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The Terminal List / (by Jack Carr, 2018) -

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The Terminal List /   (by Jack Carr, 2018) -

The Terminal List / (by Jack Carr, 2018) -

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The Terminal List /
True Believer /
Savage Son /
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The Terminal List / (by Jack Carr, 2018) -
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2018
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Jack Carr
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Ray Porter
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upper-intermediate
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12:03:50
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Terminal List / :

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: The Terminal List

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For the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who didnt make it back, and for our children, who are not yet old enough to read this. Theres a Man Goin Round Taking Names AUTHOR UNKNOWN PREFACE THIS IS A NOVEL of revenge. The Terminal List explores what could happen when an apex predator, a warrior at the top of his game, is thrown into a situation from which there is no return. It is about what could happen when societal norms, laws, regulations, morals, and ethics give way for a man of extraordinary capability, hardened by war, and set on a course of reckoning; a man who is, for all practical purposes, already dead. This work would not exist without the efforts of my dear friend and writing partner, Keith Wood. Though his name does not appear on the book jacket, this book is as much his as it is mine. On a handshake at SHOT Show in Vegas, we decided to fulfill our shared lifelong dream of writing a novel. This is the result. Due to the sensitive nature of the security clearances I held while in the military as a Navy SEAL, I am required to submit any written material intended for public release, including works of fiction, to the Department of Defense. In order to fulfill that obligation lawfully, this manuscript was submitted to the DOD Office of Prepublication and Security Review and was cleared as amended by that office. Throughout the writing process, I took great pains to ensure no tactics, techniques, or procedures were compromised. The last thing I want to do is give the enemy something that could possibly give them an advantage on the battlefield. The government review process exists for a reason, and having had the honor of defending this great nation at war, I am still bound by my former clearances to have my writing reviewed. The governments redactions are included as amended and are blacked out in the novel. While this is a work of fiction, each scene draws from emotions that I experienced during real world events over twenty years in the military. Those emotions, coupled with time in combat, add an authenticity to the novel that we hope makes for a thrilling reading experience. Though my time as a SEAL certainly influenced our choice of a protagonist, I am not James Reece. He is more skilled, witty, and intelligent than I could ever hope to be. Though I am not James Reece, I understand him. He has the experience, training, skill, and drive to administer justice on his terms. This is also a book about control. The consolidation of power at the federal level in the guise of public safety is a national trend and should be guarded against at all costs. This erosion of rights, however incremental, is the slow death of freedom. We have reached a point where the power of the federal government is such that they can essentially target anyone of their choosing. Recent allegations that government agencies may have targeted political opponents should alarm all Americans, regardless of party affiliation. Revisionist views of the Constitution by opportunistic politicians and unelected judges with agendas that reinterpret the Bill of Rights to take power away from the people and consolidate it at the federal level threaten the core principles of the Republic. As a free people, keeping federal power in check is something that should be of concern to us all. The fundamental value of freedom is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. We are citizens, not subjects, and we must stay ever vigilant that we remain so. Jack Carr August 6, 2017 Park City, Utah PROLOGUE IT DIDNT TAKE A tactical genius to pick the spot. Humans are creatures of habit and some were more religious about it than others. Accountants, it seemed, were practically monastic in their routines. From June 1 to November 1 of every year, Marcus Boykin lived in his mountain house in Star Valley Ranch, Wyoming. Star Valley sounded far more appealing to the east and west coast real estate buyers than its previous name of Starvation Valley. It was an enclave of wealthy outsiders in otherwise rural western Wyoming, stuck into the mountainside like a well-manicured finger of civilization, full of multimillion-dollar homes in a part of the world otherwise populated by ranchers and cowboys. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Boykin rose early and climbed into his silver Mercedes G550 SUV to drive the fifty miles to the relative metropolis of Jackson. With a summertime population of bankers and hedge fund managers that would rival the Hamptons, it was the only place within hours where he could eat a gourmet meal with an eight-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. In Jackson he could sip lattes and read the Wall Street Journal in the company of fellow seasonal residents from New York, Greenwich, Boston, and Los Angeles. Three days a week he could connect with real people in person instead of waiting impatiently for his friends to comment on his Facebook posts. Dinners at Rendezvous Bistro were far tastier and the conversation more stimulating than his usual meal alone on the deck, no matter how spectacular the view. U.S. 89 runs north and south through the steep valley that straddles the line between Wyoming and Idaho. Irrigated hayfields near the roadway lie in the shadows of the rugged ten-thousand-foot peaks to the east and more gentle hills to the west. Just north of the tiny town of Alpine, the route to Jackson turns east along the Snake River and winds into the mountains of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. At this point in the journey, the jagged ridgelines of the Tetons run nearly to the roadside, like towering cruise ships moored alongside an asphalt pier. Ten feet from the well-maintained road was terrain as rugged as nearly anywhere in the Lower 48, the home of trophy mule deer and giant elk as well as plenty of black bears and the occasional moose. Having never touched a gun or hunted in his life, it would never occur to Boykin that September 15, the opening day of deer season in Wyomings Region G, fell on a Monday that year. James Reece had hiked in the previous afternoon from a trailhead on the opposite side of the mountain from the U.S. highway. The trail began near the road as the crow flies, but was many miles away by vehicle. The vistas of the highway were as close to the remote backcountry as most seasonal residents like Boykin ventured. Though it was only a few hours hike from his truck, Reece may as well have walked in from a different world. He wore a light pack with a nylon rifle scabbard strapped to the side, high-performance digital camo hunting clothing from Sitka, and the Salomon hiking boots he had worn on countless operations around the world. Walking through the Wyoming backcountry in the traditional snipers woolly ghille suit and heavyweight rifle, he would stick out like a man wandering the mountains in a tuxedo, but clad in the garb of a hunter, he was as invisible as a guy in a blue blazer at the airport. The anonymous tip that hed called in about the moose poachers just south of Jackson would probably occupy every game department cop in the region, but in the unlikely event that he ran into someone of authority, the hunting license and deer tag in his pocket would verify him as just another hunter out looking for mulies on the busiest day of the year. He could have hiked in at night with a headlamp or brought along his night vision, but he wanted to get into his spot before dark. No sense twisting an ankle or worse in this rough country, and he was anxious to get started. He had studied the topography on maps and satellite imagery hundreds of times, but hed still hiked the route two days earlier to ensure that it looked the same on the ground as it did from the air. The country was steep and high. It didnt matter how well you were conditioned at sea level, eight thousand feet was still eight thousand feet. He stopped to catch his breath and guzzle water from the hose clipped to his shoulder strap. His legs burned and his lungs were starved for oxygen. His base layer was covered in sweat despite temperatures in the fifties, so he zipped his top down to let some of his body heat escape. He wasnt in a rush, but he moved with purpose. It certainly wasnt the first time he had pushed himself up a mountain to a target. His perch was just as hed left it, a small U-shaped slot eroded into the mountainside that could only be accessed from the front. There was very little chance of a hunter or game warden wandering up on his six while he was in position, and hed have a clear view of anyone approaching from the front long before they reached his hide site. The spot overlooked a saddle of highway that ran between two steep hills. His position was near the top of the second hill if you were driving toward Jackson. Like a cave without a roof, the spot would protect him from the prying eyes of hunters glassing for deer the afternoon before the season opened and would keep him out of the wind as the temperature dropped into the low thirties overnight. He pulled his rifle out of the scabbard and laid his pack down just short of the mouth of the slot so his muzzle would not be visible from below. The rifle was an Echols Legend, built by a master in Utah whose handmade rifles sold for several months of his Navy salary. It was a gift from his father after his first post-9/11 deployment and was one of his most prized possessions. He had planned to hunt more after he retired and entered the private sector. The rifle was chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum and, despite weighing far less than the sniper rifles hed used overseas, was even more accurate. Instead of a traditional hunting scope, he had installed a Nightforce NXS 2.5-10x32mm, the same glass he used at work. The pack supported the rifles forend and a small beanbag steadied the butt. Lying prone, with the front and back of the rifle supported, he was able to hold the rifle as steady as any bench rest. As cars and trucks crested the hill to his west, he would dry-fire at the drivers position of the windshield to get the timing right. The vacationers and local residents traveling this mountain road in the fall afternoon had no idea that they were in the crosshairs of one of the nations deadliest warriors. Satisfied that his position was solid and that hed have the right angle on the target, he retreated to the back of his mountain cubby and fired up his backpacking stove to heat water for his freeze-dried dinner. When the sun dropped below the skyline and the temperature fell by double digits, he crawled into his sleeping bag. He thought about his little girl, all blond curls, tears welling up in her brave blue eyes as she saw daddy off on his last deployment. Six months away and he would be home for good, promise. He could still see her face, pressed up against the airport glass for one last look as he boarded the plane. The hardest parts of a deployment were the first couple of weeks when youd just left home, and the last couple when you started anticipating your return. That it was his last trip overseas made the light at the end of the tunnel brighter. Finally the end of the train/deploy/train treadmill he and his SEAL brothers had been on for well over a decade. Curled up in his sleeping bag underneath a light show of stars that a city dweller couldnt comprehend, he slept sounder than he had in weeks. No waking up to realize that the nightmare was real. No reaching across the bed for a wife who wasnt there. No hearing the soft cries of a daughter who would never again crawl into his bed for protection from the boogeyman. He was already awake, staring at Orion, when his watch chirped at 0500. A swig from his water bottle and an energy bar would be his breakfast. He got into position behind his rifle and waited patiently for the sun to rise. Marcus Boykin was an early riser, as was nearly everyone in the financial sector. You were either up and at the table in his line of work, or you were asleep and on the menu. He looked at the weather forecast on his iPhone before slipping on a pair of designer jeans and some tan Italian loafers. He wore a Patagonia fleece over his pink Lacoste polo and put on a Yankees cap to hide his bald spot from the twenty-something waitress he was currently trying to bed. To him, she wasnt Sarah with the degree in environmental engineering working to save up for her masters, she was the waitress. Hed been unsuccessful in getting into her pants so far, but she was broke and he was rich. One night, sooner or later, shed get drunk and slip up, and hed be there to take advantage. Living this far out was part of the challenge, though he knew that to better his chances he might have to get a condo in town at some point to help seal the deal. He grabbed his keys from the marble kitchen counter and pressed the remote start. It was freezing, and Boykin wanted the SUV nice and toasty with the heater running and the seats warmed by the time he made his to-go coffee and headed out. He opened his giant oak front door and took out his phone to tweet a photo of the orange glow of sunrise making its way over the mountain before he lost Wi-Fi coverage; the cell service was crap until you got to Jackson. He didnt really care about the view. In his mind the sun would do the same thing tomorrow, but it would make his friends on both coasts jealous, a thought that he relished. As he climbed into the SUV and headed down the mountain road to U.S. 89, his mind turned to thoughts of what hed say to the waitress when he saw her. Combat is sensory overload, total chaos, especially if youre in command. The noise is deafening, both from the incoming and outgoing fire, while the overpressure of muzzle blasts and explosions rock your body down to its DNA. Men are yelling, not out of fear or panic, but to communicate above the roar. Tracers come in, rockets fly past, dust from explosions and bullet strikes shroud your immediate world in a tactile cloud of dust. Radio traffic in your ears adds to the storm and demands a conscious response, which means ones actions in the moment must be subconscious. Identifying targets, firing weapons, changing magazines: all must happen automatically, as seamless as steering, shifting gears, and working the gas pedal of a car while talking on a cell phone. As a leader, you must rise even further above the storm and look beyond your own survival. You must direct the fire and movement of the entire element and resist the instinct to become just another gun in the fight. The whole thing is one tachy-psyche blur of constant decision making. This was the opposite of chaos. Reeces senses registered nothing unnatural, just the calm of aspens in the breeze and the relaxing melody of wildlife easing into another day to a beautiful mountain sunrise. There was no radio, no one to communicate with, just the occasional hum of a car or pickup on the asphalt of the highway. The range to the dip in the road was exactly 625 yards, which meant that the bullet would drop eighty-six inches in its path from his barrel to the target. The rifles scope was zeroed for 100 yards, so he would have to compensate for the difference. He came up 14 clicks, 1.4 MILS, to make up for the drop. By dialing for the range, there would be no holdover. He could put the center of the reticle right on the target. Fight with every advantage you can get. The winds were light this early in the morning, which was a good thing. Wind calls were always tricky in the mountains, even for a pro. The Kestrel told him it was blowing two miles per hour from his left, a full-value wind that required six inches of hold. Since winds could shift at any moment, he used the MIL-DOT reticle to hold off for the 0.3 MILS. He heard the hum of the tires even before the blue halogen headlights haloed above the highway as the SUV climbed the rise. The silver Mercedes was unmistakably Boykins; thank God this guy didnt drive an F-150. The vehicle was coming straight at him, which meant no lead was required, but it was still hauling ass. He didnt have much time to admire the success of his planning. He tracked the target as it came down the hill, just as hed done with the two other vehicles that had passed earlier that morning. He took a full breath, briefly rested at its peak, then exhaled to find his natural respiratory pause when his lungs had expended their air, steadying and focusing him for the task at hand. Doing so caused the movement of the scopes reticle to slow from an orbit to a small tremor. Even with a solid rest, it was never as steady as in the movies. The Mercedes hit the flat spot and appeared to stop for a second as he lost the perspective of its forward progress. He couldnt see the driver, not at this range and certainly not in this light. Holding just right of the windshields center, he slowly pressed the trigger. His ears heard the shot but his brain barely registered the sound. His only sensation of recoil was the scopes image jolting into a blur as the rifle rocked skyward. Despite putting rounds into countless men in shitty corners of the world, his body still jolted into fight or flight mode, adrenaline surging into his body like a shot of heroin. He had killed plenty of men with his countrys blessing in the past, but this time pressing the trigger meant breaking the most sacred bond of society; hed just committed murder. The monolithic bullet was a Barnes Triple Shock, made from solid copper and scored inside the tiny hollow point to split into four petals upon impact like a deadly flower. It was engineered to penetrate deeply on big game animals and worked so well that special operations troops adopted it for use during the Global War on Terror. When it hit the nearly vertical glass windshield of the Mercedes, the petals sheared off, leaving a cylinder of copper a third of an inch in diameter and still moving faster than most handgun rounds do at the muzzle. It struck Boykin on the bridge of his nose, and angled downward slightly as it smashed cartilage, brain, and bone into jelly. It severed the first vertebra and exited the back of his neck looking much like it did on the way in, before punching through the leather headrest and terminating its flight in the foam cushioning of the backseat. The Mercedess cruise control was set on sixty miles per hour when its drivers brain ceased sending command signals to his body. His limbs quivered and jerked the way most animals and humans do when shot in the central nervous system, but the Teutonic engineering of the SUV kept the wheels traveling straight up the rise of the highway as if nothing had happened. When it roared past Reeces position, he thought for a second that hed missed. As the vehicle crested the rise, having accelerated to make up for the steep grade, Boykins lifeless body shifted forward in his restraint and caused the wheel to turn sharply to the left. The forward momentum, downward slope, and the SUVs high center of gravity created a snowball effect and caused the Mercedes to roll forward on its right front wheel, cartwheeling off the pavement and into the steep shoulder. The sound of rubber and steel meeting asphalt and rock were deafeningly loud, but only one man could hear it. Reece smiled for the first time in many months as he pulled a Ziploc bag from a pocket inside his jacket. Out of the bag came a folded-up crayon drawing with a list of names written on the back. With a tiny stub of a pencil, he crossed the first name off the list and returned it to its home against his chest. PART ONE THE AMBUSH CHAPTER 1 Three months earlier Khost Province, Afghanistan 0200 Local Time NOT ONE OF THE GUYS on the ground had liked this mission. Now, moving to within a klick of their target, they had pushed that distraction from their minds and were solely focused on the deadly challenge before them. Glancing at the GPS attached to the stock of his rifle and scanning the terrain ahead, Lieutenant Commander James Reece called a quick perimeter. Snipers were already moving up to the high ground as team leaders joined Reece for a last, quick update before the final push to the objective. Even with all the technology at their disposal, things could go wrong in a heartbeat. Their enemy was cunning and highly adaptive. After sixteen years at war, the Afghan saying, The Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time, rang a bit more true than it had in the early days. What do you think, Reece? asked a huge beast of a man, looking like a creature from another world with his AOR1-patterned camouflage, body armor, and Ops Core half-shell helmet with NODs firmly in place. Reece looked at his most seasoned troop chief. The light green glow of the NODs illuminated through the beard on the other mans face a slight smile that could not be mistaken for anything other than the confident look of a professional special operations soldier. Its just over that rise, Reece replied. Predator shows nothing moving. No sentries. Nothing. His troop chief nodded. All right, guys, he said to the other four men in the circle. Lets do it. They rose with resolve and moved with the poise of men who were comfortable in chaos, moving up the rocky ridgeline to get their Teams in place before approaching the target to make entry. This is too easy. You are thinking too much again. Its just another mission. Then why this feeling? Maybe its just the headaches. The headaches had plagued Reece for the past several months, finally prompting a visit to Balboa Naval Medical Center before this deployment for a series of tests. Still no word back from the docs. Maybe its nothing. But maybe its something. Reece had learned a long time ago that if something didnt look right, then it probably wasnt. That judgment had kept him and his men alive on many a deployment. Everything had lined up a little too easily for this target: the intel, the offset infil, the current state of the objective area. And why the pressure from higher authority to go after this target? When was the last time a flag-level command injected itself into a tactical planning process? Something wasnt adding up. Maybe everythings fine. Maybe its the headaches. Maybe its a bit of paranoia. Maybe I am getting too old for this. Focus, Reece. This wasnt the first time that they had approached a target they suspected was a possible ambush. At one point in the war, when intel had pointed to the high possibility of an ambush, corroborated by multiple sources both human and technical, Reece would have knocked on the door with a thermobaric AT-4 or a few 105mm rounds from an AC-130 gunship. This was the first time that actual tactics had been dictated from higher, from men who would not be on the ground. Focus on the mission, Reece. One more check with the Tactical Operations Center, a forward-based command also called the TOC, and a look at the Predator feed. Nothing. Another check with the sniper teams. Nothing moving. Reece glanced up at the military crest of the hill in front of him. Through his NODs he could see the assault teams set and ready to move. He couldnt see the snipers, which gave him cause for a thoughtful smile. Best in the business. Reece keyed his radio and opened his mouth to give the order to move. Then it all went black. The explosion knocked Reece back ten yards and ripped his helmet from his head as the entire military crest of the hill in front of him erupted in a concussion of violence and death. Teammates, friends, husbands, and fathers who one moment earlier had represented the best special operations force the world had ever known were gone in less than a second. Reece never realized that he was momentarily knocked unconscious. The pain in his head brought him back into the fight before the dust began to settle and the reverberations from the explosion had drifted from the hills. The professional in him immediately ensured he still had his weapon. Check. Next was a mental rundown of his body. Everything appeared to still be in the same place and working. They knew. How? Later, Reece. Always improve your fighting position. His eyes darted around looking in vain for his helmet and communications headset, eyes adjusting to the dark, hands moving in a frantic search until finally coming across it in the dirt. Yes. Wait, too heavy to be my helmet. Thats because its not your helmet. Its someone elses. And the head is still in it. Even in the darkness it was clear to Reece that he was staring into the face of his longtime friend and Teammate, the big man with the huge beard and confident smile, and that his head was no longer attached to his body. Reece couldnt stop the tears from welling in his eyes but quickly brushed them aside. Focus. No time to mourn. Exploit all technical and tactical advantages. Check. Reece unsnapped the chinstrap, letting his friends head fall to the ground, and quickly put the helmet on his own head. Miraculously, the NODs still worked. His radio operator was facedown, twenty yards away. Reece could tell from the contorted position of his body that he was dead. Moving quickly to his side, Reece turned him over, checked for breathing and a pulse, knowing that the shrapnel sticking through his right eye and out the side of his head had killed him instantly. Removing his radiomans helmet, Reece ripped off the MBITR radio and headset to reestablish communications with the supporting aircraft and his TOC. Nothing moved on the hillside. It was as if the sword of death had swept over the entire force. Reece heard footsteps behind him and spun, weapon up, off safe, infrared laser activated, searching for threats. He immediately checked up his M4 5.56mm rifle as he recognized three of his operators running up to him from their rear security positions. The temptation to run up the hillside was a strong one but another thought was at the forefront of all their minds: win the fight. His rear security found new positions without saying a word, forming a tight perimeter around their leader. Reece shut the carnage and death of the ambush from his mind. It was time to act. SPOOKY Four Seven, this is SPARTAN Zero One, said Reece into his radio while looking at the Gridded Reference Graphic attached to his arm. Request fire mission on building D3. 105s. Level it. Worn in a similar fashion as a quarterbacks wrist coach, the GRG was instead an aerial image of the target area that allowed him to coordinate and maneuver forces who all used the same graphic. Good copy, Zero One. Six mikes out. The AC-130 gunship had been loitering ten minutes away so as not to give away the coming assault in the still Afghan night. BreakRAZOR Two Four, RAZOR Two Four. Request QRF and medevac on my position, ECHO Three. Stay off the hillsides. We have multiple personnel wounded from buried IEDs. One never mentioned the dead in a radio transmission. Roger, Zero One. Headed in for a hot extract on grid ECHO Three. Ten mikes out. The QRF birds were two CH-47 helos packed with fifteen Rangers each. MAKO, Reece said into the headset, anything on that Pred feed? Nothing, Zero One. Nothing moving on target. Copy. Reece turned his attention to his four remaining operators. Who do we have? He asked. Hey, sir. Its Boozer. I have Jonesey and Mike with me. What the fuck happened? Ambush. They knew we were coming. Bastards. We have an air strike about five minutes out and QRF en route. Sir, we fucking told them this was an ambush. What the fuck! Sure as hell didnt expect this, though. Anyone alive? Not sure. Lets go find out. Roger, sir. But take it easy. There could be hundreds of IEDs or mines set up and buried up here. Jonesey, you and Mike stay here to bring in those birds. Boozer and I are going to go check for survivors. Boozer, stay about fifteen yards behind me. Step only where I step. We will work our way up there slowly. TOC says nothing is moving on the other side of that hill but stay alert. Got it, Reece. Lets go. The pair moved together up the hillside, though mountainside was a more apt term. Rocky and steep at altitude, and weighed down by forty pounds of body armor and gear makes for slow going, especially when moving through a suspected minefield. SPOOKY, we are moving up from GRG ECHO Three to ECHO Eight. Anything on the north side of the hill is fair game. Roger, Zero One, still nothing moving. Strange. Good copy. Reece and Boozer inched up the hill, the smell of cordite, blood, dust, and death heavy in the air. Movement to the left. B, I have movement. Dont rush up. Continue to follow me, Reece whispered into his radio. Boozer responded by keying his mike twice, signifying good copy. Reece moved in the direction of the movement and what he now identified as moaning. Donny Mitchell, one of the youngest members of Reeces team, lay dying among the rocks of eastern Afghanistan. His body missing from the waist down, he reached for Reece. Did we get them, sir? Donny said weakly. Ive still got my rifle. Yeah you do, buddy. Yeah you do. Air strike is coming in now. Well get them. Reece sat down next to Donny and moved to cradle his head in his arms. As the first of the 105s began to hit the compound, Reece caught the hint of a smile on Donnys lips as he drifted off to Valhalla. Reece looked up, watching Boozer slowly work his way among the boulder-strewn hillside. Behind Boozer, Reece first heard, then saw the blacked-out 47s begin their descent into the valley where Jonesey and Mike now guided them in. We will pound the hell out of that compound with air and then move in with the Rangers to conduct battle damage assessment and sensitive site exploitation. It was then that the gravity of what had just happened began to sink in. Ive lost my team. It is my responsibility. Reeces eyes began to mist over for the second time that night. He had no idea how bad things were about to get. CHAPTER 2 Bagram Air Base Bagram, Afghanistan REECE AWOKE ON HIS BACK, his vision blurry, blinking to clear his eyes and soften the pounding in his head. Where am I? As he turned his head slowly to try to clear the cobwebs, his eyes came to focus on the tube sticking out of his arm and he became aware of something strapped over his mouth and nose. IV. Oxygen mask. Hospital. Reece attempted to lift himself to his elbows but was stopped short by a blinding pain in his head. Reece . . . Reece . . . easy, buddy. Easy. Reece recognized the voice immediately. Boozer. Doc, hes getting up! Boozer yelled down the hall. This place was a far cry from the field hospital tents of the early days. If you didnt know you were still in Afghanistan, youd think you were stateside at a naval medical center in Bethesda or Balboa. The only giveaway that it was in the middle of a war zone was the ubiquitous hum of the diesel generators providing 24/7 climate control year after year. Fighting in a country for north of fifteen years can do that. Reece pulled down his oxygen mask and looked toward his friend. Boozer was still in his op cammies, dirty, smelly, with dried white salt deposits straining through the Afghan grime from all the sweat of the nights mission, but other than that, looking none the worse for wear. Boozer was just one of those guys who never got a scratch. His body armor and weapon were absent but Reece knew he would have a pistol concealed somewhere on his person. What happened? How did I get here? Boozer took a breath, trying not to let a look of utter sadness with an edge of pity cross his face, but failing miserably. Reece, NCIS is already here. They asked me not to tell you shit. Fuck them, though. Of course Im going to tell you. NCIS? Its bad, Reece, Boozer continued. Whats the last thing you remember? Reeces eyes tightened as he searched his memory banks. We were on the crest of the hill, air strikes inbound, QRF and CASEVAC coming in . . . He trailed off. Holding, Donny. Yeah, Boozer confirmed. Thats right. Then the whole valley exploded. They baited us in, Reece. More elaborate than anything weve seen to date. They knew exactly what we would do after the hillside went up. They knew we would level that compound and bring in the cavalry for our wounded and dead. The entire floor of that valley, our exact position in the set point, was wired to blow. They knew when those helos were landing and they cooked it off. Dash-one dropped its Rangers, took off, and when dash-two came in they set it off. That second helo and all the Rangers, sir. They got them all. Reeces eyes stayed focused on Boozer. Jonesey and Mike? Reece asked, already knowing the answer. Boozer shook his head. Sorry, Reece. I wanted to make sure you knew before those NCIS guys got in here. I got a bad feeling from those clowns. Whats weird is that their questions werent about the mission. They were about you. A confused look crossed Reeces face, which he quickly put aside. Me? I think they are looking for somebody to hang. Just my take, Reece. Stay strong, sir. You didnt do anything wrong. Higher forced us on that mission. They dictated the tactics. Those are the fuckers that should be investigated. They dictated tactics from the safety of HQ. Fuck those guys. Boozer always had a way with words. Not one to ever sugarcoat anything, he always gave his honest assessment. As a leader, that was what Reece expected. It is what he owed his troops and his chain of command. Always give your honest assessment. That was how one built trust as a combat leader. Without trust, there was nothing. Your men trusted you, Reece. And now they are dead. Focus. Something is not right. Something is just not right. CHAPTER 3 LIEUTENANT COMMANDER REECE, interrupted a voice from the hallway with more of a statement than a question. Boozer looked at Reece with an expression that told his commander, this is the asshole I was talking about. Thats me, replied Reece, pushing himself up in his hospital bed. Hi, Im Special Agent Robert Bridger with NCIS, he said, entering the room and nodding at Boozer while at the same time displaying his credentials to Reece. These guys love to show their creds, thought Reece to himself. He wondered if they knew the rest of the military thought they were all just guys who couldnt get into the FBI or CIA but didnt have the balls to be street cops, instead choosing to hide out in NCIS for a career of busting eighteen-yearold kids who pop positive on the monthly Navy drug tests. Even their name was deceptive. Despite leading with an N for Naval, NCIS was not even a part of the Navy. Rather, it was a federal law enforcement agency staffed with civilian special agents focused on investigating naval personnel. No one liked them much. Boozer stood and, though talking to Reece, stared directly into Agent Bridgers eyes and said, See you later, sir. Ill be close if you need me, before departing the room, leaving it to the federal cop and his boss. Reece swung his legs over the side of the bed, slowly getting his balance. Looking at his arm, he yanked out the IV and then rose to his feet before extending his hand to the shorter man. Agent Bridger seemed nice enough and for all Reece knew he was just doing his job. Bridger smiled and took the outstretched hand. Good cop, Reece thought. Bridger was dressed in the uniform of those not in actual uniform in a war zone, pressed tan pants with the requisite olive green button-up safaristyle shirt complete with epaulets along with clean beige combat boots. Reece always wondered what the epaulets were for. His .40 SIG Sauer P229 was displayed prominently on his belt in a scuffed-up black leather holster, probably the result of getting in and out of his desk chair for coffee multiple times a day. If you feel up for it, Commander, we have a few questions about the mission. Im sure you understand. We just want to get this wrapped up as soon as possible and get you back to your men. Or whats left of them, thought Reece. Little quick, isnt it? asked Reece, looking around the hospital room. Well, its a big deal, sir. We need to get some questions answered for D.C. as soon as possible. Reece nodded, resigned to take the blame he knew was his. He had always believed that as a leader you shared in the successes but owned the failure, and when successful you always pushed the credit down to the guys. They deserved it most. This was an unmitigated failure. His failure. Mind if I change? Reece asked. No problem, Commander. Ill be outside. Reece took a deep breath and surveyed his room. It wasnt what one would expect to find in Afghanistan. Modern and sterile, it stood in stark contrast to the world beyond its doors. Alone with his thoughts, Reece took another breath and located his clothes, op cammies covered in sweat and blood. He picked up his camo Crye Pro top and rubbed the blood-soaked material between his fingers, wondering which of his men the blood belonged to. Reece knew that if anything were really wrong with him they would have put him in the ER, which was in a different wing of the hospital, behind another set of doors and always ready for the inevitable next mass causality event, which had become an all-too-frequent occurrence in the counterinsurgency fight. His weapons and body armor were gone. Boozer would have taken care of them. Ready, Reece said, exiting the room. Okay, the NCIS man answered. This time he was not alone. Instead he was flanked by a large but portly uniformed Navy chief master-at-arms carrying a Beretta 92F pistol in a clean nylon holster. How the Italian gunmakers awkward 9mm handgun had replaced the Colt 1911A1 .45 to become the official sidearm of the U.S. armed forces, Reece could only guess. Great, more fake cops, he thought. Reece fell into step with Agent Bridger as they made their way down the hallway toward the exit. The duo could not have been more different. Bridger stood about five inches shorter than Reeces six feet. His clean cargo pants and offset shirt were not stained by sweat, dirt, dust, grime, and blood like Reeces. His clean-shaven, pale face was a stark contrast to the taller mans stubble poking through the tough tanned skin of someone who had spent most of his life beyond the confines of an office. Reece and his entourage pushed through the two sets of double doors separating the medical world from the Afghan dust, which, no matter how much gravel the U.S. military continued to lay down, got into everything. Emerging into the blazing sun, Reece squinted his eyes and shielded them with his hand, realizing he hadnt had time to glance at his watch and for some reason thought it was still night. Reece almost stumbled as a headache worse than any to date almost crippled him. Almost before he could react, it was gone again. What were these things? As Reeces eyes adjusted to the light, Bridger motioned to a parked side-by-side quad, a military-looking version of a golf cart. Bridger climbed into the drivers seat while Reece took the front passenger side. Their silent master-at arms security got in the back and they moved off toward what Reece assumed would be the base NCIS office. They blended in with the normal buzz of daily activity at Bagram Air Base, soldiers moving to vehicles getting ready for a mounted patrol with their Afghan partner force, airmen switching shifts at the airfield, a line of military and civilian contractors forming at the chow hall. Just another Wednesday afternoon in a war zone. As they cruised down Disney Drive, Reece couldnt help but shake his head at the officers who had to return salutes about every five paces as they passed junior soldiers. Even in a combat zone, some brass felt it was important to maintain this piece of military decorum. It made him appreciate the sterile uniform he wore; no rank, which meant he didnt need to return fifty salutes on his way to the PX or gym. Bridger slowed the vehicle and pulled up in front of a structure left over from the time the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The outside was chipped with bullet holeswhether from the Russian occupation or the current conflict, it was impossible to tell. Funny, to Reece it looked like the old Russian brig. Fitting. Bridger left the Navy chief outside and led the way into the building and down a hallway lined with offices, each with a similarly dressed agent typing away, sifting through papers or mumbling on the phone. Reece took it all in, noting which way the doors opened, which offices had windows, which agents were armed, until Bridger stopped at the last door at the end of the hallway. Please wait here, sir, he said before slipping inside. Reece was left alone, assuming he was probably being watched by a small video camera surveying the hall. He looked at the BOLO, or Be On the LookOut, printouts on the wall. Most were former Afghan workers who did the jobs too lowly for Americans, namely emptying the port-a-potties that baked day after day in the heat of the Afghan summer. Reece had always thought they were some of the best sources of intel for the insurgency, having paced out every corner of the base multiple times to ensure correct schematics for incoming mortars and rockets. The door opened again and Agent Bridger nodded at Reece to come inside. It wasnt a big room, though Reece noticed immediately that there were no windows and no other points of entry. Seated at a rectangular folding table was a man who didnt offer his hand but introduced himself as Special Agent Dan Stubbs while holding out his badge and ID card. Bad cop. Reece took a seat across from Agent Stubbs while Bridger joined the man who was quite obviously his superior. Stubbs made a show of organizing some papers before sliding his thin reading glasses down the bridge of his nose to address the SEAL he had summoned in an obvious power play. It was much darker in this room than in the hall or adjoining offices. Reeces eyes adjusted once again while casually continuing to scan the room. A large stack of papers sat in front of Agent Stubbs and a microcassette recorder lay next to that. A video camera was set up in one corner on a tripod but appeared to not be recording. Agent Stubbs was one of those guys who could be forty or sixty. His hair was buzzed so it was hard to tell its exact color. His double chin was pronounced enough to notice and, though he did not stand, it was obvious he had a belly not accustomed to daily PT. He wore a black polo shirt under a cheap-looking dark suit coat. Something about his demeanor suggested past military experience, though Reece was skeptical as to the type. Commander Reece, he began in an official-sounding voice while pushing a piece of paper across the table, before we begin, please acknowledge your rights and sign below. Reece knew better than to ever sign anything for a federal agent without an attorney present. He also knew that his men were dead and that it was his responsibility. He signed the paper and pushed it back across. We are not video-recording this interview, Commander. First lie, thought Reece as he nodded in acknowledgment. Reece knew that the inoperable video camera in the corner was a prop, as was the microcassette recorder on the table. The entire interview was being audioand video-recorded by a microphone and camera hidden somewhere in the room. The prop camera was to put the subject psychologically at ease while the microcassette recorder would be used at certain times to go off the record, a provision that, of course, did not exist. I am going to start this recorder for my notes, if you dont mind, continued the fat man. Reece nodded again, more to acknowledge the theatrics of the scenario than to specifically give his consent for the record. Stubbs made a show of starting the recorder and placing it back on the table. This is Special Agent Daniel Stubbs of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Time, looking at his off-brand analog watch, 12:56 p.m., Wednesday, June fourteenth, 2017. I am here with Special Agent Robert Bridger to interview Lieutenant Commander James Reece, Troop Commander, SEAL Team Seven, concerning mission number 644: Odins Sword. Commander Reece, take us through the events surrounding Odins Sword. Reece started from the receipt of mission and went through the planning process. It had been a TST, or time-sensitive target, meaning it was a fleeting opportunity that needed to be acted upon immediately. The intelligence had come from a single source, which would normally disqualify it from consideration until it was more fully developed. Reece always validated intelligence across disassociated sources: two HUMINT sources coupled with SIGINT. Traditional and technical methods overlapping to ensure the target was viable and not an entity using America to settle a personal or political grudge. When Reece had pushed back to his next-echelon command he had been told in no uncertain terms that this was nationallevel intelligence, which was code for he was not authorized to know where it came from. Reece was cleared for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, which meant he could be read into Special Access Programs on a need-to-know basis. Taking your men into battle was definitely need-toknow in Reeces book. Reeces troop had been operating out of an outstation in Khost, bordering Pakistans Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the town of Miram Shah, a hotbed of insurgent activity as well as a safe haven for terrorists and their enablers. Ever since the high-profile killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, cross-border operations were a rarity, and the enemy knew it. Setting up in Khost, developing an indigenous intelligence network, working with host nation partner forces, and kinetically hitting the ratlines that moved people, weapons, and drugs between Afghanistan and Pakistan were the order of the day on this deployment. That is why the alarm bells started ringing when the TST came down the pike; no one knew that area as well as Reece and his Team. They had been working it for the past five months. None of their human networks or technical intelligence pointed to a Taliban compound in their area of operations. The Taliban were too smart for that. Their senior people could live and direct operations with impunity from the Pakistan side of the border. Something was off. Reece didnt mention his call to Lieutenant Colonel Duke Bray, the Army Special Forces commander of the Special Operations Task Force of which Reeces unit was a part. Duke Bray was a Special Forces legend and the best soldier one could ever hope to meet. He had been one of the first into Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, part of Fifth Groups famed Triple Nickel, riding horses in support of the Northern Alliance offensive that retook Kabul in days rather than the months predicted by the talking heads at home. He had crossed paths with Reece many times over the years and both men had the utmost respect for one another. Over their private secure video teleconference, Reece could be as blunt as he wanted with the man he considered both a friend and a mentor. What the fuck, sir? Reece had asked when he knew both were behind closed doors and in front of their computers. I know, Reece. This is shit. Ive never seen this, well, not in a long time. I told CJSOTF to fuck off and that we were not doing it. Whats crazy is that it wasnt their intel people pushing it. Its national-level intel and you know what that means. Reece knew that meant CIA and it meant strategic-level intelligence, not the tactical kind they developed on the ground. This had to be important to come down so quickly from that high up. Reece, I called in a couple favors at Langley to see if I could get some color on this. Nobodys heard of it. How does the target package look to you? It looks great. Thats why Im questioning it. Ive never seen anything this thorough from that high up. And weve never even heard of this targeted individual, but there is sure a lot of intel to back up that hes a serious player with connections to Pakistani ISI, Reece said, referring to Pakistans intelligence service. What did Stevens have to say? Reece asked, referring to the colonel commanding the CJSOTF one level above Bray. You know Stevens, hes a good enough officer. Wants to do the right thing but hes a career guy. He said he had the personal guarantee from Tampa that this was a high-priority mission that has to go tonight. Tampa was the headquarters of both Central Command, in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, and the Special Operations Command, which has the lead on all special operations worldwide. Wonder who guaranteed them? Reece wondered aloud. I dont like it, Reece, Bray continued, shaking his head. Wish I was down there with you, Commander, but Ill make sure you have all assets of the Task Force at your disposal tonight. Your op will be the only game in town. Thanks, sir. A dedicated AC-130 and a Pred with Hellfires would be nice. My staff already has them dedicated to your mission. Good copy, sir. We better get to work. Thanks for the support. Godspeed, Commander. To Reeces surprise, Agent Stubbs did not dig into any of the oddities of where the intelligence originated. It was almost as if that were not even an issue. Interesting. As hard as it was, Reece recounted the events once on the ground. The offset infiltration. The reports of nothing moving on target. The explosions. The death. When he was finished, Stubbss first question was not even about the mission. Instead he removed a paper from the stack in front of him and pushed it across the table to Reece. Is this from your email, Commander? he asked. Reece made no attempt to disguise the anger in his eyes as he looked back up at Agent Stubbs and then over to a nervous-looking Agent Bridger. Maybe a better question is, what the fuck are you doing reading my personal emails? I will ask it again, Commander: is this from your email? One of the first rules in an interrogation is to always know the answer to the questions before you even ask, and this was most definitely not an interview; it was an interrogation. This is private email correspondence between me and my wife. Not only with your wife, Commander, but with members of academic institutions about ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. Reece almost couldnt control his eye roll. You mean Dr. Anna Scott at Naval Postgraduate School and Dr. David Elliot at Johns Hopkins? Subject matter experts in insurgencies and international relations? What did you mean by this highlighted sentence here? Stubbs asked, ignoring Reeces questions and pointing to a section of the printed email now in front of Reece. It says, I question whether the tactical goals even support our national strategic vision. It means exactly what it says. And how about this one here? Agent Stubbs asked again. Well, let me read it for you, you wrote to Anna Scott on April ninth and I quote, I couldnt launch a mission today to apprehend a jaywalker with the same amount and quality of intelligence with which we invaded Iraq. End quote. Well, Stibbs, Reece began, intentionally mispronouncing his interrogators name, Anna Scott is a dear friend and one of the worlds leading authorities on insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Shes spent much of her life in the field immersed in the complexities of revolution, unlike those actually dictating policy. Stubbss hand reached for the microcassette recorder and pressed the stop button. Reece knew immediately what was coming. Commander Reece, off the record, what is your relationship with Dr. Scott? Unbelievable. Strictly professional, Stibbs. You should know that from reading all my personal emails. I see, pressing record on the recorder again, and how do you explain actively promoting assassinations as an active-duty naval officer? What are you talking about? Reece asked incredulously. Back in 2014 you emailed Dr. David Elliot and suggested targeted assassinations as a viable government policy in your capacity as an officer, which is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Reece looked back and forth between the two NCIS agents across from him. It would almost have been comical had it not been so serious. Reece had had many discussions with subject matter experts in the field of warfare. He felt it was his duty as an officer to constantly study his profession, resist groupthink, question assumptions, and seek out the most knowledgeable people he could across the industry to ensure he was going into combat as prepared and well equipped as possible. That was what he owed the men under his command. It is what he owed their families, the mission, and the country. Im done talking with you two idiots. Am I free to go? Dont make plans to go home just yet, Stubbs said, leaning back in his chair and exposing his well-nourished midsection. It is going to take us a while to sort through this mess. You are officially under investigation for subversive activities, disclosure of sensitive information, and violation of Article 13: conduct unbecoming an officer. Stubbs voiced all this without much emotion, as if running on autopilot. Reece stood slowly. Bridger looked like he wanted to be anywhere except for right where he was. Stubbs put the emails back into the stack. As he stood, Reeces hand instinctively went to the back right section of his hip, where he always carried his issued SIG P226 9mm pistol. He couldnt help but think that had it been about 150 years earlier, the government would be looking for two new federal agents. CHAPTER 4 DR. PETER OHALLORAN EXUDED the confidence of a man at the top of his profession. In the weeks following September 11, 2001, Dr. OHalloran turned the reins of his highly successful spine surgery center over to his team of surgeons and joined the Army to do what he felt was his duty. As one of the best spine surgeons in the country, Peter had performed procedures on everyone from professional athletes at the height of their careers to aging politicians looking for a reprieve from constant nerve pain. He knew that men would be gravely wounded in this fight and he wanted to put his ample skills to work to keep those men alive. A waiver was quickly granted to bypass the age restrictions and, much to the dismay of his wife and children, Dr. Peter OHalloran soon found himself Lieutenant Colonel OHalloran of the U.S. Army Reserve, spending more time in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than in his spine clinic in La Jolla, California. It had only been two days since the ambush and subsequent interrogation but physically, Reece was ready to leave the hospital. He had been asked to stop in and see Dr. OHalloran before he left for good, and upon his discharge, the nurse in charge of the shift walked him to the surgeons office. OHalloran greeted Reece warmly and invited him to sit. The doctor swiveled his chair to face a desktop computer and selected a file before rotating the screen so that Reece would have a better view of it. He then pulled up an image on the screen that was clearly a brain scan. It immediately reminded Reece of the black-and-white forward-looking infrared (FIR) imagery they used on the battlefield, with its glowing white highlights showing three-dimensional relief on a black background. The doctor used his mouse to put a curser over a white blob on the image. Two of your men came in here wounded. We fought as hard as we could to save them but their injuries were just too severe. As part of our initial assessment, we did scans to determine the extent of their brain trauma and, besides a significant amount of shrapnel, we found this. This is the CT scan we took of Petty Officer Moraless brain. You see this? He pointed to a white blob on the screen. This is an abnormal mass that is not consistent with a traumatic injury. The pathologist who did the autopsy believes that the mass is an oligodendroglioma, a rare and malignant brain tumor. The lab will confirm or deny that suspicion but he knows his stuff and I agree with his assessment based on the imaging. He clicked the mouse and a second image was displayed on the screen. This is Lieutenant Pritchards brain. As you can see here, he has a slightly smaller but similar tumor. The pathologist and I believe that it is the same type. A third image came up. This is your brain, James. Now, we have no way of knowing for sure, but the mass on your brain appears to be similar in size and shape to that of your men. If we were in the States I would bring you in for a biopsy but we cant do that here. Reeces mouth went dry and he suddenly had an overwhelming desire to be with his wife and daughter. I dont want you to panic, James. This could be a variety of things, and a malignancy is just one of them. What? Reece stammered. How . . . how rare is that, Doc? It seems crazy to me that three guys our age would have brain tumors. Extremely rare, James. The incidence of this type of tumor is roughly 0.3 per one hundred thousand. Only about two percent of all brain tumors are of this type. Lets assume that yours is something different, since we cant confirm it here. But for two men on the same team, both in their twenties, to have this same type of tumor . . . OHalloran shook his head. The odds are astronomical. Have you and your men been exposed to any chemical or biological agents? Been in any nuclear facilities, anything like that? No, not that Im aware of. I mean, when we first invaded Iraq there were a bunch of chem/bio scares but Pritchard was probably in high school at the time. And as far as I know they were just that, scares. A team was hit with a mustard gas agent of some sort but nowhere near where I was operating. As far as these two guys being together, nothing out of the ordinary. Hmm, well, keep thinking about it and let me know if you come up with anything. This is incredibly unusual. Like I said, we cant do any more here, but when you get back stateside you need to get checked out, just to be sure. Im almost done with this deployment. Its been a long year but Ill be back at my California clinic early next month. I want you to come up to La Jolla and see me. There are some colleagues of mine who specialize in brain research that Id like for you to meet. You havent had any blurred vision, headaches, anything like that, have you? No, sir, Reece lied, needing time to think. How about Petty Officer Morales or Lieutenant Pritchard: did they or any of your men mention any unusual headaches? No, but that wouldnt be out of the ordinary with this crew. The Teams arent really a culture where people complain about those sorts of things. They think it might take them out of the fight. I see, the doctor said thoughtfully. Im sorry about your men. I know that probably doesnt mean much but I really am. Get yourself home safely, hug your family, bury your men, and make an appointment with my office for when I get back. Take care, James. Reece walked out of the medical facility a man adrift. Truly, he was already gone, occupied with the thoughts of the families of sons, husbands, and fathers whose bodies, or what was left of them, were being put into bags, then into flag-draped coffins for their final trip home. CHAPTER 5 Naval Special Warfare Command Coronado, California THE AIDE KNOCKED before entering Admiral Pilsners office. Sir, the SECDEFs office is on the line. Tell Howard to get in here and then put them through, the admiral responded harshly. Yes, sir. The aide scampered back out the door. The admirals JAG, Captain Leonard Howard, entered without knocking less than thirty seconds later. The phone on the admirals desk rang and he pressed the button to put it on speaker. This is Admiral Pilsner, standing by for the secretary. Thank you, Admiral, an unidentified voice responded. Secretary Hartley will be with you momentarily. After close to five minutes of waiting, the line sparked to life. Good afternoon, Madam Secretary, what can I do for you? the admiral said cheerfully in greeting. What the fuck happened over there, Admiral? a furious Lorraine Hartley asked. Maam, we did our best to manage the situation but obviously we didnt fully achieve our mission. Your best? Youre the goddamn WARCOM admiral and this is your best? Madame Secretary, we are doing everything we can to clean this up as soon as possible. Im losing confidence in your ability to do that. First of all, I want the survivors tied up in the investigation over there as long as possible. I dont want the American public falling in love with these guys during the media storm around the funerals. I want them out of sight, out of mind, and I want the responsibility hung on their shoulders. I want that troop commander to be a modern-day Custer. I want charges brought against him yesterday. Leonard Howard spoke up. Madame Secretary, this is Captain Leonard Howard. We would have a difficult time charging Commander Reece with anything under the UCMJ until a full investigation has been completed. Get your head out of your ass, Howard! You find something to charge him with. We have so many federal crimes on the books the Department of Justice cant even count them all, and youre telling me you cant come up with something? Havent you ever heard the phrase show me the man, Ill show you the crime? Charge him with as much as you can but dont lock him up; we need him to be a free man for this to end appropriately. Clean up this mess, gentlemen, or youll wish youd never met me. Both men heard a click and the line went dead. Pilsner looked at his JAG. Call Horn ASAP. We need a plan in place before those men are back on the ground stateside. And tell the NCIS guys to turn up the heat on Reece. CHAPTER 6 Bagram Air Base Bagram, Afghanistan THE DAYS PASSED SLOWLY while Reece was confined to Bagram. His men were being laid to rest in front of their devastated families while Reece was stuck halfway around the world, unable to look their wives, children, and parents in the eyes and assure them that he would find out what had led them into such a devastating ambush. He knew that hed be crucified by WARCOM, and as far as he was concerned, he deserved it. Hed gotten all of his men killed, the cardinal sin of a combat leader. And for what? Some target they didnt know shit about? Add in the stress of a probable rare brain tumor and Reeces head was spinning. He was recalled almost daily to answer further questions from the NCIS goons and continued to answer all inquiries about the mission while refusing to answer the ones about his personal emails. The questions from NCIS had the smell of people with an agenda. Single sentences from emails going back over fifteen years were extracted to support a preconceived narrative. It was obvious to Reece that NCIS was not interested in what actually happened in the lead-up to and execution of the mission. They were there to put the blame on Reece and Reece alone. It had been brutal but he had taken it. After a cruel two weeks of sleepless nights thinking about the brain tumors and of circular interrogations from NCIS, Reece was finally cleared to go home. He leaned back in his seat on the C-5 as it gathered speed down the runway, nose up, banking tightly to quickly gain altitude and get outside the range of enemy small arms and RPGs, leaving Bagram in the background. Reeces thoughts turned to what had happened at home in his absence. The command had mobilized. Casualty assistance officers and teams had been dispatched to try to beat the twenty-four-hour news cycle to the front doors of families scattered across the country: mothers and fathers, wives and children who would get the news every military family dreads, the unexpected knock on the door, the chaplain, an officer, a friend. The unthinkable. The screaming. The tears. The kids. The funerals. The blame. The blame. It was my fault. I was the senior man on the ground. Responsibility lies with me. And I couldnt even be there to deliver the news in person, to do my duty. The flight would be a good way to get his thoughts in order. He would call his wife from Germany, where he would have a few hours to decompress while the pilots had their mandated crew rest. How can I go home and face my family when twenty-eight Rangers, four aircrew, and thirty-six SEALs of my Task Unit are going home in boxes? Thats war, Reece. No. The enemy was good. But they were not that good. This ambush was too well conceived and too effective. It was months, if not a year in planning. The explosives. What were they and how were they detonated? Why didnt any insurgents spill out of that compound with the detonation of the first explosives? Was there anyone in there at all? How did they know exactly where the helos would land? Why were they forced to go on this mission? Why was NCIS so pointed in their questioning so soon after the mission? What am I missing? CHAPTER 7 Capstone Capital Corporate Offices Los Angeles, California STEVE HORN WAS NOT accustomed to waiting for anything. First his tasty little assistant had made him wait five minutes for his beloved green tea, and now his most loyal lieutenant was running late, something he would not tolerate. The six-foot-four former Stanford quarterback sat behind a desk of polished walnut that he now visually inspected for any sign of dust or grime. He wore a finely tailored suit of charcoal cashmere that cost more than most families brought home in a month, cut not for comfort but to display his muscular physique. His tan neck was framed by a rigid spread collar and a violet Herm?s necktie bound with a massive Windsor knot. A casual visitor would have thought that Fortune was arriving any minute to shoot him for the cover, but his staff knew better; this was Horns everyday attire. Horn was the very image of vanity personified. If Horn had ever consulted a mental health professional, he would likely be diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. He felt absolutely no empathy for his fellow man and actually relished the discomfort of others. A counselor might explore whether this detachment resulted from the disinterest of his socialite parents during his upbringing or the harsh punishments dispensed by some of his many nannies. Maybe it was his failure to bond with a caretaker or perhaps he was born a sociopath; he would never know because he would never think to question what to him was as natural as breathing. To Horn, being ruthless was a competitive advantage. An email on the twenty-seven-inch screen of his iMac indicated the arrival of the tardy lieutenant. Phone calls or door knocks from his receptionist were not acceptable. Despite his strong desire to hear what the man had to say, Horn made him wait ten excruciating minutes in the lavishly decorated reception area. With Horn, everything was about power, and he spared no opportunity to remind everyone that he was in charge, a fact that no one but him questioned. The touch of a key on the desk phone indicated to the receptionist that he was ready to receive his appointment, and she quickly and sympathetically ushered Saul Agnon through the thick oak doors and into Horns office. If Horns appearance signaled power, strength, and grace, Agnons did the opposite. He was slight of build, with small features, pallid skin, and a generally disheveled manner. His suit was cheap and off the rack, fitting him accordingly. His shoes were worn and unpolished. His fingernails were soft from nervous biting; his hair, thinning and greasy. Horn observed him with disgust as he passed through the doorway, defeated and hopeless, with the posture of a man headed to his own execution. Horn had always suspected Saul of being a homosexual but couldnt fathom a gay man with such a hopeless lack of style. Saul Agnon brought two things to the table, though, that made him indispensable: cunning intelligence and unwavering loyalty. Agnon worshipped Horn the way an abused animal serves its cruel master, doing anything for a hint of approval or sign of pleasure. Not only are you late, Saul, but you come in here looking like a fucking rat. I thought Sears went out of business. Where did you get that suit? Dont sit down, this wont take long. What do you have for me? Sir, Im sorry for being late, theres no excuse, its just that Youre right, there is no excuse. Stop wasting my time with your contrition. Sir, the ambush went as planned. Youve seen the media reports. As planned? Im reading that there were survivors; that was not the plan. The admiral called. Hartley is pissed. She wants this thing handled before it gets out of control. Sir, Im working the issue, and we will deal with it. This was always a possibility. Theres another problem, though. Agnon paused to gain the courage to continue. A doctor in Bagram discovered the tumors and was asking too many questions, but hell be out of the picture soon. Well use what they call a Green on Blue since they are common enough not to raise suspicion. Our team on the ground found an Afghan military officer with a sick child. We promised to get the child medical care in the United States in exchange for one of his troops taking out the doc. Done deal. So now we have to arrange care for some sick kid from a third-world shithole? No, sir, we have no intention of making good on that promise. Saul glanced down at his small spiral notebook. Next item: As you know, Lieutenant Commander Reece survived the mission, as did one of his men. Reece is in the air now and will land in Coronado later this morning. Holder is headed to the other mans apartment as we speak. Whats your plan for Commander Reece? That situation is fluid, sir. The other events may have put him on guard, and we could have a problem on our hands. We dont have adequate personnel in the area to handle someone of his capability without the element of surprise. Saul, hes been put through the wringer by the investigators and has flown halfway around the world. Hell be jet-lagged and exhausted. All hes gonna want to do is give his kids a hug, bang his wife, and forget about Afghanistan. Kid, sir, singular. He has one daughter. Whatever. Get some gangbangers from L.A. or Mexico to take him out. Make it look like a home invasion robbery. Just make sure it gets done. We have cops on the payroll that can arrange it but dont let them know hes a SEAL. I dont want them going sentimental patriot on us. Now get out of here, I have bigger matters to deal with. CHAPTER 8 Coronado, California THE MAMMOTH C-5 GALAXY touched down at Naval Air Station North Island and taxied slowly toward the small World War IIera terminal building. Upstairs in the barely occupied passenger area, James Reece stood and stretched, trying to shake the exhaustion and jet lag. He had long since shed his uniform for jeans and a T-shirt, the only connection to his combat load being the AOR 1patterned pack and the hiking boots he wore nearly every day of his life. This pair was almost ready for the dumpster, he thought as he waited for the signal to deplane. He looked down at his right boot and smiled as he saw the unmistakable evidence that his three-year-old daughter had decorated it with a Magic Marker. The other boot, covered with the blood of his dying teammates, quickly wiped the smile away. Hed taken an Ambien to try to force himself to sleep on the long flight but it wore off after three hours and he spent the rest of the trip in a surreal state of exhaustion, grief, and drug-induced fog. Hed replayed the events leading up to the op over and over in his head, trying to find an answer to what had led them into the ambushsome clue that hed missed, some shred of evidence that would explain what happened. He found no answers, only a blinding headache like the ones hed had leading up to the ill-fated mission. He scrolled through pictures of his daughter on his iPhone, his eyes misting over from the pain of his months-long absence from fatherhood. He couldnt get home soon enough. Down in the massive cargo area, he steered clear of the pallets of gear and brushed past some Air Force ground crew personnel who were already preparing to offload what looked like enough crates and boxes to fill a WalMart. He grabbed his oversize gear bag and weapons case and headed toward the ramp. The rest of his gear, along with that of his troop, had been palletized and sent back with Boozer on an earlier flight while Reece was spending quality time with the assholes from NCIS. He set down his heavy bag and pulled his sunglasses over his eyes before walking down the ramp and into the blazing Southern California sunshine. Love it or hate it here, the weather was always good. There would be no one to meet him, no running hug with the wife and daughter, or Navy band playing God Bless America, just a Navy base going about its business on a stateside Monday morning. There was always enough back-and-forth traffic that he figured he could bum a ride to his truck at Team Seven from someone headed to the Amphibious Base. He was about to set down the unwieldy weapons case to open the door to the terminal building when it opened as if on cue and was held wide by a heavily tattooed arm belonging to a short, muscular figure holding a giant cup of Starbucks. The bearded mans face turned into a beaming smile behind a whiteframed pair of surf shop sunglasses. The face was that of Ben Edwards, Reeces closest friend and former Teammate. Reece and Ben had gone through BUD/S together, deployed together as enlisted SEALs, and maintained a close friendship even after Reece became an officer and Ben migrated into the black side of Naval Special Warfare. Ben had since left the Navy for the nebulous world of the nations intelligence agencies, though the lines between the two had grown increasingly blurred in the years following 9/11. Welcome home, bro, said Edwards as he offered his hand. For a second, I thought you were a homeless guy, answered Reece as he grabbed the shorter man for a bear hug. I figured you might need a ride. Let me get your gear bag. Wheres my coffee? Reece asked with a smile. Despite being identical in age, the two men walked through the small terminal building looking like complete opposites. The tall, clean-cut figure of James Reece and the stocky, ink-covered Edwards dressed in shorts and battered flip-flops: they were almost a caricature of the stereotypical differences between officers and enlisted SEALs. As they headed into the parking lot, Edwards fished into the pocket of his black hooded sweatshirt and the rear hatch of a black Chevrolet Tahoe began to arc toward the sky. Does Hertz have a fleet of rental Suburbans and Tahoes just for spooks? chided Reece as he lifted the heavy black weapons case into the cargo area of the SUV. Yeah, but theyre not up-armored, so dont drive us through any shit neighborhoods. Oh yeah, tons of slums here in Coronado, joked Reece. My truck is at the Team, Reece said as they climbed into the cab of the Tahoe. This thing is plush. What is this, velvet? he asked, rubbing his hand across the leather armrest. Anything is plush, compared to that shitbox you roll around in, man. When are you gonna get rid of that thing? Ha! Im driving the Cruiser until it dies. Thats the whole point of having one. Us officers dont get those fat reenlistment bonuses. Ben laughed. You were enlisted once, too, remember? All that tax-free reenlistment money could have been yours. He put the SUV in gear, slammed what was left of his coffee, and in a long, practiced motion that had obviously become second nature packed a can of Copenhagen that appeared out of nowhere with his right index finger before pinching a huge dip into his lower lip. Hows quitting treating you? Reece asked mischievously. Nobody likes a quitter, buddy. Ben smiled back, maneuvering the vehicle out of the parking lot and toward the gate. So Im guessing you didnt tell Lauren you were coming home because you figured the plane would never get here on time? Yeah man, you know how those C-5s are, always breaking down, usually in Hawaii when the aircrew decides they need to spend four days in paradise waiting for a part to show up. Always cool to surprise her and Lucy, anyway. I went by the house to check on them when I heard about the op. I knew from Boozer you werent hurt bad and I wanted to make sure they didnt get bad info. Appreciate it, brother. The inside of the SUV was dead quiet as they rolled through the gate of the air station. Clearly the small talk was over. I know what youre thinking, man, Reece said angrily without looking over. My troop got wiped out, what in the fuck happened out there? It was a shit op from the beginning; none of us wanted to go in the first place. Its my fault. I should have pushed back . . . I should have refused. Instead I said ayeaye, sir! like some dumb-ass ensign and got all my guys killed. Im sure you did what you could, Reece. Everyone in the community has heard it was a shit op. What the fuck were they thinking, anyway? When was the last time they pushed a target down to you instead of you guys coming up with your own? Thats what was crazy, Ben! You know its never like that. If anything, theyre telling you what targets you cant hit, not which ones you have to. Now theyre gonna fry my ass for their bad intel, and I deserve it for letting my guys go out. You dont deserve shit, Reece. Youre as solid as it gets, and everybody knows that. Yeah? I hope you told that to all of my guys wives and kids at their funerals. Sorry, man, not trying to put this on you. What are you doing on the west coast anyway? Looking for talent, man. Workload is crazy these days with the conventional stuff winding down. Were constantly needing new guys. You ready to come work with me yet? Im sure as hell gonna need a job but I think Ive had enough of this shit. When they throw me out of the Navy, Ill open a sandwich shop or something. Youd have to touch mayo, Ben said, shaking his head. That would never work. Yeah, well, Ill have to think of something else then. Reeces hatred of condiments was well known throughout the Naval Special Warfare community. As they passed the Hotel Del Coronado and turned right toward the Silver Strand, they passed Miguels Cocina, where theyd eaten with their wives dozens of times over the years. Well, with Reeces wife and each of Bens three former brides. Too early for a margarita? Ben joked. Never too early for a margarita. Just dont take me to Ricks. Dont think I could show my face in there right now, said Reece, referring to a hole-in-thewall SEAL hangout bar in downtown Coronado. Operators would return from deployments and toast their fallen comrades in blackout sessions that often turned ugly. Ricks was a safe haven where they could blow off some steam without ending their careers, and there was always a steady supply of willing women looking to be a SEAL wife for the night. Ah yes, Ricks Palm Bar and Grill, home of the world-famous Slamburger. I think I met wife number two in there? Ha! I think you did, Reece said, remembering happier times. Im actually banging this little spinner of a bartender in there now. Yeah? How old is he? Reece asked, grinning. Fuck you. Heather, I think her name is. A bit of a Frog Hog but she does this amazing thing with her tongue. . . . Okay, okay. Stop, said Reece, holding up his hands in mock defeat. I dont want to know. They passed through the gate to the Amphibious Base after showing their IDs and steered around a group of exhausted and soaking-wet BUD/S candidates running down the road with an inflatable boat balanced on their heads. Shit, must be Hell Week. Poor bastards, Ben commented without a touch of sympathy for the aspiring frogmen. Id trade a hundred Hell Weeks for the week Ive had, Reece said, mostly to himself. Ben spotted Reeces white 1988 FJ62 Toyota Land Cruiser in the parking lot of the Team building and pulled into the empty spot behind it. Both men were quiet as they transferred Reeces gear into the truck. When they were finished, the two friends faced one another and Ben Edwards extended his arm for a handshake. Call me if that piece of shit doesnt start. Thanks for the ride, man. Reece needed to check in at the Team before heading home to surprise his wife and daughter. He walked across the parking lot and up the sidewalk of what looked more like a small office building than a den of amphibious commandos. He wondered how the guys would look at him as he took a deep breath and opened the door to what had always been a safe haven. Hed barely made it through the entrance when a chief from one of the other platoons went running by him with panic on his face. He knew immediately that something was wrong. Whats going on, Chief? Reece pled. The forty-something chief spun around and faced Reece as he slowed his pace to a backward jog. Cops are at Boozers, you need to get your ass over there, was all he said before turning and running out the front door of the building. Reece sprinted after him and covered the distance to his Cruiser in seconds. CHAPTER 9 San Diego, California BOOZER WAS A BACHELOR and lived in a cookie-cutter apartment complex just off Interstate 5 near UCSD. It was the kind of place youd find in every suburban city in the country, except the rent was probably double or triple what youd pay in Middle America. Identical clusters of buildings and parking lots where young professionals and grad students lived among one another in anonymity, their lives separated by metal studs and cheap Chinese drywall. There was no traffic this late in the morning, and Reece drove like a man possessed. Boozer was a stud who could certainly handle himself, but Reece had a gnawing feeling that this was not going to end well. Reece had been to Boozers place only once before and he couldnt remember which building was his in the maze of two-story garden-style apartments. He took a guess and turned right as he passed the leasing office and blew by the first turn when he caught a cluster of emergency vehicles to his left. He slammed on the brakes and threw the truck into reverse before cutting the wheel hard and stomping on the accelerator. When he reached the police cars, he quickly pulled into an empty space, slammed the shift lever into park, and raced toward the apartment. He ignored the police officer commanding him to stop and bounded up the stairwell. Brushing past an EMT, he tried to make it through the open front door of Boozers apartment but was grabbed by two burly cops in uniform. Hes one of my guys! I need to get in there! Reece begged as he struggled against the two men who had pinned him to the doorjamb. You dont want to see this, sir! the older of the two officers said as they loosened their grip. Reece broke free and stumbled into the living room of the apartment as the too-familiar smell of blood and death filled his nostrils. Two detectives in civilian clothes with handguns on their hips were standing in front of a light brown futon couch, one of them holding a large DSLR camera with a flash sticking upward. They turned toward the commotion, and when they did, Reece could see Boozers lifeless body sitting in boxers and a white T-shirt, his legs extended toward the two detectives. His usually pasty-white legs were deep purple in color and his face wore a mask of shock. A gaping exit wound was visible just above his left ear and a massive amount of blood, brain, and skull were splattered across the couch and onto the lampshade sitting on the end table. A SIG Sauer P226 was lying in an awkward position on his lap, the hammer cocked and ready to fire. Reece stood in shock, unable to move or speak. The two uniformed officers who had restrained him took him gently by the shoulders and steered him with care through the door of the apartment and into the hallway. Both had served combat tours in Iraq as reservists and knew the familiar look of a grief-stricken comrade. Reece sat down on the steps and put his head in his hands. What in the hell was going on? How could so many bad things happen at once? Various officers and NCOs from Team Seven had arrived at the scene and the chief that Reece had seen in the hallway guided him toward the parking lot, making him sit on the tailgate of an ambulance. Reeces boss, the commander of SEAL Team Seven, appeared minutes later along with his command master chief, the senior enlisted SEAL in the command. Commander Cox was a good leader, a fair guy, and a legit warrior. Hed obviously had other plans for today, as he and the master chief were both in their full dress uniforms, something you didnt see often in the Teams. He had probably been dealing with family members of the men killed downrange. The two men quietly conferred with the other officers and NCOs on the scene as well as the detective in charge of the investigation. One of the enlisted SEALs pointed toward Reece, the commander turning to walk toward his grieving subordinate. Still seated with his head in his hands, Reece did not see his boss approach until he was a few feet away. He started to rise to greet him but Cox pushed him downward with a firm but kind hand on the shoulder. Rough week, Reece, I know. Im sorry about your Troop and Im sorry about Boozer. There will be plenty of time later to point fingers, but for now I need to worry about you. I cant stand by while another life is wasted like Boozers. Dan is taking you to Balboa. I want you cleared by the docs before you take another step. Does Lauren know that youre back? No, sir. I was going to drive home after I checked in at the Team. Then I came straight here. Get cleared at Balboa and then head home. Take the rest of the week off, and on Monday we need to sit down and talk about the op. CHAPTER 10 BY THE TIME THE DOCS at Balboa Naval Medical Center had cleared Reece to go home, it was after 6:00 p.m. Dan Harvey, a lieutenant from the operations shop, had driven him to Balboa and babysat him all day as the doctors did their thing. He drove Reece back to the Team to get his truck and was kind enough not to say a word during the trip. After telling the shrinks what they needed to hear to be sure he wasnt going to eat a bullet or chase a handful of pills with a bottle of Jameson, the last thing Reece needed was some wellmeaning new guy trying to cheer him up. His wife and daughter would be somewhere in the dinner-bath-book bedtime ritual, and hed arrive just in time to see his little princess before she went to bed. Reece thought he knew what love was when he met his beautiful wife, Lauren, but hed never known complete, unconditional love until his daughter, Lucy, was born. She was her mothers spitting image, with enormous blue eyes and blond curls. Reece had killed insurgents on multiple continents, gone through the most rigorous military training in the world, and had stood his ground in confrontations with both admirals and master chief petty officers, but he was helpless in resisting the will of his three-yearold baby girl. When she said sit, he sat. When she yelled Daddy! he dropped everything and bowed to her wishes. She had him wrapped around her tiny little finger, and they both loved every minute of it. After six long months, he was going to see her face in person in the next few minutes. He couldnt wait to scoop her up in his arms and hug her for as long as she would put up with it. He thanked Dan for the ride and hopped into his Cruiser that one of the chiefs had driven back to the team, leaving the door unlocked and the key in the visor. It wasnt like anyone was going to steal his truck from the Team Seven parking lot. The chief obviously didnt know the weapons case was in the back. With all the turmoil of the day, Reece had never gotten a chance to turn it into the arms room. He was always wary about driving around with a box of weapons from work in his personal truck, given Californias crazy gun laws, but under the circumstances he decided to risk it. He would bring the weapons case home and run by the Team to turn it in late tomorrow morning after he caught up on some desperately needed sleep. It was a ten-minute drive from Team Seven to the small house that his family had rented on the island for the past three years. He couldnt wait to get home. Homecomings from a war zone are difficult to describe to those who have not experienced them firsthand. They are exceedingly powerful experiences, made all the more remarkable when children are part of the picture. Emotional floodgates that have been held at bay month after month are finally opened, allowing those feelings of love and devotion to pour through all at once. Homecomings made the deployments almost worth it, almost. Those pent-up feelings, forced to take a six-month back seat to the mission of defending the nation, were now free to be expressed. For the Reece family, this one would be even more special; this would be their last. Reece had reached a rank where he would be precluded from leading men into combat, which is what he had joined the SEAL Teams to do in the first place. That it coincided with Lucy getting to an age where she needed him around made it a natural transition point for a man who had spent his entire adult life at war. It was time for a change and he knew it. It was time to focus on his family. Reece thought back to his last homecoming, when Lauren had kept Lucy up way past her bedtime in anticipation of Reeces return, but not telling her why, just in case there was a delay, as happened so often with military transportation. The strains that such delayed returns placed on families could be significant; most guys would not tell their families exactly when they were coming home, lest they disappoint them with the inevitable delay. Delays of a day seemed like a week while a delay of a week felt like a month. Reece remembered an entire Army brigade that was at the airport in Baghdad, ready to go home after a year in country, only to be turned around to fight for another four months. Some were even already safely back in the States and had to return to the quagmire that was Iraq. The sting of the deaths during those extended months must have been exceptionally hard to bear. Reece tried not to think of how the families of servicemen killed in action felt about the present-day struggle in the cradle of civilization. On that last return, Reece had a taxi let him off at the end of the block so as not to ruin the surprise for Lucy, doing his best not to sprint down the sidewalk to his house. He had texted Lauren that he was almost home as he crept up past the front gate in the darkness. Before knocking he peered through the stained-glass section of the door to see Lucy curled up with Lauren on the couch watching what was inevitably a Disney movie. He had paused and let his eyes mist over with emotion, looking through the colored glass at the two people he loved more than anything else in this world: his family. Lauren was stroking Lucys hair and had looked toward the door, catching her husbands eye and smiling the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. God, she was gorgeous. Then he watched as she had whispered something in Lucys ear and pointed at the door. Lucy had bolted from the couch with eyes as wide as saucers and a smile that would melt a glacier, rushing toward the door as fast as her young legs would carry her, her stuffed green frog clutched tightly in her small hand. Throwing open the door, Reece had taken a knee, Lucy running full speed into his outstretched arms and holding him with the strength only children hugging their parents possess, all the while repeating, Dada, dada over and over again like it was the only word she knew. Reece recognized that strength for what it was: a childs unconditional love. Standing with Lucy in his arms, Reece had moved into the house and met his stunning wife halfway across the living room floor, the three of them holding each other tight, the tears of joy flowing freely. Welcome home, my love, Lauren had whispered. We missed you. Later that night, Reece read Lucy her favorite story, Where the Wild Things Are, acting out the goofy dances of the wild things so as to ensure it wasnt too scary for his daughter, and sang her favorite lullaby, Hush Little Baby. As he concluded with youll still be the sweetest little baby in town Lucys eyes had closed, drifting off into the innocent slumber of youth. Reece had tucked the covers around her, smiling down at his little angel and kissing her forehead. He then made sure the night-light was plugged in before carefully and silently closing the door behind him and tiptoeing down the hall to join Lauren in the kitchen for a long-overdue glass of wine before whisking her upstairs to bed. Turning off the main road and into his neighborhood, Reece was jolted out of his reverie, his heart sinking into his chest, the faint reflection of emergency lights on the treetops making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The lights got brighter as he approached his turn and when the Cruiser made the left, his blood ran cold. Instead of the picturesque suburban scene hed dreamed about during his entire deployment, his eyes were met by the violent flashing of red and blue lights coming from what appeared to be every police car, fire truck, and ambulance in Coronado. The emergency vehicles were scattered haphazardly in front of his home and a uniformed officer was stringing yellow police line tape around the perimeter of his well-manicured yard to keep the gathering of neighbors from trampling the scene. The rational center of his brain knew exactly what that meant but his emotions forced him into immediate denial. His family had to be okay; they were all he had left. Leaving the Cruiser running in the middle of the street, Reece sprinted toward the front door of his home. He made it about halfway across his lawn when the officers spotted him and began yelling for him to stop. The first to reach him was a zit-faced patrol officer who looked younger than the kids showing up for BUD/S. He stood as if the badge on his chest alone would stop the speed and momentum of the larger man. Panic set into his eyes as Reece lowered his shoulder and sent him flying over a hedge. A second officer drew his handgun but wasnt prepared to use it and quickly found it out of his grasp. An unseen detective grabbed Reece from behind in a bear hug and got a broken collarbone for his troubles when his shoulder hit the sidewalk. More and more officers piled into the melee and soon all of Reeces adrenaline and rage-fueled skill was overcome by the sheer mass of bodies. As officers struggled to get control of his hands, someone sprayed his face with a full blast of pepper spray that set his senses afire. The handcuffs were already locked tightly around his wrists when the youngest officer, who had caught his wind and climbed his way out from the landscaping, got his revenge, kicking Reeces prone body in the face with his black combat-style boots. A lieutenant grabbed the younger officer and four patrolmen dragged Reece toward the street and into the backseat of an idling Crown Victoria. Beaten, pepper sprayed, and prevented from knowing the fate of his wife and daughter, Reece was suddenly overcome by the events of the past week. Hed lost the SEAL brothers he had sworn to lead, was kept from their funerals, scapegoated by a bureaucracy who helped seal their fates, lost another Teammate to a supposed suicide, and now faced the possibility that the two people he loved most in the world were gone, too. Lying on his side with his hands cuffed behind his back, he began to sob uncontrollably. The overwhelming emotions combined with the effects of the pepper spray turned the hardened warrior into a quivering mess. His body shook, he hyperventilated, and tears and mucus ran down his face and onto the seat of the patrol car. He had nothing left to give and nothing left to lose. CHAPTER 11 UNLIKE THE MANIPULATIVE interrogation hed faced at the hands of the NCIS investigators in Bagram, the questions posed by the local detectives were nonaccusatory. This physical evidence made it clear that this was not the act of a jealous husband or a guy looking to rid himself of the responsibilities that life had heaped upon him. The full-auto gunfire reported by the neighbors made the timeline for the home invasion and subsequent murders clear, and his alibi at Balboa was rock solid. The investigators had spoken to his CO before theyd even questioned him and were already familiar with how Reece had spent the day. Reece sat emotionless as the detectives described to him the horrific crimes that would shock his serene community. Three to four men, undoubtedly armed with AKMs, judging by the steel 7.62x39mm cases that littered the scene, began firing into the home as they approached the front door. They kicked it in and continued firing as they worked their way through the rooms of the home, spraying rounds indiscriminately as they went. His wife was found facedown in the bedroom closet, shielding little Lucys body with her own as she took her last breaths. It appeared as if shed wounded at least one of the shooters with the handgun shed hastily grabbed from a small gun safe close to the bed. There was 9mm brass inside the closet and a blood trail that led out of the house. Laurens wounds indicated that she was hit in the hands and arms while defending herself before she moved to cover her daughter and was killed by close-range rifle shots that took both of their lives. An entire thirty-round magazine appeared to have been emptied into Lauren at point-blank range. Death would have been more or less instantaneous from the multiple hits to her vital organs. Lucy was still clinging to life when the ambulance arrived, but her badly broken body could fight no longer, and she died on the way to the hospital. The paramedics fought like lions to save her, but the trauma was too great. There was no indication of sexual battery on either body or any sign of theft, probably due to Laurens brave resistance that wounded one of the shooters. Neighbors saw the men flee the scene in a black Cadillac sedan. The detectives working hypothesis was that this was the work of a crew of gang members from across the bay in Barrio Logan. Theyd been increasingly suspected in taggings and property crimes in otherwise crime-free Coronado and had obviously upped the ante in committing such a brutal home invasion. Reece listened to their narrative, knowing full well that this was no random act of violence by a crew of gangbangers, but neither was it the work of trained professionals. There was one last thing, the detectives told him, almost hesitatingly: Lauren had been pregnant. The little boy had been conceived just before Reeces deployment, according to how far along she was. Lauren had kept it a secret, a surprise to make his final homecoming especially memorable. He thought the pain couldnt have been any greater, but the news drove him deeper into despair. While Reece met with the investigators, the crime scene team continued to process evidence at his home. Phillip Dubin had wanted to be a police detective as long as he could remember. He came from a long line of Boston cops and, much to his mothers chagrin, had never changed course. She had a momentary glimmer of hope when he had enlisted in the Navy, hoping he would use his GI Bill to become a doctor or a lawyer, but instead, Phil used his GI Bill to attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, graduating at the top of his class. As upset as his mother was that he chose the family profession, she was even more dismayed that he decided to settle down across the country in San Diego, where he had spent the majority of his Navy time. He had caught the tail end of the First Gulf War, spending most of that time in the bowels of a minesweeper, which did nothing to encourage him to pursue a career at sea. Stationed on the west coast, he fell in love with the weather, the beaches, and the laid-back atmosphere, which were all in stark contrast to his upbringing on the streets of Boston. He met his wife while she was working in the district attorneys office; she now ran their household full-time. After twenty years on the San Diego Police Department, he had attained the rank of lieutenant in the Homicide Division. Happily married and with three kids of their own, Phil could not imagine a more ideal life. He had a job he loved and a family he loved even more. Detective Dubin had a tough time separating the cop in him from the husband and father as he slowly made his way through Reeces front yard. He had been called to the beautiful resort town that was Coronado on a few occasions for work, once for a brutal murder-suicide and another time for a questionable suicide by hanging. Coronado had detectives to handle such investigations but when there was a link to the city across the bay they would reach out for assistance from the SDPD. After checking in and nodding to a few familiar faces, Phil climbed the front steps, knowing that the grislier parts of the crime scene awaited him. He had seen a lot in his career as a cop, but no father could ever get used to something like this. The nights he spent on murder investigations where young lives had been taken always caused him to pause and appreciate his own kids just a bit more when he got home. Hey, Phil. Hey, Chuck, Phil responded to the local detective. How bad is it? This one is rough. We dont get a lot of this over here, as you know. Thanks for coming. No problem. What do you have? Looks like a home invasion, though weve never seen anything like this before out here. Hard to believe its random. I just dont know why a bunch of gangbangers would want to hit a small house in Coronado. Phil nodded and looked past the small town detective, who continued to fill him in. The carpet was soaked in blood and the room was littered with shell casings marked by numbered yellow markers. Watching the medical examiner bag up a dead body was something Phil never got used to, and seeing the lifeless form of what had only hours before been a vibrant and beautiful woman caused the Boston native to look away. That was Lauren Reece. She was Signal Seven when the first units arrived on the scene. They found her daughter under her, still alive. The paramedics rushed her to the hospital but she didnt make it: multiple bullet wounds. Looks like the mom got a few rounds off with a Glock. We found a 19 and some spent brass close to her body, some blood in the hallway, and some more by the front door. The mom and daughter were shot in here, so we think she hit at least one of them. Any chance this was the husband? Phil asked. He had seen his share of domestic problems turn violent. Surprisingly not. A neighbor gave us a good vehicle description and multiple perps. The husband is a Navy guy and was at Balboa Hospital all afternoon. We are interviewing him now but it looks unlikely. Thanks, Chuck. Im just going to look around a bit. Our gang task force guys will be here soon. Okay. Let me know if you figure anything out. Phil began to explore the home, trying to get a sense of what this family was like when they were alive. He wanted to understand them so he could make assessments and attempt to decipher what had caused their lives to end so violently in this normally safe section of San Diego. He entered a room off the bedroom that looked to be the home office. Why would a gang hit this particular home? When Phil had started in police work he would always go straight to the family photo albums. More than once the story he gleaned from those family memories helped connect certain dots and allowed the young police officer to break a case. These days, hardly anyone kept family albums. Photos were spread out over different computers and hard drives and online accounts, making it exceedingly difficult to use them the way he had back in the 1990s. Now he used the photos on the walls and desks and dressers instead. Phil took in the room methodically. Not messy but not particularly clean; lived-in would be the more apt term. Things looked organized but not remarkably so. At first glance, it looked like a typical home office, but it quickly became apparent that there was something different about this family. Phils eyes were immediately drawn to a wall containing three tomahawks of varying sizes. You dont see that every day in San Diego. Though he knew next to nothing about the weapons mounted to the office wall, he thought one reminded him of something out of the movie Last of the Mohicans. A more modern-looking one was attached to a plaque above a group photo of men in full military battle gear standing around a bombed-out building. Operators. Two of the men held a black flag with Arabic writing. All looked like serious people youd want on your side in a fight. The plaque read, To Lieutenant James Reece from the men of Alpha Platoon. A skeleton of a frog was engraved under that with the warning, Dont Fuck With Us, above a list of close to thirty names. Phil stepped back and took in the remainder of the room. Who is this guy? What Phil recognized as a samurai sword rested under glass in a presentation frame on the opposite wall. It looked old, not like the imitation ones Phil had seen for sale in shops downtown. A small brass plate was glued inside the glass under the sword. Phil bent forward to look more closely: LTJG THOMAS REECE SCOUTS AND RAIDERS 1945 Not a normal house and not a normal guy, Phil thought, moving to the desk and picking up a family photograph, James and Lauren Reece looking back at him. Even in the picture, he could tell these were special people. Both were beaming with joy, James holding his young daughter in his arms, Laurens arm around him with her head on his shoulder. It must have been before some sort of formal event since James was wearing his dress blues, the unmistakable SEAL Trident gleaming off his chest. Phil pulled the photo closer. Was that a Silver Star? And next to that a Bronze Star with V adorned with two stars on either side? Though Phil had only served four years in the Navy, he knew the Trident well. His time on the minesweeper was spent with a few guys who had tried the famed SEAL training program and failed out for various reasons along the way. Phil looked back to the medals on Reeces chest and then back around the room, noting that none of the medal citations were displayed on the wall. Humble guy, Phil thought admiringly. Opening a desk drawer, Phil rummaged through the contents: pens, some random business cards, and a few nice knives. As he was about to shut the drawer, Phil stopped and reached inside, a worn silver lighter catching his eye. Turning it over in his hand Phil looked at an enameled emblem of a beret-clad skull hovering over the letters MACV-SOG and the year 1967. The initials T.S.R. III were engraved beneath the image. Phil assumed that the lighter had belonged to Reeces father, based on the date and the last initial. Though he would have to do some research, he seemed to recall that MACV-SOG was some sort of covert action or special operations unit in the Vietnam War. Flipping it over, he was surprised to see an engraving of what appeared to be a strange-looking chicken with the words Phung Ho?ng above it. Odd. Returning the old Zippo to the drawer, Phil turned his attention to the bookshelves. This guy sure likes to read. Books, or lack thereof, often gave him an insight into the mind of a suspect. Phil had been in a lot of houses over the years, but he couldnt remember many like this. This guy was a student of war. The books seemed to be arranged loosely by topic and period. Titles such as The Accidental Guerrilla, War of the Flea, Counterinsurgency, The Sling and the Stone, Counter- Guerrilla Operations, and A Savage War of Peace jumped out at the detective. Right next to Machiavelli, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius were books on the Boer War, the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, and various other conflicts spanning both recent and ancient history. Phil pulled a book titled The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi, and cracked the cover. It was obviously well read, as the binding showed signs of wear, but what was most interesting to the detective were the page numbers written inside the front cover. Flipping through the book, Phil noted that these page numbers corresponded with highlighting and underlining, the margins filled with notes. Flipping randomly to one, Phil read a note that made him shiver. Deliberately closing the book, Detective Phil Dubin returned it to its home on the shelf with respect. Looking back at the menacing-looking tomahawks on the wall, Phil had a thought he had never had on a crime scene before: God help whoever did this. When his kids woke up in the morning, Phil would be there to hug them even tighter than usual. The events of the next few days were a blur. Reece was in too much shock to even help with the funeral arrangements. Laurens family lived in Southern California and her sister, a prominent L.A. attorney, handled all the details. As it is when young people are taken before their time, hundreds attended the memorial service. Both caskets were closed, due to the severity of their brutal wounds. Reece was numb. The pastor, in whose church Lauren had grown up, gave the eulogy. It seemed like just yesterday that he was conducting their wedding ceremony. He did a good job of immortalizing the wonderful human being who Lauren was, and he tried his best to reconcile Lucys death as part of Gods plan. Reece appreciated the kind words heaped upon him by well-meaning friends and relatives, but the they are in a better place comments nearly sent him into a rage. The graveside ceremony was a private affair, but the SEALs from the other platoons at Team Seven showed up anyway. They were family. They all knew and loved Lauren and Lucy. She was the kind of SEAL wife who was always there for the other wives and girlfriends when times were tough and the guys were overseas. Lucy was Reeces constant companion between deployments and every man had melted at least once before her angelic smile. Lucys tiny casket flanked that of her mothers, her beloved stuffed frog tucked inside at Reeces request. As the pastor concluded his short remarks, Special Warfare Operator Master Chief Petty Officer Ben Edwards approached Lucys casket and stood at rigid attention in his immaculate dress blue uniform. He removed the golden Trident badge from his left breast and placed it on top of the caskets lid. He pressed downward, forcing the brass pins on the back of the badge into the highly polished walnut veneer until it sat flush. He then executed a hand salute with tears in his eyes and moved swiftly away. The scene was repeated by every SEAL present at the ceremony, until the entire lids of Lucys and Laurens caskets were clad in golden Tridents. These hardened warriors, most of them husbands and fathers themselves, had honored Lauren and little Lucy with a tradition reserved for SEALs slain in combat. As far as they were concerned, Lauren and Lucy had died in battle. CHAPTER 12 REECE DID NOT MOVE for more than an hour. When he did, he knelt at the graves of his wife and daughter, head bowed, tears streaming. It was a knowing hand on his shoulder that revived him from his trance. Reece turned his head and looked up into the eyes of a short, almost scrawny man of Mexican heritage. The man helped Reece to his feet and embraced him. Reece looked into the face of his friend but didnt change his expression. With considerable effort, Marco del Toro turned Reece from the graves of his family and slowly walked him to the waiting new Mercedes S-Class Maybach sedan. A driver, looking suspiciously more like a prison guard than a chauffer, opened the door for them and Marco helped Reece inside before moving around the big car to the opposite side door. La casa, Marco told the driver, who put the car in drive and headed back to Coronado. Tequila? Marco asked. Reece slowly shook his head. Marco reached into the seatback, pulled out a bottle of Cuervos best 1800 Colecci?n, and pulled a swig. I am sorry I missed the funeral, my friend. I was in Mexico City on business and could not get home in time. Marco del Toro was one of Reeces closest friends. At first glance, one would think them an odd pairing: the naval commando and the Mexican businessman. But with further investigation it was evident that they connected around the ties of family. Marcos daughter Antonia was the same age as Lucy. They attended the same preschool and loved their playdates at the beach. Marcos wife, Olivia, and Lauren had bonded over tennis, which they both played with vigor. Try as they might to get their husbands on the courts, Reece and Marco chose to spend their time on the mat and in the ring, training in Brazilian jiujitsu and boxing. Marco was by far the better jiujitsu practitioner, besting Reece at every turn. How such a small man harnessed so much strength and determination was astounding. Reece could never quite figure out how to beat him. His technique was flawless. In the boxing ring Reece came close, but the one time he bested Marco he was fairly certain the smaller man had let him win. Both men also enjoyed a shared love of custom motorcycles. Two years before, Reece and Lauren had joined Marco and Olivia on a trip to Sturgis for bike week. Marco had flown them all out on his corporate G550 jet and, with beautiful new Harleys waiting on them when they landed, they enjoyed a few days exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota and the spectacle that is the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Reece loved his adventures with his friend, but it was Marcos love and dedication to family that Reece admired most. Reece knew that Marco was a wealthy man. His multiple homes in Coronado and what seemed to Reece to be an almost unending supply of new high-end vehicles made that abundantly evident, but it was not until Reece and his family joined Marco at one of his family villas in Mexico that Reece fully understood the extent of Marcos affluence. Reece had twice accompanied Marco down to estates in Mexico, hunting birds in areas not usually accommodating to foreigners, but those hunting estates were nothing compared to the villa. It was what most would consider a private resort and was located just south of the bustling beaches of Puerto Vallarta. A full staff waited on their every need while Antonia and Lucy played in the waves under the watchful eye of nearby private security contractors. Vast real estate holdings, a telecommunications company, and Mexicos largest insurance firm fell under Marcos portfolio, making him extremely prosperous. This also made him and his family prime targets for Mexicos kidnap-and-ransom industry. After a close call in Mexico City a few years earlier, Marco decided to move his family to San Diego, choosing the resort community of Coronado for its safety and proximity to his businesses across the border. As of the past year, Marco and his family were dual citizens, an honor for which Marco was exceedingly grateful. That America had welcomed him and his family with open arms, offering them a refuge from the violence and uncertainty of Mexico, was something he did not take lightly. Its okay, Marco. Thank you for coming. How long was I standing there? Not sure, my friend, Marco said with compassion. I arrived to see you standing alone. I waited for an hour. When I saw you hit your knees I knew it was time to lend a hand. They sat in silence as the car made its way along the coastline, inching closer to home. Marco was a devout Catholic, and nothing was more important to him than religion and family. When Marco spoke again it was both with reverence and sealed resolve. But for the grace of God, that is my daughter, my wife. Those that did this are scum, lowlife gangbangers. They violated an agreement. I will take care of the bosses regardless of whether they knew or not. And I will help you, my friend. I know what you need to do. CHAPTER 13 Coronado, California REECE SAT ALONE IN the darkness of his living room. His senses had been bombarded by too much; he just needed to see and hear nothing. The headaches had gotten even worse. Reece was sure that his tumor was killing him. Seeing his home looking like the aftermath of a firefight on a target overseas only intensified the blinding pain. The interior walls had been shredded by gunfire and the front door had been replaced by a four-by-eight foot sheet of plywood screwed into the frame. The blood-soaked carpet in his bedroom had been torn out by the cleanup crew and much of the furniture had been either shot up or smashed. For reasons unknown to him, the violence that hed fought to keep overseas had come to his living room and taken his family. What if he had come straight home from the airfield instead of going to the Team first? What if he hadnt gone to Boozers? What if he had refused to go to Balboa Medical Center and driven directly home to his family? What if . . . ? Could he have defended his family from a gang of heavily armed home invaders? Would his skill with a handgun have been enough? Could he have fought his way to his rifle or shotgun? Reece knew the answer to any of those questions was that he would probably be dead alongside his wife and daughter. He had to believe that he was spared for a reason: to find out what happened and punish those responsible. Reece thought he knew something about survivors guilt, having seen some of the strongest special operators in the world fall prey to its ravages after losing Teammates in battle. The events of the past few days made him realize that he really didnt know the first thing about it. I should have been here. I should have died with them, Reece thought, his gaze shifting to the space on the sofa next to him, where his young daughter had loved to curl up for a story, where his wife would snuggle beside him with a glass of wine to watch a movie after putting Lucy to bed. That space would never know that joy again. Now it was empty, a void never to be filled. Well, not quite empty. Now that spot was occupied by the cold dark metal and composite frame of his Glock 9mm handgun. Would death make the pain go away? Should he just end it all and join Lauren and Lucy? More than anything, that was what he wanted. His hand reached for the Glock and slowly wrapped around it. It felt comfortable. It felt natural, an extension of his body. It felt right. Reece set it on his lap, his eyes moving to the family photo he had on the coffee table in front of him. I love you, Lauren, he whispered, moving the pistol under his chin and sliding his finger onto the trigger. Youve never taken the easy route, Reece. This was too easy. Fuck easy. Reeces eyes narrowed and he took a breath. Let these feelings turn, Reece. Let them turn. . . . Reece leaned forward, smoothly tucking the pistol into the holster behind his right hip and then turning the photo of his family over so that it was facedown on the table. It was time to start figuring this out. As much as he tried to clear his head of all of the noise, he just couldnt do it. Facts that didnt fit flashed in his thoughts like a slide show of evidence: the strange and urgent mission that left his men slaughtered, the tumors, the questions from NCIS, Boozers suicide, and an act of unspeakable violence brought upon his family on this quiet little street. These kinds of things didnt happen randomly, not in this kind of proximity to one another. He started with the things that he knew for certain; Boozers death was no suicide. First of all, Boozer wasnt the kind of guy to quit on anything, especially life, and he sure as hell wouldnt have abandoned Reece in the middle of all this, PTSD or not. The most telling fact, however, was something Reece had not shared with the police investigators. It was something you had to know about Boozer to understand; he would never have shot himself with a 9mm. An outsider trying to make it look like a SEAL suicide would find it convenient to use the same type of handgun that SEALs were issued. What they couldnt know was that Boozer was a real gun guy whod grown up shooting competitively before he ever even thought about joining the Navy to become a Frogman. Boozer had a love affair with custom 1911s chambered in .45 ACP, which most people just would not understand. Boozer hated the 9 mil, and even though he had a SIG P226 in his personal collection to commemorate the pistol all SEALs had carried into combat since 9/11, his disdain of the smaller round was part of his identity. But who in the hell would want to kill Boozer and go to the trouble of making it look like something it was not? The same people who would send an entire troop into an ambush and then kill a family in their home and blame it on gang violence. Whoever did this had some serious resources at their disposal, possibly even someone in the Naval Special Warfare chain of command, though Reece could not bring himself to make that jump yet. He did not buy in to government conspiracies, but hed seen enough shady and unexplainable things go down overseas that he wasnt na?ve enough to rule anything out, either. But what was the connection? The ambush, Boozer, his family, the tumors, they all had one common denominator: Reece. The tumors were the outlier. This had to be connected to the tumors. His head throbbed and he momentarily lost his train of thought. He needed a fresh set of eyes on this, but who, if he couldnt trust his own chain of command, could he trust? Reece burst from the couch and ran down the hallway, flinging open the door to the garage. He grabbed his pack from a hook on the wall and reached in for the sleeve that held his laptop. Pulling out the MacBook Air, he opened the screen and a business card fluttered to the floor. He started to dial the number on his iPhone but stopped himself, hitting the END button before the call connected. He looked at his watch: 10:36 p.m., probably not too late. He walked out the back door of his house and crossed the lawn to his neighbors front door. He knocked quietly, trying to attract his neighbors attention without waking his sleeping kids. He knocked progressively louder until his neighbor, who had obviously been sleeping, opened the front door shirtless and in his boxers. Hey, James, whats up? What can I do for you? His neighbor was a good guy, some kind of civilian software geek who was always polite and showed evidence of a slight man crush on his commando neighbor. When he saw that Reece customarily backed his truck in the driveway, he started doing the same. Next thing you know, he was wearing the same sunglasses as Reece and driving an old Toyota Land Cruiser. The guy was harmless, and maybe even useful. Reece could never remember his first name. Hey, man, my battery is dead and I really need to make a call. Can I use your phone? Reece asked in his most neighborly tone. Of course, James . . . I mean, Reece . . . come on in and use the one in my office. The neighbor led Reece into a small home office, where a landline sat next to a panel of three computer monitors. He stood by the door and looked at Reece for a moment until he got the message and quickly left the room, shutting the door behind him. This is Katie, she said, picking up on the first ring. Katie, Im sorry to call you so late. This is James Reece. We met in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. James, of course, oh my gosh. I read about what happened to your family and wanted to reach out. Im so sorry. I appreciate that. Its actually what Im calling about. This whole thing just doesnt make sense and I need to run it by a fresh set of eyes. I read the series you did on Benghazi. It was really impressive. Any chance you would be willing to sit down with me? Absolutely, can you meet me in L.A. or do you want me to drive down there? No, no, L.A. is fine. Can you meet tomorrow? I can. Is eight too early? Theres a Starbucks downstairs from my condo. Its at Fifth and Fig, downtown. Eight is fine. I dont sleep anyway. Ill see you in the morning. I understand, said Katie sympathetically. How could you? See you in the morning. See you then, and Katie . . . Yeah, James? Thanks. CHAPTER 14 Los Angeles, California THE DRIVE UP INTERSTATE 5 to L.A. helped clear Reeces head a bit. Sleep hadnt come the night before, but strong Black Rifle Coffee, tempered with some honey and cream, and driving with the windows down made him feel halfway human. It was pitch dark when he left the house. If he was going to make it to downtown L.A. in time to meet Katie, he was going to have to do his best to beat some of the planets worst traffic. Contrary to what civilians might think, not everyone in the military gets up before dawn, and Reece was definitely not a morning person. Ordinarily hed use an app on his phone to help navigate the L.A. traffic, but hed purposely left his phone on his nightstand when he left the house. The joke in the Teams was that smartphones were surveillance devices that also made phone calls, and he wasnt sure exactly who was watching him at this point. He took I-5 all the way to I-10 and then onto the I-110 simply because that was the way he knew best. Traveling to a monstrous city like Los Angeles wasnt something that he relished or did very often. Parking in L.A. could be a nightmare, but he knew from a shopping trip with Lauren that there was a garage near the Seventh and Fig shopping area downtown that would have plenty of space this early. It wouldnt take much to have followed him, especially if any satellite or drone assets were involved, so Reece didnt play any countersurveillance tricks to try to lose anyone. The parking lot was deserted and the three-block walk from Eighth to Fifth was uneventful but for the solicitations of a few of L.A.s massive homeless population. Something about Reeces demeanor told the panhandlers not to be too aggressive with their requests, though most were too hungover to give it much effort. Reece had to chuckle when he saw a man facedown on the sidewalk with a length of rope tied around his neck and the other end tied around the neck of a bottle of cheap vodka. Hed planned to hit the Starbucks before Katie arrived so that he could pick their seats without raising any eyebrows by asking her to move, but shed beaten him to the punch. As soon as he walked through the door he spotted her in the far corner, seated with her back to the wall. Shed stolen his spot. Despite being a well-respected investigative reporter, Katie Buranek was quite young and undeniably attractive in a way that obviously required very little effort on her part. She was dressed in workout clothes: black yoga pants, and a tight-fitting bright orange zippered top. She wore little, if any, makeup and her dirty-blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore black rectangular glasses, probably more for effect than to enhance her vision, Reece thought. Though she was a print journalist, she certainly had the looks and brains to put her on one of the cable news networks. Reece was in his late thirties, and he assumed her to be at least ten years younger than he, if not fifteen. The last time theyd met had been at Bagram. Reece had just been discharged from medical when she tracked him down in a Green Beans Coffee, of all places. Bagram had turned into a mini-USA over the years and the Green Beans was similar to going to a Starbucks, with gourmet coffee, free Wi-Fi, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy your latte. To Reece, the more they tried to make Afghanistan like home, the more alien and out of place it became. Despite his civilian clothes, she knew exactly who Reece was when she sat down across the table from him. She had slid her business card across the table and simply said, Commander Reece, Im sorry about your men. I know that now is not the time, but if you want to talk about it, you know how to get a hold of me. A reporter who had the good taste not to smear herself in the blood of his men was a rare bird, and her intel was obviously strong. Reece was a bit of a news junkie and hed remembered her name from a series that she wrote exposing the lies and cover-ups that followed the Benghazi fiasco. He had known both of the SEALs killed that night in Benghazi, Libya, during a thirteen-hour gun battle in September 2012, so he had taken a personal interest in Katies coverage and investigation of the attack. She stood with a slight smile and extended her hand. Nice to see you again, James. Her face showed genuine sadness when she followed it with Im so sorry about all that youve been through and Ill do anything that I can to help. Thanks for making the trip up here. She had the slightest hint of an accent, though most people would not have noticed. Eastern European, he suspected by her last name. Not a problem. I appreciate the kind words and your being able to meet on such short notice. Let me grab a coffee and we can talk. Reece stood uncomfortably in the growing pre-workday coffee line as Katie pecked away at her laptop. She caught him glancing her way and flashed a polite and knowing smile. He finally got his coffee and sat down across from her at the small table. Usually Reece would be very hesitant to talk about the events of the past few days in such a public setting, but the music in the coffee shop was loud enough that anyones attempt to overhear their conversation, either in person or electronically, would have been a failure. As it was, Reece and Katie had to lean toward one another across the table to talk. He was relieved when she closed her laptop and pulled out a long spiral notebook to take notes; he wasnt dying to have this information on someones computer. Start from the beginning and dont leave anything out. I promise I am not going to write about this without your permission. Reece started the story with a week before the operation that wiped out most of his unit, to add a bit of context. He didnt disclose anything remotely classified, but he did convey how unusual it was for a target to come down from higher headquarters with this much specificity and urgency. She took scribbled notes that no one but a team of archeologists could decipher. Her head snapped up when he told her about the tumors found in his mens brains, and she asked questions that indicated she knew more than a little bit about the medical field. He walked her through the bizarre questioning by the NCIS agents and the inconsistencies in Boozers supposed suicide, and eventually got to the murder of his family. She stopped him at various points in the story, asking him to clarify details or expand on certain conversations. Stress, grief, and exhaustion clouded his memory in certain areas but he was fairly sure that he told her everything that was relevant. When he finished the story she put away her notebook and took off her glasses. She locked eyes with Reece across the table and her voice took on a quieter and more serious tone. Look, James, I know what you do for a living and I probably dont have to tell you this, but you need to be careful. We both do. Whoever is behind this thing isnt playing games. It doesnt make any sense for them to have done all of this and left you alive, which means they probably intended to kill you along with your family. If I were you, I wouldnt trust anyone, including the Navy brass. When my Benghazi series broke, you wouldnt believe the intimidation tactics they used against me. They hacked my email; I had two huge guys that were obviously feds block me from going down the stairwell in my building; I was audited by the IRS; they even tried to sabotage my deal when I bought my condo. They were all about letting me know they could get to me and werent the least bit afraid of me printing something about it. They own the big media outlets, dangle access to interviews, and exert their influence to manipulate the story while intimidating the press corps. Its not as bad as what my family endured in Czechoslovakia in the eighties, but its getting there. I want to help you and I want this story, but I dont want either of us to get killed. We need to be very careful about how we communicate. Reece nodded in understanding. You dont have to tell me about what theyre willing to do. The last thing I want to do is get you hurt. I called you from my neighbors landline last night, and my cell phone is back in Coronado. They probably dont know that we connected overseas so they wont be onto you unless I lead them to you, which I promise I wont do. Find yourself a used iPhone, maybe from Craigslist, where you have no relationship with the seller. Pay cash for it, toss the SIM card, and restore it to factory settings. Youll need to set up a burner email to get an anonymous iTunes account. Do that from a library computer or one not associated with you. You getting all this? I know its kind of a lot. Ive got it, said Katie, not looking up as she took detailed notes. Use cash to buy an iTunes gift card so you can download Signal. Its a private messaging service from the app store. Make this your username. Reece took a napkin from the table and wrote down a series of random letters and numbers. He copied the same characters at the bottom of the napkin and tore the paper in half, sticking one half in his shirt pocket. He slid the top half across the table to Katie. Its basically a texting app. Youll need cell service to get Signal, so just use a prepaid SIM bought with cash. After that, dont use cell again. Only use it over public Wi-Fi. Also download a VPN from Private Internet Access. Pay for it with a gift card you buy with cash. Keep Wi-Fi turned off when you are not actively using it. In fact, keep the phone turned off when you are not using it. Try to check it at least once a day. They can still get to you if they are specifically targeting you, but this will make it more difficult. Katie looked up from her notes, Im guessing youve done this before? We do a lot more than just swim around and shoot bad guys these days. Plus, all Team guys are paranoid about communication and social media. A lot of us use little tricks like this to keep Big Brother at bay. Weve seen the capability we have to track our targets overseas using their phones and we dont want anyone doing that to us. If it werent for cell phones, most of the HVIs weve hit would still be alive. Okay, so how do I get a hold of you? Ill contact you later tonight. Youll know its me. Sounds good. Are you sure you want to do this, Katie? I dont have anywhere else to turn, but I dont want to see anyone else get killed that doesnt need to be. Yeah, Im one hundred percent sure. I can take care of myself, she said, wondering what he meant by his doesnt need to be comment. I bet you can. Thanks again for listening. James, if I might, you should get that tumor checked out. Dont just assume the worst. You sound like Lauren. Katie tilted her head sympathetically as Reece rose from his seat. What are you going to do now? Im going to work. Reece turned and walked toward the door, subconsciously scanning faces in the room. His meeting with Katie had shaken him out of his funk and put him back into operator mode. CHAPTER 15 Riviera Country Club Los Angeles, California NO ONE KNEW WHAT Steve Horn looked like as a kid. Most just assumed that he appeared out of nowhere in a custom suit or golf clothes. Though he owned homes around the country, he rarely spent much time in them. If he was not in his office, Horn could be found on the golf course. He didnt love the game as some would expect. Rather, it was an outlet, and Horn was after the elusive perfect swing. His real love was power, and money brought that power. He didnt want to be the president of the United States. He wanted to control the president of the United States. To him that was a much more formidable position. To control the most powerful person on earth made him the de facto king of the world. His hunger to be near the throne would have made him an ideal fit for Washington, but he couldnt stand the climate or the personalities. He liked to be around exciting and attractive people, and on that front the D.C. elite couldnt compete with L.A. To his way of thinking, the most beautiful people in the world had been moving to L.A. for more than a century. That was five generations of breeding encapsulated along the California coast. Why would one live anywhere else? Horn was on the driving range when his cell phone rang. Paying no mind to the daggers thrown his way through the glares of those members on the line, he looked down at the caller ID and decided to take the call. Putting his earbuds in, he turned and walked toward his cart, stepping past a no cell phone use sign as he spoke. This is Horn. Steve, its J.D. Congressman, what can I do for you this fine day? asked Horn, already knowing he was going to have to exercise a bit of damage control. Steve, this thing with the Project is getting messy. Ive tried getting in touch with Tedesco but my calls keep going to voice mail, which is unusual. Is the group up to speed on where things stand and where we are going? Are you calling on behalf of you or your wife? Dammit, Horn, Im calling because Lorraine and I dont want to watch this thing go south on the evening news. What is your plan to get this mess tidied up? Horn suppressed a laugh. Who watched the evening news anymore? And if J. D Hartley did tune in, he certainly wasnt viewing it with his wife. J.D., these things sometimes do not go as planned. You understand. What is important is that we keep our heads and adapt. Do you want to know why I am so successful? Not waiting for an answer, Horn continued: It is because I see opportunity in chaos and I adapt to it quicker than anyone else. Yes, our straggler is still alive and that is a problem. Due to media interest in the story we are going to need to explore activating one of your assets. Its time. And it will play right into the media firestorm surrounding the ambush and the home invasion. It will wrap things up nicely, and we will be home free. Horn, you shouldnt even know about those assets, and the only one who can authorize it is my wife. But I see your point. It would close the loop nicely. Are you sure its the only way? J.D., it is a way, and in this circumstance, the best way. All right. Ill call her now. Congressman Hartley sounded more despondent about having to talk with his wife than he did about their current state of affairs. It will all be worth it in the end, J.D. Please give Lorraine my best. Horn hit the END button. Tossing the phone on the seat of his golf cart, he walked back up to his stack of balls and carefully placed his feet to address the tee. CHAPTER 16 Coronado, California KATIE WAS RIGHT. He needed to get checked out. The headaches might be nothing, or they could be a mass in his brain. At least he would know for sure. Reece couldnt trust the naval medical system at this point, but he had another option. When Reece got home he dug Dr. OHallorans card out of his deployment backpack, sat down on his couch, and dialed the number for the office in La Jolla. Head and Spine Associates, how may I help you? a friendly female voice answered. Hi, my name is James Reece. Dr. OHalloran saw me in Afghanistan and told me to call his office when I got back to the States. I know hes still overseas but I wanted to see if I could set up an appointment for when he gets back. Um, hold, uh, hold please, the voice stammered, clearly beginning to strain with emotion. Thats odd, Reece thought, a sinking feeling beginning to well up inside him. After a solid two minutes a male voice with a thick Spanish accent picked up the line. Mr. Reece, this is Dr. German. I am a colleague of Dr. OHallorans; was a colleague, I should say. I regret to inform you that there was an incident in Afghanistan, devastating to all of us. Dr. OHalloran was killed. It just recently hit the news. Someone we thought was an Afghan ally, Im afraid. Such terrible business. Damnit, this thing is for real. Im so sorry, sir. Ive been a little distracted since I got back. I had no idea. I didnt know Dr. OHalloran well, but he sure seemed like a great man, Reece said sincerely, his mind already connecting the dots. Could that really be a coincidence? The doctor who discovered the tumors suddenly dead. Reeces family dead. Boozer dead. The ambush. Green-on-blue incidents are not uncommon these days, Reece thought. Good people die in war. Still, this is not adding up, or rather, it was adding up to something horrifying. That he was, Mr. Reece. An incredible man, a world-class mind, and a better person than most, I dare say. He did share your case with me over email, and I have been hoping you would reach out. I am very interested in getting to the bottom of this. Dr. OHalloran asked me to help you if you called. I handle the neurosurgery here at the clinic and would be the one performing your biopsy. I am happy to do it; in fact, I insist. I consider it the last request of my late friend. Stay on the line and one of the ladies will schedule you an appointment. It is not a big deal, I promise you. And there will be no charge, on this I also insist. Hold, please. Reece made an appointment for later in the week and was given instructions on how to prepare for the procedure. They made it sound so routine, though Reece couldnt envision a way in which they were going to get a tissue sample from inside his skull that he considered routine. Five minutes later, as Reece was contemplating the procedure, the phone rang. It was Commander Coxs command master chief, a SEAL named Dave, with a thick New York accent that, along with the ever-present toothpick in his mouth, made some words almost indiscernible over the phone. He had a long family history in the New York Fire Department and had lost his brother and an uncle when the towers came down on 9/11. Dave had worn their Ladder 55 patch on his shoulder each time he had pulled the trigger in combat ever since. Dave got right down to business. Reece, Im not sure what this is about. Cox is out of the country so I took the call. Youre to report to WARCOM at 1400 today. Admiral Pilsner wants you in his office. The hits just keep on coming. Roger that, Dave, I dont think I can take any more good news. So much for taking the rest of the week off. Not our show, Reece. And Reece? Um, Im really sorry about your family. I dont have the words except to say that Im sorry. Keep your chin up, youll get through this. Let me know if there is anything I can do. Thanks, Dave, I really appreciate it. Reece leaned back on the couch, wondering if he had a uniform clean enough for WARCOM. CHAPTER 17 Naval Special Warfare Command Coronado, California REECE DROVE AS IF on autopilot. He was behind the wheel, but it felt like the Land Cruiser was driving itself and he was just a passenger, his movements dictated by something outside himself, as if in a dream. The numbness had given way to anger, which he knew had clouded his judgment. As he drove he couldnt help but think of his family, the pain in his soul pushing him toward the edge of that proverbial cliff of despair. Once over, it would be hard to return. He pulled off the Silver Strand Highway as he had done innumerable times over the past eighteen years and pulled up to the gate. The young gate guard recognized the Land Cruiser immediately. Something about the guy driving it had always seemed special to him. In a world filled with egos, thousand-yard stares, and rank elitism, this officer gave off a different air, almost akin to a cool college professor. Never at a loss for a smile and a brief encouraging word, he stood out, especially because this was the same gate the admiral had to use to get to the Naval Special Warfare Command, more commonly referred to as WARCOM, from which all the SEAL Teams were administratively managed. To the gate guard, WARCOM had the aura of a death star, with the Admiral as Darth Vader, or even worse, Darth Vaders master, what was his name? The line of cars moving through the gate each morning filled with staff officers headed for their doom . . . . Morning, sir. Morning, Ken. No officers called Ken by his name except for Commander Reece. In fact they barely acknowledged his existence, just a nuisance before finding a parking spot and starting their days. Reece showed his military ID and Ken saluted, as was protocol for officers. Hows your build coming? They had talked cars once, and Reece knew that Ken was rebuilding an old 69 Mustang. Jeez, even with what happened to his family, he still asks about my car. Good, sir. And, sir? Um, Im so sorry. Everyone knew. Thanks, Ken. You take it easy. I will, sir. Ken stepped back, and even though he didnt need to do it again, he straightened up and snapped his sharpest salute as Reece slowly moved through the gate. The view of the Pacific Ocean through the sand berms in front of him was spectacular. Slow rollers were hitting the beach, the cacophony of the sound reminding all that within the beauty was a power that should not be underestimated. Reece couldnt help but think of their journey from Antarctica to their terminus here in Southern California. Reaching a stop sign, Reece began to swing the wheel to the left but then paused. To the left were his beloved SEAL Teams, where he had spent the majority of his time in the Navy. He caught himself and remembered where he was going today. To the right. To WARCOM. Everybody hated going to WARCOM. The uniforms, the brass, the protocol. WARCOM was the antithesis of everything that drew guys to the SEAL Teams. WARCOM was where the senseless directives came from. Delivered down the chain from people so far removed from the tactical application of said directives that they became the definition of bureaucracy. Politicians in uniform. Reluctantly, Reece swung the wheel back to the right. WARCOM was where the admiral reigned supreme. Reece pulled through yet another set of gates and began to look for a parking place. The SEAL Teams had expanded considerably in the years following 9/11: new commands, more SEALs, additional support personnel. What had been neglected was the parking to accommodate those additional bodies. Typical military planning, Reece thought. He scanned the lot, immediately noticing a dark blue Bentley parked in the admirals visitor spot. Odd. Finding a place by the fence, Reece put his truck in park, leaned back in his seat, and took a deep breath. Fuck. None of this was making any sense. The excruciating pain hit Reece like a lightning bolt out of the blue. These headaches! Breathe through it, Reece. Its okay. Breathe. You can do this. Breathe. The pain dissipated almost as quickly as it had begun. Reece took one more deep breath and exited the vehicle. He straightened his uniform, noting for the thousandth time that he was not armed. He never understood military base policies that prohibited those in uniform from carrying personal weapons on base or even keeping them in their cars. Reece could check out fully automatic machine guns and grenades from the same base upon which he was not allowed to carry his 9mm pistol. Policies created by bureaucrats in uniform essentially disarmed some of the most highly trained and competent warriors on earth. It was only a matter of time until the enemy took advantage. Checking in at WARCOM was never fun. The air was different in there even though it was just a few hundred yards from the Teams. The poor quarterdeck watch had the look of a prisoner awaiting execution and did his job with as much enthusiasm. Encased behind thick plastic glass, as they were, they always looked as happy as gas station attendants stuck behind similar barriers in bad neighborhoods. Reece turned in his ID for a visitors badge and was buzzed inside the labyrinth that was WARCOM. He had been there a few times for briefings and had hated it every time. Haircuts and strict adherence to uniform standards were the measures of success this far from the battlefield. Reece did his best to hide his contempt. Most of the people in the building were too senior to fight when September 11 hit. When they did venture downrange it was usually to the safety of a Tactical Operations Center hidden on a sprawling base; an oasis in the heart of bad guy territory. Admiral Gerald Pilsner was a short man. Not out of shape, but not someone who immediately commanded respect. He was the quintessential officer in the most derogatory sense of the word. He commanded respect due to his rank, in stark contrast to a guy like Reece, who earned the respect of his men through word and deed. In the world of special operations, your reputation was your currency, and in that sense Admiral Pilsner was a very poor man. He had never commanded men in battle; yet he let everyone out of the know, both in the military and out, assume that he did. Behind his back the men referred to him as Lord Fobbit, a wartime take on hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. Fobbits were people who never went outside the safety of the FOB. The admiral was King of the Fobbits. How he had risen through the ranks to become an admiral was beyond Reeces comprehension, though truth be told, Reece never really spent much time thinking about it. He was too focused on his troops and the mission to pay attention to the politics of senior officers. Reece was built to fight. The admiral was built to administer and take care of his career. While Reece was a professional, the admiral was a careerist, a Massengale in the truest sense. In recent years a series of very critical articles had surfaced in the New York Times and Washington Post bringing to light multiple investigations into Admiral Pilsners conduct and vindictive behavior when dealing with subordinates. Two members of Congress with stellar military backgrounds had taken personal interest in replacing the leaf-eating admiral with someone more befitting leadership of one of the countrys premier special operations forces, one even going to the floor of the United States Senate to expose the admirals nefarious behavior. If any other officer in the SEAL Teams had anything close to what was written about the admiral appear in print, they would have been removed from their post and summarily retired. Reeces guess was that the admirals liberal political leanings under a far-left Democratic president had a lot to do with his ability to remain in his position. The admiral was clearly more concerned with force diversity and the push to open the SEAL Teams to females than he was with crushing Americas enemies. Whatever got him his next star. Even so, Reece couldnt believe this guy could remain in the Navy for much longer, regardless of whom he knew in Washingtons corridors of power. Reece made his way to the reception room, where the admirals aide sat obediently at his desk in neatly pressed khakis with a gold braided rope around his shoulder signifying his position as a flag aide. Here to see the admiral, Reece said, noticing the shut door to the senior officers office. Youre early, sir, the aide said in a tone that managed to seem both respectful and condescending at the same time. Well, I just couldnt wait, Reece responded in a voice that intentionally signified the opposite. Please take a seat, sir. The admiral is just finishing a meeting and will be with you shortly. Reece looked around the room and took a seat in an overstuffed leather chair, briefly glancing at a coffee table adorned with a few horrible Navyproduced magazines. He took the time to relax and organize his thoughts. Why does the admiral want to see you? Has to be the op in Afghanistan. Though usually the admiral would wait until all investigations were finished and his CO had talked with him first. Why so soon after the death and funeral of his wife and child? Was it about the tumors? Or to pay his condolences? To make sure Reece wasnt going to suck-start a pistol? Reece knew his thoughts were clouded by the trauma of recent events, made all the worse by the headaches. Think, Reece. Something is not right. The door to the office swung open and out strolled a man who looked like hed walked off the set of a Hollywood movie. His quick look at Reece betrayed a familiarity not shared by the commando before he moved off a little too hastily. Interesting. Wonder who that was? Captain Howard sat quietly and anxiously as the admiral stared out the panel of windows at the Pacific Ocean. He appeared deep in thought with a pair of horn-rimmed half glasses in one hand, the temple of which rested on his lips. After an extended pause, Admiral Pilsner rotated his chair to face his JAG and placed the glasses on the desk in front of him. Whats your read on Tedesco? Is he going to stay on the reservation? I think you sold him, sir. To a guy like that, being part of your team is a big deal. These guys all want to touch the SEAL magic, and you just made him feel like he was your best operator. Lets hope so. We need him to stick with the plan. Hes the one Im worried about, but hes also our best link to the Hartleys, and without them, we have jack shit. This thing has gotten out of control. I have worked my entire career to build an impeccable reputation as a commander. Under my leadership, the Naval Special Warfare profile has risen above what anyone before me could have imagined. Why so many have tried to keep this organizations capabilities below the radar is beyond me. When Washington thinks of special operations, they think of me. I am the SEAL Teams, as far as the public is concerned. I cannot have my reputation or the reputation of WARCOM destroyed by James Reece. Not wanting to mention the sore subject of the New York Times and Washington Post articles critical of the admirals leadership, Leonard Howard leaned forward, his voice hardly above a whisper. He will be here any minute, sir. Do you have a plan? Should we have him arrested? No. Well threaten to charge him with everything under the sun, of course, but we dont want him in custody, where hes protected. We want him out there, adrift. You will be my witness that hes a loose cannon, that hes gone apeshit and is capable of anything. I am going to make him lose his cool so that everyone in this command sees it on his face when he walks out of this office. After that, no one will question what happens next. How are you going to make this guy lose it, sir? I dont get the impression that James Reece is easily rattled. It will not be a problem, believe me. Reece may be a combat leader but hes got to be a ball of raw nerves at this point and Ill touch every one of them. Yes, sir, Im sure youre right about that. Pilsner looked at Howards facial expression and frowned. Youre not going soft on me, too, are you? No, sir, not at all. Just want to make sure we have all the legal angles covered. Good. I need everyone focused on getting this thing back on track. Lets get Reece in here. Ill do the talking. Yes, sir. Howard smiled. An excruciatingly long fifteen minutes passed before the door opened again. This time it was Captain Leonard Howard, the admirals judge advocate. He was slight of frame and, from reputation, slight of character. The admiral certainly surrounded himself with like-minded bureaucrats. Not offering a handshake or greeting, he said, Lieutenant Commander Reece, the admiral will see you now. Wonderful. Admiral Pilsners office was almost exactly as Reece expected it to be. A large desk positioned opposite huge windows facing the Pacific Ocean. A million-dollar view, though Reece was sure the facility had cost the taxpayers considerably more than that. Scanning the admirals office, Reece noticed the walls were not adorned with the usual trappings of a life spent in the armed forces; rather there were pictures of the admiral in uniform at various functions with the whos-who of Washingtons political and military elite: higher-ranking flag officers, what looked to be a few well-dressed civilians that Reece didnt recognize, and even the secretary of defense. The pictures all seemed to be the receiving-line variety, each from a military-specific charity event set up with backgrounds denoting their cause. The admiral sure seemed to be having a good time while soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines fought and died on foreign soil. On a credenza in the corner sat a UFC championship belt given to the admiral as a gift in exchange for a tour of the BUD/S compound that he arranged for an MMA welterweight fighter. To its left was a Seattle Seahawks football helmet, the admirals home team, signed by the players and coaching staff, another gift for a motivational tour before they played the Chargers. Apparently the BUD/S compound had gotten very popular in recent years. Quid pro quo. On the desk, Reece noticed a Ka-Bar knife sitting in a presentation stand, obviously never used and presented to the admiral as a gift for a staff job at some point. It was rumored he liked to pick it up to intimidate his nonTrident-wearing staff. Was the Admirals desk on a platform? What on earth? Yes, it was. It was subtle but it was still a platform. Reece remembered reading something once about J. Edger Hoover having an office desk built on a platform so he could look down on those who entered his office. It was all about power. Sir. Reece nodded toward the admiral. The admiral continued to write something down without looking up at his guest. Reece glanced from the admiral to Captain Howard, back to the admiral, and then out the window. He was not offered a seat. What the hell happened in Afghanistan, Commander? the smaller man finally spat out. Uh, sir? replied Reece. You know, said the admiral, finally looking up. Your tremendous fuckup. Reece shifted his gaze to the JAG, whose face remained unchanged. Sir, I take full res You are damn right youll take full responsibility. This is a huge black eye for our community. Those men are dead, and you tarnished the hard-earned reputation of this brand! Brand? What the fuck is this guy talking about? Sir, there is no one to blame here but me. I was the ground force commander. The responsibility lies with me. Weve already established that, Commander. What we havent established is why. Why? This obviously was not a condolence call about Reeces wife and daughter. What is this about? Why? That is a damn fine question. Why? It suddenly clicked. The admiral wanted to test Reece to see if he was going to open up about the mission and tactics being pushed from higher. It had not been clear at the time exactly who higher was. Now Reece knew. Reeces eyes didnt leave the admirals, but they changed from merely serious to ice in less than a second. Reece thought he could see the admiral visibly shrink back in his seat. Sir, that mission came from higher authority, Reece said slowly in a voice devoid of emotion. No, it did not, Commander Reece. Do not shirk your responsibility. You were in charge and you failed. You failed your men and this nation. The admiral stood, finally hitting his stride. NCIS will finish their investigation shortly. They will find you negligent, and I intend to see you court-martialed. In the meantime I am ordering Captain Howard to pull your security clearance and start Trident removal procedures. Reece stood stone-faced, looking straight through the fuming one-star in front of him. The list of charges against you is a long one, Commander, and I am going to ensure that when the military justice system is done with you there will be absolutely nothing left! Sweat began to bead up on the admirals forehead and upper lip, spit escaping as he almost shouted, And, while we are going down this path . . . The Admiral continued, standing and moving to the side of his desk, the platform putting him more or less on the same plane as Reece. You couldnt protect your men, you couldnt protect your family, and it is high time you paid a price, not just for your failures but for the tarnished legacy your father left on the Teams. Reeces jab caught the admiral off guard, his nose exploding in an eruption of blood as the bone and cartilage broke beneath Reeces left fist. Before the admiral could react Reece had already dropped his weight, pivoted his hips, and delivered a right cross to the already broken nose with such devastating power Howard thought the admiral might be dead on his feet. Reece practiced restraint, but one wouldnt know that from the left hook that caught the admirals jaw and dropped him to the ground with a heavy thud. Howard had never in all his life seen such a transformation as the one he had just witnessed. He watched in horror, his back pressed against the office wall, hoping it would envelop him and protect him from what appeared to be the very incarnation of pure rage. Reece took a step toward Howard and stopped. Leave him, Reece. This is what the enemy must feel like when these guys come hunting them, Howard thought. The look in Reeces eyes left no doubt in Howards mind that Reece would have no qualms about killing him and leaving him dead on the office floor. His eyes were cold, and the JAG could only think of one word: death. Although it was warm and Howard was perspiring profusely, his body inadvertently shivered. Add that to the list, Reece hissed, moving to the door and closing it calmly behind him. Howard slumped to the floor in disbelief, thankful to have escaped Reeces wrath and unable to take his eyes off the body of the unmoving admiral. Back in the Land Cruiser, Reece took a deep breath. It had taken all his discipline to look as natural as possible as he hurried down the WARCOM stairs, turned in his visitors badge, and made his way across the parking lot to his vehicle. What next? None of this was making any sense. No mention of the tumors. Did they really not know? Reece knew the admiral was a spiteful politician, only concerned with his next rank. The articles in the Washington Post were a testament to that vindictiveness and the mans true character. The question was, how would someone with such a weak inner constitution react to being knocked out in his own office? Would he use the power of that position to throw the book at his subordinate commander, or would he be so embarrassed to such an affront to this authority that he would keep it quiet and try to attack indirectly? Reece assumed the latter but he wanted to be ready for the former. Regardless, his security clearance would be gone as soon as Howard could pull himself together and get to a phone, which meant he would no longer have access to any Naval Special Warfare facility. Reece glanced at his watch. It would take the admiral and his guard dog JAG a little time to recover and come up with their game plan, or so Reece hoped. Reece put the Cruiser in drive and headed for Team Seven. CHAPTER 18 ADMIRAL PILSNER LEANED FORWARD in his chair, elbows on his desk, with one hand holding his head and the other pressing an ice pack to the right side of his face. With tissues stuffed into his nostrils and blood staining the front of what had been an immaculate uniform, he shut his eyes and tried to concentrate. The events of the past hour had left him shaken and humiliated. At least Howard was the only one to see it, he thought. Sitting in the comfortable leather chair in front of the admirals desk, Leonard Howard was anything but comfortable. Continually squirming and looking anywhere except directly at his defeated boss, the captain was relieved only by the fact that Reece had directed no physical violence toward him. Against his better judgment, he broke the silence. Sir, it is over for Reece. Assaulting a flag-level officer is beyond the pale, even in this community. I will have him in shackles and up for court-martial by the end of the day. We will keelhaul him, sir! He will not get away with this! We will strip him of his rank, revoke his security clearance, remove his cherished Trident, and have him before a judge within weeks. He will spend the next decade in Leavenworth breaking big rocks into small rocks. If it hadnt hurt to talk so much, Pilsner would have cut his JAG off sooner. He knew his nose was broken and was thankful his jaw had escaped the same fate. Both eyes had swollen and would soon blacken. He had instructed Howard to have his aide cancel all appointments for the remainder of the week. He would have to come up with a believable excuse for the broken nose and bruised face that would allow him to escape with some dignity. Captain Howard, Pilsner began in a nasally tone, unbecoming of his station, we will do no such thing. But, sir, he assaulted you in your office in front of a witness! He needs to be brought up on charges immediately! Leonard, I am telling you no! Do you realize what will happen to my reputation if word gets out that I was beaten up by an O-4? the admiral asked, referring to Reeces pay grade. Sir, we cant let him get away with this. Let me remind you, Leonard, that I am the admiral and you are the captain. Remember that, when we are in this building. Yes, sir, Howard muttered, looking at the floor. We are going to document this but will take no formal action. You know what happens if Reece is taken into custody. We have discussed this; it would make it harder to get to him. We have to stick to the plan; we are going to let him walk. I want you to fill out a witness statement that youll keep to yourself until such time that we need to create a paper trail. I also want you to take photos of my face, in case we need them later. This evidence will fit into a pattern of behavior displayed by Reece that will leave no doubt regarding his guilt. I have a permanent solution for James Reece, and this fits right into it. CHAPTER 19 SEAL Team SEVEN Coronado, California REECES TROOP HIGH BAY WAS a gigantic room fitted floor to ceiling with rows of racks to hold the enormous amount of gear it took to remain one of the worlds leading special operations units. Today it was empty, as Reece knew it would be. Putting his code into the cipher lock, he turned the knob and stepped inside into complete darkness, the door shutting and locking behind him with an audible click. Not only was it the depository of all the troop gear; it was also the epicenter of all things to an operator in a SEAL Team. The troop space was a clubhouse of sorts, though more exclusive than any fraternity on earth. Gone were the confident voices that had once filled this room, voices of men who were the best in their field. No one was there to shout a greeting, make a joke, or ask a question. No one was busily adjusting gear or packing for the next training trip. Empty. All that was left above the roar of crashing surf was the hum of the air conditioners that never seemed to work properly. Reece stood in silent respect, eyes closed, imagining it as it used to be, filled with life and the unique camaraderie that drew and kept so many warriors in the Teams. The smell of dust and dirt accumulated from training venues across the country and combat deployments around the world were deposited back in this single space in Coronado, California. When mixed with the sweat and added humidity from being so close to the ocean, it gave off a distinctive odor that those who had prepared for war there would never forget. His reflection over, Reece reached over and flipped the light switch, immediately illuminating the bay in a fluorescent white glow. Boozer had supervised getting the troops gear back to the high bay and it was a mess. It took a few minutes for Reece to find his bags and a few more for him to separate them from the others, take inventory of it all, and then load them into his Land Cruiser outside. Before leaving, Reece opened a small lockbox mounted on the wall. It was filled with keys. Reece ran his fingers through the semi-organized keys hanging inside until he found the set marked Donny and stashed them in his pocket. After one last look back at his troop space, he shut the door and headed for the armory. Hey, sir. Hows it going? I mean, how are you? Uh, I uh . . . Its okay, Carl, Reece said with a warm smile. Ill be okay. Though he didnt really believe that himself. Its just that I didnt expect to see you this soon after, well, after you know . . . Carl was the SEAL Team Seven armorer, not a SEAL but a gunners mate senior chief from the fleet assigned to Naval Special Warfare. He had been on a deployment to Iraq with Reece a few years back when Reece was leading sniper teams into Ramadi at the height of the war. Its been rough, Carl. I wont lie. Im a bit lost and confused right now. Just need to take some time and get a little perspective on things. Carl was a religious man and looked up to the SEAL officer in front of him. In Ramadi, Carl had seen Reece off on more missions than he could remember. He also remembered the great respect Reece garnered from not only the men under his command but the more senior officers in theater as well. Carl, Im going out to Niland for a couple days. Need to be with the boys right now. Niland was the Navy SEAL playland just outside El Centro, California, up against the Chocolate Mountains, a place where platoons and troops could shoot and blow things up to their hearts content while training to go downrange. Niland? Carl questioned. I mean, shouldnt you go to . . . um, anywhere . . . um, anywhere else . . . you know . . . because . . . Its okay, Carl. Just want to get out with the guys and away from all this for a few days. Need to get behind a Mk 48 and throw a few rounds downrange. Now he was speaking Carls language. Understood, sir. And, sir? Um, my wife and I are praying for you every night. Thanks, Carl. That means a lot. I guess you want to take a couple of toys out there with you? Carl said, changing the tone of the conversation. Absolutely! Reece replied with a smile. Can you grab me two thousand rounds of 7.62 link and a case of the 77-grain Black Hills while I get my weapons? No problem, sir. Well, at least it didnt look like the admiral had put an APB out on him yet. Reece approached a machine on the wall of the armory and inserted his Team Seven ID. This would be the real test. He punched in his personal code, pressed his thumb against a pad on the wall, and looked into an iris scanner. NSW armory security procedures had come a long way over Reeces career. He could remember a time when there werent any security measures in place other than a master lock on a cage full of weapons. The good ol days, Reece thought. The machine beeped and blinked green, opening both the door to the armory and the internal door that housed all of Reeces troop weapons. Reece grabbed a wheeled dolly for moving heavy items and made his way down the hallway, passing the other troop weapons cages until he arrived at the one he was looking for. He still had his personal weapons from deployment that he had never turned in, but still wanted to upgrade his stash for what was coming. Be prepared. Reece gazed around the large cage, mentally taking inventory. Though it was called a cage it was really a room-size partition filled with instruments of death. Before Reece were rows and rows of rifles, pistols, shotguns, sniper weapon systems, extra NODs, AT-4s, LAW rockets, Mk 48 and Mk 46 machine guns, claymores, boxes of C-4 blocks, and data sheet for breaching; it was a gun nuts wet dream. Reece finished taking stock and began loading the dolly with the tools of his trade. CHAPTER 20 Shady Canyon Estates Orange County, California MIKE. MIKE. MIKE? Uh, what? Uh, sorry, honey . . . Mike Tedesco responded, dropping his cell phone and reaching for the pacifier on the counter toward which his wife was not so subtly gesturing, then quickly looked back into his uneaten cereal bowl as if the answers to some unanswered question floated among the Cheerios. Janet Tedesco looked at her husband and sighed. He had been more detached than usual over the preceding months. Maybe the back-and-forth trips to D.C. were getting to him? Maybe it was his almost daily commute up to L.A., though he never complained about it. She knew he lived in Orange County only because she had grown up there and loved it. Her friends were there, and her parents lived just thirty minutes away. Her mom and dad could look after their three children so Janet could attend many of the neverending stream of lavish political fundraisers and charity events that were Mikes domain. Mike was always thanked and toasted for being the piece of the puzzle that linked all the others. This made her immensely proud. Mike Tedesco was technically a business consultant but everyone who knew him referred to him as a fixer. He was connected in some way to just about everyone who mattered in Southern California, from studio executives to key political figures. His friends called him 1D since he appeared to be one degree of separation from just about anyone youd want to meet. Tedesco was one of those people who are good at everything. He was the guy you hated in school because he never had to study and would beat you at golf on his worst day. His good looks and Ivy League education, combined with his athletic talents, gained him great favor with both sexes, but he was a surprisingly devoted husband and father. From the outside looking in, he had the perfect life: a home on the golf course in Shady Canyon, Orange Countys most exclusive private community; an incredible condo in Maui; and a mountainside ski retreat in Deer Valley. An always-new Range Rover for his wife and Bentley for himself completed the Southern California twist on a Norman Rockwell painting. Unlike many of those with whom he associated, he would have been just as happy, if not happier, as a river guide or ski instructor. He just happened to be good with people, and the truth was, he sincerely liked helping them. His challenge was juggling all his competing demands and making it all work. He lived in a constant state of guilt, probably from the two years he had spent in Catholic school early in life. His conscience ate away at him every time he was called to a meeting in D.C. or was stuck in traffic on the way to and from L.A. It was time spent away from his beautiful wife and children. He wanted out of the fast-paced life to which they had become accustomed. Mike also had a plan. He had a dollar amount in mind, and when he hit that number he would retire. He could spend time with his family and travel on their schedule, not someone elses. Strangely, he did not feel the need to continue to accumulate wealth and prestige like so many others in his circle of friends. Once he hit his number, he would fade away. Two years ago, connecting the players in the business plan that Steve Horn had outlined seemed harmless enough, even commendable. Mike would get to build the team that would purchase, clinically test, and market a drug that would block the effects of PTSD before it even took hold. A neuro pathway beta-blocker that would revolutionize the medical treatment of future veterans, preventing the destruction caused by the psychological toll of war; a mental prehab for warriors. Mike had gone to enough military and veteran group fundraisers over the years to have seen and heard the stories of those whose lives were completely altered by what they had done in combat, and this was a way for him to contribute more than financially. Mikes involvement in the Project was not purely altruistic. Success in this endeavor would put him well above his number and allow him an escape from the trappings of his current life. Fund-raising and supporting these foundations was a way for Mike to atone for the guilt he felt for not joining the military himself. If he was honest, it was because he was ashamed. Those nuns in Catholic school had certainly done their work. He had left his job as a congressional aide and was working in the Manhattan financial sector on a beautiful Tuesday morning in September when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Rather than rush to help, Mike ran the other way. When others headed for recruiting stations in the wake of 9/11, Mike found refuge at the USC Marshall School of Business. It was there that he discovered his real talent lay not in the analytics, nor the leadership of business, but rather in the art of relationships and the nurturing of those relationships until they could be monetized. One of his closest mentors was a former California congressman who had failed in his own bid for the presidency a decade ago when one of his many affairs hit the media. At the time, Tedesco thought that his best horse had fallen but it looked as if he was about to get a second shot at the title: that same congressmans wife was the current secretary of defense and a shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination next time around. That he was a trusted confidant of one of the most powerful couples in Washington only bolstered his standing in both the financial and political communities. Mike was the bridge between big money and big power. Unfortunately, the outcome of this particular bridge-building project had gone horribly wrong, and the actions of his partners had chilled him to the depths of his soul. What started out as something that could both save lives and help Mike reach his number had turned into a nightmare. To Mike it felt as if he had ordered the killing of the SEAL Team himself, though he did not become aware of the connection of the Project to the highly publicized ambush in Afghanistan until Admiral Pilsner and his JAG had briefed him yesterday, no doubt at the suggestion of Steve Horn. Perhaps Steve knew Mike was the weak link and had to be kept in line. Psychologically, having Mike read in by the SEAL admiral with whom he had sat at many a Naval Special Warfare Foundation charity event carried more weight than hearing it from Steve himself. The message was clear: if SEALs were willing to kill other SEALs to keep this project alive, it must be for the greater good. But to walk out of Pilsners office and actually see the face of one of the men Mike had a part in destroying was almost too much to take. There sat the true hero, a cancerous tumor growing in his brain, his troop and family dead, oblivious to the array of forces lining up to further dismantle his life and ultimately destroy him. Mike was the weakest of the group. He knew it. And he knew that if he showed any signs of that weakness, the others would not hesitate to feed him to the wolves. This wasnt checkers, nor was it chess. It was threedimensional poker, and Mike was going to have to play it out while bluffing if he was going to finish the game. Wait, not finish the game, but survive the game. His goal now was to make it through this disaster with his life and the lives of his wife and children. If he could just keep his head down he could deliver both his family and reach his number. Then he would be done with Steve Horn and his ilk for good. He would atone for his sins in this life or the next, of that he was certain. God would punish him. The burden of his involvement he would carry alone, all the way to the grave and whichever way he was headed beyond it.

  • Toy Story 3 /   3 (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story 3 /
  • Wizard of Oz /    (Baum, 2014)    Wizard of Oz /
  • A Bug's Life /   (Disney, 2012)    A Bug's Life /
  • Rory Wants a Pet /     (Pritchard, 2014)    Rory Wants a Pet /

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