Exclusive Excerpt from Trident’s First Gleaming
Yesterday, I posted my interview with Stephen Templin, author of TRIDENT’S FIRST GLEAMING, an action thriller, that comes out on September 9. Today, I’m bringing you an exclusive excerpt from this book.
Everyone who leaves a comment about what they liked about this excerpt, will be entered to win an electronic copy of the book. This giveaway runs until next Friday.
Chris Paladin sped through the murky straightaway, the foul, viscid air of the Euphrates clogging his nostrils. The camouflage he and the other six SEALs wore couldn’t hide them from the rank wind when going nearly forty knots against the dying flow of the ancient river. Around them, the desert choked the stretches of the bank, leaving the land barren as they raced into Syria.
Chris glanced at Little Doc sitting next to him.
Only weeks ago, back at their base in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, Chris and Little Doc had paired off in a game of pool against a talented Agency cyber warfare tech named Young Park and a top spook, Hannah Andrade. They’d played an epic contest of SEALs versus CIA. But so much had changed since then.
Young’s kidnapping was why they were out here now. Those damn tangos had dressed up as Iraqi troops while Chris and his crew were out on an op and snatched the man. And along with him, potentially dangerous knowledge that needed kept out of enemy hands.
A terrorist named Professor Mordet was behind it all, intelligence told them. Chris struggled to focus on the mission rather than his anger. This mission was personal—and a top priority for JSOC and the Agency. He had to keep a clear head.
He took a breath and pushed back the messy emotions, locking them down in the depths of his psyche. His laser focus picked apart the dark fig palms and tangles of weeds that appeared on the portside shore. He searched for anyone or anything that might deny their rescue.
After traveling another klick, off the starboard side became farmland, too, dotted with a scattering of farmhouses. Where there were buildings, there were people, and Chris didn’t want to meet any of them. He only wanted to see two people, the kidnapper and the hostage.
Even when there weren’t farmhouses, there might be people, he reminded himself. Expect the unexpected.
Chris surveyed his team. They carried light, sound-suppressed weapons, and to add to their stealth and speed, they’d dispensed with their bullet-resistant vests. The moonlight negated much of the advantage of night vision goggles, too, so they’d left the cumbersome devices behind. Although some might consider going without reckless, it was one of many tactics they’d used with monster success again and again. They were ready.
Several more klicks up the river, a shadowy island emerged in the middle of the Euphrates, and the coxswain veered to the starboard side, putting the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) in a stretch that cut the river’s width in half. On each side of their boat, there were only fifty meters between the frogmen and the shore—close enough for enemy assault rifles and machine guns to tear into them. Chris and his team continued to scan 360 degrees around their boat.
If the enemy is expecting us, this would be the place to stick it to us.
Chris’s pulse quickened at the thought. In Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training, he’d learned to control his fear by remembering a peaceful experience, like when he was a child riding his bicycle, but after repeated practice, he could skip the remembering and trigger the result by using one word: breathe.
He took a deep breath and exhaled. His pulse slowed.
Then his pulse crawled.
Anyone who says they aren’t scared is a liar or an idiot.
Chris and the guys on the portside of the SOC-R studied the vegetation, looking for movement or the sudden flash of an enemy AK-47 muzzle. The SEALs on the starboard side did the same. The boat passed the small island, then another. After half a klick, the SOC-R slowed, pulled up against the mainland bank on the port side, and stopped.
They hopped over the side of the boat and onto land. The bulkiest SEAL, nicknamed Beanpole as a joke, slipped on the muddy bank but caught himself, narrowly preventing a noisy back flop into the water. Chris scowled. Beanpole was a joke. He told the officers and senior enlisted men what they wanted to hear and told them often, but in the field, he was a tactical loser. Two weeks earlier, Chris’s squad had lost a teammate during an ambush. Chris and the others had mourned his loss. Although eager to add another gun to their side, they were disappointed to find out that the new gun was Beanpole.
The olive-drab-colored SEALs faded into the vegetation then crouched while the Navy SOC-R crew sped up-river to do a couple false insertions in order to confuse anyone who might be paying attention. Chris and his teammates crouched, waited, and listened for surprise guests. Although the SEALs had inserted as silently as ninjas, the unknown was still out there, and it could sneak up at any time and stab him in the back. Running ops every night for as long as he had, and multiple times in the same night, he’d snatched or killed more tangos than he could remember, but the one fact that had been seared into his mind was that the hunter could always become the hunted.
A strange darkness permeated the area, despite the moonlight. Chris tried to pinpoint the reason for the blackness, but even where the moon shone, gloom remained, as if each particle of plants and dirt rejected the sky’s illumination. There were no clouds or any indication of a storm front arriving. Yet a dark, giant hand seemed to press down on him.
After fifteen minutes of lying low, adrenaline was pumping freely through his veins, heightening his senses and making him stronger. Chris’s patrol leader, a senior chief, signaled for them to move out. Then the point man, nicknamed Gorgeous because hordes of women wanted to have his babies, led the SEALs out, and Psycho brought up the rear. In the middle, Chris and the others watched everything to the left and right of their crew.
The SEALs eased out of the dense vegetation and walked into a winter wheat field. After they patrolled 150 meters, the field came to an end, and the men lay prone on the hard ground. Even though the wheat protected them from prying eyes, it wouldn’t protect them from bullets. Chris peeked through the wheat. Fifty meters ahead stood their target building—the back of a two-story structure with an expansive roof. Each floor had thin, white wooden columns along it, thirty-meter wide porches, and French doors. The French colonial plantation house seemed eerily surreal sitting on the Syrian landscape where humble farmhouses sat on small plots of land to the south.
The silhouette of a guard was visible, ghostlike, on a large wooden chair on the left side of the first-floor porch. An AK-47 stood propped between his legs. Hannah’s asset had reported that one guard always sat on the porch in front of the house, but Chris couldn’t see that one yet. Another guard was supposed to be inside. Chris didn’t want to shoot Ghost from their current position and risk hitting a window and waking up the neighborhood.
He signaled for Psycho to follow him, and the two stalked from their six o’clock position clockwise using hibiscus shrubs for cover until they reached nine o’clock, the edge of the porch, ten meters away from Ghost.
Chris peered into his sight, where a red dot floated in the middle without projecting out for others to see. He aligned the red dot on the side of Ghost’s head and squeezed the trigger then rapidly aligned and squeezed again: phht, phht. The guard’s upper body flopped sideways over the chair’s armrest with the AK-47 still between his legs. Chris’s heart smiled at the satisfaction of completing his task, and his pulse calmed with the relief that he’d taken out a potential threat.
Chris wasn’t born a killer; he valued life as much as most people in the human family. As a child, he’d once killed a bird with a BB gun. His stomach had revolted at what he’d done, and he never did it again. But also as a child, the son of US diplomats in Syria, terrorists had kidnapped him and killed a classmate; as a result, Chris considered terrorists to be disposable members of his species. The tragic deaths of 9/11 had reinforced his distaste for terrorists and spurred him to join the military. Drawing on similar strengths that helped him survive his kidnapping, he’d survived SEAL training, and it was during that training that he’d further dehumanized the enemy by focusing on their crimes against humanity and shooting them in the form of paper and steel targets. The first time he’d killed a real terrorist, his stomach had churned and he’d become somewhat light-headed, but the more he’d killed, the more that feeling had gone away until he no longer had the feeling. Although he could remember the mud huts, dusty alley, and body of the first man he’d killed, he couldn’t remember the name of the village or the man’s face. He remembered the sick feeling of taking a life but not the mission—when it came to fighting, either the enemy died or Chris died. Even worse, if he didn’t do his job, his teammates could get hurt.
Chris wouldn’t let that happen. The tango was a threat, and then he wasn’t.
Chris had eliminated so many insurgents since then that he couldn’t count them all, and in his memory, they faded into a blur. Most SEAL ops were considered perfect if no shooting occurred, but he and his crew hardly lived in a perfect world. Now they had to find Young, and the danger zone was about to heat up.
Chris and Psycho sneaked around to the front, and Psycho dispatched another guard. Chris keyed the transmitter on his radio once, signaling the others to advance to the back door. The sentry removal duo returned to the back door, and Chris tried to open it—no luck. He looked at the lock—the keyhole was upside down from American locks. He inserted the small length of an L-shaped Quiet Steel tension wrench into the top of the keyhole and turned it. Then he took a Quiet Steel pick, a long, thin bar with a hook at the end, and poked it into the bottom of the keyhole until it reached the back of the lock. He finessed them until the door unlocked.
Chris opened the door, and the others poured in first. Chris brought up the rear as he stepped into a well-furnished room. There were two doorways, so their crew split up into two teams, and Chris’s slipped into a living room lit by the moonlight through the French windows. He turned left, staying close to the wall. From the couch stood a guard with an AK in his hand. He raised the muzzle in Chris’s direction. Chris fired twice into his chest—phht, phht—then once in his head—phht—dropping him to the floor. Between training and real experiences, he’d done this thousands of times, and his motor skills functioned with an automaticity like breathing.
After both fireteams cleared the first deck, they crept up an unlit stairway to the second deck. The first fireteam approached the door on the left, and Chris’s team moved to the door on the right. Now, the giant black hand that had been pressing on him since they’d set foot on the grounds pressed harder, as if to bury him under heaven and earth.
Something ungodly is behind that door.
His pulse quickened, and he lost control of his speeding respiration as he turned the knob—locked.
It was a simple lock, so Chris simply slid his pick in and gently turned it. A thump sounded against the wall— Chris’s heart rate launched into hyper drive—and he glanced at his team. Beanpole’s muzzle swayed in his hands. He must’ve tapped the wall. Chris and others gave Beanpole a dirty look.
The door unlocked and Chris pushed it open. Beanpole and Psycho entered first. Chris followed. His gaze darted around the room. A man lay still on a silky bed sheet, unmoving. Professor Mordet, the kidnapper. And next to the bed was an empty bottle of wine. He’d played right into the SEALs’ hands; he was out cold.
Chris and Psycho zip-tied Mordet’s hands behind his back while Beanpole duct taped his mouth. When Chris and Psycho had finished the zip ties, Beanpole was already putting a black hood over Mordet’s head.
The three SEALs poked and prodded Mordet until he awoke. He fought to free himself and scream, but Psycho struck him down. When he regained consciousness, they helped him to his feet. Now he was compliant.
They left the room and slammed him to the floor in the hall before propping him up on his knees.
Chris and Psycho helped quickly clear the other rooms while Beanpole stayed with Mordet.
After clearing each room, they scoured the house for hidden rooms or other areas where Mordet might be keeping Young. The SEALs bagged intel: USB sticks, DVDs, laptops, papers, and other items. There was no sign of Young in the building, diffusing Chris’s hopes of rescuing him tonight.
Chris kicked the wall, making a hole. “Shit!”
Back in the hall, Beanpole continued to guard Mordet, who sat with a meditative stillness.
Gorgeous led them out of the house with the same hushed discipline they’d had as they’d arrived. They headed toward the river. On the return trip was when it was natural to sigh a breath of relief, but for Chris, the pucker factor was higher.
This is the time when men make mistakes; this is the time when men get killed.
Did he really fall or is he trying to slow us down on purpose?
Beanpole jerked him to his feet.
The squad didn’t use the same route they’d taken when they’d arrived, in case someone had seen their insertion and was waiting to spring an ambush on them. They slipped into a neighboring field with its wheat tips stabbing at the sky like arrowheads. The SEALs patrolled to the end of the field, heading for their haven—the water. Just before they exited the wheat field, the guys in front of Chris dropped to the ground and stayed there. Chris lowered himself to the prone position, too. He glanced behind—Beanpole pushed Mordet into the dirt, and Beanpole and Psycho lay low. Soon, Little Doc gave Chris the hand signal: enemy ahead. Chris relayed the message behind.
Even if there was only one insurgent, he might be the point man for a whole squad, platoon, or battalion of insurgents. With only one SOC-R sitting hidden upstream and no airpower on site for support, the SEALs were probably outgunned. They’d bagged their man, and now wasn’t the time to become greedy—and end up in a body bag. They had to stay still.
I am the earth, Chris thought to himself. I am the ground. He relaxed all his muscles, sinking deeper to become one with the ground. I am the earth, he repeated to himself. I am the earth. His heart rate and breathing slowed to an almost vegetative state.
The sound of men’s voices and footsteps came from the direction of the river. Maybe two squads. The insurgents were home now and obviously feeling relaxed and secure—talking loudly. As they neared the SEALs, their voices and footsteps became more and more careless. The insurgent point man came so close to Chris that he could have reached out and grabbed him. The insurgent passed.
As Chris lay flat on the ground holding his MP7 in both hands, he waited for the other insurgents to go by. Something rustled on the ground followed by a scream for help in Arabic. Before Chris could react, a shadow leaped onto his back, and something clamped down on his ear and caused a sharp pain, like a wild animal biting him—Mordet! Chris wanted to leap and cry out, but he gulped down his fear and pain. With his right hand still holding the MP7, he reached around with his left hand, found Mordet’s face, and drove his thumb between the man’s nose and eyeball, popping the eye out of its socket. Mordet wouldn’t let go as he chewed off half of Chris’s ear. White heat traveled from Chris’s ear, through his body, and to the tips of his right toes—sapping the strength out of him. Mordet had the strength of a mad goblin. Chris’s world became pale as he tried to stop his attacker. He was passing out.
A crack sounded, and Mordet’s head bumped against Chris’s. The goblin gave up gobbling. Chris turned his head to find Mordet unconscious and Little Doc pulling the butt of his MP7 away from Mordet’s noggin. Mordet was lucky. Little Doc had only struck him with the butt and hadn’t shot him—they still needed to interrogate the beast in order to find Young.
The duct tape and eye were hanging from Mordet’s face, and his black hood lay on the ground next to him. He’d probably fallen on his face multiple times to loosen the tape. The zip ties had proven to be tougher, though, and Mordet’s hands were still bound. Little Doc calmly put Mordet’s eye back in.
The other SEALs fired their sound-suppressed MP7s, which emitted no flash, at the two squads. Chris faced inland and saw enemy muzzles flashing from multiple directions. The insurgents could hear the SEALs but couldn’t see them. With the red dot in Chris’s sight, he traced one muzzle flash to the upper body of a long silhouette. Chris squeezed his trigger once. Then again. The long silhouette sank.
Although the insurgents fired their AKs on full auto, the SEAL squad’s precise shots severed the tangos’ numbers—until the fight became mano a mano. Untamed power surged through Chris’s veins, and he felt like a wolf with his wolf pack, dominating the night.
The surviving tangos wised up—AK muzzle flashes focused on the SEALs’ direction, and mini sonic booms from passing bullets popped the air around him. He efficiently took the fear of the bullets and locked it into a tiny box. He had entered a zone, focusing even more on his next target. Chris eased his red dot on the nearest insurgent and downed him. The insurgent’s comrades fell, too—until none were left standing.
If the insurgents had been the target of this mission, Chris and his teammates would check to make sure they were all dead and search them for intel, but they weren’t the target, and a few hundred Syrian militiamen from Mordet’s village were probably en route to the frogmen’s position right now.
After making so much noise, there was no more need for stealth. Senior Chief barked, “Haul ass to the river!”
Chris picked the black hood off the ground and turned to make sure Beanpole and Psycho were following. Beanpole poked Mordet in the back, and he stumbled forward.
As they ran to the river, blood oozed from Chris’s bitten ear and down his neck. He didn’t know how much blood he’d lost, but there was no time to bandage himself now. When the SEALs reached the water, the SOC-R was waiting for them with its engines running. They boarded swiftly and took their designated positions. The pilot shoved the throttle forward, and the boat pulled away from the bank and accelerated to over forty knots, heading south.
“Status report,” Senior called to the SEALs.
Gorgeous sounded off first, reporting on any wounds and remaining ammo: “Gorgeous, okay, four magazines.” The others sounded off in succession. Then came Chris’s turn. “Reverend, got a nick on my right ear, three magazines.” Reverend was Chris’s call sign—given to him because when the guys went bar-hopping, despite relentless ribbing, Chris wouldn’t drink alcohol. Psycho gave the last report.
Beanpole made eye contact with Chris for a moment. Chris was pissed.
If you’d gagged Mordet properly, this wouldn’t have happened.
Beanpole looked away as if he could read his thoughts.
Little Doc came over to take a look at his ear while the guys with more ammo donated bullets to the guys with less. As Little Doc examined Chris, he calmly said, “Looks like they shot off half of your ear. Did you pick it up and bring it with you?”
Mordet had a grin on his face as he chewed on something.
Chris pointed to him and said, “He bit it off.”
“What?” Little Doc asked.
Mordet continued to chew.
Disgust and anger roiled in Chris’s stomach. “What the—damn, he’s eating it!”
“Eat this!” Little Doc slammed the butt of his rifle into Mordet’s face. The chewing motion stopped. Little Doc grabbed Mordet’s nose with one hand and his jaw with the other and opened Mordet’s mouth wide. “You sicko-freako-shit-sucking-no-life-mother—” He shook half of a chewed-up ear out of Mordet’s mouth. It was impractical for them to carry ice in the field, so Little Doc wrapped the piece of flesh in some gauze and put it in Chris’s shirt pocket.
They sat silently until Mordet regained consciousness. This time, Little Doc struck him so hard with the rifle butt that it probably knocked his IQ down twenty points. Little Doc gagged him again before Chris slammed the hood down around Mordet’s head.
As the SEALs continued their return trip, Little Doc disinfected and bandaged Chris’s ear.
Will my ear ever be the same again? I hope I don’t bleed to death.
His enlistment was near its end, and this wasn’t giving him warm, fuzzy feelings about re-upping. Then he realized that if he kept thinking about his ear and reenlistment, he might miss spotting an ambush and lose more than his ear. He focused his eyes and mind on the shore, scanning for threats.
The SEALs traveled unmolested to their base in Al Anbar Province, where they handed Mordet over to the civilian-clothed Agency interrogator and his assistants.
A hospital corpsman showed up soon after and escorted Chris away.
In sick bay, the surgeon greeted Chris, who took his piece of ear out of his pocket.
The surgeon didn’t have to examine it long to make a judgment: “This is too mangled. Even if I did sew it back on, it would remain deformed like this for the rest of your life.”
“Right now, all I want to do is find Young.”
“After I sew up your wound here, I can arrange to have you flown to the facial prosthetics lab at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Their 3-D camera can produce images for a mold of your ear. I can even arrange for you to have a summer ear and winter ear with appropriate skin tones and an ear in camouflage.”
“Thanks, Doc, but I don’t have time right now to fly back to the States. That’ll have to wait until after we find Young.”
“I’ll just sew it up for now.”
As the surgeon went to work, Chris noticed his Yale diploma on the wall and remembered his sophomore year at Harvard. At that time, part of Chris had wanted to become a preacher and part of him had wanted to become a SEAL, but when 9/11 happened, the choice had become clear: he’d left Harvard and joined the Navy. Now he hunted evil men through fire and brimstone, and although he repeatedly reminded himself that he wasn’t a part of the bad guys’ underworld, he bore the scars of their world on his body and soul. He longed for light. He longed for a place closer to Heaven.
After the surgeon finished suturing his wound, Chris departed and hurried to the gator pit, where he found Hannah watching a live video feed of the interrogation. She was a raven-haired chameleon who shape-shifted between geek, Sampson, and Delilah.
Hannah’s eyes didn’t leave the video feed as Chris stepped up beside her. “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?” she asked with a sweetness in her husky voice.
He smiled. “Same thing a nice gal like you is doing.” He pointed to the monitor. “What is he doing?”
“Waterboarding Mordet,” she said.
“And?” Chris asked.
“Mordet hasn’t said a word.”
The interrogation booth was a small room made of plywood. A TV monitor on the wall was hooked up to a laptop on a table, so if Mordet began talking about Young’s location, the gator could have Mordet point it out on a high-tech map on the TV monitor. Mordet was tied on his back on a board the size of a door, with his feet elevated. A wet orange cloth was wrapped around his face.
The gator’s head looked like a lemon—it had more width than height, and his skin color was jaundiced. He also had the muscle mass of a bodybuilder. Gator nodded to his assistant, who poured a gallon water jug from two feet above Mordet’s nose and mouth. Immediately, Mordet gagged. Seconds later, his body went limp. Either he was too tired to fight or he was purposely allowing his nose and mouth to fill up with water and causing himself to asphyxiate. The average person would begin talking by fifteen seconds—saying anything, truth or lies, to make the waterboarding stop. Each session would last no longer than forty seconds but could be repeated for up to twelve minutes in a day. “How long have they been doing this?” Chris asked.
“About half an hour,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I’m not complaining, but does Lemon Head know what he’s doing?”
Hannah shrugged. “He’s a contractor.”
“We really don’t have time for amateur hour. Young doesn’t have time.” Chris left the gator pit and rushed to the interrogation booth, where he burst inside the cramped room.
Gator turned around, and his brow furrowed. “What the hell?”
Mordet stirred as if from a sleep. Water trickled from his nose and mouth.
Chris motioned for Gator to step out of the room with him. The man gestured to his assistant to watch their prisoner.
They exited the booth and walked down the hall. “I was in the middle of an interrogation,” Gator said.
“The middle?” Chris asked.
Gator puffed out his chest. “I’ll break him,” he said proudly.
“I can see that.” Chris was unable to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
“Who are you?”
“We can’t launch a rescue until we know where Young is.”
Gator came to a stop in the pit near where Hannah sat. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Young is running out of time and—”
“You can’t rush progress,” Gator interrupted.
Chris stared hard at him, and tension filled his voice. “We’re out of time.”
Gator leaned forward. “My interrogation was working until you interrupted.”
Chris stood his ground. “Maybe you can update me on the intel you already extracted.”
With his index finger, Gator poked Chris in the chest. “You need to chill.”
“I am chill.” Chris pushed the finger away from his chest.
“You don’t seem chill to me.”
“Maybe I can persuade Mordet to talk.”
Gator leaned in even closer so Chris could feel the heat and smell the bunghole-stink of his breath. “Maybe you don’t understand who’s in charge here.”
“I’m not asking to take over,” Chris said. “You can take credit for any intel I acquire. I’m just asking for a shot at Mordet.”
“You hot-shits think you can do anything you want because everyone’s scared of you. Well, I’m not scared of you.”
“I’m not trying to scare you. I just want to find Young.”
“So does everyone else, but I’m the one who knows about interrogation, and you need to get authorization before you interrogate the prisoner!”
“Are you saying you have no authority here?”
“I have authority!”
Chris tried to remain calm. “I only know that I was waterboarded in SERE school. And I’ve worked with some of the best gators in the business. And you’re not one of them.”
Hannah, still sitting in her chair in front of the live video monitor, chuckled.
Chris turned to her and said, “Tell those guys in the booth to stop screwing around and prepare the prisoner for interrogation.”
She left the pit and headed to the booth.
“You can’t do this,” Gator said.
Chris moved in so close that he was toe-to-toe with Gator. “Saving Young is deadly important to me,” Chris said quietly. “How important is it to you?”
The veins in Gator’s neck bulged as if they were about to pop.
Chris prepared to flip his inner switch from chill to bone-burning conflagration.
“Your commanding officer will hear about this!”
Chris didn’t know whether Gator was smart for not fighting or cowardly for backing off. Maybe he was both. “I’m sure he will.”
Gator kicked a trash bucket across the room on his way out.
“Does anyone know where I can get a good bottle of wine ASAP?” Chris shouted out to the others in the gator pit.
A man in civilian clothes hesitantly raised his hand.
“I need it for the interrogation. How fast can you get it here?” Chris asked.
“Right away.” The man left his desk and rushed out of the room.
“If Mordet likes wine and my ear, I’ll give him what he wants.” Chris borrowed Hannah’s phone, called the surgeon, and asked for his ear in a small cooler.
He observed the monitor of the interrogation booth. Gator’s henchman cleared out the waterboarding equipment, handcuffed Mordet’s hands behind his back, chained his feet together, and sat him in a chair.
Minutes later, when the cooler and wine arrived, Chris left the gator pit. After the henchman stepped out of the booth, Chris stepped inside. He closed the door behind him and set his cooler down beside the door. Then he took a seat on the plastic chair in front of a table between himself and Mordet.
It’s time we have a little chat, my friend.