Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: For Honor: New Excerpt
By Jeff Rovin
Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: For Honor by Jeff Rovin is a chilling new thriller in the New York Times bestselling Tom Clancy’s Op-Center series, where simmering tensions threaten to ignite when a silo of Cold War missiles surfaces in the Middle East.
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent a convoy of nuclear missiles to Cuba. The crisis that followed almost triggered World War III. However, while all eyes were on the Caribbean, not all of the missiles were sent to Cuba. Several ships slipped from the flotilla and headed for a fishing village in a remote, frigid, northeastern Soviet frontier. There, a silo was constructed not far from Alaska.
More than sixty years later, that silo and its lethal contents are intact. Now, Iranian scientists team with a Russian agent and his estranged, arms-smuggling father to bring those missiles to Tehran. When an intel officer at Op-Center starts picking up hints of the deal, the government’s off-the-grid unit must track the unknown actors – and try to decide whether they can count on data provided by an Iranian defector, a man who has more at stake than anyone realizes.
At the same time, Op-Center sends a lone agent to Havana to try and find an aging revolutionary, a woman, who may hold the key to pinpointing the location of the silo.
Complicating matters is a turf war between Op-Center, the White House, and the FBI that threatens to compromise the investigation … as the time to act grows perilously short.
Op-Center Headquarters, Fort Belvoir North,
July 1, 2019, 7:30 A.M.
“Will there be vegan hot dogs?”
Meteorologist Gary Gold turned from his laptop to the speaker, Dongling Qui. Gold had been reviewing the morning’s low-orbit satellite views of Poland, where NATO maneuvers were scheduled to begin that afternoon. He regarded the young woman with his pleasant blue eyes.
“I don’t know,” Gold said, folding his arms. “I think we did have turkey burgers last Fourth of July.”
“A turkey is meat,” Dongling pointed out.
“Yes, I know that,” he replied. “But what I’m saying is—there’s a diverse menu. I’m sure if you ask, Aaron will make sure he has some.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose after just a week on the job—”
“Dongling, it’s a tradition,” Gold assured her. “Everyone shows up, invited or not. And their plus-ones. You can be mine, if you feel like you’re forcing yourself.”
She made a face that reflected her ongoing hesitancy.
“How about this: I’ll ask,” Gold offered. “And I promise you: frankless-furters will be served.”
The twenty-eight-year-old geologist smiled gratefully and returned to her examination of soil analysis from Syria. She was tracking the movement of soldiers based on samples scraped from the soles of dead ISIS fighters.
Gold lingered for a moment in the silence she left behind. He wasn’t sorry he brought up the annual bash thrown by his boss, Aaron Bleich. Dongling was new, just a week on the job, and was coming in early to acclimate herself. Beijing-raised and educated, the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and Chinese embassy worker, she was one of the few women who worked in the Tank, the electronic and scientific brain-center of Op-Center. Along with former U.N. translator, linguist Salim Singh, he and Dongling were also the only people here at this hour.
“All I can tell you is that it’s like working as a hedge fund guy,” Gold had told his parents when he was hired seven months before. “I’ve gotta be there when certain European markets open.”
The European “markets” were the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, Meteo France, the Irish Meteorological Service, among dozens of other facilities around the globe. It was Gold’s job each morning to study the world’s microclimates, searching for sudden events that could not be explained by the weather: for example, suboceanic thermal signatures that could be North Korean midget submarines and not whales, or decreased pollution over Beijing or Shanghai that might indicate downtime and thus decreased production for Chinese factories. There was also a need for actionable global weather reports, since Director Williams never knew when and to where it might be necessary to dispatch the Joint Special Operations Command out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. JSOC was Op-Center’s military wing; military “fist,” as their commander, Major Mike Volner preferred to call it. Volner was an observer assigned to the Polish drills. Williams liked to know whether his people were in sun or storm and the most efficient way to reach them in a crisis.
The staff of mostly twenty-somethings trickled in over the next hour, bag-breakfasts in hand and dressed as if they were going to a university protest. Williams and most of his senior staff did not approve of the informality but concessions were the only way to get the sharp, millennial talent Op-Center needed. The sole exceptions to the lazy conformity were three women: Dongling, in her white blouse and black skirt; cartographer Allison Weill, who was said to be descended from one of the noncoms who journeyed west with Lewis and Clark; and thirty-four-year-old Kathleen Hays, a Hollywood computer graphics designer who was discovered, by Aaron, at a comic book convention nearly eight months before. Hays was Op-Center’s visual analysis specialist, a shy, private woman who favored black pantsuits that matched her raven hair. Her station formed the third piece of the triptych with Gary Gold in the center. There were no cubicles in the small but open Geek Tank: the stations formed a rectangle with the fourteen “geeks” facing inward. Only Aaron had his own office, though a small one was being carved out for Charlene Squires, the RES—reverse engineering specialist. It was being constructed on the same spot from which her father, Charlie Squires, had commanded Striker, the military arm of Paul Hood’s Op-Center. Charlie was KIA—killed in action—on a mission to Russia with the team.
Gold’s row faced the door and he saw Aaron arrive.
“Six for six,” the meteorologist grumped inside as he saw the network leader smirk in his direction. The first day of Dongling’s employment had been orientation, which had been handled by Deputy Director Anne Sullivan. From day two onward, Gold had made it his personal responsibility to help the new hire in any way possible, from walking her to the fast food outlets on the base to understanding the pop culture references and ever-changing slang employed by most of the geeks. Though Dongling was seemingly oblivious to Gold’s solicitous attention, Aaron was not. There was no competition for her attention, such as it was. As everyone at Op-Center learned in their post-employment, pre-assignment orientation, proximity to target was nine-tenths of any effective land campaign.
Gold did not look forward to telling his boss why he was asking about the Fourth of July menu. He decided to wait for an opportunity rather than make one. For one thing, Bleich was distracted by all that had to get done in the week before his annual summer vacation. For another, officially, there was a no-dating policy among coworkers at Op-Center. Fraternizing at parties and barbecues was permitted, but pillow talk was not conducive to keeping divisional secrets. These boundaries were strictly enforced even in a confined space like the Tank, when the parties were seated side-by-side. Confidential data was sent to SmartWare, eyeglasses that read the irises of the users before divulging and then destroying the information. Unofficially, however—to the disapproval of Anne Sullivan—Chase Williams looked the other way at minor infractions. He had told his deputy he would rather know who was seeing whom rather than have it occur in secret.
To Gold’s left, Kathleen Hays nodded good morning to her neighbors and began scrolling through the results of the International Facial Scan program that was automatically run overnight. Until six weeks ago, this kind of research was time-restricted because Op-Center was piggybacking on the NSA’s mainframe. Then Aaron and Joe Berkowitz, a technical support associate, cobbled together what they called OpPrime—a nod, she later learned, to Optimus Prime and their affection for the universe of the Transformers. Part official, part dark ops, the system was designed to cobble together everything they needed from a variety of sources, without proprietary constraints or permissions. The efficiency of Kathleen’s work had increased exponentially.
The IFS was a program that constantly sifted through all social media postings from around the globe, performing facial scans and comparing it to Op-Center’s vast database of suspected terrorists. If there were an urgent match, she would have been notified by smartphone and a member of the skeletal evening staff would have accessed the data via SmartWare. Absent that, the morning update fell into three categories: F3, nationals from hostile nations who were posing at monuments or crowded clubs, markets, or sports venues; F2, intelligence service “watch list” individuals who were spotted anywhere; and F1, known terrorists who showed up in an image. The highest level of alert, F0, was for fugitives. That was how Op-Center helped the National Intelligence Agency of the Kingdom of Thailand find the assassin who shot and killed an imam in Sungai Padi: he was spotted on a tourist’s Instagram video taken at a halal restaurant. Though he had been masked during the attack, his clothes and bodily proportions matched exactly security camera footage of the killing.
While there was a generally predictable flow of images from around the world, two places had experienced upticks in the last six months as tourism grew. One was Costa Rica, thanks to its emphasis on ecotourism; and the other was Cuba, now that it was directly accessible from the United States.
The world was relatively quiet, though there was an interesting F2 hit from Moscow. She didn’t need the glasses to read it. And the classification was F2B, a subset which meant that the identity was “confidently suspected” but with an uncertainty factor.
Kathleen opened the attached dossier.
Konstantin Bolshakov, she read. Former naval officer who became an arms dealer after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
There were no warrants or indication of recent activity, just two photographs: a thirty-two-year-old image Interpol had taken when he met with drug dealers in Berlin; and this new image, during the May Day Parade, only just posted on Facebook. The “aging” program applied to the older photograph made for a convincing similarity and a 79 percent certainty that it was Bolshakov.
Kathleen flagged the name and asked for a priority follow-up. That meant that security cameras to which Op-Center had access in and around Moscow, and at many Russian airports, should be searched as well. If the man were still active in gunrunning, he would be a useful bargaining chip if Moscow had anything the White House needed.
Almost at once, the scan returned with an update. Two weeks ago, Bolshakov had flown into an international airport in Russia’s frozen northeast. No departure had been noted.
Kathleen dutifully marked the location for further scrutiny: the frozen port city of Anadyr.
July 2, 12:40 A.M.
During his twenty-year career as an officer for the Northern Fleet Intelligence Directorate, Konstantin Bolshakov became familiar with the three common designations for cold weather. There was freezing cold, which was the norm when ships were docked in northern bases like Severomorsk and Tiksi. It was the kind of weather when even a clear sun hanging in the sky did not cause the ice to melt. Then there was bitter cold, a classification that described a vessel leaving port and thrusting itself into winds that were restless at best, brutal at worst. And then there was extreme cold, which was the typical at-sea designation for ships facing not just wind but ice, floes that lowered the sea and air temperature by ten degrees or more.
The port city of Anadyr is none of those. Located in the permafrost zone, where the ground was frozen year-round, it is quite literally in a class by itself, nestled in one of the coldest inhabited spots on the planet. With a population of just over fourteen thousand, the port city is a sizeable fishing center, though it is also a significant mining center for coal and gold and is one of the largest reindeer-breeding centers in the hemisphere. Most of the people live in sturdy khrushevkas, five-story apartment buildings, and the roads are built of concrete; in the cold, lacking flexibility under heavy traffic, asphalt simply snaps and becomes granular, like little black diamonds.
“When the ground underfoot does not crunch,” a fellow traveler on the flight had commented as they deplaned, “then I will worry about global warming.”
Bolshakov replied with an agreeable smile. The other man—a structural engineer judging by a well-worn leather jacket that announced the name of his firm—had turned and addressed his traveling companion directly, a not-uncommon occurrence. Bolshakov had a wide, open face with relaxed, approachable features. It was one of the reasons that even career criminals and black marketers had trusted him for over thirty years.
The airbus journey had lasted nearly eight and one-half hours, the nonstop Ural Airlines flight describing the shortest path between the two places: an arc over the top of the earth. Now eighty-eight, the former sailor had bookended the trip with sleep, his chin tucked in his shoulder, his ear pressed to the cold, rattling window, his arms tightly crossed to keep his fingers warm. He woke for meals; to stare down at the pole that explorers had clawed across—not in relative comfort, with vodka on a fold-down tray; and to visit the lavatory. At those times, when he moved haltingly down the narrow aisle, Bolshakov found that his once powerful sea legs were woefully inadequate air legs. They embraced inactivity and protested with sharp joint pain and apathetic tendons whenever he rose. The proud part of him wanted to believe he could still make the journey by sea, if required, in one of the old freighters or frigates. But the pragmatic part of him—and the one-time idealist was nothing, now, if not a realist—knew that was not the case.
Still, he thought, now that the trip was behind him and he prepared for bed in his small, utilitarian hotel room, still, you had that once. A freedom that most men never knew, the euphoria of serving the Soviet Union and doing it on the great, swelling arena of the sea.
And then came Gorbachev. Damnable, short-sighted, weak-willed Gorbachev. Thanks to him, it was a freedom that men would never know again.
Bolshakov drew the blackout shade over the single, small window. Though it was dark now—not pitch, but a deep dusk-gray—there were just over twenty hours of daylight during the summer months. The sun would rise in less than an hour. He remembered having been excited by those lopsided hours when he was first stationed here. For a kid who grew up in Moscow, a metropolis, everything beyond the city limits was new and fascinating and he had embraced it all. Especially this place, which was God-touched in its unblemished simplicity. He had spent two years here when he was in his twenties. From what the dim light had revealed in the bus ride over, the outpost had grown to a small city. The Anadyr Hotel was a minor showplace: relatively new, the two-story barn-red box did not offer Internet for its guests but did have a private bathroom in each room. This particular room had a pair of twin beds, as requested. But even with a hotel, a supermarket, and a film theater, the town was still dwarfed by the vast skies and the fields beyond. As he lay down, alone, he also remembered—
You fell in love here. You married here, had a son here. Varvara and Yuri, brighter to him than the sun that shined through ice on the eaves of their small military apartment.
Tears formed in the old warrior’s tired eyes and fell to the pillow. He had often thought that those years were the best he had ever known; perhaps they were the best that any man could ask for, to know perfect love and purpose and contentment.
“And yet,” he murmured.
Perhaps there was still enough of God in this great wilderness to work a miracle. Bolshakov had come to Anadyr a day early not to see old sights, not for nostalgia. He had wanted to be rested for what was to come. Because it was possible that he had one great moment left in his life. The moment when, after three decades, he would finally get to put his arms around the neck of his son.
Op-Center Headquarters, Fort Belvoir North,
July 1, 8:55 A.M.
Three levels underground, in the small warren of offices and corridors that comprised Op-Center, Deputy Director Anne Sullivan sat in her office, the door closed—something it rarely was. Virtually all the work done by Op-Center was collaborative and she was the lynchpin among the many offices and their small staffs. Chase Williams called her the gatekeeper; those trying to reach him referred to her less kindly as the bottleneck. Science fiction geek Aaron Bleich had once put it more succinctly: “You’re the Mr. Spock to the boss’s Captain Kirk.”
Anne did not know Aaron well, but the comparison was more apt than even he probably had realized.
Anne was highlighting items in the daily intelligence report from Homeland Security. The flags she placed on the secure tablet were color-coded by day. She took some teasing from Williams and Roger McCord, the intelligence director, about that. Williams called it her own private United Nations while McCord referred to it as her BBC: Big Box of Crayolas.
Sullivan smiled tightly whenever they said that. She didn’t get clubhouse humor, the kind of needling coworkers did just for the apparent hell of it. It reminded her of the sorority pranking she experienced as an undergraduate at Smith, dialed back to conform to federal employment guidelines.
The fifty-seven-year-old stared at the tablet as if its size and proximity would obliterate the smart phone sitting to the right of her computer keyboard. Sometime after five minutes from now, she was supposed to get the call. It had been a long night of intermittent sleep and now that it was nearly here she felt a chronic chill, despite the rapid beat of her heart. If she were on her treadmill at home in Georgetown, lost in a novel or short story, a tiny beep would have sounded telling her it was time to slow down.
How? she demanded of the imaginary warning.
Her world had been upended by the biopsy. It wasn’t just anxiety that electrified her body. It was a sense that the existence and routine she knew might suddenly have an expiration date … if not life itself. For the past few days, work had been a distraction rather than a passion; even that was new to her, and she didn’t know how to handle it. She didn’t want to handle it. She had already handled so much, pushing the envelope in a hierarchy where men either filled or controlled the slots.
And there’s the self-pity, she warned herself.
She had stopped planting flags on the file and returned to it. Electronic intelligence transcripts from Israel about Western sympathizers in Tehran. Here she was, reflecting on past challenges when there was an entire population of human beings living in mute, terrified obeisance.
But her mind still wandered. The Sullivans were a Protestant family that had emigrated from East Belfast a half century ago. She still had the trace of a brogue in her voice, cherished because it reminded her of her dear father and departed mother, a mother she had lost to the same damn scourge that she was waiting to hear about—
The respectful rap at the door caused her to jump.
“Come in,” she said, returning focus to her work.
The door opened slowly; Chase Williams was still answering a text as it swung in. The retired U.S. Navy four-star, former combatant commander for both Pacific Command and Central Command filled the doorway with a quiet authority that betrayed thirty-five years of active duty. He also held a PhD in global history from Tufts University, though Anne deeply respected the fact that he usually deferred to his coworkers who, like him, had field experience.
“Sorry,” Williams said, looking up and smiling softly. “Seems my lease was due yesterday.”
“Print or electronic?”
“Print,” he said.
“We can have someone go over and break into the safe,” she remarked.
Williams grinned. He lived at the Watergate. “Nice one. I don’t think they’ll evict me. I know people in higher places.”
She smiled back, relieved for the distraction of the banter but aware that it was 9:03 and her phone hadn’t chimed.
“Anything?” he asked, his eyes turning from the iPhone to hers.
“Not yet,” she said, pursing her lips.
His eyes went back to the phone. “You want to bring it in my office, have coffee?”
“I’ll wait here,” she said, fighting down the choke in her voice. “I’ll come in after—”
“The morning briefing can wait,” he assured her. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“A call from the oncologist really, really soon,” she said.
It was a rare moment of vulnerability and Williams was about to give her a thumbs-up when the seabird chime sounded. Anne looked at the caller ID and took a long breath. Williams gave her an encouraging nod and shut the door.
She picked up the phone knowing that what she had just said was a lie. What she needed was a call that opened with, “Good news, Ms. Sullivan. We’ve got the biopsy results and the tumor was benign.”
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Rovin.