The Athens Solution
written by Brad Thor and narrated by Armand Schultz

JUNE 12

ATHENS, GREECE

 

It was hot, and noisy, as Michael Avery picked his way through the late-afternoon crowds clogging Athens’s famous Plaka district. Behind him, two Diplomatic Security Service agents mixed with the throng. A block over, a contingent of heavily armed Marines and an NSA communications expert followed in a nondescript van. There should have been a drone, but things had moved too fast.

Avery, the U.S. ambassador to Greece, had been told to come alone. The White House, though, had other plans. Too much was at stake.

In his white polo shirt and blue blazer, Avery looked like any other upscale Westerner visiting Greece during the height of the tourist season. He even carried a backpack casually slung over one shoulder. But unlike the other backpacks around him, his contained an encrypted laptop, complete with a wireless modem and sophisticated remote-viewing application.

He was passing a small outdoor café with a dramatic view of the Acropolis and the ancient Parthenon atop it, when his cell phone rang.

“Stop there and take a table,” said a voice with a heavy Greek accent. “You know what to do next.”

Yes, Ambassador Avery did know what to do next. A thumb drive with a final set of instructions had been delivered to the embassy that morning. The instructions indicated that the drive could be used only once and that any attempts to copy or crack it before the appointed time would result in all of its data being destroyed.

Avery sat down at a table and, after ordering coffee, removed the encrypted laptop from his backpack and powered it up. The drive glowed as it was plugged in. Within moments, a private-message screen popped up, and the words Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for coming. appeared.

Back in the van, the NSA communications expert could see in real time exactly what the ambassador was seeing, thanks to the laptop’s remote-viewing application, and he began trying to locate the source of the transmission.

Are you prepared to transfer the funds? appeared next.

How do we know the merchandise is authentic? typed Avery.

One word was returned: Watch.

The ambassador’s screen split into two separate windows. Next to the dialogue box, an image came up, titled JFK/ATC. He discreetly tilted his head and spoke toward the microphone sewn into the lapel of his blazer: “Are you getting this?”

“All of it. So is Washington,” replied the tech in the van. A satellite uplink was beaming everything to the States for verification.

Avery pressed the mini-earpiece farther into his ear as he anxiously awaited word. Seconds later, it came.

“Verification complete,” the tech said. “Mr. Ambassador, you are looking at a live picture of JFK’s Air Traffic Control system.”

Knowing what might happen next sent chills down Michael Avery’s spine. His hands shook as he typed the following message: We are ready to proceed.

One by one, aircraft started disappearing from the screen.

Forty-five seconds later, the NSA man’s voice came back over the ambassador’s earpiece. “JFK is reporting a major ATC system malfunction. They’re losing track of all their inbound aircraft. The merchandise is authentic.”

Initializing funds transfer, typed the ambassador as he began the predetermined sequence. The green status bar seemed to take forever. When the Transfer Successful message finally materialized on the screen, aircraft flying in the New York area began reappearing on ATC radar.

Simultaneously, a third window appeared on the ambassador’s laptop. In it, he could see a live picture of the device the United States had just paid so handsomely for. As the image widened, he could see the Parthenon in the foreground.

“We’re on it,” said the Marine commander over Avery’s earpiece as the van took off to claim the merchandise.

The ambassador continued to watch the feed as a pair of hands came into view, picked up the device, and secreted it inside the nearest trash can, as agreed, for pickup.

“Sir,” said one of the Diplomatic Security Service agents as he approached the table. “There’s a car waiting. We’d like to get you back to the embassy.”

Avery nodded and was just about to shut down his laptop, when he noticed the camera from the Acropolis being moved. There were jerky flashes of legs and feet as someone hastily repositioned it to overlook the road below. Seconds later, the white embassy van with the Marines and the NSA tech entered the frame. The camera followed its approach.

How the hell did they already ID the van? Avery wondered. “Are you seeing this?” he asked the lead Diplomatic Security Service agent.

The agent looked at the ambassador’s screen.

“Why would they want us to watch our own guys?” Avery continued.

The agent raised his sleeve and spoke into the microphone. “Beachcomber, this is Point Guard,” he said. “Be advised, someone is filming your approach. You have been compromised. Repeat. You have been compromised.”

But before the men in the white van could respond, the entire Plaka district shook with what sounded like a giant knife tearing through the fabric of the afternoon sky. The ambassador watched, aghast, as the video feed showed a shoulder-fired missile slamming through the windshield and the van exploding.

The lead DS agent didn’t waste any time. Grabbing the ambassador and the laptop, he and his partner sped Avery out of the café and down the closest side street.

All around them, people rushed out of the shops and restaurants to look up and stare at the plume of black smoke rising from the Acropolis.

As the ambassador and the DS agents turned the next corner, they could see the embassy’s dark armor-plated BMW. The street was completely abandoned. “Faster!” the lead agent yelled. They were almost there.

Reaching the car, the lead agent flung open the rear door. As he began to shove the ambassador inside, a motorcycle screamed down the sidewalk.

The DS agents reached for their weapons, but it was too late.

 

 

ONE MONTH LATER

DODECANESE ISLANDS

SOUTHEASTERN AEGEAN, GREECE

 

Lying in the tall grass less than a hundred meters from a sprawling, whitewashed villa, Scot Harvath could hear the ocean pounding against the rocky shore below. He used the Leopold Mark 4 scope and Universal Night Sight atop his SR25 Knights Armament rifle to search for any sign of the home’s owner, Theologos Papandreou.

U.S. Intelligence had fingered Papandreou as the mastermind behind what were being called the “Acropolis attacks.”

Despite the fact that a firebomb had been tossed into the car after the shooting and the bodies were burned beyond recognition, ballistics reports indicated that the weapon used to kill Ambassador Avery, as well as the two DS agents accompanying him, was a .45-caliber automatic—the same .45-caliber used in a string of high-profile assassinations attributed to the Greek terrorist organization 21 August.

The group took its name from the date of their first terrorist attack—August 21, 1975—when they assassinated the CIA’s Athens station chief, along with his deputy.

They were a Marxist-Leninist organization that despised capitalism. Their number one goal was to rid Greece of all Western influence, particularly American influence, and install a more “equitable” system of government, no matter what it took.

Papandreou was heavily connected to the group and apparently didn’t like that the U.S. Defense Department had teamed up with a Greek technology company on a revolutionary new device.

Though the device was originally created to remotely tweak the navigational routes and fuel efficiency of large container ships via satellite, the Pentagon had seen an even bigger potential for it. With the right enhancements to the software, a missile could be diverted mid-flight, a ship sent in a completely different direction, or a plane could be taken back from hijackers without a hostage rescue team ever stepping foot on board.

The Pentagon considered it one of the most exciting, and dangerous, pieces of technology ever developed.

Forty-eight hours prior to Ambassador Avery’s assassination, a mobile version of the device had been stolen. Shortly thereafter, an unidentified organization contacted the U.S. embassy and offered one chance to buy it back. With the blessing of the White House, Avery and his people had put together a hasty recovery operation.

The President of the United States was furious—and not just with the terrorists. He couldn’t believe that in a country of only eleven million, the Greeks couldn’t lay their hands on what every Western intelligence agency agreed was a terror cell of no more than ten to fifteen people. The “Athens Problem,” as it had become known in intelligence circles, had been a problem for too long, and the president wanted it stopped.

Adding to the mission’s urgency, the CIA had just learned that 21 August had a buyer for the device—an unidentified Iranian national, and the transaction was going to take place any day. Harvath had been sent to Greece to recover the mobile device as quickly as possible, and by any means necessary.

As a Navy SEAL, and now as a covert counterterrorism operative for the U.S. government, Harvath had spent the better part of his professional life pulling a trigger. One of the sadder truths he had learned was that there were a lot of people in the world who needed to be killed. He tried to remind himself that more often than not, the people on the receiving end of his lead-tipped missives were beyond being reasoned with. They posed serious threats to the stability and safety of the civilized world and had to be taken out.

Tonight, though, Harvath had his doubts. There were too many unanswered questions, starting with why Avery had been outside the security of the embassy with such a light guard. Only two DS agents? On an assignment like that? In Athens, of all places, especially considering its history?

In his briefing in D.C., he had pushed back on the CIA’s intel so many times, his boss pulled him out in the hallway so he could give him a thorough dressing-down. Harvath, though, didn’t care. The dots didn’t connect cleanly enough for him, certainly not cleanly enough to take a man’s life. Nevertheless, he had his orders.

Glancing at his Kobold tactical wristwatch from his place in the grass, he wondered where the hell his target was. Papandreou should have been here by now.

Suddenly, the sound of the ocean crashing on the rocky beach below was replaced by the sound of tires crunching down the villa’s long gravel drive. Harvath leaned into his rifle and pressed himself flatter against the damp earth.

A blue Land Rover rolled to a stop before the large double doors of the house. When the driver’s door opened, Harvath peered through his scope, but it was no good. He couldn’t see the man’s face.

“Norseman, have you ID’d the target?” said a voice over his headset, thousands of miles away in the White House Situation Room.

“Negative,” replied Harvath. “Stand by.”

Straining through the scope, Harvath tried to get a positive identification.

“Norseman, satellite is giving us only one, I repeat, one individual in that vehicle. Can you confirm the subject’s identity? Do we have our man?”

Command-and-control elements in the rear always wanted to know everything that was going on in the field. Harvath, though, couldn’t give them a play-by-play and pay full attention to his assignment, so he gave them the field operative’s polite equivalent of shut the hell up. “Clear the net,” he commanded.

The chatter on his headset fell silent, and Harvath watched as the driver exited the vehicle. From where he was positioned, he’d have to wait until the man came around the Land Rover and made it to the double doors of the villa before he had a clear view of his face.

“Ten seconds until subject ID,” said Harvath, more for his own benefit than for the men and women gathered in the Situation Room.

Three more steps, Harvath thought to himself as the man rounded the grille of the Land Rover. But as the man’s head came into view, a shot rang out, and with a spray of blood, the target fell face-first onto the gravel drive.

“What the fuc—” Harvath began to whisper into his microphone.

“Norseman,” came the voice from the Situation Room. “What just happened?”

Harvath scanned the area as best he could with his scope. “Subject has been shot. Subject is down.”

“Did you shoot him?” the voice from Washington demanded.

“Negative. There appears to be another shooter on site.”

“Can you ID the target?”

Harvath stared through his scope at the man lying in the driveway. “Negative. Identification is impossible from my position. The subject’s facedown in the gravel.”

“We need you to ID the target.”

Harvath tried to keep his anger in check. “We’ve got an active shooter. I need you to pinpoint him for me first.”

“No can do,” said the voice from the Situation Room. “Infrared satellite is only showing you, and the subject adjacent to the vehicle.”

“Not even a heat signature from a recently discharged weapon?” asked Harvath, though he knew if they could see it, they’d tell him.

“That’s a negative. No heat signature.”

Whoever the shooter was, he was very good and being very careful.

Harvath was truly up against it. There was no way he could move to the driveway, not when the other sniper could be out there waiting for someone to approach the body. He needed to create some sort of a distraction.

Waiting for him two hundred meters offshore was the Amalia, a weather-beaten Greek trawler manned by the only two people in Greece Harvath trusted, Ben Metaxas and his brother, Yannis. Harvath had met Ben while his SEAL team was training in the Aegean with the Greek navy. He and Ben had become fast friends, and to this day Harvath still spent a good amount of his vacation time every year kicking back at Ben’s beach bar on the island of Antiparos.

Changing his radio frequency, Harvath raised Ben on the Amalia, told him what had happened and what he needed him to do. When Ben’s flare broke over the water four and a half minutes later, Harvath was already up and running.

He never bothered ID’ing the body—it would have been suicide. Instead, Harvath grabbed the man by the collar, kicked open the villa’s double doors, and dragged him inside the courtyard. It was only then that Harvath rolled the body over and was shocked by what he saw.

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