Man of War, page 1
This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real..
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man of war. Copyright © 2018 by Sean Parnell..
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Parnell, Sean, 1981- author.
Title: Man of War : an Eric Steele novel / Sean Parnell.
Description: First edition. | New York, NY : William Morrow,  | Identifiers: LCCN 2017049082 (print) | LCCN 2017061742 (ebook) | ISBN 9780062668806 (ebook) | ISBN 0062668803 (ebook) | ISBN 9780062668783 (hardcover) | ISBN 0062668781 (hardcover)
Subjects: | GSAFD: Suspense fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3616.A762 (ebook) | LCC PS3616.A762 B33 2018 (print) | DDC 813/.6--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017049082
Digital Edition SEPTEMBER 2018 ISBN: 978-0-06-266880-6
Print ISBN: 978-0-06-266878-3
To my Three Es
About the Author
Also by Sean Parnell
About the Publisher
Khalid arrived at his commander’s house before first light. At fifteen, he was built like a Great Dane puppy, all legs and feet except for the wisp of hair growing around his upper lip. The facial hair marked him as a man, but it was the pistol in his waist that made him feel invincible.
Khalid was a jundi, what the men of the Algerian Liberation Front called a gun boy. Armed with Kalashnikovs, they were street thugs who took what they wanted. Khalid’s only loyalty was to Commander Cheb Massi.
Massi ran the Bir Mourad Raïs district, the strategic strip of land that ran from the plateau of western Algiers to the Hydra district where the westerners had their embassies. He also controlled the docks where Khalid traded hashish and opium for guns and RPGs. It was because of the docks that everyone called Massi the emir, and as long as Khalid worked for him, he was untouchable.
As he always did when summoned to the emir’s house, Khalid went straight to the fridge for a beer. The kitchen was dark, and he yanked at the handle. The seal gave way with a wet pop, and the harsh light hit him in the eyes, dilating his pupils. He was twisting the cap off the bottle when a voice said, in Arabic:
“A bit early.”
Damn. Khalid jumped, and the bottle slipped out of his hand and shattered on the tile floor. He stepped back, reaching for the pistol stuck in his waistband, glass crunching under his feet. A match flared at the table, and a pair of scarred hands appeared in the circle of yellow light. The man leaned in to touch the end of the cigarette against the flame, and Khalid froze.
His face was gaunt and skeletal, and suddenly Khalid had to pee. It happened every time he got nervous or scared.
“You pull that piece”—the man paused to drag smoke into his lungs—“and I will blow you out of your shoes.”
It was too dark for Khalid to make out if he had a gun, but if he did there was no doubt that the man would kill him right there. So he raised his hands, palms out like they did in the American movies, and prayed that Commander Massi was close by. He thanked Allah when the lights came on and his boss stomped into the kitchen.
“Khalid, why are you standing like that?”
Massi nodded to the man at the table.
“This is the boy I told you about.”
The man calmly brought his right hand up, his eyes freezing Khalid in place. They were black and emotionless, just like the Egyptian cobra that had bit his cousin, but instead of fangs the man was holding a large revolver centered on Khalid’s gut.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
Khalid nodded. There was no mistaking the face. It was the burned man. His voice cracked when he answered. “Yeeess . . . yes.”
“Cheb says you have the hadia, is that true?”
The gift. It was the name his mother had given his ability to find things. When he nodded again, the burned man put his thumb on the hammer and eased it forward.
Khalid hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until his head began to spin. His legs trembled beneath him, and he could hear his heart hammering like a drum in his chest. He would have killed me, he realized.
At that moment Khalid understood that he knew nothing about death. He had been strong before walking into the kitchen, and now he was weak, helpless to control the shaking that ran up his legs.
“Have a seat before you fall down,” Massi snapped.
Khalid walked to the table. He heard the refrigerator open behind him when he sat, and forced himself not to jump when the man pushed a photograph across the table.
“Can you find this man for me?”
Massi had to thump the fresh beer against his shoulder before Khalid realized it was there. He took it and poured half the bottle down his parched throat, stopping only when he ran out of air.
As a jundi, Khalid spent most of his time running errands for Massi and his lieutenants. He knew the city like the back of his hand, but the gift he couldn’t explain. Somehow he was able to find people even if they wanted to stay hidden.
The man in the picture was an Arab, light-skinned but not like the Berbers. He had soft features, short black hair, and a thin nose. Khalid focused on the eyes and the nose; they were the hardest to change. Finally, after memorizing the face, he nodded.
Massi took out an old flip phone and handed it to Khalid.
“If he finds him before noon, I will give you an extra hundred thousand dollars,” the burned man said to Massi. “My number is the only one on this phone. You call me as soon as you find him. If you tell anyone I will kill your father first. He is still working at the oil fields in Gassi Touil, correct?”
Khalid didn’t feel right again until he was riding through the bazaar. He wanted to stop and smoke some hashish, but then he remembered the burned man’s gun. He drove around for two hours before ending up back at the bazaar. This is where he is, he thought, so he drove back and forth until his stomach began to rumble.
He was so hungry that he almost didn’t notice the silver van creeping down the road.
The cops in Algiers were dirty, and if they stopped him they would want money. Money he didn’t have. Khalid was about to scurry away, but then he got a good look at the driver of the van. He was white—a foreigner—and Khalid realized that he had seen him before.
“The American embassy,” he said aloud.
Something told him that the van was looking for the man in the picture. So instead of cutting through one of the alleys that led away from the bazaar, Khalid released the handbrake and aimed the motorbike at the vehicle. He happened to glance toward the sidewalk, and that was when he saw the man in the photo.
The target was walking toward him, head low and unaware of the van creeping up from behind. Khalid couldn’t believe his good fortune. He pulled the motorcycle to the curb and dug the phone from his pocket.
“That was quick.”
“He is at the bazaar. The Americans are here in a van.”
“What is he carrying?”
“Uh . . . he has a bag.”
“Are you sure they are Americans?”
“Yes . . .”
The van sped forward so fast that Khalid almost dropped the phone. It jumped onto the curb amid angry shouts from pedestrians. Three burly men jumped out.
Khalid relayed what was happening in real time. “Three men, they have beards and rifles.”
“Breul, don’t you fucking move!” one of the men yelled in English, pointing at the man Khalid had been sent to find.
“They are yelling at him. He is running.”
Behind him tires screeched and another car flashed around the corner. Khalid barely got out of the way, and almost dumped the bike in the street. The man in the picture tried to run, but one of the Americans pulled out a yellow pistol and fired.
The Arab ran into a woman carrying a bundle of oranges, a pair of wires trailing from his back. The fruit went flying and then there was a tick, tick, tick sound that sent the man to the ground. He dropped like a bag of stones and flopped around on the pavement like a fish in Khalid’s cousin’s net.
“I told you not to run,” one of the men said before kicking the Arab in the face. They grabbed his hands and forced them behind his back.
“We got him,” one of the Americans said into the radio.
“They are binding his hands and carrying him back to the van.”
“Follow them. I need to know where they are going.”
“Yes, of course.”
Khalid shoved the phone into his pocket and waited for the two vehicles to pass. He turned the bike around and hurried after them, his hunger forgotten. The only thing he remembered was the burned man’s eyes and the pistol leveled at his stomach.
He would not fail him.
Four thousand miles to the east, Eric Steele turned into the alley, the headlights of the stolen Mercedes playing across the cinderblock wall. He cut the lights, and before stepping out of the car made sure the dome light was disengaged.
Steele was an Alpha—a clandestine operative assigned to a unit known simply as “the Program.” It traced its lineage to World War II and existed because there were enemies that the President of the United States couldn’t handle with diplomacy or all-out war. In these events the Commander in Chief needed a third option, and that was why Steele was in Beirut.
Eric gingerly reached back and touched the throbbing lump at the back of his skull. It felt like someone had embedded a golf ball beneath the skin and even the lightest of touches sent a shard of pain radiating along his jaw.
The blood staining his fingers looked black in the dark. “That sucker-punching bastard,” he muttered while wiping his hands on the leather upholstery. The center console rattled when it hinged open, and after futilely pawing around for a bottle of aspirin, Steele settled on the FN Five-seven instead.
Most of the time Steele carried a modified Colt 1911. The .45 was an old gun, and the only thing his father left at the house before he disappeared. It was Steele’s most cherished possession, but not the right weapon for what he had planned.
The FN, on the other hand, was designed in Belgium around the SS190 5.7×28mm round; hence the name. Its sole purpose was to punch through body armor, and it was the cartel favorite. Steele press-checked the pistol and after ensuring it was loaded, screwed a suppressor onto the threaded barrel. When it was snug, he pressed a wireless earpiece into his ear, stepped out of the vehicle, and eased the door shut behind him.
In the darkness the only sound came from the raindrops on the roof and the gentle swishing of traffic that drifted from the highway. Steele let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
“Radio check,” he said, stepping around the car and angling for the building to his right. At six foot two, he moved with a predatory grace that seemed impossible for a man of his build. Steele hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in years. His physique, like his light, measured step, had come from the mountains of Afghanistan, where he had hunted terrorists as a Green Beret.
“Took you long enough,” came the response.
The voice on the radio belonged to Demo, Steele’s handler. They had been together since Eric became an Alpha and it was a tight bond, forged by countless operations.
“Traffic,” Steele replied.
It was the understatement of the year. The ride over had been a white-knuckle nightmare. Rain in Beirut is like snow in Florida, and it didn’t matter if it was an inch or a foot—it made the locals drive like maniacs.
Steele paused at the door and tested the knob. It was locked. He had the picks ready in his shirt pocket and went to work. Sweat beaded up on his forehead—it was hot, and the rain had made it worse.
Lock picking was a perishable skill, one that Steele knew he had neglected. During phase two of the Program’s selection course it would have taken him thirty seconds. “Damn you, lock,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“Take forever, mano,” Demo quipped.
Steele gritted his teeth and fought the urge to just kick the door in, but a second later the last tumbler clicked into place and he was able to turn the knob.
He cleared the house, fully aware that he could be walking into a trap. He took his time, slipping from room to room. The street side of the structure had a row of windows, and now an
In the rush to rebuild, contractors cut corners. Steele hadn’t been in a building yet that didn’t swell during the day and pop and creak each night when it settled. Usually he didn’t notice, but moving through the final rooms was unnerving, and by the time he got to the last one on the second floor, his shoulders were on fire.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead and bent to look out the window. It was amazing how heavy a 1.6-pound pistol could get if you weren’t relaxed. He knew better and chided himself, but forgot the pain the moment he saw the target building.
The neon dragon dancing on the roof glinted off the puddles in sparks of yellow and red. Outside the Dragon’s Door the line stretched back around the block. Steele set the pistol on the ledge and checked the Rolex Submariner on his wrist. It was 11:25. He pulled a magnifier from the inside pocket of his Manning and Manning jacket and pressed it to his eye.
“I’m on target,” he said.
“Uploading the feed, stand by,” Demo replied.
While his handler remotely connected to the magnifier’s Bluetooth so he could watch the feed, Steele went over what he knew of the operation. He had received the dossier three days ago by secure courier. Known as the “target package,” the mission files and operations order contained in the dossier were supposed to provide him with everything he needed to plan and execute the operation. This one had the CIA’s stench all over it.
There was no chain-of-custody slip on the front, so he had no idea who’d rushed it to the White House, but what made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up was the intel. Everything about the file, from the narrative explaining how the NSA had pinged the target’s phone in Beirut to the exact time he was supposed to show up at the club, was too precise to be a rush. Someone had taken a great deal of time on the packet, and the first word that popped into Steele’s mind was “convenient.”
“Looks like we have company,” Demo said as a silver Land Rover pulled up in front of the club.