, all elements, this is Pike. ENDEX, ENDEX, ENDEX. We got an alert. Return to home. Head straight to the conference room. Acknowledge.”
Four of them replied with their call sign and a simple “Roger.” Knuckles was last, and I knew I wasn’t getting a one-word response.
“ENDEX? What the hell? We won’t get an ENDEX in a real-world situation.”
I smiled, knowing he had spent the better part of the day dressed like a homeless man, stinking of whatever disgusting filth he could find to smear on his body. “I hear you. I just got paged. I don’t know what it’s about. I’ll swing by and pick you up. I don’t think anyone else wants to ride with you.”
Before Knuckles could answer there was a chorus of calls claiming their cars were full or they were already moving. He finally broke in. “Okay. Fine. What about the Rabbit? What do you want to do with him, turn him loose?”
“No. Bring him along. I don’t know what the page is about, but we might be able to pick up where we left off. No sense burning the team by letting him go.”
Knuckles acknowledged the call, then gave directions where to find him. He was only a couple of blocks away. I cranked up the car and pulled into traffic. I rounded the corner and spotted him a block away. He was standing two streets up holding a cardboard sign that said: “Homeless Veteran. Will work for someone who understands what’s important.” I pulled over, allowing him to climb in.
“Funny sign. Unfunny stench. Maybe you should take the Metro.”
“Ha ha.” Knuckles was silent for a minute, which told me he was pissed. I was unsure whether it was the exercise or the page, but he didn’t waste any time leaving me wondering.
“What the fuck was that call back there about tagging the target? Dumbest damn thing I’ve ever heard. There was no reason to do that. It’s not like we were in a Jack Bauer scenario.”
“I know, but these exercises never have a guy carrying a nuke. We never get pressure to get it done at all costs. I decided to make it a Jack Bauer scenario—see how the team reacts. We don’t want that to happen on a real-world without doing it once in practice.”
“Yeah, sure. There’s a reason Jack Bauer’s on TV. It doesn’t happen real-world. You pull that shit on a live mission and we’re spending the rest of our lives in a shithole foreign jail.”
“Ease up. It’s better to be prepared.”
Knuckles switched the subject, telling me he was good. “What’s the story? We’ve never had a culmination exercise called off. We’re due to deploy in five days and we haven’t even worked the kinks out of the new kit.”
“I don’t have a clue. We’ll find out soon enough.”
Knuckles began rubbing off his filth with a packet of wet wipes from his pocket. “This had better be good, because we aren’t ready to deploy.”
It was good.
WE CROSSED THE KEY BRIDGE, leaving Washington, D.C., and entering Virginia. Minutes later, we pulled into a parking garage under a nondescript office building near Clarendon. The small plaque on the single door leading into the building read “Blaisdell Consulting,” making it sound like we were some sort of think tank or government contractors. It was a great cover, because consulting firms are all over D.C., and no one can figure out what the hell they do.
The entire thing was a façade. Outside of the initial foyer, manned by little old ladies who would take your number and ask you to return at a later date, the building was dedicated to one thing—finding and killing terrorists. It was a block long and four stories tall, incorporating everything from an indoor twenty-five-meter firing range to an isolation facility that could house twenty-four men. The unit inside had no official designation and no official affiliation with the U.S. government—only a top-secret crypt that would never see the light of day. Because we had to call it something, it was known simply as the Taskforce.
We badged in from the underground garage and moved straight to the primary conference facility on the second floor. Paneled in dark wood, it was dominated by a large oval table with small speakers in front of every chair and a large plasma screen on the far wall. The lighting was muted. It would have looked like the conference room in any law firm except for one difference: Instead of being surrounded by bookcases full of law texts, the walls held souvenirs from past operations. Kaffiyehs, flags, framed letters in Arabic, and various weapons hung around the conference table. I had had the pleasure of hanging about a third of them.
I never really understood why so much money had been spent on the room, since we were so classified we wouldn’t be giving briefings to congressmen or anyone else. If it had been done for our sakes, they could have left it bare concrete. We wouldn’t have cared. In fact, speaking for myself, I would have liked it better. I was told it was to encourage us to start thinking like corporate types. Get us into the cover and away from the knuckle-dragging killer-commando past we all had.
The rest of the team had beaten us back. When we entered, they all looked at Knuckles and me as if we had gleaned some secret knowledge on the drive over. Before anyone could ask, I threw it right back at them. “Well, someone know what’s going on? Anyone say anything about Johnny’s team? Something happen in Jordan?”
Bull spoke up. “Nobody’s talking. Duty officer said to wait here. The boss will be down in about five minutes.”
Our lead intel analyst entered the room, moving straight to the computer system in the rear without saying a word. Ethan and I were pretty good friends, so I figured I wouldn’t have to wait for the commander.
“Ethan, what’s up?”
“Change of mission. You’re headed to Tbilisi.” He turned his back and began loading stuff onto the computer, which annoyed me.
“Tbilisi? What the fuck for?”
Speaking over his shoulder, Ethan said, “Pike, I don’t have time right now. The boss is on the way down. All I can say is that you won’t be coming to my house for dinner tonight.”
Before I could ask anything else, the element leader for Omega Operations, Lieutenant Colonel Blaine Alexander, entered the room. His appearance really caused the team to perk up.
He walked over to Knuckles and me. “Glad you guys could get back in so quick.”
“Well, we’re here. What’s the story? Something happen to the team in Jordan?”
“Nothing bad’s happened to the team,” Blaine said, “but something bad is about to happen with the mission. Your target is headed to Tbilisi, Georgia.”
Knuckles frowned. “Why’s that a big deal? This will be, what, his third trip? Didn’t we already analyze that and decide to focus on Jordan, where he lives?”
Mustafa Abu Azzam was a confirmed leader of a terrorist cell affiliated with Al Qaeda. Living in Jordan, but born and raised in Oman, he was hell-bent on doing irreparable harm to the United States. Had he been focused on other targets, such as the country of Jordan itself, the Taskforce would have quietly passed its intelligence into the system, letting the Jordanians handle it. As it was, he lived and worked in Jordan as a reputable citizen, leading a double life that allowed him to plan attacks in relative safety. We had worked for close to a year to put a face to the name the Taskforce had been tracking. A year of hard, slow, boring—but necessary—work. Nobody wanted to kill an innocent man. My team had flip-flopped with Johnny’s over and over again, trying to get a handle on this guy, and we were very close. Our next deployment had a good shot at finishing him. Starting with just a name, then with cell phone numbers, building into e-mail addresses and Internet traffic, finally into addresses outside the virtual world, we had pinpointed the man called Azzam. Johnny’s team had taken the first confirmed photographs, and was simultaneously building a pattern of life for an operation while we prepared to deploy for the final takedown.
Before I could ask anything else, Colonel Kurt Hale entered the room, followed by a scrum of analysts. A large man with jet-black hair, my wife says he would be handsome if his nose weren’t bent at an angle, like it had been flattened and sprung back out of whack. I always laugh at that, because I’m the one who flattened it. Don’t get the wrong idea. It was during routine combatives training. I could show you a scar on my elbow where I had to have surgery because of something he did. I would never say a cross word to the man otherwise, because he’s the finest commander this country currently has. Of course, I’m biased.
Kurt shook my hand and apologized for interrupting the team’s training. I shrugged it off. “Thanks for throwing in the trailer. It caused a little high adventure.”
Kurt grinned and said, “You guys need a wrinkle every once in a while. A few more days and you’d have figured out what he was doing.”
“We didn’t wait. We took him down. Would have had both targets if you hadn’t paged.”
“You took him down? He just entered the exercise today. Where is he?”
“In the parking garage.”
Kurt was flabbergasted. “Jesus, Pike! You brought him here?”
I held up my hands. “Sir, don’t worry. He’s blindfolded in the back of a van inside a dog kennel. He has no idea where he is.”
Kurt turned to one of the men with him and barked out instructions. I watched him get the van keys from Bull, then scurry out of the room. The way I was looking at it, Return ASAP meant get my ass here as soon as possible, so I wasn’t too upset at the breach in security. Kurt knew me pretty well, so he shouldn’t have been too surprised. More like business as usual.
Years ago, Kurt had been my first troop commander at a Special Mission Unit on Fort Bragg, and pretty much kept me from letting my arrogant attitude get me fired. He looked past the arrogance to the raw talent, and while everyone else wanted to get rid of me as trouble, he managed to channel my energy until I had sloughed off the bad and kept the good. Well, mostly.
Kurt shook his head and said, “We’ll talk about this later. Have a seat.”