Authors: Don Mann,Ralph Pezzullo
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“Greater love has no one than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
To the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much to protect our freedoms
Either I conquer Istanbul, or Istanbul conquers me.
—Fatih Sultan Mehmet
on red-striped sofas in the Me
ale Café in the Arasta Bazaar, just steps from Istanbul’s majestic Blue Mosque. Hundreds, men mostly, were shuffling out after morning prayers in groups of twos and threes, some whispering to one another, others lost in thought.
The crowd seemed dense and foreign to Crocker as he looked out the horizontal window and then across the table at the young CIA operative who called himself Jared. Under thirty, raised in Oregon, Jared had a father who worked in the logging industry. Minus the foot-long beard he could pass for a frat member at a midwestern university. Except, as far as Crocker knew, most U.S. grad students didn’t speak fluent Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. Nor had they spent the past two weeks in Syria huddling with leaders of the various anti-Assad rebel groups. According to Jared, the rebel groups were now too numerous to count—a polyglot of Sunnis, jihadists, former members of the Syrian Armed Forces, and young Syrians who hated President Bashar al-Assad and his family. Opposing them were Assad’s army and supporters, the Iranians, and the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
Crocker had a hunch that Syria was where he and his men were headed, though he didn’t know the how, when, or why. What he did know was that this was their first mission overseas since the op in Mexico last fall that had resulted in all kinds of mayhem and trauma—including serious injuries to several members of his team. He himself had suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh, which had healed very nicely though he experienced tightness around it now.
What he also realized was that Jared’s jitteriness was adding to his own feeling of anxiety. Why, he wasn’t sure.
When a bell rang at the Hagia Sophia farther up the hill, the sharp sound raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
“Fascinating city,” Jared announced.
“Yeah.” Crocker had been intrigued by it since he’d seen
From Russia with Love
his favorite Bond movie, at eight years old. Since his arrival yesterday morning, he had noticed how seamlessly past and present mingled here. Istanbul wasn’t a museum like, say, Florence. It was an active city bustling with tourists, merchants, peddlers, students, lovers, Islamic fundamentalists, secularist libertarians, anarchists, historians, and dreamers.
It had been at the nexus of a massive amount of world history. Nearby were streets and alleys where Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans had marched, where the blood of Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, and Gypsies had flowed. It was Europe’s largest city at fifteen million, twice the size of London, and technically the only metropolitan area to span two continents, Europe and Asia.
As Jared smoked, his eyes scanned the faces in the café—mostly tourists and middle-aged men. Then he checked his cell phone and bit his nails. Frowning at the bitter taste of the black tea, he announced, “War is fucking hell, Crocker. Make no mistake about that.”
“I don’t.” Crocker shook his head and smoothed his salt-and-pepper mustache. Last night after a dinner of grilled sardines and
(grape leaves stuffed with rice) Jared had shown him photos he had taken in Aleppo—blocks upon blocks of middle-class apartments, schools, and stores reduced to rubble, burnt-out cars and buses, refuse piled in the broken streets.
Crocker had followed news of the Syrian civil war like other Americans, mostly on CNN. But what seemed distant and abstract to most people was more real to him. He had the experience to fill in the smells of death, the feelings of hopelessness and dislocation. He’d seen firsthand other societies coming apart at the seams in places like Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq. What war did to the psyches of children, he could only imagine.
“First time I went in was the summer of 2012,” Jared said with a bitter edge in his voice. “Since then I’ve watched civilian deaths go from five to over a hundred thousand and the number of refugees rocket into the millions. It’s appalling.”
What he liked about Jared was that the kid had balls. He also had a conscience. You saw a wrong or a problem, and you tried to do what you could to help solve it. He also understood that being in a war zone added a special incandescence to life that you couldn’t find anywhere else.
The trick was to get close enough to feel the sparkle, but not come back brain-dead or worse.
“It haunts me constantly,” Jared continued. “We could have done something to stop it back in 2012, but we sat on our hands for political reasons.”
“Sad,” said Crocker. He’d heard about the various UN diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Assad regime to either step down or reach some kind of settlement. None of them had been successful. Didn’t people in the administration know that a strongman like Assad had to be backed into a corner and have a gun pointed at his head before he conceded? Sometimes Crocker wondered whether the people who made foreign policy were so removed from on-the-ground experience that they didn’t understand the nuts and bolts of human psychology—especially of people in power.
“The truth is that nobody really cares about what happens there,” Jared continued, “because there’s no possible upside financially.”
“You mean Syria has no oil like Libya and Iraq.”
Jared leaned on the little table and nodded. “Yeah.”
Crocker didn’t feel qualified to judge.
“Don’t you feel sometimes that we’re really mercenaries hired to protect the interests of Wall Street and the corporations?” Jared continued. “Like they’re the ones really calling the shots?”
“And they don’t give a shit about the plight of people in a place like Syria, normal families?”
“Could be,” Crocker answered. “But I can’t think like that and do my job.” It was the main reason he avoided politics, which was a messy, cynical business as far as he was concerned and rarely resulted in good solutions to real problems. He remained, in the end, a practical-minded man who focused on the specific missions he had to perform.
Maybe, as his wife claimed, it resulted in his not seeing the bigger picture.
“Hey, you want a real drink?” Jared asked, leaning forward on the cushioned seat. “I could use a scotch.”
“You’re not gonna get one here,” Crocker responded, pointing to the sign in English, French, and Arabic on the wall behind them: “Our apologies. No alcohol served because of the proximity of the mosque.”
“Maybe we can order a narghile and ask the waiter to mix in some hashish,” he said with a mischievous grin.
Crocker laughed. “I thought you guys weren’t allowed to smoke that stuff,” he responded, reaching for the Turkish coffee, which was sweet and thick on his tongue.
“You’re right. Yeah. I’d have to bribe the polygraph dude. Ha ha. Won’t be the first time.” Jared was referring to the Agency practice of periodically and unexpectedly administering lie detector tests to its case and ops officers. The CIA did this to keep tabs on questionable sexual liaisons, the money the officers handled, and their use of illegal drugs.
As the leader of Black Cell, which was a special unit of SEAL Team Six (a.k.a. DEVGRU) assigned to the CIA, Crocker was subject to Agency protocol himself. The last time he’d been polygraphed, which was three weeks ago, he’d been questioned about breaking into an apartment in Fairfax, Virginia, which he didn’t deny. The circumstances were complicated and involved a woman who was squeezing money out of his elderly father. Despite the fact that he’d caught her smoking meth with a Fairfax County police officer, he knew he’d probably be facing charges when he returned to the States.
Maybe the judge would cut him some slack because of what he did for a living. Maybe he wouldn’t. Crocker wasn’t going to worry about it now.
“They’ve got dervishes here at night,” Jared announced as he stubbed out his cigarette and checked his cell again.
“What’d you say?” Crocker asked, sensing that they were being watched.
“You know, the dudes in the white peaked caps who spin. I was watching ’em one night when I met this cute Turkish girl named Zeliha. Real warm, with toffee-colored eyes. She explained the meaning of the whole ritual to me.” His voice trailed off.
“Great girl. I wanted to keep seeing her, but I had to disappear for two weeks for work. When I got back, I found out she had taken up with an old boyfriend she’d told me she wasn’t crazy about.”
“Sounds complicated.” It reminded Crocker of his own problems with women, including his wife, Holly, who had threatened to leave him if he went overseas again.
Here he was.
She wanted him around, but she needed space. She wanted stability, until she got bored and craved adventure. She wanted a family that included Crocker’s daughter from his first marriage, but now she was asking for more independence.
He loved her completely and knew that she’d been through hell—including almost being killed by cartel hit men and losing everything when they had torched their home. He and she had even attended several sessions of marriage and grief counseling together, which he’d found somewhat helpful. He wasn’t sure that she had, though, he thought, as he scanned the café again.
Jared’s burner cell phone pinged. He read the coded message and said, “That’s us.”
“Where are we meeting?” Crocker asked.
“The Sultanhan Hotel. Room 732. It’s about a seven-minute cab ride from here, or a fifteen-minute walk.”
“If we have time, let’s hump it. I could use the exercise.”
“You got it, friend,” Jared answered. “I’ll exit first. I’m gonna walk down to Torun, turn right, continue to the opposite corner, cross the street, buy a magazine at the newsstand, and turn back. Watch my back and let me know if I’m being followed. I’ll meet you on the corner of Torun Sokak and Mehmet A
He was proposing that they run a routine SDR (surveillance detection route), which was standard in clandestine operations on foreign soil. The kid wasn’t sloppy. Crocker liked that.
“Torun Sokak and Mehmet,” he repeated. “Copy.”
“Torun’s that narrow, busy street that runs parallel to the Kabasakal.”
“I remember. They tell you who we’re going to meet at the hotel?” asked Crocker.
“I’ll fill you in on the people as we walk. You ready?”
“Yeah. You go ahead. I’ll pay the check.”
Jared stood, smiled quickly, and hurried off. He was slight and about five nine with an awkward bounce in his step, the result of an injury sustained from an IED attack near the Afghan-Pakistani border. According to what Crocker had heard, he had been through a lot. Assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, one after the other. A nervous breakdown after a rough op in Pakistan. The pressures on clandestine officers like Jared were intense.
Crocker’s eyes followed him through the windows down the pedestrian walkway in front of the bazaar to the corner. He tossed sixty Turkish liras on the table, exited onto the pedestrian Kabasakal, and saw Jared standing on the corner lighting a cigarette. Nothing unusual so far. Catching sight of Crocker, he zipped up his blue jacket, which was their prearranged signal that all was clear. Then he hung a right.
Both he and Jared were devoid of marks—in other words, anything that might cause them to stand out in a crowd, like long hair, jewelry, or unusual facial hair. With his beard, Jared could easily pass for a Turkish student on his way to the nearby Istanbul International University, and Crocker looked like a very fit tourist—black pants, black polo, black jacket, black Nikes.
The streets and alleys were jammed with people of all ages and ethnicities, merging and parting like a stream.
As Jared disappeared past the far end of the bazaar, two young men emerged from a jewelry stall and followed him. One of them carried a black motorcycle helmet under his arm. He looked determined and focused.
“Trouble,” Crocker muttered under his breath, then reached for his burner cell and texted *87, which meant “surveillance detected.” He thought he had seen one of the young men—the one not carrying the helmet; short and wiry with the pillar of dark curly hair—pass through the café when he and Jared were there.
Had Jared expected this? He didn’t know.
Aware that unfriendly eyes might be watching him, too, Crocker pushed through a group of German tourists to the opening of the bazaar near the perpendicular street, Mehmet A
a, and turned right. The minarets of the Blue Mosque glistened beyond his shoulder. No way to know if this was routine surveillance by Turkish MiT (their intelligence service) or something more ominous. Istanbul was considered a hot site—active with foreign agents of various affiliations.
He paused among shoppers, worshippers, and tourists to scan the crowd for Jared, who wore a white oxford shirt and a blue zip-up jacket, and to check in the reflection of the glass entrance to a luggage shop to see if anyone was following him. A one-eyed man pushed in front of him, offering to sell cigarettes.
Crocker shook his head, remembering not to make eye contact with a possible pursuer.
“American and French brands, sir. Very gud price.”
As Crocker juked around him, he heard a screech of tires from the direction of Torun Sokak, the shout of a driver, followed by a woman’s shrill shout. A burst of pigeons tore into the air. His senses focused even tighter on sounds and movement.
What was that?
Considered a major thoroughfare, Torun Sokak consisted of two narrow lanes, both of which were clogged with traffic. Cars were honking. Drivers and pedestrians were hurrying away from the middle of the street and frantically dialing their cell phones. He caught a glimpse of someone crossing between the cars.
Crocker continued right along the constricted sidewalk to where a group had gathered. A man shouted something in Arabic. An older man pointed at a gray van stopped along the curb. He turned.
Through the open side door he saw two men grappling inside. One of them wore a blue jacket. Jared! He quickly intuited that someone had pushed the young CIA officer into the open door of the van to try to abduct him, and he was resisting.