MAY 28, 1500 HOURS
“What are we gonna do now, sir?”
It was Travis Hart who posed the question, but there were five gazes pinned on Scott, waiting for his response. Scott was the officer in charge. The leader. The one who was going to get them out of this shit creek without the proverbial paddle. FUBAR, the age-old military acronym for “fucked up beyond all recognition,” was putting it mildly.
They were lucky to be alive. Even if it didn’t feel that way. Instinctively, his hand went to the circle of metal in the chest pocket of the high-tech tactical black uniform they wore for clandestine missions. He didn’t even know why he’d brought it with him. An engagement ring wasn’t exactly something you carried on a mission, like a blowout kit or extra ammo. A good luck charm, maybe? If so, it had worked.
For six of them.
The platoon had been on a highly covert, no-footprint recon mission to Russia in search of doomsday weapons that broke God-knew-how-many laws and treaties. It had seen over half their team killed in a missile strike that would have killed all of them if the girlfriend Scott wasn’t supposed to have hadn’t warned them of the trap. Six of them had survived the missile strike with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now they had to find their way out of BF Russia without letting anyone know they were alive—good guys or bad—because they didn’t know whom to trust.
Just another day at the office for SEAL Team Nine.
After fifteen years in service, Scott should have been ready for something like this. First he’d had four years as a midshipman at the Naval Academy—his last year as brigade commander. That had been followed by twenty-four of the most miserable weeks of his life in BUD/S, three weeks of jump school, and twenty-six more slightly less hellish weeks of SEAL Qualification Training. Add another two years of training, workups, and overseas deployments with Team One as a JG (lieutenant junior grade), six months of sniper school, and finally, after another two-year tour, he’d had the brutal six-month selection process that had gotten him into the tier-one (aka highest level Special Mission Unit) SEAL team.
Scott had jumped from airplanes at high altitudes too many times to count, run until his feet were bloody stumps, swum in icy-cold water until he thought his fingers and other more important appendages might fall off, gone without sleep and food for too many hours to remember, been deployed to more shit hole corners of this world than anyone in their right mind would want to see, and led hundreds of successful missions in the past five years as lieutenant (as of a few months ago as lieutenant commander) of one of America’s most elite special operations units. He’d been shot at, stabbed, ambushed—he’d even gone down in a helicopter once. Along the way he’d picked up two Bronze Stars for valor, a Purple Heart, and enough ribbons and commendation medals to fill out the jacket pocket of his dress blues.
But none of his qualifications or years of training and experience had prepared him for how to get six military-aged men—who even with longer hair and beards weren’t going to pass for locals—from an isolated coal-mining city north of the Arctic Circle to safety a few thousand miles away, without travel documents, supplies, or anyone to call for help. Hell, they didn’t even have phones to make that call right now. They’d tossed everything electronic they had into the fiery explosion that had killed their eight teammates. Ghosts couldn’t leave electronic footprints, and they didn’t want anyone to be able to track them.
It was almost axiomatic that SEAL commanders always had a plan. They had backup plans for their backup plans. But possibly being betrayed by someone on the inside wasn’t exactly covered in SEAL Officer 101, and Scott was in full-on improvise mode here.
As he was pretty sure “no fucking clue” was not what these guys needed or wanted to hear right now, Scott knew he’d better figure it out fast. He’d gotten them this far, through two days of some of what had to be the most inhospitable, bug-infested countryside known to man. He’d get them through the rest. Challenge was what he excelled at. It was what had drawn him to be a SEAL, and then to the elite echelons of the tier-one Team Nine.
They all had a love of challenge in common—officer and enlisted. These guys could handle anything he threw at them. They were the best. He ought to know. With blood, sweat, and a few tears of pain, he’d honed the operators of Team Nine into the finest unit in all of US Special Operations. They were the president’s go-to force when mistakes and failure weren’t an option. Even shell-shocked, suffering various levels of injury, hungry, exhausted, and mourning the deaths of their teammates, Scott knew if anyone had what it took to get out of a goat fuck like this, it was Senior Chief Dean Baylor and Special Warfare Operators Michael Ruiz, John Donovan, Steve Spivak, and Travis Hart.
The special warfare operators of Team Nine knew how to do their jobs. And he knew how to do his. He made life-and-death decisions all the time; it came with the job. But losing eight men didn’t, and Scott was still reeling. They all were. But right now he had to focus on keeping the rest of his men alive. That meant projecting confidence and acting as if this weren’t pretty much worst-possible-scenario, one-wrong-move-and-we’re-dead territory.
“We hold tight for the time being,” Scott said. They were safe enough in this apartment building. They’d had their pick of abandoned buildings in the old center of town, which was now essentially a ghost town located across the river from the current city center. Although from the looks of it, the new city center wasn’t going to be far behind the old. Vorkuta had definitely seen better days. The once-thriving city had dwindled in the past decades from over two hundred thousand people to about seventy thousand.
But in this remote corner of the world, even among seventy thousand, six strangers were going to stick out—especially non-Russian-looking-and-speaking strangers. Well, except for one. Thank God, they had Spivak, whose grandparents were Ukrainian and had passed on their language. Spivak’s lineage also gave him a good cover story. He was a Ukrainian sent to Vorkuta to work as a diver on the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
“We’ll send Spivak back out for more food and supplies,” Scott said. Then cutting off Donovan before he could renew an earlier joking request, he added, “And sushi is off the menu. Keep it simple and preferably cheap, Spivak.”
They all carried cash on missions—both US dollars and a small amount of local currency. The latter was a precaution that Scott had insisted upon but they’d never needed. But precaution was another way of saying “damned glad of it” when you did. It was going to save them from having to “borrow” everything.
“Try to make it something I can pronounce, Dolph,” Donovan said, using Spivak’s call sign. The big blond-haired operator who served as the team’s breacher bore a resemblance to the actor Dolph Lundgren, who’d played Sylvester Stallone’s Soviet foe in Rocky IV. “And I hope fresh clothes are on tonight’s menu. Jim Bob here smells like a freaking animal.”
“Fuck you, Donovan,” Travis responded with his heavy Southern accent. The young sniper was from Mississippi and country through and through. Thus, the Jim Bob call sign. “You aren’t exactly smelling like a rose.”
“See what you can do,” Scott said to Spivak, ignoring the giving-each-other-shit banter between the guys as he normally did. With John Donovan around it was constant. “We’re also going to need a phone at some point—and pick up a newspaper.”
The other horrible consequence of their failed mission was war. For all they knew, WWIII was already under way.
Spivak nodded. “I saw a couple places that sold phones when I was looking around earlier. But if it seems too iffy, I’ll figure out something else.”
Meaning he’d pick one up in a way that didn’t involve questions. Scott nodded. He didn’t need to tell Spivak to be careful. The situation was painfully clear to all of them.
Well, mostly clear. The guys didn’t know exactly who had warned Scott and why he trusted her. They just knew that he’d received a text right before the first missile hit that had saved their lives, and they trusted him.
But he knew they had questions. Questions that he didn’t want to answer. How did he tell his men—men to whom he was supposed to be above reproach—that he’d been hiding something from them? That for the last six months he’d had a girlfriend who worked in the Pentagon. That it was serious. That for the first time he’d met someone who meant as much—more—to him than the job. That he had a ring in his pocket that proved it. That he should have said something to them and command months ago.
Scott had been well aware of the rules of Team Nine when he’d joined. No family, no wives, no girlfriends. No one to wonder where he was or when he’d be back. No one to cause problems if he didn’t come back.
He should have come forward when it had gotten serious, even if it meant having to leave Nine. But he’d allowed himself to be talked out of it by Natalie, who was just as worried about losing her own job as he was about losing the team he’d helped build.
Breaking the rules wasn’t like him. Even for an officer, he had a reputation for being by the book. Rules. Honor. Integrity. Standards. Discipline. It might be old-fashioned, but those things mattered to him.
None of which explained Natalie Andersson. Although nothing about Natalie had ever made any sense. She’d confused and confounded him from the first moment he’d seen her in that bar in DC. Maybe that was part of her appeal. He couldn’t figure her out. On the outside she projected this sophisticated, confident career woman, but beneath the surface he detected a sweet vulnerability that roused protective instincts in him that he’d never experienced before. She was like two sides of a coin that had different faces.
But one thing he did know. Without her warning, he wouldn’t be sitting here within spitting distance of Siberia in this run-down, abandoned apartment building that looked more like a cellblock. He’d be dead.
All six of them owed her their lives. They’d been betrayed, and Natalie’s message suggested that it had come from someone on the inside. The text that he’d seen by chance was burned into his memory, though it had chilled him to the bone when he’d first read it.
Leak. Russians know you are coming. No one is supposed to survive. Go dark and don’t try to contact me. Both our lives might be at stake. And then the last three words that she’d never said before. I love you. A declaration that under normal circumstances would have made him the happiest man in the world. Instead it made him the most terrified.
This wasn’t a joke; she was deadly serious. That realization, and the fact that she knew about the mission that only a handful of people were supposed to know about, convinced him to call back the platoon—or half the platoon. Lieutenant White’s squad was already inside one of the gulag buildings, and the comms were out. There’d been no way to warn them.
The rock that had been crushing his chest since that moment got a little heavier.
Against his orders, the senior chief and Brian Murphy, their newest teammate, had tried to reach them. Murphy had been killed when the first missile struck, and the senior chief had barely escaped the explosion. Scott didn’t know how Baylor had made it across almost seventy miles of hell with his injuries. But the senior chief epitomized the BTF—aka the Big Tough Frogman. You couldn’t knock him down. He’d keep popping back up and coming at you.
And Scott knew that as soon as the shock wore off and they were out of this, Baylor was going to have questions for him, and he wasn’t going to be content with We’ll talk about it later.
Feeling the senior chief’s questioning gaze on him, Scott pulled out his coated paper map that he was damned glad of right now—another precaution when going to places with likely spotty communications—and started to consider options. There weren’t a lot of them. They had to get out of the area as quickly as possible, which basically meant a plane, train, or automobile. Of the three, a train seemed the least risky.
“What are you thinking, Ace?” Ruiz asked, using Scott’s call sign.
The guys said Scott always had an ace up his sleeve. Well, he sure as hell hoped they were right. They were going to need a full deck of them.
With Spivak gone, the four remaining men gathered round his position on a metal bed frame and mattress, which had both been left behind for a reason. “I’m thinking a freight train to Moscow.” He moved his finger diagonally in a southwest direction. “From there we can connect with lines that go to Europe in the west or the Trans-Siberian line in the east.”
“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” Donovan repeated. “You gotta be shitting me? That’s on my bucket list, LC.”
“Glad to accommodate, Dynomite,” Scott replied dryly. “Although you might not like the facilities. This is freight or baggage class only.”
Without papers they’d have to stay out of sight.
“It’s a week to Beijing,” the senior chief pointed out. “Not counting the two days to Moscow.”
“Sounds about right,” Scott agreed. “Or you can stay on until the end of the line in Russia and cross the Bering Sea to Alaska.”
“Isn’t that just a little over fifty miles, LC?” Travis asked. “I can practically swim that.”
They all laughed. “At its narrowest point,” Scott said. “But unfortunately where the train lets off”—he pointed to Vladivostok—“you’ll have to find a ship to take you.”
“My vote is for London,” Donovan said.
“I think what the LC is suggesting,” Baylor said, eyeing Scott, “is that we all head out from Moscow in different directions.”
There was a long silence, which Scott confirmed with a nod. If they really were going to go dark, it was safer to separate. “We scatter and lay low until I can figure out what happened out there.”
“What did happen out there, LC?” Miggy asked.
Scott answered truthfully. “I don’t know, but someone tipped off the Russians, and none of us were supposed to make it out of there alive.”
“Someone sent you a warning,” the senior chief said. It wasn’t a question.
Scott nodded. “But that’s all I can say right now.”
Baylor held his gaze for a moment. Clearly, the senior chief didn’t like Scott’s response, but just as clearly the senior chief realized he didn’t need to like it. Scott didn’t have to tell him anything. Eventually Baylor nodded, but Scott knew that rank and the chain of command wouldn’t keep the other man silent for long. Baylor was a pain in his ass, but the senior chief was one of the best operators he’d ever worked with. Scott respected the hell out of him, even if he and the platoon’s most senior enlisted SEAL didn’t always see eye to eye.
Once Scott found out what the hell had happened out there and made sure Natalie was all right, he would come clean about the girlfriend at the Pentagon who had warned them.
Spivak returned a short while later after securing a phone, some clothing that wasn’t going to win them any fashion awards, and most important to all of them right now, a couple of pizzas. Most of the toppings were unrecognizable, but they were so hungry no one cared what they were.
“No salad or Parmesan cheese?” Donovan said. “Shit, Dolph, next time I’m coming with you.”
Before Scott could grab a slice, Spivak handed him a newspaper. “You aren’t going to believe this.”
As Scott couldn’t read Russian, all he could see were the picture of the Russian president, Dmitri Ivanov; a map of the eastern side of the Ural Mountains where they’d been reconnoitering the gulag; and a satellite image of a massive explosion.
But that was enough.
He swore. “It’s out, then. I can only imagine what Ivanov is saying. A team of Navy SEALs sent in to ‘invade’ a sovereign nation? He must be calling for blood.”
And war. After an American fighter plane accidentally strayed into Russian airspace and was shot down, Ivanov vowed the next incursion—accident or not—would be considered an act of war for which Russia would retaliate.
“That’s just it,” Spivak said. “He isn’t. There isn’t a damned thing in here about us. They’re claiming the explosion was just a missile test.”
The room was dead silent; Scott wasn’t the only one taking a few seconds to process what this meant.
“Then we aren’t going to war?” Travis asked.
“Not for this,” Spivak said. “And there isn’t anything in the world news, either.”
Which meant that the US hadn’t gone public about their missing SEAL platoon.
Retiarius had been effectively ghosted, with neither side wanting to fess up that the platoon had been there.
It made horrible sense. Despite his belligerent threats and big words, Ivanov must have known that he would be seriously outmatched in a war with the US. By not acknowledging their presence, he could save face and avoid a war that no one wanted—not to mention savor the personal satisfaction of wiping out an entire platoon of Navy SEALs without the US being able to retaliate.
There were plenty of hawks in President Clara Cartwright’s administration who were eager for war and the chance to put Ivanov in his place. The most vocal among them was General Thomas Murray, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the father of the pilot shot down by the Russians a few months ago. But the president had proved more cautious than her advisors, and Scott knew she would stay quiet to cover up their illegal operation and avoid a war in a situation that was already teetering too close to the edge.
Which made any survivors inconvenient, to say the least—to both sides.
Scott stayed up most of the night planning their exfil and searching for any news from Washington. He didn’t need much sleep, and even with the lack of rest the past few days, he slept only a few hours.
By dawn he’d taken over watch from Miggy and was sitting by the window overlooking the footbridge to town, eating a piece of leftover pizza and surfing the web again for anything new. He would kill for a cup of coffee right now. Coffee and this time of day reminded him of Nat. Those lazy mornings when they could sit on her tiny balcony in the early hours while the city was quiet, drinking coffee and talking. . . . He’d never guessed that something so small and seemingly simple could make him so happy. That was how he knew he wanted to grow old with her. God, he missed her. He needed to hear her voice and make sure that she was all right.
Knowing that Russia censored media and the Internet, he was careful about search terms, but none of the big European news agencies or Al Jazeera was reporting anything. He decided to take a chance and try a few US newspapers. He doubted the Russian surveillance was that broad, but he’d be getting rid of the phone soon anyway.
New York Times, nada. Washington Post, same. DC Chronicle . . . his stomach dropped and all the blood slid from his face.
No . . . oh God, no!
He wanted to turn away and pretend he’d never seen it. If he didn’t see it, it couldn’t be true.
But there was the headline in cold black-and-white: DC Staffer Killed in Fiery Car Crash That Shuts Down Freeway for Hours. The story didn’t add much, except the name and what she did: Natalie Andersson, executive assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, was killed in a car crash last night when her car careened into the cement underpass of the Southeast Freeway on 4th Street SE in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where she lived. Excessive speed is believed to have caused her car to explode. Ms. Andersson was killed instantly.
Scott put down the phone, unable to breathe. His chest was on fire. His eyes burned. The ring that he’d had in his pocket for the past month because he hadn’t found the “right” time to give it to her, felt like an unbearable weight dragging him under. After losing eight men, he thought he was numb, but the pain eviscerated him with excruciating savagery.
Oh God, Natalie, baby. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. Her words rang in his head. Both our lives . . .
He had no doubt she’d been killed because of him. Because she’d warned him.
And he’d never even told her he loved her. He didn’t even know why.
That wasn’t true. He hadn’t told her because he wasn’t sure she felt the same way. And now . . . now it was too late to hear her tell him that she did.
For the first time in his life, Scott wanted to put his face in his hands and bawl like a baby. But he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to get his men the hell out of here and find whoever was responsible for this. There wasn’t a place they could hide where he wouldn’t hunt them down.
And then he’d make them pay.