From New York Times Bestselling Author Monica McCarty comes the first book in her new Lost Platoon series.
An excerpt from the prologue and chapter one ....
Barents Sea, about seven hundred miles off the north coast of Norway, May 25, 1800 hours
SEALs liked to say the only easy day was yesterday. Well, Brian Murphy wished it could hurry up and get to tomorrow because today fucking sucked.
Another sharp roll of the sea sent him sideways, and he had to fight to hold on to his seat—and his lunch.
Christ, he hated this. Even a hundred feet down, the storm was making itself felt, and it was getting worse. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on. One more sudden lurch and the long-fought battle with the contents of his stomach was going to be over. In a big, all-over-the-floor kind of way that he would never live down.
Suddenly, a sharp grating sound interrupted the constant hum. Keyed as he was to every little sound, he flinched.
“What was that?” Special Warfare Operator First Class John Donovan said in an anxious voice—which should have been Brian’s first clue. “Oh God, we’re all going to die!”
The words elicited their intended reaction and Brian paled, causing Donovan to burst into laughter. He was joined by the others close enough to have heard him. Basically the entire sub.
Donovan was just fucking with him. Brian relaxed—marginally.
“You’re looking a little nervous, MIT.” Donovan hadn’t stopped grinning and his teeth flashed white in the dim, battery-saving light of the sub as he performed last-minute adjustments on his mask. “The government won’t be too happy if you puke all over its twenty-million-dollar new baby.”
Brian, the newest member of the not officially acknowledged SEAL Team Nine, wiped the cold sweat from his brow and forced his hands to steady as he made adjustments to his own mask, but the rapid beat of his heart gave him away.
He was nervous. Who the hell wouldn’t be? After almost two and a half years of training, it was finally the real thing, and he was anxious to prove himself. Which was damned hard to do when he’d been gritting his teeth to fight off nausea the entire ride.
Of course his first op had to be in a submersible—in a storm, no less.
He didn’t care if Proteus II was the height of American stealth submersible dual-mode technology with all fourteen members of the platoon seated in relative comfort—relative dry comfort, that is, as opposed to previous “wet” submersibles that had required them to be submerged in water for the ride—he hated subs.
He hated the cramped conditions, the dank, reduced-oxygen air, the creaking as the pressure of the water closed in around them—he repressed a shudder—and most of all the feeling of being locked in a tin (or in this case fiberglass) can. Buried alive. For fifteen hours. In an Arctic storm.
But leave it to Donovan to find his weakness. They all had them. Being a SEAL didn’t mean you weren’t afraid of anything, it meant you knew how to control the fear and could still perform at the highest, most elite level under extreme conditions. He’d been handpicked for this op not because of his Physical Screening Test scores—some of the highest ever posted—but because of his fluency in Slavic languages, and he wasn’t going to do anything to fuck it up. Sub or no sub. But give him a nice high-altitude jump infil from a plane any day of the week.
Navy SEALs were supposed to be as at home in the water as they were on land. And he was. A sub wasn’t either of them.
But if he didn’t want to hear about being the SEAL who was scared of subs for the rest of his career, he’d better get himself under control. MIT was a bad enough code name for someone who’d gone to Caltech. But he was damned sure Donovan could come up with something much worse. He’d heard of one guy who’d thrown up on his first mission, and it had taken him ten years to lose the name “Cookie.” As in toss yours.
“My stomach is hurting,” Brian admitted. He knew better than to deny, but he could try to deflect. “No more Mexican food in Norway. Those fish tacos sounded a hell of a lot better than they went down.”
As a fellow Californian, Donovan winced in sympathy and shook his head. “It’s a siren’s call, FNG.” Fucking New Guy—his other nickname. Why couldn’t it be good ol’ Murph? “The promise of a burrito or taco is hard to resist, but you’ll learn. Nothing will kill your optimism like Mexican food in Europe. They try, God love ’em, but it’s never quite right.”
“Jesus Christ, don’t get him started on Mexican food,” Senior Chief Dean Baylor interjected with a glare directed at Brian. “I’m tired of his constant moaning. You’d think it was all he could eat.”
“You might understand if you came from a state where they actually knew how to make it. Ranch beans and cheese sauce?” Donovan shuddered dramatically. “I think I’ll be sick here along with FNG.”
Actually the fucking new guy wasn’t feeling so sick anymore. Brian wondered if that had been Donovan’s intention. Lightening the mood seemed to be the role he’d carved out in the fourteen-member platoon. Retiarius Platoon. Named for the gladiators who killed with a net and a trident—the SEAL insignia.
Yet here they were, on their way to undertake one of the most difficult ops any SEAL team had ever attempted—an operation that put the “fuck up and you die” in “no fail”—and they were talking about Mexican food.
“It’s queso, asshole,” Senior Chief Baylor said. “And Tex-Mex isn’t Mexican. It’s a Texan improvement.”
Brian looked at Donovan in horror, but he wasn’t going to be the one to tell the last-person-you-want-to-piss-off senior chief that he was out of his ever-loving mind.
Another voice popped in from farther down the hull. “Those are fighting words where I come from, Tex.”
Brian recognized the voice of Michael Ruiz, the third Californian in the fourteen-man platoon, although he might as well have been from another galaxy. The ganglands of South Central LA were light-years away from Pasadena where Brian had grown up, though their houses were probably no more than twenty miles apart. Brian didn’t know whether Ruiz had actually been in a gang, but he looked mean enough and had the ink on his arms to make it likely.
“My Winkler can take on your switchblade anytime, Miggy,” the senior chief said.
The rest of the team laughed.
“You guys are a bunch of racist assholes,” Ruiz said with a disgusted shake of his head. “Except for you, White,” he said to the assistant platoon commander, Lieutenant Charles White III, aka Charles “Not” White.
“Technically I’m half a racist asshole, Miggy. My mom was as white as Hart over there. And I like both Mexican and Tex-Mex.”
Only in the locker room atmosphere of the Teams could you get a way with needling a Mexican guy for his “switchblade,” or calling him Miguel when his name was actually Michael, or nicknaming a black guy—half black guy—with the last name of White “Not.” But when you trusted that guy with your life on almost a daily basis—and vice versa—race was just one more potential topic to give someone shit about.
Senior Chief Baylor and Ruiz had been best friends for years, but the entire platoon was as tight as brothers. They were the only family most of them had. That was part of why they’d been handpicked for Team Nine. Men without families could deploy on covert ops without anyone asking questions.
Donovan leaned closer to him as if he meant to whisper, but he intended for the entire sub to hear him. “They’re both delusional. I don’t know what White’s excuse is, but Baylor is from Texas. They still think they’re a separate country down there.”
The senior chief just lifted an eyebrow. “This from the guy from the People’s Republic of Berkeley?”
Donovan just beamed that shit-eating grin of his. “Free love, brother.”
Senior Chief Baylor muttered a curse and shook his head. But Brian thought there might be the barest hint of a smile hovering around his mouth. It was hard to tell with all the dive gear. Although Brian suspected it would be hard to tell even without it.
Dean Baylor epitomized the old navy slang of a sea dog. In his case, a bulldog. The senior chief was the most experienced man in the platoon and the leader to the enlisted men. He was a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails veteran sailor in the old-fashioned sense of the job who always seemed to have the answer—most of the time before the question had been asked. Even his unimaginative, vanilla “Tex” code name made sense—no one would dare give him a shitty code name like Cookie. He was feared, loved, and respected; the men would follow him anywhere.
“You get too much of that as it is, Dynomite.”
Dynomite—not Dynamite. Brian had erroneously assumed Donovan’s code name had come from his skill with explosives. But it actually came from the TV character Kid Dyn-o-Mite portrayed by Jimmie Walker in Good Times. “Good times” were what Donovan showed women. Apparently lots of them. With the laid-back California surfer boy thing he had going—Brian had never seen so many ugly-assed Hawaiian shirts in his life—he probably had them lining up. But he wasn’t a surfer. Donovan had been a star water polo player at the University of Southern California, recruited by the SEALs after graduation.
“I told you he was delusional, MIT,” Donovan replied. “It isn’t possible to get too much. I’m sure they taught you that in one of your physics classes? There has to be some kind of natural law for that. Newton’s law of attraction maybe?”
“It’s the Law of Universal Gravitation, asshole,” the senior chief said. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Ivy League?”
Brian nodded but didn’t take the bait. He wasn’t going to point out that MIT—the school he hadn’t even gone to—wasn’t in the Ivy League. Instead he nodded and tried not to shudder at the thought of being called Ivy for ten years.
Donovan just smiled and shrugged. “Same difference. It all ends the same way: with me having a good time.”
Brian laughed, as did the senior chief. At least he thought the gruff grunt was a laugh.
Unlike the enlisted men in the regular forces, most SEALs were college educated, but Brian was still surprised to have Newton make his way into a conversation. Especially since he knew that the senior chief had only spent a couple of years at a junior college. But Brian had learned early on that the distinction between college-educated SEALs and non-college-educated SEALs was a piece of paper.
“Five minutes to game time, boys. Be ready.” The voice of Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor stopped the ribbing cold.
Brian’s sub-related nausea and nervous energy were forgotten as he, like each of the other thirteen men, went into battle mode and began the final preparations for their infil.
The platoon was calm, methodical, and cool. No one watching would ever guess the importance of the mission—code name Operation White Night—that they were about to embark on. It looked like just another day at the office. If going to the office could get you killed or start a war if you were caught, that is.
They weren’t just going deep behind enemy lines; they were diving right into a political shit storm without a proverbial paddle.
Donovan seemed to read his mind. He smiled as he lifted his regulator to his mouth. “Welcome to the Teams, kid. Now let’s go see what that crazy motherfucker is up to. And one more thing.” Brian looked up. “Don’t fuck up.”
That was the plan.
What was the worst thing that could happen? Brian winced. Probably not something he should think about right now.
“Hooyah,” Brian said with a nod before putting in his own regulator.
Mother Russia, here we come.
“Take five,” Lieutenant Commander Taylor called out.
Brian’s lungs were on fire as the platoon came to a stop in the small clearing. He immediately reached for a protein bar as he took a long swig from his hydration bladder. Adrenaline had kept him going for the first ten miles, but combined with the long swim in choppy water, the next five had been a struggle. Mile sixteen and he was still waiting for his second wind.
At least the spring storm that had made their swim something akin to moving through swirling concrete hadn’t followed them onto shore. The boggy marshes and melting icy of the Arctic tundra that awaited them at the coast had been bad enough without the addition of precipitation.
He supposed he should be glad it had been a balmy spring day of fifteen rather than the minus-forty it could be in winter. It had warmed up quite a bit from that even as they’d left the reindeer, shrubs, and sickly-looking birch trees of the tundra for the Siberian cedar that surrounded the mountains on the west side of the Polar Urals.
Glancing at his watch, he could see that it was still twenty-five at 2350 hours. By day it might even climb to forty-five. A veritable heat wave in the Komi Republic.
Brian assumed it was just a regular rest stop until he noticed Lieutenant Commander Taylor and the platoon operations officer talking with Ruiz, the lead communicator, aka the radioman or RTO. The terminology might be antiquated—radio telephone operator—but the acronym lived on. The RTO was easily identifiable by the antenna array on his back. The satcom kept him in contact with HQ, and like every other team member he also carried the handheld radio and headset for squad communications. Although each operator on the team had his specialty, unlike many other Special Operations units, SEALs were generalists, not specialists. Each man on the team could step in and do any job if called upon.
The LC didn’t look happy. Which wasn’t saying much. Lieutenant Commander Taylor hadn’t looked happy since he was handed this mission. He’d looked . . . focused. Intense. Determined. As if he’d just been given an impossible task that put his ass on the line. Which pretty much summed it up.
As the platoon commander and officer in charge, he was responsible for the success of the op. And even for the men of Retiarius Platoon, who were called on for the most covert, failure-isn’t-an-option missions, a recon op in Siberian Russia wasn’t going to be easy.
All they had to do was slip past Russia’s sophisticated Arctic Sea defenses of underwater satellites, drones, and robots (check), swim over two miles in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea, and land on a remote coast of Arctic Siberia (the Nenetsia region, for which there was a damned good reason no one had ever heard of it) without being detected (another check), hump twenty miles into the Polar Ural Mountains of the Komi Republic (three-quarters check), and locate an old gulag in the inaccessible wilderness that sat images showed might be being used as a secret weapons facility. Then they got to do it all over again on the way back.
And oh yeah, the whole time operate under the watchful eye of their team skipper back at the base in Hawaii, the top brass at Special Warfare Command Center in Coronado, US Special Operations Command in Tampa, Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, and POTUS—the president of the United States herself.
Thanks to a very powerful and secret new stealth drone that could evade Russia’s sophisticated antidrone technology, they were beaming live right now to the Situation Room in the White House just like the op undertaken by their now famous counterpart DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team Six) in their takedown of bin Laden.
If anything went wrong, they were screwed. Not only would they likely be killed, but only a month after an American fighter plane had gone off course during a training mission and been shot down in Russian-controlled airspace, killing two airmen and nearly starting a war, the Russian president had vowed to declare war on the US if there were any more “accidental” incursions. Unlike with the fighter pilots, however, their presence couldn’t be explained. No one strayed into this part of Siberia by accident.
Although there were plenty of higher-ups in the government who would only be too happy to go to war with Russia and put Ivanov in his place—including the father of one of the pilots killed who happened to be a four-star general in the Joint Chiefs of Staff—President Cartwright wasn’t one of them. After the debacle in Iraq with WMD’s—or rather lack thereof—she wasn’t going to act without proof. Lots of proof. Which was why they were here.
But even if they did find evidence that Russia was up to something, Brian wasn’t convinced that Madam President would have the balls—figuratively speaking—to do anything about it.
For years Dmitri Ivanov had been thumbing his nose at the rest of the world violating airspace, seas, treaties, and just about everything else with impunity. He was like the coworker at the office party who drank too much and everyone stood around watching nervously, hoping he didn’t do something that crossed the line so they’d have to deal with him.
Whether Ivanov would actually go through with his threat of war, Brian didn’t know. But he wouldn’t put it past the crazy bastard. Russia’s economy had been in the shitter for too long, and the people were beginning to rumble.
What strength Russia had was in his military, and Brian suspected there was little Ivanov wouldn’t be willing to do to hold on to power and save face. Even if he eventually lost the war, he could cause the US a lot of damage in the meantime.
And if Ivanov really did have some kind of doomsday weapon as intelligence seemed to suggest? He could blow them all back to the Dark Ages and even the game. It was one way to shift the balance of power.
Yes, Lieutenant Commander Taylor had reason to be worried with so much at stake, but so far everything had proceeded as planned. However, if his expression was any indication as he conferred with Ruiz and Lieutenant White, that was about to change.
Word of what was going on spread Brian’s way in the form of SO3 Travis Hart. In other words, the only other special warfare operator third class other than Brian, and the man who’d been the lowest on the totem pole before he joined. Hart had been the happiest man in the world to see his face.
“We lost Sauron,” Hart said in his thick Mississippi accent, referring to the Sentinel stealth drone nicknamed for the powerful eye in the sky from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Travis was a country boy through and through. He drove a truck, listened to Kenny Chesney, wore nothing but roper boots and Wrangler jeans held up by belts with big, shiny buckles when they weren’t on duty, and had probably held a gun before he could walk. He was also the platoon’s best sniper.
Hart was about as far from Brian’s liberal California upbringing as you could get. Yet there was something instantly likable about his simple “God, Country, Family” beliefs, and he and “Jim Bob” (Travis’s code name) had become surprisingly close in the three weeks since Brian joined the team. Nothing brought men closer than shared pain, and being the FNG on the Teams was all about pain in its many unpleasant forms.
Before they left, Brian had been stuck with a bar bill for three hundred and fifty dollars at Hulas, their favorite local hangout in Honolulu. How nine guys—he was the designated driver until the next poor bastard FNG came along—could drink that much in Coors Light, he didn’t know.
Coors Light was the beverage of choice for most SEALs. So much so that Brian had heard of a team who’d claimed to be the Coors Light Parachuting Team when questioned in bars about the presence of so many big, fit guys hanging out together. Hell, it was better than Chippendales dancers, which Donovan had claimed once—offering Hart up to the ladies to prove it.
But dancing like a stripper and being stuck with the bar bill was all part of the drill. Hazing—like surviving the infamous BUD/S training course—was how you proved you belonged.
“What happened?” Brian asked.
Problems with technology weren’t uncommon with new, top-of-the-line, not-far-from-experimental technology—Team Six wasn’t the only team who got to test out the new toys—and drones were prone to losing communications and occasionally crashing. Brian hoped that wasn’t the case here or someone was going to lose his ass.
Hart shrugged. “Don’t know. Ruiz said it suddenly cut off. They’re on the satcom trying to find out what happened, but the connection is crap.”
The poor radio connection didn’t surprise him. Distance and topography could wreak havoc on even the best communication systems. Even if they weren’t in Siberia, the trees and mountains like this could put them in a black hole.
Five minutes turned into ten as Lieutenant Commander Taylor went over to confer with the senior chief. You would think it would be the other way around, but the dynamic between officers and senior enlisted petty officers, who were often grizzled veterans with the most experience, could be tricky. Especially when both men were stubborn, proud, and natural leaders.
The exchange of words didn’t take long and Senior Chief Baylor came over to relay what had obviously been decided. “Gather up, boys, we’re heading out.”
“Going old school, Tex?” Donovan asked.
“Looks like it,” the senior chief responded with a quirk of his mouth.
“You don’t seem too disappointed by our unexpected complication.”
“Not having some recently graduated Ivy League liberal analyst who’s never seen the outside of a cubicle second-guess the way I scratch my ass? Damned straight.”
The men laughed, but they all knew that despite the freedom from oversight, they also wouldn’t have Sauron to alert them to company in the area.
Brian didn’t let it bother him. Crap always went wrong on ops. It was the one truism you could count on.
For the next four miles they moved as quickly as their night-vision goggles allowed in the thick brush and dense forest. According to Brian’s GPS they were less than a mile away from their target when they stopped again.
He was close enough to Lieutenant Commander Taylor to hear him ask Ruiz, “Anything?”
Ruiz shook his head. “It’s a brick out here. Should I try the sat phone?”
The LC shook his head. “Not unless we need to. We don’t want to risk doing anything that could give us away.”
Although the navy and Naval Special Warfare Command used layers and layers of encryption software, satellite phones—if they could get a signal out here with all the trees and mountains—could be vulnerable.
So no drone and no communications. This was getting better and better. That they were light on comms gear already was due both to the long swim and hike in difficult terrain where every ounce counted, and to wanting to minimize any signals that might give them away.
But communications or no communications, it wasn’t as if command could do anything if there was trouble. There weren’t going to be any Blackhawks coming to get them. They were the cavalry.
Lieutenant Commander Taylor nodded as if he’d planned for the setback. He probably had. SEAL commanders had contingencies for contingencies. “Looks like we’re on our own. I’m sure some of you are going to be disappointed not to be seeing yourselves replayed over and over on the screen later.” He sent a knowing look in Donovan’s direction.
“Ah, hell, you mean I trimmed up for nothing?” Donovan said, tugging at the short beard he wore.
“Mix in a mirror next time,” Brandon Blake—Donovan’s best friend and former BUD/S buddy—interjected. “You look like a caveman.”
Long hair and beards (aka “relaxed grooming standards”) were a theme for men in special mission units like Team Nine. It helped them blend for clandestine ops.
“Yeah, well, Hollywood and Geico commercials will have to wait,” Lieutenant Commander Taylor said dryly. He looked back at the men. “We go in slow and quiet—go dark on comms. Donovan and Blake will do a quick recon, and if it looks clear, we’ll proceed as planned. Any questions?”
Silence. They’d all been well briefed. When they reached the camp, they were to break off into two squads. Navy Squad under the command of Lieutenant White would investigate the dilapidated wooden barracks building that had housed the workers sixty-odd years ago, while Gold Squad under the command of Lieutenant Commander Taylor would investigate the heavily fortified concrete command building and attached mess hall, where most of the satellite activity had been detected.
Navy and Gold. The LC had obviously gone to Annapolis.
Brian had assumed that Senior Chief Baylor would go with Lieutenant White, as White was the junior officer, but the senior chief was going with the lieutenant commander—as was Brian. That probably wasn’t a coincidence.
But if the senior chief resented having to watch over the FNG, he didn’t show it. Although showing emotion wasn’t exactly something Senior Chief Baylor seemed to do a lot of. Stony was putting it mildly.
The platoon started forward, moving much slower this time and communicating only when necessary by hand gestures. No talking wasn’t unusual, but it was rare they didn’t use sounds—tics, tweets, or others—to communicate. The LC wasn’t taking any chances.
About a half mile from target, they intersected with the dirt “road” and the rusted train tracks that had once connected this camp to Vorkuta, the coal-mining town that had been built around one of Russia’s most notorious gulags, Vorkutlag, and its hundred and thirty-two subcamps.
Overgrown with brush and trees, the muddy surface marked by deep potholes that were filled with water and enormous rocks, the road looked as though it hadn’t been used since the camp was abandoned in the 19‘60s. It would have taken a tank to go through here. But one hadn’t. Tree limbs would have been broken, and there would have been some sign of tracks in all that mud.
Brian saw the two officers exchange a glance. There was no other visible road into the camp. They’d thought that when they got close enough and were able to look under the trees blocking the sat images, this one would show evidence of tracks.
Brian hoped to hell this wasn’t another Iraq WMD goat fuck, but the hairs on his arms were buzzing.
Donovan and Blake had gone ahead to scout. They returned as the rest of the platoon reached the outskirts of the camp and gave the all-clear sign.
Lieutenant Commander Taylor gestured forward with his hand and then held up two fingers. The two seven-man squads broke apart. Lieutenant White and the rest of Navy Squad skirted the camp to the west toward the barracks. Brian followed the lieutenant commander and the senior chief east to the former command center. In addition to the two leaders and Brian, Gold Squad consisted of Donovan, Ruiz, Hart, and Steve “Dolph” Spivak.
Spivak’s nickname had been easy to figure out. He was a beast. The physical specimen in a team of guys in top condition, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Dolph Lundgren, the actor who’d played the Russian foe of Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movies.
Like Brian, Spivak spoke a handful of Slavic languages. But when Brian had tried to talk to him in Russian, Spivak turned that icy blue gaze on him and told him—in English—that when he wanted to practice he’d find his Ukrainian grandmother, but in the Teams they spoke “fucking red, white, and blue American.”
Roger that. Brian wasn’t dumb enough to comment on “American.” He knew a setup when he heard one.
Brian’s senses flared and locked in that position as they moved toward their entry point. Christ, it was quiet. Too quiet. There was an eerie stillness to the air. It was the dead of night, but surely there should be some sound of animals? Birds? Leaves rustling?
The hair at the back of his neck stood on edge. His pulse quickened as he scanned the area in front of him and the shadowy contours of the camp buildings began to take shape.
Even through the lenses of his night-vision goggles, they loomed hauntingly before them like a concrete ghost town, a lifeless, austere relic of bleak Communist Russia. Hundreds of these forced labor camps had sprung up in the Stalin years—four hundred and seventy-six by one count.
God, what must it have been like to be sent here? Jail was bad enough, but being a prisoner in a Siberian gulag took bad to new levels.
Although being imprisoned in Russia probably wasn’t something he should think about right now.
Brian noticed Ruiz kneel down and point to a mark in the ground. How the hell had he seen that at night? It looked to be a partial imprint from the heel of a boot. Maybe this wasn’t as much of a ghost town as it seemed.
His heart pounded a little harder and the finger on the trigger of his AR-15 grew a little more twitchy.
They stopped at a padlocked gate in the rusty fence that surrounded the place. Spivak, the teams’ breacher, came forward and pulled a pair of bolt cutters from his pack. One squeeze and they were in.
It was almost too easy.
Brian was the fifth man through the gate, and he fought the urge to turn back around. There was something about this place that didn’t sit right with him. Was it the spirit of the men who’d lived hopeless lives and died here under the brutal yoke of Communist Russia, or was it something else?
They walked in a wide V with Donovan on point, heading across the yard toward the concrete building about fifty yards ahead of them that intel had identified as the former command headquarters.
Brian was staying close to Senior Chief Baylor as he’d been instructed, when the other man suddenly held up his hand and stopped. The men behind them stopped as well, with the lieutenant commander giving the senior chief a look that was easy to read. “What the hell are we stopping for?”
It was serious enough for Senior Chief Baylor to break the silence. In a low voice he said, “I thought I saw something. A flash in the distance.” He pointed ahead of them to the south.
The men close enough to hear turned to look in the same direction, but Brian felt a shiver across the back of his neck and looked behind him instead.
Shouldn’t the gate have squeaked when they opened it?
He turned around and retraced a few steps, scanning back and forth with his gun as well as his eyes. He released the finger on the trigger long enough to reach out and touch the hinges of the gate. Even with his gloves, he could feel the unmistakable slick of oil.
Someone had been here recently.
What were they missing? If no one had used the road . . .
He looked down at the ground. All those World War II documentaries he’d watched on TV might have just paid off.
He didn’t realize the others were watching him. “What is it?” Lieutenant Commander Taylor asked.
“This was a mining camp, right? They would have had tunnels.”
Hitler had had miles of them.
The senior chief swore. “I don’t like this,” he said. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
For once the lieutenant commander looked inclined to agree with him. He tried to contact the other squad using the radios, but no one responded. He cursed and then said to Miggy, “Try the phone.”
While Ruiz tried to make contact with the sat phone, Brian was surprised to see Lieutenant Commander Taylor pull out what looked to be a small personal sat phone. Brian recalled hearing that the LC had come from big money—one of those old families back East. He guessed so.
The lieutenant commander turned it on and tried to make a call, but it didn’t appear to be getting a signal, either. Suddenly he looked at the screen, frowned, and used his thumb to hit a button. Whatever he saw there caused his face to lose color. The intense focus and determination slipped. If a look could say “Oh fuck,” his did.
“We need to get out of here. Now.”
“What’s going on?” the senior chief asked.
“For once just follow a fucking command, Baylor!”
The LC’s loss of control seemed to even surprise the senior chief.
“Fuck. Everything’s dead,” Ruiz said. “We’re being barrage-jammed.”
Was it precautionary security to hide something going on here or did someone know they were here? Either way it wasn’t good. Barrage-jamming was unusual, as it knocked out a broad range of radio signals of everyone in the area.
Lieutenant Commander Taylor didn’t seem surprised, but his expression seemed to turn even more grim. Whatever he’d seen on that phone wasn’t good.
“I’ll go find them,” Brian volunteered.
“I’ll go with him,” the senior chief added.
“No one’s going anywhere,” Lieutenant Commander Taylor said angrily. “Abort,” he shouted for everyone to hear. “Now!”
Senior Chief Baylor rounded on him in disbelief. “What do you mean? We can’t just leave them!”
The LC seemed to snap. “It’s a trap. We’re sitting ducks. It may already be too late, but if I have a chance to save some of my men, I have a responsibility—”
“So do I.” Before the other officer could stop him, the senior chief shot off toward the barracks.
Instinctively Brian followed him.
He heard Lieutenant Commander Taylor swear and shout at them to stop, but they both kept running. He saw the senior chief go wide left, obviously targeting the front of the building, but Brian saw something move in one of the windows toward the rear and went right. It looked like a light of some kind.
He’d almost reached the door when a shout from behind stopped him in his tracks. “Get down!”
He turned to see the senior chief running toward him. “Incoming!”
Laser guidance. That was the light.
“Don’t fuck up.”
Shit. Too late.
The world exploded in fire. White-hot pain shot up and down his body from head to toe. And then, blissfully, everything went dark.
Two months later
Annie Henderson definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Or Louisiana, for that matter. Edge of the world was more like it.
Seated in the guest house pub (or more accurately, the pub with a few rooms above it) in the small seaport village on the Isle of Lewis—at least she thought it was the Isle of Lewis, but it could be Harris, as the two islands were apparently connected—after three flights, including a harrowing, white-knuckled forty-five-minute ride from hell in a plane not much larger than a bathtub, Annie was feeling a long way from home and distinctly out of her comfort zone.
But that was good, right? Doing something important and making a difference couldn’t be done from her living room couch by getting upset with what she saw on TV. She had to get out there. Do something.
“It will be an adventure,” her boyfriend, Julien, had assured her. “Don’t you want to help? Do you want to see more dead dolphins and seabirds covered in oil?”
The memories brought her up sharp. Of course she didn’t. What she’d seen on the Louisiana shoreline after the BP oil disaster had moved her so deeply it had changed her life. The wide-eyed Tulane freshman who thought she wanted to be a veterinarian had switched her major to environmental science, and after graduating pursued a PhD in marine ecology. When Annie hadn’t been studying, most of her free time was devoted to the ongoing cleanup effort and the attempt to return the local habitat to its natural state.
She never wanted to see anything happen like that again. Which was why she was here. Although initially when Julien and his friends announced plans to go to Scotland to join a protest against North Sea Offshore Drilling’s exploratory drilling west of the Scottish Hebrides, Annie had refused. Activism wasn’t new to her, but it wasn’t like her to follow a man she’d known only a short time four thousand miles away from home to a place she’d never heard of before.
But after Julien had shown her pictures of the white-sand beaches of Eriskay, the rocky promontories and seashores of Lewis, and giant granite rock outpost in the open waters of the North Atlantic such as Rockall and Stac Lee near St Kilda that served as nesting places for fulmars, gannets, and other seabirds, she knew she wouldn’t be able to enjoy the vacation she’d planned to visit her mother in Key West. So she’d thrown caution to the wind and joined her new boyfriend and his friends.
Just because so far her “adventure” wasn’t exactly what she’d expected didn’t mean she should overreact. She hadn’t made a mistake in coming. So what if she felt a little bit like Dorothy wondering how the heck she’d gotten here? Scotland wasn’t Oz and Jean Paul La Roche wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West—even if right now they both kind of seemed that way.
She supposed she couldn’t really blame the islanders for not holding out the welcome mat to the activists who’d descended en mass to the remote island. Oil brought jobs, and the islanders considered the drilling a local matter. The activists were outsiders—who were they to interfere? But Annie hadn’t expected to feel quite so . . . conspicuous. Which was a nicer way of saying pariah. Her group stuck out even in the height of the summer tourist season. The dour, unsmiling locals had turned to stare at them as they entered the bar, and although they’d eventually turned away, it still felt as if their eyes were on her.
But it wasn’t just the locals. The man whom Julien had been so excited for her to meet, his mentor, and the person he spoke of with such reverence she’d half expected the pope to walk in, had been a shock. She didn’t know Jean Paul well enough to dislike him, but her first impression of a weasel or a ferret hadn’t improved any in the two hours since they were introduced. “Bad vibe” was an understatement.
She also didn’t like how he was staring at her. It was as if he was sizing her up for something. Coldly. Mercenarily. In a way that a pimp might size up a prostitute.
It made her uneasy. He made her uneasy.
Julien Bernard, the French graduate student who’d swept her off her feet when she met him two months ago, seemed to have picked up his former teacher’s disapproval as well. He seemed to be trying to “sell” her to Jean Paul by singing her praises. If he mentioned her “brilliant” PhD dissertation—which was the last thing she wanted to talk about after just defending it—one more time . . .
On cue, Julien said, “Did Annie tell you about her research—”
Annie looked around for a distraction—any distraction—and her eye caught on the headline of a newspaper left behind by the prior occupants of the wooden booth. “Look at this,” she said, holding it up and cutting him off. “The story has made it across the pond.” Did people still say that? She started to read from the article, “The Lost Platoon. Like Rome’s famous lost Ninth Legion, the secret SEAL Team Nine has disappeared into thin air.” Annie put the paper back down on the table. Allegedly the navy didn’t have a SEAL Team Nine, although suspiciously they acknowledged the existence of every other number from one to ten. “I wonder what happened to them.”
“Who cares?” Julien said. He gave her that charming and oh-so-French shrug and raising of the brows that made him look even more like his countryman, the actor Olivier Martinez. She’d always thought Halle Barry’s ex was incredibly sexy and could admit that that might have been what initially had caught her eye at the fund-raiser a couple of months ago. But it had been their shared passion for the environment and horror at the devastation wrought on the Louisiana coastline after the disaster that forged the real bond between them.
“You shouldn’t read that trash, ma belle. It’s all lies and gossip.”
At least it was entertaining. Which was more than she could say about the independent newspapers and political publications that he and his friends devoured. Annie did enough scholarly reading for her research; she didn’t need it for her pleasure reading, too.
Although Julien’s European charm and modern-day beatnik intellectualism were what had drawn her to him—she’d never met anyone who seemed to know so much about everything—he could definitely be a cultural snob sometimes.
She couldn’t help teasing him a little. “I don’t know.” She flipped the paper back to the front. “The Scottish Daily News looks pretty good to me. And they have lots of pictures that make it so much easier to follow along.”
Only Julien realized she wasn’t serious. The others at the table looked alternatively appalled and embarrassed—except for Jean Paul. He looked . . . wicked.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”
Maybe if she tried imagining him with a green face and a pointy hat—he already had the long nose and beady eyes—she would stop thinking about far more nefarious bad guys from Mafia and cartel movies.
No luck. At least a handful of years older than the rest of them who were all in their mid-twenties, Jean Paul looked like a villain right out of a mob movie, even down to the slicked-back hair, mole, leather jacket, and gold chains.
Men shouldn’t wear bracelets. It should be a rule.
As for the others at the booth, she didn’t really know any of them that well. She’d met Marie, Claude, and Sergio at Julien’s apartment in New Orleans many times before they’d all traveled to Scotland together, but they’d never really welcomed her into their cabal. They weren’t rude or unfriendly, just not inclusive. She took it to be a foreign thing, as they were all were international graduate students like Julien, who was also a teaching fellow at the University of New Orleans.
Despite her eight years at Tulane, she hadn’t held that against him for too long.
Julien smiled and shook his head, reaching for her hand to bring it to his mouth. “Forgive me. I was being a little condescending, wasn’t I?”
She gave him a look that said, You think?
He laughed and picked up the paper. “Very well. We will discuss these missing soldiers.”
“SEALs,” she corrected, and then explained at his befuddled expression. “Soldiers are army. In the navy it’s sailor, but SEALs are their own breed.”
“Well, with any luck your SEALs are at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.”
Annie knew that Julien had strong feelings about the US military—some of which she shared—but it wasn’t like him to be so bloodthirsty. She frowned, noticing him sharing a look with Jean Paul. Was that it? Was he trying to impress the other man?
“Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?” she asked him.
Julien would have responded, but Jean Paul spoke first. “Harsh? I’d say it’s justice. SEALs are nothing more than hired killers. Just because the government is their employer does not excuse what they do.” He gave her a pitying look—as if she were either the most naive woman in the world or the most stupid. “Do not tell me you approve of their methods or the shadow wars that they fight? I thought Julien said you went with him to the recent rally to protest military action in Russia after your fighter pilots were caught spying.”
Allegedly spying. Although the “accidentally straying off course” excuse had sounded a little suspect to her as well. The incident had nearly caused war to break out between America and Russia—the situation was still precarious. It was a game of nuclear jeopardy with the two players ready to pounce on the button.
“She did,” Julien said, immediately jumping to her defense.
Though she knew the impulse had been well-intentioned, she didn’t need Julien or anyone else to speak for her. She wasn’t going to let his friend intimidate her. As she didn’t have a bucket of water—the thought made one side of her mouth curve—she looked Jean Paul right in his mobster hit man eyes. “Just because I do not want to see us embroiled in another war does not mean I want to see innocent men killed.”
Jean Paul smiled with so much condescension she was amazed he wasn’t choking on it. Or maybe that was just her wishful thinking.
“I assure you that if there is any truth to that reporter’s story, those men are not innocent. What do you think they were doing when they ‘disappeared’? If it was legitimate, why would your government keep silent? Perhaps they do not acknowledge these men because doing so would expose their illegal activity?”
He had a point, but that didn’t mean that American servicemen should be the ones to pay the price for the government’s failures. “I do not like the shadow wars being fought by our Special Forces in many of the hot spots around the world any more than you do, but that’s because I don’t want to see any more of our servicemen who think they are doing the right thing and are only following orders killed or destroyed by war and a government that has turned them into highly skilled machines who can’t adjust to real life when they return. The psychological toll it takes on them is horrible. War is all these men know how to do. Special Forces like SEALs only have it worse.”
She didn’t realize how passionately—and loudly—she was speaking until she finished and realized that more than just the people at her booth were staring at her.
So much for avoiding the “Loud American” cliché.
She felt the heat of a blush stain her cheeks. Pushing the painful memories of her father away, she filled the uncomfortable silence with a jest. “Anyway, who knows? Maybe Geraldo will have a TV special and get to the bottom of it.”
Unfortunately she forgot that her audience was too young and not American, and her attempt at humor was totally lost in translation.
Her ever-gallant boyfriend tried to help her out. “Geraldo?” He picked up the paper. “But I believe the reporter’s name is Brittany Blake.”
She shook her head, deciding it wasn’t worth explaining the overly hyped TV special on the “secret” vaults of Al Capone that were opened live and contained only a couple of empty bottles. Her father used to joke about it.
In the days when he knew how to laugh.
“It was a bad joke about conspiracy theories,” she said. “Forget it.”
“Ah!” He laughed belatedly.
“You speak very passionately on the subject,” Jean Paul said perceptively.
Oddly he seemed to approve. Not that she cared. Although for Julien’s sake she wished she could like his friend. But she didn’t. She’d felt as if a black cloud had descended over them since he arrived.
In response Annie gave a Gallic shrug that a French-speaking Belgian such as Jean Paul should understand. It was none of his business. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I will find the ladies’ room.”
Making a quick escape, she heard Julien explain behind her, “WC.”
She’d forgotten that Jean Paul hadn’t spent much time in America. She’d learned from Julien that “bathroom” and “ladies’ room” didn’t translate well in Europe.
For a Tuesday night the pub was packed, and Annie had to “excuse me” her way through the crowd of men in front of the bar—there were very few women—as she made her way to the “toilet.” Given the number of locals, she assumed it was a favorite hangout. Although from what she’d seen of the town, the Harbour (with a u) Bar & Guest House probably didn’t have a lot of competition.
She had nearly made it past the long, glossy wooden bar lined with taps of ales and ciders, when the door that she’d been about to go through opened, and she had to step back to avoid being hit. Unfortunately she stumbled over someone’s foot and knocked into—nearly onto—a man who was seated at the end of the bar.
Instinctively she reached out to catch herself before she fell on his lap. One of her hands found his leg, and the other . . .
Wasn’t gripping rock-hard muscle.
“Oof.” The grunt he made gave the location away. Even through the denim of his jeans, she could feel the unmistakable solid bulge of something else. She pulled her hand back as if it—he—were on fire.
Or maybe that was just her. Her cheeks flamed with mortified heat as she hurried to apologize. “I’m so sorry! I tripped and didn’t see . . .”
The man looked up from his hunched position over his beer, and the cold, steely blue eyes that met hers from beneath the edge of his faded blue cap cut off her breath like a sharp, icy wind.
Her first thought was how the hell had she missed him? Her second was What did I do?
He was a big guy. Tall—even with him seated on a stool, she still had to look up to meet his gaze—and broad-shouldered, he wore an oversize sweatshirt and puffy down vest that, had she not felt the evidence to the contrary, she might have thought hid a little extra bulk. But that bulk wasn’t fat; it was all muscle.
The guy was built like a tank. Or maybe a prizefighter. Beneath the heavy beard—what was with those anyway?—the face that met hers had the tough, pugnacious masculinity of a Tom Hardy or Channing Tatum. Sexy as hell, but maybe a little too much to handle.
She liked men a little softer. And there was nothing soft about this guy. Not just his body, but the way he was looking at her. It might be the middle of summer, but the iciness emitting from those striking blue eyes made it feel like the dark days of December.
Shiver. She managed not to do that, instead giving him a friendly smile. “I’m sorry again. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
Which hardly seemed possible, as he was about twice her size.
She expected an immediate denial, a few assurances that it was nothing, and maybe even a return smile. That was what would have happened in any bar in America. In the South it would have been given with a lazy drawl, a charming twinkle, and no doubt a ma’am or darlin’ or two. In New Orleans, it would be “cher” or, as it was pronounced, “sha.”
What she got was a shake of the head and a gruff grunt that she assumed was meant to serve as his acknowledgment, before he turned sharply around to hunch back over his beer.
She stood there for a moment staring at the broad back, hunched shoulders, and straight—maybe a little shaggy—dirty blond hair beneath the faded powder blue cap.
What in the world?
She shook her head at his rudeness. Maybe this was Oz after all.
(Excerpt courtesy of Berkley Publishing a division of Penguin Random House)
End of Excerpt
Learn more about the books in the The Lost Platoon Series »
See the other books in this series »