Hot Target

D
EDICATION

To my fabulous son, Jason:

Even as a tiny child, your smile could outshine the sun, and your cheerful disposition and kind nature made you countless friends. Everyone who met you loved you!

At three, walking became too mundane for you. Instead, wherever you went, you danced. And occasionally you swished! One of the first times you did that, your dad looked at me. “Where did he learn that?” I shrugged. We didn’t let you watch TV. “Got me. It’s just . . . Jason being Jason,” I said, and went off to play with you and your vast collection of cars and action figures.

At eight, you discovered musical theater. You wanted to sing and dance onstage, so you auditioned for a semipro production. You were just a little too young, but you charmed the director and became the tiniest pickpocket in an eight-week run of
Oliver!

Your dad loved Stevie Wonder, and I, a former rock-and-roller, was in my country music phase. “What’s with all the show tunes?” your grandmother asked me when you played the soundtrack to
Secret Garden
over and over again. I smiled. “It’s just Jason being Jason.”

At nine, you had a class project—write a letter to someone you admire. “Why Bette Midler?” I asked when you told me your choice. “She’s my favorite actor in the world,” you proclaimed after watching
Ruthless People
thirty times in a row. She wrote back, and you framed her signed picture, putting it in a place of honor on your dresser.

“Wow, that’s interesting,” I said to your dad, after we once again agreed that Jason was truly unique. “I wonder if he likes Cher, too?”

(You did! Along with Bernadette Peters and Debbie Reynolds and . . .)

At ten, you went to see a show that featured an actor friend you’d made while appearing as Winthrop Paroo in
The Music Man.
On the ride home, you asked me, “Did you know Charley Dude is gay?” “Yeah,” I said. “Wasn’t his performance excellent tonight?” You agreed, but were unusually quiet for the rest of the drive.

A few days later, we had friends over to watch a movie, and as Eric and Bill sat together on the couch, they started their usual banter. “Raising the homo-shield!” Bill announced, invoking the invisible force field that would supposedly allow him to sit so close to Eric without anyone making gay comments.

It was all supposed to be funny, but how, I wondered, would those jokes sound to someone who was gay?

That night, after everyone went home and you were in bed, your dad and I discussed it, and we agreed. We gathered all of our friends together and announced that from this moment on, there would be no more gay jokes in our house. No more inadvertent gay bashing.

Because if you
were
gay—and I was pretty sure even then that this was, indeed, the way God made you—you were not going to grow up thinking there was anything wrong with you.

Years later, when you were fifteen, you still wanted me to tuck you in at night. So I’d stand by your bunk bed and we’d talk a bit about the day. I’d also gather up your dirty clothes. You were supposed to put them in a laundry basket, but sometimes your aim was off.

One night, you took a deep breath and said to me, “Mom, I think I’m gay.”

“I know that,” I told you, giving you a hug and a kiss. “I love you. I’ll always love you.
Where
did you put your dirty socks?”

A day or two later we sat down and talked about safe sex and personal safety. I have to confess that it made my heart ache to have to tell you that there were people out there, people who didn’t even know you but who hated you anyway—people who might try to hurt you because you were gay. Because you were simply being you. And it was your turn to give me a hug and say, “I know that. But, Mom, the world
is
changing.”

Today, as I write this, you are eighteen. You are a grown man, and I am so proud of you.

Yes, the world is changing, but it’s not happening quickly enough for me. I was outraged when we went to the Gay Pride parade last June and you saw that hateful, ignorant sign that read, “God hates you.”

I wish the person carrying that sign had seen you at three, at eight, at nine, at ten. If he had, then he would know that you are a true child of God. If he had, then he would know that by being gay, you are just being Jason.

God loves you, I love you, Dad loves you. Unconditionally. You know that.

And I know that you love and accept yourself. You are confident and strong. Just like when you were three years old, you allow Jason to be Jason.

Shine on, my son!

This story is for you.

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you, first off, to my wonderful readers, especially those who clamored to see more of Jules Cassidy.

I love writing this ongoing series of books about SEAL Team Sixteen, Troubleshooters Incorporated, and Max Bhagat’s FBI Counterterrorist Team. These characters have become my dear friends. It’s beyond cool that so many readers feel the same way!

(FYI, I’m currently writing Max and Gina’s story,
Breaking Point,
due out next summer. Watch my website,
www.SuzanneBrockmann.com
for details!)

A shout out to my early draft readers: Lee Brockmann (Hi, Mom!), Deede Bergeron, Patricia McMahon, and Scott Lutz. Thank you so much for your input!

Thanks, also, to the team at Ballantine: Linda Marrow, Gilly Hailparn, Arielle Zibrak . . . As for my editor, Shauna Summers . . . Thank you, THANK YOU,
thank you,
thank you!!!

A ton of appreciation goes to Those Who Help Keep Me Sane: Eric Ruben, Christina Trevaskis (aka Tina Fabulous!), and my terrific agent, Steve Axelrod! Thanks also to fellow writers, Pat White and Alesia Holliday.

A special note to Donovan and Betsy Trevaskis: Thank you for sharing your wonderful daughter with me. I know how hard it must be for you, with her so far away. I promise she will visit you often!

Thank you to my own precious daughter and son, Melanie and Jason. I love you guys!

Thank you to Michael Holland for providing musical inspiration. As I wrote
Hot Target,
I listened repeatedly to “Everything in the Whole Wide World,”

(It Came As) No Surprise,” and “Firefly IX” from Michael’s latest CD,
Beach Toys Won’t Save You.
(Michael’s CDs are available at
www.CDBaby.com
.)

A huge HOO-YAH to Capt. Josh Roots of the United States Marines for being my contact in Iraq, and for distributing dozens of care packages to the young men and women in his unit. Thank you, too, to the readers who contributed to those packages during my
Flashpoint
tour—especially those who helped us out by bringing the boxes to their local post offices!

Thank you to my relentlessly patient husband and best friend, Ed Gaffney. (Ed’s first book, a legal thriller called
Premeditated Murder
will be published in June! I’m so proud!)

Last but not least, thank you to PFLAG—Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—an organization dedicated to changing attitudes and creating an environment of understanding so that gay family members and friends can live with dignity and respect. For more information, go to
www.pflag.org
.

As always, any mistakes I’ve made or liberties I’ve taken are completely my own.

P
ROLOGUE

Every now and then, a SEAL Team was handed a silver bullet assignment.

Rescuing a dozen kidnapped supermodels.

Working extra security, blending with the crowd in the stands at the Olympics.

A training op in Honolulu during spring break.

But no matter how Chief Cosmo Richter looked at it, jamming his six-foot-four-inch body up the shaft of a thirty-five-year-old garbage chute in a terrorist-ridden country in the middle of the night was not on his top-ten list of dream assignments.

Nope, whoever labeled Special Operations as the most glamorous branch of the U.S. Military didn’t have this in mind.

As Cosmo led his men farther up the chute and into the building that was an alleged orphanage, he could hear Tony Vlachic, SEAL Team Sixteen’s newest and youngest member, working hard not to gag at the overpowering stench.

He could also hear the gunfire from the street, as a second squad of SEALs—Mikey Muldoon and seven men—was led directly into an enemy ambush.

Of course, it wasn’t really an ambush. Not anymore.

The SEAL leader of this op, Lieutenant Mike Muldoon, had guessed correctly that Ziya, their informant, had terrorist ties. It was true that Ziya
had
revealed that the civilian hostages were being held in this building—information that was verified by U.S. intelligence. And, for sure, the Big Z was all “Please allow me to help.”

But he was never quite specific enough about exactly
how
he wanted to help.

Mikey had guessed correctly that helping the hostages escape to freedom wasn’t what the Z-man had in mind. No, it was now clear that the informant’s goal was to “help” the American forces get chopped to bits in a deadly ambush.

Ziya had been on some kind of alternate timetable as he’d led them here tonight. It wasn’t all that obvious, but Mikey—a smart man and quality officer—had paid attention to the man’s careful stalling. He’d noted Z’s barely perceptible undercurrent of intense excitement.

Mike had glanced at Cosmo, who’d sent him back a microscopic nod.

Yes, sir, he’d picked up on it, too.

With just a little froggish imagination, it wasn’t hard to theorize that Ziya was waiting for, oh, say, a terrorist cell or two to get into place, so that when the SEALs attempted the rescue of the three American civilians in that thar orphanage, they’d instead be hit by a carefully placed wall of bullets.

So while Mikey had played along, cheerfully following Z’s “shortcut” that added nearly a half mile to their trip, Cosmo and his band of merries peeled off from the group. They moved much faster and slipped silently and invisibly past the ambushers, eager to begin—and therefore end—their exploration of this building’s waste disposal system.

At the same time, a third group of SEALs who’d been following at some distance behind had taken on the task of ambush removal.

It was that group—a brawny SEAL officer known as Big Mac and his seven-man squad—who were now exchanging some purposely poorly aimed, nonlethal fire with Mikey’s men. They were creating a nice little diversion out there in the dark of night as Mikey’s squad worked their acting chops for Ziya’s benefit, pretending to be compromised and calling for air support to get them out of Dodge.

The intention was to make Z-dog’s terrorist friends here in this so-called orphanage believe that they were winning, that the Americans couldn’t break past their perimeter defenses.

They’d relax and maybe even start celebrating their victory a little too early.

The last thing they’d anticipate was that Cosmo and his squad were already inside—having squeezed their way through that sphincterlike entrance to the building’s garbage chute down in the back alley.

It helped to keep a sense of humor at times like this, and Cos smiled at the idea of his squad of SEALs as a giant laxative, inserting to flush the hostages free. Military Metamucil—able to get the job done as quickly, as easily, and as painlessly as possible.

It worked particularly well as an analogy since this chute smelled like rotting ass.

Cosmo took a deep breath of relatively fresher air as he wiggled his way out and onto the building’s kitchen floor. It was quiet in there. The lights were off and no one was around—just the way he liked it when entering a facility where everyone inside wanted to kill him. He helped pull the rest of his team of enlisted men from the chute—Izzy, Gillman, Lopez, and Jenk.

And Petty Officer Third Class “Chickie” Vlachic, the new guy, who was looking at Cosmo as if he were insane because he was still grinning at that ass joke.

Go,
he told Chick with a hand signal.
Careful.
Even though no one in Intel believed there were actually children in this “orphanage,” the last thing any of them wanted was to hurt an innocent.

He didn’t need to signal anything more to remind Vlachic that they had to work their way back down to the basement, where the three hostages were being held. They all knew what they had to do and they got right to it.

He and Izzy Zanella went first.

Silently down a stairwell, creeping through a dimly lit hallway . . .

And there they were.

The hostages. Three bedraggled-looking women huddled together in the corner of a prison cell.

It was a vital part of any “orphanage,” don’t you know—the old prison cell in the basement. This was typical slimeball terrorist tactics—using a hospital or school or Red Cross facility in a U.S.-friendly neighborhood as a cover for a bomb factory or hostage-holding area.

There appeared to be no guard, and Izzy stepped out of the shadows a tenth of a second too soon.

Because the key word was
appeared.
A guard was there, hidden behind a stack of crates. Cosmo saw him just as he turned and spotted Izzy. Surprise and alarm widened the man’s eyes and he fumbled with his weapon, a modified AK-47.

Jerking off a few shots into the floor would have brought the rest of the guards down on top of them, but luckily their guy was more focused on pulling his weapon up into firing position.

And thus Cosmo reached him first.

One swift grab and sharp twist, and the weapon clattered on the concrete.

It was then, as he was lowering the guard’s limp body to the floor, that he looked up directly into the horrified eyes of all three of the women who were locked in that cage.

Sister Mary Francis, Sister Bernadette, and Sister Mary Grace.

He’d just taken out a terrorist guard while three nuns watched.

Nuns, for christsake.

There was no time to do anything but keep going. Besides, what could he do? Stammer an apology?

Lopez—good man—stepped in front of both Cosmo and the guard’s body, and was doing his best to reassure the women that they weren’t being kidnapped by a rival terrorist organization.

“Good evening, ladies. We’re U.S. Navy SEALs and we’ve come to take you home. I’m Corpsman Jay Lopez—I’m a field medic—and as soon as we get this door open—”

Vlachic was already starting to prep the C4 needed to blow the lock, but Jenk—always thinking—was ahead of him. He’d rifled the dead guard’s pockets and come up with the key.

Much easier, much quieter. Although, truth be told, Chick wasn’t the only one who looked a little disappointed.

“—I’m going to give you a quick check”—Lopez continued talking to the nuns as he went inside the cell—“see how much help you’re going to need getting up to the roof. We’re going to have to move fast, ladies . . .”

“Jenk,” Cosmo said in a low voice, as Lopez kept talking, explaining to the women that a helicopter would be coming in to pull them off the roof. Lopez was telling them how, even though the tangos—terrorists—in this building would hear the thrumming of the helo’s blades, they wouldn’t worry too much about it. They’d think the rescue was intended for the SEALs caught in the “ambush” in the street.

Jenkins knew what Cosmo was going to ask, and he nodded. “Good idea, Chief.”

Their original plan had Jenk and Izzy leading the way to the roof, with Lopez, Chickie, and Cosmo assisting the sisters—carrying them if need be. Gillman would guard their six—take up the rear.

But Cosmo—after breaking the biggest of the Big Ten—was pretty certain that none of these nuns would want to get anywhere near him. So he and Jenk would switch tasks.

“Ready, Chief,” Lopez reported, with one last reassuring smile at the sisters.

And away they went.

 

“So that story I’ve heard about Chief Richter . . . Is it true?”

The question was asked right on schedule.

As he asked it, Tony Vlachic had just the right amount of feigned casual curiosity in his voice. Like, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to talk about, so they might as well talk about this, yanno?

Sure.

The SEALs from Team Sixteen had been tossed into wait mode as their flight back to the States was yet again delayed. The euphoria of completing a successful covert rescue had worn down. The debriefings were finally over and most of the reports had been written and filed.

Most.

But not Cosmo Richter’s.

He was sitting at Mikey Muldoon’s desk, hiding behind the workstation divider and staring at the cursor flashing on the laptop’s screen, cursing the day he’d taken the chief’s exam.

God damn, but he hated written reports.

“Is which story true?” Collins asked Vlachic, his voice carrying in quite clearly from the hall.

Cosmo stopped pretending to write and listened instead. Because, Christ, was there more than one story about him now?


The
story,” Vlachic said, a hint of impatience in his voice. “I’m not an idiot, sir. The recruited-from-Rikers-Island rumor is just that—a stupid rumor.”

Ah, of course. Collins had been thinking about the Rikers Island thing.

As far as rumors went, that one actually bothered Cosmo. It was a smudge on the honor of the Teams. It had the potential to make people—naive people, sure—believe that the SEALs were no better than hired killers or thugs.

“Civilians might believe it,” the new guy continued, “but we both know an ex-con is never going to get into the SEAL Teams.”

Vlachic had all the makings of an excellent spec ops warrior, despite the fact that he was proving to be dead-ass average when it came to asking about The Story.

Sooner or later, everyone asked.
Is that story about big, scary-looking Cosmo Richter really true?

Most of them asked somewhere between one and forty-two hours after first going out on a real-world op with him.

And sure enough, twenty-four and a half hours ago they’d delivered the rescued hostages—Cosmo still thought of them as “My Three Nuns”—into the arms of the waiting doctors here at the air base.

But even though everyone asked about the story, no one had ever asked Cosmo directly. And most of them waited to ask at a time when they were certain he wouldn’t overhear.

Although, granted, neither Vlachic nor Ensign Joel Collins would’ve expected to find Cosmo here, deep in Officer Country, hiding out in this little cubbyhole of a half an office that had been temporarily assigned to Lieutenant Muldoon.

“According to the official report, no, it’s not true,” Collins told Vlachic now. They’d stopped right outside this door. Unbelievable. “Chief Richter was barely mentioned.”

“Yeah, well, with all due respect, sir, what’s a report going to say?” Vlachic pointed out.

Cosmo tried not to listen as the team’s two newest members argued about what would or would not be acceptable information for an official report. And whether or not there was another version—this one top secret—that included the exact details of what had gone down that day all those years ago. And whether Lieutenant Commander Lewis Koehl, the newly appointed CO of SEAL Team Sixteen, had seen a copy of that second report. Oh, and if such a report existed, did it contain Cosmo Richter’s real first name, because no one seemed to know what that was.

He stared at his computer screen. Where the hell was he? He reread the last thing he’d written in his report about the rescue of the nuns.

0507. Hostages found, IDed, and freed from barred cell. Sole guard removed before alarm raised.

0510. Headed for roof. Intel reports correct—zero children in this entire facility. Two guards encountered, resistance minimal, surprise 100 percent—ruse on street working well. Guards eliminated before alarm raised.

He was repeating himself. His college comp professor had always been on Cosmo’s ass, chastising him for repeating himself.

God
damn,
he hated report writing.

“What
I
heard, sir,” Vlachic said, and Cosmo used the excuse of checking out The Story’s latest mutation to take a break from this seventh level of hell, “was that Chief Richter single-handedly wiped out over a hundred men.”

Whoa.

The number was up to a hundred now.

If it kept growing at this rate, by the time Cosmo retired, the story would credit him with the destruction of an entire battalion.

Back when the number had reached a grand total of fifty, he’d thought it had overstretched the boundaries of believability. Yet it still continued to grow.

The wide-eyed new guys continued to believe him capable of damn near anything.

“I heard that he lost it,” Vlachic continued, “and—”

“He didn’t lose it, Chick,” Collins interrupted, disdain in his voice. “He doesn’t lose it. The man doesn’t even blink. You were just out there with him. Am I wrong? While you were inside that orphanage, how many of those al-Qaeda fucks did Charlie squad take out of the picture?”

“Seven,” the petty officer said.

“And how many did the chief personally send to their reward?”

“I don’t know,” Vlachic admitted. “At least four. Maybe five.” His laughter was disparaging. “I was too busy wetting my pants to notice exactly. And you’re right, sir—the chief was a robot.”

Yeah, Cosmo wished. If he truly were a robot, the looks of horror on those nuns’ faces wouldn’t still be haunting him. Damn, but he was going to carry that with him for a long, long time.

0514. Additional four terrorists removed from orphanage roof. Before alarm raised.

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