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C James

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  1. I'm actually trying for this Christmas, but I'm getting some annoying and disruptive obstruction from my calendar, which has recently, and inexplicably, taken to telling me that this month is September. I am, however, trying. I need to write about 3 more chapters to finish it, then go back and make certain all the details and clues fit, etc, which will require a few changes (hence why most team members have not seen it yet - I need to make some changes to early chapters, and I don't know all of what they are yet). It has a mystery component (kind of akin to a detective novel), so there are things the reader needs to be able to figure out based on clues in the story (or, they can just read along if they prefer, but it's my job to make sure the option is there). Oh, and of course, I need to go through it with an incredibly fine-toothed comb to make absolutely certain that there's not even the slightest hint of a cliffhanger, or any tension at all, in it. I can't remember if I've mentioned the title yet - it's Going Sideways. Apropos of nothing at all, I see that the Urban Dictionary defines that phrase as; "Used to describe when a tense situation, usually an operation of some kind, suffers a catastrophic breakdown and devolves into near-chaos, usually requiring violence and/or aggression to restore order."
  2. Car keys are sometimes called another name; "lunch". This perhaps explains why I often can't find my car keys right after my lunch.
  3. I'm still working on Going Sideways, and I hope all of you are coping okay with the virus, lockdowns, etc, that have made 2020 a year I, and I am sure many, would like to forget. I expect to be around here much more often from now on - and also I'm spending more time writing. I know my timelines on posting never pan out, but I do hope to have Going Sideways online by the end of this year. (Note to self; it ain't gonna write itself, so quit slacking!). Currently, I'm only on chapter 15 (And need to finish it all before it can be edited, etc, as some later developments need alterations to early chapters). I still expect to bring this in under 20 chapters. Recent chapters have run around 20k words - and my current count on chapter 15 is 79k words. (erm, might need to split it, I think...). I can't say much about the story (Graeme hates spoilers, and he might see this, so...) but I can say that it will have words. Those words will usually have vowels and consonants, often several of them. Hrmmm. What else can I say? No cliffhangers, of course. Oh, and there are things in it that might seem... familiar to some.
  4. No one has told me how long my new story is, either, so how would I know? Seriously though, for once (I'm notorious for massively underestimating), I think it's coming in roughly where I guessed - just under 20 chapters. Of course, I shall refrain from either mentioning or admitting that this is mainly due to the chapter length being around 20k words, about 4 times my usual. Chapter 14 is currently showing as 50 pages, 21k words. My current guess - 2 chapters to go (after the one I'm just about done with, 14.). Then I can send it out to the team. I really can't do so yet, as some key details keep changing, which has required a few changes to early chapters and will do so again. The new story is called "Going Sideways". For those not familiar, it's mainly a southern US colloquialism, meaning things not going as planned, and doing so badly. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Go Sideways Beyond that, the only thing I can say at this point is that, as always for my stories, it will be 100% utterly and totally cliffhanger-free - not even a hint of one, as I'm sure Graeme will be happy to attest.
  5. I'm ashamed to see it's been over 4 months since I returned, and this is my first visit since. I'm so sorry. I'll be back more often from now on. I have actually been writing (though with glacial slowness) and finally have a few chapters. I'm only now at where I thought I'd be in October, and starting to reach out to team members (Frankly, I wouldn't blame them if they told me to shove it, seeing as how I've been so remiss) but it's starting to come together now, at last. And... Wildone, shame on you for disparaging me so; you know I'd never, ever, even come close to a cliffy! And oh no, I can't seem to find my most-used emotion, the angel-halo one, but I'm innocent, I tell, ya, innocent! @ Tallonrider; even I'll admit that my vanishing act was so bad as to be almost a cliffy! @ Anubis; no need for climbing gear. As I'm sure anyone will tell you, I'd never, ever, go anywhere near a cliff or a cliffhanger. <Innocent look> @ KevinD It shouldn't be too much longer before I can post. (meaning, months) because I need to complete most of it first. One reason is plot; minor changes may need to be made to early chapters, depending on how later ones shake out. The other reason, to be honest, is fairness; it would be wrong of me to post anything unless I am 100% sure I'll finish it in a timely manner, and given my absences, the only way I can be certain is to have it already done. And, to one and all, as a sign (as well as a test) of whether my long hiatus is at an end, expect me to drip back by within a week.
  6. Thank you, thank you all so much. To be honest, I was expecting (and couldn't very well object ) some righteous flames for my vanishing act. I have been in contact with some here during my hiatus, and should have at least asked if they'd post a message here for me (my usual browser doesn't work with GA software, so I had to install a different one before I could log in) but I didn't. Sorry. But, I'm back... and yep, writing has begun again. I very sporadically wrote a bit during my hiatus, but it was piecemeal, often on a laptop during free time such as waiting for a plane, but I didn't get very far. Even when I did have free time, I found it hard to concentrate (working long hours didn't help). But, it's moving again, so there will be a story coming soon. It's called "Going Sideways" and barely exists yet, just a few chapters, but it does exist. I'll be reaching out to all of our old team members very soon. What can I say about the story? Hrmmm. I'm not really sure what I can say for fear of spoilers, but it's both adventure and interpersonal, plus I do my usual thing of trying to make it as realistic and accurate in the details as possible. Oh, and, of course, like all my stories, I go to great lengths to keep it utterly and entirely cliffhanger-free, guaranteed! CJ
  7. I can only offer my sincere and abject apologies for my vanishing act. I was spending far too much time online (and writing) and it was hurting my career. So, coupled with a case of writing burnout after Circumnavigation (which was nearly 100 chapters, and was often hard to get the chapters out in a timely manner) I had to retreat from the online world. I didn't even fully realize why I was doing it at the time, it was a compulsion, and it did save me financially. I'm fine now, but it was a bit hectic for a long time. What there is no excuse for is me not returning occasionally. I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. I am working on a story, just a few chapters so far, but it feels good to be writing again. I'll also be answering the posts I see in other threads in the forum (thanks!) and also a lot of PMs I have waiting, during coming days.
  8. Thought I'd start a new thread, just to harass everyone. I think I'm back now... I got into some of why I've been gone in the other threads, but I plan on logging in once or twice a week from now on, though probably no more than that until lightning season is over (it plays hell with my transceiver, which is my only link to the 'net). I hope y'all have been staying away from all cliffs and cliffhangers!
  9. Huh? WHAT?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!? But but but..... I never, every use cliffhangers!!!! ACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I've had internet problems, plus life got super hectic. I basically had to deal with a lot of things, including an illness in the family (thankfully resolved, but it was a rough go), so my internet time went basically to zero. I've been away on business a lot, and had a lot of work to do at home as well; I had to create a wildfire buffer zone around my house, so I spent a lot of quality time with my chain saw. Thankfully, Monsoon season is here, and the rain has ended the fire danger, so I'm far happier. To be honest, I think the writing pace of Circumnavigation burned me out for quite a bit; it was a struggle to churn out a chapter a week for a 99 chapter novel. It was also a real challenge to get it all posted by the end of December (December 186th, I think?) Actually, seeing as you bought it up, I'm going to have to admit another of the reasons for my absence; the cliffhangers in your novel made me catatonic for weeks on end! <shudder> I was traumatized... Yep... at best lately, I have a lag state of 300 miliseconds and packet loss. I'm going to have to bite the bullet and get satellite internet (which is my only other option here...). And... things are at last less hectic for me, so I'm really back this time, which means I'll be logging in one or twice a week at least.
  10. I think I heard from him, whilst talking to myself.... And yup... I do have a new story in mind for GA. But Benji... you know that a goat would never have anything to do with a cliff.
  11. Chapter 51: Changing the Game The wedding party and Felecia’s force arrived at the hotel in Be’er Sheva, almost unnoticed due to it being the middle of the night. Jansen made it clear that he and Eric would be sharing a room, which surprised no one, not even Jane, who had guessed at the relationship almost before it even began. Exhausted, Eric and Jansen climbed into the room’s single bed, and before sleep claimed them, Eric said from the heart, “I’m sorry for everything I put you through. When it looked like I wasn’t coming back, the thing that hurt the most was the thought of never seeing you again.” Jansen, barely able to keep his eyes open, gave Eric a hug and replied, “I get why you did what you did. I think it was insane, but I can understand, because if it was you or Keither that was missing, I would’ve probably done the same thing, if I’d thought of it. Just… talk to me first, if there’s ever a next time, okay?” All Eric had time to do was nod, before sleep claimed him. Eric awoke early, finding that he was using Jansen’s bare chest as a pillow. A light touch, and the change in Jansen’s breathing told Eric that the dancer was almost awake. Eric grinned in the dawn light, and began waking Jansen up in the most personal way possible… Three doors down the hall, Keith woke up, alone in bed, and glanced over at Jon, who was still sound asleep. Keith crept over to the window, where he sat down to watch the sun rising over the Negev, though his mind was not on the view. He found himself thinking of Brian, and gave himself a mental kick for having a crush on a guy he thought was straight. On the floor above, Brian padded out onto a balcony to watch the sunrise, rejoicing in the belief that he was out of imminent danger for the first time since his capture by the Iranians. Stretching out on a chair, enjoying the warm caress of the rising sun on his chest, Brian found himself wondering what Keith was doing. After a few idle daydreams centered on Keith, Brian shook his head in disgust as he thought, ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid. He knows I’m gay, so if he was interested in me, he’d have said something by now. He looked shocked when he thought he’d bumped into my morning wood, so probably straight… but straight or he’s not interested, same difference, so it’d be a lot better if I just avoid him until this is over.’” Moments after making that decision, Brian picked up the phone, giving himself a mental kick for stupidity as he did so, and dialed the front desk to ask for Keith’s room. The ringing room phone caused Keith to jump, and he snatched it up, hoping that Jon could get back to sleep. He need not have worried; Jon was a sound sleeper and had not even stirred. Putting the phone to his ear, Keith whispered, “Hello?” “I hope I didn’t wake you up,” Brian said, and then, trying hard to sound casual, “This is Brian. I, uh, I’m going out to see some of the sights while we’re here and, uh, I wondered if you’d like to go along. Better to go with someone you know than alone, right? Masada is only thirty miles away…” Brian glanced again at the hotel’s information booklet on the table, which he’d scoured to find the most interesting nearby attraction. “It’s well worth seeing. And I–” Keith found himself grinning at the prospect. He liked Brian’s company, and hoped he’d make a good friend. “Yeah, count me in, thanks,” Keith whispered, and then added, “Can I meet you downstairs, maybe grab some breakfast? Jon’s still asleep.” Smiling, Brian replied, “Sure. See you in the lobby.” Jansen and Eric, having sated one hunger, sought out the restaurant to satisfy another. After ordering, Eric looked into Jansen’s eyes and smiled. “No tequila involved this time. That was all me.” Jansen grinned, blushing slightly as he replied in a quiet voice, “Yeah, that was great. Any doubts I ever had are gone. Actually, they were back at the resort on La Palma. I’ve got a theory about you and tequila; it makes you kinda wild and uninhibited, but it’s still basically you, and you only get into real trouble when people start freaking out on you, right?” Eric grinned, surprised that Jansen had caught on so soon. “Pretty much. The only exception was Jerry. Even before I knew what he was, I hated him, more than I’ve ever hated anything or anyone. But, yeah, other than that, if I’m around someone who is relaxed and not stressing on me, I’m usually fine. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes I get a hunch what people are feeling, so I think I react to that more than what they say or do. You can ask Chase or Jon; they’ve been around me when I’m on tequila. Sometimes I’ve been okay. The trouble really started at a party Jerry had, when I kind of trashed the place.” Suddenly, Eric figured it out and asked, “So, when did you and Chase talk?” Grinning, Jansen replied, “While you were off on your insane grenade mission. After we got the news that the plane had been taken and you and Brandon were safe, Chase and I started talking about you. I kinda started it, by the way, and we were both pretty pissed with you and Brandon at that point. Anyway, he told me about that knack you have for reading people. Then the subject turned to tequila, and he shared his thoughts on that, saying that you’d always been pretty much okay when it was just you and him when you were on it. I bounced my theory off him, and he said he’d always thought pretty much the same way. I guess now I know how you pegged me and Keither as brothers so damn fast. So, how come you never told me about that reading-people stuff?” With a shrug and a smile, Eric replied, “Because I thought you’d think I was crazy if I said something like that.” Jansen chuckled. “Eric, I’ve always considered you crazy. That wouldn’t have changed a thing.” Eric laughed, and Jansen looked him in the eyes before saying, “So, you know, you really know, that I mean what I’m about to say: I don’t want us to ever end, because I love you.” Eric had no need to check; he felt the truth of Jansen’s words. Not caring who saw or what they thought, Eric reached across the table, took Jansen’s hand, and replied, “I love you too. I knew for sure when I was on Jerry’s plane.” Jansen was about to reply when Keith walked up and, not noticing the joined hands on the table in front of him, asked, “Have you guys seen Brian? He was going to meet me in the lobby; he asked me to go sightseeing with him…” Jansen recognized Keith’s anxious tone, and asked, “How long ago did he say that?” Keith checked his watch, “Almost five minutes ago.” Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Jansen looked past Keith for a moment and then said, “Turn around, he’s heading this way.” Eric and Jansen were sitting at a table for two, so Brian and Keith found a table of their own a few yards away. As they sat down, Jansen whispered to Eric in a serious tone, “I think Keither has a crush on Brian. Does your inner knack, or whatever you call it, work on Brian? Can you tell if there’s any chance the feeling is mutual? Keith said Brian keeps sending mixed signals... Keith tends to fall hard when he’s into a guy. I don’t want to see him set himself up for a train wreck.” Remembering the vibes he’d been getting when he was around both Brian and Keith, Eric had a strong hunch that whatever attractions there were, were mutual. Looking over at their table, however, he could both see and feel the awkwardness. Angling his head slightly as a thought occurred to him, Eric asked Jansen, “I wonder if Brian knows that Keith’s gay? Second thought of the day: I remember Brian grumbling something about his dad being a damn public-address system, so… I wonder if Brian thinks everyone knows he’s gay. Did you tell Keith about Brian?” Jansen shook his head, beginning to grin. “No I didn’t. I forgot until you mentioned it that he wasn’t there when you told me about Brian. I just assumed he knew. Let me get this straight; you think they are attracted to each other, but neither knows the other is gay, but assumes the other one already knows?” Eric grinned and arched an eyebrow. “Nothing straight about it, and that pretty much sums it up. You know what we’ve got to do, right?” Jansen nodded solemnly and then broke into a wicked grin. “Have some fun at their expense, of course. It’s my brotherly duty, after all. Let’s go barge in and join ‘em.” Keith looked up with mild annoyance as Jansen and Eric pulled up chairs at the table, and invited themselves to join Brian and Keith. Brian too was slightly perturbed; he was looking forward to a one-on-one chat with Keith. Glancing at Eric, Brian said, “Good morning, oh thief of grenades. Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m grenadeless today.” Brian gave Eric a slight smile, to let the bassist know that he wasn’t angry over the theft. Nodding at the good-natured dig, Eric replied, “Sorry about that, man. Anyway, Jansen and I just thought we’d stop by and cheer you guys up with a story. It’s pretty funny. I just found out that a couple of old friends of mine,” Eric used the term ‘old friends’ to keep Brian and Keith momentarily in the dark regarding the real subjects of the story, “have been dancing around each other for a while, all awkward and clumsy. Neither knew the other was gay, and they never actually discussed it. Hell, one even asked the other out on a date and they still didn’t know. They were both oblivious as hell.” Jansen began to laugh, and Keith shook his head. “A date and they still didn’t know? Either of ‘em? How the hell can anyone be that damn dense?” Keith asked, before meeting his brother’s eye and seeing a mirthful twinkle, one he recognized as a sure sign that Jansen was pulling his leg somehow. Before Keith could pursue that thought, Jansen said, “I dunno, Keither. You tell me; how can anyone be that damn dense?” Eric began to laugh and stood up before chiming in to add, “Have fun on your date today, guys.” Glaring at Eric and Jansen’s retreating backs, Brian snapped, “It’s not a date, shitheads, I just wanted some company to go sightseeing…” thinking that they were making fun of only him and putting him in a very awkward situation with Keith. Brian was trying to think of something to say when he heard Keith ask, “Are they right? About us, I mean?” Brian turned to face Keith, and saw only a hopeful look. Relaxing, beginning to see the humor in the situation, Brian nodded, “They are about me, anyway. I thought you knew. What about you?” Keith glanced at Eric and Jansen who had returned to their table but were looking in his direction and obviously enjoying themselves far too much. “Yeah, I thought you knew, too. They’re never going to let us live this down. You know that, right?” Brian chuckled. “Yeah, they probably won’t. I really thought you were straight.” Keith angled his head, perplexed. “Why? I know I never said, but…” “It was that first morning. I’d heard from both Eric and Felecia that they knew I was gay, so I figured my Dad had pretty much spread that bit of news to everyone. I was kinda pissed about that at the time. Then, you kinda freaked when you thought I’d bumped you with my morning wood. Your eyes looked like they’d pop out of your head, so I figured…” Brian said, letting his voice trail off. Keith smiled. “That wasn’t why… it was the freaking grenade. You held the thing damn near under my nose, remember? And I’d just found out I’d been sleeping next to a live grenade all night.” Brian shrugged, becoming slightly puzzled. “But the pin was in; it was safe.” Rolling his eyes and laughing, Keith replied, “Dude, I’m a civilian. All I saw was a freaking grenade under my nose, and pin or no pin, that’s why I reacted that way.” Brian blushed slightly, remembering. “Yeah, that makes sense. So, what about you? Why’d you peg me as straight?” Keith rolled his eyes again. “Take a wild guess, mister tough guy macho Marine.” Sporting a wicked grin, Brian replied, “Believing in stereotypes, huh? Shame on you.” Keith laughed, and then replied, “So, is it a date today or not?” With a confident smile, Brian replied, “I really didn’t intend it that way at first, due to my little misconception about you, but yeah, I’d like it to be.” “Then it’s a date,” Keith replied with a smile of his own. Helen ordered breakfast in her room, and then called General Bradson and Felecia to ask them to join her. There was still, Helen knew, a lot left to deal with. The General arrived while Helen waited for breakfast to be set up. As soon as the waiter had left the room, Helen got down to business. “The check I was given appears to be good, so that resolves the money issue. However, we still have a few problems. Namely, I’m stuck with two nuclear warheads, and the U.S. Government is out for our heads.” “They staked out a very public position on this. They can’t back down without humiliating themselves, and that embarrassment would extend to the entire administration, to a degree. Complicating the matter is that they already have a public black eye regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Therefore, to the bureaucratic mind, the answer is to double down and hope the other guy folds. That’s my read on why they put you and Instinct on the most-wanted list. This isn’t like the business world; less logic applies. Ego and public image are the primary motivators. They won’t back off because to their mindset, they can’t. They also probably believe that they control the rules of the game,” General Bradson said. Helen nodded. “That’s about what I’d figured. At the moment, my thinking is that we give the reporter everything we’ve got and let him run with it, getting our side of the story out.” General Bradson shook his head. “I don’t think that’ll work. They can stonewall, and they can also cloud the issue by making up new charges. The status quo plays into their hands by ceding the initiative to them. What we could do via the reporter would hurt, but I don’t think it would make ‘em back off. What we need is a game-changer.” The General’s confident tone clued Helen in that he had a plan, so she arched an eyebrow and asked, “What do you have in mind?” It took ten minutes, complicated by agitated interruptions from Helen, for General Bradson to explain his plan. After he’d finished, Helen sat glaring at him for over minute as she considered his plan, before breaking the icy silence. “General, my initial reaction was: you’re out of your motherfucking mind. After giving it a little thought, I’d say my first reaction was overly charitable… however, I do see that if this insane scheme works, it would solve all our problems. My problem is that it seems to require that the other side follow your script. For example, the part about the embassy… you expect them to just offer that up out of the blue?” General Bradson surprised Helen by pulling out his satellite phone, along with a sheet of paper given to him by Levi Gold, which contained a phone number and an e-mail address. He dialed the number, which was a private line to the White House switchboard. When the operator answered, the General said, “This is General Walter Bradson. I am in the Middle East and have in my possession multiple Iranian nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them. Unless the current situation changes, I will, within the next seventy-two hours, launch a nuclear strike on Iran. Let me be clear, I need to speak to the President regarding a clear and present danger to the United States of America. This is most urgent.” Helen blanched slightly, but General Bradson calmly resumed eating while on hold. A few minutes later, the operator came back on the line. The General listened for a moment, and then replied, “I’ll be there. In the meantime, I’ll be sending, within the hour, an e-mail to the President’s private e-mail account. It will have my name in the subject line. The President will want to listen to the attached recordings. One is of Deputy Undersecretary Graeme making illegal threats in the name of the administration, and the other is of Jerry Clump, shortly before I stopped him from getting away with the bombs on La Palma, boasting at having seized three nuclear warheads from Helen, and crediting the administration for giving him the opportunity. Oh, and by the way, have a nice day.” General Bradson ended the call. Smiling at Helen, he said, “They already knew that we’re in Israel. I have an appointment at the communications room of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. The President will speak to me over an encrypted comm link, and it was the White House’s idea. The mention of your tape of Mr. Graeme evidently made the impression I was counting on; they want to be sure the conversation is private and then they’ll really turn the screws. The embassy is one place they can be certain that I’m searched and electronically monitored, so there won’t be any chance of me recording the conversation.” Helen exhaled, closed her eyes, and then replied, “Well, you just neatly wrapped up the part I thought was impossible. Count me in. What do I need to do?” “Call that reporter. Tell him to examine Flight Two at La Palma airport, and that he’ll find Jerry Clump’s DNA on the bulkheads and on a knife, and tell him that Jerry Clump died while trying to get away with two nuclear warheads. Tell him to run his story about Deputy Undersecretary Graeme in twenty-four hours. Promise him whatever you need to in order to get him to hold on that long.” Helen nodded. “One question; won’t they arrest you the minute you set foot in the embassy?” General Bradson explained his contingency plan for that, and Helen rolled her eyes, feeling a migraine coming on. After a few minutes, she agreed, and then added in a resigned voice, “I guess that, if worse comes to worse, we can always stay in Israel.” Shaking his head, General Bradson got up to leave. “Don’t worry,” he said on his way to the door, “By tomorrow, this will all be over.” Three hours later, General Bradson strolled confidently along the busy Tel Aviv street and turned left. At the main entrance, he walked up to one of the Marine guards and said, “I’m Walter Bradson.” The Marine had been alerted to expect him, and ushered him inside, where a waiting Deputy Chief of Mission said, “I’ve been instructed to take you to our communications center. However, there are classified devices in that room, so everyone is searched for any electronic devices. Please hand over your watch and any other electronic or metallic object.” General Bradson had left his satellite phone in his hotel room due to expecting the search, which despite the Deputy Chief of Mission’s solemn words was not routine. The General smiled, and handed over his wristwatch, key chain, and then, with a flourish, a ballpoint pen. “Wouldn’t want me taking any notes either, I assume,” he said with a smirk. The Deputy Chief of Mission didn’t react. He had orders, and followed them by leading the General to a small room next to the communications center. The General was scanned to check for any electronic devices by a three-man team, and then took a seat while a technician established a secure link to the White House via an STU-14 encrypted phone system, and then the Deputy Chief of Mission handed the General the phone. “The line is active. Just hang up when you’re done. I’ve been asked to give you privacy.” As soon as the door closed, General Bradson took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Mister President. Thank you for speaking with me.” The President’s tone was formal, reserved, and businesslike. “It seems I had little choice. I happen to believe that you are bluffing regarding Iran, but I’m prepared to put this entire matter behind us. Turn over those warheads in return for clemency, keep this matter quiet, and this whole thing can go away.” “Clemency revocable at your discretion, no doubt.” General Bradson said, his voice firm. “No deal. We acted in good faith, only to have your State Department hacks try to make us into scapegoats. There’s also the matter of your policy in Iran. Sir, I view it likely that much of this was done without your knowledge,” the General said, using a convenient fiction that both men understood, “but there are aspects of this that you may be unaware of. I stopped Jerry Clump, as he was getting away from La Palma with two nuclear weapons. We recorded him before we took him down, and if you’ve listened to the copy I sent, he clearly implicates your administration’s mishandling of the situation with giving him the opportunity to get the bombs, and avows that Helen and Instinct got involved solely to keep the nukes out of his hands. It’s also proof positive that he was alive, despite your public assurances to the contrary. He used one nuclear warhead in an attempt to trigger the destruction of the entire coastline of the North Atlantic. A reporter has a copy of the conversation with Deputy Undersecretary Graeme, and that story will be breaking in twenty-four hours. I have not yet provided him with the tape of Jerry Clump. Also, regarding Iran... I asked you to speak with me today regarding a clear and present danger to the United States of America. That danger has been brought about by you and your policies. Unless you cease your opposition to the gasoline interdiction, I see the use of Iran’s own nukes against them as the least-bad option. Allow me to explain: Israel cannot allow that fanatical regime to become a nuclear power. The Iranian regime is run by religious fanatics of the worst kind, and they make no bones about wanting to wipe Israel off the map–” The President raised his voice to interrupt. “That’s fear-mongering. Israel’s own nuclear arsenal would deter Iran–” “And that, Sir, is where you are wrong. Deterrence only works against the sane. Enough of their regime believes that it is their religious duty to cause a new holocaust – Ironic, considering they deny the first one ever happened – and they do believe in martyrdom. There is also the matter of geography. Israel is just a little bigger than Connecticut, while Iran is the size of Texas, California, Montana, and New Mexico combined. Just a couple of bombs would effectively destroy Israel, but given Iran’s size, it would take a massive strike, more than even an intact Israel can deliver, to do the same to Iran, and that, Sir, assumes that the Iranian regime is deterrable at all. Israel therefore has no choice; failure to remove the threat would be national suicide. There is also America to consider. Iran may well seek to deter us by planting a bomb in one of our cities as a threat. We’ve seen how easy that is, and as you know, we came within moments of losing Los Angeles and New York. If you’ll recall, you fired me for going ahead without orders, but as we both know, even though the public does not, had I not done so, we’d have lost at least one of our two largest cities.” General Bradson let the implied threat of public disclosure hang in the air for a moment before continuing, “Sir, I can offer you countless reasons why a regime that has been the number one supporter of terrorists for three decades cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power. Suffice it to say that, in my judgment, it cannot, and I do have the means to stop it. If need be, I shall do so. Better by far, for all concerned, including the Iranian people, if their regime can be brought down via the current unrest.” “Given where you and the bombs are, your hosts are up to their eyebrows in this and I’ll make sure they pay,” the President shot back in anger. He wasn’t used to any challenge to his authority. “I won’t tolerate any action–” “You really don’t have a choice, Sir. We have one way out of this, and one way only. First, all charges against me, the band, the mercenaries, and anyone else associated with the effort to keep nuclear warheads out of Jerry Clump’s hands will be immediately and publicly dropped. You could use the excuse that you were distracted by the volcanic risk to the country and relied on bad information. To that end, you will issue an apology and announce the public firing of Deputy Undersecretary Graeme, his superiors, and everyone else involved in his clique at the State Department. Not a resignation, a firing. Next, you will declare your opposition to any gasoline shipments to Iran and you will not interfere with the efforts of others to interdict those shipments. You will do this within twenty-four hours or I’ll have no other choice but to release the tapes of Jerry Clump to the press a few hours before I nuke a couple of carefully chosen Iranian sites. Bear in mind that I still have these weapons solely because of your administration’s attempt to shaft us, and I’ll make that explicitly clear. I’d prefer not to have to do that, but I will if I must.” A long silence ensued. General Bradson began to wonder whether the line had gone dead, when he heard the President’s voice, quieter now, almost subdued but dripping menace. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Bradson. I can make sure you never leave that embassy, not alive, anyway.” “I’ll be blunt; I’ve taken measures regarding the eventuality that I don’t return. Unless I am free before the end of the day, the commander of the mercenaries – who by the way has nuked Iran once already – will launch the strike and release all the tapes. You don’t know the means I’ve planned for the strike and you can’t stop it. As you might guess, my hosts, due to being threatened with another holocaust by the Iranian regime, are not adverse to a third party solving their problem,” General Bradson said, and crossed his fingers, hoping that he would not need to follow through on his threat. Another long silence ensued, and then the President, seeing that the path of least political damage appeared to be going along with the General’s plan, said, “I’ll be making a speech to announce the firings, the apology, and the Iranian policy adjustment early tomorrow. Now, how do I know you’ll keep your part of the deal?” Graciously accepting the President’s surrender, General Bradson replied, “Within two hours of your announcement, I’ll render the bombs inert and deliver them to this embassy, Sir. Then, they are in American hands and this issue is behind us, provided that we are never bothered again, and you allow the pressure to remain on Iran until their regime folds.” After the call ended, General Bradson emerged from the room to find himself face-to-face with three of the embassy Marine guards. The Deputy Chief of Mission stood behind them and opened his mouth to speak. Before he could do so, an aid gestured frantically, calling him aside. Ten minutes later and five blocks away, General Bradson made a call from a pay phone, to Bill. Without preamble, General Bradson asked, “Did you get it?” “Yeah, we did. I’ve listened to it, too. Being in the NSA has its uses, after all,” Bill replied. Tapping into a government STU-14 conversation had been fairly easy, given the resources Bill had access to at the NSA. “You know what to do if I disappear or if he reneges on the deal, right? And then later...” Bill took a long moment to consider his reply. If he did what the General wanted, he could end up in prison, or worse. However, what had gotten him involved in the first place was his higher duty. Making his decision, he said, “If there are any problems from him in the near future, I’ll act at once. If not, it’ll be like the leak when we detected the fallout from the nuke in Iran; a well-orchestrated and timed release of the information, in mid-October, I think, right before the election. That will torpedo any hopes he has of a second term. There’s enough here, combined with that tape of Jerry Clump that you sent me, to hang him out to dry and I’ll make damn sure it happens,” Bill replied, relieved that the showdown appeared to be over. He had no qualms over his potential role; his disgust with the administration ran long and deep. General Walter Bradson, USAF, retired, strolled out into the Tel Aviv sunshine with a victor’s smile on his face. The next day, Levi Gold joined Helen, the members of Instinct, Felecia, and General Bradson, as they watched the President’s speech. Helen smiled as the President announced the firings at the State Department, and grinned as her boys began to cheer when the apology and lifting of charges was announced. “It’s finally over, isn’t it?” Eric asked as he bounded to his feet. The members of Instinct raced off to share the good news, and Helen followed, to make sure they didn’t inadvertently say too much. Felecia arched an eyebrow in Levi’s direction and asked, “Would you have really let me take the nukes and zap Iran?” Levi shrugged. “I must answer carefully. I will tell you what we told your Secretary of State, who phoned us yesterday during your chat with your president, and tried to strong-arm us into detaining you and the warheads. We would have not objected when Helen reclaimed her legal property – which was one of the purposes of the legal procedure we insisted upon. From our point of view, the strike you proposed would have served us better than one of our own. We would have escaped much of the blame, and at worst, we would be left with going ahead with our own strike against their underground facilities. Now, let me ask you this; do you still wish to deliver those bombs to the embassy? I can arrange that easily enough, but once they are gone, what guarantees do you have?” General Bradson glanced at Felecia and smiled. “We have some insurance. I won’t say how, but I have a copy, in the hands of friends, of the President’s conversation with me, including his threats. That, combined with the tapes of Jerry Clump, should be enough to destroy him, or at least cost him the election if he chooses to break his deal and run again. Same goes if he doesn’t keep his promise regarding Iran. You have my solemn promise that I’ll hold him to that. I do need one thing from you, just to be sure: An unconfirmed rumor, in a week or two, from the Mossad, that we captured five bombs in Iran, not four. Let them think I might still have one. That should give them pause if they suddenly develop any clever ideas.” Levi nodded in agreement, and in spite of not being a military officer, he saluted General Bradson. “There are those who will condemn you if this story ever gets out, but to quote a passage from Theodore Roosevelt, It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. That man is you, General, and you, Sir, by your intrepid triumph over impossible odds, have done your country, mine, and the world, a great service.” That was the first time Felecia had ever seen General Bradson blush. Later that day, Felecia stood in the hotel lobby, Horst by her side, as she bade her men farewell. Many, she would never see again. They had their money, and now their freedom. With mixed emotions, she watched the first groups of departing mercenaries filing out the hotel door. After discussing the matter with Jon, Eric, Brandon, and Chase, Helen received their enthusiastic consent. She then went to see General Bradson and Felecia to make them a job offer. The only issue Helen was adamant on was one she reiterated three times: “No more nukes!” Shortly before dinner, Keith knocked on Eric and Jansen’s door. He entered, beaming, when Jansen opened the door, and gave his brother a playful slug on the arm. “You jerks. I’ll get you for what you pulled this morning.” He pointed an accusing finger at Eric, and added, “I hope you guys had a good laugh at our expense.” “Of course we did,” Eric replied deadpan. “Would you expect any less?” Keith flopped into an armchair, and Jansen asked, “So, how did it go? You’re in too good a mood for this to be bad news.” Keith grinned, looking first at Eric and then at Jansen. “Great, actually. We had a blast. We’re going on a dinner-date tonight. Turns out his home base is Camp Pendleton, so he’ll be close by once we get home, and yeah, I heard that we’re okay to go back. It’s been a great day all around. So, partners, does this mean we can still open the club?” Eric toyed with the idea of making Keith suffer for a few minutes, but then he chuckled and replied, “We’ll start looking for a suitable place just as soon as we get back.” Eric cracked open a bottle of Israeli whisky, and the three business partners drank a shot to toast their bright and beckoning future. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Special thanks to MikeL for advice I hereby dedicate this story to my friend Wildone, who has suffered a horrific accident, but due to his strength, perseverance, and courage has pulled through and is recovering. I wish you a continued speedy recovery, Wildone. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  12. C James


    Epilogue It had been a trying six months, time passing in a whirlwind of activity. Two weeks after their return from Israel, Eric and Brandon had organized a biker funeral for Jim and Linda, where Eric had introduced Mad Mike and his bikers to Jansen and Keith. Then, taking Mad Mike aside, Eric had made him a business offer: full employment on generous terms for himself and his entire club. The money was not an issue; Helen and the band had set aside the extra five million the Israelis had provided, intending to use it for things Jim would have wanted. Three days later, Brian had asked Keith to accompany him on a trip he knew he had to make, and a few days later, Brian and Keith had stood in the rain in Arlington National Cemetery, to pay their private respects to Private Earl Johnson. That night, Brian told Keith that, although he’d decided to stay in the Marine Corps, he’d confirmed that he would be posted at Camp Pendleton, which wasn’t too far from the site of Carlisle’s, and living off base. That conversation led, somewhat later, to another, and a month after Private Johnson’s funeral, Brian and Keith moved into their new apartment. Instinct, due to the massive publicity resulting from La Palma, found itself in greater demand than ever before. For Eric, Jansen, and Keith, their lives revolved around the demands of Instinct’s touring schedule, and supervising the remodeling of the building they’d picked for their club. Like any construction project, this one had a few snags, but eventually, the huge north and south halls – each capable of seating over five hundred people – took shape, and the rest of the club soon followed. Phil Breslin, a very recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his recent series that had rocked Washington in a way not seen since Watergate, found himself, due to Helen’s promise, with an inside scoop on the club’s grand opening. Entertainment was no longer his beat – his most recent story had been on the fall of the Iranian regime – but he took the story anyway due to Instinct’s role in the events that had given him his Pulitzer. His byline helped boost the already growing interest in Carlisle’s impending grand opening. The Scar's shattered and rotting corpse, recovered from an ash-covered rocky field on La Palma, had laid to rest any lingering doubt regarding his involvement in the events on the island. One other thing changed for Eric; his relationship with tequila. On rare occasions, when it was just the two of them, and Jansen had locked the doors of their house from the inside and hidden the keys, Jansen and Eric would enjoy a little tequila. With no one stressing out on him, Eric could be himself and have the purest form of fun, and most times he was not the terror he once had been. In Jansen, he had found his soulmate. Opening day for the club was near at hand. Keith, after a day’s scouting to fill the few remaining staff positions, walked into the club office to tell Eric and Jansen some news. “We’ve got a problem. Remember our old boss from the strip club, George Tankardsly? Seems that either he, or more likely the owners of our old club, don’t like the idea of dancers starting up competing clubs, or hiring away their potential employees, especially at higher wages. Anyway, one of my friends gave me a heads-up; George, plus a bouncer, is planning on attending our pre-grand-opening open house and pushing for a cut of our business. Expect some threats, subtle or otherwise.” Eric nodded casually. “Sending a bouncer to scare us, huh?” Eric thumbed the intercom and said, “Horst? Could you come in here please?” Moments later, Horst marched in the door, saluted, and asked, “You sent for me, Herr Eric?” Eric rolled his eyes. “Horst, please, just call me Eric, not Herr Eric, and no saluting.” “Your wish is my command, Herr Eric,” Horst replied, and snapped off a crisp salute. Eric glared at Jansen and Keith, who were snickering loudly. “I know you guys put him up to this…” Returning his attention to Horst, the club’s chief of security, Eric explained the situation. Horst’s expression changed in an instant, and his smile vanished. “My force here is ten men, including five of Felecia’s former troops. However, two are away on vacation. I need no help to handle one man and a bouncer, but I think it would be advisable to put an end to this threat, not merely deter it. I can think of two ways of doing so…” Horst explained his plans. Eric shook his head. “Forget the flying lesson, please. I’d prefer to handle this legally. Let’s go with plan B.” That night, the club, which they had christened Carlisle’s, opened its doors to the public for the first time. The open house served two functions: a training run for the staff, and a PR event to build up a buzz for the grand opening. Most things went well, and the club was soon filled to capacity. Still, it was frantic for the three owners, who had to dash about, handling countless small problems that appeared. Two hours into their first night, Jansen spotted the familiar face of George Tankardsly, accompanied by two very large men, heading for the bar in the north hall. He pointed George out to Horst and said, “That’s him, and he’s brought two goons.” Horst made a few calls on his cell phone, and then on a walkie-talkie. With that done, he followed along, a few paces behind, as Eric strolled down to meet George at the bar. George had just finished telling the bartender that he needed to speak to the owners when Eric said from a few paces to his side, “One of ‘em would be me. What can I do for you?” George glanced pointedly at his two heavily muscled men before saying, “We need to talk to you, alone. I must insist on it.” Eric shrugged. “Whatever. Follow me; I’m heading outside for some air anyway.” When George, flanked by his bouncers, followed Eric out of a side door into the parking lot, he found Eric leaning up against a wall, apparently unconcerned. George pointed at the two bouncers to emphasize the implied threat and said, “I’ll get down to business. You’ve hired Jansen and Keith, and if they are going to work in this town, unless you want trouble, we’re going to cut a little deal–” Eric smiled at George. “Trouble? I don’t think you know much about trouble, yet. Let me introduce you to a few people.” On cue, General Bradson and Felecia emerged from the shadows. George blinked in recognition; they’d been all over the news programs. Eric nodded happily. “Good, I see you recognize them. The General and Felecia, who haven’t nuked anybody lately, are Instinct’s co-heads of security. However, this club is owned by Jansen, Keith, and me, as equal partners, so let me introduce our head of security, Horst.” George’s eyes grew a little wider as Horst, accompanied by eight armed, uniformed men, emerged from the club door. Holding up his hands, George said, “Wait, okay, forget it, I’m out of here–” “Not so fast,” Jansen said, as he and Keith followed Horst’s men into the parking lot to face George. “Nice to see you again, George. This visit wasn’t a good idea on your part.” Jansen nodded to Horst, who said one word into his walkie-talkie. “Now.” The growling roar of Harley engines turning over echoed through the night, first just a few, and then dozens. Then, with Mad Mike in the lead, he and thirty bikers, some swinging chains, began to circle. Above the roar, Eric yelled, “This is just a taste of what we can put together at short notice. You really don’t know what you’re messing with here. If you ever bother us again, you and your bosses will find out just what we’re capable of. You’ve got ten seconds to get off our property.” Flanked by half a dozen Harley-mounted bikers, George and his two men began to run. The message was received, loud and clear; Carlisle’s would not be bothered again. “There is much to be said for an overwhelming show of force,” General Bradson said, with a strong note of approval. Then, joined by his co-head of Instinct’s security, Felecia, he went inside for a drink. Once the doors had finally closed for the night, Eric shook his head and wiped his brow. “That was hectic, but a good hectic. I think we’ll do okay.” Jansen put his arm around Eric. “Yeah, now all we’ve got is the wedding reception here in the afternoon, followed by opening night.” Eric rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I can’t believe Mom’s getting married and holding the reception here. That was a shock. It’s all been so fast; François only popped the question last week.” Jansen nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it’s been a rush in a lot of ways, but we’ll pull it together. The club staff should be able to handle a wedding reception, no problem. Look at the bright side; if anything goes wrong, we can always blame Keither.” “I heard that!” Keith yelled from another room. “Strippers,” Eric said, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling shrugging shoulders. Keith entered the room as he and Jansen shouted in unison, “That’s exotic dancers, you ass!” The laughter went a long way towards easing their opening-day jitters. The wedding ceremony for Jane and François was held at a local church. François had surprised both Jane and himself with his spontaneous proposal, but it had come from the heart. After the wedding, the newlyweds, plus over one hundred guests, descended on Carlisle’s for the reception. The wedding guests included all of Instinct’s official family and more than two dozen of François’ mercenary friends, thus making it a reunion for most of Felecia’s force. Carlisle’s could seat nearly five hundred people in each of its two main halls, so space was not an issue. Keeping the freewheeling mercenaries from overindulging in the open bar proved to be harder. The party dragged on, well past what they’d planned, and Eric began nervously eying the clock. The lines for opening night had already begun to form, and it looked like the wedding party was staying for the show. An hour later, for the first time of many throughout the coming years, Eric took the stage to a round of thunderous applause. Using the one move he knew, he executed a smooth sidestep as he whipped his shirt off with one hand. Then picking up the microphone, he waited a few long moments for the applause to die down. “Welcome to the grand opening of Carlisle’s,” Eric said, as countless camera flashes dazzled him. “We’ve got three bands lined up for you tonight, starting with Instinct. Later, we have exotic dancers for your enjoyment. The ladies will be performing in the south hall and the guys will be doing their thing right here.” Brian, sitting in the front row, joined in the thunderous applause. Except for a few very private demonstrations, he’d never seen his boyfriend’s act. He hoped he could talk Keith into a private encore when they got back to their apartment… Backstage, Jansen and Keith waited, listening to the applause. Eric bounded in off the stage and gave his business partners a wild hug. Sometimes, dreams die the hardest deaths of all. But on those rare and ephemeral other times, when fickle fate is kind, dreams proffer unto those rare and lucky few the greatest life of all. They could not know it, not then, but fate would prove indeed kind, then and in the years ahead, giving life unto their dreams…. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Special thanks to MikeL for advice I hereby dedicate this story to my friend Wildone, who has suffered a horrific accident, but due to his strength, perseverance, and courage has pulled through and is recovering. I wish you a continued speedy recovery, Wildone. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  13. C James


    Chapter 49: Falling Blinking in surprise, not yet realizing the danger, Survov stared for the briefest of moments at the woman standing before him. He’d never met Felecia, but the unexpected appearance of a woman’s face astounded him, because there were no females amongst the henchmen. His attention fixed on Felecia as had been intended, Survov didn’t have a chance. Horst, moving with catlike grace, seized Survov from behind, and with one fluid move put his arm over Survov’s shoulder, seized his chin, and pulled it hard, up, and to the left. Survov could only blink in horror as he heard the sound of his neck breaking, and felt the sudden knifelike pain. Horst released him, and Survov fell to the deck, unable to move, speak, or breathe, but still able to see and hear. He would remain conscious for the next minute, feeling himself suffocate to death. The Scar heard Survov’s fall, as did the one remaining henchman aboard. Reacting as they’d been intended to do, both snapped their heads around to look. The Scar opened his mouth to give an order, only to gasp out in surprise and pain as he was slammed from behind by General Bradson. The henchman was not so lucky; a mercenary who had maneuvered behind him snapped his neck. Brandon and Eric watched in surprise, and then relief, as they realized that rescue was at hand. With a bone-jarring thud, General Bradson slammed The Scar to the deck, grabbed him by the throat, and said softly, “One move out of you and I’ll break your neck.” There was no time for celebration as Felecia turned to ask Eric and Brandon, “Any idea where the third nuke is?” Brandon nodded, “Yeah, Jerry said he used it to trigger the eruption.” “I think he was telling the truth,” Eric added. Nodding, Felecia said, “Hold tight for a minute. We’ve still got to take the plane. Any idea how many are in the cockpit?” Brandon and Eric shook their heads, and Brandon said, “I don’t remember anyone but Jerry and that guy,” Brandon nodded at Survov, “going in, but I’m not sure.” Motioning to two of her men to follow, Felecia jogged forward to the cockpit door. She pressed her ear to the door, hoping to hear voices, but the noise from the engines was too loud. General Bradson left The Scar to Horst’s care and joined Felecia, knowing that he would soon be needed. Felecia glanced at her men to be sure they were ready, and said, “Take no chances. Knives only. Fast kill, before they can do anything.” After taking a deep breath and drawing her combat knife, Felecia shoved the door open and rushed through, her men following behind. The door hit the stop with a clatter, and the surprised pilot looked back, just in time to see Felecia. He reached for his gun, but before he could touch it, Felecia drove her knife into his neck, severing his spinal column. Snatching the pilot’s body backwards before he could fall against the yoke, Felecia put her own hand on the controls and yelled, “Cockpit, clear. Walter, get in here!” He was already behind her, and slipped into the copilot’s seat, taking the controls. After a fast check of the gauges he said, “Looks like we’re okay here. Get the body out, I’d rather not land from the right seat.” The pilot’s body was unceremoniously dumped outside the cockpit door, and Felecia, bloody knife in hand, rushed into the cargo bay, smiling as she announced, “Aircraft secured.” Turning to Brandon and Eric, she said, “Lets get you two out of those ropes.” Felecia made fast work of Brandon and Eric’s ropes, and then with a bemused look said to Helen with a wink, “You can move now, you know.” Helen, still somewhat shaken, realized that she was still holding her arms behind her, clutching a rope in place to simulate being bound. Shaking her head at Felecia, Helen said, “Yeah, thanks. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. I really didn’t think this crazy plan of yours would work.” Helen glanced at Survov’s body, and then at The Scar, who was motionless, pinned to the floor by Horst, and added, “I guess it did. Thank you.” “How–” Brandon asked in stunned voice, only to be cut off by Felecia. “I’ll explain in a minute. Business first. Horst, check Frankenstein’s pockets. Take everything, including his watch or anything else that could be electrical or hide a transmitter. Kill him if he even breathes wrong.” Felecia said. Horst, aided by one of the mercenaries, emptied The Scar’s pockets, and then used a tie-down strap to bind The Scar’s arm to his body. When Horst was done, he left one mercenary with a knife at The Scar’s throat, and handed Felecia The Scar’s satellite phone. Flipping it open, she dialed the number for Yuri’s phone, which was answered by Brian. With herself and Horst on the mission, she’d left him in charge at Flight Three. “We’ve secured the aircraft, the hostages, and the bombs. No casualties. Clean the runway of any stragglers, and report so we can land,” Felecia told Brian, before ending the call and turning to Horst to say, “Check those damn bombs. Make sure there’s no timer and safe the things, if you can.” Horst nodded, feeling somewhat out of his depth, and walked towards the bombs. Brandon said, in a shaky voice, “I’m pretty good with electronics. Can I help?” Horst turned and nodded. “Yes. I would appreciate it.” Working together while the others looked on, Horst, with his knowledge of explosives, and Brandon, with his own of electronics, examined the simple timers and triggering charges. “The timers don’t look like they are running,” Brandon said, “but there could be another timer chip somewhere, and these,” he gestured at the two protruding metal stubs, “might be contact terminals, but I don’t know what they’re for.” Speaking for the first time since his capture, The Scar, with the mercenary’s knife still at his throat, said, “Do not touch those assemblies. I have no wish to die. The timers and triggering charges are set to detonate if tampered with. Brandon is correct; there is an internal timer in addition to the external one. The internal ones are running. Only I know how to disarm them. I would imagine that there are perhaps five minutes remaining, but I am not certain.” “Why the hell would you have the timers counting down while taking off?” Felecia asked. “Let us strike a bargain, or we all die,” The Scar replied, ignoring the question. “I ask only for my release, and I shall grant you your lives in return.” “Yeah, right,” Felecia said, and then, motioning to one of her men, ordered, “Start breaking his fingers, then move the bones around a little. He’ll talk.” He hadn’t really expected his play for release to work, so The Scar made a decision. Affecting a quavering, fearful voice, he said, “No, wait. It’s the metal contacts. Jump them with a coin and that disarms the timer.” “I think he’s lying, start breaking fingers,” Felecia said. Eric stared at The Scar for a moment, until his inner sense was sure. “He’s definitely lying. I know he is.” Helen nodded and then told Felecia, “It’s a long story, but when Eric is that sure, I’d believe him.” “Me, too,” Brandon said, and resumed his examination of the timer and demolition charge. Felecia shrugged. “Fine, I think so too. So, can you two safe those things, or should we try the finger-breaking option?” Horst asked Brandon, “Any sign of a pressure switch in the detonator?” “No, not that I can see. There’s only two wires.” “It could be non-electrical, perhaps spring-loaded, but this appears to be a standard detonator cap. I’ve used this model before.” Horst stared at the triggering charge for a moment and then said, “This looks to be very simple. The timer connects to a single detonator cap, which is exposed and can be removed, like so.” As if plucking a grape, Horst reached out and pulled the detonator cap out of the high explosive shaped charge. Brandon cringed, and Felecia said with a chuckle, “Thanks for the warning, Horst. Might as well do the other one.” Horst removed the second detonator cap, and then cut the wires to both, handing the detonator caps off to one of his men. He then pried the now-inert charges off the bombs with his knife. After examining them again, he said on a matter-o-fact voice, “These are safe now. With no detonator cap, they are harmless.” Horst held one of the charges out to Brandon, who took it with more than a little trepidation. “It is quite safe. I do not understand electronics as well as you, but I do know explosives.” Brandon eased the timer up, and saw the wires connecting to the contacts, which led directly to the relay. “Jumping the contacts would have set it off,” he said, and then handed the charge back to Horst. “How the hell did you guys pull this off,” Eric asked, no longer able to contain his curiosity. He then glanced at Survov’s corpse, and then the pilot’s, amazed at how little the dead bodies bothered him. Felecia shrugged, remembering… “It wasn’t easy–” she said, and then began to explain… The original plan, born of desperation, had been five minutes from execution when Helen had shown up at Flight Three. The Scar’s time limit had been almost up, and Felecia had already, acting on the report from her recon team, sent ten of her men ­forward, intending to use the ash and darkness to silently take down the henchmen deployed astern of Flight Two and then storm the plane, hoping for the best. The General and Felecia had given that option a low chance of success due to the probability that The Scar would have a few seconds in which to respond by killing the two hostages or detonating a nuclear warhead. However, it was all they could come up with, until Helen had arrived. Her frustrated, desperate outburst had given General Bradson an idea, and the battle plan had been amended. Surprise had been both the goal, and the previously elusive key. Helen, escorted by the General and Felecia, had dashed south, and between ragged gasps for air and muffled by the towel wrapped around his head, the General had given Helen a few quick instructions. There had been no time to explain fully, but Helen went along, in part due to desperation, but in an equal measure due to the fact that she had begun to trust General Bradson and Felecia. Even though her prior placement of trust in General Bradson had not gone well, she knew that he had never intended to bring harm to her or Instinct. When she was halfway to Flight Three, Felecia had given the order to her ten men, who had been chosen due to being ex-special forces and skilled in the art of stealthy approach and silent killing. The ten mercenaries, working in two-man teams, had made fast work of the five henchmen, who had been deployed in individual posts, facing north. The partial darkness and ash had provided good concealment, made all the better by the henchmen’s preference for keeping their eyes covered. The five henchmen had been taken from behind almost simultaneously, a hand clamping their mouths closed as their throats were cut. Three of the mercenaries had, per their orders, pulled the henchmen’s uniforms on over their own, taking care to rub ash over the bloodstains. They had been ready when Felecia and the General had arrived with Helen. Donning henchman’s uniforms of their own, and joined by three similarly clad mercenaries, Felecia and General Bradson had formed the guard detail that had taken Helen aboard Flight Two. It had once again been the ash that made it possible; with their heads wrapped in towels, leaving only slits for their eyes, they had been indistinguishable at a casual glance from The Scar’s men. Felecia spoke quickly, knowing that there was still much to do, and concluded her tale, saying, “Survov made it easy by deploying his men outside, but we had to wait for Frankenstein to come out, because we didn’t know how he might have the bombs rigged and thought he might have a trigger of some kind on him. I’d asked Helen to keep quiet and ignore him, figuring that would focus his attention. We had to take him by surprise, and I think it’s safe to say, we surprised the hell out of him.” Taking a deep breath, beginning to dread the answer, Eric asked, “What about Jim, Linda, and the Private? Jerry said he had them prisoner somewhere.” Felecia shook her head. “We still don’t know. Frankenstein had all three bombs, so he knows where our friends are.” Felecia paused, and then told Helen, Brandon, and Eric, “Please go visit with Walter in the cockpit for a while. It would be better for all of us.” Helen nodded, and led Eric and Brandon to the cockpit. They all suspected what was about to occur. General Bradson greeted them from the pilot’s seat, “Felecia told me on the intercom that you were on your way. I’m circling over the southern tip of La Palma, so as we come around, you’ll see the eruption.” Brandon slid into the copilot’s seat, Helen took the navigator’s station, and Eric settled into the flight engineer’s seat behind General Bradson, as La Palma came into view. The sight that greeted them chilled them to the bone. Looking north along the main fissure, they could see glowing fountains of lava, topped by roiling columns of ash, which towered into the stratosphere before bending northeastward. To the northeast, they could see the airport, which was just south of the ash cloud, but it was the western side of the island that held their gaze. Jagged paths of light grey ­– the result of pyroclastic flows – led to the sea in half a dozen places, three of which crossed the route they’d taken during their escape. General Bradson pointed through the window. “See where the resort was?” he asked. Brandon peered out, squinting against the glare, and managed to pick out the beach where he’d been married. Tracing the coast south, he saw it, and gasped. “Oh my God… It’s gone…” He was close enough to being right; the land on which the resort once stood was now covered by black rubble, the result of a slow-moving lava flow that had reached the sea. Staring out at the devastation, Eric said in a numb tone, “Jerry did this. First Australia, now here.” Turning to glare at The Scar, Felecia said, “Care to talk now, or do I do this the fun way?” The Scar glared back. “You would not dare. Torture is illegal­­–” The Scar gaped in agony, reeling from the kick Felecia had just delivered to his still-tender nuts. Felecia kicked The Scar again, rolling him over. She flattened his bound hand, palm up, against the deck, and stomped on his fingers, breaking two. After waiting for The Scar to stop screaming, Felecia said pleasantly, “Now we’ve resolved that little matter, let’s have a chat. Now, where are our friends?” Felecia felt no compunction about using forceful methods on a man who had coldly killed tens of thousands of people. To emphasize that she meant business, she wiggled the broken bones of The Scar’s middle finger. The Scar yelled in pain, and then gasped, “I’ll make you pay for this, I swear it­–” The Scar’s protests were interrupted by his own yells, as Felecia tugged on his shattered fingers. “They’re dead, they died in the ambush,” he gasped, and then, with a little more encouragement, he shared the details of that, and a few other things that Felecia thought to ask. Once she was satisfied that she had the truth, Felecia walked to the cockpit, dreading what she knew came next. Felecia crouched down between Eric and Helen. Eric didn’t need his inner sense; one glance at Felecia’s face was all it took. “They’re dead, aren’t they,” he said, his voice quiet and strained. He felt tears come to his eyes and let them fall, unashamed. Felecia reached out and took Eric’s hand into her own, and then, as Brandon turned in his seat, she took his as well. “I’m sorry, but they’re gone. Frankenstein’s goons ambushed them right after they left the hotel with the bomb. They never had a chance. They went out fighting; they took a couple of the goons with ‘em,” Felecia said in a quiet, sad tone. Eric dropped his head to his hand, overcome by a wave of grief and guilt, his eyes streaming freely. Brandon too lowered his head, grieving for the man who had once been his closest friend. Eric, fighting back a sob, mumbled, “It’s my fault, all of this is…” Helen, in spite of her own grief, opened her eyes wide in surprise as Felecia, with a tenderness Helen had never suspected she possessed, let go of Eric’s hand and gently raised his chin until she could look in his eyes. “Honey, that’s just not true. There is no way you could have possibly known all this would happen. I’ve lost a lot of people too. I know how much it hurts, but you cannot blame yourself. If you do, that bastard back there wins, because he’s ruined even more lives. Don’t let him, Eric, don’t you dare let him. “He told me what you two did. I’ve done some crazy things in my time, but coming here like that, with just a grenade… I’m a pro and I wouldn’t have tried it. You put your lives on the line for your friends. There is no higher honor to their memory than that. Grieve for them, yes, but you’ve no reason for guilt. When all this is over, I’ll be grieving too, for them, and the men I’ve lost, including Wilhelm, who was like family to me. Don’t let guilt eat you inside, Eric. Trust me on that if nothing else…” Felecia let her voice trail off as she remembered Wilhelm, and then she said, “What would Jim do if he could be here right now?” “I… I don’t know,” Eric said, in a voice barely loud enough to be heard above the engines. Brandon looked at Eric for a moment, and then said, “Yeah you do. He’d call us both idiots and kick our asses. Felecia’s right, bro. Jim and I… He saved my life back in Phoenix, I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for him, so you listen to me; you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. You did what you could, including trying to trade your life for theirs, so listen to what we’re telling you; this wasn’t your fault, man.” Eric sat motionless for several long moments, and then replied, “Even if that’s true, we’re still in deep shit, all of us, because I brought us those damn bombs.” General Bradson broke into the conversation with a cough. “I think I’m to blame for that one, not you. Look, we all did what we felt we had to do. That’s all anyone can do; the best they can, with what they know at the time. Okay, let’s put this aside for right now and deal with the problems we still face. Helen, did your tape recorder get Frankenstein’s little spiel back there?” Helen patted her pocket. “It’s been in voice-activation mode ever since we left the other plane. I was hoping that Jerry might say something to clear us.” Helen pulled out the recorder and hit ‘play’, to make certain that it had indeed recorded in spite of the sound of the engines. The Scar’s words were barely audible above the thrum of the engines, but Helen, who was very familiar with studio sound equipment, knew that it could easily be digitally scrubbed. “The audio is rough, but fixing that is easy. What I’ve got helps, but I just wish we had more,” she said. General Bradson glanced over at Brandon. “I saw you do one hell of a piece of flying the day you landed at my air base and we first met. If you can pilot a crippled bizjet to a survivable landing, you can sure as hell keep this big old bird in the air. How about taking over for a few minutes, while I go work on our problem?” Taking a deep breath, Brandon replied, “I think I can handle it. Just come right away if I yell, okay?” Giving Brandon a pat on the shoulder, General Bradson said, “You’ll do just fine.” The General gave Brandon a quick explanation of the controls, confident that he’d be okay, and then said, “You’ve got the airplane. You shouldn’t need anything but the yoke, just keep doing these big lazy circles. If you need to go straight and level, that’s fine as long as you aren’t heading for the ash. Keep us out of that and we’re doing great. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Brandon took a deep breath and concentrated on flying, finding that the C-130 was easier to handle, due to being less sensitive on the controls, than a bizjet. Felecia stood up and opened the cockpit door, holding it open for the General and Helen. Helen stood for a moment between Brandon and Eric, putting her arms over their shoulders and giving them both a hug as she said, “You nearly got your stupid selves killed trying to save them. No one could ever ask for more.” Helen turned and walked out of the cockpit. As she passed Felecia, she looked Felecia in the eye, then glanced back in the direction of Brandon and Eric, and mouthed, “Thank you.” After Felecia closed the door, Eric waited a moment, and then silently climbed into the pilot’s seat next to Brandon, but kept his hands away from the controls. Brandon glanced at him, and then asked, “Are you gonna be okay?” Eric sighed, and then shrugged. For a moment, he tried to put his feelings into words, but couldn’t. In that instant, cheered slightly by thoughts of Jansen and the knowledge that he would be there for him, Eric said, “Yeah, thanks Brandon. I think I’m going to be all right. How about you?” Brandon remained silent for a while, trying to order his thoughts. “It hurts like hell, but yeah, I’ll get through this, we both will.” Before walking aft to where The Scar lay, Felecia motioned for the General and Helen to wait for a moment, and opened her phone to call Brian. Brian picked up the call in a cheerful tone, “I was just about to call you and report. Based on tracks in the ash, most of the goons left behind hightailed it out of here after Flight Two took off. Looks like they headed inland. There’s one or two holed up in the terminal; they took some potshots at my recon, and I’ve sent a team to take ‘em out, which should happen soon. I’ve got sentries posted, and I’ve sent four men back to the hotel just in case any hostiles show up there. I don’t think they will, but they’re desperate now and might try anything. I’d feel better if we evacuated everyone from the hotel and put ‘em on Flight Three.” Felecia smiled. Brian’s words confirmed to her that she’d made the right choice in placing him in charge. It had not been an easy decision; she’d known that placing an outsider in charge might foster resentment from some of her men, but in the end, Felecia had chosen Brian because of his competence and loyalty. “You’re in command, kiddo, make it happen if that’s what you think best. Sounds fine to me. Let me know when it’s clear to land. We’re orbiting over the south end of the island and we can be on the ground a few minutes after you give the word. Do what you can to get Flight Three ready to go; we’ll want to lift out ASAP after we land Flight Two. Get a truck ready too, because we’ll need to move the bombs,” Felecia said. In the aft end of the cargo bay, General Bradson, Felecia, and Helen looked down with contempt at The Scar, who lay on the deck, looking up at them, only his disfigured face concealing his pain. Choosing his words with care, General Bradson said, “You really fucked up, you know that? First, you lost the bombs, then you got ‘em back, now you’ve lost them and your freedom both. You’re done now, you must know that. The first chance we get, we’re turning you over to the United States Government, and I’m sure you’ll get the death penalty.” The Scar gave a derisive snort. “Your trust in your government has progressed from the naive to the moronic, I see. I am not unaware of the legal troubles all of you face.” The Scar paused for a moment, as he realized that he still had a hand to play. “Why was I able to reclaim my warheads, even temporarily? I could not have done so, save for their treachery in dealing with Helen, which provided me with a window of opportunity. I think it would be better for all of you if you released me. Think it through; I have the ability to either clear you or condemn you. I’ll never face the death penalty; there will be years of legal wrangling, starting with jurisdictional disputes. The Australians will certainly wish to prosecute me, as will others. At every trial and hearing, I shall be able to speak. I will do so, and I assure you that my version of events will prove most useful in the American Government’s vendetta against you. However, bear in mind that I have a score to settle with them as well, and would prefer to do so.” Helen, General Bradson, and Felecia exchanged a glance, and the General asked Helen, “What do you think?” Helen shook her head, and turned to The Scar to say, “Jerry, you’ve betrayed me before. Give me a reason I should trust you now.” Seeing Helen’s question as a proffered escape hatch, The Scar replied, “Commonality of needs and desires, my dear Helen. You know me well enough to trust that I will always act in my own best interests, do you not?” Setting the hook, Helen replied with a nod. Grasping at the straw he thought he could see, his haste and ego blinding him to the danger, The Scar said, “Very well, allow me to explain. I am an arms dealer by trade. The publicity surrounding recent events, combined with the revelation that I still live, will place me in an enviable position; my access to nuclear technology – and I still have my contacts, which I used to aid the Iranian program – will be in great demand. My continued existence will be a perpetual thorn in the side of your government. I shall make my continued existence known, as a means of both embarrassing your government and furthering my own ends. I am not a man to hide from opportunity, and as you have seen, I have survived impossible odds before. Your government’s actions have given me a golden opening. After the manner in which your government has betrayed you, surely you can see that it is in all our interests to cooperate. You have taken away my means of extracting revenge directly, but I am still able to do so by becoming a perpetual embarrassment to them, which will serve your ends as well as my own. Only by releasing me and allowing me to act in my own interests, which of course I shall, can you clear yourselves.” General Bradson said to Helen, “That’s probably all we can get from him. Think it’s enough?” Helen thought it through and nodded. “Probably, if played right.” General Bradson looked at Helen, before saying, “Could you please rejoin Brandon and Eric on the flight deck and remain there? Felecia and I have some details to discuss with our guest. We will be with you shortly.” Helen could read between the lines, and gave the General a nod of approval before turning and walking towards the cockpit. Helen entered the flight deck and shut the door as Brandon asked, “What’s going on back there?” Helen hesitated, and Eric glanced back at her. Seeing no objection, he said, “I’ve got a pretty good guess. I think we’ll find out, any second now.” General Bradson looked at the cargo bay door and said, “Oh, Horst?” “Yes, Herr General?” In a light, conversational tone, General Bradson asked, “Do you remember that thing you did just before we landed on La Palma, that Felecia and I asked you not to do without checking with us first? I think now would be a very good time.” Horst remembered it well, and stood at attention. After glancing at Felecia and seeing approval in her eyes, he replied in a pleased tone. “It would be my sincere pleasure to give such a lesson, Herr General.” The Scar, too late, sensed the danger. “What is the meaning of this,” he demanded, and then reminded them all, “You need me to clear yourselves.” General Bradson nodded gravely. “We have decided to do as you ask, and release you.” Felecia smiled as she added, “Your words, via Helen’s tape recorder, will provide what we need. You always were overly fond of the sound of your own voice, and I hope you can appreciate that it will be your own words that save us. Like I told Yuri when I killed him; sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut.” The Scar did not spare a thought for the news of Yuri’s death; he was frantically trying to think of something to say, some means by which to change his fate. General Bradson thumbed the intercom and told Brandon, “I’m going to lower the cargo bay door. It shouldn’t bother you, but you’ll see the red right go on. We decided to dump the bodies; no point in your wedding party having to see corpses, especially after all they’ve been through.” The General released the button and hit the switch to open the bay door, and told Horst, “Remove the straps, I don’t want it too obvious what we’ve done. Bounce him off the bulkheads a few times to leave some DNA.” In the cockpit, Brandon felt the C-130 tremble and slow slightly as the bay door indicator light came on. “I wonder how many bodies he’s dumping?” Brandon asked, already suspecting the truth. “There were three,” Eric replied, and then held up four fingers as he mumbled in a bitter tone. “Happy landings, Jerry.” Helen raised her voice to say, “If what you’re speculating ever got out, it could hurt Felecia, her men aboard, and General Bradson.” Eric glanced back at Helen, arched an eyebrow, and replied, “I’ll never say anything about it. I can’t, because I don’t actually know, not for sure. That’s why we’re all in here, right?” As the wind roared into the growing opening, The Scar shouted, “You cannot do this to me!” “Ah, but we can,” said Horst, as he drew his gleaming combat knife. General Bradson walked towards The Scar, shouting above the roaring engines and howling wind, “You were right. Like a bad penny, you just keep turning up. Alive, you’ll cause no end of trouble for us, and you’ll dance around the courts for years before ending up in a nice cushy cell somewhere. There’s also the chance you’ll escape and kill even more people. The world is better off without you in it, so goodbye and good riddance, you piece of shit.” Horst moved fast, his knife flashing out, leaving a shallow, bloody cut on The Scar’s upper arm. Leaving the blood on his knife and setting it aside, he grabbed the straps that bound The Scar and hauled him to his feet, and straight-armed him, shoulder-first, into the bulkheads a few times. Seeing the bloodstains and judging them sufficient, Horst spun The Scar around, driving a hard undercut into his bruised ribs. The Scar doubled over, gasping in pain, as Felecia moved forward and cut the straps away with a flick of her knife. The Scar struggled, fighting to catch his breath so that he could speak, still believing that he could talk his way out, but his time was almost up. Horst grabbed The Scar by the back of his shirt and the seat of his pants. With a mighty heave, he sent The Scar flying in an arc that terminated on the aft edge of the cargo bay door. The Scar hit hard, rolling, and reached out with his hand to grab for purchase, but his momentum was too much to counter, and he parted company from Flight Two at ten thousand feet with no parachute, the fate he had intended for Eric. General Bradson told Horst, “Good job. Now, toss the other three bodies out so we can close the door and get this crate on the ground. We’ve still got a hell of a lot of work ahead of us before this is over.” The wind blasting in his face… and the sickening feeling of free-fall, that was what held his attention for a moment. Forcing his eyes open, tumbling though the air, The Scar was treated to alternating views of the ground, nearly two miles below, and the sky, containing the fast-receding Flight Two, glittering in the sunlight above. Rage filled him, and he opened his mouth to speak, words of grandiose eloquence forming in his mind, his fury burning, but before he could utter a sound, he realized that there was no one to hear him, and never would there be again. General Bradson arrived in the cockpit to relieve Brandon, just as the bay-door warning light shut off. Eric eased out of the pilot’s seat, and General Bradson slid in to take over from Brandon, who had been flying from the copilot’s station. Attending to the first order of business, the General punched a button to record their current coordinates. “There was a bit of a scuffle in the cargo bay,” the General said in a casual tone, knowing full well that no one there would believe him. “Jerry Clump broke free and grabbed a knife, trying to take the plane back. In the fight that followed, he took a blow and rolled out the back. He didn’t have a parachute.” The General glanced out the window, looking at the ash-covered landscape of southeastern La Palma, and added, “He’ll be landing any moment now.” Over the following minute, The Scar managed to stabilize, falling face down, granting him a perfect view of the ash-covered land below. For the first time in his life, his self-confidence deserted him, and he stared in the face of certain death. Fear… he felt it, growing, consuming him as he plummeted, his heart racing, towards the waiting Earth at over one hundred miles per hour. Panic and terror, driven by fear in its purest form, gripped him like a vice in that final few hundred feet. His final act as a living man was to scream…. He, who had brought death to so many with banal disregard, died in the fear he had so oft dealt out with abandon, in one final bitter irony for The Scar. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  14. Chapter 50: Refuge and Allies The eruption of Cumbre Vieja continued unabated. The massive cloud of ash and volcanic gasses boiled into the stratosphere, but the airport was still in clear air. The fading southerly breeze was just barely enough to keep the ash cloud to the north. It would continue to do so, but not for a great deal longer. Then, the ashfall would resume at the airport, closing off any chance of escape for Flight Three, if the aircraft was still on the ground. At the press center, north of the greatest devastation, one reporter’s mind was not on the eruption itself, until the news swept through the news center that it had likely been triggered by a nuclear blast in the La Cumbre tunnel. Phil Breslin, the reporter with whom Helen had shared the recording of her conversation with Deputy Undersecretary Graeme, realized that his story, which he’d thought was ready to release, had far more to tell. He dialed Helen’s number and was told by Barbra – who was well aware that they needed the reporter and his story – that Helen could be reached on a different phone, and gave him the number. General Bradson, at the controls of Flight Two as it neared La Palma airport, handed Helen his phone and said with a bemused smile, “It’s for you, and you’ll want to take this call.” Phil Breslin didn’t waste time on niceties. He asked, “Did you detonate a nuclear bomb? The wire services are claiming that the eruption was triggered by a nuclear explosion and you had the only nukes on the island that I know of–” Helen cut the reporter off by saying, “I’ll talk to you about that when we’re back on the ground. Short version: Jerry Clump showed up on the island and things got kind of frantic. It might interest you to know that he’s dead, as of about ten minutes ago, and we’re about to land in his plane. I think it’s better if we meet in person, for a lot of reasons. Can you get to the airport?” Phil swallowed once, his mind racing as he blurted out, “No, I don’t think that’s possible… but I’ll do it. I’ll get there.” “Bring a camera and a recorder,” Helen said unnecessarily, and then added, “Be careful, and if you can’t make it, turn back. I’ll get word to you somehow.” Phil hung up, already planning his trip. Snatching up a map, he looked at the road around the north end of the island, and from there, south to the airport. His heart sank; his only possible route would take him directly through the worst of the ash plume, which he felt sure would make the road impassable. As if that wasn’t enough, he also suspected, incorrectly, that the ash plume was radioactive. Wracking his brains, he tried to think of some way, any way, to make the trip, but without a boat or a capable vehicle, he couldn’t think of anything. Cursing fate, he called Helen to let her know that he couldn’t get to the airport, and she assured him that she’d be in touch again in the next few hours. General Bradson aligned Flight Two with the runway and shut down the engines. He’d considered leaving them on, but although they had no plans to use Flight Two again, he saw no reason to wreck perfectly good engines. He also preferred to keep his options open, and there had been something nagging at the back of his mind. The General performed a textbook dead-stick landing, raising a cloud of ash as Flight Two rolled to a stop. He used the last of its momentum to steer onto a taxiway, clearing the main runway for use by Flight Three. General Bradson stood up and stretched. Smiling at Felecia, he said, “We’ve done it again, and stopped old Frankenstein permanently. Now all we have to do is get off this damn island and then take care of our other problem.” Brian bounded aboard as soon as the ramp was lowered. Racing into the flight deck, he gave his father a hug before standing at attention to report, “The team I sent punched the tickets of the stragglers in the terminal, so I had the people at the hotel load up onto the livestock transport, and move to the terminal. I have a perimeter set up, and so far, the airport appears secure.” “Well done,” Felecia said, nodding with approval. “Good job, son,” General Bradson said, and then added, “We need to hurry, that ash won’t hold off forever. First, we have to move the two bombs over to Flight Three, and then we’ll get everyone aboard, wet down the runway, and take off. This bird still has a damaged starter on one engine, and I’d rather not try a three-engine takeoff. We’ll be taking off heavy, max load on fuel, plus some auxiliary bladders. Get some men topping ‘em up right away, I’ll explain as we go.” “You’ve got a plan, I can tell,” Felecia said with a relieved grin. She’d been wondering where they could go after taking off, but the General’s comments about fuel meant that he had a destination in mind. Helen, Eric, and Brandon walked down the ramp, and made their way towards the terminal building, slogging through the ash. Jansen and Chase raced from the terminal. A few yards from the main door, Chase pulled Brandon into a relieved hug. Jansen hesitated, and Eric guessed at his uncertainty. He replied by pulling Jansen into a tight hug. Jansen and Chase both gave voice to the same thought at the same time, “Are you fucking insane?” Helen answered the question in a dry tone, “Yes, they both are. There can be no doubt. They came within a hair of getting themselves killed. Come on; let’s get inside and out of this damn ash.” Felecia, a few paces behind, chimed in to add, “They took a hell of a risk, but they also gave us the opportunity to take down old Frankenstein, once and for all, before he could get away with nukes.” In the terminal, General Bradson made a few quick phone calls in order to see if his idea would work, then he pulled Helen aside for a quick discussion. “I have to make this fast, but here’s the short version; we need somewhere to go. I have a few contacts from my Air Force days so I made some calls. They need to check with the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister, but the two men I spoke to are general officers and they were sure we’d be very welcome, under the circumstances…” General Bradson hurried through a brief explanation and then waited for Helen’s response. Helen had serious reservations, but no better ideas. Reluctantly, she agreed. “I don’t like it, not without a top-level approval, but we can’t stay here and where the hell else can we go? The U.S. Government wants to throw us all in prison, so we’re fairly low on options.” In a race against the clock – they knew all too well that a shift in the wind would trap them on the ground – Flight Three was turned, fueled, and prepared for takeoff. The two nuclear warheads were moved with the aid of the truck and secured in the cargo bay. Then, the passengers were loaded aboard. Eric, sitting with Jansen in the cargo bay, noticed his mother, arm in arm with François, coming his way. “You’re quite mad. You know that, of course?” Jane asked, arching an eyebrow. Thanks to Brian keeping them posted, the entire wedding party knew of Eric’s mission to Flight Two. Jansen slugged Eric lightly in the arm. “Yeah, he is, and I’m still mad at him.” Eric looked downcast as he replied, “I thought Jim and Linda were probably still alive. I had to do something. I just had to. I know it was nuts, but I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing.” Chase, sitting a few yards away, gave Brandon a one-armed hug at the mention of Jim’s name, and said, “I’m still pissed at you for going, but I guess I understand.” “Thanks. I’m sorry for what I put you through, I really am,” Brandon replied, still grieving for his oldest friend. Eric glanced at Brandon, and then told Jane, François, and Jansen in a low, solemn voice, “Felecia found out where Jim and Linda’s bodies are. I wish we had time to do right by them, but she said she’d either get the authorities to recover them when everything settles down, or she’d come back and do it herself. Brandon and I talked on the plane; we’re going to give them a biker funeral.” The conversations were interrupted by General Bradson’s voice coming over the intercom, “We’re almost ready for takeoff. Felecia’s men are just about done wetting down the runway with the fire trucks. As soon as they are aboard, we’ll raise the ramp and be on our way. Strap in, this might be a little bumpy.” After disengaging the intercom, General Bradson turned and told Felecia, who was sitting in the navigator’s station, “Make sure Horst does a head count of your returning men so we know everyone is on board.” Felecia chuckled. “Go teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Walter. I’ve already told Horst to do just that.” General Bradson smiled at the good-natured jab, and then told his copilot, “We’re near max takeoff weight due to the extra fuel, so it’ll take us a while to build up speed in this ash. I think we’ll need ever inch of this runway. When we begin our roll, I need you to keep your eye on the engine gauges. If any of them so much as twitch, let me know immediately. If this occurs before we are two-thirds of the way down the runway, call for an abort. After that point, just let me know and we’ll try to deal with it in the air.” General Bradson had serious concerns; the plan to wet the runway would probably work, but there was a chance that the engines could still ingest some ash. Losing one engine was, he felt, survivable. Losing two or more would not be. Once they were two-thirds of the way down the runway, they would be moving too fast to stop. Past that point was what pilots called the black zone; a multi-engine failure would be fatal. Once Felecia’s men were back aboard, General Bradson took a deep breath, and began start-up procedures. The engines lit off smoothly, and he stood on the brakes as he advanced the throttles all the way to the stops. General Bradson released the brakes, and Flight Three began to roll, churning forward through the layer of wet ash, which had a consistency similar to thick mud. Slowly, Flight Three accelerated, and as it gained speed, its large, fat balloon tires began to roll on top of the dense ash instead of plowing through it. “Engine state?” General Bradson asked, as they neared the halfway point. “Engines nominal,” replied the sweating copilot. As the C-130 neared rotation speed, General Bradson checked the engines one last time and pulled back on the yoke, easing the C-130 into ground effect. He retracted the landing gear while still in ground effect, trying to gain every ounce of speed that he could. At one hundred knots, he pulled further back on the yoke, and the C-130 lumbered into the afternoon sky. Barely a hundred feet off the ground, General Bradson fed in some left aileron, and the C-130 began a turn to the left. “I’m going to stay low and head east, right along the edge of the ashfall. That should shield us from any satellite observation. Once we near the African coast, I’ll climb and blend into an air route. Keep an eye on the engine gauges; we’ve got one hell of a long way to go, over three thousand miles.” “That’s nearly a thousand miles past our range limit, even with the fuel bladders,” the copilot replied, puzzled. He knew that General Bradson was incapable of making such a huge and obvious mistake, but he had not yet been told the plan. Smiling, General Bradson winked and then replied, “We’re going to rendezvous with a tanker over the Med. It’s been a while since I’ve done an air-to-air refuel, but I think I still remember how. It’ll be a tough one, because it’ll be dark by then.” The copilot arched an enquiring eyebrow, but the General was not willing to explain further. Instead, he said, “Copilot’s airplane. I’m heading aft for a while, to make some calls and get some rest.” General Bradson found the only privacy he could – in the aircraft’s tiny bathroom – and phoned his old contacts again, receiving some very welcome news: they had approval. Flight Three flew on, tracing the southern edge of the eastbound ash cloud for three hundred miles, and then climbing to ten thousand feet as they crossed the coast of Morocco. The General had selected his waypoints with care to avoid radar coverage, and Flight Three maintained a heading of east by northeast, crossing into northern Algeria, and then overlying Tunisia before emerging over the Mediterranean, two hundred miles west of Malta. After another hundred miles, General Bradson checked his navigation screen and eyed the fuel gauges. They still had enough fuel to make Malta, barely, but that was all. He made a phone call to confirm, and received the welcome reply. “We have you in sight, closing in from above and astern.” Breathing a sigh of relief, General Bradson thumbed the intercom. “Don’t be alarmed, but you’re about to hear some odd noises. We’re going to do an air-to-air refueling.” Then, to Felecia and the copilot, he said, “It’ll be either a KC-130H or a KC-135, and the latter is a jet, basically a tanker version of the Boeing 707. I’m hoping it’s the former, because when a KC-135 flies as slow as our max refuel speed, it can get a little bumpy.” Eric, peering out of the window in the side door, saw it first; a black mass obscuring the stars as it moved forward, above and to port of Flight Three. Helen, at the General’s request, had told no one, not even the members of Instinct, of their hoped-for destination. That secret lasted for a few seconds more, until the rendezvousing KC-130H tanker, which had been flying blacked out, turned on its lights. Eric blinked, staring at the olive-colored aircraft’s camouflage pattern, and then, as the tanker eased forward, its brightly illuminated tail came into view. “Whose flag is that?” Eric asked, pointing at the small three-striped national emblem painted on the tail, its colors a simple light blue over white over light blue. Brandon, who was looking over Eric’s shoulder, shrugged. François eased forward to look, and then replied, “That’s an Israeli flag, and that gives me a good guess as to our destination.” The night refueling, using the tanker’s probe and drogue system of a trailed hose, was a demanding maneuver for the pilots of both aircraft. U.S. fighters use a flying-boom system, and the General, a former fighter pilot, had never used a probe and drogue before, a fact he had kept to himself. It wasn’t really relevant, he knew, Flight Three’s drogue ­– which looked like a small basket on a pole, protruding from just above the cockpit – had been removed before the aircraft had been sold as military surplus. What they had in mind was far more challenging and risky. “Open the side door and prepare to receive the probe,” General Bradson ordered over the intercom. He knew he had to do this right; the side door was just forward of the wing and its churning propellers. If he overshot, the fuel line would be destroyed, along with at least one engine. The KC-130H above had only a single probe-and-drogue pod, so he had one chance, and one chance only. Horst pulled the side door in, and the roaring slipstream churned into the cargo bay. With a cargo hook in hand, Horst waited. The Israeli aircraft began trailing out the fuel line and calling out estimated distances, which the copilot of Flight Three relayed to Horst via the intercom. Luck was on their side, and Horst snagged the fuel line on his first try. That news reached the flight deck and General Bradson told the tanker, “We have capture. Reel out fifty more feet.” In the cargo bay, Horst and some of his men wrestled the fuel line inside, and two men heaved in the slack as it came. Horst connected the line to the first of the fuel bladders by stuffing the probe into the top access hatch and then packing the gap with some towels. He reported that he was ready, and as the fuel began to flow, the long process began. It would take over an hour to complete. Once the fuel bladder was partially filled, the transfer pump was engaged, moving the fuel to the C-130’s internal tanks. The single-speed transfer pump was toggled on and off to keep pace with the flow from the tanker into the fuel bladder, and eventually, Flight Three had received almost a full load of fuel. With profound relief, General Bradson watched the Israeli tanker pull away as it reeled in its refueling line. Flight Three now had enough fuel aboard to reach its destination: Nevatim Airbase, in the heart of Israel’s Negev desert. General Bradson checked his course and position, and then told Felecia, “We’re about four hours from landing. Better let your men know that the Israelis have promised us all amnesty or safe-conduct, whichever we individually prefer.” Flight Three droned on through the night, approaching Israel from the west. An hour before they landed, a flight of six Israeli F-15s took station, two off Flight Three’s starboard wing, and the other four more taking high cover. General Bradson knew the reason for the fighters off his wingtip; although the four on high cover, a few thousand feet above, were there for defense; the close-in escorting pair would have the primary mission of blowing Flight Three out of the sky if ordered to do so. It was a reasonable precaution, given Flight Three's nuclear cargo. Flight Three touched down safely at Nevatim Airbase. Following instructions, General Bradson taxied into the mouth of a waiting hanger before shutting down. Even as the engines started their spin-down, the hanger door rolled closed behind them. General Bradson looked out the cockpit window, seeing three men in dress uniforms, accompanied by a squad of black-clad combat troops. The General hit the button to lower the main cargo bay door as he said, “Let’s go meet our hosts.” Followed by Felecia and Helen, General Bradson left the flight deck of Flight Three for what he suspected would be the last time. He glanced back, at the controls, remembering the mission to Iran, and gave the C-130’s cockpit doorframe an affectionate pat as he walked past. ‘You served us well, old girl,’ he thought, before turning his mind to the challenges ahead. In the cargo bay, Helen took an awkward seat on one of the two nuclear warheads, staking out her claim by her presence. General Bradson and Felecia stood at the top of the cargo bay ramp, and a voice called out from below, “Permission to come aboard?” General Bradson smiled, recognizing the voice of one of his old Red Flag friends. “Good to see you again Eli. Come on up.” Eli, a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force, led the way up the ramp, followed by two other men, one dressed as a brigadier general, and the other as a soldier in combat gear. Neither was actually in the military. The man dressed as a soldier, who was actually a nuclear technician, followed his orders and ignored the formalities, making a beeline for the bombs. His instructions were to make certain that they were not rigged to detonate. Helen hesitated, and then moved to allow him access, knowing she wasn’t in a position to object. Eli warmly shook the hands of General Bradson and Felecia, and then introduced the other two men. “General Bradson, this is…” he let his voice trail off, unsure how to introduce the other man. “Levi Gold, General,” the other man said, adding with a casual shrug, “I’m not actually a military officer; I’m with the Mossad, head of the directorate that deals with Iranian matters. I’ve also been appointed by my government to be your host while you are here, and that includes being empowered to deal with the two presents you have brought to us,” he said, with a nod towards the nuclear warheads, which were a dozen feet away. Helen eyed the technician, who was still inspecting the warheads, and then she coughed for attention, and said, “I’d very much like to discuss getting these,” she patted the nuclear warhead, “off my hands, but my boys and I are out a great deal of money…” Levi exchanged a glance with the other two Israelis, and then replied, “Before we discuss that matter, I’d like to get the rest of your party on their way to some accommodations. You’ve all had a long and harrowing experience. We’ve reserved the entire floor of a hotel in Be’er Sheva, just a few miles from here, for your party, and we have a bus waiting outside.” Nodding, Helen replied, “I’m sure that a meal and a bed would be very welcome. However, Jon, Eric, Chase, and Brandon share ownership with me, so they need to be part of any discussions.” The wedding party, including Keith, along with Felecia, her men, and Brian, were ushered aboard two buses. Jansen hesitated, but Eric reassured him by saying, “I’ll join you soon, I promise.” Jansen wasn’t happy about being parted from Eric, but he replied, “Make sure you do. No more crazy stuff, okay?” Upon receiving Eric’s smile of agreement, Jansen joined the others heading for the two buses. Once those leaving had cleared out of the C-130, Helen patted a bomb and asked, “Are you still willing to buy them for the money we’re out? I was led to believe that you would be.” The technician nodded to Levi, indicating that the bombs were safe, and then left the aircraft. Levi returned his attention to Helen and shook his head adamantly while reaching into his pocket. “I’m afraid you have been misinformed, ma’am… May I call you Helen? This issue is… problematic for us. Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons. Were we to purchase those, which you are known to possess, we would become an admitted nuclear power. That would be politically difficult, and my government instructed me that under no circumstances am I, or any other Israeli official, to take legal ownership of those warheads.” Helen was about to ask General Bradson what was going on, but Levi’s grin made it clear that he had something in mind. Levi handed her the piece of paper from his pocket. “That is a check, drawn on the Bank of Israel, for thirty-five million American dollars. It is yours if you will agree to allow us to fully inspect your nuclear warheads, in order for us to learn what we can of the Iranian nuclear program’s state and level of advancement. We would need to take the devices, temporarily, to a nearby facility. After we have learned whatever the bombs can teach us, we will return them to you, in a few days at most, with our profound thanks. Does this sound agreeable to you?” Helen stared at Levi for a moment, before turning to tell General Bradson, “I really would prefer to be rid of these damn things.” “Sorry Helen, Levi has a point regarding Israel never admitting to possessing nuclear warheads. Look at the bright side; this way you get your money back, plus five million. I’m sure we can find something to do with them now that the money is no longer an issue. Maybe you need a matching pair of large paperweights for you office?” The General’s attempt at humor garnered a few awkward chuckles as it fell flat. Eric, never one to let a joke die, said, “I say we keep ‘em. It might be handy to use one the next time the paparazzi start bugging us. Paparazzi have conventions, don't they?” After shooting an irritated glare in Eric’s direction, Helen turned to face Levi, and as she tucked the check into her purse, she said in a gracious tone, “Thank you for doing this. I’d have preferred to be rid of the bombs, but you’ve solved our financial problem and you’ve given us refuge.” Levi smiled and withdrew a contract from his pocket. “This is in English. Feel free to read it. It makes clear that the bombs remain your property. Amongst other things, this should prevent your government from charging you with nuclear proliferation and trafficking in nuclear weapons. Once it is signed, I’ll have the bombs transported to a nearby facility.” “Most likely the Negev Nuclear Research Center, their main nuclear facility, about twenty miles south of here. That’s why they had us land at this base.” General Bradson said, ostensibly to Helen, but his words were intended for the Israelis, to let them know that he was familiar with their nuclear program. He had a hunch regarding why they were so eager to inspect the warheads, and hoped that they would accept the offer he’d made during the flight, via his friends. Levi Gold replied with a bemused look. “We do intend to take the devices there. It is, as you say, a research facility,” he said, observing the official fiction. Israel’s policy was to neither confirm nor deny the purpose of the facility, even though it was widely known to be the center of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. The technicians in Machon 8, their primary experimental and research laboratory at the facility, were ready and waiting to examine the Iranian bombs, a project that had been given priority over all others. Helen read over the contract, and then signed. She then, with a sigh of both relief and resignation, returned the contract to Levi. Helen had an additional reason to be thankful; only she had been named on the contract, which meant that Instinct should be safe from any repercussions. Levi wasted no time; at his order, a winch-equipped truck was backed into the cargo bay, and the bombs were loaded aboard. He watched as the truck made its way down the ramp, and then he turned to tell Helen, “I have a car waiting to take you and your band to the hotel. We wish to make no secret of the fact that we are inspecting your bombs, so please, make a call to that reporter the General mentioned, and be sure to inform him of that detail. For the moment, for your own sake, we suggest that you refrain from mentioning that you retain ownership. We’ll meet again, in the morning, and let you know what we’re planning. For now, please enjoy our hospitality.” General Bradson was pleased that he hadn’t needed to ask to stay behind. Once Helen and Instinct were taken to the waiting car by the other two Israelis, Levi Gold, alone in Flight Three with General Bradson, said, “If you need rest, we can wait until morning. However, it would be better for us all, I think, if we took care of our immediate business now. Less urgent is that some of our technicians and some of our strike command Air Force personal would like to debrief you, Felecia, and any of her men who saw the underground facility before she nuked it. We’ll get to that in the morning.” General Bradson nodded. He’d expected that. Ever the cool professional, Levi Gold casually added, “The matter that is most urgent is your offer regarding Iran. What you unearthed there was the greatest professional embarrassment of my career. We did not know they were so far along with their effort. It is only because of the unstable political situation in Iran, which we hope bears fruit, that we have held our own strike in abeyance, for now. Your attack on their refineries was inspired, for it has hurt them badly. They are desperate for petrol… gasoline, as you call it. The population is growing more restive and resentful by the day. The situation has been enhanced somewhat by the loss of two Venezuelan gasoline tankers, which were bound for Iran. The first one exploded and sank in the Red Sea three days ago, and today, another met a similar fate in the Indian Ocean. They were counting on that fuel and its loss was problematic for their dictatorship.” “Why do I suspect that they ran into torpedoes?” General Bradson asked, with a knowing smile. Levi shrugged, painting an innocent expression on his face as he replied, “We do have some Dolphin-class subs that might possibly have been in the areas of the explosions, but coincidences happen.” “Bullshit,” General Bradson replied with a grin. “I do hope that more such ‘coincidences’ occur.” Levi’s expression had become dour. “That might be unlikely. Due to the two incidents, Iran has been unable to find tanker operators willing to contract for the journey, and they own none of their own. However, they might have a way out. Your government has been making noises regarding offering tankers a naval escort, citing freedom of the seas, and also in a naive-at-best effort to curry favor with the Iranian regime. That would preclude us from taking action against the tankers in most cases. Our problem is the same as yours; a self-deluded clique within your government has staked out a position based on its radical policies. Having done so, they now find themselves unable to back down without humiliating themselves. Therefore, they are acting to prevent your plan from working and are quite content to allow Iran to become a nuclear power. We do not share that view, and we will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.” General Bradson nodded, scratching his chin thoughtfully. This was the reason he’d chosen Israel as a destination; common causes make for allies, and he was in desperate need of allies at the moment. “You’re damn close to launching a full-scale strike on Iran, aren’t you? My read on this is that the only reason you have not yet done so is that you want to give the rebellion that’s brewing over there a chance, because if it succeeds, that could solve the issue permanently.” “I can neither conform nor deny that, General, but I can say that we would much prefer the uprising to succeed. We cannot, under any circumstance, allow that fanatical dictatorship to become a nuclear power. They make no secret of their wish to wipe us off the map, and deterrence only works against the sane. Once we understood the nature of the underground facilities you discovered, we have since found more. A conventional-weapons strike may prove insufficient.” Levi paused, letting the obvious implication hang in the air for a moment before adding, “Therefore, your gasoline gambit is the best hope.” That, too, came as no surprise to General Bradson. The logistics for the Israelis, given the range and geography, and faced with vast, deep underground complexes, meant that a nuclear strike could be the only viable option. “So, either my plan works or there will be a full-scale Israeli nuclear strike against Iran. Don’t bother answering, I know you can’t. The problem, as I see it, is that the best solution is being blocked by this radical clique of ideologues in the U.S. Government.” Levi nodded, wondering if the General would balk when he realized the magnitude of the situation. “Getting rid of the foot soldiers will do little good. I trust that you know how widely the problem extends?” General Bradson didn’t know for sure, but he had long suspected, and by the manner of his question, it was evident that Levi knew for certain. General Bradson chewed on his lip for a moment, already aware of what he was about to be asked to commit to. Deciding to cut to the chase, the General replied, “I do, and I think there’s a way to take them down. Part of it is already in place.” “We cannot help overtly,” Levi said. In a cold, determined tone, General Bradson replied, “Leave it to me. If the Mossad can provide me with a few phone numbers back in the ‘States, I think I can wrap this thing up in twenty-four hours. If that fails, I am ready and able to carry out the strike plan I proposed.” © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Special thanks to MikeL for advice I hereby dedicate this story to my friend Wildone, who has suffered a horrific accident, but due to his strength, perseverance, and courage has pulled through and is recovering. I wish you a continued speedy recovery, Wildone. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  15. Chapter 47: Fatal Mistakes The desolation and darkness looming ahead gave Helen and General Bradson second thoughts. They lasted only for a moment, because both realized that there was no other way. “It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?” Helen said, while staring up at the towering wall of ash, its gloom only interrupted by flickers of lightning. General Bradson could only nod in agreement. After a quick stop to swathe the air intakes with sheets to keep the ash from clogging the filters, the two vehicles, with the tow truck in the lead, drove into the fringe of the swirling ash cloud. The visibility dropped to under two-hundred feet within seconds. The landscape, shrouded in ash that deepened as they drove northeast, reminded Helen of photos she’d seen of the Moon. The reemergence of the sun took everyone by pleasant surprise. Looking around, the General said, “The wind must be shifting, coming more from the south than the west.” The clearer air and better visibility allowed the two vehicles to churn ahead at twenty miles an hour for two miles, until LP-130 joined the main highway. Unfortunately, the ash, growing deeper by the mile, slowed them to ten miles per hour as they reached the village of Charcos De Araco, one of the very few on La Palma’s barren, almost uninhabited southeastern side. There, they negotiated the rubble where Horst and his men had cleared a fallen building on the way out. Half a mile past the village, they re-entered the ash cloud, which was rife with the smell of sulfur. This time, it was a far heavier fall, a mixture of fine dust and larger particles up to the size of snowflakes. As they moved deeper into the cloud, total darkness enveloped them. For all that, they were lucky; the heaviest weight of ash from the main eruption was falling just north of the airport and they were to its south. The other factor speeding their progress was that the earthquakes in the area they were traversing had been less powerful, coupled with the fact that there had been no ground slippage. As a result, they made better time than Horst had on the way out; there were few additional debris, whereas he’d had to clear several difficult falls on the way out. Two miles further on, their luck ran out. A two-hundred foot long section of stone wall bounding the highway had collapsed into the road during the earthquakes. Horst organized his men into a work detail to clear the blockage. He turned down the civilians who offered to help, reasoning, with some justification, that his men could do the job faster on their own. It was hard and brutal work, thanks in no small part to the choking ash, volcanic fumes, and darkness. Brian and the mercenaries set out, their heads wrapped in sheets and towels, their eyes protected by goggles. Within minutes, they were completely caked in ash. It took a quarter of an hour of strenuous work in the nightmarish conditions, but they succeeded in clearing the roadway well enough for the vehicles to pass. While they waited, General Bradson phoned Bill, who shared the news that the volcanic eruption had been caused by a nuclear warhead, and that Helen and Instinct, along with General Bradson, were now on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Then, Bill asked, “I thought you told me that you’d secured all three bombs? Was it you who set one off?” General Bradson paused for a moment, to think. Then, he answered, “Short version: no. Jerry Clump grabbed the bombs. We didn’t know that he was on the island, and the government’s vendetta against us and foot-dragging gave him the opportunity to snatch the nukes. Any chance that you could whistle us up some help?” Bill paused to consider the request a moment before answering, “I seriously doubt it. The government has staked its position pretty damn clearly. No way are they going to believe you. At this juncture, they can’t, not without humiliating themselves. I could probably round up a few friends and send ‘em your way for some unofficial help, but you’re looking at two to three days, minimum. I’ll see what I can put together and get back to you in a few hours.” “That might be too late to make a difference, but I’d appreciate it.” The General decided to let Bill in on the rest, and added, “We’ve got a plane to storm. Clump’s got a C-130 in the middle of the runway. We’re trying to determine if the bombs are aboard. We think they may be, but we don’t know. Any chance you could track the plane from orbit if it takes off?” “Doubtful. We do that via infrared signature detection from the geosynchronous DSP birds. Works okay with jet engines, especially at high altitude, but a turboprop operating low and slow? I doubt it. I’ll see what I can do regarding an unofficial tasking order, but don’t hold your breath,” Bill said, while trying to think of other options. Drawing a blank for the moment, he said, “Good luck, and I’ll get back to you ASAP.” The work detail returned to the livestock transport, where they tried, as best they could, to clear the fine, gritty ash out of their eyes, noses, and mouths. Brian sat down, coughing as the vehicles resumed their journey. Eric and Keith came to his side, offering water, and then Keith said, “You’re covered in ash. I’ve got some clean clothes in my case if you want.” Eric suppressed a knowing smile. The other troops were already being given clean clothes from the wedding party’s cases, but Keith had rushed to offer his to Brian. After rinsing his eyes, Brian blinked in the partial darkness – the only light was provided by a single small bulb near the door – and said, “Thanks.” Keith retrieved some clothes from his case, and then helped Brian to his feet. Brian, still weak from his ordeal in Iran, had been exhausted by the heavy work and conditions, so much so that he wasn’t thinking clearly. He stripped out of his ash-covered clothes, tossing them to the foot of the transport’s wall. Letting Keith help, he brushed himself off and changed into the clean clothes, before half-collapsing to a sitting position. Keith sat down by Brian side, handing him a bottle of water. “You okay?” After taking a long drink from the water bottle, Brian nodded weakly. “Yeah, I’ll be fine, I just need to rest. I could barely breathe out there; it was like working in hell.” Eric, sitting quietly against the wall a few feet behind Brian and Keith, glanced at Brian’s discarded ash-covered clothes, which were just two feet from Eric’s side. Trying to appear nonchalant, Eric began gathering up discarded clothes and stacking them in a corner. When he came to Brian’s clothes, he felt the hoped-for lump in a pocket. In the dim light of the transport, preoccupied with the ash – many had covered their faces with pieces of cloth – no one noticed when Eric stooped low, gathering Brian’s clothes in a bundle, using it for cover as he slipped Brian’s grenade out of the ash-covered clothes and into his own pocket. With the deed done, Eric finished collecting the discarded clothing, tossing it all into the corner with the rest. General Bradson flashed his brake lights, signaling Horst to stop. As he eased to a halt in the thick ash and Stygian darkness, the General told Helen, “We’re in El Pueblo, which according to the map is about a mile and a half southwest of the south end of the runway. We’ll be parting company here. You take the transport and keep going north for two miles. You’ll arrive at the junction with LP-123, which is about half a mile from the hotel. You’ll know the way from there; we came in on 123 when we took you to the hotel yesterday. One of Fel’s troops is at the hotel, and I’ll send one of Horst’s men with you. When you get there, sit tight and I’ll send word soon. Horst has some short-range walkie-talkies that will put us in contact with Felecia when we’re close to the airport, so you take my phone. Call Fel if you need anything.” In the cockpit of Flight Two, The Scar looked out at the ash and seethed. “Yuri, every moment we remain here increases the danger. Did you do as I directed with the bombs?” Yuri nodded, and The Scar asked, “How are they activated?” “By timer, like the one in the tunnel. It can also be triggered manually, by jumping the two terminals I left exposed,” Yuri said, hoping that it would not come to that. The pilot, for his part, understood what was being talked about, and silently shuddered. The Scar stared out into the darkness as he said, “I will never countenance the humiliation of being taken alive. Never. However, I would certainly prefer to avoid that final option. I think it is time to parley with the traitorous bitch and see what she has by way of forces and weaponry. We need to let her know that if she succeeded in attacking us, or allowed others to do so, it would seal the fate of her and her precious men. Send a man out under a flag of truce to propose a ceasefire so that we may all evacuate. Wait, no, you are the only one I trust to do this and do it right. Make certain that her men hear what we have and what will happen should they attack us. Make certain that you observe her deployments and numbers. Take your satellite phone, I wish to speak with the traitorous bitch myself.” Yuri was not happy with the task he’d been assigned, but knew better than to argue with The Scar. Five minutes later, with the phone in his pocket and unarmed, Yuri climbed down from Flight Two. The unearthly darkness and swirling ash felt overpowering, and he wrapped a rag tightly around his head to keep it under his nose. Waving a white towel over his head and shining the flashlight in his other hand on it, he began to jog north through the ash towards Flight Three. Felecia, looking south, saw the glimmer of light, and then the approaching emissary emerged from the gloom. With five men flanking her, Felecia, a bandana covering her face, trotted out into the choking ash to meet Yuri. Her orders to her men were simple. “At the first sign that he’s armed, kill him.” From five paces away, Felecia recognized Yuri. Coming to a halt, her rifle at combat ready, she said in an icy tone, “A white flag? Come to surrender have you?” Ignoring the barb, Yuri replied, “My employer wishes to speak with you. We have a nuclear warhead aboard and have armed it. We will use it if that is the only way to avoid capture. We are proposing a truce. That way, we may all live to see another day. We should discuss this in your plane, out of this miserable ash.” “You’ll go no further. Your first action today was to try to kill us. You couldn’t, so now you think we’ll parley with you? Why the hell would I be stupid enough to trust you?” Felecia said. Shrugging, Yuri very slowly drew out the satellite phone, opened it, and dialed The Scar’s number. Then, he handed the phone to Felecia. Suspecting who would be on the other end, Felecia asked, “What the fuck do you want?” “Hello, Felecia. I do regret the recent unpleasantness, but it is best if we forget the past. What I am offering is simple: a way out of this for us all. We will not attack you if you refrain from attacking us. Each of our aircraft is vulnerable and no purpose would be served by leaving us all stranded here. Let us instead all depart and go our separate ways. I ought to mention that I now have at my disposal a nuclear warhead. If I were rendered incapable of leaving, I’d much prefer to go out in a blaze of retribution. I will not countenance being captured, you must know that. So, your choice is simple; refrain from attacking me or interfering and you and your men will live. Attack, and if you are successful, you will all die,” The Scar said with a smile, certain that Felecia would agree. Fighting to contain her rage, Felecia replied, “You got a lot of my men killed and you’ve tried to kill the rest. Only now, when you need something, do you want a cease-fire. If you think I’m going to trust you after all you’ve done, you’re even more delusional than I thought.” Ignoring the jab, The Scar said, “You have no choice in the matter. The cease-fire exists because we will not attack you. If you attack us, you die, along with your men.” Felecia was willing to assume that he had what he claimed. She had no doubt that he would use it to avoid capture. She was also certain that The Scar would kill her and her men if he thought he could, provided that did not hinder his escape. ‘I know he has at least two nukes, maybe three, but he said one, so that could mean he might be leaving us one as a surprise for after he takes off. He’s sure as hell being too damn agreeable, he’s up to something and I need to find out what,’ Felecia thought. Finally, she decided that the answer was nearer at hand. “I’ll think about it,” she said, and hung up. Yuri shook his head. “You are a fool. You’re outnumbered and outgunned. You need to leave this place, as do we. I can see from the way the few men you have are armed and deployed that you have very limited ammo, no grenades, and few if any long-range weapons. Attack us and die. Be sensible and live.” Felecia began to smile in a way that Yuri found chilling. “Yuri, there are times when it’s better to keep your mouth shut and this would have been one of them. You’ve just given me a piece of the puzzle; your boss didn’t know for sure how we are armed, or our numbers. One of the reasons you’re here is to find that out.” Perceiving the danger in both Felecia’s expression and words, Yuri said, “I came here under a flag of truce–” “You set us up to die, Yuri. You’ve also just made a mistake. You and your boss, you never play by the rules, but you assume everyone else will and that you can use ‘em when it suits you. Well, I’m not that stupid.” Felecia motioned with her arm and two of her men moved forward to flank Yuri from the sides. Seeing the cold glare in Felecia’s eyes, and the movement of her men, their guns now pointed in his direction, Yuri blanched. Correctly thinking that Felecia intended to capture him, Yuri turned to run, assuming that Felecia would not risk the sound of a gunshot alerting Flight Two that the truce was over. He was just a little too slow; Felecia was right behind him, launching into a sprint. Felecia’s combat knife flashed out, tearing into the inside of Yuri’s thigh. Yuri stumbled, clutching his leg in agony as he fell to the ash. Felecia delivered a fierce kick to Yuri’s side, forcing him over on his back. Without any hesitation, she crouched by his side, her knife ready to strike. Three of her men held AK-47s, pointed at Yuri’s head. “Yuri, if you wish to keep breathing, start talking. I want to know where the bombs are, all of them,” Felecia said, her voice carrying a deadly tone. Yuri had no intention of being captured and craved for a way out, wishing that the pain in his leg would stop. Gasping from the agony, choking on the ash, he sputtered, “Go to hell. I won’t tell you a damn thing unless you give me some way out of here.” Yuri didn’t know that – unbeknownst to anyone including herself – Felecia already had. It just wasn’t the kind of ‘out’ Yuri would have preferred. Felecia’s knife attack had been aimed at Yuri’s legs, but movement had spoiled her aim, just a little; the knife’s razor-sharp blade had completely severed Yuri’s left femoral artery. In the darkness and ash, the profuse bleeding was not apparent, even to Yuri. Felecia gave Yuri another kick. “You’re going nowhere, but unless you start talking, I’m going to gut you right here.” Gasping from the pain, Yuri looked up at Felecia, and as he opened his mouth, he felt himself becoming very light-headed. Fear gripped his heart, and he moved his hands a little, feeling far too much blood mixed with ash. “Help me,” he sputtered, “I’m bleeding to death.” Felecia stooped over Yuri, knife still at the ready, as one of her men flicked Yuri’s flashlight on, shining it on his leg. “So you are,” Felecia said coldly. “Talk or bleed, it’s up to you.” Felecia had seen more than her share of battle wounds and doubted they could stop the bleeding in time, so she was playing for a fast answer. Fighting the dark pull of unconsciousness, Yuri felt pure fear for the first time in a very long time. The adrenalin rush merely serving to speed his blood loss. Yuri opened his mouth, and then his eyes rolled back in his head. He went limp, his head falling into the ash. “Damn, too soon,” Felecia said, and then grabbed Yuri’s head to yell, “That’s for Wilhelm and the rest of my men who didn’t make it, you worthless piece of shit.” Yuri, fading in and out of unconsciousness, heard Felecia’s words, moments before the cold hand of death claimed him. “Leave him there. He’ll be covered by ash in a few minutes, it’s coming down hard. Let Frankenstein wonder what’s going on for a change,” Felecia said, as she bent down to use Yuri’s hair to wipe the blood off her knife. She gave Yuri’s corpse a half-hearted kick, and led the way back into Flight Three. “Yuri should be back by now, or should have called,” The Scar said to the pilot. It had been ten minutes since Felecia had ended the call, so The Scar phoned Yuri. “Hello,” Felecia said in a cheery voice. “Let me speak to Yuri,” The Scar demanded. “Sorry, but he doesn’t want to speak to you. He wasn’t too happy you sent him over here and he thinks his chances are better with us. We cut him in on the money we got and he’s been telling us plenty. So, goodbye and good riddance, Frankenstein,” Felecia said, hoping that she could rattle The Scar into making a mistake. The Scar slammed his fist into the seat in fury. Punching the intercom, he yelled, “Survov, get in here, now!” As soon as Lieutenant Survov arrived, The Scar said, “The traitorous bitch has either captured Yuri or killed him. Check with your men, I want to know if anyone heard a gunshot.” Survov ran aft to check, and when he returned, he said, “They heard nothing, and I think they would have heard a shot. There is enough noise from the eruption that they cannot hear much, but they should have heard that. There was too much ash to see anything.” “So, she’s holding him captive, then. She claims he has betrayed me, but Yuri has been loyal to me and I do not believe he could turn against me. We cannot however rule out the possibility that he might talk under duress. Change your deployments; I want half your force outside at all times and damn the ash.” The Scar stormed out of the cockpit. Stooping over one of the nuclear warheads, he inspected Yuri’s handiwork, seeing the triggering charge and the cover of the timer. He found the two exposed terminals and saw that he could short them with a coin. Preferring better control, The Scar took Survov back to the cockpit and asked, “I need a change made to the triggering charge for a bomb so that I may detonate it remotely if the need arises. We might need to leave one behind and use it once we are clear. Can you do this?” Survov shook his head. “Sir, I have some training in explosives but I am not good with electronics. I have no idea how to make a remote detonator from the supplies we have. I do not believe that any of my men have the skill, but I will find out.” As Survov left, The Scar asked the pilot, “What about you? Can you create a remote detonator?” The pilot shook his head, and The Scar thought aloud, “I need Yuri back.” General Bradson left one mercenary, François, with the livestock truck, and detailed him to drive, based on his familiarity with the area. Fifteen minutes later, François wheeled the livestock transport and its relieved occupants into the hotel parking lot. There, they were reunited with the wedding party members who had escaped in the Jetta. Dusty, peppered by a sheen of fine ash, they made their way to the rooms vacated by the mercenaries. The four members of Instinct, along with Jansen and Keith, took a room at the end of the two-story building’s ground floor. They found the power off, but the water still running, allowing them to clean the ash from their faces. Their minds still reeling from the harrowing trip, they sat down, perching on the edges of the two beds, in a room lit only by the light of a single candle. Chase felt the pull of conscience, and said, “My turn to go look after Mom. Anyone know which room she’s in?” Keith nodded, “Far end of this row. I saw her with Helen, Barbra, and one of the mercenaries.” “Oh, shit,” Jon said. “If she finds out about the bombs, she’ll flip. Maybe I better go with you.” Jon and Chase raced for Helen’s room, where they found Barbra and Helen chatting amicably with Jane and François. Jon and Chase stopped just inside the door, staring in disbelief. Jane looked up at her sons and smiled. “Relax, you two, no need to baby sit me anymore, and no, I haven’t overdosed on Valium. I only took one on the way here.” Seeing the continued shocked looks on her sons’ faces, Jane decided to try to explain. “I was terrified of the volcano. I have an utter fear of the damn things. However, in spite of all the ash and gloom, François here tells me that we’re safer from it at this distance, on this side of the island. I know we’re still in a mess, especially with what’s going on at the airport, but I’ll be okay now, so you can worry about other things instead of me.” Jon shot an inquiring look at Helen, who replied aloud, “She knows about the bombs. François told her. She seems okay to me.” Jane gave them all an awkward smile, and then said to Helen, “Once I found that out, all the secrecy and late-night meetings made sense. You were right not to tell me.” “Thanks,” Helen said with a smile and a nod. “So, tell me more about your mission to Iran,” Jane said, as she stood and left the room with François. As soon as his mother was gone, Jon said, “Is it just me, or does she seem way too accepting about all this?” “It’s not just you,” Chase replied, with a stunned shake of his head. Helen held up her hand. “I thought so too, but she does seem different now. She’s more like the woman I flew over here with, and like she was before the volcano started acting up. Remember, she walked away from your father and her life, and dealt with it pretty stoically. Maybe I’m wrong, but to me she seems okay. I also have a hunch there’s a bit more to her brightened mood.” Turning to Barbra, Helen asked, “What do you think, hon?” Barbra paused in thought for a moment, and then nodded. “I hardly know her, but I saw the change too. I kind of share Helen’s guess; one of her problems was the fear of being all alone now that her marriage is over. She seems to have set her sights on an answer to that issue, and I think the hope of that, plus being out of most of the volcanic danger, put her back on an even keel.” “Whoa, wait... you don’t mean...” Chase let his voice trail off, thinking he must have misinterpreted Helen and Barbra’s meaning. “François,” Helen said with a bemused shrug. “They just met, but she’s taken a liking to him and it seems mutual. Stranger things have happened, I guess, though offhand I’m having trouble thinking of any.” “She always did like French accents,” Jon said with a wry smile. In the candlelit hotel room with Eric, Jansen, and Keith, Brandon put his head in his hands. In a sad, quiet tone, he said, “I’ve known Jim for years. He saved my butt more than once, back in Phoenix. I know how he thinks. If he was okay, he’d have gotten word to us somehow, I know he would. He wouldn’t just hunker down with the bomb, that’s not his style. I think Brian was right. Either Jerry’s got him or Jerry killed him, that’s my guess. Linda and Private Johnson too.” Eric, wincing at the mention of Jim and Linda, did not want to admit to himself the possibility that they could be dead. With a solemn nod of his head, Eric said, “I’m worried about Jim and Linda too. General Bradson and Brian want to stop Jerry getting away with the nuke, that comes first to them and I can’t say that I blame ‘em. What if they decide to pump an RPG into Jerry’s plane? Jim and I were tight and he and Linda are here because of me. There’s something else we’ve got to think about too; Helen is on the hook for more than half of that thirty million, in part thanks to me. The rest of us in the band can much better afford a loss and ours is smaller, but Helen will be totally wiped out. She staked everything she had, mainly to protect us. Now, given the crap that’s flying with the government, Instinct might be finished as a business. If so, who here thinks that Helen would let us make good some of her losses?” Seeing the blank faces and shaking heads looking back at him, Eric continued, “That’s what I thought. The two nukes we had hidden might not survive the eruption, so the way I see it, Jerry probably has Jim, Linda, the Private, and the only remaining bomb too. I think we gotta do something.” Jansen stood up and said, “Are you crazy? Jerry tried to kill you once already. He also now knows what all of us look like. How the hell can we do anything when a force of trained soldiers can’t?” Eric shrugged, feeling bad about the lie he was about to tell. “Yeah, I don’t know what we could do, yet.” Brandon narrowed his eyes, knowing Eric well enough to guess that he wasn’t ready to drop the idea. Her mood darkening, Helen said, “I’ve got to go find the other mercenary, then I’ll call General Bradson for an update. I’ll let you know what I find, and then there’s something we have to talk about.” Helen knew that she couldn’t wait much longer; she had to share the news that Jim’s truck had probably been seen at The Scar’s C-130. Jon and Chase nodded. “We’ll be in the room at the far end of this row,” Jon said. “See you in a few minutes,” Helen replied. Jon and Chase returned to the room and gave the others a rundown on what had happened. Eric smiled and said, “I think Mom really will be better now that she’s away from the volcano. She seemed to change once we got to this side of the island.” Jansen, Keith, and the members of Instinct began speculating about the situation at the airport, but after only a couple of minutes they were interrupted when Helen and Barbra arrived. Helen said, “I figured I might as well call from here.” Helen phoned Felecia and received a quick update, along with a promise of more later. After ending the call, Helen said, “Guys, we’re screwed six ways from Sunday at the moment. Felecia said that there’s nothing happening yet, but just in case, stay away from any south-facing windows. We’re on the north side of the building and Jerry’s plane is over three miles from here, so the General says we should be safe from a ground burst. Now, for us; we were in a standoff with the government before the volcano blew and now the only bomb we might still have is with Jim, wherever he is.” Helen then went on to tell the shocked members of Instinct what she and General Bradson had found at the storage locker. Then, Helen said that she and General Bradson believed that Jim, Linda, and Private Johnson, along with the bomb, had been captured. “That part we already knew,” Brandon said. “Brian told us that Felecia thought she’d seen the truck.” After a few moments discussion, Helen went on to say, “The nuclear bombs that Jerry now has... he got from us. According to General Bradson’s contact in the U.S., one of them was used underground to set off the eruption. The government has, probably due to that, put the five of us and General Bradson on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Given the government’s attitude even before this latest move, I can just about guarantee they’ll want to lock us up and throw away the key, so we’d better think seriously about never returning home.” Nods of agreement and stunned expressions came in reply. “Anyway, we’ll worry about all that later. I have to go round up François and the other mercenary. Felecia wants us to post a watch, in case Jerry sends some of his thugs here looking for hostages.” As soon as Helen and Barbra left, Eric stood up and began to pace. “And amongst other things, that would mean that Jerry probably has two nukes left,” Eric said, scowling as he said Jerry’s name. The conversation drifted to the standoff with the government, and Eric told Jansen and Keith, “Guys, this probably means we can’t open a club in L.A. or anywhere in the U.S. If you’re still willing, we could find somewhere overseas.” A few words were said regarding possible alternatives, but neither the dancers nor Eric was inclined to give the issue much discussion, due to everything else that was going on. As a tense silence descended, Eric decided that he had no choice but to go through with his plan to stop The Scar and save Jim, Linda, and Private Johnson. A few minutes later, Eric strolled into the bathroom and locked the door. He pulled a pencil and paper from his pocket, and quickly scrawled out a note, in the form of a will, leaving Jansen and Keith more than enough money to start the business on their own, and the rest to Helen. Then, leaving the note on the sink, Eric stood on the toilet and eased open the small high sliding window. Pulling himself upwards, he wiggled through headfirst, and halfway through he found himself looking down at Brandon. Brandon whispered, “Come on out. I figured you’d slip away and try something. Jim saved me when my parents tossed me out. I owe him, man. Count me in on whatever you’re up to.” Lowering himself to stand beside Brandon, Eric said, “You don’t want any part of this, trust me on that. Just forget you saw me and let me go, okay?” “Nope, I’m going too,” Brandon said, shaking his head. Turning to walk towards the far end of the building, Eric replied, “No wonder you and Jon get along so well; you’re both pig-headed stubborn. Okay, just don’t try to stop me when you find out what I’m planning. First, I gotta find the crew who came here in the Jetta.” “The guy who drove the Jetta is four doors down. I saw him come out when we arrived,” Brandon said, leading the way. Eric handled it quickly. “Hey, we need the Jetta’s keys,” he said. The crewmember handed them over, and Eric looked around the parking lot, spotting the Jetta’s silhouette in the darkness. “Thanks, guys,” Eric said, as he made a beeline for the car. Approaching the Jetta, Eric said, “Brandon, what I’m gonna do is risky as hell. Please stay here.” When Brandon made no sign of leaving his side, Eric unlocked the Jetta and said, “Okay, get in, I’ll explain on the way.” Eric fired up the Jetta and headed for the airport. En route, he said, “You’ll want to take the car back to the hotel, because my plan is to walk up to Jerry’s plane, pretend to be drunk, get on board with a grenade in my hand, pin pulled, and get him to hand over Jim, Linda, Private Johnson, and the bombs. Jerry’s seen me on tequila. I think he’ll buy it when I tell him I’ll blow us all to hell if he doesn’t do it. He might not let me go, ‘cause he’s got a score to settle with me, but I think I can get him to do the rest.” “That’s insane,” Brandon said, and then asked, “And where the hell do you think you could get a grenade?” Eric patted his pocket. “I stole Brian’s, when we were on the transport truck. See, I told ya you wouldn’t want any part of this. Go back to the hotel and make sure Jansen and Keith get the note I left on the sink,” Eric said, and then added, “Tell Jansen that I love him, and I’m sorry, but I caused this mess and I have to do something.” Taking a deep breath, Brandon made up his mind. “Tell him yourself, because I’m going in with you and I’ll find a way to get you out. Two of us stand a better chance than one. Besides, I’m good in a fight and I doubt Jerry knows that.” “What about Chase?” Eric asked, saving his best argument for last. “You guys are newlyweds. If you go with me, there’s a hell of a big chance that he’ll be a widower today. Can you do that to him?” “Jim works for Instinct because of me, and he and Linda are still on the island because of my wedding. He’s family to me, and so’s Linda, just like you, Chase, Jon, and Helen now are, but Jim and Linda were there for me when I had nobody, before I met you guys. As for Chase, suppose I turn back and you get killed? How do you think he’d feel then? Eric, I have to do this. Don’t bother trying to talk me out of it, I’m going,” Brandon said, with butterflies in his stomach. In resolute silence that belied their rattled nerves, Eric and Brandon drove on through the darkness and ash. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  16. Chapter 48: Desperate Measures The tow truck, festooned by Horst’s men riding on its bed and sides, arrived at the airport fence at the south end of the runway. Horst and his men dismounted, their faces wrapped in strips of sheet and towels in an attempt to keep out the still-falling ash. General Bradson sent two men forward to cut a hole in the fence, and then he checked in with Felecia via walkie-talkie. Felecia, knowing that the military-grade walkie-talkie had basic encryption – she’d set the key herself –and was thus likely secure enough, told the General about Yuri’s death, and The Scar’s demands. Following his men through the fence in the darkness, General Bradson said, “Too bad we couldn’t get more information out of him, but good riddance. Got any ideas how to take down Frankenstein’s plane? Horst’s men have a few RPG’s. Getting close enough to hit Flight Two should be easy enough in this ash. The problem is, the wreckage will block the runway, and there’s enough high explosive in the nukes to crater it when they cook off, and the uranium debris would give us a radiation problem. There’s also the risk that he has a deadman’s switch on a nuke. If we blow the plane, we’re risking blowing us, and everything for a mile or so around, to hell. My current plan is to deploy on the south end of the runway and keep hidden, then open up on the bastard with RPGs as he passes overhead. Not much of a plan because it wouldn’t be an easy shot, and there’s still the nuke risk, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment.” Felecia sighed, wishing that she had a better idea. “Our best guess is that he’s got two nukes left, so my gut feel, knowing the bastard as I do, is he’ll try to leave one behind, rigged for remote detonation. He could hide it damn near anywhere, if he hasn’t already. The only thing I can think of is to reconnoiter his position and hope we find a hole in his defenses, enough for us to storm the plane with no warning and take him all the way out. I have two men out on recon now. Other than that, go with your idea and try for a shot when he takes off. Or, what about blocking the runway at your end with one of the fire trucks?” “The problem there is he can’t take off until the air clears, and with the thrust of the fourteen JATO bottles he’s got mounted he can do a short-field takeoff and clear anything parked at this end,” General Bradson replied. On board Flight Two, The Scar paced in the cargo bay, stopping every once in awhile to gaze out the small window at the darkness and ash outside. Lieutenant Survov pulled a cloth over his face and pointed at five men, commanding them to follow, and went out again, via the side door and a ladder, to check the perimeter. He currently had five men outside, but due to the harsh conditions, he rotated them with fresh troops every half hour. Survov was checking the five posts, which were nothing more than crates and trash barrels tossed into the runway ash. Each of the defensive positions gave the sentry some shelter. Survov wasn’t happy with the deployment, but given the ash and location, combined with having to keep the troops mostly in the plane, he felt it to be the best that he could do. The main problem Survov discerned was that his men did not notice his approach until he was within twenty feet, and in two cases they were unaware of him until he tapped them on the shoulder. It was the ash; most of the men had no goggles, and preferred to shield their eyes instead of exposing them to the gritty ash by staring out into the murky blackness. Once he had decided to limit his perimeter to five men, Survov had selected the locations as best he could; three posts in a line running across the runway a hundred feet behind the C-130 – which he judged to be the most likely threat axis, due to Flight Three being in that direction. The remaining two posts were a hundred feet south of each wingtip. As Survov was checking the final post of his rounds, admonishing the soldier manning it to be alert, Survov himself was surprised to be hailed from twenty feet to his rear. “Hey, where the fuck is the plane,” Eric said, slurring badly and clutching Brandon’s shoulder for support. He almost stumbled for real; he’d parked the Jetta near the terminal, and he and Brandon had nearly choked walking out to the runway. Survov fixed the two intruders in the beam of his flashlight and drawing his pistol, seeing what appeared to be two civilians with their shirts pulled up over their noses. Brandon saw that they had Survov’s attention, and called out, “Sorry guy, Eric’s drunk, really drunk. We’re trying to find the plane; we’ve been wandering around this fucking airport for half an hour. Felecia said to meet at the – oh, there it is,” Brandon said, slurring a bit himself and tugging Eric towards the nose of Flight Two, which was twenty feet away. “Wait,” Survov said, pistol at the ready and rushing towards Brandon and Eric, not quite sure, but thinking that he might have two people that his employer would very much like to see. “It’s okay, I’m Brandon Wolfe of Instinct, and this is Eric Carlisle, our bassist on the rare occasions that he’s sober. Felecia knows us. She said to meet her here,” Brandon said, weaving a little and still mildly slurring. Survov smiled, deciding to make things easy on himself. “Yes, of course, come with me, sirs. Felecia is inside.” Survov lowered his gun but kept it in his hand. He hung back a little as Brandon and Eric approached the side of the plane. As he drew near to the side door, which was just forward of the wing, Survov called up, “Brandon Wolfe and Eric Carlisle are here to see Felecia, and they are too drunk to use the ladder. Lower the ramp and send a few men down to help them aboard.” Inside the cargo hold, The Scar paused in his pacing and smiled as he realized what Survov was trying to do. After hitting the button to lower the ramp, The Scar dashed for the cockpit to stay out of sight. As the ramp lowered to the ash, six men ran down, and with Survov bringing up the rear, they ushered the staggering Brandon and Eric up the ramp. As soon as he was aboard, Survov slammed his hand down on the button to raise the ramp. Brandon looked around, instantly noticing the two nuclear warheads. Still pretending to be drunk, struggling to hold Eric up, Brandon said, “Where’s Felecia?” “I’m afraid that you have come to the wrong aircraft,” The Scar said in a buoyant tone as he walked towards Brandon and Eric from the cockpit. The Scar looked at Eric, whose head was lolling on his shoulders, “Hello again, Brandon, and I see you’ve brought me the always-annoying Eric. Is he ever sober? Never mind, I’ll soon have him dried out.” Turning to Survov, The Scar snapped, “Search them and tie them up. Don’t be gentle.” “I don’t fucking want to be searched, Jerry,” Eric said, still slurring as he withdrew the grenade from his pocket, his hand still clutched around it. “I took the fucking pin out. If you try anything, I’ll blow us all to hell.” Brandon did his best to look afraid, which wasn’t hard. “We were drinking tequila and he talked me into coming here. I didn’t know he had a fucking grenade,” Brandon said, taking care to add a nervous stutter to his voice. Eric laughed maniacally, letting go of Brandon and staring at Jerry. Taking care to slur his words slightly, Eric said, “Yeah, I’m not that drunk and I knew you were here. Guess what, I’d love to blow you to hell, and if I’ve gotta go with you, that suits me just fucking fine.” The Scar’s eyes opened in surprise, and he remembered how Eric became on tequila. His eyes fixed on the grenade, seeing that the pin was indeed out, The Scar replied in a friendly tone, “Why don’t we all sit down and talk this over?” “No deal, shithead,” Eric snarled. “You’ve got our property and our friends. I decided I’d get ‘em back, or kill you. If I let go of this thing, we’re all toast. Where are Jim, Linda, and Private Johnson?” Giving a one-armed shrug, The Scar gestured towards the two nuclear weapons, “I retrieved these from a storage unit. There was no one there. I have no idea of whom you are speaking.” “You’re a liar. I saw the truck outside,” Eric snarled, ostentatiously loosening his grip on the grenade. “Tell me where they are, right the fuck now, or we all go ka-boom.” Eric made a point of swaying on his feet, and three of the henchmen, without awaiting orders, scrambled out the side door, having decided that now would be a very good time to be outside on guard duty. The Scar stared at Eric for a moment and felt sure that, having drunk tequila, Eric was capable of doing exactly what he threatened. Seeing his success, along with himself, likely turned to flaming ruin, The Scar grew desperate. “Yes, I have them. They will not be harmed and are to be released upon my departure. However, my orders were clear; they will be shot if anything happens to me or this aircraft. So, let us make a deal, one we can all live with.” “Bullshit. I want Jim, Linda, and Private whatshisname, right now,” Eric said, and then paused for a moment before adding, “My fingers are getting tired. I almost dropped this thing just now.” “That means you have three bombs, so where’s the third?” Brandon said, to see if The Scar would tell the truth, not realizing that his question belied his drunken state. The Scar gestured to the west and said with a touch of pride in his voice, “The volcano’s eruption was my doing. I detonated a bomb in the road tunnel. Only these two remain.” The Scar glanced at Eric and added, “As for your friends, I will give you my solemn word that you will be joining them shortly. Now please, replace the pin in that grenade or at least give it to Brandon.” “I don’t want the fucking thing,” Brandon said, edging away from Eric, trying his best to act as though he believed Eric’s threats. It wasn’t much of an act; Brandon was half-sure that Eric meant every word he’d said. Eric locked eyes with The Scar and took a step forward, halving the distance between them. “I want Brandon off the plane, now. Then, he’s going to go wherever you have our friends stashed. Once he tells me they’re safe, you’re going to load those bombs on that truck. You and I will get in it, then I’ll drive us halfway down the runway and let you out.” The Scar inhaled, and then his eyes narrowed with a sudden realization. “So tell me, how can I trust you? How do I know you won’t keep going and deliver me to that traitorous bitch?” “You don’t have a choice. It’s either that, or I’ll blow you to hell for sure, right the fuck now,” Eric said, still slurring his words. Eric barely had time to notice when The Scar glanced to his left for a moment. Eric saw the blur out of the corner of his eye, but by then it was too late. Survov slammed into him from the side, and Eric felt Survov’s powerful hand closing over his, pinning his fingers against the grenade. Brandon tried to dash around Eric to get at Survov, but four henchmen rushed him from behind and one managed to snag Brandon’s legs, sending him sprawling. Eric tried to snatch his hand away from Survov, but while Eric was focusing on his hand, Survov pivoted and used his free hand to straight-arm Eric backwards, slamming his head into the bulkhead. Eric didn’t even have time to understand what was going on, before everything went black. Brandon, struggling hard against his attackers, found himself ensnared in a tangle of arms and legs as other henchmen joined the fight. The Scar drew his pistol and aimed it at Brandon’s head, but as his finger tightened on the trigger, he had an idea, and said, “Tie him up. We’ll trade him for Yuri.” With Eric unconscious and the grenade secured, it didn’t take the henchmen long to hog-tie Brandon and Eric. The Scar smiled at his captives, and then told Brandon, “Your annoying friend will perhaps recover. As for you, you’re going to have a chat with your manager. Tell her that unless Yuri is here within five minutes, I will shoot Eric, then you. One other thing; unlike your friend, I never bluff. Oh, I believed he’d do what he said at first, as I’ve seen the hellion on tequila more than once. However, he made a mistake; he stepped close, and there was no scent of it on his breath. Therefore, I signaled Survov to act. The reason I’m telling you this is that your little amateur-hour escapade makes me think you’re an imbecile. Therefore, I need to be exquisitely clear; hinder me again, in any way, and you both die.” The Scar pressed his gun against Eric’s head and asked Brandon, “Do you believe me, or do I need to give you proof?” Brandon nodded slowly, correctly believing that The Scar was not bluffing. Smiling, The Scar took a step back, holstered his gun, and opened his satellite phone. He then dialed Yuri’s number and waited for Felecia to answer. “What the fuck do you want?” Felecia, in Flight Three, asked in a perturbed tone. The Scar made her wait for a few seconds before replying, “It seems that I have something you want, and you have something I want. Brandon Wolfe and Eric Carlisle were kind enough to pay me a visit. I propose a trade. Yuri for Brandon, immediately, and Eric will be our safe-conduct pass. I shall release him once I am well en route to my destination.” The Scar smiled at his own imagined cleverness. He’d told the truth; he had every intention of releasing Eric unharmed, though at an altitude of ten thousand feet with no parachute. Felecia was unconvinced. “If you have them, I’m sure you won’t mind letting me talk to them?” Felecia replied, hoping that The Scar was lying. “Not at all, my dear. Here’s Brandon,” The Scar said, and then held the phone by the side of Brandon’s head. “Hi, Felecia,” Brandon said with a sigh. “Eric’s here too, but he’s unconscious.” Felecia had never spoken with Brandon over the phone or radio, and was not certain that she recognized his voice. She did know that he’d been to the mercenaries’ hotel, so she asked, “Brandon, what color are the walls in the rooms, at the place you first talked to my men?” It took Brandon a few seconds to figure out where Felecia was referring to, and he replied, “Puke green.” The Scar, who had heard Felecia’s question, returned the phone to his ear, and said, “I trust that you believe me now?” Felecia knew she had to buy time. “Nope, but that’s enough for me to check with Helen. I’ll be back in touch in a few minutes,” Felecia said, and then ended the call before The Scar could reply. She picked up a walkie-talkie, and when General Bradson’s voice came over the speaker, she said, “Walter, we’ve got trouble. Frankenstein claims to have Eric and Brandon. I’m going to call Helen and check. Sit tight, but we may have friendlies on that plane.” Helen answered General Bradson’s satellite phone, and within moments Felecia had explained the situation. Shaking her head and pacing in the small hotel room, Helen replied, “They were here. They couldn’t be that stupid…” Helen felt her gut turn to ice as she realized that indeed they might. “But I’ll check, hang on!” Helen raced for the room Instinct had occupied, and as she neared the door, she almost ran into Chase, who was coming out, searching for Brandon. A few hurried, frantic conversations later, Jansen knocked, and then yelled, at the locked door of the bathroom where Eric was supposedly taking a shower. Getting no reply other than the sound of running water, Jansen reared back, kicked the door in, and then dashed inside. There, he found Eric’s note, and with a trembling hand, read it, and then wordlessly gave it to Helen. “Oh no… that idiot!” Helen yelled, and then added, “Check the other rooms, fast. See if anyone has seen them.” Within minutes, Helen knew that Brandon and Eric had taken the Jetta. Helen called Felecia and said, “They’re not here, and Eric left a note. Looks like they’ve gone to Jerry’s plane. Felecia, please, save my boys…” Knowing that she was unlikely to be able to deliver, Felecia said, “I’ll get ‘em back, Helen. Count on it. I’ll let you know what’s going on, but for right now, I have to get together with Walter and do some planning. I’ll talk to you soon.” Once Felecia had hung up, Helen knew what she had to do. She handed the phone to Barbra, and said on her way out the door, “Look after things here for me. I’ve got to get to the airport.” Helen didn’t say so, but she knew she’d have to go by foot, over a mile through the darkness and swirling, choking ash, because she could not in good conscience take the livestock transport, and Eric had taken the only other vehicle at the hotel. Felecia told General Bradson, “We’ve got to scrub our previous idea. Leave Horst and his men in place and get yourself back here. We’ve got some planning to do. I’ll explain when you get here. In the meantime, I’ll try to stall the bastard.” General Bradson returned to the tow truck and began skirting the airport to work his way to the north end. The Scar’s impatience meant that Felecia didn’t have to make the call. Yuri’s phone rang, and The Scar said, “You’re just about out of time. I’ll let you choose; which boy dies first?” “Wait. You’ve got a deal. I’ve sent for Yuri, he’s just not here yet. If you hurt Brandon or Eric, I’ll personally blow Yuri’s brains out, and to hell with the consequences. You have my word on that. My men were holding him a couple of miles from here and he’s on his way. Just give us a few more minutes,” Felecia said, hoping that she sounded convincing. The Scar eased his finger off the trigger, leaving the gun pointed at Brandon’s head, and replied, “Make it fast, Felecia. I won’t put up with delays. Fifteen minutes, no more.” The Scar felt that he had little to lose by waiting. Felecia looked to the south, at the lightening sky, wondering if she had even the fifteen minutes The Scar had offered. It was clearing to the south and the wind has shifted northwards. Felecia had no doubt in her mind that The Scar would take off as soon as the air was clear enough, and would not wait for Yuri. And that, she knew, would be the end of Brandon and Eric. Helen, stumbling out of the ash, was nearly shot in the partial darkness by one of Felecia’s troops. General Bradson recognized Helen just barely in time, and only his shouted command to the mercenaries, ‘Hold fire!’ saved her. Helen walked on, towards the back of Flight Three, and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the ramp. General Bradson helped her to her feet and onto the plane, where Helen, coughing and gasping for breath, managed to ask, “Is there any news?” Felecia nodded and checked her watch. “We have seven minutes remaining before he executes Eric or Brandon. My former employer wants Yuri, his right-hand man, in exchange for Brandon, but Yuri is inconveniently dead at the moment. I killed him before Brandon and Eric delivered themselves to Flight Two–” Helen was exhausted, still weak from her frantic journey, but she cut Felecia’s hurried explanation off to say, “That’s just fucking great. We’ve got to do something, anything…” Helen stumbled to her feet and fixed Felecia in her gaze, feeling the need to vent her fury and frustration. The Scar’s phone rang, and he answered by saying, “For the sake of these boys, I hope you’re calling to tell me that Yuri is ready?” Felecia chewed on her lip, knowing that she had to get this exactly right, and timed to the second. She pulled the towel away from her face to say, “Almost. The car broke down in the ash, but he’s on his way. He’ll be here in a few minutes. In the meantime, expect company. Helen barged in here and started yelling, then stormed off, heading in your direction. She thinks my men and I got Brandon and Eric into this and she doesn’t trust us to get them out. She’s coming to offer you money, a hell of a lot of it, which is interesting as hell because when she was negotiating with me for the bombs, she claimed to be offering me everything she had access to. I since found out that’s a fucking lie, and I don’t like liars. Look at it this way; you’ll get Yuri before your deadline, plus what Helen is offering. My threat regarding Brandon and Eric stands because I like ‘em, but I’ll tell you what… after what Helen’s done, and what she just said about me in front of my men, you can shoot her and get no grief from me.” The Scar smiled at the mention of money; he believed that Helen could offer a great deal of it. Deciding to be agreeable, he said, “Ah, yes. I well remember Helen’s vile mouth. However, regarding Yuri, you’d best hurry.” The Scar looked out through the cockpit windows. The light filtering through the ash was growing brighter by the minute, and he knew it was almost time; the wind had indeed shifted and was coming from the southwest. He felt that he needed Yuri back so did not wish to leave without him, but had no intention of delaying the takeoff. He was also more interested in the money then in Yuri. The Scar did however decide to defer shooting Brandon until he could receive whatever payment Helen could arrange. The Scar glanced again at the lightening sky, and nodded to himself, thinking that things were indeed looking up. He used the intercom to alert Survov to expect Helen, and Survov dashed out into the unwelcome ash, to pass the hold-fire order to the five troops deployed in a line to the north of the aircraft, and let them know to bring Helen in. Survov, upon returning to the plane, stood in the cargo bay door at the top of the ramp, squinting as he stared out into the odd volcanic twilight. The human eye is at its weakest during twilight; the bright sky robs it of its night vision, while leaving the ground in comparative darkness. That fact made it even harder for Survov to see in spite of the rapidly thinning ash cloud. He didn’t spot Helen until she was almost at the base of the ramp. Thumbing the intercom, Survov reported, “Your guest is here, guarded by five of my men. I’m sending out five more to replace them.” Survov wasn’t happy that five of his perimeter guards had abandoned their posts to escort the one unarmed prisoner, but chose not to relay that observation to his volatile employer. The Scar replied, “Very well. Make certain that they are alert, and aware that Yuri is on his way. I’d prefer that they do not shoot him by mistake.” The Scar keyed off the microphone and blinked from the glare as a reddish shaft of sunlight illuminated the cockpit. “How long?” he asked the pilot. “Any moment now. All I need is clear air to the south, above a hundred feet altitude. The JATOs will get us that far, and the force of takeoff should clear the ash from our fuselage and wings,” The pilot said, hoping that at least two of the engines would air-start in time. He thought they would, but he was far from certain. “Take off the moment conditions are adequate,” The Scar commanded. Survov gave his men the needed orders, leaving them to their posts as he returned to the aircraft. In the cargo bay, he scowled at the six men there, and was about to give them orders when The Scar’s voice over the intercom called him to the cockpit. As Survov entered, The Scar said in a low voice, “We are about to take off, and may do so at any moment. How many of your men are in the cargo bay?” “Six. The rest are on guard outside, per your orders,” Survov replied. The Scar nodded. “Weight is critical, and I do not wish to leave the plane undefended, even for a moment. I will raise the ramp from here, and when it closes, we will light the rockets. When this occurs, tell your men in the cargo bay that leaving their comrades behind was the only way to save all our lives. Say that we left them money and a vehicle, whatever you think they need to hear.” The Scar paused, and then asked, “Do you think the men on the ground will perceive the meaning of us raising the ramp and fire at the aircraft?” Survov shook his head. “No sir. We have done so several times to keep the ash out, and they are accustomed to using the side door. They will not realize in time to act against us.” Survov wondered if he would be among those left behind had he still been outside when the air cleared, and thought he probably would have been. Deciding to remain on board no matter what, he said, “What about Yuri? Are we waiting for him?” “No. If he comes into sight, let me know, but we shall not wait, we cannot,” The Scar replied, as the air grew clearer still. Survov returned to the cargo bay, in time to hear Brandon tell Helen, “You shouldn’t have come. He’s going to kill us no matter what.” Helen, with her hands behind her back and sitting against the bulkhead next to Brandon, felt her heart ache, wishing that she could dispel Brandon’s fears. Instead, she looked at Eric, who was lying by Brandon’s side. “How is he?” she asked. “Fine for now, my head just hurts like hell,” Eric replied in a mumble, surprising Brandon and Helen. Eric tensed his arms, feeling the bite of the tight ropes on his wrists. “No more talking!” Survov yelled at the prisoners, and then glanced around, selecting a good place to hang on during the takeoff. A glance out the door, which gave him a view of Flight Three through the thinning ash, told him that it was almost time. The sudden motion of the cargo bay door and the whine of its hydraulics proved him right. To the men in the cargo bay, he said, “Grab something solid and hang on!” In the cockpit of Flight Two, The Scar watched as the bay door indicator light flashed from red to green. The moment it did so, the pilot jammed his hand down on the JATO ignition switch. A deep, loud roar shook Flight Two as it lurched forward, riding on columns of fire. The aircraft shuddered, its wheels plowing through the ash and then pulling free as the C-130’s fat tires, given enough speed, began to roll across its surface. Flight Two had only a quarter-load of fuel, and in spite of the bombs was far below normal takeoff weight. The thrust of fourteen JATOs accelerated Flight Two violently down the ash-covered runway, and pilot hauled back on the yoke, chewing on his lip as the plane rose into clearer air. The pilot began air-start procedures for all four engines, and changed the blade pitch so that the aircraft’s rapidly building airspeed, now passing through one hundred and forty miles per hour, caused the engines to begin to turn. Feeling the thrust from the JATOs fade away as they burned out, the pilot checked his gauges, fervently praying that the engines would start. After what seemed like an eternity – though in fact it was less than two seconds – he felt a shudder, and saw engine four’s compressor temperature begin to climb. Ramming that engine’s throttle forward and feeling the beginning of thrust as it spooled up, he called out, “Number Four is lit.” That one engine wasn’t enough to keep them in the air for long, but it would at least slow their decent. The pilot watched his gauges, waiting, hoping… and then he saw a flicker, followed by a steady rise, on engine one’s temperature gauge. Shoving its throttle forward to the stops, he let out a sigh and said, “Engine one is lit. We can make it on two engines if we have to.” The Scar let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. He glanced down at the sea as the aircraft banked gently to the left in a shallow climb, and the pilot reported that the remaining two engines had started. “Climb to ten thousand feet, transponders off, and head for the African coast at the fastest safe speed. We’ll refuel inland, and then proceed to our base in Sudan.” The Scar eased back in his seat, relishing his success. As they climbed into the clear blue sky, The Scar looked ahead, seeing the island of Tenerife in the distance. He turned to look astern from the side window, at the towering columns of ash still bellowing from Cumbre Vieja, and said, “Ah, such glory I have wrought. The ash and thermal signature should have been sufficient to mask our departure, if the American satellites were watching. We will take an evasive, low altitude course prior to our refuel point, just in case, but I think we are safe now.” The Scar toyed with the idea of phoning Felecia and demanding that Yuri be released, but then decided not to bother for the moment. In the cargo bay, Survov looked aft, at the closed bay door, and said, “We had no choice but to leave our comrades behind. They were given money and they will rejoin us in a few days. For us, we fly home. We are safe now, and we will be well paid for what we have done.” Survov waited for a reply, which didn’t come. Becoming mildly concerned, he glanced at the men, and saw that one, his head still wrapped in an ash-caked towel like the others, was stooped over one of the atomic warheads. “Get away from that, it does not concern you!” Survov yelled, and the man complied by backing away. Brandon and Eric, their wrists and ankles tied, shared a forlorn glance, suspecting that they, and Helen, would be The Scar’s next order of business. They were correct. The Scar, in a flamboyant, almost euphoric mood, emerged from the cockpit and walked up to Eric, Brandon, and Helen. Bowing theatrically to Helen, he said, “Hello again, dear lady. Thank you for joining us, in time to partake in our glorious and triumphant takeoff. As you can see, I have succeeded in recovering my nuclear devices, in spite of your damnable meddling. You saw fit to interfere, using your money to bribe my mercenaries and thus steal my bombs and turn them over to the American Government. Fate, in the guise of your government’s intransigent ineptitude, bequeathed upon me the opportunity, which I seized. How you ever thought that you could challenge me is beyond comprehension, and it has brought you to this. I do not take affronts such as yours lightly. I have killed for far less. Your interference has cost me dearly, in time, misery, and personnel. Now, let us get down to business; you have money to offer me, in exchange for your lives. Do not waste my time by haggling. For what you have done, I would much prefer to kill you all. Make your bid, everything that you have, and I had best find it pleasing. Otherwise, it will be my sincere pleasure to kill you all.” The Scar waited for Helen’s reply, and when she didn’t speak, he looked into her impassive face. Growing tired of the game, he kept his eyes on Helen and said, “Survov, it appears that the lady does not believe me. Gunshots during flight are somewhat risky, so would you please kill Brandon with your knife. Slowly though, no point in making it quick.” Helen did not reply, she just kept her face blank and stared at The Scar. Survov reached for his knife as he took a step towards Brandon, only to find his way blocked by an ash-covered soldier. “Out of my way,” he growled, intent on his task. The soldier did not move, and Survov stopped in surprise. His eyes opened wide as the solder removed the towel from around her head, and Survov found himself staring into Felecia’s coldly grinning face. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  17. Wow... thanks!!!!!!! I'll take this opertunity to mention that Circumnavigation, like all my novels, is a TEAM effort, so this award, like any, rightly goes equally to all members of the team, not just me. And Low Flyer is absolutly right - in spite of the scurilus, unfounded rumors, I never, ever use cliffhangers!!!!
  18. Thanks!!! It was fun to write. This was actually written before Circumnavigation, but is being reposted thanks to AJ and Graeme. (thanks guys!!!!)
  19. Welcome!!!! Okay, flight routing; I'm going from memory here, but if we're talking the flight from Rome, they changed planes in Hong Kong, so would not be going the firect route, which is as you say over the Indian Ocean. Toowoomba is in Qeensland,inland of Brisbane, not in NSW. I probably screwed up on "lorries". I'm American, and though I've been to Oz, it was long ago, thoguh I go to the UK often. I probably, and wrongly, assumed that the usage was correct. West of Brisbane, yep, cattle in the main, but once you're well past the Darling Downs and well west of Toowoomba, it's more arid, and you start to get more sheep. They flew into Brisbane for a reason (such as photoshoots and a vacation) not just for the Perth concert. Also, their tour was arranged by the ever-freindly Jerry. That's absolutly true, but limited to the first 48 to 72 hours of having the cast. Solar power absolutly would not have worked for them; the kind of equipment they were using pulls a heck of a lot of amps (for example, metalurgical furcances are most often electric), so they'd need a vast array, plus a heck of a lot of batteries. A generator system makes far more sense for their particular needs. I really don't remember where I got that "lorry", but it's an error on my part. One thing I do want to remind everyone of; I'm the author and do the final checks and reveiws, so any errors are mine alone, not those of the team.
  20. I'm finally back, and appologize for my long abscence. I hope to be here on a more regular basis from now on. I'm about to go look at the threads now.
  21. C James


    Chapter 45: Ragnarök D minus 2:54:00 Suitcase in hand, Keith strolled up to Eric and Jansen, who were sitting by the pavilion’s pool in boardshorts, their shoes and socks strewn under the table. Taking a seat, Keith said, “I’ve got some spare clothes in here. You guys might want to get dressed; I hear the other side of the island is covered by ash. It’s gonna be a rough trip, I guess.” As Jansen opened the suitcase, he replied, “Yeah, when we were over there, it was a mess. Everything is covered by ash, and if a car drives through it, or there’s any wind, you get choking clouds. It’s gritty, gets into everything. Thanks, Keither.” Keith walked away to check on Jon, who was still manning the AK-47. As Jansen fished out some jeans and shirts for Eric and himself, Eric leaned close and said in a quiet voice, “Last night... what we did... don’t think that was just the tequila. It wasn’t.” Jansen looked into Eric’s eyes, and smiled. Yuri blinked at the outline of The Scar's plan, wondering if it was feasible. Deciding that there was a flaw, he said, “Can one bomb do such a thing? I know that a conventional explosion on the ground loses most of its force due to it being directed upwards. Would a nuclear explosion have the same limitations?” Grinning, enjoying the riposte, The Scar replied, “But of course, Yuri. It would indeed. However, I have discerned the solution. In fact, it was you yourself who told me what I needed to know in order to overcome that particular limitation. I have yet to see it, but according to the map it is just ahead.” Yuri’s mind whirled for a moment, and then he understood. “The tunnel... it runs through the northern flank of the mountain and is very deep as it passes under the ridge... and an underground nuclear detonation would be very much like an earthquake.” “Indeed, Yuri, indeed. We shall use one of our precious bombs as a mere trigger for the far greater power of nature herself. Now, for the practical details to which we must first attend. We must emplace a bomb in the tunnel at its approximate midpoint. I recall that long underground road tunnels most often provide emergency pull-in spaces every few hundred yards, to allow for vehicle breakdowns. Under the present circumstances, I doubt that anyone would pay much heed to some debris in such an alcove, particularly if demarked with the road-hazard triangles from the police car. Thus, we shall place our bomb. We are nearing the tunnel and can choose our desired location.” Yuri nodded, seeing the tunnel in his mind’s eye. “Yes, there are such pull-ins. Attaching a timer and shaped-charge trigger to the bomb will be a simple matter and take but a few moments. I have, as you ordered, already placed a triggering charge on the first bomb we captured, so I know that it can be done with ease.” The Scar smiled coldly. “Call Lieutenant Survov. Tell him to be prepared to move out instantly when I give the order. He will be taking the bomb on the truck, along with his entire force, to meet us at the airport.” The Scar listened as Yuri made the call. Once he was done, Yuri said, “Their location is not far from the tunnel, perhaps four miles. He should be there within half an hour of receiving your command.” “Alert our plane to take off in precisely half an hour.” The Scar said. He looked out across the as-yet untouched landscape, and smiled. “It will be a thing of wonder, Yuri. It will also serve to send a message that we are not to be trifled with, should it be discovered, as well it might, that the eruption and its consequences were wrought by human hand.” Just before reaching the tunnel’s entrance, Yuri completed the call to Flight Two. The Scar reflected upon another item, one he found pleasing. “Fate is indeed kind, Yuri. It shall not be merely America, nor even the other nations of the Atlantic Basin, who shall feel my vengeance. That band, which has so oft bedeviled me, perhaps along with the traitorous bitch and Bradson, are yet stranded at the resort. I wonder if they shall die in the initial volcanic blasts, or if perchance they will survive a few moments more to ride the land upon which they sit to the bottom of the sea?” Several tense minutes later, Yuri was able to pull into the indicated breakdown alcove, which was roughly at the tunnel’s midpoint. They both climbed out, and The Scar began looking around in haste, cursing the inadequate lighting provided by the tunnel’s emergency system, barely supplemented by the headlights of passing cars. “Yuri, we need a strong tie-down point. Check the walls, even the ceiling, for anything that we can tie the towrope to.” They looked, walking the hundred-foot length of the alcove. The Scar scanned the walls and roof, seeing no protrusions that they could use, and began to mutter under his breath, trying to think of a solution. It was Yuri who found it. “Sir, look, a drain grating. Will that do?” The Scar, slightly perturbed that Yuri had hit upon the solution first but too proud to show it, bent down to look. With his hand, he gave it a pull, and then noticed the bolts. “Yes, it appears to be firmly mounted. Well done, Yuri.” Working together, Yuri and The Scar hauled the four heavy wooden beams out of the van, laid them side by side to form a narrow platform, and then heaved the mattress on top of it. “That should suffice to cushion the drop,” said The Scar, as he cast a wary eye at a passing car. The eastbound traffic had eased, but what remained was enough to send a vehicle past the alcove once or twice a minute. Yuri attached the towrope to the bomb’s end and then to the heavy steel of the drain grating. The Scar stared at the beams and mattress for a few seconds, adjusted them slightly, and directed Yuri to ease the van forward slowly. The long cylinder, pulled by the towrope, inched out of the van, tipping one end onto the mattress. As the van continued to pull away, the forward end of the bomb clattered over the van’s bumper with a screech of metal, and then thudded onto the mattress. Yuri fished out the rucksack containing his demolition charges and timers, and quickly rigged the triggering charge on the bomb’s end, directly over its main driver charge. He mounted the charge with duct tape, checked it for tightness, and then attached the timer, which was little more than the workings from a digital watch. Yuri gave The Scar a nod. “How long?” “Ninety minutes should be ample, I would think,” The Scar replied. Yuri shuddered. Glancing at the passing eastbound traffic, he said, “Sir, with all due respect, that is cutting things close. We need to get our force moving, secure the airport, land Flight Two, and then load the bombs into it prior to takeoff. We have insufficient transportation: should one of the vehicles break down, we will need to tow it with the other or transfer a bomb. There is also the matter of the ash, which makes it slow-going on the roads. I would recommend no less than two hours on the timer.” Yuri would have preferred more but did not believe The Scar would agree to it. The Scar pondered for a moment, weighing the risks. Realizing that Yuri was right and putting success before his pride, he replied, “Then so shall it be, Yuri. Set the charge and we shall be on our way.” Yuri programmed the timer and hit its start button simultaneously with the timer stud on his own watch. D minus 2:00.00 It took Yuri less than a minute to toss the tarp over the bomb, pin it down with the bricks, and set out the road-hazard triangles between the bomb and the tunnel’s nearest lane. The Scar took a concerned glance, hoping that in the confusion of the evacuation, no one would bother with the covered, unmarked cylinder. Yuri walked past the van, heading for the driver’s seat, and noticed that the gap next to the side door was now even greater than before. That concerned him, but he knew there was no point in fretting about it. He hoped that shedding half their load would ease the strain enough. The Scar climbed into the van and Yuri pulled away, accelerating gently. The Scar glanced back at the covered bomb and smiled, picturing in his mind the havoc it would wreak. As they exited the east end of the tunnel, The Scar looked across the ash-shrouded landscape, seeing the devastation for the first time. As they slowly churned through the clogging ash, he reflected that Yuri had been right to allow an extra thirty minutes when setting the timer on the bomb. D minus 1:57:00 With AK-47s hastily concealed but within easy reach, Felecia’s force of mercenaries rode to the airport, churning through the ash, on the two fire trucks her men had previously liberated. As they neared the airport, Felecia sent a team, equipped with a set of short-range walkie-talkies, forward. She could see the C-130 of Flight Three, now dusted by a grey haze of ash, sitting on the flight line near the north end of the runway. A check with binoculars revealed no sign of opposition, but Felecia approached with care, moving her force by echelon, dismounted fire teams leapfrogging forward ahead of the trucks. Given the size of her force, she felt she had little choice. Their mission was to secure the C-130, fuel it, and get the fire trucks in position to wet down the ash on part of the runway. The additional mission of defending against an attack by The Scar’s troops was a complication, but one she felt she could deal with if she had to. It took fifteen minutes, but they secured a perimeter around Flight Three, and Felecia was able to bring in the fire trucks, positioning them by the sides of the plane. She detailed three men to each truck, ordering them to deploy hoses. She watched as this was done, noting with relief that her men had found a fire hydrant near the apron, close enough to the runway to use. The need for fire hydrants ­– the fire trucks’ internal tankage was insufficient to wet the ash over a broad area of runway – was something that had been overlooked until her arrival, and she breathed a sigh of relief when her men confirmed that the hydrant was still pressurized. A fast check of the C-130 revealed no additional booby-traps, and one of Felecia’s pilots confirmed that, as far as he could tell without starting the engines, that the aircraft appeared to be operational. The possibility of sabotage weighed heavy on Felecia’s mind, but she decided that there was little that she could do about it. Felecia checked her perimeter deployments, arrayed in an arc inland of Flight Three, and wished they were not lacking their heavy weapons. A brace of mortars and RPGs would have vastly strengthened her position, but those had been taken from the plane. That, Felecia knew, meant that The Scar’s henchmen heavily out-ranged her own firepower. Having done as much as she could, Felecia hunkered down to watch and wait. Ten minutes later, she received the news she’d been dreading as a sentry reported, “Troops approaching from the north, on the airport access road, seaward of the runway. Estimate twenty-plus men, on foot. AKs and RPGs.” The next bit of news was not quite so unwelcome. “They’re coming straight in, not keeping to cover.” Thinking that they were heading for her C-130, Felecia grinned. “Let’s arrange a welcoming committee. Shift our deployments, set up in two firing positions between the road and the plane. Use anything you can for cover and camouflage, and don’t forget to douse yourselves with ash. Nothing says ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ like a good old-fashioned ambush.” Then she added, just to be sure, “Those RPGs give ‘em a reach and firepower we can’t match so keep down, wait until the last possible second. If they spot us, open up, but otherwise let ‘em come on in, then make every round count.” Felecia’s plan was a sound one, but the flaw in it was that the Scar’s henchmen were not heading for Flight Three. They were going to the terminal building. Their orders were to seize it and then use it as a defensive position to cover the landing of Flight Two. A little too late, Felecia, watching through her field glasses, discerned the enemy’s objective, and along with it the failure of her ambush plan. Turning to her senior man present, a former Italian paratrooper, she said, “Let’s just keep our heads down and hope they don’t notice us until the others return. Then we’ll take ‘em out in a pincer movement.” That plan, like the other, did not last long. Once the Scar’s henchmen had secured the empty terminal, Yuri, over the phone, ordered them to deploy a few men to reconnoiter. Two of those men noticed the fire hoses snaking away through the ash, accompanied by fresh footprints, in the direction of Flight Two. There, they saw the newly arrived firetrucks. Yuri and The Scar were still two miles inland, driving through the ash, when they received the report. The Scar, realizing the weakness of his poorly trained force, ordered Lieutenant Survov, “Take defensive positions and hold in place. We’ll be there within minutes.” Turning to Yuri, The Scar said, “To the terminal, as fast as you can.” Apprehensive, mindful of the van’s overloaded condition, Yuri sped up, churning through the ash. After five tense minutes, he wheeled onto the airport approach road, and in the tunnel that passed under the runway’s north end, he found the truck, guarded by three henchmen. Yuri nodded approvingly: Survov had not risked the vehicle and its cargo by taking it into the unsecured airport. Yuri pulled past the truck, waving for it to follow, and drove towards the terminal. The cloud of ash kicked up by the van provided an unplanned benefit; it obscured the truck enough so that Felecia’s lookouts did not recognize it. Arriving at the terminal, The Scar and Yuri jumped out, and The Scar told Yuri, “I’ll handle that traitorous bitch. In case I cannot, prepare the bomb in the van for command detonation. We may need it for leverage.” Yuri was well aware that they already had one of the two bombs at the airport rigged. Nevertheless, he availed himself of his sapper’s kit. Within minutes, he had the nuclear warhead rigged to fire and reported that fact to The Scar. The Scar had made good use of the time. He’d sent Survov to break into the control tower, from where he had a commanding view. Survov hadn’t spotted Felecia’s troops easily, but their tracks in the ash, when seen from an elevated position, had given her away. As a result, he’d been able to tell The Scar of Felecia’s deployments and approximate strength. When Yuri arrived by his side, The Scar brought him up to date on the tactical situation and then checked his watch. “We have forty-five minutes. Keep Flight Two circling offshore for now. We outnumber and outgun the opposition and this is no time for finesse. Send the men forward, frontal assault. Tell them to avoid damaging the plane; Felecia will defend it as long as it is intact and that pins her in place, leaving us as the sole possessors of tactical mobility.” At Flight Three, Felecia watched with anger and dread as The Scar’s force began deploying for an attack, making no secret of their intent. Her force, redeployed between Flight Three and the terminal, using whatever cover availed. Knowing that she may never get another chance, Felecia checked in with General Bradson and told him of the situation. Felecia then summed up the situation succinctly with a muttered, “We’re fucked.” To her men, she shouted, “Let ‘em get close, then make every round count.” General Bradson, pacing in the pavilion, clutched at his phone and said, “Fel, get out of there. You can’t defend that plane.” “No option, Walter. It’s our only way out of here. You know what the authorities would do if they captured my men. It is also the only way to safety for my people, you, and the people with you. I think Frankenstein wants to seize it, not destroy it. We’re within his mortar range now; he’d have taken it out already if that’s what he intended.” A glance through her field glasses prompted Felecia to shout an order to her men, “Prepare to engage!” The order was suicidal; they were about to be pinned by a superior force, but Felecia could see no option. Fortunately, someone else could. “Fel, remember what we did to the Iranians, with the aircraft engines? Wet down the areas under the wings and forward of the wings, then give ‘em an ash storm, right in the teeth,” General Bradson said, thankful that he’d parked the aircraft facing north. Felecia snapped out the orders, putting the plan into effect, praying that they had enough time. While the ash was being wet down by the fire hoses, The Scar’s henchmen began to advance at a run, shooting their AK-47s from the hip for cover. Fighting back the urge to wince at such amateurish tactics, and thanking providence for the ignorance of her enemies, Felecia ordered the pilot, “Fire up the engines!” Felecia also muttered a prayer of thanks for the fact that the AK-47 rounds were unlikely to do serious damage to the aircraft. The hurricane force of the propwash tore at the ash covering the tarmac, sending a thick, choking cloud howling into the oncoming troops. As the ash cloud began to spread out, the sea breeze carried its seaward edge northward, back towards Flight Three, forcing Felecia to order the engines shut down in order to avoid fouling them. Seeing her chance, Felecia told her troops, “Sun Tzu once said, ‘On death’s ground, fight!’ This is death’s ground and I think old Sun Tzu needs a bit of an update, so I say: On Death’s Ground, attack and kick their fucking asses into the sea! Follow me!” Tearing towards the enemy, Felecia’s mercenaries had the element of surprise, combined with superior training and skill. Emerging from the billowing cloud of ash and falling upon the confused lead elements of the henchman’s stalled charge, Felecia’s force began, with practiced ease, to kill with single shots of aimed fire. Leaving ten dead or dying men behind, the henchmen retreated in panic, driven by the mercenaries’ onslaught, racing for the presumed safety of the terminal building. Yuri saw the rout in progress and knew that if Felecia’s force stormed into the terminal, the panicked henchmen would be easy pickings. He had to stop Felecia’s force before it reached the terminal. Yuri leaped forward, snatching up the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) that had been taken from Flight Three. Taking cover behind a planter, he flipped open the SAW’s bipod mount, flicked the selector to full auto, maximum rate of fire, and pulled the trigger, sending a hail of bullets tearing downrange at a rate of a thousand rounds per minute. Using the tracers – which were one bullet out of every four – to guide his fire, Yuri swept a fusillade of fire over the runway, just a few feet over the ash. Diving for cover, as were the rest of her force, Felecia knew she couldn’t charge a machine gun, and was well aware that she was still outnumbered and outgunned. “Pull back,” she ordered, while targeting Yuri’s position with her AK and laying down covering fire. Felecia’s hail of bullets forced Yuri to duck, but his job was done: he’d stopped the rout. Felecia and her troops pulled back to their original positions, and then said, “That hurt ‘em, but they’ll be back. We can’t count on ‘em coming in dumb again.” She did a fast nose count, relieved that all of her men had survived, though she could see that a few were bleeding from minor flesh wounds. She’d been damn lucky, and she knew it. The first battle for La Palma airport had been fought to a tactical draw. Looking towards the terminal, Felecia knew that all she’d done was buy her men a little time. D minus 00:31:00 In the terminal, The Scar glanced at his watch while Survov deployed his men in defensive positions within the building. The Scar snapped out a string of orders, sending ten men out to guard the truck and van. They were on the far side of the terminal from Flight Three, but The Scar was taking no chances with the bombs. It was apparent that the poorly trained henchmen were not up to the job of offensive operations, so The Scar walked out and crouched down by Yuri. “Thirty minutes remaining. Tell Flight Two to land, dead stick and short field, on the south end of the runway. The bitch would have to get through us to get at it. Put the vehicles into position and when Flight Two touches down, drive the van and truck into the cargo bay. We’re running out of time. We need to be ready to light the JATOs and take off when the volcano blows.” Yuri gave the order to Flight Two, and then said, “One problem. Felecia’s troops could get close enough to fire at the engines. If she only has AKs, their 7.62-millimeter rounds are less likely to do serious damage to the engines, but we don’t know what else she has. A few heavier rifles were with her when she took off from Somalia, and they were not aboard the plane when our men searched it here.” Yuri had no way of knowing, but those rifles, along with the men carrying them, had been lost in Iran. Yuri then added, “She may also have RPGs. I would suspect those weapons would have been in evidence during her attack if she had them, but we have no way to be sure.” Nodding, The Scar replied, “Indeed, but we too could fire at their engines. I think it is time to acknowledge that we have a standoff. We must all be pragmatic. They wish to leave and so do we. We do, after all, have what we came for. The traitorous bitch is at the north end of the runway and we will be at the southern end. We’ll deploy a line of men here, near the terminal; she’d need to attack and penetrate a defended position. I doubt that she will. Her goal will be the same as ours: leaving the island. She won’t risk an exchange of fire against the two aircraft; doing so would imperil her precious men.” Felecia, looking south with her field glasses, saw the approaching Flight Two, its propellers windmilling to a halt, on a steep final approach from the south. “So, that’s the bastard’s game,” she said. “Mexican standoff. Their plane is vulnerable and so’s ours, plus they have weapons that outrange us. I don’t see how the hell they think they can take off without wetting down the ash... crap, I see JATOs mounted... looks like seven per side.” What Felecia was seeing was a result of The Scar’s improvisation; he’d ordered the pilot to attach three extra JATO units per side, fixing them in place with steel straps and epoxy over the previously mounted four per side. The result was fourteen JATO bottles, in lieu of the standard eight units used for an assisted takeoff. Felecia wasn’t sure, but a quick call to General Bradson revealed exactly what that meant. She relayed the news to her men. “With that rig, he can take off without engines and do an air-start once off the ground and clear of the ash. That answers that. Much as I’d love to punch Frankenstein’s ticket, letting him and his goons go might be the best answer; gets ‘em out of our hair and leaves us a way out when our other people get here.” When Flight Two came to a halt, south of the terminal, Yuri had one of the henchmen drive the truck aboard while he followed in the van. Gritting his teeth, far from confident that the overloaded chassis would take the strain, Yuri circled around and lined up with the ramp, hitting the bottom of it at five miles per hour. As the van’s rear wheels reached the ramp, Yuri heard a deep, rising groan of protesting metal, coming from behind him. In desperation, he floored the accelerator. The van’s chassis gave way as Yuri approached the top of the ramp. In a shower of sparks, metal ground upon metal as the van’s chassis buckled at its midpoint. Only the added forward motion allowed it to slide into Flight Two’s cargo bay. Relieved, Yuri clambered out and checked his watch. Then, he thumbed the aircraft’s intercom and told the pilot, “Prepare for takeoff, northbound.” The pilot, who had heard the cacophonous noise of the van’s arrival, emerged from the cockpit, staring in horror at the two heavy vehicles in the cargo bay. He stuttered at The Scar, “S-sir, weight is critical for takeoff. With those vehicles aboard, we won’t clear the ground before the JATOs burn out and I have to start the engines. We’ll crash, sir. We have to remove the vehicles.” Nodding, The Scar replied, “I’ll take care of it personally.” The Scar walked aft, finding Survov shouting orders at the men. The Scar interrupted him by saying, “We have a weight issue and need to get the van and truck off the plane. We’ll need most of your men for this. Remove the warheads and lash them down by the side of the hold, then use the truck to shove the van out the back.” Survov gave the orders and watched as his men swarmed the van. He did not need to order caution; thanks to hearing Helen’s news conference on the radio, his men knew what the bombs were. It took ten minutes, but one after the other, the bombs were wrestled out and secured. Using the truck to shove the broken van down the cargo ramp proved to be an easier task. D minus 00:12:00 The Scar suddenly realized the implications of a northbound takeoff and countermanded Yuri’s order to the pilot. He then said to Yuri and Survov, “Have the men turn the plane. I do not wish to take off over the head of the traitorous bitch’s force or they might take potshots at us. With a southbound takeoff, the backblast from the JATOs will block her view with ash the instant they are lighted, giving us further cover.” Yuri and the pilot exchanged a worried glance; the plane was within two thousand feet of the south end of the runway, which was marginal for a JATO takeoff, even one with engines running. The pilot thought it over for a few seconds, and after an appraising glance down the runway, which confirmed there were no obstructions, decided that the enhanced JATOs would probably be enough, if he had a few hundred extra feet. Taking a deep breath, for he feared his employer’s temper, the pilot asked that the plane be moved northward five hundred feet. The Scar simply nodded and revised Survov’s orders. Survov used the truck to shove the van to the side of the runway, and then used the truck, aided by a few towropes taken from the van, to assist his men in pulling the aircraft northwards as instructed, and then turning it. The Scar turned to Yuri and asked, “I’d like to give that traitorous bitch a going-away present. It would have to be done the moment before we ignite the JATOs, otherwise we risk return fire. We can’t fire a mortar or RPG from inside the cargo bay, and she’s out of range of the latter. Have we nothing that can wreck their aircraft, or at least the engines, from this range?” Yuri paused thoughtfully, staring out across the ash at Flight Three, which was nearly a mile to the north. To The Scar’s intense displeasure, he replied, “Sorry, I can think of nothing that we could do in that timeframe. We could leave some men behind, but I doubt they would do our bidding.” Without a word, The Scar stalked down the ramp, intending to see if Survov had any ideas. Yuri made a fast survey of the cargo bay, making certain that the bombs, the spare JATO packs, and armaments boxes were secure, and then he ordered the pilot to run through the pre-flight checklist again. Looking down the cargo ramp, Yuri saw The Scar and Survov making their way up. Yuri could tell by the scowl on his employer’s ruined face that Survov had not come up with a plan for attacking Felecia’s plane. Yuri smiled as he told The Scar what had occurred to him. “Sir, I do not think we need to worry about Felecia. The backblast from our JATO rockets will kick up an enormous amount of ash, making it impossible for her to take off for at least several minutes. By that time, she will be trapped here by ash falling from the eruption. This runway is right next to the sea, and though the tsunami will be beginning on the far side of the island, the radio said this side of the island will be hit as well. She and her men will not survive.” The Scar, in a rare display of affection, clapped Yuri on the back and said, “You are quite right, Yuri! Thanks to your insight, we shall now enjoy our departure in full, sated in our knowledge that nothing here remains unavenged.” Glancing at his watch, Yuri’s eyes flew open and he said, “Three minutes!” Only he and The Scar knew what he meant. The Scar smiled and waved his hand dismissively. “We are in time, Yuri, by the skin of our teeth. The volcano will not affect us here, not immediately. Wait until it fills the sky to our west and the ash and debris cloud nears us. That will take several minutes. Tell the pilot to prepare for takeoff, but he is not to do so until I give the order.” The Scar was mindful that he’d need at least a few of his henchmen upon landing in Africa, and that leaving men outside after the eruption began would cause further disloyalty, perhaps including firing on the aircraft. Turning to face Survov, The Scar said, “Get your screening force aboard as soon as the volcano erupts, and raise the cargo bay door. The eruption will be occurring in about two minutes.” Noting Survov’s puzzled look, The Scar nodded towards Cumbre Vieja and said, “I have arranged for us the grandest show of all.” Survov, who had not known how many bombs had been retrieved from Iran, suddenly realized that there must have been a third. Glancing towards Cumbre Vieja, which all of a sudden seemed menacingly close, he blanched. “You have done well, Yuri,” The Scar said, leading the way into the cockpit and taking the seat next to the pilot, to whom he said, “Prepare for immediate takeoff, on my command.” Receiving the pilot’s acknowledging nod, indicating that all was ready, The Scar looked out the window to his right, which afforded him an excellent view of Cumbre Vieja. As Yuri buckled into the navigator’s seat, The Scar glanced at his watch and then gestured towards the volcano. “Let us now enjoy the glorious spectacle that I have wrought. Savor this moment, for there shall never be another like it.” Inside the Pavilion, Helen paced. “What’s taking Horst so long,” she asked rhetorically, and cast a concerned eye in Jane’s direction, amazed that the volatile woman appeared at least somewhat calm. General Bradson’s voice echoed down into the pavilion’s roof. “It’s a big green box truck, a livestock transport, with a smaller truck behind it, and it’s just passing through Las Indias, coming down the mountain. They’re here!” General Bradson scrambled down off the roof. Taking the AK-47 from Jon, he said, “When they pull in, I’ll fire a few rounds in the air. That’ll make ‘em deploy tactically, so any hostiles in the area won’t get the drop on ‘em. They’ll send a force here; Brian is with ‘em and he knows right where we are. They’ll cover us as we get on the trucks and get the hell out of here.” Keith wasn’t aware of doing so, but his smile grew when the General mentioned Brian’s name. Helen stood up and in a booming voice said, “They’ll be here in about ten minutes. Let’s get ready to blow this joint; gather up the food, water, and other supplies. This is it people, we’re on our way!” Helen gestured towards the mountain, where the trucks slowly advanced towards the resort that they would never reach. A relieved and joyous cheer went up, echoing off the pavilion’s walls. It was expression of profound relief, a feeling that was destined to last but three seconds more. In the tunnel, the nuclear warhead remained undisturbed. Yuri’s simple electronic timer functioned as planned. Reaching the designated time, the timer sent a small electrical charge to the terminal that normally connected it to its alarm. Instead, this tiny pulse closed a small relay, which in turn applied nine volts of power directly to the detonating cap within the small shaped demolition charge that Yuri had carefully positioned on the bombcase. D minus 00:00:00 Detonation. The white-hot jet of flame from the shaped charge lanced through the bombcase’s steel and into the pound of high explosives that served as the firing charge of the Iranian device. The results were nearly identical to what had occurred in Iran; the firing charge detonated, sending the driver and its half hemisphere of uranium surging towards its target, accelerating through four hundred miles an hour in the hard vacuum of the seven-foot long tube. Functioning as it had been designed to do, the nuclear device generated a yield of twenty-one kilotons. The overwhelming majority of that power was still contained within the bombcase, though that would change in less than the blink of an eye. The tunnel alcove itself, along with the adjoining areas of the tunnel and an unfortunate passing car, began to glow an unearthly blue as the gamma rays from the fissioning core lashed out, attacking the atomic bonds of everything in their path. The car flashed white and then dissolved under the irresistible onslaught of gamma and x-ray radiation. Heat and pressure, rivaling that at the core of the sun, lashed out with a power beyond the ability of mere matter to contain. Confined by the inertia of the surrounding rock, the immense force of the nuclear detonation – equivalent to a block of high explosive with the mass of a medium-sized ocean liner – lashed out. Within a fraction of a second, a massive cavity, over seven hundred feet across, was created within the northern flank of Cumbre Vieja. The hot plasma from the core of the nuclear blaze surged through the tunnel, emerging from each end as a column of actinic light and radioactive gas. Though intense, it shone only briefly, before the expanding fireball within the mountain collapsed the tunnel forever. The shock of the sudden displacement of the huge volume of rock radiated out in all directions, its intense power shattering the ground. This seismic pulse, very much akin to an earthquake, shot out in all directions, lashing at the very core of Cumbre Vieja. It was enough. Nature responded to the fury of man with a far greater fury of her own. Titanic forces, now awakened, rent the volcanic mountain. The eruption was underway. Responding to the seismic shock, the western flank of Cumbre Vieja began to move, slowly at first. Driven in part by the seismic pulse, the 1949 fissure gaped open, prying apart from north to south as if torn asunder by the finger of God, tearing the ground apart for the full length of Cumbre Vieja’s fissure system in under fifteen seconds, laying open the very core of the volcano. The superheated water, under intense pressure and accompanied by the gaseous magma, surged upwards and outwards, racing for the first opening it could find, blasting into the rift, erupting as a seething curtain of ash and fire ten miles long. At the resort, there was no warning. In the pavilion, the happy news of the approaching livestock transport and its promise of safety was instantly forgotten as the ground began to heave, and a deep and growing roar from the ground suffused the air. From his vantage point near the pool, Eric clutched Jansen’s hand and glanced uphill, past the roof of the pavilion, at the volcano, seeing the first blast-clouds climbing into the sky. “It’s erupting,” he said, as the earth continued to dance. A second ground shock, different from the first, slammed into the resort, sending the few people standing tumbling or grabbing for support. The waters of the pool surged out, smashing over the south end of the pool as a wave three feet deep, and had anyone been in its way they would have been carried along with it as it smashed into the pavilion’s southern wall. The intense shaking eased, only to be replaced by a lurch and a sickening lightness, which several instantly likened to the beginning of the decent of a high-speed elevator. “Hang on,” Helen yelled, knowing that it was probably already too late. As the building began to tear itself apart around them, the desperate party felt the continuing sense of downward motion. “We’re dropping.” Eric said with fear in his voice, as he turned his head to look behind him at the sea and saw the climbing horizon. The resort, along with the entire western flank of Cumbre Vieja, was descending. As the massive area of land slid downwards, the growing, deepening fissure along the volcano’s crest intruded upon the uppermost magma chamber. Reacting like champagne that had had its cork removed too quickly, the gasses within the magma drove it outwards, creating a massive volcanic blast, much as they had at Mount Saint Helens, decades before, as its landslide had begun. The Saint Helens blast had scoured the land down to bedrock five miles away. Cumbre Vieja’s fury was seven times greater still. The vulcanologists’ instruments, embedded on Cumbre Vieja’s flanks, dispassionately reported that the massive block of land, as feared, was on the move, slipping into the sea. The data, transmitted out via a continuous satellite link, spoke clearly to a waiting world: there could be no remaining doubt, the lateral collapse was underway. All around the Atlantic Basin, sirens began to wail, their plaintive, dreaded tone spreading the news: the tsunami was on its way. No force on Earth could stay it from its course. Wracked by continual ground shocks and sinking towards the sea, the resort began to disintegrate: its pools sloshing over, their basins shattering, pavement heaving up, fissures opening, and buildings crumbling. Eric and Jansen, like everyone in the pavilion, were scrambling for what little purchase they could find. No one was in a position to look to their north. Had they done so, they would have beheld a terrifying sight: the blast front from Cumbre Vieja, a mix of rock and searing ash, traveling at supersonic speeds, racing ever closer, sweeping across the landscape like the hand of Death incarnate, obliterating everything in its path. Nor would it have mattered had they seen it; the resort, and the land around it for miles in every direction, had begun its inexorable journey to the bottom of the sea. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  22. Chapter 46: Out of the Frying Pan... On board Flight Two, The Scar watched with exuberant pride and delight as the western horizon filled with ash and fire. “We have done it, Yuri,” he said in a triumphant tone, “Prepare for takeoff. The high-altitude portion of the ash cloud will be overhead first, in about a minute from the look of it. As soon as it obscures us from satellite observation, we can leave in a blaze of glory.” Survov ordered his screening force of five men to run for the plane, but no sooner had he done so than the ground shocks began to intensify. The plane began to tremble and lurch, as if encountering light turbulence. The C-130 could easily withstand the shaking, but other effects were another matter entirely. The earthquake, generated by both the bomb and the eruption, was at that distance the equivalent of a magnitude four. That was ample to shake the ash from thousands of places: trees, roofs, bushes, and the trembling ground itself. Within seconds, a pall of ash rose into the air, forming a shallow layer akin to ground fog. The Scar stared out in horror, stunned to see his plan go so quickly awry. He waited too long before saying, “Take off immediately!” The pilot’s agitated voice filled the cockpit. “Sir, I can’t take off in that. The JATOs will barely get us off the ground and if I air-start the engines in airborne ash, I’ll wreck them and we’ll crash. We’ve got to wait until it clears.” The Scar looked southwards, trying to estimate the depth of the ash cloud and weigh their chances. At that moment, the air shock from Cumbre Vieja arrived as a sudden gust of hot wind, sweeping up even more ash and blotting out the sky altogether. Felecia had been looking south when a flash of light to her right had caused her to turn, and she had watched in horror as Cumbre Vieja’s eruption began. After watching for thirty seconds, until her view was obscured by the local ash cloud, she phoned General Bradson, hoping for a miracle. There was no answer. As the wind began to blow and the dust became choking, Felecia ordered her men into Flight Three for cover. Once she herself was inside and the door was closed, Felecia clicked on a radio and heard the dreaded bulletin, reporting that the western flank’s lateral collapse had occurred. Felecia sagged down, pain in her heart, for she knew that meant that Walter Bradson and everyone with him, and probably Horst and his force as well, were gone. Felecia didn’t let herself grieve. Forcing herself to set her own feelings aside, she concentrated on her responsibility to her men. Putting on a blank expression, she straightened her back and said, “We can’t take off until the air clears. When it does, we’ll man the fire trucks and prepare to take off. We’re stuck here for now, and so is Frankenstein.” Felecia was aware that the airport could soon be destroyed by a tsunami, but she reasoned that there was no time to escape on foot and thus no point in worrying her men. Several of her troops were aware of the peril and remained stoically silent, having reached the same conclusion. Cumbre Vieja’s massive, roiling volcanic plume, at its base over ten miles across, was seething upwards, blasted into the stratosphere by the intense eruption. At high altitude, the prevailing westerly winds took over, pushing the massive column eastward, blotting out the sun. At the airport, the sunlight filtering through the ash cloud began to dim. Within two minutes, it was darker than the darkest night. Shortly thereafter, a fine rain of pumice and ash began. Sitting in the darkness, listening to the soft rustling of the pumice against the fuselage, Felecia sat down, fighting back the grief. The sound of her phone ringing made her jump. Putting it to her ear, not daring to hope, she said, “Hello?” “We’re still kicking and Horst’s rescue party is in sight,” General Bradson said. “I never thought I’d hear your voice again. How... Walter, the radio said that your whole area had dropped into the sea,” Felecia said. In the grandest of ironies, they – and countless others around the Atlantic basin – had been saved by The Scar’s malicious act. Cumbre Vieja’s eruption had been less than an hour away when the nuclear warhead detonated. That eruption, had it occurred naturally, would have triggered the feared fast lateral collapse. The nuclear blast had caused the eruption, but in so doing had changed the dynamics. Instead of a simultaneous release and phreatic eruption all along the 1949 fissure, the ground shock and pressure pulse from the atomic blast had triggered the north end first. Seeking the path of least resistance, the main force of the eruption, along with the pressure from the superheated water, had exploded from the northern segment of the rift, causing the supersonic blast front that had raced down the volcano’s slopes to the sea, north of the resort. As a result, there had not been quite enough pressure to lubricate the slide, and it had slid unevenly – slipping more in the north than the south – before trembling to a temporary pause. The land slippage had caused a tsunami, radiating out in all directions from a focal point two miles offshore. Far smaller than the one that had been forecast, it would race across the Atlantic, diminished further by distance, and hit the eastern coast of North America at a height nowhere greater than four feet; nothing more than a breaker on the beach that would barely be discernable from the others. For the world outside of La Palma, the danger was past. The eruption itself still raged, and would for another twelve hours. Great fountains of lava grew along the rift, sending their glowing torrents flowing towards the sea. North of the resort, the land devastated by the full force of the lateral volcanic blast was already being covered by an advancing flood of molten lava. The main focus of the eruption was near what had once been the northernmost of its string of craters, now replaced by a roiling caldera nearly a mile across. Farther south, the rift had become a curtain of fire, though this was releasing a lesser volume of lava than the main caldera. As a result, the flows of lava south of the resort would take longer to reach the sea, as would the lava destined to destroy the resort itself, two hours after the eruption began. “If we were under water, I think we’d have noticed by now,” the General said in a failed attempt at humor. “I’ve got no idea, Fel. Maybe other areas slid. We did a little; we dropped maybe sixty feet down, then stopped, but I have no idea for how long,” the General said, looking west across the pavilion’s pool at the sea beyond. The massive slide would continue, but in what the vulcanologists called a Reunion-style collapse, named after the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion. There, a lateral collapse had been underway for over a century, causing the southeastern part of the island to slump into the sea at an average rate of several feet a year. A similar slow collapse, thousands of years before, had created La Palma’s seven mile wide Caldera de Taburiente. The western flank of Cumbre Vieja was on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic, but it would take several centuries to complete the journey. The slippage would not be consistent, instead occurring in fits and starts, every eruption and every earthquake causing it to slip further, up to twenty feet at a time. What had once been over a hundred-foot drop to the water was now less than half that. Looking farther out to sea, the General saw a long, massive swell, racing towards them far faster than he’d ever seen a wave move. Ignoring his phone, he yelled, “Tsunami, grab hold and hang on!” The warning came too late to be of use. The tsunami surging towards the shore was in deep water, preventing it from building much in height but preserving much of its speed and force. Forming into an enormous forty-foot breaker, it slammed into the fifty-foot sea cliff at over a hundred miles an hour. The massive force of the impact shook the ground as the water took the path of least resistance and exploded into the air, sending gouts of seawater two hundred feet into the sky. The wave began to recede, and several portions of the cliff face fell into the roiling sea. Ducking as the sheets of saltwater spray lashed down, the General remembered that tsunamis often come in multiple waves. Fearing a bigger one might be on the way, he yelled, “Let’s go, inland and uphill, as fast as we can!” The General led the way, AK-47 at the ready. Watching as Instinct and the rest of the wedding party stumbled out of the damaged pavilion, General Bradson told Felecia, “We just had a tsunami, but we’re okay. We’re moving inland in case there’s more. We’ll link up with Horst and I’ll call you back in a few minutes.” The General’s caution was unneeded; the tsunami, caused by the rapid drop of the huge area of land and seafloor, had been just a single wave. Helen yelled, “Grab the sheets, food, water, and clothes, in that order. We’ve got to move, fast!” Horst’s force had ridden out the ground shocks in the trucks. The first tremors had brought them to a halt nearly a mile of switchback road from the resort. A few small debris slides blocked the road downhill, blocking their route to the resort. Horst decided, after a glance uphill at the eruption, that there wasn’t time to clear them. The road uphill appeared clear of debris as far as Horst could see, so he jumped out and ordered, “Ten men, with me. The rest stand guard and get the vehicles turned around.” Ten men joined up with Horst, and Brian dashed to follow, receiving a nod of agreement from Horst. Horst and Brian, along with the ten troops racing along behind, sprinted downhill towards the resort. Brian pulled ahead and rounded the final curve thirty seconds later, giving him a view of the parking lot. There, he could see a line of people coming out of the resort, heading up the road towards him. By the time Brian approached the first of the evacuees, he recognized his father, who looked a bit harried, heading up the column. The General was about to shout a warning but held off for a moment, as Horst arrived at a run. “Horst, we’ve got hostiles in the area; your former employer and at least a few men.” Horst spun on his heel and yelled to his men, “Flanking positions; advance by echelon and cover the evacuees. Hostiles in the area.” Brian, his gun at the ready, jogged downhill, intending to cover the rear. He saw Eric and Jansen, walking along with Keith, at the rear of the column. Brian let out a sigh of relief at the sight of Keith and the others, but remained focused on his mission. Skidding to a halt halfway between Helen and Barbra, Brian asked, “Anybody still back there?” Helen shook her head. “I don’t think so. As far as I know, our group was the last at the resort. There’s nobody left at the pavilion; I was the last out. We had a tsunami and there might be more on the way, so we’ve got to get to high ground as fast as we can.” Brian nodded. “Yeah, we saw the wave. You’re about a thousand yards from the trucks. The guys were turning them around ready when I left. We should be okay when we reach ‘em, that’s about two hundred feet higher than we are here. Helen grunted. “The more, the better as far as I’m concerned.” Then, she looked uphill, at the massive, roiling column of fire and ash, shot through by lightning, which was boiling up from the crest of Cumbre Vieja and added, “Maybe not too far uphill. That looks bad.” The massive wall of ash, rising into the blue sky and lit by frequent bolts to lightning, towered to their west, the ash pushed east, away from the resort, by the prevailing winds. Eric spotted a sheet of tin in a roadside debris fall, the remains of what had once been the roof of someone’s garden shed. Breaking into a sprint, with Jansen close behind, Eric raced for it, and then yanked it free. “Find some mud,” he said to Jansen. Within a few moments, Eric had a handful of black mud, scooped from a roadside drainage ditch. Using it on the sheet of tin, he spelled out, in rough letters, ‘Jim Airport’. Hoping that it would do, he leaned it against a tree by the side of the road, facing uphill. Eric had no idea where Jim was, or if he’d try to return to the resort, but felt there was no reason not to leave a sign, just in case. As they resumed walking, Jansen heard Eric say, as though to himself, “I got him into this.” When they reached the two trucks, Helen and the General herded the rest of the people from the pavilion into the livestock transport. Helen and General Bradson jumped into the tow truck, where Brian was already behind the wheel. Horst came to the window and told the General, “Sir, we saw the blast cloud going downhill to the north. I doubt that route is still passable. We arrived here via the south. I favor using that as our escape route. I do not think that we have an option.” General Bradson nodded. After exchanging a glance with Helen and seeing no objection, he told Brian, “Back the way you came.” As they pulled away, Helen asked, “Still no news of Jim, Linda, and the Private?” Shaking his head, the General gave voice to his concerns. “No, and I’m worried they may have run into Jerry Clump’s men. According to Felecia, they loaded something into Flight Two, and one of the vehicles used looks a hell of a lot like the truck Jim was driving. Now, I have to ask, does Jim know where the other two bombs are?” Feeling herself shudder inside, Helen replied, “Yes. He helped move them.” “Oh, shit,” Brian said quietly. “Jim had his wife with him, Helen. A man would do most anything to save his wife if there was a gun to her head...” General Bradson let his voice trail off. A moment of stunned silence followed, and the General added, “We need to check on them, to make sure.” Conflicting emotions tore at Helen; fear for Jim and Linda, and her reluctance to trust the General and Brian to act in Instinct’s interests. Sighing, Helen said, “Maybe you’re right. However, those bombs are my only means of clearing the band’s name. I want your word, both of you, that you will not turn the bombs over to the U.S. government, or anyone else, without my say-so. Otherwise, the answer is no.” General Bradson considered that for a moment and then replied, “I can agree to that. Believe me, I understand all too well about the need to clear one’s name. You have my word. However, Brian is a serving U.S. Marine and his oath would conflict with what you’re asking. Brian, you’re bailing out and going with Horst for a while. What’s the route south of here?” “From Las Indias, head towards southbound LP-1, then south to Las Canarios. Just keep following the main highway as it bends northeast towards the airport, and take it all the way there,” Brian said. “Helen, are the bombs far from Las Indias on that route?” General Bradson asked. Taking a deep breath, Helen replied, “Not far. It won’t take us long.” As they reached Las Indias, the tow truck stopped. Brian ran to the following livestock transport and climbed in, and a few moments later, Horst swung past the tow truck, giving Helen and the General a wave. Helen, in the driver’s seat, waited for them to pull out of sight, and then drove off. “We’re almost there. It’s here in the village, a self-serve storage unit. It uses keycards and the power is out, so we might have a problem getting in.” General Bradson looked out of the rear window, at the tow truck’s large flat bed and winch system. “I didn’t want to tell Brian and put him in a conflict of interest, but I suggest we take a bomb with us, maybe both. This area might not be standing much longer, and those bombs are your... our only leverage. I’d also like them safe, in case the area is looted. I think I can winch one of them onto the bed of the tow truck.” As they neared the storage complex, Helen was about to reply when she saw the wrecked gate. Fearing what she’d find, she raced through, and pulled into the back, next to unit twenty. She noticed that General Bradson had his gun out, and wished that she had one of her own. “That one,” she said, flicking her thumb at the unit. General Bradson jumped out and looked at the door, seeing the dented bottom, where the pry bar had been used. “It’s been forced,” he said, and stooped down to lift. With a heave, he hauled the door up and stared into the dark interior. Helen, arriving at the General’s side, said, “That police car sure as hell wasn’t here. The bombs are gone... Wait, there’s somebody in it.” “Stay back,” General Bradson said, squeezing forward between the car and the unit’s wall. A few moments later, he stepped back out of the unit and lowered the door. “There are four bodies in it, dead from head shots.” “Jim, Linda...” Helen asked, fearing the worst. “No, no one we know. From the look of ‘em, my guess is they are either Clump’s henchmen, killed to keep them silent, or just some people who got in the way. Looks to me like Clump has the bombs, at least two. We need to find out about the third, but we’ll talk on the way to the airport. Come on.” They climbed into the tow truck, General Bradson taking the driver’s seat. As they maneuvered their way out of the storage complex, General Bradson asked Helen, “Is there any way Clump could have known where to look without taking Jim?” Helen thought for a few moments before answering, “Only myself, Jim, Jon, Brandon, and Chase knew where they were. I doubt the boys would have told anyone, but I’ll ask when I can. I didn’t tell a soul. Jim paid cash for the unit, under a false name, and we were careful.” The General thought he knew the answer. “What you didn’t count on, because you couldn’t know, was Clump and his goons being in the area. Is there any way they could have seen you moving the bombs and followed?” Kicking herself for not taking more precautions, Helen nodded, “I can’t rule that out. If they were in the area of the complex, it wouldn’t have been hard. In a way, I’d like to think that’s what happened, because then Jim, Linda, and the Private might still be okay.” Trying to think it all through, General Bradson pulled out of the complex and took the road towards the highway, saying, “Those bodies looked fresh, so that means he probably moved the bombs within the last twelve hours. Why would he delay if he’d seen you put them in... unless he needed to wait for a heavy vehicle, so he could move ‘em. Okay, I’d say that’s the best theory we have. The problem is, it means Clump is sitting on the runway with two atomic bombs, or he might have one and have hidden the other. Helen, he has to be stopped. I’ve got to call Fel and have her disable that plane somehow.” Without waiting for an answer, the General made the call. As he told Felecia what he knew, and what he thought, Helen worried silently about Jim and Linda's fate. Then, the General listened as Felecia explained the airport situation. “Okay, Fel, sit tight, but if it looks like he might get away, stop him if you can.” Ending the call, the General told Helen, “He’s stuck for now. It’s raining ash and pumice there; he can’t take off. I’d like to get the rest of Fel’s troops back to her before we try anything. In fact, we might be able to take ‘em by surprise.” “I don’t want my boys or the people in the wedding party anywhere near Jerry, his goons, or those bombs,” Helen said flatly. “When we get within a couple of miles, we’ll change vehicles. Horst and his men can ride on the back of this truck the rest of the way. You head for the hotel Felecia and her men were staying at. That should be far enough away, and not downwind, if the worst happens,” General Bradson replied, and Helen shuddered, knowing that in this case, ‘the worst’ meant a nuclear explosion. Seeing the livestock transport approaching from the opposite direction, retracing its route, General Bradson said, “Uh oh, this probably isn’t good.” The two vehicles pulled to a halt, and General Bradson, with Helen by his side, walked over to Horst, who said, “We have a problem, Herr General.” Pulling out a map, Horst said, “The main highway cuts across the southern tip of the island here, at Las Canarios. From there it runs northeast, towards the airport. That was our route. We approached within a mile but stopped and turned around when we saw the lava. It appears that the curtain of fire runs directly through Las Canarios. I think this is the issue here,” Horst pointed to a volcanic cinder cone three quarters of a mile south of the village, and then at another, half a mile farther south. “These two cones,” he pointed to Volcan San Antonio and Teneguia on the map, “are the southernmost cones of the long volcanic ridge making up Cumbre Vieja. From what we could see, the erupting fissure extends as far as the southernmost cone,” he tapped at Teneguia. “That – and what we saw confirmed it – means the route we came is blocked by lava and the erupting fissure. The only way that I can see is to go downhill and take the coastal road,” Horst’s finger traced LP-130 southwards, then around the tip of the island, “south and hopefully around the south end of the fissure. From there, we can work our way northeast and rejoin the highway.” The General took the map, and after studying it for a while, turned to Helen to say, “It’s risky. That coastal road is small and narrower, so would be more easily blocked by collapsed buildings, walls, and the like. It’s also close to the sea, putting us at risk for another tsunami. I think the original danger has passed, but more quakes or earth slippages could trigger another. However, this route appears to be the only way out. I don’t think we have any other choice.” “Looks like our best chance. Let’s go,” Helen said, looking uphill at massive ash clouds billowing into the sky. The news was passed to the people in the livestock hauler, and the two vehicles, with the tow truck in the lead, began the drive. At the press center on La Palma’s northwest coast, the eruption had caused little direct effect. It was well to their south, and the prevailing winds were from the west, so they had even been spared the ashfall. The frantic activity of reporters scurrying to get their stories out proved an unneeded distraction for one newsman, Phil Breslin, the reporter with whom Helen had shared the recording of her conversation with the Deputy Undersecretary, Mr. Graeme. Phil was working furiously on his story, with visions of Pulitzers never far from the forefront of his thoughts. He wondered if Helen and Instinct had survived the eruption, and decided to call, as soon as he could pry a phone from the hands of a fellow reporter. He hoped that would be soon, but in the meantime, he had a story to finish writing. In the back of the livestock transport, Jane reached for another valium. Seeing the risk, Jon took her hand and said, “Hold off on those. You don’t want to take too much of that stuff. We’re going to be okay, I know we are. I’ll stay with you.” Jon held his mother’s hand and smiled with a reassurance he did not feel. Jane battled her inner fears, but the remaining valium in her system, along with Jon’s comforting presence, was just barely enough for her to keep the panic at bay. Eric, Jansen, Keith, Brian, Brandon, and Chase sat together in a rear corner, every inch of the drive seeming to take forever. Keith, who had never been to the airport, asked Brian, “Do you think we’ll be able to take off with all this ash?” Brian thought for a few moments, and then replied quietly, “We’re planning to wet down the runway with some fire trucks we took. The trouble is, that won’t work if ash is falling, because it’ll still be in the air and wreck the engines. We might have to wait until the eruption tapers off or the wind shifts.” Brian lowered his voice even further. “Anyway, that’s not our biggest problem. Jerry Clump has a plane there, in the middle of the runway near the terminal, which amongst other things blocks our plane in. Felecia’s in kind of a standoff with him. There’s also a chance he might have a nuclear bomb. Felecia thinks she saw that truck your friend Jim was driving, and Clump’s goons had it.” That bit of news shocked everyone within earshot. Eric felt his gut clench. That, he thought, would explain Jim’s disappearance. Driven by hope born of guilt, Eric would not consider the possibility that Jim and Linda were dead. Instead, on a deeply subconscious level, he chose to believe they had been captured. A few half-hearted attempts to make conversation began and faded as they watched the passing landscape through the vehicle’s slatted sides. Five times in half as many miles they had to stop while Horst’s men cleared debris falls, twice with the aid of the tow truck’s winch. Rounding a curve, they encountered a new sight; the road ahead, for over a hundred yards, looked as if it had been covered by a flood of wet concrete. On the road, it was over two feet thick in places, and still steaming. General Bradson and Helen got out to test it, finding it relatively firm, like hard-packed gravel, and hot to the touch, though no hotter than asphalt on a hot summer’s day. What they did not know was that several inches down, the pyroclastic debris retained much of their original six-hundred degree heat. Looking upslope, the General said to Helen, “I think this was an ash flow. Basically, an avalanche of hot ash. We’re in danger from those as long as we’re down slope from the eruption.” Helen shuddered at the news of yet another danger. Nodding once, she got back into the tow truck. General Bradson crossed the remains of the flow at twenty miles an hour, relying on momentum to keep from getting bogged down. Arriving safely on the far side, having found the dense material little different to driving on a dirt road, he waved for the truck to follow. The Livestock transport roared across, it too saved by its speed. Had they driven slowly and had a tire penetrate a few inches into the debris, it would have been destroyed by the heat, of which they were unaware. By pressing on, working as fast as they could to deal with the obstacles, within three quarters of an hour they were just over a mile from the southernmost tip of La Palma, driving through the banana plantations half a mile south of Teneguia cinder cone. Twice they encountered fissuring that had buckled the road, but careful maneuvering allowed them to drive over it. Looking upslope, they could see the southernmost end of the active volcanic fissure, a third of a mile to their north. It was the road ahead that caused them to stop; it was obscured by billowing black smoke, coming from the banana field in the inland side. Another glance uphill revealed a streak of dull red and back, which allowed General Bradson to figure it out first. “There’s lava in the banana grove, heading for the sea. That means the road will probably be cut soon, if it isn’t already. It’s now or never.” Waving for Horst to follow, General Bradson nosed the tow truck into the thick, hot smoke. Shutting off the tow truck’s vents only slowed the choking fumes, and the smoke was thick enough that they could only see a few yards ahead. Driving as fast as he dared, General Bradson felt the temperature rise. The first flicker of flames to their left, combined with an odor of sulfur, told him they might already be too late. Pushing on, the smoke and heat grew worse, causing the people in the livestock transport to cough and choke. Glancing fifteen feet to his left, the General saw a low pile of black rubble, which reminded him of barbecue coals: a red glow from the interior escaping between the jumbled pieces. The heat, even through the window glass, was enough to make him raise his arm to shield his face. The unexpected glare of sunlight made the General and Helen blink, and the General looked ahead. “I think that’s it, we’re past the flow now and passing east of the fissure. I think we’re through the worst of it.” They had made it through barely in time; ten minutes later, the lava blocked the road. Helen glanced back at the livestock transport. “I hope so. I thought we’d all cook. However, soon we’ll be in that,” she said, pointing at the billowing clouds of venting ash. From her vantage point south of Cumbre Vieja’s north-south rift, she could see the ash cloud’s southern edge, paralleling their course. “We’ll be in it in a mile or so, when we bend back northwards. Stop just short of it. The slatted sides of the livestock truck will let the ash in and we have to get everyone prepared. Wait until we’re just short of the ash cloud to stop; I want to put some distance between us and the eruption.” Ten minutes later, past the southern tip of the island and heading northeast, General Bradson pulled to a halt. He and Helen, joined by Horst, got out, and listened as Horst’s men gave the civilians under their care what tips they could for surviving in the ash. There really wasn’t much that could be done, except for breathing through whatever cloth was available, and trying to keep the ash out of their eyes. Jon saw his band mates and some of the crew tearing up the bed sheets that Helen had ordered them to grab when they left the resort, and then handing out the strips, along with towels. He knew he should help, but his mother’s death grip on his hand kept him in place. He hesitated, and then, seeing that his help might be useful, told his mother, “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I won’t even leave the truck, okay?” “I don’t want to be alone. Please, stay with me,” Jane said, her voice thick with panic. François, who had just finished helping some of the civilians cover their faces with the strips of cloth, sat down beside Jane and said in a formal, convivial tone, “Fear not, dear lady; you are not alone, for I will stay with you.” Helen chewed on her lip, trying to decide whether to share the news of the two missing bombs, and the possible news about Jim, with Instinct. She was unaware that Brian had already shared Felecia’s report about the truck. Helen decided against telling them right away, thinking that they didn’t have time, didn’t know for sure about Jim and Linda, and that her boys had enough to worry about at the moment. ‘I’ll tell them when we reach the hotel,’ Helen thought. The unusual seismic signature that had immediately preceded Cumbre Vieja’s eruption was first noticed by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which was one of many sites receiving live feeds from La Palma’s seismograph net, which showed clear characteristics of a shallow underground nuclear explosion. Explosions tend to blast outwards in all directions evenly, producing a strong compression wave. Earthquakes, on the other hand, are produced by rocks sliding against each other along a fault line, yielding strong shear waves and a gradual increase, lasting for several seconds, in the intensity of the seismic signal. If the seismic signal has a near-instantaneous beginning and then tapers down in a linear profile, it indicates that the event was a nuclear explosion. The sensitivity of seismic monitoring depends on how close to the blast epicenter the seismographs are located. Due to the volcanic activity, there were several seismographs on La Palma, which gave a very clear dataset. A few quick glances at the clear signal showed the unmistakable characteristics of a nuclear blast. The remote feeds from La Palma’s seismograph net allowed the epicenter to be triangulated to within one hundred yards. Less than an hour after the blast, its characteristics had been confirmed by five geological laboratories, and its position had been fixed near the center of the La Palma highway tunnel. The proof was not yet definitive; it would require radionuclide-bearing air samples for certitude, but what they had was judged to be more than good enough. News of such magnitude, when known by so many people, cannot long remain secret. In this case, the reports were burning up the news wire services fifteen minutes after the seismic signature had been recognized. The word was out; the Cumbre Vieja disaster, as it was now called, had been caused by a nuclear warhead. Deputy Undersecretary Broderick Worthington Graeme IV received the news that a nuclear explosion had caused the disaster with cold, unbridled delight. Alone in his State Department office, he stared at the printed report and thought, ‘I’ve got them now. They, by their own admission, had all the bombs, and so it must have been one of theirs that was used to trigger this calamity. I can certainly make the case that they are attempting to extort money via this heinous act.’ Lifting his phone, the Deputy Undersecretary called the Department of Justice and gave them his version of events. He then proceeded to order the DOJ to issue warrants for Helen and Instinct. The Deputy Undersecretary had no authority to issue such orders, but the Department of Justice complied. The DOJ had no wish to offend the officials they knew to be behind the Deputy Undersecretary, but that point was, in their judgment, moot; based on what they had been given, a monstrous crime had been committed, and that was more than sufficient for arrest warrants to be issued. Within the hour, the members of Instinct and Helen joined General Bradson on the FBI’s most-wanted list. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  23. C James


    Chapter 43: Nemesis Jansen raced past the lobby, into the main pool area, and called out Eric’s name. Jansen kept running, only barely able to hear a distant reply, “Over here.” Smiling with relief, Jansen turned towards the sound of Eric’s voice. Jansen raced up, and found Eric sitting in a lounge chair, cradling the tequila bottle. “I dropped it in the pool and all the tequila was gone before I got it out,” Eric said, in a slightly downcast voice. Standing at the foot of Eric’s lounger, Jansen chuckled. “That’s alcohol abuse, dude. So, you feeling okay?” Eric nodded, looking up at Jansen, who was backlit by the first tint of dawn in the eastern sky. With a smile, Eric said, “I’m better now you’re here.” There was one other thing about Jansen that Eric took note of; the dancer was between him and the pool. Perfect. Eric leaped out of the lounger and raced towards Jansen, snaring him in his arms and sending them both hurling into the dark waters of the pool. Jansen surfaced, only to be on the receiving end of Eric’s furious splash attack. Relieved that Eric appeared to be just in a playful mood, Jansen ducked away, laughing. After taking a deep breath, he dove beneath the dark waters, circled back, and counterattacked with a water barrage of his own. In the twilight of dawn, the two lovers laughed and played, their peril and concerns temporarily forgotten. Entering the restaurant with his flashlight, finding it deserted, Keith heard the clatter of a pan coming from the kitchen. ‘Eric, gotta be,’ he thought, and darted through the metal swinging door. There, he found himself face to face with four men in the candlelit kitchen. Looking up from the omelet he was preparing, The Scar stared at Keith for a moment, and decided that the teen posed no danger. “What brings you here, young man?” The Scar asked, as he flipped the omelet in the pan. Keith stared for a moment at The Scar, seeing a one-armed, horrifically disfigured man. Then, he flicked the light a few feet to his right, where three large men stood at the ready, the omelets that they’d been eating temporarily forgotten. Feeling ill at ease, and suddenly all too well aware that he was alone, outnumbered, and in a blacked-out building, Keith replied hesitantly as he began to back out the door, “I just smelled the cooking and I was hungry. I thought some of my friends might be in here, so I came in to look. Sorry to bother you.” The mention of friends caught The Scar’s attention. Seeing a possible source of information, The Scar said in a friendly, jovial tone, “No problem at all, my good fellow. I would nary dream of sending you away unfed. We are all in this predicament together, after all. Please, join us. I’ll have this omelet ready in but a moment and I shall then be making more. Eat, and be merry, for on yonder dawn, we may have much to do.” The Scar concluded by pointing his spatula, with a theatric flourish, in the general direction of Cumbre Vieja. A little taken aback by The Scar’s strange appearance and behavior, but tempted by the offer of hot food, Keith glanced nervously at the three henchmen, who had resumed eating and no longer seemed as threatening. Deciding to remain close to the door, Keith replied, “Thanks, I’d love something to eat.” Taking care to appear friendly, The Scar slid the omelet – one he’d intended for himself – onto a plate, and then added a fork before easing the plate across the counter, towards Keith. “One omelette au fromage, and if you would like another, just let me know,” The Scar said, gesturing to the cartons of liquid eggs. Keith stepped forward to take the plate, and then stepped back to stand by the door, and took a bite of the cheese omelet. “This is really good, thank you,” Keith mumbled between bites. “No problem at all, my boy. So, you mentioned some friends. Are you all trapped here, as are we?” The Scar asked. Keith nodded as he attacked the omelet, “Yeah, but we hope to get out in the morning.” The clatter of a falling fork rattling on a plate caused everyone to look at one of the three henchmen. Lowering his eyes, the henchman picked up the fork and resumed eating, cursing himself for his clumsiness. He had seen Keith with Brandon in the parking lot, and Keith’s words had jogged his memory. Recognizing Keith, and fearful that his employer might somehow discern that he’d failed to report seeing Brandon, the henchman had fumbled and dropped his fork. Ignoring the interruption and wondering just who might be amongst his guest’s friends, The Scar proceeded carefully, continuing to cook and making some small talk about the volcano until Keith was halfway through his second omelet. Then The Scar asked, “Even the famous are sharing our peril. Are you with Instinct’s party? I’ve heard that they are here.” There was just something about The Scar’s sudden change of subject and overly casual way of asking a very direct question that made Keith uneasy. Not knowing what else to say, and wondering if The Scar might have seen Eric, Keith shrugged and replied, “I hadn’t heard that. I like their music… any idea where they are? I’d love to meet them.” The Scar was not overly disappointed. He suspected that Instinct had already gone, and he had pinned his hopes of finding the two remaining bombs on the receipt Yuri had found. He would have liked confirmation, sweetened by a little revenge, but to him it was no longer the vital issue it had once been. The bombs were the foremost of his goals. “We must be leaving here soon, so please excuse us,” The Scar said in an icy tone, regretting that he had wasted his time and wishing to be rid of the intruder. Keith mumbled, “Good luck, and thanks for breakfast,” as he backed out through the door. Keith was already exiting the restaurant, well out of earshot, when The Scar’s satellite phone rang. Resuming his route, Keith jogged back towards his suite. Just before reaching it, he caught the sound of laughter in the tropical air. Turning, Keith raced towards it, emerging into the main pool area to find Eric and Jansen engaged in a riotous water fight. Keith watched from the shadows for a moment, as Eric climbed out of the pool and tossed in a few lounge chairs, before cannonballing back next to Jansen. Wondering if they were both crazy, Keith jogged to the edge of the pool deck. When Jansen looked up at him, Keith asked, “Is he okay?” “‘He’ is right here, Keith,” Eric said in a slightly irritated voice, while treading water near the center of the pool. Jansen swam over to Keith and replied, “He’s fine, just having fun. The tequila is gone and we were just having a water fight.” “Yeah, I noticed,” Keith replied, not in the best of moods thanks to being slightly shaken by his strange encounter in the kitchen. “I think we better round up Eric and head back to our suite; there are some spooky people around.” Recalling his own sighting of The Scar and his henchmen, and glancing around the darkened expanse of pools, Jansen nodded. “Good idea.” “Killjoys,” Eric hollered, hauling himself out of the pool on the far side, the tequila leaving him in no mood to be rounded up. Grinning wickedly, suspecting the response he’d get, Eric called out, “I’ll bet there’s more tequila in the shop.” Laughing, Eric took off at a run, heading in the general direction of the lobby. “Oh, shit,” Keith muttered, “We gotta catch him!” Eric rounded the corner of the lobby building, racing past the doors. With a wild whoop, he kept going, the rush of exertion making the tequila burn in his veins. As the first hues of dawn began to color the slopes of Cumbre Vieja, Yuri checked the map, which confirmed that he was less than a mile from the turnoff for Las Indias. He phoned The Scar, at last able to tell him that he expected to be at the resort within the hour. After relaying the news to his henchmen to calm them, The Scar told Yuri, loud enough for his henchmen to hear, “Time is of the essence, so we will start walking now and meet you on the road above the resort.” To his henchmen, The Scar said, “Let’s go,” and led them out of the kitchen and into the twilight of the coming dawn. The main reason The Scar had decided to walk was to keep the men calm. He knew he’d need them if the search of the storage unit proved fruitful. As they crossed the parking lot, he began to formulate a plan. Hearing a voice behind him, the Scar glanced back, stopping in his tracks when he saw Eric’s familiar face. Eric raced into the parking lot, laughing as he looked over his shoulder, searching for any sign of Jansen and Keith. Mischief in his eyes, Eric looked around, picking a way to circle back into the resort and sneak up on Jansen and Keith, intending to push them into a pool for a water fight. As he began to jog forward, Eric’s eyes fell upon a badly disfigured man, who was looking back at him from fifty feet away. Eric couldn’t see him clearly in the dawn’s twilight, but his euphoric mood changed in a heartbeat as he felt a sudden, overwhelming sensation of hate, an unbridled loathing that he’d only ever felt for one person. By virtue of his inner sense, in that moment, he knew. Reacting rather than thinking, clenching his hands and staring at the despised figure, Eric stopped in his tracks and hissed, “Jerry!” “The annoying one,” The Scar muttered, and then yelled to his men, who were edging further away up the hill, “Get him!” The henchmen hesitated. To their minds, the road to rescue and safety led uphill. Their every instinct cried out to keep going. Only the knowledge that The Scar controlled their means of escape spurred them into reluctant action. Drawing their guns, they raced past The Scar, following his extended arm towards Eric. Even on tequila, Eric could perceive the danger posed by the oncoming gunmen. Turning, Eric launched into an all-out sprint, racing back into the resort’s grounds. The Scar’s three henchmen, fifty feet behind Eric, struggled in vain to keep up. As Eric neared the corner of a building, one tried to take aim. Racing through the warm dawn air on the wings of adrenalin, tequila, and fear, Eric tore around the corner of a building, opening the gap between himself and his burly pursuers with every step. The henchmen caught sight of Eric as they rounder the corner, and followed him as he raced seaward. One fell behind, stumbling as he tried to aim his gun, but held his fire; Eric was too far ahead for a pistol shot. Sweating hard, Eric bolted down a dogleg path between two groups of suites, angling to his right, and then taking a hard right up another path. The pursuing henchmen were too far behind to see where Eric had gone, and continued running towards the main pools and the sea cliff beyond. Reaching the main pool area, looking around its huge open expanse, they found no sign of Eric. Feeling suddenly very conspicuous, they returned their guns to their pockets and after a short discussion, based largely on their fear of their employer and Yuri, they decided to search for a few minutes and then return to the parking lot. As the south end of the resort, Jansen and Keith, desperately trying to find Eric – who had evaded them after a chase near the lobby – turned back, taking a different route through the sprawling grounds, angling inland, towards the parking lot. Eric, satisfied that he’d ditched his armed pursuers, slowed to a jog, the tequila burning in his veins. After a few moments, a wicked grin spread across Eric’s face and he sprinted towards the parking lot. Tearing out of a pathway and onto the asphalt, Eric whooped as he saw The Scar standing forty feet away. Swerving a little crookedly toward The Scar, Eric ran flat-out towards his quarry. The Scar’s eyes opened wide, first in recognition, and then upon perceiving the fact that Eric was running towards him. Savoring the moment, The Scar slipped his hand into his jacket and drew his pistol. He’d have preferred to take Eric alive so as to ask a few questions before killing him, but The Scar was not about to quibble with what fate had given him. Eric saw the gun coming up, feeling the burn of the tequila joined by a furious rage. He dropped his shoulder and continued his wild charge, shrieking like a berserker on the warpath. Surprised by Eric’s unexpected response, The Scar hesitated for a moment too long as he took aim. Just as he was pulling the trigger, Eric’s shoulder slammed into the gun, jarring it from The Scar’s grasp and sending it skittering into a bush a few feet away. A split second later, Eric’s shoulder slammed into The Scar’s side, delivering a glancing blow, causing The Scar to stumble sideways. Eric, unbalanced by the collision, stumbled for a few paces, lurching to an unsteady halt, and then turning to face his nemesis. “You filthy piece of murdering shit, you’re mine,” Eric snarled, as he advanced on his startled prey, lashing out with a furious right cross at The Scar’s face, and connecting. The Scar stumbled backwards, stunned by the blow, rage mixing with astonishment as he caught a whiff of the acrid scent of tequila. That bit of information confirmed The Scar’s fears; he’d seen Eric on that particular liquor before, and The Scar began to realize that Eric might have no intention of stopping. Trusting in his self-believed skill at persuasion, The Scar held up his hand, intending to make Eric pause and gain a chance to speak. Seeing a golden opening, Eric rushed forward and raised his leg, slamming a kick squarely into The Scar’s family jewels. Blinded by the searing pain, The Scar collapsed onto the pavement. Eric leaped on top of him, raining down blow after blow on The Scar’s cowering form. Swatting The Scar’s arm away, exposing his head, Eric hauled back, ready to swing, aiming a devastating blow at The Scar’s ruined face. Just as he launched the swing, Eric felt something hook his arm, snatching him sideways, pulling him off The Scar. Coming to a rest in a tangle or arms and legs, Eric struggled against his attacker, but felt a new set of arms pinning his own to his sides. “What the fuck are you doing… have you lost your mind?” Keith gasped, as he and Jansen struggled to restrain Eric. Eric kicked and squirmed, trying in vain to get free. “Let me go, we gotta get him, he’ll kill everybody!” Eric yelled. Wracked by agony, The Scar was still able to perceive what had happened. Gasping for breath, he managed to sputter, “Thank you for saving me. He just went insane and attacked me with no warning. I’ve never met him before.” “Sir, I…” Jansen paused, his eyes opening wide as he recognized The Scar as the man he’d seen with the three big, menacing men. The Scar, after two attempts, managed to stumble to his feet. Wiping the blood from his lip, still stooped over in agony, he glanced around. Seeing no sign of his henchmen or his gun, The Scar found himself in a dilemma. He could stall the teens in the hopes that his henchmen would appear, but that risked Eric convincing them to apprehend him. Deciding that the prudent course was to deny and retreat, he said, “Today is this boy’s lucky day. I shall attribute this to rage brought on by panic over our circumstances, and I shall refrain from pressing charges. Take him away from me before I change my mind.” Jansen and Keith knew that the police were not an immediate concern. Glancing about, fearful that they’d see The Scar’s henchmen coming at any second, they each grabbed Eric by an arm and began pulling him away. “Thanks,” Jansen said. “The volcano imperils us all. I will be on my way. I don’t suppose that you have transportation yet?” The Scar asked, his speech a little slurred due to a split and swelling lip. “We’re all stuck here. We’ve got somebody coming to get us, but they won’t be here for a few hours,” Keith replied, struggling as he pulled Eric further away. “Let me fucking go, that’s Jerry Clump, we gotta get him,” Eric yelled, slurring his words just a little. “My, he is delusional, isn’t he?” The Scar asked in a haughty tone. “He said I was Adolph Hitler when he attacked, and now I’m Jerry Clump. I suppose I’ll be Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong next. Is he on drugs?” “Tequila. Near enough the same difference, for him. Sends him out of his head. Sorry sir, and thanks again for breakfast,” Keith said, as he fought against another of Eric’s desperate lurches. Seeing an opportunity and perceiving the need, Keith maneuvered a hand over Eric’s mouth and told Jansen, “Come on, faster!” As they dragged Eric around the corner of the nearest building, heading for the Pavilion, Keith snatched his hand away from Eric’s mouth and cried out in pain, “He fucking bit me!” “Eric, please stop fighting us. I know I did this to you, but please, think what you almost did to that man,” Jansen said, still looking around, fearing that at any moment they’d encounter The Scar’s henchmen, intent on revenging the beating of their friend. “He isn’t here alone; he’s got three big, tough-looking guys with him.” Fearing for Eric’s safety and that of himself and Keith, Jansen redoubled his efforts, dragging Eric backwards as fast as he could. Shaking his wounded hand, Keith cringed as Eric yelled, “We’ve gotta get him! Let me fucking go…” In the parking lot, still looking for his gun, The Scar heard footsteps and glanced up to see his henchmen approaching at a run. Pointing at one of them, he said, “Stay with me.” Turning to the other two, he pointed in the direction Eric had been dragged, “Go after them!” As the two henchmen turned to give chase, they hesitated, not knowing who or what they were supposed to go after, and much preferring to begin their trip upslope to hoped-for safety. Fighting back the rage and pain, The Scar remembered that they were armed and he was not. Seeing that his hold on them was slipping, he said, “Wait. You’re too late. It is more important that we leave this place. Help me up the road.” The henchmen were only too happy to oblige. Helen looked up as she heard a commotion at the pavilion door. Jon opened it, and Helen saw a squirming mass of arms and legs as Jansen and Keith dragged a kicking and yelling Eric in. Immediately suspecting the proximate cause, Helen yelled, “Oh for the love of God, not again, not now. Tie him up, away from me. Eric on tequila is the last thing I need right now.” Jansen and Keith dragged Eric over to a roof support and Keith pinned him against it. Brandon rushed forward to help, and Helen said, “Somebody find some rope, duct tape, or anything we can use.” “Fucking stop, it was Jerry! He’s here,” Eric yelled, still fighting. “Find a gag, too,” Helen said, and then asked, “What was Eric doing?” “Beating up a guy in the parking lot, but I don’t think he hurt him too bad,” Keith replied. “Don’t blame him, I did it. He didn’t know it was tequila,” Jansen said in a plaintive voice, trying to defend Eric. “You idiot. Don’t you see what you’ve done?” Helen yelled in exasperation, and then asked, “Are you sure the man is okay?” “That’s Jerry Clump, let me go!” Eric shouted, trying and failing to kick Keith’s feet out from under him. General Bradson, who had been watching in puzzled concern, stood up when he heard the name. Jogging over to Eric, the General said, “Jerry Clump? Are you sure?” Helen stomped her foot. “Don’t believe him. You’ve never seen him on tequila. He goes insane and you cannot believe anything he says. He’s out of his head.” General Bradson, his blood beginning to run cold as certain things began to make a chilling sense, looked Eric in the eyes and said, “Describe him.” Calming slightly, Eric stopped squirming and said in an angry voice, “One arm. Face like melted wax, kinda twisted too. No hair. No ears, just nubs. He had a gun.” General Bradson nodded. “That’s what he looks like now, and I don’t see how Eric could know that, unless­–” “The three guys who chased me had guns too,” Eric said, in a calmer tone. “I lost ‘em, then I went after Jerry. It’s him. I know it’s him, I felt it.” Chase, who had been listening from a few feet away, joined in to say, “When Eric is that sure, I’d believe him.” “Me, too,” Jon said. Remembering the men in the restaurant, Keith said, “I saw him earlier, too. He made me some omelets in the kitchen and asked about Instinct, wanted to know where they were. I said I didn’t know. He’s got some guys with him, big mean-looking dudes, dressed pretty much the same; they didn’t talk at all. The one-armed guy… he talked funny. Kinda gravely sounding, but like… formal, melodramatic.” “Definitely him,” the General said. “The description fits perfectly. I met with him many times in the Cape Verde Islands and in Somalia.” “That’s what I’ve fucking been trying to tell you, Jerry’s here. Now let me go,” Eric growled. “Do not let him go,” Helen shouted. After pacing for a moment, she said in a quieter tone, “I’ll accept that Jerry is here, but don’t let Eric loose; he’s had tequila. Now, we’ve got armed men outside somewhere; that’s our most immediate problem.” “Oh shit,” Jon said, snatching up the AK-47 from the table. Still pinned by Brandon, Jansen, and Keith, Eric said, “I saw three goons, plus Jerry.” “So four, maybe more,” Jon said, his eyes narrowing. A tense silence followed. Helen picked up the RPG and said, “We have the RPG and the AK. Did any of you see anything other than pistols?” Eric’s shaking head was all the answer she needed, and she snapped off the RPG’s safety. Jon said, “We’ve got one round for the RPG, and one clip for the AK-47.” “They’re looking for us,” Eric said. After thinking for a moment, spurred by growing anger, he added, “Maybe we’re going about this wrong. They don’t know we’re armed.” Jon smiled coldly. “Ambush? I was thinking the same thing.” General Bradson walked over to Jon and took possession of the AK-47. “Whoa, hold on there. If there’s any ambushing to be done, I should be the one to do it. I have a little more experience at it, and we can’t rush into this. We have no idea whether or not the opposition is limited to handguns, or how many there actually are. He had at least thirty men at his disposal in Sudan, and if he airdropped in here, he could have a lot of weapons and troops. First thing we need to do is reconnoiter…” the General’s voice trailed off, as his eyes defocused for a moment, his brain clicking into overdrive. A few moments later, he pulled out his satellite phone and called Felecia. “Fel, get a recon screen out, stat. I’ll explain in a minute, but do it immediately: we’ve got company and so might you. Your former boss is here, with troops.” Felecia didn’t hesitate, she raced from room to room, sending out five two-man teams, while telling the rest to arm up and prepare for an attack. Once that was done, she returned her attention to the phone and said, “He’s on the island, you’re certain?” “Here at the resort. Eric just had a run-in with him and described him perfectly, so did the other guys who met him. There just aren’t a lot of one-armed melodramatic Frankensteins running around with armed goons. It’s him, Fel. He found out where we went and followed. We had one spy on board, so maybe there were more. If so, you have one in your midst. Or, it could be a tracking device, a local informant, anything. How he found us doesn’t matter now. The problem is; he’s here. I’m guessing that he airdropped in, using Flight Two and at least some of his Sudan base force. He had at least three men with him here. If they came by air, they could have dropped troops on your side of the island, too.” “What’s your tactical situation, Walter?” Felecia asked. The General gave a fast rundown. “Twenty-two people, holed up in the pavilion. One AK with one clip, one RPG, plus my pistol. Frankenstein’s men were seen with pistols, as was he. The size of his force is unknown as is their current location and intent. We do not know if he is aware of our current position or capabilities, but are assuming the worst. We may try an ambush if the opportunity can be created. I’m heading up onto the roof. Good luck and I’ll see you soon, Fel. Let me know what your recon finds.” Felecia, given a moment to think, had one other question. “Walter... we’re missing three people and a bomb. That strikes me as kind of overly coincidental now that we know Frankenstein is here.” General Bradson couldn’t reply directly, due to being within earshot of wedding-party members who knew nothing about the bombs. “Affirmative on that, Fel, but nothing we can do right now, even if it is. Gook luck and good hunting.” Once the call was over, Eric said, “Guys, I’m fine. Now would you please get the hell off me?” “Wait,” Helen snapped, walking towards Eric. Stooping down, she looked him in the eyes and asked, “How long since you had any tequila?” Eric shrugged. “A few hours, I guess. I’m okay, really. I swear I’ll behave. We’ve got Jerry and his goons to worry about.” Eric knew he’d just exaggerated regarding the time, but he had no desire to be tied up with The Scar around. Helen nodded at Jansen, Keith, and Brandon. “Okay, let him go, but keep an eye on him.” Eric remained sitting as the three guys let go. Glaring at Jansen and Keith, he said, “Way to go, guys. You got me, but you let Jerry get away. But, hell, I’d had a drink of tequila and he only fried half an Australian state and tried to do the same to New York and L.A., so I guess I was the bigger threat, huh?” Jansen and Keith slumped down, sitting on the floor to face Eric. His eyes lowered, Jansen said, “We didn’t know. I’m sorry, Eric. I should have trusted you. I just saw you wailing on that guy and thought you’d flipped.” Seeing the hurt in Jansen’s face and feeling a tug at his heartstrings, Eric said in a soft voice, “Yeah, I heard what you said to Keith; you were trying to save me from Jerry’s goons. Thanks.” Jansen reached out to grasp Eric’s hand. “I’m just glad you didn’t get shot. Going after that guy, when he was armed… You’re either insanely brave… or just insane.” Eric shrugged. “Okay, I’ll cop to the latter. Tequila does make me a little gonzo. Thanks for looking out for me,” Eric said, and then turned to Keith to add, “Sorry I bit you.” Sending a pointed glance in the direction of his brother’s neck, Keith replied with a chuckle, “Looks like I wasn’t the only one who got bit, but I think he enjoyed it more.” A shared laugh went a long way towards healing any remaining issues between Eric, Jansen, and Keith. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  24. Chapter 44: Countdown to Ragnarök D minus 6:00:00 Pulling Helen aside for a private conversation, General Bradson said, in a hushed tone, “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, because some of them know nothing about the bombs, but we may have a further problem. We’ve got Jerry Clump on the island with forces unknown, and we’ve had a nuclear warhead go missing. It’s not much of a stretch to think he might have had something to do with it.” Helen felt herself shiver, and her stomach began to roil. “I thought of that a few moments ago. Oh my God, Jim, Linda, and your Private... and then Jerry with a nuclear warhead! That’s beyond a nightmare.” General Bradson nodded. “Bear in mind that we don’t know anything for sure. I’d suggest keeping this just between you, me, and Fel for now. No point in worrying everyone, especially those who know nothing about the bombs. All I have right now is a hunch.” Raising his voice so that everyone could hear him, General Bradson said, “I’ll take the RPG topside and act as a spotter. If I get a good shot, I’ll take it. Jon, use the AK and cover the door but set it on single shot; you’ve only got one clip.” General Bradson glanced up towards the roof and said, “I’m not as nimble as I used to be. Help me up.” Helen and Barbra dragged a table over, setting it just under the roofline, where the roof ended at the edge of the dance floor. On it, they placed a chair. General Bradson chided himself for not thinking of that, and scrambled onto the roof with the RPG slung over his shoulder. Once there, he took over the binoculars and began to scan the resort grounds, searching for any sign of The Scar or his men. D minus 5:45:00 A mile up the road from the resort, growing winded, The Scar slowed his pace and winced as he brushed his split lip. Yuri had phoned to say he had reached Las Indias, which had buoyed The Scar’s mood, almost enough to ease the fury he felt over the beating he’d taken. That rage had made the plan he was mulling – a means to cover their departure from the island –particularly pleasant to contemplate, though it was predicated on securing at least one more nuclear warhead: he would not consider leaving the island without one. Glancing up at the volcano, The Scar allowed himself a cold smile and began to hum Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Yuri’s arrival in a police cruiser, with the big van behind, was almost enough to make The Scar smile. “It is good to see you, Yuri,” The Scar said, as he watched the three henchmen climb into the van. Yuri noticed The Scar’s split lip and the new discolorations on his ruined face. Attending to business first, Yuri said, “We should leave the police car here somewhere. It may draw the wrong kind of attention if we encounter any authorities.” Glancing at the cruiser’s front-mounted heavy bumper guard, The Scar said, “Not just yet, Yuri. Let us visit that storage facility first. You lead the way. I will ride with our men, lest they decide to flee. I need a pistol.” Yuri handed his employer a pistol, and The Scar asked, “Did you bring any timers and demolition charges?” “Yes, I have some in the back. I thought they might come in handy for clearing debris,” Yuri said, and then paused, wondering if The Scar would explain the reason for his enquiry. When no explanation was forthcoming, Yuri took another look at The Scar’s bleeding lip and asked, “Are you badly injured?” With a disgusted grunt, The Scar replied, “I was the victim of poor timing. One of the band members encountered me while I was alone. The young hellion attacked me. I would dearly like to settle that score but that must wait; they are alerted by now and could be hiding anywhere in the resort. I do not trust our men to join in the hunt, nor have we the time, so let us get what we came for. Speaking of our men, the ones with me know nothing of the bombs and I prefer to keep it that way. They are on the verge of panic already. I shall tell them we are stopping to get some rocket pods, which we shall need for our takeoff. They are largely ignorant of such things so I think they would accept that.” Yuri led the way to the storage unit, hoping that he could find it in the convoluted roads of Las Indias. A few minutes later, he saw the sign and pulled in, stopping at the gate. The Scar told the van’s driver, “Pull in beside him. We must stop here for a few moments. The storage unit contains a cache of rocket pods that will aid our takeoff.” The Scar came up to the cruiser’s window and said, “The area appears almost deserted and few would question the actions of a police car. This is no time for finesse, Yuri. Batter down the gate.” Yuri backed up a few yards and hit the gas. In a shower of sparks and screeching metal, the gate yielded on the first attempt. It had never been intended to resist ramming by a vehicle. The cruiser nosed ahead, shoving aside the crumpling electric gate. Yuri pulled the car into the complex, steam hissing from the radiator, and the van followed. At a crawl, watching the unit numbers, Yuri drove to the back of the complex and when he saw unit twenty, he stopped. The first thing he noticed was the tire tracks, which had been left by the truck as Jim had maneuvered it in and out. Yuri knew that a truck would not be uncommon at a storage facility, but these appeared to come from a vehicle with four tires on the rear axel, and he did not recall seeing many of those on the island. He hoped that it was confirmation that they had found what they sought. Yuri told The Scar of his theory. The Scar stood by Yuri’s side, and to his slight annoyance ignored Yuri’s speculation and said, “Now, we must find out if this is the unit, or we shall need to search them all in turn. Yuri, check the police car’s trunk for any tools that may prove useful.” A look in the trunk yielded a pry bar, jump-start cables, and several towropes, along with roadside emergency flares and reflective warning triangles. Desperate to see if a bomb was inside the unit, The Scar used the pry bar on the padlock’s mount, tearing the hasp from the door after several awkward one-armed attempts. Yelling at his henchmen in the van, The Scar said, “Force the door up now. Hurry.” The powerful men did as they’d been told, and two of them, using the pry bar – a long, heavy one deigned for forcing open car doors to free accident victims – forced the rolling door upwards, breaking the single bolt engaged by the card lock. The Scar stooped forward to peer inside. The first rays of sunrise cast just enough light for him to see, though it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. He bit back a curse at the sight of the tarp, timbers, and bricks, until it occurred to him that it was unlikely such debris would be stored in a locked, secured facility. Entering the unit, he lifted the tarp and kicked aside a timber, his eyes opening in euphoric joy as he beheld the top of a burnished steel cylinder. For the first time, he was seeing one of the Iranian bombs. “Yuri, is this what they look like?” Joining his employer, Yuri replied, “It is. We have found our… pod.” Scrambling over the construction debris, Yuri heaved a few timbers and the tarp aside, adding with a grin, “We have them both.” Mindful that his henchmen were within earshot, The Scar chose his words with care. “This makes three. We shall take off in a blaze of utter glory.” Under Cumbre Vieja, the pressure continued to grow, beyond the ability of the mass above to contain it. The harmonic tremors increased as the magma chambers began to rupture, sending a clear signal to the vulconologists that the feared massive catastrophic eruption and lateral collapse was at most hours away. D minus 5:15:00 Staring at the nuclear warheads, The Scar indulged himself in a moment of jubilation, and then, heedful of his fidgeting, anxious henchmen, said, “Time is of the essence. We must leave with all possible haste. The faster we get these into the van, the sooner we shall be away.” Yuri looked at the bombs, and then the van, suddenly realizing that they had an enormous problem: The bombs would fit into the van, but only lengthwise, parallel to the wheelbase. They could not be rolled in through the rear; they were longer than the van was wide. The van, a large, heavy type often used for an airport shuttle, had a bi-fold side door, but it was two feet too narrow to take the eight-foot length of the bombs. Staring at the long, heavy cylinders, Yuri shook his head and turned to give The Scar the bad news; they needed a different vehicle. Holding up his hand to silence Yuri, The Scar wagged a finger as he said, “Ah, my dear Yuri, the answer is always before us, if only we are clever enough to perceive it.” At The Scar’s direction, Yuri and the henchmen used the pry bar to remove the van’s passenger seats. The four henchmen manhandled the bombs, rolling them out of the storage unit and onto the pavement. Several looked askance at the heavy steel cylinders, growing suspicious regarding what they’d been told. None of the henchmen with The Scar had heard of Helen’s news conference or that their employer was seeking nuclear warheads. One henchman correctly guessed that the cylinders, which looked very little like the JATO packs he’d seen on the plane – he could see no provision for a rocket nozzle, and they were far larger – were weapons of some sort. However, he was not positive, and fearful of Yuri and The Scar, kept his suspicions to himself. With more room and by virtue of the van’s bed being closer to the ground than the truck’s had been, they were able to use the bricks and some of the beams to build a ramp with a shallow slope, topped by a flat platform. The first try managed to dislodge a beam, but a readjustment of the bricks shored up their improvised ramp. By brute force, they rolled the first bomb up and then spun it in place, leaving almost half of its length and mass hanging over the drop. This placed the bomb slightly above the level of the van’s bed. While the van was backed up to the bomb, the bomb appeared to be entering the van lengthwise, from the rear. When the van came to a rest against the impromptu ramp, the bomb was halfway to being in place. Working quickly, Yuri and the henchmen removed the ramp, leaving only the platform that supported the bombcase. Next, The Scar directed his men to tie the ends of the towropes together in order to make one long length, and then secure one end of the towrope to the end of the bomb that was inside the van. An attach point, one of several built into the bombcase to allow it to be hoisted and moved, made this a simple task. The other end of the towrope was pulled through the van’s open passenger-side window, and then attached to the police cruiser’s tow loop, which was under its rear bumper. Waving his arm theatrically at the setup, The Scar said, “The car’s mass is a little more than that of the pod, so I think five miles per hour should suffice.” The Scar slid behind the wheel of the police car and buckled the seat belt. Yuri, along with one of the reluctant henchmen, pressed against the sides of the bomb with timbers, attempting to steady it. The other two henchmen made ready to push. Backing up until the police cruiser’s bumper touched the van’s, which gave him twenty feet of slack, The Scar shifted into drive. Easing his foot down on the gas, he watched the speedometer, suddenly realizing that is was marked in kilometers per hour, not miles. Trusting his judgment, he decided to guess. It didn’t much matter; the length of towrope was far too short to allow for precision, and at four miles per hour it snatched taught, yanking the police car to a fast stop. The force of the sudden halt surprised The Scar a little, and he lurched forward against his seatbelt. The bomb, yanked hard by the mass of the police cruiser, lurched forward onto its improvised rollers, aided by the slight drop. The sound of protesting metal filled the air, and the van settled several inches onto its springs, groaning from the weight. The Scar had miscalculated only a little; the bomb had stopped a foot short of where he wanted it, and upon being informed of that fact by Yuri, The Scar gave it another, gentler tug, and then got out to survey his handiwork: the bomb was in the van. “I would say six miles per hour for the next one,” he said, with a prideful, twisted smile. One of the henchmen protested, “It is too heavy. The van will not hold another pod and us.” Waving his hand dismissively, The Scar replied, “I have no doubt that this van will suffice. We need these rocket pods in order to take off. They are not so heavy as they seem.” The Scar was far from sure of that, but he had no intention of leaving a bomb behind. The second bomb was prepared like the first, and the van backed into place. This time, the towrope was snaked through the van’s side door, and The Scar attempted to repeat his feat, intending to snatch the bomb partially into place, and then pull it the remainder of the way with an additional pull or two. The Scar pressed down on the accelerator, and this time, due to a straighter run of tow rope and a slightly lower van bed ­– facts which he had failed to take into account – the initial jolt proved correct, and the second bomb rammed into place beside the first. Shutting off the cruiser, paying no heed to the steam now hissing from its radiator, The Scar walked over, looked at the bomb’s position, and in a prideful voice said, “As I predicted, an additional mile per hour was all we needed. Perfect.” Yuri closed and – wanting every bit of structural strength he could get – locked the van’s rear and side doors. Noticing that the side door now had a half-inch gap, with its lower rear edge due to the van’s frame sagging under the weight, he hoped that the vehicle would not collapse. He also suspected what The Scar’s next move would be. The Scar pointed at the police cruiser and told the henchmen, “Get the hood open and see how badly the car has been damaged. Hurry.” Catching Yuri’s eye, The Scar glanced at the henchmen as they approached the hood of the police car, their backs to him. “Now,” the Scar said softly, drawing his gun in concert with Yuri. From ten feet away, Yuri taking the two on the left and The Scar the two on the right, they squeezed off rapid, aimed shots, placing two rounds into the middle of each of the henchman’s backs and then shifting fire to the next. One of the henchmen spun around, fumbling for his gun as he collapsed. The Scar fired a fifth bullet directly into the man’s head. Yuri advanced and, preferring to be sure, rapidly shot the other two in the head as well. The Scar glanced in the storage unit and said, “We need the mattress, a few of these bricks, and a couple of timbers. A pity that we could not trust our men to do that for us before we shot them, but it will not take long and I could not risk making them suspicious via a seemingly incongruous order.” Yuri was puzzled but knew better than to inquire as to the reason for his employer’s instructions. The Scar, his task made difficult due to having only one arm, struggled to aid Yuri in dragging the thick mattress the bombs had rested on into the van. Working fast, The Scar picked up the first brick as he ordered Yuri, “Place the bodies in the car and then drive it into the storage unit.” Yuri did as he’d been ordered. It proved a tight fit; the police car was almost as long as the unit. The henchmen’s blood lay pooled and streaked on the concrete driveway, but Yuri was not overly concerned; he knew that when it dried, most people would assume the dark substance was spilled paint. In any case, he felt he had little reason to fear; he and The Scar would soon be gone, lost in the confusion of the evacuation. The Scar shoved the tarp into the van, tugging at it until it covered the bombs, the half-dozen bricks, and the timbers. Pausing for a moment, he glanced at the storage unit, just as Yuri was about to close the door, and said, “Bring the emergency triangles from the trunk.” An hour and a half after they had arrived at the storage unit, Yuri and The Scar, with Yuri at the wheel, drove the van out of the complex, through the streets of Las Indias, and then forced their way into the northbound traffic on LP-1. The traffic, though still thick, had lessened enough that they were able to average almost twenty miles per hour. D minus 3:30:00 Felecia paced in her hotel room, listening to one of her men describe what he’d found at the airport. Cursing herself for not having taken precautions, she phoned General Bradson with the news. “Walter, a runner from my recon team just brought news; our mortars, ammo, and RPGs are missing from the plane, along with some other weapons and gear. Frankenstein’s people left us a nice calling card; an explosive charge on a tripwire, right next to a fuel bladder. My men spotted it just in time. I’m going down there right after I hang up, to secure the aircraft, with twelve men.” “Fel, don’t divide your force. You’re outgunned and possibly outnumbered. They might be waiting,” General Bradson said. “Except for the one man I’m leaving here with the people who came in the Jetta, and the two currently at the plane, that is my current force, and we’ve got to secure that aircraft,” Felecia said, and then after a moment added, “I sent just over half the men with Horst, before we knew we had company. I’m worried about him; he should have reached you by now. Brian’s with him too.” The news that Brian had joined the rescue mission was no surprise to General Bradson. Putting aside his personal feelings, he said, “We’d have heard any nearby engagements, but we have no idea where Frankenstein’s forces are. Horst had a long way to go, through rough conditions. I wouldn’t worry about him yet, and we both know he’s a pro; nobody is going to pick him off.” Felecia recognized the encouraging words for what they were, and hoped that the General was right. “Walter, I’ll proceed with caution, but we’ve got to secure the plane or we’re stuck here.” Felecia knew the plane was their only way out. There was the danger of arrest by Spanish or U.S. forces, the threat posed by The Scar and his henchmen, and last but not least, the volcano. If Cumbre Vieja erupted as predicted, Felecia did not think that anywhere on the island would be completely safe. She was right. General Bradson paced for a few moments, hating the fact that he couldn’t think of any other options. “Take care, Fel,” he said, and left her to her preparations. General Bradson decided to share the good part of the news and said, “Felecia sent half her force, around fifteen men, with Horst on the rescue mission. They should be here any time now. Fel’s men are crack troops, they’ll make mincemeat out of anything Jerry Clump can have, if he’s dumb enough to stick around. So, just hang in there people, the cavalry should be coming over the hill any time now.” A few questions were asked, mainly by those who had no idea who Felecia was, but Helen hung back, waiting to talk to the General alone. As soon as she could, she walked him away from the others and asked, “What’s the real news?” Helen had heard parts of the General’s conversation with Felecia and wanted to see if the General would level with her. ‘He’d fucking better,’ she thought. General Bradson held nothing back, and told Helen about the situation with the plane and the people she’d sent in the Jetta. Nodding slowly, Helen replied, “What about the rest. Are the men with Horst as good as you say?” With no hesitation, General Bradson said, “Yes. That much you can count on. The flip side of that is they have no idea there are hostiles around, and those hostiles do have RPGs. It’s possible that, if Fel has a spy in her midst, the enemy knows we’ve got help inbound, what their route and composition are, and what they’re driving. That makes an ambush child’s play to set up.” Two miles northeast of Las Canarios, Horst looked at the fallen stone building, cursing the fact that it had collapsed into the road where it had; between a long row of stone walls that hemmed the road in. He could see the SUV’s tracks, almost taunting him, as they emerged from under the debris pile. The building’s fall had occurred less than half an hour before his arrival. Horst sent out scouts, seeking another way around. That would take time, because the heavy ash, which was over two feet thick in that area, could hide both obstacles and serviceable routes from a cursory glance. It would take a long time to clear the road, but Horst knew that it might be the only way and gave the orders to begin. He glanced at his watch in frustration; what under normal circumstances would be an hour’s drive promised to take many times that. D minus 3:20:00 General Bradson returned to his rooftop post, and for the people in the pavilion, the lack of any enemy sightings didn’t calm their mood; it merely added to the siege mentality. The pavilion, which was in essence a high wall enclosing a swimming pool and its very large deck, was only one-third covered by roof, in the area of the dance floor and the bar. The members of the wedding party clustered in the roofed area, casting nervous glances towards the door. The door was guarded; Jon lay prone with the AK-47 behind an overturned table, covering it from an angle. Nervous eyes swept the pavilion’s perimeter wall, half-expecting to see armed attackers swarming over at any moment. For the people in the pavilion, the logical parts of their minds knew that the General, along with one crewmember, stood watch on the roof and thus should spot an attack. However, the deep, visceral fear remained, and the open parts of the pavilion were studiously avoided, and uneasy, worried people stared at the walls, which had once seemed so benign, yet now seemed ominous and foreboding. Eric didn’t need his innate knack to tell him what people were feeling. It was glaringly obvious, revealed by a casual glance. The wedding party members had lowered their voices to whispers, and then fallen into silence, staring at the walls. Nodding for Jansen to follow his lead, Eric strolled over to the pool, and then turned to face the wedding party. In a loud and confident voice, he said, “We’re stuck here for a little while, but stressing out about it won’t help. Why be miserable? It’s hot and muggy here, so I say it’s time for a pool party!” Eric ended his speech by doing a backflip into the pool. Jansen followed a few moments later. Eric surfaced and said, “Come on in, the water feels great.” Helen cast a momentary irritated glare in Eric’s direction, assuming that the tequila was at the root of actions. Then, she arched an eyebrow in surprise as she realized what he was doing, and why. She got up and walked over to the pool edge, stooping over to give Eric a wink. “Not a bad idea. Most of us don’t have swimsuits handy, but cooling off sounds good. So, go ahead. I know you’ve been dying to.” Eric blinked in surprise, and then grinned. Not needing to be asked twice, he directed a furious splash attack at Helen, thoroughly drenching her. Helen ducked away, and Eric began to laugh. “I didn’t mean drench me to the skin,” Helen grumbled, keeping her tone cheerful as she stood in her dripping clothes. A few of the onlookers chuckled at Eric’s antics, and Helen knew that the ploy was working, at least for some. Brandon and Chase, who has been sitting at a table with Jane, trying to keep her calm, shared a glance. Chase turned to his mother and said, “Mom, we’ll be right back.” “Where on earth do you think you’re going?” Jane asked in a perturbed tone. Chase began to shed his jeans and shirt as he replied, “Just to help Eric lighten everyone’s mood. We’ll be back in under a minute, I promise.” Racing for the pool in their boxers, Brandon and Chase cannonballed in, landing a few feet on either side of Eric, who spun and splashed them as they surfaced. Keith caught on and followed suit, as did three other members of the wedding party. A brief, half-hearted splash war broke out. No one was really in the mood, but the activity had its desired effect; the tension eased, somewhat. Helen and Barbra sat down to play cards at a table in the sun, just far enough from the pool to be safe from any further aquatic depredations from Eric. Loudly, Helen announced, “The game is five-card draw, one-eyed jacks are wild. Suckers welcome, because we’re playing for money.” A few members of the wedding party joined the game. Brandon and Chase hauled themselves out of the pool, and padded back to Jane, where they sat down to drip-dry. Jane eyed them appraisingly before saying, “I think I see why you did what you did. We were all terrified before.” Casting a glance in Helen’s direction, Jane added, “She’s a good leader when the chips are down, I’ll give her that.” Eric, Jansen, and Keith hauled themselves out of the pool a few minutes later, the sunlight glistening from the droplets that clung to their tanned and toned skin. Jansen was about to say something when a movement above caught his eye. He glanced up to see General Bradson, waving for them to join him on the roof. Catching his brother’s and Eric’s eye, Jansen nodded upwards, and the three scaled the table and chair onto the roof. Sitting down, still dripping, near the General, they took in the view for a moment, while General Bradson gave the area another sweep with the binoculars. “Guys, I asked you up here because you three are the only ones who saw Jerry Clump. Eric, you first; what was he doing when you spotted him?” General Bradson asked. Eric thought for a few moments and then replied, “I came out of the resort and into the parking lot, and he was looking at me, kind of over his shoulder, so he was facing the other way, uphill, away from the resort. His three goons were ahead of him, and I think they were heading away too, but I don’t really remember.” General Bradson looked in the direction of the parking lot, even though it was blocked from his view by one of the resort buildings. “Okay, that’s interesting... sounds to me like he could have been leaving when you spotted him. The question is, why was he here in the first place?” Keith stared in the direction of the restaurant for a moment, deep in thought, and then said, “First he asked if I had any transportation, then he said he’d heard Instinct was here. Then, when I’d told him I had no idea about that, he said he had to be leaving soon.” General Bradson considered it for a few moments before replying, “Assuming he was telling the truth, which is a rarity for him, maybe he really was leaving. Bugging out due to the volcano, same as us. Did any of you see any sign of a vehicle?” Three wet heads shook and the General continued, “He could have one just up the road. In fact, I’ve been wondering if he had any part in the disappearance of your van, but that could have been anyone, especially after the emergency evacuation orders came out. Maybe he is going, but at least we know what we don’t know. Thanks, guys.” Knowing what you don’t know is a familiar phrase to those used to dealing with intelligence information. The first step towards a solution is knowing what it is that you don’t know and thus need to find out. The General was the only person on the rooftop who understood the term, and as a result it left Eric, Jansen and Keith a little confused. Eric was sufficiently distracted by the General’s comment, combined with their circumstances, that he decided to wait until later to float a question that had been nagging him: could Jerry have had something to do with Jim and Linda’s disappearance. Eric felt the return of his nagging feeling of guilt. ‘I picked this damn island, and took possession of the bombs. We wouldn’t be stuck here if it wasn’t for me and Jim wouldn’t be wherever the hell he is. If anything happens, it’s my fault. I got us into this.’ The three guys climbed down, leaving General Bradson to his rooftop post. D minus 2:55:00 Heading north on highway LP-1, approaching the junction where they’d turn east for the tunnel, The Scar listened to the radio as it played the latest update from the vulcanologists. Deciding to let Yuri in on his plan, The Scar said, “The United States has the ability to track aircraft from orbit via infrared signatures, so there is a chance, now that they are aware that the nuclear warheads may be on the island and may also be aware of who I am, that they would do so with our C-130. It would be simple for them to do; they know that there is only one airport to watch. They could therefore track us, perhaps intending to shoot us down in flight or send forces after us. What we need is a way to cover our escape. Therefore, I propose that we use the impending volcanic eruption as our cover.” Yuri glanced over at his employer, puzzled by the timing implied. “Sir, the only problem there is that we cannot know precisely when the eruption will occur. We’d have to sit at the airport, ready for takeoff, while we waited for it, and that would pose many risks–” Smiling at his own cleverness, The Scar replied, “Circumstance, Yuri, and the fortuitous intervention of lady luck, have conspired to present us with a golden opportunity. You are indeed correct; we cannot, at the moment, know for certain when, or indeed if, the eruption will occur. According to the scientists, it is most likely to be triggered by a small earthquake, as was the massive blast at Mount Saint Helens. Consider that, and then ponder upon the fact that we have at our disposal the means to cause such a seismic shock deep within the Earth. We can therefore trigger the eruption at a time of our choosing. The thermal signature would easily mask our departure and the resulting catastrophic tsunamis would, as I like to say, give the opposition something else to do. It will also be a most delicious taste of revenge upon America, along with settling some personal scores of mine.” The Scar, enjoying the moment, indulged in his theatric side. “Yuri, have you ever heard of Ragnarök?” The Scar didn’t give Yuri a chance to answer before continuing, “It is from Norse mythology, and means ‘the final destiny of the Gods’. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is based upon it. It foresaw a great battle, resulting in the twilight of the Gods, the end of the old order as the Sun vanished from the sky, and the Earth torn asunder by great convulsions before submerging beneath the raging seas. Synchronicity, my dear Yuri, synchronicity, for today we shall unleash a literal Ragnarök upon the world.” Finally understanding what The Scar intended, Yuri smiled. © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  25. Chapter 41: Pushing the Limits Helen wheeled into the parking lot and screeched to a halt, finding almost the entire wedding party waiting. Hopping out, she told the General, “Leave me the phone but you’re taking the first load. You know the way and my place is here.” General Bradson got out. “I can be of more use on the phone, and I got you into this mess. I’m staying. I’ll circle the hotel’s location on the map, it’s not hard to find. You, or somebody there, can bring the car back.” In two minutes, the Jetta was on its way, one crewmember driving and six others shoehorned inside. Helen did a fast head count. Twelve members of Instinct’s crew and staff who had attended the wedding remained, along with herself and Barbra, Jansen and Keith, Jane, the General, and the four members of Instinct. “Twenty-two people to go, and with six passengers per trip, that means four more trips. That’s going to take a lot of time.” “Maybe not,” General Bradson said, as he opened his phone to tell Felecia what had happened. After a short conversation, he hung up and said to Helen, “The pickup she had conked out and she and Brian are walking back to the hotel. Fel said she’d do whatever it takes to rustle us up some vehicles and send ‘em here.” “Good, but until that traffic dies down, no one can get through,” Helen said. Turning to face the mountain, she added, “From the highway I could see the resort from a couple of places. This means we can see part of the highway from here. Somebody get me some binoculars.” The highway, due to being on the west side of the island, did not have the clogging ash that blanketed the eastern areas, but already a few vehicles had run out of gas. These had been unceremoniously shoved aside, but the problem would grow worse. Jansen and Eric, remembering what they’d seen in the resort’s store, left at a run, returning five minutes later with four pairs of binoculars. It took several minutes and a change in vantage point to the roof of the pavilion, but Helen soon had a remaining crewmember on watch, observing the LP-1 highway, with instructions to let her know if the traffic eased enough that vehicles could move south. General Bradson strolled a few paces away for privacy from the remaining wedding guests, and phoned Bill. “Good news,” Bill said with a smile that the General could almost hear. “You’re not nuts after all; an RC-135 recon bird came home with some radioactive air samples: trans-uranic particulates and hotter than hell... They’re doing a detailed analysis now, but just this much confirms a nuclear detonation in Iran. They’re taking another look at the seismic data too. That blast didn’t look like a nuke, but it’s not right for a quake either, so now they’re thinking it might just be a data problem of some kind. However, the good news is, we’ve got proof for you. That’s the good news.” Knowing that there was more, General Bradson asked, “What’s the bad news?” Sighing, Bill replied, “We’ll see how it shakes out. The State Department REMFs and the Administration lackeys have publicly painted themselves into a corner. They dogpiled on when it came to denouncing you and the band and trashing your story. They didn’t pull any punches or leave any wiggle room. They’ve also been saying for years that’s its impossible for Iran to have nukes. You know how they love their face time and sound-bites, right? So now, this confirmation makes them look like a bunch of idiots if they suddenly decide to play ball with you. On the other hand, now they know they’ve got a genuine case of loose nukes in private hands, and that’s a big political danger to them too, if it ever comes out. Oh, I ought to mention... me and a couple of like-minded people are the ones who got that RC-135 recon flight to go sniffing, and the news of what they found will leak within two hours, I personally guarantee that. My suggestion to you is that you trot out one of the nukes you have and stick it under the nose of a few reporters, then let ‘em verify what it is.” “We tried that once already. Long story, but it didn’t come off. We’ll give it another shot.” The General didn’t want to explain to Bill that a nuclear warhead was missing. After his call, the General pulled Helen aside and said, “Good news. The government now knows there was a nuclear blast in Iran. That news will be on the wire services within a couple of hours.” The General gave Helen a brief summary of his call with his contact, and then added, “I’d suggest you get on the phone to ‘em right now. My guess is, now that they know, they’ll be more willing to deal.” “Who would I call, and how?” she asked. “The only government contacts I have are in the commerce department.” After thinking for a moment, General Bradson opened his phone, and as he dialed he said, “We’ll route it through the Pentagon. Defense Intelligence Agency, to be exact. They’ll already be in the loop on the air samples, and I know a few people there. I’ll have them pick who we should talk to; they’ll know who’s calling the shots.” Several minutes later, after talking to several people – one of whom he knew – at the DIA, General Bradson grimaced. Placing his hand over the phone, he said, “They’re transferring us to the State Department. They said there’s an operational/immediate memo out on this, specifying who to contact. To me, that smells like they’re in full cover-their-asses mode. Watch your back.” Helen took the phone. After a few minutes, the General noticed that Helen’s face was turning red. A few minutes later, Helen covered the phone’s receiver and said, “They put me on hold for a while, and then told me he was at lunch and now they’re asking for a callback number. Damn early lunch, given the time zone in D.C.” General Bradson shrugged. “My guess is they’re trying to figure out what they’ll say. Don’t give ‘em a number; they can’t trace that phone or ID it, as I’m betting they’ve noticed by now, and I need to be able to use it to call people. If they get the number, it’s possible they might be able to disable it. Tell ‘em you’ll call back.” Helen did so, and then told the secretary on the other end, “Let your boss know that I’ll be showing one of the nukes to the press later today so they can verify what it is. I’m sure it will make a good story, and I’ll make certain to mention this call. Have a nice day.” While she had the General far enough away from the wedding guests for privacy, Helen broached a subject that had been worrying her. “I’m very concerned about Jim, Linda, and your Private Johnson. General, I know you have personal feelings for Felecia but I’m asking you to put those aside for a moment and think this through on a strictly pragmatic basis. We’ve got a missing atomic bomb and three missing people. The only verification we have that they left the hotel with the nuke comes from Felecia and Brian, and as she herself said, they left first. How do we know that this isn’t all some scheme by the mercenaries, maybe including Felecia and maybe not, to get away with the nuke and the money? Think it through; right now, I’m starting to send people over to the hotel. That’s going to include my boys soon. That’d give the mercenaries an opportunity to trade Instinct to me for the remaining bombs.” General Bradson didn’t want to admit that the same thought had crossed his mind, so he gave Helen the explanation that had satisfied his own concerns. “Brian is a Marine, and he confirmed it when Felecia said they’d seen the truck leave the hotel. Private Johnson had orders, too. If it looked like the bomb was going to be captured, he would fire the RPG at it, which would destroy it without creating a nuclear blast. Once he was on the truck and they pulled out, they couldn’t take it back and they’d know it. The other part is that neither Fel nor her troops could have known in advance about the volcanic alert. Without that, you wouldn’t be going there. Further, they need me, now more than ever, to get them out of here. Felecia knows that back on the flight in from Iran, I was both willing and able to blow us all out of the sky instead of letting those nukes fall into the wrong hands. Horst knows that too. Even if they were up to something, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to think I’d fly them and the bombs out of here, or fly them out at all. They have what they wanted: the money for new lives. If they were going to try anything, I think it would have been while we were there; they had you, two members of Instinct, one bomb, the money, and at that point didn’t know about the volcanic alert. I don’t blame you for being suspicious, but I think you’re wrong.” Helen considered the General’s words for a few seconds, before replying, “That may be so, but then where are Jim, Linda, and the bomb? What you say makes sense, though it is far from proof. The fact is, we don’t know and we can’t know, not for sure. However... right now, I think working with Felecia is our best chance. I don’t see any other choice, so I’ll do it.” General Bradson didn’t answer. Instead, he opened his phone and dialed. When Felecia answered, he said, “Fel, I need to talk to Brian in private, okay?” The General waved Helen closer, so that she could listen in to what Brian had to say. A few moment’s later, Brian’s voice came on the line. “Okay, Dad, I’m walking away from Felecia. What’s up?” General Bradson gave Brian a rundown on Helen’s concerns. Brian thought for a moment before replying, “I don’t see it, no way. I saw the truck pull out. It was a couple of hundred yards from the hotel when we turned the corner. I’m pretty sure her whole force was there, or close enough. If they were going to try a snatch, they wouldn’t have let the truck drive off. They had no way of catching it. The other thing is, Felecia’s been trying damn hard to find ‘em. She’s even got a few of her troops out on foot, trying to track the tire marks in the ash. There are other vehicles besides us on the roads so I doubt it’ll work, but I’ve been with Felecia for hours, out looking, and if she’s faking, she’s the world’s best actress. Besides, if they’d snatched the nuke they wouldn’t be acting for my benefit, they’d just make me disappear.” Proud of his son’s observant nature and clear thinking, the General said, “I think they’re on the level too, but I had to ask. I’ll be seeing you soon, Brian.” “Thanks for doing that,” Helen said. “I’m worried what could have happened to the truck. If they broke down, Felecia and Brian should have found them. Where could they be?” “All I can do is guess, and right now my best guess is they did break down but Jim got them going again. Maybe he headed for the rendezvous and missed us, or tried to head back here and got stuck in traffic. I’m skeptical about either of those options, though, because in the first case, Fel would have likely seen him, and in the second case, we would. It only makes sense if he tried to come back here but got on the highway after we’d passed the turnoff for the tunnel. Or, more likely, he turned off the main road somewhere due to engine trouble. He’s got no way to get word to us.” Helen paced for a moment before replying. “Yeah, he’d probably hole up out of sight somewhere, and no way could he get here against the evacuation traffic. Damn, I should have stolen more phones from the reporters, then we could have told the crew in the Jetta to keep an eye out and let us know if they saw anything. We’ve got to find our people and that truck.” “And their cargo,” the General added, growing more concerned. At the mercenaries’ hotel, Felecia grinned at Horst, who’d just driven up in a large green livestock transport. She’d felt confident that they could acquire vehicles: the eastern side of the island, due to the heavy ashfalls, had been largely abandoned well before the current volcanic alert. That evacuation had been more leisurely. In part due to the fear of damaging vehicles by driving them in the ash, and the lesser need for them, some had been left behind. Horst clambered out of the truck and said, “Felecia, the air filter was in place and did not appear to have ash in it. We had some minor difficulties starting it, so I suspect that it may have been unused for several weeks. That may be for the best, as it is still very... smelly. We swept out the goat droppings but the odor remains.” Felecia chuckled. “Any port in a storm, Horst. This should carry them all, no problem, once the traffic clears.” Horst made a point to move upwind of the transport before saying, “I have several men still out. One squad is still searching for any sign of the missing truck. Several other two-man teams with the needed skills are looking for fire trucks, as you instructed. One team is searching the airport. I have four more men in the outskirts of town, looking for any vehicles they can acquire.” “Very good, Horst. Keep me informed.” Felecia then lifted her phone to report the developments to General Bradson. Standing in the cloying ash, Yuri stood watch as the henchman he’d brought along uncovered the bodies of Jim, Linda, and Private Johnson. Happy to leave the unpleasant task to his underling, Yuri ordered, “Check their pockets, anything they have. Be quick about it.” There was little to find. The henchman’s hurried search turned up only Jim’s wallet and a pocketknife. Linda’s body yielded the keycard for the suite at the resort, and Private Johnson’s pockets had held nothing but a spare ammo clip and a granola bar. Taking the items to the van, Yuri barked over his shoulder, “Cover them up again.” After a cursory look, and taking note of the resort’s room keycard, Yuri turned his attention to Jim’s wallet. Pawing through the wallet, Yuri found Jim’s driver’s license, credit cards, and resort keycard. Thumbing through the billfold, Yuri saw a collection of Euro and Dollar banknotes, an old grocery-shopping list, and a dozen receipts. Several were for restaurants, one was for gasoline, and another was for a storage unit rental. His eyes opening wide as he stared at the rental receipt, Yuri phoned the Scar. “Sir, I may have something. It is a rental receipt for a storage unit in Las Indias, which is near you.” The Scar began to grin. “Well done, Yuri. That may be what we need. First, tell me what else you found.” A short discussion of the other items followed, and The Scar decided that the receipt was the most promising. “Tell me everything the receipt for the storage unit says. Leave nothing out.” Once Yuri had done so, The Scar said, “Interesting that he would pay cash for it, yet he paid for smaller items with a credit card. A pity that it does not mention for certain the number of the unit, though I suspect that you are right and the number alone at the bottom may be it. This is a start, Yuri, a start, the best chance that we have. Given the date and the circumstances, I believe we may have found Helen’s hiding place for at least one of our devices. From what you have told me of her situation in the press, the U.S. Government, for whatever reason, is proving intransigent to Helen and thus they have kindly provided us with a window of opportunity whereby we may recover our property. Ah, such delicious irony, that. We must seize the opportunity and examine this storage complex. However, even if we find what we seek, the car you have sent will not be adequate to move it. Come at once in the van, by any means.” In a buoyant mood, The Scar ended the call. Taking the wheel, Yuri waited for the henchman to finish covering the bodies. He then drove off, heading for the tunnel, well aware that he’d find his way south blocked once he reached the highway junction on the far side. Helen found the news from Felecia encouraging, but with the highway above still jammed, she knew that there was no chance of the livestock transport reaching them quickly. They were stuck, for a while. Deciding to work on one of their other problems, Helen sat down with the General’s phone, connected a wire to it, and had him place the return call to the State Department. She noticed, without commenting, that he routed the call through the DIA, and correctly suspected that the General’s friends there were helping to shield the call from being traced. After several aggravating minutes on hold and listening to elevator music, Helen was finally connected with the Deputy Undersecretary for Middle Eastern Affairs, who had apparently returned from his supposed ‘lunch’. Helen, no stranger to negotiating, led off with an exchange of introductions, and then said pleasantly, “I want to make this easy as possible, for all of us. I have the bombs. You want them. I very much want you to have them. All I ask in return is the reimbursement of the money we put at risk to facilitate their transfer to you, and the clearing of our names. I’m sure the statements your government has made against us were innocent mistakes, and you’re as eager to set the record straight as I am.” The Deputy Undersecretary bristled at the mention of recanting the government’s prior statements. “The record is what it is. I see no reason to address it at this or any future juncture. As for whatever financial concerns you may have, that is no concern of mine–” Those words told Helen all she needed to know: the government wasn’t going to budge unless she changed the game. Helen had suspected she’d need to do just that, and was ready. She asked pleasantly, “Perhaps it would be best if I spoke with one of your superiors. A Deputy Undersecretary of a minor department may be a little out of his depth.” His face coloring at the implied insult, the Deputy Undersecretary did not answer immediately. Instead, he reached for one of his most treasured possessions: the nameplate that adorned his desk. Unsatisfied with the standard-issue government sign, he’d paid – courtesy of his ample expense account – to have one custom-made, with his name in oversized embossed gold-leaf lettering, ‘Broderick Worthington Graeme IV’. Returning his desk sign to its anointed place, adjusting it just so, the Deputy Undersecretary replied icily, “I’m handling this matter. You will deal with me.” Forcing herself to keep to an agreeable tone, Helen said, “Very well, Mr. Graeme. I do hope that we can come to an arrangement. Do you have a carrier or aircraft within range to evacuate us and the bombs?” The Deputy Undersecretary, a small, phlegmatic man who was used to getting his own way, replied, “Our deployments are none of your concern,” in actual fact, he had no idea, nor had he thought to check. He’d only heard one hurried discussion about securing the bombs, and that involved airdropping a squad of airborne rangers from a jet transport. “This is not a negotiation. I will tell you what to do and you will do it, it is as simple as that.” Helen leaned back in her chair, her temper beginning to seethe. Fighting to keep herself under control, Helen said, in a voice intentionally colored with both indignation and hesitation, “Mr. Graeme, we're out thirty million and you spend more than that in the blink of an eye, for far less effect than getting nuclear bombs to safe hands. The sooner they are in military hands, the better. Things are chaotic here, as you must know. For everyone’s sake, we must get this done with all possible speed. I want no profit because we did this to help, but I want that money back, along with an official recantation of what's been said about us. You’ve dragged our names through the mud and made all kinds of accusations, about both General Bradson and Instinct. That will not stand. All I’m asking for is the truth. Is that clear?” The Deputy Undersecretary sucked in his breath. Noted even by his friends for his prickly disposition, he was not accustomed to be spoken to in such a way by anyone not his superior in the government. His orders had been crystal clear on one point; no money would be paid and no retractions issued. Too many government officials had hung their hat, many in public, on the position that the Iranian nuclear claim story was a sham, a hoax, done for publicity or worse. Further, they’d assured anyone who would listen that Iran could not possibly have developed a nuclear arsenal, not on their watch. Any form of retraction or validation threatened to cause what these government officials feared above all else: career-damaging embarrassment. His superiors had decided, and that was that. They’d designated him as the point man, making clear that his career would benefit if he succeeded and suffer if he failed. Glancing at his nameplate, envisioning it with the ‘deputy’ removed, Broderick Worthington Graeme IV said, “You won't get it. Let me tell you what will happen. You will turn over the devices, immediately. Then we might clear your names, if you fully cooperate. On the other hand, unless you do as you are told, we'll start with an IRS audit and seizure of both your personal assets and the band’s assets, then work our way up to more serious charges, such as those facing Bradson and his crew. We’ll make it stick. The public looks rather dimly on tax cheats and we do have proof that you bank offshore.” Feeling the rush of his own perceived importance, coupled with the feeling that he'd won, the Deputy Undersecretary leaned back, set his feet on his desk, and added, “Furthermore, you will at no point disclose your side of this, ever, or you will face the IRS.” Seeing red, Helen fought for control of her temper. Only by focusing on her intended effect did she manage to keep her voice calm. “I’ll have you know that we've always paid our taxes. Banking overseas isn't illegal and you know it. I find it difficult to fathom your comments. You are attempting to defraud us out of thirty million and our reputations. Your threats regarding the IRS and your implication that we are tax cheats is even more preposterous, in light of the glaring fact that the administration you serve seems to have virtually made being a tax cheat or a bribe-taker a requirement for high office. What you are trying to do here is... unconscionable.” Helen took a breath, and projecting a more hesitant tone said, “What I will do is have a crew of reporters examine a bomb. Their verification, plus the news of the nuclear explosion in Iran, will prove my case beyond any doubt. Surely you can see that. Please, all I ask is the truth. We must get those bombs into safe hands with all possible speed.” His own temper flaring at what he felt was impertinence, and worried by the threat to his career – which any press examination of a bomb clearly posed – the Deputy Undersecretary took note of the hesitancy in Helen’s voice, and as he’d been intended to do, he saw it as a sign of weakness on her part. Thinking that he could make Helen back down, he said, “You have no proof of the detonation in Iran and we certainly won’t provide it. We’ll simply deny it and the story will die, crowded out by news of the volcano. For now, you will tell me the precise location of the bombs. If you say so much as one more word about a bomb to the press, we will, in our own good time, destroy you. One way or another, you will do as I say.” The Deputy Undersecretary found himself suddenly listening to a dead line; Helen, having gotten what she wanted, had hung up as soon as he’d finished speaking. The Deputy Undersecretary was unaware of three things. The first was that the news of the Iranian nuclear detonation would be on the wire services within the hour, expertly leaked to multiple news agencies along with proof, by Bill and several of his like-minded NSA operatives. The scent of a major story, especially one they didn’t have to dig for, was far too enticing for any reporter to resist, even with the news of the volcanic alert currently crowding out the airwaves. The second thing that the Deputy Undersecretary did not know was that his threat to seize assets would prove largely empty: you can’t take what you don’t have access to. The third thing would prove the most embarrassing, on many levels. The Deputy Undersecretary had committed what in government circles was often a career-fatal mistake, though he would hardly be the first or the last to do so; in the heat of the moment, buoyed by his own sense of self-importance, he’d forgotten that conversations could be recorded. As soon as Helen had played the recording for General Bradson, he nodded approvingly. “That should prove useful. Good thinking, getting the SOB on tape.” Helen shrugged. “What we’re dealing with now is basically a press-relations and PR situation, and that’s a huge part of what I do for a living. A lawyer friend of mine once told me that what he always prays for is that his opponent’s client likes to talk, because they usually screw themselves. Well, there’s nothing more talkative than a politician or more egotistical than a government hack. Once I could see what his position was, my objective changed. It was easy to goad him into saying too much: he was even more obliging than I’d hoped. He made the classic mistake of the self-important; he assumed that he was in control of the situation and didn’t understand that I was playing by a different set of rules. I’ll tell you this; I had one hell of a time keeping my temper under control.” Smiling at that, the General asked, “What about the asset seizure? You might want to get a lawyer involved, because that tape gives you one hell of a legal weapon to use to challenge any liens, assuming it’s admissible.” Grinning, Helen replied. “I thought I was being a little paranoid at the time but I was worried that they might try to play hardball, though I never figured they’d be this bad. Anyway, when we were doing the transfers, Instinct and I decided on some cheap insurance; we transferred everything we could overseas, and then on to a few select countries with very favorable banking rules. I already run the revenue contracts through a shell corporation in Luxembourg – as a liability shield – so, they can’t hurt us much. Looks to me like we’ll have to play a little brinkmanship and hit them hard enough in the media so they’ll see folding as the least-bad option. Now, I’ve got to phone a reporter and play that tape.” Shaking his head, General Bradson said, “Give it some time, an hour or two. Let the news from Iran break first. That way, when the tape gets out, it’ll really wallop them. In the meantime, we’ll find a way to get some reporters to inspect a bomb.” In Washington, Deputy Undersecretary Graeme strolled into a press conference and waited for the question period – the subject had been evacuation contingency plans for Americans who were in foreign countries’ at-risk areas – to end. Then, taking the stage, he said, “I have a brief statement to make, on behalf of the State Department and the Justice Department. We have determined that the recent publicity stunt attempted by the rock group Instinct and their manager was part of a scheme to use their nuclear fairy tale, set against the impending disaster which we all face, to defraud the taxpayers of thirty million dollars. Furthermore, an ongoing investigation of their activities, begun several weeks ago, has born fruit: hard evidence that they have been breaking many of our laws in an effort to evade their taxes. Their shameful act, combined with their criminal activity, will be dealt with by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice.” Without acknowledging any of the shouted questions, the Deputy Undersecretary left the briefing room, a smile creeping onto his face. ‘Let’s see how that manager likes that,’ he thought, feeling that he had the winning hand and sure that Helen would fold. He was playing poker, blithely unaware that Helen was playing chess. Ten minutes later, the expertly leaked news of the confirmed nuclear detonation near Kerman, Iran, hit the press wire services. Getting reporters to have another try at inspecting a bomb was something Helen expected to have trouble with, due to her failed first try. She assumed she’d have to haul a bomb to the press center and was willing to do so. While Helen pondered how to go about it, events at the press center rendered the issue moot. The reporter whose phone Helen had taken looked at the wire service printout, his eyes growing wide. A story he’d dismissed as a tacky PR stunt was now looking like the tip of a very large and very real iceberg. Hoping that Helen would keep her word, he snatched up a colleagues’ satellite phone and dialed his own number. A female voice answered, and he said, “We need to talk. Looks like you were on the level and I want to get your story out. You said I’d have an exclusive and I’m calling in that chit. Work with me and I’ll tell the story your way.” The reporter was unaware that he was talking to Felecia. After a considerable amount of confusion and a hurried call to the General’s phone, Helen got the news and phoned the reporter. Helen smiled when she was told what the Deputy Undersecretary had said on behalf of the State and Justice departments. Knowing that she didn’t even have to set the hook, she told the reporter, “I was speaking to the Deputy Undersecretary a half hour ago. You might find what he had to say quite interesting.” Helen held her recorder up to the phone and hit ‘play’. Smelling a Pulitzer and a gold-lined career in the making, the reporter listened to the tape, and at its conclusion assured Helen that he’d get the story out. She then waited, and once told that the reporter’s own recorder was ready, replayed the tape. As soon as the call ended, the reporter’s hands began to shake. He knew what he had, and it was a scandal beyond huge. For whatever reason – and he correctly suspected the real motive – several elements of the U.S. Government, in an obviously coordinated way, had blatantly tried to threaten and extort Helen, publicly pillorying her and the band, all the while knowing the truth. In so doing, they had left nuclear warheads unsecured. The coordination was evidence that the conspiracy – for it could only be that – ran both wide and deep. The tape, when combined with the government’s public pronouncements and the proven nuclear explosion in Iran, was cold hard proof. ‘Woodward and Bernstein, eat your hearts out,’ he thought, referring to the reporters who had uncovered the Watergate story decades before. With that happy thought, he began typing up his notes. A day that had begun with the press conference and the volcanic alert drew to a close, and at the almost-abandoned resort, darkness fell with an ominous air. Instinct and the wedding party, now joined by Jane, huddled in the pavilion, seeking the solace of each other’s company. Jane, surprising Helen most of all, appeared calm and subdued. It was no false front: Embarrassed by her own behavior and terrified by the threat from the volcano, Jane had taken a double dose of Valium. Jon, Eric, and Chase took turns keeping her company, but found the duty far from the chore they’d envisioned. Only Eric had a twinge of concern; there was something about her mood that worried him, as if the calm surface was but a veneer, covering up a very fragile and volatile state of mind. Eric feared that any news of the nuclear warheads would be too much for her to incorporate. The news from the rooftop lookout, confirmed by the radio, did not bode well. The La Palma authorities had made it official: the LP-1 highway now had both of its lanes dedicated to northbound traffic. The only problem was that the authorities, due to the widespread chaos, had no effective means of handling the massive traffic jam. They’d also neglected to say just how far north the single-direction declaration applied. The current estimate being reported by the radio was that it would be the next morning before the exodus abated enough to allow buses to move south and evacuate the stragglers. That, everyone at the resort knew, meant their own transportation was similarly blocked from arriving. To add to their woes, the unattended power grid was beginning to fail, which plunged the resort into stygian darkness. The tiki torches provided a solution, and soon their flickering light lit the pavilion. The snack foods Eric and Jansen had acquired prevented hunger being added to the night’s problems. Reacting to the stress, people sought diversion, and several card games sprang up as the night progressed. By one in the morning, spurred by a growing number of yawns around her, Helen stood in the center of the group and announced, “We should be leaving here by late morning. There’s nothing more we can do tonight, so I think we should all return to our rooms and get what sleep we can. We’ll probably need it tomorrow. Let’s meet back here at sunup.” Helen tried to be as upbeat about their chances as she could, but it was an uphill battle. The radio reports stated that the scientists were still predicting a massive eruption, which could occur at any time. The chances for the eruption occurring were put at over eighty percent. As a result, many of the people in the pavilion did not expect to see the dawn. Helen’s words were heeded by a few, and some people began to file out, heading for their rooms. Jon and Keith lingered, waiting until they could pull Helen aside for a private word. “Brian left us some weapons: the AK and the RPG. We moved them here; they’re under the pile of sheets and blankets,” Jon said. “Good thinking,” Helen said with an approving nod. “You two, come with me. You too, General. We have some contingency planning to do.” Sitting in his darkened suite, The Scar was weighing how best to handle his nervous henchmen. They were near panic, and The Scar decided that keeping them busy was his best option. “Come, let us have another look around the resort. Perhaps we can find some food in the kitchen, or a means of leaving this place sooner.” Priding himself in his acting ability, he portrayed an air of relaxed confidence, which served, as he’d hoped, to calm his men. Jansen walked by Eric’s side, heading for Eric’s suite. As they neared, Jansen said, “I’ve got a little flashlight in my bag. I’ll be right back.” Before Eric could respond, Jansen sprinted away. Entering his room, Jansen stumbled around in the dark until he found his keychain LED flashlight. Then, he knew he had some decisions to make. Keith wasn’t there, so Jansen correctly assumed he’d stayed behind with Helen. ‘Keither knows where to find me, and I’ll check on him later,’ Jansen thought. Looking at his backpack, picturing the bottle of tequila it contained, Jansen made his choice. Hefting the pack to his shoulder, he ran back towards Eric’s suite. Jogging across the grounds, his backpack slung across his bare shoulder, Jansen saw, ahead, the disfigured one-armed man he’d seen before. Not liking the look of The Scar’s three large henchmen, Jansen detoured around them. Seeing the running shirtless teen, The Scar paused for a moment, until he was certain that he did not recognize the face. Then, noticing the resort’s restaurant a few dozen yards away across the lawns, The Scar said to his henchmen, “Let us see what we can find in the kitchen while we wait. I am sure that you are all as hungry as I.” © 2009 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick and Talonrider for Beta reading and advice . Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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