It’s a simple plan – force the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by shutting down key US ports. The complex part is for Coast Guard Lieutenant Mark Fletcher to stop it. Faced with an unknown enemy from his past and betrayal by his superior officers, Mark is caught in a labyrinth of deceit. His only allies are a retired Navy SEAL and a beautiful African American helicopter pilot. Stretching from the treacherous shores of Iraq to inner circles of power in Washington, DC, Choke Points leads the reader deep into the heart of the War on Terror and the real threats of attack on the US.
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Norfolk, Virginia, 1:00 PM Eastern Time
A low haze hung over the water as the 567-foot Navy cruiser USS Concord eased her way up Thimble Shoals Channel.
“It’s been a long nine months, but we’re almost there,” Concord’s captain, Bill Wallace said to his Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant Debra Hearn. “How are your daughters doing?
“They’re doing okay, but it’s been hard on them since Don split,” she answered.
“Any hope of reconciliation?”
“No, I don’t even know where he is. My mom’s been doing a great job, but dealing with twin four-year-olds is tough when you’re sixty-eight.”
“Any other family around to help?”
“I’m an only child, so it’s just me and my mom. Dad died a few years ago.”
“Let me know if there’s anything my wife and I can do to help.”
“Thanks, Captain, I will,” replied Hearn, ending the conversation for the moment.
Concord was now 4,000 yards away from the opening through the Chesapeake Bridge-Tunnel. There was a myriad of small boats in the area to watch out for and, moving at fifteen knots, Concord would be through the opening in four minutes.
On the main deck crewmembers patrolled with loaded weapons while down below others were finishing last-minute packing or donning their dress-white uniforms prior to manning the rail for entering port. Six thirty-foot Navy security boats, each with a four-man crew and mounting two machine guns, designated Papa 1 through 6, wove a protective pattern around Concord. Overhead an Air Cobra attack helicopter circled. Further out a local television station helicopter kept pace, its crew filming Concord’s return for the evening news.
“Bridge, aye,” replied Lieutenant Pete Spectle, the Junior Officer of the Deck.
“Bridge, I got what looks to be a boat on fire, two people onboard, bearing zero-nine-zero, range one thousand yards.”
“Bridge aye,” acknowledged Spectle. Wallace, overhearing the report, issued the orders: “Have Papa six investigate and send a MAYDAY to the Coast Guard on channel sixteen.”
“Aye, aye. Captain.”
Picking up a radio handset, and using Concord’s tactical call sign “Minuteman,” Spectle radioed the instructions to Papa 6, patrolling astern of Concord. As the boat peeled off at high speed in response to the order, the lookout called:
“Bridge, there are two speedboats bearing three-four-zero and two speedboats bearing zero-two-zero off the bow, range to all four boats approximately two thousand yards and closing.”
Spectle again acknowledged the report: “Lookout, Bridge. Roger, we see them.”
He relayed the report to the captain.
“Pass the info to Papa One and Papa Two and have them intercept,” ordered Wallace.
“Aye, aye, Captain,” responded Spectle. “Papa one, Papa two, this is ¬Minuteman, over.”
“Minuteman, this is Papa One, over.”
“Papa one, be advised there are four, repeat four speed boats on our bow, two to port, two to starboard, range approximately two thousands yards. Intercept and report. Over.”
“Roger,” Papa 1answered, and then radioed, “Papa Two, take the two to starboard. I’ll cover the two to port.” Papa 1 and 2 increased speed and headed for the contacts while Papa 3 and Papa 4 moved from their positions to cover the now-exposed area ahead of the cruiser.
As Papa 1 approached the intruders, one of her crew yelled, “Will you look at this!” Each speedboat had a gorgeous bikini-clad brunette standing up in the bow, waving a “Welcome Home” banner.
“Minuteman, this is Papa Two. The contacts look like a welcoming committee.”
“Papa Two, roger, move them out of the zone.”
“With pleasure. Out.”
With most of the attention focused on Papa 1 and 2, Wallace focused on Papa 6. Through his binoculars he saw Papa 6 pull alongside the burning pleasure boat.
“Oh my God,” he whispered as the burning boat exploded, obliterating itself and Papa 6.
“Spectle, order Papa Five and Hawk One to head for the scene and sound the Rescue and Assistance alarm.”
Overhead the Air Cobra, with Papa 5 following, headed for the smoke and flotsam marking the remains of Papa 6.
With most of the ship’s crew preparing to deal with the disaster astern, Papa 1 and Papa 2 moved toward the four speed boats off the bow. On board Concord, the Bridge Watch monitored the operations. After getting a good look at the incoming boats, Wallace told Hearn, “Looks like they have it under control.”
Closing the last hundred feet to their respective targets, weapons ready, the Papa crews tensed as the girls reached down and brought up brightly-colored water guns.
“Don’t shoot!” the Navy gunners called out to their mates, “they’re super-soaker water guns.” Everybody relaxed.
Seeing the water guns, Spectle muttered, “Looks like somebody’s idea of a joke.”
When the smiling women fired, bullets from their disguised AK-47s ripped the Navy crews to shreds. After eliminating the closest security boats, the intruders’ guns turned first on the two remaining security boats, then the cruiser.
Dashing to the 1MC, the ship’s public-address system, Wallace yelled, “Deck Security, open fire, repeat, open fire. All hands, man your Battle Stations. Set Condition Zebra.” The last meant all doors and hatches were to be closed, turning the hull into a series of watertight compartments.
Blood ran down Concord’s sides as the attackers’ fire tore into her crew. A ragged cheer went up when defensive fire killed one of the bikini-clad terrorists. The cheering stopped as the boat kept heading straight for Concord’s bow. Zigzagging, the other three boats drove on, their hulls splintered, the women gunners dead, but the helmsmen were safe behind armor-plated consoles.
Harry “Slick” Jones, coxswain of Papa 4, was dying; the rest of his crew was already dead. “Just one,” Jones prayed. “Just let me take one of the bastards with me.”
The fourth attacker had swung wide, apparently heading for Concord’s stern. Using skills honed by a lifetime on the water, Jones instantly calculated an intercept point. The enemy coxswain didn’t see Papa 4 approaching until it was too late. Screaming “So long, mother-fucker!” Jones rammed the speedboat’s side, triggering an explosion which pulverized the two craft.
The explosion rocked Concord, and before anyone could recover, the remaining three boats, each loaded with explosives, crashed into the cruiser’s hull and detonated, catapulting people into steel walls, crushing limbs and lives. The blast blew the bridge windows inward; screams and black smoke wafted upward. A piece of glass ripped open Debra Hearn’s throat, showering Wallace with blood. The helmsman’s legs were shattered, the bones sticking out from tattered trousers. Others were dazed, wounded or unconscious.
Groping his way to the intercom, Wallace called: “Damage Control, this is the Bridge. Report.” Waiting for the reply, he tried to wipe Hearn’s blood from his eyes and face.
The team at Damage Control Central, buried in the bowels of the ship, had been badly shaken, but was still functioning. Commander Juan Ramirez, the Executive Officer, scanned the status boards by the light of battery-powered battle lanterns and listened to reports pouring in from the Damage Control parties investigating interior spaces. The news was all bad. Fires from electrical short circuits and ruptured fuel lines raged unchecked. Ladders were down, blocking passageways; jammed hatches prevented access to spaces, trapping many of the crew below decks. In the darkness the survivors crawled on hands and knees, looking for ways out that no longer existed.
“Captain, there’s a fifteen-foot hole in the port bow, and a twenty-by-ten gash amidships starboard side,” Ramirez reported. “One explosive smashed the stern, opening it to the sea. We’ve lost power. No report from the engine room watch; they’re probably dead from the explosion. No report on casualties yet. It’s too soon to accurately count the dead and wounded,” he concluded.
Concord’s momentum kept her moving forward, toward the opening between spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Water surging into the hole in the bow pulled Concord to port, and the incoming tide pushed the ship’s stern broadside across the channel. Wallace watched helplessly as the ship heeled to port and started sinking in the opening. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see Pete Spectle standing beside him.
“Mr. Spectle, order all hands to abandon ship,” he said softly, knowing nothing more could be done for Concord.