The man sitting in the restaurant with his family had a name familiar to most everyone in America with a television or an Internet connection, but virtually no one recognized him by sight-mainly because he went out of his way to keep a low profile.
And this was why he found it so damn peculiar that the twitchy man on the sidewalk kept staring at him.
Scott Hagen was a commander in the U.S. Navy, which certainly did not make one famous, but he had earned distinction as the captain of the guided missile destroyer that, according to many in the media, almost single-handedly won one of the largest sea battles since the Second World War.
The naval engagement with the United States and Poland on one side and the Russian Federation on the other had taken place just seven months earlier in the Baltic Sea, and while it had garnered the name Commander Scott Hagen significant recognition at the time, Hagen had conducted no media interviews, and the only image used of him in the press featured him standing proudly in his dress blues with his commander-white officer hat on his head.
Right now, in contrast, Hagen wore a T-shirt and flip-flops, cargo shorts, and a couple days' stubble on his face, and no one in the world, certainly no one in this outdoor Mexican caf in New Jersey, could possibly associate him with that Department of the Navy-distributed photo.
So why, he wondered, was the dude with the creepy eyes and the bowl cut standing in the dark next to the bicycle rack constantly glancing his way?
This was a college town, the guy was college-aged, and he looked like he could have been drunk. He wore a polo shirt and jeans, he held a beer can in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and it seemed to Hagen that about twice a minute he glared across the lighted patio full of diners and over to Hagen's table.
The commander wasn't worried, really-more curious. He was here with his family, and his sister's family, eight in all, and everyone else at the table kept talking and eating chips and guacamole while they waited for their entres. The kids had soft drinks, while Hagen's wife, his sister, and his brother-in-law downed margaritas. Hagen himself was sticking with soda because it was his night to drive the clan around in the rented van.
They were here in town for a club soccer tournament; Hagen's seventeen-year-old nephew was a star keeper for his high school team, and the finals were the following afternoon. Tomorrow Scott's wife would drive the rental so her husband could tip back some cold brews at a restaurant after the match.
Hagen ate another chip and told himself the drunk goofball was nothing to worry about, and he looked back to the table full of his family.
There were many costs associated with military service, but none of them were more important than time. The time away from family. None of the birthdays or holidays or weddings or funerals that were missed could ever be replaced in the lives of those who served.
Like many men and women in the military, Commander Scott Hagen didn't see enough of his family these days. It was part of the job, and the times he could get away, get his own kids someplace with their cousins, were few and far between, so he knew to appreciate this night.
Especially since it had been such a tough year.
After the battle in the Baltic and the slow sail of his crippled vessel back across the Atlantic, he'd put the USS James Greer in dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia, to undergo six months of repairs.
Hagen was still the officer in command of the Greer, so Norfolk was home, for now. Many in the Navy thought dry dock was the toughest deployment, because there was a lot of work to do on board, ships did not regularly run their air conditioners, and many other creature comforts were missing.
But Scott Hagen would never make that claim. He'd seen war up close, he'd lost men, and while he and his ship had come out the unquestionable victors, the experience of war was nothing to envy, even for the victorious.
Russia was quiet now, more or less. Yes, they still controlled a significant portion of Ukraine, but the Borei-class nuclear sub they'd sent to patrol off the coast of the United States had allowed itself to be seen and photographed north of the coast of Scotland on its return voyage to port in Sayda Inlet, north of the Arctic Circle.
And the Russian troops that had rolled into Lithuania had since rolled back over Russia's border to the west and to the Belarusian border to the east, ending the attack on the tiny Baltic nation.
The Russians had been embarrassed by their defeat in the Baltic, and it would certainly surprise everyone in this outdoor Mexican restaurant in New Jersey to know that the average-looking dad sitting at the big table under the umbrellas had played a big part in that.
Hagen was fine with the anonymity. The forty-four-year-old was a pretty low-profile guy, anyway. He didn't hang out with his family in his uniform and regale them with tales of combat on the high seas. No, right now he goofed off with his kids and his nephews, and he joked with his wife that if he ate any more chips and guacamole before dinner, he'd sleep in tomorrow and miss game time.
He and his wife laughed, and then his brother-in-law, Allen, got his attention. "Hey, Scotty. Do you know that guy over there on the sidewalk?"
Hagen shook his head. "No. But he's been eyeing this table for the past few minutes."
Allen said, "Any chance he served under you or something?"
Hagen looked back. "Doesn't look familiar." He thought it over for a moment and then said, "This is too weird. I'm going to go talk to him and see what's up."
Hagen pulled the napkin from his lap, stood up, and began walking toward the man, moving through the busy outdoor caf.
The young man turned away before Scott Hagen could make it halfway to him, then he dropped his beer in a garbage can and walked quickly out onto the street.
He crossed the dark street and disappeared into a busy parking lot.
When Hagen got back to the table, Allen said, "That was odd. What do you think he was doing?"
Hagen didn't know what to think, but he did know what he needed to do. "I didn't like the look of that guy. Let's play it safe and get out of here. Take everybody inside to the restaurant, use the back door, and go to the van. I'll stay behind and pay the bill, then take a cab back to the hotel."
His sister, Susan, heard all this, but she had no clue what was going on. She hadn't even noticed the young man. "What's wrong?"
Allen addressed both families now. "Okay, everybody. No questions till we get to the van, but we have to leave. We'll get room service back at the hotel."
Susan said, "My brother gets nervous if he's not sailing around with a bunch of nukes."
The James Greer did not carry nuclear weapons, but Susan was a tax lawyer, and she didn't know any better, and Hagen was too busy to correct her because he was in the process of grabbing a passing waiter to get the bill.
Both families were annoyed to be rushed out of the restaurant with full plates of food on the way, but they realized something serious was going on, so they all complied.
Just as the seven started moving toward the back door, Hagen turned and saw the young man again. He was crossing the two-lane street, heading back toward the outdoor caf. He wore a long gray trench coat now, and was obviously hiding something underneath.
Hagen had given up on Allen's ability to manage the family, and Susan wasn't proving to be terribly aware, either. So he turned to his wife. "Through the restaurant! Run! Go!"
Laura Hagen grabbed her daughter and son, pulled them to the back door. Hagen's sister and brother-in-law followed close behind with their two boys in front of them.
Then Hagen started to follow, but he slowed, watched in horror as the man on the sidewalk hoisted an AK-47 out from under his coat. Others in the outdoor caf saw this as well; it was hard to miss.
Screams and shouts filled the air.
With his eyes locked on Commander Scott Hagen, the young man continued walking into the outdoor caf, bringing the weapon to his shoulder.
This can't be real. This is not happening.
He had no weapon of his own. This was New Jersey, so even though Hagen was licensed to carry a firearm in Virginia and could do so legally in thirty-five other states, he'd go to prison here for carrying a gun.
It was of no solace to him at all that the rifle-wielding maniac ahead was in violation of this law by shouldering a Kalashnikov in the middle of town. He doubted the attacker was troubled that in addition to the attempted murder of the one hundred or so people in the garden caf in front of him, he'd probably also be cited by the police for unlawful possession of a firearm.
Only when the first shot missed and exploded into a decorative masonry fountain just four feet to his left did Scott Hagen snap out of it. He knew his family was right behind him, and this knowledge somehow overpowered his ability to duck. He stayed big and broad, using his body to cover for those behind, but he did not stand still.
He had no choice. He ran toward the gunfire.
The shooter snapped off three rounds in quick succession, but the chaos of the moment caused several diners to knock over tables and umbrellas, to get in his way, even to bump up against him as they tried to flee the caf. Hagen lost sight of the man when a red umbrella tipped between the two of them, and this only spurred him on faster, thinking the attacker's obstructed view could give Hagen a chance to tackle the man before getting shot.
And he almost made it.
The attacker kicked the umbrella out of the way, saw his intended victim charging up an open lane in the center of the chaos, and fired the AK. Hagen felt a round slam into his left forearm-it nearly spun him and he stumbled with the alteration to his momentum, but he continued plowing through the tables.
Hagen was no expert in small-arms combat-he was a sailor and not a soldier-but still he could tell this man was no well-trained fighter. The kid could operate his AK, but he was mad-eyed, rushed, frantic about it all.
Whatever this was all about, it was deeply personal to him.
And it was personal to Hagen now. He had no idea if anyone in his family had been hurt, all he knew was this man had to be stopped.
A waiter lunged at the shooter from the right, getting ahold of the man's shoulder and shaking him, willing the weapon to drop free, but the gunman spun and slammed his finger back against the trigger over and over, hitting the brave young man in the abdomen at a distance of two feet.
The waiter was dead before he hit the ground.
And the shooter turned his weapon back toward the charging Hagen.
The second bullet to strike the commander was worse than the first-it tore through the meat above his right hip and jolted him back-but he kept going and the shot after that went high. The man was having trouble controlling the recoil of the gun. Every second and third shot of each string was high as the muzzle rose.
A round raced by Hagen's face as he went airborne, dove headlong into the man, slamming him backward over a metal table.
Hagen went over with him, and both men rolled legs over head and crashed to the hard pavers of the outdoor caf. Hagen wrapped the fingers of his right hand around the barrel of the Kalashnikov to keep it pointed away, and the hot metal singed his hand, but he did not dare let go.
He was right-handed, but with his left he pounded his fist over and over into the young man's face. He felt the sweat that stuck there, soaking the man's hair and cheeks, and then he felt the blood as the attacker's nose broke and a gush of red sprayed across his face.
The man's hold on the rifle weakened, Hagen ripped it away, rolled off the man, heaved himself up to his knees, and pointed it at him.
"Davai!" the young man shouted. It was Hagen's first indication this shooter was a foreigner.
The attacker rolled up to his knees now, and while Hagen shouted for him to stay where he was, to stop moving, to put his hands up, the man reached into the front pocket of his trench coat.
"I'll fuckin' shoot you!" Hagen screamed.
An unsheathed knife with a six-inch blade appeared from the attacker's coat, and he charged with it, a crazed look on his blood-covered face.
The kid was just five feet away when Hagen shot him twice in the chest. The knife fell free, Hagen stepped out of the way, and the young man windmilled forward into the ground, knocking chairs out of the way and face-planting into food spilled off a table.
The attack was over. Hagen could hear moans behind him, screams from the street, the sound of sirens and car alarms and crying children.
He pulled the magazine out of the rifle and dropped it, cycled the bolt to empty the chamber, and threw the weapon onto the ground. He rolled the wounded man on his back, knelt over him.
The man's eyes were open-he was conscious and aware, but clearly dying, as compliant now as a rag doll.
Hagen got right in his face, adrenaline in control of his actions now. "Who are you? Why? Why did you do this?"
"For my brother," the blood-covered man said. Hagen could hear his lungs filling with blood.
"Who the hell is your-"
"You killed him. You murdered him!"
The accent was Russian, and Hagen understood. His ship had helped sink two submarines in the Baltic conflict. He said, "He was a sailor?"
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Greaney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.