I-Team - 6
This book is dedicated to M.O., whose service and courage are an inspiration.
Special thanks to Officer Bryan Bartnes of the Loveland Police Department for his help in understanding explosives, the work of EOD teams, and the way authorities investigate bombings. Sitting at tables in coffee shops and discussing how to blow things up certainly does draw curious glances.
Deep personal gratitude to my sister, Michelle, and my son Benjamin, who once again went above and beyond, offering a sounding board and emotional support for me for thirteen long months as I wrote this story.
Thanks, too, to Arlene and Beatrice Ríos and Wilson Cruz for their help with the Puerto Rican Spanish in this story, and for helping with elements of Boricua culture. When they swear in their native tongue, they will forever think of me. ¡Wepa!
Additional thanks to my editor, Cindy Hwang, for her patience and understanding; to Natasha Kern, my agent, for more than a decade of support and friendship; and to Diane Grimaldi Whiting for walking me through the Dark Side, that is, the world of broadcast journalism.
Love and thanks to dear friends, old and new, for their amazing support and encouragement: Julie James, Libby Murphy, Julieanne Reeves, Norah Wilson, Jenn LeBlanc, Joyce Lamb, Kaleo and Kristine Griffith, Kristi Ross, Sue Zimmerman, Stephanie Desprez, Ruth Salisbury, Ronlyn Howe, Joyce Lamb, Bonnie Vanak, Jan Zimlich, Alice Duncan, Alice Gaines, and Mimi Riser.
And a heart full of thanks to the I-Team Facebook group, whose members gave me the best birthday present ever—weeks of home-delivered organic meals that kept me out of the kitchen so that I could write! I am so lucky to know you all.
As always, thanks to my sons Alec and Benjamin, whom I love beyond all things, and to my parents, Robert and Mary White, who see far less of me than they’d like to because I spend all my time with fictional people.
February 11, 2011
Near Parachinar, Pakistan
15 clicks west of the Afghan border
22,000 feet altitude
SOCS JAVIER “COBRA” Corbray sat in the dimly lit belly of the modified C-130J “Super” Hercules, waiting with the other operators of Delta Platoon for the signal to start their oxygen. Banter had given way to silence as the men turned their minds to the night’s mission. They’d trained for months for this one, the predeployment workup one of the most grueling Javier could remember in his twelve years as a SEAL. Endless fast-roping drills. Night jumps, rock climbing, and uphill PT runs in full night combat gear. Close-quarters combat practice. Mock raids on a scale model of the compound.
The stakes were high tonight—both for the U.S. and for Javier personally.
Then again, the stakes had been high on every deployment since 9/11.
Abu Nayef Al-Nassar, a Saudi national, had been high on Uncle Sam’s list of most-wanted assholes for five long years. The leader of an al Qaeda splinter group operating out of northwestern Pakistan, he had masterminded simultaneous bombings in Hamburg, Paris, and Amsterdam that had killed hundreds, not to mention orchestrating attacks against U.S. citizens in the Middle East and Shia Muslim villages around Pakistan. Al-Nassar was also the sugar daddy for a network of AQ groups, turning heroin profits into cash for weapons, travel, forged documents. If Delta Platoon managed to bring him in alive, along with his computers and cell phones, they would strike a major blow against AQ—and give the alphabet soup intel agencies a crack at uncovering his operation both abroad and in the homeland.
That was Javier’s duty and goal as a SEAL. His goal as a man was simpler.
“Hey, senior chief!” Rick Krasinski had been with the Teams for about a year now. He’d been nicknamed “Crazy K” for his love of rough water. There was no one more at home pounding surf than Krasinski. “This asshole—he’s the one who kidnapped and killed the Baghdad Babe, isn’t he?”
The Baghdad Babe.
U.S. troops had given her that nickname back in 2007 during the Surge, when they’d crowded around mess hall televisions to watch her nightly live broadcasts from Baghdad. She’d earned the respect of U.S. troops when she’d gone after the Pentagon for failing to provide adequate gear for service members. Then she’d turned around and exposed a group of soldiers for looting and running a shakedown racket on Iraqi civilians. She was tough, but fair, they’d agreed. And she was hot.
Tall with pale blond hair, big ice-blue eyes, and sweet curves, she’d fueled the fantasies of every man in uniform, though not Javier’s. Oh, she’d been one sexy mami, but her Nordic good looks and on-camera reserve had been a bit too cold for a man with a Puerto Rican mother and a Scots-Cherokee father. He’d take a woman with the heat of the island in her blood over a Valkyrie like Laura Nilsson any day.
Or so he’d thought until the night he’d met her.
He’d been touring Dubai City on his way home after a long deployment. She’d walked into a hotel bar where he was having a steak and a beer and had sat at a table nearby. He’d recognized her instantly. When two big Russian men had wandered over and started hassling her, he had intervened. It had pissed her off—but it had also gotten her attention.
What had followed was a weekend of the most amazing sex Javier had ever experienced. She might have seemed cool and reserved on the outside, but beneath her skin Laura Nilsson had been pure fire, igniting Javier’s blood, sending him into a kind of sexual meltdown, the two of them risking not only their careers, but also a flogging and prison time to be together. Unmarried sex was illegal in Dubai, even for foreigners.
If he closed his eyes, he could still taste her, still feel the softness of her skin, still hear the breathy sound of her cries as she came. She’d been a fantasy come true, more woman than Javier had ever hoped to hold in his arms. He was nothing more than a kid from the South Bronx who’d enlisted in the navy to give some meaning to his life, a simple man who drank beer and played guitar when he wasn’t deployed. She’d been classy, refined, and sexy, all silk and sophistication.
She had blown his mind.
The only thing that had kept Javier from calling her and trying to see her again was their agreement that the weekend came with no strings. Laura had told him flat out that she wasn’t interested in marriage or motherhood. That had been fine with Javier. He already had one divorce under his belt—a hazard of being a frogman—and didn’t want another. Still, he’d flown back to the U.S. hoping they could get together again.
Two months later, she’d been gone.
Her last broadcast had come from a women’s safe house in Islamabad where she’d been reporting on the ongoing epidemic of fatal burnings in Pakistan—hundreds of young women burned alive every year by husbands and in-laws, their excruciating deaths blamed on “stove accidents” and never investigated. One moment she’d been interviewing a young burn victim, and the next the room around her had exploded with AK fire. Her security detail, her cameraman, and the safe house director had all been killed. She’d been dragged fighting and screaming from the building while the abandoned camera continued to broadcast from its tripod.
That had been the summer of 2009.
Javier had been at home in Coronado Beach when it happened. He’d seen the live broadcast, had found himself on his feet, helpless and thousands of miles away. Her screams had ripped him apart. They haunted him still. When Al-Nassar’s group had claimed responsibility for the attack and bragged that they’d decapitated her, there hadn’t been a U.S. serviceman anywhere in the world who hadn’t wanted to send Al-Nassar straight to hell—and that included Javier.
Now Delta Platoon was going to hit that target.
Javier had pushed hard to get his guns into this fight, had done everything he could to make sure Delta Platoon got tasked with this job. To this day, no one knew about his weekend with Laura, and he couldn’t tell them or they would question his ability to handle this operation. Did he want to bring Al-Nassar down? Hell, yeah, he did. For his country and for Laura. And that made him the right man for the job as far as he was concerned.
Canto hijo e la gran puta.
Dirty son of a whore.
“Yeah, he killed her.” Javier met Krasinski’s gaze. “But she had a name, and it wasn’t Baghdad Babe. It was Laura Nilsson. Show her some respect, man.”
She’d been one hell of a journalist, an incredible lover, a smart and beautiful woman. She deserved that much.
Krasinski’s expression was hidden by shadows and by black-and-green face camouflage, but there was regret in his voice. “You got it, senior chief.”
A voice came over the speaker. “Forty-five minutes till drop.”
“Masks on!” Boss, known to the rest of the world as Lt. Morgan O’Connell, shouted out the order, making the motion with his hand.
JG—Lt. Junior Grade Ben Alexander—repeated it, as did Javier, before fastening his O2 mask in place.
The men breathed normally, inhaling one hundred percent oxygen to eliminate the nitrogen from their bloodstreams so that no one would die from the dramatic increase in atmospheric pressure on the way down. This was a HAHO jump—high altitude, high opening. The mountains were too full of insurgents for them to risk the noise of parachutes opening close to the ground.
As the minutes ticked by, Javier ran through the details of the mission in his mind. Al-Nassar knew how to hole up—that much was for damned sure. His lair was built on a plateau with a fifty-foot cliff at its back, elevation giving him a clear one-eighty view of the landscape below. Caves at the base of the cliff provided Al-Nassar a handy place to stash weapons, ammo, explosives, heroin—and men. They also gave him a place to hide should he see anyone headed his way.
That was why Delta Platoon wasn’t going to drive up and ring the doorbell.
They were being dropped over a mountain valley west of Parachinar about 3.5 clicks from Al-Nassar’s hideout. They would hike their way from the DZ to the cliffs. There, the Boss’s squad would divide into two elements. He, Howe, Force, and Murphy, the platoon sniper, would remain atop the cliffs with suppressed Mk12s, an FN M249 Para for suppressive fire, and a M72A2 LAW grenade launcher to watch the men’s six, while the rest of the platoon would fast-rope down to the compound. JG would take the caves with LeBlanc, Johnson, and Grimshaw, setting charges to demolish any ordnance they found, while Javier infiltrated the compound with his squad—Krasinski, Ross, Zimmerman, Salisbury, Wilson, Reeves, Desprez. When Al-Nassar was in custody and the compound was secure, three modified CH-47D Chinook helos would swoop in for extract. As they lifted off, JG would blow the caves to hell.
Of course, they weren’t being sent up against a high-value target like this without backup firepower and air support. They’d be in touch with their tactical operations center, or TOC, throughout the night. A drone with thermal/infrared capability would patrol the sky above the job site, giving them a bird’s-eye view of the action. If things got messy, two Marine Special Operations Teams—MSOTs—would arrive in Black Hawks to make them messier.
Provided nothing went wrong, it would be a piece of cake.
Forty minutes later, a voice came over the speaker. “Two minutes to drop!”
The men switched from the prebreathers to their bottled O2, careful not to inhale in the transition. Then both squads got to their feet, boots thudding dully against the steel plating, each of them carrying more than a hundred pounds of gear on his back. With an efficiency born of constant training, each checked his own gear and that of the man in front of him. They’d already passed a jumpmaster inspection, but in their line of work there was no such thing as being too prepared, too careful.
The ramp and door began to open, and icy, thin air rushed in. The two sticks of SEALs moved toward the yawning exit, waiting for the signal to jump. Javier touched a gloved hand to the chest pocket that held the photograph of his brother Yadiel that he carried with him on every mission.