The Gray Man series by Mark Greaney is one of (if not the) fastest growing thriller series in the publishing industry. So it is not surprising that Mission Critical, the latest installment in the series, is one of the most anticipated thriller titles of the season.
The series has continuously drawn comparisons to the giants of the field including Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, and, of course, Tom Clancy. Certainly the Clancy comparisons are no surprise: Mark co-wrote Clancy’s final three Jack Ryan thrillers before the venerable legend’s death and then carried the mantle for another four novels.
In Mission Critical, Court Gentry’s flight on a CIA transport plane is interrupted when a security team brings a hooded man aboard. They want to kick Gentry off the flight but are overruled by CIA headquarters. The mystery man is being transported to England where a joint CIA/MI6 team will interrogate him about a mole in Langley.
When they land in an isolated airbase in the U.K., they are attacked by a hostile force who kidnaps the prisoner. Only Gentry escapes. His handlers send him after the attackers, but what can one operative do against a trained team of assassins? A lot, when that operative is the Gray Man.
What follows is an excerpt from Mission Critical’s Chapter 1, provided to Mystery Tribune by Berkley Publishing.
While an evening rain threatened outside, inside the well-appointed three-car garage gym a woman worked out alone. With her shoulder-length brunette hair tied in a ponytail, a blue American University T-shirt, and gray yoga pants, she did push-ups and crunches, pounded and kicked a heavy bag, and slung dumbbells, all before heading over to the climbing ropes.
The garage ceiling was just ten feet up, so the ropes weren’t very high, but they were three feet apart and a challenge to climb. The woman grasped them both with gloved hands and began ascending, one hand grabbing and pulling while the other slid up the opposite rope to a higher position, then closed down in a viselike grip to heave her body higher.
Her arms and back and shoulders did all the work; she let her feet hang, swinging back and forth as she climbed, using her upper body for power. At the ceiling she shifted both hands to the same rope and climbed down.
Immediately she started back up again on both ropes.
While she worked out, a muscular bald-headed man in a Windbreaker and cargo pants looked in on her from time to time from his position on the driveway. He wore a Beretta pistol on a utility belt around his waist, as well as handcuffs, Mace, and a radio. Beyond him in the woods another man strolled with a rifle across his chest.
As the woman dropped down after her fourth time up the ropes she doubled forward and put her hands on her knees, struggling to catch her breath.
The bald man on the driveway chided her. “Suck it up, snowflake! Back at BUD’s we had to climb a rope three times higher, five times, after about a thousand push-ups.”
She faced away from him, but she took one hand off a knee and flipped him the middle finger over her shoulder.
The man looked at her rear end, covered in the yoga pants. “Anytime, sugar.”
Through her labored breaths she heard a transmission through the walkie-talkie on the leering guard’s utility belt.
The woman ignored him, put her hands on the floor, and kicked her feet up into a handstand. In this position she slowly walked her hands the length of the garage, her arms straining. Steadying her body against the back wall, she did a few handstand press-ups.
A minute after this she unhooked the heavy bag from its chain and hefted all 120 pounds of it onto her shoulder. With it she ran across the three-car garage, from one wall to the other, spun, and ran back.
She completed the circuit ten times.
As the woman dropped the bag onto the ground for a moment’s rest, she knelt again with her hands to her knees and her chest heaving. Through her labored breaths she heard a transmission through the walkie-talkie on the leering guard’s utility belt. The muscular man responded through the radio, then called out to her.
“You ready, sunshine? I’ll take you to your room to change first.”
Zoya Zakharova grabbed her towel and her bottle of water, and she headed for the door to the safe house.
A minute later they walked down a long, brightly lit basement hallway. The security officer said, “Just you and me down here in holding tonight between twenty-two hundred hours to sunup. That means I have access to all the cams, and all the keys.” He turned to look at her but she kept walking, her eyes ahead and her face covered with sweat. “I’ve also got access to a couple bottles of cabernet I brought in my kit bag. I could flip off any video evidence, come to your room after lights out, and you and I could have ourselves a pretty sweet evening.”
Zoya kept walking. She answered him in perfect English, with no hint of any accent. “William, my answer was a polite ‘no’ the first ten times you propositioned me, and then a firm ‘no’ the next ten times. Do you really want to find out what comes next?”
“I can handle whatever you can dish out, sugar.” He said it with a confident smile.
The brunette let out a little laugh as she walked. “You’re something out of a bad movie.”
“So . . . that’s a maybe? Girl, you gotta be lonely cooped up in here for four months.”
She did look at him now, eyed him up and down as they walked. “Not that lonely.”
The man didn’t seem to take offense, but he said, “You know, I defend you to the other guys, but they’re right about you. You really are mean as a snake.”
Zoya looked straight ahead as she headed to her room. “That’s the thing about snakes, William. They aren’t mean. They just prefer to be left alone.”
A hand rested atop a thick brown folder. She was forty-one years old, with blond hair just past her shoulders, and wore a navy blue business suit that fit her lean frame perfectly.
Zoya showered and changed into jeans and a black George Washington University sweatshirt. Her hair was still pulled back, and she walked with William to a third-floor library in the nine-thousand-square-foot CIA safe house. Two more security men stood outside the door, and they opened it for Zoya, who entered alone.
CIA Programs and Plans officer Suzanne Brewer was already seated at the table in the center of the room, a pair of thermoses of hot tea positioned in front of her. A hand rested atop a thick brown folder. She was forty-one years old, with blond hair just past her shoulders, and wore a navy blue business suit that fit her lean frame perfectly. Her glasses were functional, not stylish, and she held the tip of a pen to her mouth, then took it away to speak.
The younger woman sat down across the small table. “You’re late, Suzanne. Of course I can’t say how late, because I haven’t been trusted with access to a clock, but it’s dark outside. Usually you are here earlier.”
“You have a date?”
Zoya reached for her tea. “Maybe.”
Brewer replied, “I’d have to sign you out for that, and I haven’t seen any paperwork.” When Zoya did not respond she added, “Traffic was shit. Even more so than usual. Shall we begin?”
The brunette nodded, then looked out the window at the rain in the swaying trees.
Brewer turned on a small digital recorder lying on the table. “Tonight will be interview number ninety-four. Should just take a couple of hours, and then you can go back to your room.”
“My cell, you mean?”
Brewer sighed a little. “The basement was designed as a holding center, true, but there are no bars. We lock you down at night, for your own safety, but during the day you have the run of the house.”
“With security watching my every move.”
“Ah, glad you mentioned the security. I’m told you’ve been surly with the guards.”
“Not all of them. Just the ones who won’t stop making passes at me.”
Suzanne frowned at this. “Well, that’s unprofessional of them. Who are they? I’ll have them removed.”
Zoya waved a hand in front of her. “Not necessary. They’re harmless.”
“If they’re on my security staff I don’t want them to be harmless. I also don’t want them hitting on the guests.”
Zoya sniffed. “Guests.”
“Listen, we’ve been through this. This isn’t a prison. It’s a safe house. The guards are here to keep you safe. You are an asset in the making, and we’re protecting our investment.”
Zoya gazed out the window.
Brewer added, “Look. I wasn’t going to tell you tonight, but since you’re obviously in a mood, I will. I have some good news. You’ve been assigned an operational code name.”
“How many guesses do I get?”
Brewer was confused. “I don’t know what you—”
Still looking past Brewer to the rain, she said, “Anthem. My code name with CIA is Anthem.”
Brewer blinked hard, and then her shoulders sagged. “Which one of these bozos around here let that slip?”
“I hear things. That’s all.”
The older woman closed her eyes in frustration now. “Idiots.” Opening them again, she asked, “What else have you heard them say?”
“The short version is you and I have about the same approval numbers with the security boys here”—Zoya smiled a little—“and I come from an enemy service.”
Brewer didn’t seem to give a damn that she wasn’t well liked by the detail at this safe house. Instead she said, “Again, Anthem, no one thinks of you as enemy. You came in willingly, you’ve endured months of debriefs, psych evals, testing, polygraphs. We’re weeks away from cutting you loose so you can serve as a detached agent of our service.”
Zoya nodded slowly, still looking out the window at the rain falling in the woods behind the house. “I have been well flipped.”
The comment hung in the air a long time, until Brewer said, “I thought you’d like to know. I finally heard from Violator. He’s fine.”
Zoya stared back at her now. “You mean Court.”
The Russian woman cocked her head a little. “Have I asked you anything about him in the months I’ve been here?”
“No . . . but I am aware of the feelings you two had for one another. Beneath your hard exterior I’m sure those feelings remain. I just wanted to tell you he checked in safe today.”
“You’ve been asking me to show you the file regarding the death of your father. I was hesitant . . . We have no questions or suspicions about the matter…”
Zoya nodded distractedly, then looked down to the folder on the table. “What do you have there?”
Brewer pulled out a sheaf of papers, facedown, and Zoya’s dispassionate demeanor broke a moment as she looked at it in silence.
“You’ve been asking me to show you the file regarding the death of your father. I was hesitant . . . We have no questions or suspicions about the matter, so there’s nothing we need from you. On top of this . . . the photographs and details in the file could be quite . . . upsetting, especially to the child of the victim.”
“I am not a normal child of a victim, am I? I spent ten years in Russia’s foreign security services myself, and my father was—”
“Your father,” Suzanne Brewer interrupted, “was General Feodor Zakharov, the head of Russian military intelligence. Yes . . . you are an exceptional case, to say the least.”
Brewer paused for a sip of tea, and Zoya took the opportunity to glance down again at the stack of papers.
The American woman lowered her thermos and said, “Here’s what we’ve established from our debriefs. You were away in college in California when you learned he’d been killed in a mortar attack in Dagestan along with several other GRU men. After graduating UCLA you returned to Russia, following your late father into the intelligence services, but with SVR, not GRU.”
After Zoya nodded, Brewer added, “Your father would have been proud of you.”
The Russian woman did not return the smile. “Not for defecting. He was a true believer in the motherland. I’m a true believer in myself. Not the same.”
Brewer kept looking at the Russian national for several more seconds, then tapped the file with the tip of her pen. “Again, this . . . information, these pictures. They will be disturbing to you.”
“I can handle it. May I see them, please?” There was a small hint of emotion in Zoya’s voice now, even though she tried to hide it.
After another moment’s pause, Suzanne Brewer turned over the papers and spun them around on the table.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Excerpted from MISSION CRITICAL by Mark Greaney, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Greaney.