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C James

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  1. Chapter 42: Passion in the Dark When Eric let him into the blacked-out suite, Jansen used the keychain light to lead the way to the sofa, where he deposited his backpack on the coffee table. Eric suddenly realized that Jansen intended to spend the night. What Eric didn’t know was in what way. Eric knew what he wanted, but… ‘What if he doesn’t want to? Or what if he does, and I screw up again?’ Eric thought, paying close attention to Jansen, trying to decide what to do and what to say. Sitting down on the sofa, Jansen waited until Eric joined him, and then shut off the key light. In the darkness, Eric could barely see Jansen’s silhouette. Feeling a pang of guilt, Eric said, “I’m sorry I got you and Keith into this mess–” “Stop right there,” Jansen said, reaching out and fumbling until his hand found Eric’s arm. “I don’t blame you; don’t ever think that, no matter what happens. You didn’t know the volcano was going to blow, nobody did. You had no idea about the bombs... Look, we both know there may not be much time left, so let’s not waste it on feeling bad. I want us both to feel good tonight.” Eric’s inner sense was tingling. He knew that Jansen had told the truth regarding any blame, and he was almost sure that Jansen had sex in mind, but Eric’s anxiety over their first attempt raised doubts in his mind. Deciding to take a neutral course, Eric said softly, “Thanks… I mean that.” Feeling Eric’s bare shoulder brush his own and linger, Jansen smiled to himself, sure that he and Eric were both thinking much the same thing. Still, Jansen took note of the slight hesitation in Eric’s voice, and thought, ‘I’ve just got to get him to relax a little.’ “Let’s drink to us,” Jansen said, opening his backpack by touch and pulling out the bottle. Twisting the bottle open, Jansen handed it to Eric. “Take a chug, we need to unwind.” Suddenly feeling confused – drinking wasn’t what he had in mind for unwinding – Eric took the bottle and tipped it back, taking a pull at what he assumed was whiskey. Feeling the familiar burn, Eric handed Jansen the bottle and said in a strained whisper, “Dude, that’s tequila!” Jansen chuckled and then took a drink. Gasping from the burn, he said, “Yeah. I remembered how uninhibited it made you after the party. I also know you love it, but don’t want to break a promise. So, I figured we’d have some fun tonight, just the two of us, if you’d like to. It’s just you and me so you can be as wild and crazy as you want.” The meaning in Jansen’s words were crystal clear to Eric. The stress, combined with the tequila’s alluring burn, made it all so very tempting. ‘What the hell. I didn’t know so it’s not like I’m breaking a promise,’ Eric thought, as the tequila’s familiar influence grew. Reaching out for the proffered bottle, Eric took another drink. Waiting in the van, west of the tunnel, Yuri looked at the highway junction ahead. LP-1 was still packed with northbound traffic, but at least it was moving, somewhat. The problem was, it was moving northbound and Yuri needed to go south. Yuri had parked half a mile back, deterred by the sight of a La Palma police cruiser and its flashing lights, parked at the junction. The police officer was busy attempting to direct traffic, but Yuri saw no reason to risk any contact. Yuri watched the police officer for a while, and then a slow, cold smile crept across Yuri’s face. After taking a few moments to weigh the idea, Yuri withdrew his combat knife from under the seat, telling the henchman as he did so, “Wait here.” Tucking the sheathless knife into his belt behind his back and under his shirt, Yuri jogged forward through the darkness. As he approached the police officer from behind, Yuri yelled, “Please, you must come at once!” Turning to point at the van, Yuri said in a loud, agitated voice, “There is a woman in there, screaming for help!” Yuri turned to run back towards the van, sparing a quick glance over his shoulder to confirm that the officer was following. As they neared the van, Yuri stopped, gesturing excitedly into the darkness to his left, “There, he’s dragging her away…” The officer came to a halt by Yuri’s side and turned to look where Yuri was pointing. Squinting into the darkness, he saw nothing, and as he reached for his radio to report the situation, his instincts began to light off. Turning back towards Yuri, the officer dropped his hand to his sidearm. Yuri had stepped in close while the officer was distracted, and was ready. With a smooth, practiced move, he drove the knife upwards, point-first, into the officer’s windpipe. The police officer stumbled backwards, and Yuri shoved the knife in deeper, severing the man’s spinal column. The officer, not yet dead, fell to the ground, unable to move, with seconds of consciousness remaining. Fear and pain filled his mind as he began to black out, knowing that he would never awaken. Yuri could feel the warm, sticky sensation of the officer’s blood spattering on his arm. Yuri had chosen the method for both silence, and to avoid being covered in blood, for he had not thought to bring a change of clothing. Moving fast, Yuri pulled the officer into the darkness, where a quick search of the officer’s pockets yielded his keys. Having got what he sought, Yuri dumped his body behind a bush a hundred feet from the road. Racing back to the van, Yuri told the henchman, “Follow me.” Yuri ran to the police car as the van followed. Jumping in, Yuri pulled forward, leaving the flashing strobe lights on. Nosing into the right lane of the northbound highway, he kept edging forward, waiting as the cars coming north moved over to make way. After a few failed tries, Yuri found the right switch and turned on the siren. It was slow going, but the oncoming traffic yielded to the police car, moving aside as best they could to allow the police car, with the van following close behind it, to crawl south. Felecia stared at the road map of La Palma, and gestured to Horst, “We’ve got one hell of a problem. We’re here, near the airport, on the east coast of the island. The tunnel to the other side is inland from us. From what we can see, the tunnel itself is passable, though there’s a steady stream of eastbound traffic coming out of it, the westbound lane appears open. We could go that way, but then we hit the traffic jam heading north on LP-1, which has both lanes dedicated to northbound traffic. That road is the only one that runs from the south end of the island to the north, so I don’t see any chance of getting through that way until the evacuation traffic eases and they reopen the southbound lane to southbound traffic. That will take hours, hours we may not have.” Horst stared at the map for a moment. He could see the problem, but not perceive any solution. “The only other route would be to take the highway south along the coast from here, and follow it around the southern tip of the island until it bends north. The resort is not far from the southern tip of the island, and in that case, we would be moving with the flow of traffic, not against it, once we reached the western coast. However, the highway to our south, due to crossing the area hardest hit by the ash, is closed, beginning just south of the airport.” Nodding, not liking the chances but seeing no other way, Felecia said, “Closed how? We know we can drive through thick ash if we protect the engines. Look at the map; the southern part of the island is shaped like a triangle, with the tip pointing south. The tunnel and the roads to and from it form the top of the triangle. Near the southern tip, where the highway bends north again, there’s a town, Las Canarios. There isn’t much between here and there heading south: just the sea on the left and the volcano on the right, in the middle of our triangle. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is they closed the highway between here and Las Canarios because the area was covered in heavy ash and they still had the highway up the west coast open. At that time, no one would want to come here, into the ash. However… I’m betting that’s changed. Anyone left in the area of Las Canarios would have the choice of sitting in that traffic or trying the closed highway. Take two men in a car south of the airport. It’s about ten miles from here to Las Canarios that way, but they don’t need to go all the way. Go a couple of miles past the closure point, then turn around, and come back. Look for tracks in the ash, or vehicles coming from the south. What I’m looking for is any sign that the road between here and Las Canarios is passable with a truck. If it is, I’ll try it.” Horst turned to leave, and then hesitated. “Felecia, I and some of the others should be the ones to go with the truck. It may be dangerous and there is the issue of the missing warhead yet to be resolved. Either you or I should be here, and I think it would be best if you remain here, in command. The men will be growing ever more uneasy. They respect you and to a degree fear you. Your leadership here may be required.” Shaking her head, Felecia replied, “The people at the resort are my responsibility; they gave us all a way out of our old life and I owe them for that. General Bradson...” Felecia let her voice trail off, unwilling to openly discuss her feelings. “I cannot in good conscience ask anyone to do this for me, so I will go myself, alone. You’ll remain here and if need be one of our other pilots should be able to fly you and the men out. Our chances of surviving the takeoff would be better with General Bradson at the controls but if the volcano erupts, I’m ordering you to fly out; do not wait for me.” Stiffening his back, standing at attention, Horst turned to look Felecia in the eye. In the careful, formal tone of a junior officer chewing out a superior, he said, “With all due respect, you are mistaken. The General has the loyalty of many of us and we are all wealthy, and in most cases thankful for it, due to the band and their manager. There is also the fact, as you say, that General Bradson is our best hope of a survivable departure. Those reasons alone would suffice, but there is more. We need you here. The runway will need to be hosed down and you may need to deal with any local authorities, should they appear. You are far better at that than I am, and the men trust your judgment more than mine. You are, in my opinion, allowing your personal feelings to color your judgment, causing you to take the risk upon yourself, lessening the chances for success. That is not what a commander does.” Anger clouded Felecia’s face for a moment, though she replied in an even voice, “What do you propose, Horst?” “If we find signs that the highway south is passable, allow me to take the livestock truck along that route. I will detail two of the men to lead the way in our tow truck. Its winch may prove essential, should we encounter obstructions. Brian Bradson will wish to go to his father’s aid, as I consider to be his right. I will need only one other, and I assure you there will be no shortage of volunteers. With two trucks, we stand a better chance of succeeding. Trust me to do this for you, Felecia. I will get your people out.” Felecia was stunned into silence for a few moments. Never, not once in the years she’d known him, had Horst questioned her orders in such a way. What galled her more was the knowledge that he was right. Lowering her voice to a soft tone, she said, “Thank you, Horst. Get back from your scouting trip as soon as you can, you’ve got a rescue mission to lead.” Snapping off a crisp salute, Horst headed for the parking lot. Horst returned half an hour later. His face grim and covered by a dusting of ash, he said, “The devastation to the south is even worse than here and the ash is deeper, a foot or more in many places. However, we found the barricades across the highway cast aside and fresh tire tracks coming form the south. I was about to return when we spotted approaching headlights: a vehicle, a large SUV, coming form the south. I hailed them and they stopped. Their English was adequate for them to tell me they had come from Las Canarios. However, they had to unclog their filters several times, and in three locations found their way blocked by the debris of buildings that had fallen into the road, collapsed by the weight of the ash. From what they say, the route is viable but difficult. I suggest that I leave at once.” Felecia stood up and said, in her command voice, “Go. Take fifteen armed men; you may need their muscle to clear the road. We’ve got four RPGs remaining here at the hotel, take them too; you might need them for demolitions. The livestock truck will easily carry that many men, plus the people we’re evacuating.” Horst hesitated, and then replied, “That’s half our force. You may need them here.” Shaking her head, Felecia replied, “You may need them more. There’s chaos and panic on the west side of the island, and you were correct; if we’re going to do this, we need to do it right.” Lowering her voice a little, Felecia said, “Godspeed, Horst.” Horst raced for the parking lot, where the livestock truck was already running. Leaping in, he shouted to Brian and François, who had been preparing the vehicles while Horst was on the scouting mission, “Take the tow truck, I will follow.” Horst ordered thirteen men into the livestock transport and closed the door. Climbing behind the wheel, one man with an AK-47 in the passenger seat, Horst started the truck. With the rumbling thunder of their diesel engines, the tow truck and the livestock hauler left the hotel, heading south. Brian and François had done their best to prepare the vehicles; wadded-up bed sheets had been stuffed under the hoods around the air intakes to provide some protection for the air filters. Additional bundles of towels and bed sheets had been tossed into the livestock transport, for use when the air filters finally clogged beyond reuse, and also to allow the men to keep breathing. As they crawled south through the worsening ash, Horst had no doubt that they’d be needed. Once she’d watched them leave, Felecia phoned General Bradson and gave him the news; the cavalry was on its way. Jansen glanced down, watching with a mix of amusement and desire as Eric kicked their shoes and socks away. Keylight in hand, Eric shone it at Jansen’s face. Jansen didn’t even have time to flinch away as he felt Eric’s chest press forward and the fumbling rush of lips questing against his own. Eric’s insistent tongue swept across Jansen’s lips, its message clear. Jansen parted his lips, joining fully in the kiss, inhaling softly, smelling the almond scent of Eric’s hair. Eric launched into the kiss furiously, almost desperate in his insistent haste, his hands roaming down Jansen’s sides. Hooking the dancer’s waistband with his thumbs, Eric snatched Jansen’s shorts and boxers down, twisting awkwardly to maintain their frenzied kiss. Surprised by Eric’s speed and pace, his own passions rising, Jansen kicked his boxers away and began to tug at Eric’s shorts. A flurry of arms and writhing bodies, naked and aroused, the lovers stumbled in the dark, bumping into the furniture and walls as they made their way to Eric’s bedroom. Eric broke the kiss at the edge of the bed and jumped forward, reckless in his tequila-driven abandon, his arms still wrapped around Jansen’s torso, sending them both hurling onto the bed. Feeling Eric’s questing hand between his legs, Jansen chuckled and said, “Whoa, slow down,” With a chuckle and a grin, Eric grabbed Jansen’s cock and began to stroke it. “I thought you wanted me uninhibited,” Eric said, the tequila burning in his veins. Shuddering at Eric’s erotic touch, Jansen gasped, “Damn, you’re wild… and I like it.” “Come here,” Eric said as he used his free hand to pull their bodies closer together, “You’ll like this more.” Jansen felt Eric’s hand massaging his side, matching the rhythm of the hand on his shaft, making every nerve tingle and forcing a groan of ecstasy from Jansen’s lips. Arching his back, Jansen traced his hands down Eric’s sides, caressing the taut muscles beneath tensing as Eric moved. Pulling Eric to him, Jansen’s lips found Eric’s. Feeling himself nearing the edge far too soon, Jansen rolled, pulling Eric with him, pushing Eric’s hand away, their lips still locked as their tongues dueled. For each of them, the pleasure of the other’s touch dispelled the feeling of peril, and they found sweet solace in the frenzied passion that they shared. Eric lay back, remaining still for a moment, concentrating on Jansen’s touch, his nearness, and the heat of the writhing body pressed against his own. His hunger rising, Eric inhaled sharply, feeling Jansen’s hand massaging his side as the dancer’s other hand moved between Eric’s legs, stroking him, gently but with growing urgency. Feeling Jansen’s tongue tracing across his chest, Eric tensed, breathing hard, trembling from the sensations. Twisting, pulling, fumbling in the dark, Eric began to suck and nibble on Jansen’s neck, reveling in the salty taste of his lover’s skin. Jansen felt Eric twist beneath him, moving sideways. With wild intent, Eric threw an arm across Jansen’s shoulder blades, chuckling with joy as he swung around to lay face down on Jansen’s back. Jansen felt the head of Eric’s throbbing cock pressing against his cleft, demanding entry, as Eric nibbled on the back of his neck. Driven by the heat of the moment, Jansen arched his back and began to allow Eric in. Eric’s insistent push, unlubricated and not quite on target, reminded Jansen that Eric had no experience at what he was trying to do. Tensing up, envisioning the damage Eric could do, Jansen began to turn over, saying in a gentle voice, “Whoa, you don’t know how to do that yet… c’mere.” Pulling Eric to him face to face, Jansen began to grind into Eric, and laughed as he felt Eric’s fingers ticking his ribs. Giggling and writhing, Jansen gasped, “What are you doing?” “I love feeling your muscles move,” Eric said as he lowered his head to nibble, gently at first, on Jansen’s shoulders and neck. His head spinning, heart afire, Jansen ground his hips against Eric’s, and Eric pushed back, writhing with ever more heated urgency. As he neared the edge, Jansen felt Eric’s fingers tickling his side. Twisting, shuddering from the mix of sensations that drove him to utter ecstasy, Jansen moaned, passions burning, exploding, gasping for breath against the furious release. Moments later, Eric joined Jansen in ecstasy’s arms. Spent, they lay together, gasping for breath, and Eric pulled Jansen into a slow and sensuous kiss. Coming up for air, Jansen whispered, “Wow, that was intense.” “Got any more doubts now?” Eric said with a giggle as he playfully ground his hips into Jansen’s. “Not a one… I’m just hoping the water’s still on, because otherwise we’ll be a sticky mess for awhile.” “I like being in a mess with you,” Eric said, his lips seeking out Jansen’s in the dark. When the kiss ended, Jansen pulled Eric to his feet. “I’ve never showered in the dark before. This could be fun.” Stumbling into the bathroom, leaving the door open so the distant glimmer of moonlight provided a faint trace of illumination, they stepped into the shower together. Eric’s quick turn of the handle proved that the water was still on, and a sudden cry of protest from Jansen attested to its cool temperature. Laughing, getting used to the cool water, the two lovers began to wash each other off, fumbling in the dark. Playful touches became more, and Eric reached for Jansen, whispering, “Let me warm you up.” For the second time that night, the two became one. Entering the darkened restaurant at the head of his men, The Scar found a candle on a table, and lit it. Holding it high, he walked through the swinging metal door into the kitchen. As his men entered, The Scar turned to face them and said, “Do any of you know how to cook?” A trio of shaking heads and cowed looks told The Scar that they did not. Sighing, he began to look around, stopping at one of the stoves. He turned on a burner, and seeing it flare to life, said, “The gas still works. Let us see what we can find.” The refrigerators, though without power, were still cool inside. Opening one, The Scar found cartons of liquid eggs and several blocks of cheese. Moving to the next unit, he found butter, along with trays of croissants. “Either the staff took much of the food with them, or others were here before us. No matter. I have not cooked in years, but I think I recall how to make cheese omelets.” The Scar set one of his men to work thinly slicing a block of cheese. Clean, spent, and relaxed, Eric and Jansen stumbled out of the shower. Fumbling for towels, they began to dry each other off. “Maybe we should try to get some sleep,” Jansen said as he toweled Eric’s hair. Eric, with his rush of passion now quenched, was feeling the tequila’s siren song of mischief. Clumsily due to the darkness, Eric wound up a towel. The trace of light was enough for him to see Jansen’s silhouette, and Eric snapped the towel at his boyfriend’s butt. “Ow!” Jansen cried, with surprise and then a laugh. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” “Having fun,” Eric laughed, trying for another snap and missing. As Jansen jumped out of the way, Eric stumbled out of the bathroom, still naked, and kept going until he reached the coffee table, next to the sofa. There, he found what he was after. Jansen came out of the bathroom and heard the sound of Eric taking a chug of tequila. Chucking, he said, “So you still wanna play, huh?” “Oh, yeah,” Eric said, gasping from the burn and handing Jansen the bottle. While Jansen took a swig, Eric reached down, fumbling on the floor, until his hand came to a pair of shorts. Snatching them up, he said, “Let’s go for a swim.” There was something in the sound of Eric’s voice that didn’t seem right to Jansen. He set the bottle on the table and felt for his keychain light. Finding it, he turned it on, aiming it at the table. It gave off enough light to let Jansen look into Eric’s face, where he saw a wicked grin, and eyes flashing mischief and mayhem. “Uh, maybe we better stay here,” Jansen said, as Helen’s dire warning came swiftly to mind. Intent on having a water fight, Eric snatched up the tequila. Shorts in hand, he bolted for the door, calling out gleefully, “You gotta catch me first!” Jansen raced for the door, calling out, “Dude, you’re naked–” Realizing that so was he, Jansen used the keylight to find the other pair of shorts. Tugging them on, he raced out the door in pursuit of Eric. Eric ran through the dark pathways, enjoying the cool night air on his naked body. Darting around a corner, he stopped and listened. He watched as Jansen raced by, and then pulled on the shorts and took a drink of tequila. Whooping like a maniac, bottle in hand, Eric raced down the moonlit path the direction he mistakenly thought he’d seen Jansen go. Jansen heard Eric’s whoop and doubled back, growing more worried by the second and beginning to suspect that if Helen had exaggerated about Eric and tequila, it wasn’t by much. Jansen ran down the pathways but found no sign of Eric. Stopping, correctly suspecting that Eric was hiding, Jansen yelled, “Come on out, please.” The chirping of the tree frogs in the night air was the only reply he received. Resuming the search, Jansen took off at a jog, growing even more worried. Eric, racing the other way, mindless of Jansen’s call, bounded into the moonlit deck of the pool area and began to run along the edge of the pool. His head spinning from the tequila, he stumbled on the pool lip, slipped, and went careening headlong into the water, tequila bottle in hand. Sputtering as he came up for air, Eric realized that he’d lost his prize and dove frantically, feeling around on the floor of the darkened pool for the bottle, not realizing that, half empty, is was floating in its side, six feet above. Fixated on the quest for the missing bottle, Eric kept searching. The tequila bottle, slowly filling with water, drifted away, finally sinking in the deep end and settling to the bottom in an upright position. The tequila, due to its high alcohol content, was slightly lighter than the surrounding water, causing the liquor to slowly exit the bottle. When Eric finally found it, all that remained was pool water. Growing more worried by the minute, Jansen kept searching, checking several of the resort’s pools in the process, but the darkness prevented him from seeing Eric. After a while, he knew he needed help and ran to his suite. Finding his pockets empty, he pounded on the door. Keith, flashlight in hand, opened the door. “Hey, there you are. I just got back and I was wondering where you­–” Blinking against the flashlight’s glare, Jansen blurted, “We gotta find Eric. Help me look for him.” Stepping out into the night air, Keith said, “What’s going on?” “I can’t find Eric,” Jansen said, picking a direction at random and starting to jog. “I kinda figured that part out by now,” Keith said as he jogged at his brother’s side. “Why are you looking for Eric, and why isn’t he with you?” Keith played his flashlight over Jansen for a moment and blinked in surprise. Jansen was silent for a few moments and then replied with a sigh, “He took off running, saying I had to catch him. I heard him whoop a couple of times but I kept loosing him in the dark, and now I can’t find him at all.” “With the freaking volcano about to blow, you guys decided to play hide-and-seek,” Keith asked incredulously, and then after a few moments’ pause he remembered what Eric was like after the party. “Uh, by any chance, have you two been drinking tequila?” Jansen sighed again. “Yeah. My idea. Not a good one, I guess. I gave Eric some.” Rolling his eyes and laughing, Keith replied, “Was this before, or after, you had wild sex?” Jansen stopped in his tacks. “How’d you know?” Keith grinned and flicked the flashlight beam back at Jansen. “Subtle clues, like all those hickeys on your chest, neck, and shoulders, and the fact you’re wearing the shorts Eric had on earlier. So, how was it?” Jansen grinned and resumed the jog. “Hot and wild… just kinda fast, the first time tonight anyway. And yeah, I gave him the tequila before. I wanted to get him to unwind and just have fun. It sure worked that way, but I guess Helen wasn’t exaggerating much about him and tequila. He snapped me on the ass with a towel and ran out with the bottle. I guess I oughta mention; he was naked, but he did have some shorts in his hand, I think. I hope he put ‘em on.” “You do realize that if Helen finds out, she’ll kill us both,” Keith said, wondering if that was any exaggeration. Jansen sighed. “I know… but, with the volcano, the bombs, and everything else, I thought this might be our last night.” Keith nodded, becoming somber for a moment. “Yeah, I see your point. Okay, how about this; I’ll swing by the pavilion and see if anyone mentions Eric. They’re sure to say something, especially if he’s still naked. If there’s no word there, I’ll keep searching. You keep looking, and we’ll meet up back at our room in half an hour. If we find Eric, we take him back there and wait.” “Sounds like a plan. Thanks, Keither,” Jansen said, taking off at a run. Keith made a beeline for the pavilion, and found a few people still there with Helen, playing cards. He just nodded in greeting, watching for a while, hoping that Eric would show up. After a while, with no sign of Eric, he left. Trotting through the resort grounds, he called out Eric’s name a few times, and used his flashlight to check any likely looking hiding places. As he neared the central complex, an alluring scent caught his attention. Stomach growling, Keith followed his nose towards the restaurant. In part, he suspected that if food was involved, Eric might be too. Keith’s second reason was more basic: he was hungry, and the savory scent of cheese and eggs was irresistible. © 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.
  2. Chapter 39: Zeus Triumphant The shouted questions at last subsided, and General Bradson was able to launch into his speech. He gave the reporters a slightly abbreviated but detailed account of the mission to Iran, omitting only Bill’s part, and the fact that he had acted without authorization or approval from Washington. He wrapped up the story of the mission by announcing that Earl Johnson and Brian Bradson had been rescued. The General also told of Instinct’s role as brokers to get the bombs out of the hands of the mercenaries and Felecia’s help in facilitating the deal. Up until that point in his speech, General Bradson had kept to things he’d discussed with Helen. Reaching that critical point, General Bradson put his own plan into action, much to Helen’s surprise. “One item I have not addressed but will now. I had more than the obvious reasons for targeting Iran’s largest refineries. I wanted to make sure that what happened to my son and Private Johnson could never happen again. Iran’s regime needed to pay a heavy price. They have, but only a small taste; I targeted the refineries because I wanted to change Iran’s government. “Iran is in a unique situation. They are one of the top oil-exporting nations, sitting atop a veritable sea of petroleum. Yet, almost incomprehensibly, they import around a quarter of their gasoline. They do so because they lack the refining capacity to meet their domestic needs. Iran’s regime is solely responsible for this situation. They will not invest in the refining capacity needed. Instead, though possessing vast petroleum reserves, they claim they need a nuclear program, ostensibly to make them self-sufficient in the production of nuclear power. This absurdity has gone largely unchallenged. People ignore the glaring fact that while Iran possesses vast reserves of oil, it has no known viable uranium deposits – They claim to have uranium mines yet they import all of the uranium for their nuclear program – thus making their claims of seeking self-sufficiency not only false but also impossible. The real reason for their nuclear program is to develop nuclear weapons and this fact has been glaringly obvious all along. “The response of the world to this situation is and has been pathetic. U.N. resolutions are passed, and a great deal of hot air is vented, but nothing meaningful gets done. Iran breaks promise after promise – surely laughing at our fecklessness and gullibility – and receives nothing more than harshly worded memos, if that. Largely, the world turns a blind eye to the growing threat, preferring to do nothing and leave the problem to tomorrow. Well, tomorrow has come a little early. The Iranians were further along than most anyone had suspected. We have captured four operational nuclear warheads. We used one to destroy a massive underground nuclear facility northwest of Kerman. I don’t know how many Iran had, or still has. “All along, my plan was to bring down Iran’s regime. At first, this was because of what they have done in the past. They’ve been the number one terror-supporting nation for three decades, costing countless lives. They brutally repress their own people. This may come as a surprise to many, but their domestic situation was already precarious. Several times, their people have come close to overthrowing the tyrants, each time due to massive food and fuel shortages. In that, I saw an opportunity to free Iran and its people from the tyranny of the fanatics of the Guardian Council. That’s why I took out the refineries: they now face a massive shortage, and I’d like to see them try to explain to their people why. They can’t. They squandered the money needed for the refineries on their nuclear program. Their country will now pay the price for their misdeeds, and the mullahs of the Guardian Council must now explain to their people what they have done. What I propose is simple; a gasoline embargo until their regime is overthrown. If we prevent Iran from importing gasoline, their regime will fall; it’s as simple as that. It will not be easy and it will mean temporary hardships for the innocent civilian populace, but it is necessary and we have little choice. Their facility at Kerman has been destroyed, but that was but one part of their program. Extensive nuclear facilities remain intact at Nantaz, Isfahan, Arak, Bushehr, Bonab, Ramsar, and likely in other locations as well. Removing the regime that has done this is the only way to ensure that their nuclear capability is forever defused. We simply cannot allow, and were criminally negligent in allowing in the first place, a terrorist regime to possess nuclear weaponry. I hereby call on the governments of the world, in cooperation with the United States, to blockade Iran to put this into effect.” Helen’s jaw, which had been hanging open, snapped shut. She stifled the urge to glare at the General. Her anger was due to the fact he’d sprung a surprise of such magnitude on her. Then, she recalled the way she’d done similar to him by moving the warheads. After simmering down a bit, she decided that as long as the General’s plan didn’t hinder Instinct getting its money back, she wouldn’t oppose it. The roar of the reporters crying out their questions drowned out the General for over a minute. Then, he was able to answer the first question, one he’d hoped would be asked. “Yes, the U.S. Government is aware of much of this. For example, by now they know of the nuclear blast in Iran. The seismic and air sample data confirm its occurrence. They have also seen the destruction of the oil refineries. Everything I have said can easily be confirmed.” With those words, General Bradson was making a colossal mistake. The problem was simple: Bill had kicked off a look at the seismic data. The response had been fast; the only event at Kerman showed the more gradual energy release typical of an earthquake, not the brief but intense single pulse characteristic of an underground nuclear blast. This was due to the secondary fission event in the uranium hexafluoride that generated an additional five kilotons. That secondary detonation had been enough to alter the seismic signal. Some radioactive particles had indeed escaped into the air, but they had not yet had time to drift out of Iranian airspace, and for that reason, had yet to be detected. As far as the U.S. Government knew, no nuclear detonation had occurred. Thinking that all had gone well, Helen took the stage to say, “Instinct and I were proud to act as go-betweens. We did so in the knowledge and trust that the U.S. Government would reimburse us. We seek no profit, no gain. We did this solely to protect countless innocent lives. We will turn over the warheads immediately upon being reimbursed.” Helen was savvy enough to discern that the reporters were skeptical. She’d expected as much. “Ladies and gentlemen, if any of you have the technical knowledge to confirm that what we possess are nuclear warheads, we would be delighted to arrange an inspection, late this afternoon. I assure you, we want those bombs to be taken off our hands just as soon as it can be arranged.” Helen saw several raise their hands, fewer than she’d hoped. She had little doubt that they were unqualified and just wanted in on the story. Still, she thought this was her best option and hoped that whatever expertise they possessed – she assumed that reporters covering a volcanic eruption would likely have a higher than average knowledge of science – along with some digital photos of a bomb’s interior, would suffice. Helen felt sure that it would, based on her belief that the U.S. Government was by now fully aware of the nuclear detonation in Iran. Smiling at the volunteers, she ushered them aside and said, “You’ll need your own vehicles, we’re a little short on transportation. We’ll be ready to leave shortly and lead you a few miles, to where you’ll be able to examine a nuclear warhead. Unless you want someone else to scoop you, keep quiet on the fact we’re letting you see the bomb early.” Helen wasn’t too concerned. By her reasoning, even if the local authorities found out and seized the bomb, that would only result in verification of her claims. Felecia and Brian arrived in the small pickup truck minutes later, bearing the General’s satellite phone. Helen hustled Brian onto the stage, where General Bradson introduced him. Several of the gathered reporters cast sideways glances at Brian’s clothes; he was still wearing the loud boardshorts and T-shirt Keith had given him, and looked decidedly unmilitary. Most of the reporters were skeptical as to Brian’s identity and the story in general. A fast call to Bill gave General Bradson the unwelcome news, just a little too late: there was no seismic data indicating a nuclear blast. What Bill had to say next was even more ominous. “General, you have a problem, a big one. A bunch of REMFs from foggy bottom watched your press conference.” Bill, like many of the frontline people in the intel services, had no love for the State Department, and habitually called them REMFs – Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers – and called the State Department itself ‘Foggy Bottom’, or worse. “They didn’t like what you had to say about blockading Iran. They’re part and parcel of the clique that hung their hats on so-called ‘diplomatic engagement’ and what can only be called appeasement as a way to deal with Iran. As we say, they’re invested to hell and gone in their current policies, as is the administration. These are the same people who thought it would be a great idea to leave two Marines to die in Iran. They didn’t want to offend the bastards over there, I guess, and letting our guys die was the easiest way out of a potential minor kafuffle. Anyway, here’s the situation; they’re going to call you a renegade, a criminal, every name in the book for what you did over there. Sure as hell, they’ll put a warrant out for your arrest. You’ll also see your nuclear story denounced as a lie.” General Bradson’s blood ran cold at the news. “Oh, shit. That means the loan I arranged for the weapons–” “You got that right,” Bill interrupted to say. “No chance in hell on that. What’s more, they see you and the band as partners, so there’ll be more adverse fallout. Another facet here is everyone is stressed out over the tsunami warning. That threat is something the government can’t do a damn thing about and they don’t like that. Makes ‘em look ineffectual and I guess the truth hurts. So, you and Instinct might have just offered yourselves up for a convenient distraction. They’ll move fast on this, they always do when covering their asses. I’m expecting to see an announcement of some kind within the hour and I doubt you’ll like it.” General Bradson was about to reply but fell silent as he realized he had no idea what to say or do. He realized, too late, that he’d predicated his plan on too many assumptions, and that two critical ones had proven false. Straightening his back, he told Bill, “Keep me posted. This is far from over.” Once that call ended, the General faced the prospect of telling Helen. Seeing that she was busy with the reporters, he decided to wait until they were en route to the resort. Helen took Brian and Felecia aside at the first opportunity and asked in a whisper, “How did things go with the third device?” Felecia smiled as she replied, “Perfectly. The funds were confirmed so we handed it over. It’s with Jim and Linda, guarded by Private Johnson. They didn’t say where they were going – no reason for them to tell me, of course – but they left when I did. I’m sure it’s wherever you directed them to take it, by now.” Brian nodded, confirming Felecia’s words to Helen. “Excellent,” Helen said, and then turned to the reporters who had volunteered. “Follow me. We’re going now.” Helen drove the Jetta, heading for the gas station two miles to the south, where she’d arranged to rendezvous with Jim. Felecia and Brian followed in the pickup, which had developed an ominous rumble in its engine. The small convoy arrived at the service station, to the puzzlement of its owner, who was packing up to move to higher ground. While everyone was clambering out of the vehicles, Helen checked her watch, thinking that Jim, driving slower than Felecia, should be arriving at any minute with the bomb. Ambling over to the agitated group of reporters, Helen said, “The bomb should be here any minute. All I ask is that you give an honest account of what you’re about to see.” Suddenly realizing that there could be a big problem, Helen turned to General Bradson to ask, “We do have a way of opening the thing up, don’t we? They’ll need to look inside or all they’ll see is a big fat cylinder.” General Bradson turned to yell at the reporters. “Do any of you have a tool kit?” After a quick look in their vehicles, two of the reporters produced small emergency kits. Snatching one open, General Bradson found a selection of interchangeable heads, and found that it included a selection of hex heads. With a relieved smile – he hadn’t thought of bringing tools – he said, “The access hatch is secured by hex nuts, this will work.” The minutes passed, and while General Bradson chatted with the reporters, Helen grew agitated, continually checking her watch. A quarter of an hour later, she asked Felecia, “You’re sure they left when you did?” Felecia’s nod did nothing to ease Helen’s mind. With the volcanic story to cover, the reporter’s patience soon began to wear out, and several left, in spite of Helen’s repeated assurances that the bomb would be there any minute. One reporter, climbing into his car, gave Helen a disgusted look. Another haughtily demanded the return of his tool kit. Long, awkward minutes followed. Helen stood at the road’s edge, looking south. The windswept landscape, here unmarred by ash, was spoiled only by the ominous, looming bulk of Cumbre Vieja in the far distance. So far, only the eastern side of the island had been beset by the clogging ash. The western coast, from where Helen stood all the way to the resort, was still almost completely free of ash, having been spared by the prevailing winds. As the last of the reporters began to leave, Helen pulled General Bradson aside and, after a moment’s hesitation before realizing she had no choice, Felecia. When they had some privacy due to distance, she said, “Something must have gone wrong. Jim would have been here by now, even if he took some wrong turns. Maybe the truck broke down and he’s stuck. Felecia, could you take the pickup and retrace your route to see if you can find them?” Helen was about to tell Felecia to call her if she found anything, when she realized that, yet again, they were hindered by the failing phone system and having only one working satellite phone. The sound of a one-sided conversation intruded on Helen’s thoughts, and without another word, she stalked off in its direction. Helen saw the reporter, sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, notebook in his lap, and a phone held to his shoulder by his head. Due to the fact it was working, and confirmed by a quick glance at its distinctive protruding antenna, Helen knew she’d found what she needed. Reaching in the open window, she snatched the satellite phone from the reporter and said, “I need to borrow this, it’s an emergency.” Seeing a tool of his livelihood taken away, the reporter yelled, “You can’t do that–” “I already have. Here’s the deal; I only need it for a few hours. In return, I guarantee you an exclusive on the next big Instinct story, or whatever you want. Deal?” Helen had no qualms about simply taking the phone, but she didn’t want the reporter to cut off the account. Seeing that he wasn’t going to get his phone back, and tempted by the offer of an exclusive, the reporter made a virtue of necessity and reluctantly agreed. The story he had in mind was how and why Instinct had seen fit to try a tacky PR stunt, set against what was shaping up to be the biggest natural disaster in human history. Helen wasn’t quite done. “Write down the number and hand it to me,” she demanded. “In for a penny, in for a pound, just be sure you keep your bargain,” the reporter said with a resigned sigh, and did as he’d been told. With her prize in her hands, Helen returned to the General and Felecia. “We now have two working phones. Felecia, you take this one. I’ve got the number. Keep me posted.” “Brian, go with Fel,” General Bradson ordered. As Brian and Felecia drove off in the pickup truck, Helen, the General, Brandon, and Chase piled into the Jetta. As Helen pulled out, heading for the resort, she said, “I hope Jim and Linda are okay. They’re probably just broken down somewhere due to the ash, but considering what they’re carrying, I don’t like this – not one bit. As a practical matter, their no-show also shot our credibility to hell with those reporters. I just hope the news is out regarding the nuke in Iran, that’s the only solid verification we have at the moment.” General Bradson, sitting in the passenger seat, gazed out the window for a moment. Deciding that he might as well get it over with, he shared what Bill had told him. Helen was furious. Her voice rising and dripping venom, she said, “General, you gave me your word. Now, my boys and I are out thirty million and stuck with three atomic bombs. There’s also the little matter of the volcano; if it wasn’t for this mess, we would probably be on safe ground by now.” Nodding somberly, General Bradson replied, “I’ll keep my word, no matter what it takes. Worst comes to worst, we’ll grab a couple of fishing boats, one for some reporters, one for a nuke, and give a private nuclear test offshore. That’ll prove our case to everyone. There’s also the matter of air samples. My contact said that the radioactive gases from the Iranian blast should be clearing Iran’s eastern boarder any time now, and that’ll be detected, giving us proof. This’ll still work, just not as fast as we’d hoped.” Helen was far from convinced. “General, it had better. Now, and I mean right the fuck now, I want you on your phone to Washington. Talk to your friend, talk to the government, but get to work on this. Get them moving.” Knowing that it would likely be futile, the General did as he’d been asked. Half an hour later, he had to tell Helen, “There was a press briefing about the volcano a short while ago, and a reporter asked a question about us. It was answered. The long and the short of it is they’ve put a warrant out for my arrest for raising a mercenary army and crossing international borders with it. There’s more; the State Department has denounced our press conference as a sick publicity stunt during a national emergency, and hinted that you and Instinct may face charges for trying to extort money from the government.” “My, that went well,” Helen said icily. “I take it the air samples haven’t come in yet?” The General shook his head. “There was a reconnaissance flight, but it hadn’t landed yet, and samples take a while to process. My friend thinks it’ll hit sometime today, but no promises.” “Just great. Well, that means we can’t expect the government to get us out of here, so we’ll have to go with your plan. Let’s get back to the resort and load everyone into the van. Between it and this car, we should all fit, but it’ll be tight as hell.” That bit of news surprised the General. “How many people in your party? I thought it was just you and the band, plus two or three others?” Helen snorted. “Not hardly. We were here for Brandon and Chase’s wedding. There are over twenty guests, mainly from the crew but including the Carlisle boys’ mother. None of them knows anything about the bombs, you, or Felecia and her troops. I guess they know by now though, if they were watching the news.” With a cold shudder, Helen realized that she was responsible for the lives of thirty people, all of whom were in imminent peril. General Bradson considered the implications for a moment. “The C-130 will handle them, Fel’s troops, plus the bombs if need be, but I’d rather leave those wherever you have them hidden. I don’t want to tempt her men with them. There’s also the issue of takeoff weight; with those bombs on board, takeoff would require an extra couple of hundred feet, which we may not have.” Helen found herself in a dilemma, and voiced it. “If the volcano blows like they say it will, the two bombs I have hidden are gone. That means the only chance I’ll have to recover the money, and our reputations, will be the third bomb. General, that money is critical to me. I committed almost my entire net worth, plus a few million each from the boys, to this. That’s my life savings, my retirement, everything, and the boys would be hurt as well. There’s also the issue of clearing our names, and it looks like we’ll need the bombs to do that. I will not tolerate seeing us dragged through the mud,” Helen said, assuming that evacuating their party from the resort and moving them to the relative safety of the eastern side of the island would be an easy matter. General Bradson understood the problem. What he couldn’t see was an easy solution. “All I can think of is we take one bomb with us when we fly out, and move the other two to a safe hiding place on the east side of the island.” “I guess that’ll have to do, if it comes to that,” Helen said, in a far from pleasant tone. In the back seat, Brandon and Chase had listened to the exchange in anxious silence. Brandon’s hand found Chase’s and Brandon said, “This isn’t exactly how I’d pictured our first days of married life going.” ‘And maybe these days are our last,’ Chase thought, but didn’t give it voice. He didn’t need to; they were all thinking the same thing. While Jon was having breakfast with Jane at the resort, Eric, Jansen, and Keith sat in front of the TV, flipping channels. “Damn cable is out again,” Eric grumbled, frustrated that he couldn’t watch the news conference and having no way of knowing that he’d missed the news about the volcano. “Maybe the front desk has news, a working TV, or a radio,” Keith suggested, and led the way to the front desk, where the three guys learned that the resort staff was just as much in the dark as they were. On their way back to Jansen and Keith’s suite, Eric stopped, a thoughtful look on his face. “Cars have radios and those sure as hell don’t need cable.” “Too bad you had to give that little Mercedes back,” Jansen said. Still smiling, Eric turned towards the restaurant and as he set off at a brisk pace said, “Follow me. Jon has the keys to the van and the van has a radio. He’s at the restaurant having breakfast with Mom.” Wondering how Eric planned to get the keys without tipping off his volatile mother, Jansen and Keith followed, staying a few paces behind as they entered the restaurant. Eric spotted Jon and his mother, and sauntered up, smiling. “Hi,” he said to them both in a casual tone, before shifting his attention to Jon and saying, “Let me have the keys to the van. I need to get some stuff out of it for Helen’s meeting. I won’t go anywhere but I might listen to the radio for a while. The cable is out.” Jon hesitated for a second, until he realized that Eric was carefully referring to Helen’s press conference, which Jane knew nothing about. Suddenly it clicked that Eric wanted to listen to the conference on the van’s radio. Fishing out the keys, Jon tossed them to Eric and said in a friendly, nonchalant voice, “Just be careful you don’t flatten the battery.” As Eric spun on his heel and left just a little too quickly, Jane arched an eyebrow at Jon and asked, “You don’t think he’ll drain the battery, do you?” Yuri quickly surveyed the captured truck and bomb. He commended the men; they’d left the ambush area as he’d instructed and found a place to lay up: the barn of an evacuated farm. Yuri wrinkled his nose, wishing they’d found one with less manure. He dealt with the most immediate concern first. “Did you clean up the ambush site, and were there any witnesses?” Survov, the lieutenant in command of the force, who, like Yuri, was a former Soviet officer and proud of his skills, was mildly insulted by the question, but refused to show it. “We buried the five bodies – including two of my men – in a ditch by covering them with ash. That should be sufficient for a few days. There were no witnesses, otherwise we would have assured their silence, permanently.” The fact that there had been a witness to the sound of gunfire was not known to the lieutenant. Satisfied regarding the ambush, Yuri turned his attention to the truck. To his delight, he found that the truck, though damaged, appeared to still be drivable. He turned over the engine, and after a few coughs, it chugged to life. That happy event was clouded when Yuri noticed water dripping from the right front fender, which bore heavy damage from the collision with the rock wall during the ambush. A quick look under the hood revealed that the radiator had taken damage in the crash, and had a crack near the lower right corner. Yuri shrugged and told the lieutenant, “You did well, but the truck will not run far. However, it will run far enough, I think. It only needs to get to the airport, when the time comes. That’s only a few miles away and mostly downhill.” What the truck could not do, Yuri was sure, was retrieve the two remaining warheads, if they were any distance away. To that end, he told the lieutenant, “This van might suffice to move the remaining devices, but it would be badly overloaded. Send out a squad of your men in search of a truck.” The lieutenant nodded, and did as he’d been commanded. Yuri phoned The Scar to report what he’d found. After giving a status report, Yuri said, “The device is intact. I’ll rig a demolition charge to it, as you said.” Yuri hesitated for a moment, knowing that The Scar despised being argued with, but Yuri felt obliged to continue. “Sir, I wish you would join us. I heard the news about the volcano on the radio.” Upon learning that The Scar had yet to hear the news, Yuri gave his employer a brief synopsis of the volcanic alert, and then added, “I would guess that major eruptions could occur at any time and the highway tunnel I used to get here goes through the volcano’s northern slopes. Sir, if you remain there, you may be cut off, or worse.” Yuri glanced about at the men with him. He’d made sure they were aware of the comparative safety of their location, but the agitated fidgeting of several made clear that they were deeply concerned for their own safety. The Scar considered that for a moment. Mindful of the fact that the five men with him might panic at the news, should they learn it, The Scar replied in a casual tone, “We must all take risks, Yuri. Fortune favors the bold, after all. I shall remain here until I have the other devices or they turn up elsewhere.” With a grinning Eric in the lead, Jansen and Keith jogged into the parking lot behind him. Eric looked at the van – or rather, where the van had been parked. After staring at the empty space for a few moments, he said, “Look around, it’s got to be here somewhere. Jon would have said if he moved it and I saw it here this morning.” Concern quickly became fear as they realized that their only means of leaving the resort was gone. They had no idea how lucky they were; had they arrived twenty minutes sooner they would have stumbled upon Yuri – who would recognize Eric on sight – and his five armed men as they were stealing the van. Racing back into the restaurant, Eric dashed up to the table and, ignoring his mother, said to Jon, “I need to talk to you in private, it’s urgent, right now.” The tone in Eric’s voice informed both Jon and Jane that something bad had happened. Before his mother could object, Jon said, “I’ll be right back, stay here,” and jogged out of the restaurant with Eric. Meeting up with Jansen and Keith outside, Eric turned to tell Jon, “Unless you moved it, the van’s gone.” “Gone? What do you mean, gone?” Jon asked, and then added, “I haven’t moved it. Come on.” In the parking lot, Jon stared at the empty parking space. A quick glance around confirmed that the van was indeed missing. “Please tell me this is a joke,” he said, hoping that somehow it was. Eric shook his head. “No joke, bro, I swear. I know that thing is our way out of here. I wouldn’t fuck around with it.” Feeling as if the world was crashing down on his shoulders, Jon said, “Go tell the front desk. See if you can get us more transportation, anything. I guess I’ll go keep Mom occupied. I better think up something to tell her, because she’d flip out if she knew.” Jon raced back to the restaurant, arriving just in time to be greeted by the rising murmur of agitated voices. Eric hadn’t been the only one to think of using a radio. One of the other guests had a portable and had tuned in to the news minutes before, and had learned of the volcanic alert and evacuation order. The news was spreading through the resort like wildfire, and Jon reached the table just as his mother found out about the volcano. Eric, Jansen, and Keith raced down the resort’s twisting pathways, heading at full speed for the resort’s front desk. Sitting in his suite at the resort, The Scar savored the brandy in his glass, reveling in the morning’s developments. Alone, staring out through his patio glass doors at the shimmering blue swimming pool beyond, he paid no attention to the three young men racing by in the distance: Jansen, Keith, and Eric, in their headlong rush to the resort’s main building. Straightening his back and standing tall, raising his remaining arm like Zeus triumphant, The Scar recalled the day he’d first wielded such power. The Scar’s gravely voice, in a thespian’s measured and melodic tone, softly echoed from the walls. “I have crossed the valley of death and stand at the gateway to the garden of my reward, for a power once mine is mine again.” His mind began to wander as he relaxed, and he began to think of how to cover his exit from the island. That thought led to another, and The Scar smiled coldly as his plan took form. Picturing the scenario in his mind, The Scar raised his glass and said in his theatric tone, “Revenge, how sweet thou art, and victory yet sweeter still. For now I say, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” Smiling as he waxed poetic, The Scar settled into a plush armchair and poured himself another snifter of brandy, gloating over his success as he swirled the amber liquid, savoring its scent, and then its warming taste. © 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 . Also, a special "Thank you!" to AFriendlyFace, for catching some typos. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  3. C James

    Trapped

    Chapter 40: Trapped All it took was one person with a radio and news of the volcanic warning spread like wildfire in spite of the cable and phone outages. Part of that news was that the resort and its environs were dead center of the massive block of land, miles in extent, that was predicted to slide into the ocean during the lateral collapse. People no longer cared that there were no remaining accommodations on the north end of the island. They wanted one thing and one thing only: they wanted out. In an exodus that often bordered on panic, almost everyone who had means of transportation or could acquire it by whatever desperate measure, headed north. So too, in at-risk areas all around the Atlantic Basin, the exodus was underway as people sought the safety of higher ground or inland regions. Nowhere was it orderly, though in some areas it was far worse than others. Panic, fear, and frustration sometimes flared to violence, and already the death toll had climbed to over a hundred from that cause. Traffic, panic behind the wheel, and the inherent risks of a mass evacuation had already claimed threefold more. Time would only make it worse. At the resort, which by that time was at less than half of capacity and staffed by a skeleton crew, this meant that anyone with access to a vehicle was attempting to leave, creating a traffic snarl on the winding road up to the village of Las Indias. Some of those who could not find space in a vehicle began the journey on foot. Just upslope from Las Indias, the LP-1 highway, the only route north, had already become a veritable parking lot on its single northbound lane. In desperation, many of the drivers ventured into the almost-deserted opposing lane. Back at the resort, Jon was battling the urge to pull his hair out. His mother was following him around, barraging him with frantic questions, all a variation of ‘how can we get out?’ Since learning that the van was gone, she’d been in a state of near panic. Jon’s only solace was that she’d yet to hear of the nuclear warheads; that news had been swamped by the reports about the imminent eruption of Cumbre Vieja. Eric’s report from the front desk hadn’t helped. The staff, along with everyone else who could, were leaving, some doing so on the roofs of overflowing cars. The parking lot had fast become a ghostyard, and some guests were leaving on foot. In exasperation, Jon told Jane, “Mom, you aren’t helping. I’ve got to get everyone together and then figure out transportation. Please go to your suite and we’ll meet you there soon.” Jane began to yell, “If Helen hadn’t run off, we wouldn’t be in this mess! How are we going to get out of–” Raising his voice, Jon replied, “I don’t have time for this. Go, or I’ll carry you if I have to.” Eric hooked his mother by the arm and gave her an insistent tug. “Mom, he’s right. You need to go. Try to calm down–” “Calm down? We’re trapped here and we’re all going to die!” Jane yelled at the top of her lungs. The sound of her own voice caused her to actually listen to her words, and her face fell blank for a moment before she said in a far more rational tone, “Sorry. I’m acting like a child. Do what you can. I’ll be in my room.” Jane’s change of deportment was so sudden that to Eric and Jon, it seemed as if a switch had been thrown. The sudden change in his mother surprised Eric more than anyone. Stunned, he stared at her retreating back, feeling in his gut the sudden change in her demeanor was real. “I think she’ll be okay,” he said. “Thanks for getting her to go. She was driving me nuts and I just can’t deal with her right now,” Jon said. After exchanging worried glances with Jansen and Keith, Eric asked Jon, “Any idea what we can do to get out of here?” Jon shrugged. “Nope. Not yet. No way we can leave on foot. Some of our party, Mom for one, aren’t in good enough shape to hike up to the highway, let alone farther. I’m hoping Helen gets back soon, plus Jim and the truck. It won’t be fun, but I think the truck and the Jetta could carry everyone if we stack a few like cordwood in the truck bed.” Glancing around the pool deck on which they were standing, Eric said, “It’s almost deserted here. I guess we’re just about the last people at the resort.” Eric was incorrect. Thirty yards away, in a suite just around the corner, The Scar sat with his five troops, demanding to know why none of them had been able to steal a vehicle. The fact that none remained was something he did not care to hear, and avoided doing so by yelling at the men. He sent three out again, telling them to keep looking. Eric’s growling stomach asserted itself, spurring him to think of another possible problem. “I better go round up some food, in case we’re here or on the road a while,” Eric said. Jon nodded in agreement. “Good idea. Get water and soft drinks too.” Jon paused for a moment, looking at Jansen and Keith. “Jansen, go with Eric. Keith, go to the parking lot and keep an eye out for Helen, Jim, or any kind of transportation. I’ll go check in with everyone in our party and get them ready to roll. We’ll meet up at the party pavilion, no more than fifteen minutes from now. With a nod at Jansen, Eric said, “Come on; let’s go raid the store for snack food, anything that’ll keep.” As Eric and Jansen jogged off, Jon saw Keith turn towards the parking lot and said, “Wait up a sec. There’s something I gotta say.” When Keith turned to face him, Jon said, “I don’t know you well, but you seem level-headed. We’ll need that. Here’s the problem: there’s other people stuck here at the resort, not just us. We’ll help ‘em if we can, but if we can’t, it could get messy if they see us with a way out of here. I’ve seen the panic in people’s eyes. Our responsibility is to the people in our party, and if push comes to shove, I might need help.” Keith met Jon’s eyes, and said, “You can count on me.” Keith had no doubts that Jon was expecting trouble. He’d had similar thoughts himself. He was also well aware of one reason why Jon had singled him out; Jon knew that Brian had left weapons in Keith’s suite. “Let’s go get the weapons,” Jon said, and then added, “I’ve seen the ash on the other side of the island. We’d better make sure everyone has extra clothes. We might need towels and bedsheets for makeshift air filters, for both people and vehicles.” A few minutes later, in Jansen and Keith’s suite, Jon and Keith concealed the RPG and AK-47 in sheets and blankets, and then Keith hurried to pack some extra clothes for himself and Jansen. As they left the suite, with Keith carrying a suitcase and several stacks of towels and Jon hauling the weapons in a bundle of bedclothes, Jon glanced up the volcano’s slope and said, “I just hope we find a way out of here, because I don’t think that volcano will wait much longer.” Racing up to the Resort’s main building, Eric and Jansen found the lobby deserted. Jogging up to the little store, which was separated from the lobby by windows and a glass door, they saw the ‘closed’ sign, and discovered that the door was locked. “No time for subtlety,” Eric said, as he ran back a few paces, grabbed a large potted plant, and used it to smash the glass of the door, sending the safety glass cascading into the store. Dropping the plant, he stepped through the doorframe, Jansen close behind. “We’ll need these,” Jansen said, pulling a few souvenir tote bags from a rack. Working as fast as they could, Eric and Jensen stuffed the totes with bags of nuts and candy bars, and then shoved in a few dozen bottles of water, followed by several liter-size bottles of soft drinks. “That’s about all we can carry in one trip,” Jansen said, picking up several of the bags. Eric picked up the remaining bags and said, “We’ll have to come back again for more.” Moving as fast as they could given the awkward loads in their hands, they trotted through the lobby and onto the pool deck, heading for the party pavilion. After fifty yards, Eric was grimacing from the pain of the bag’s straps cutting into his hands. “Hang on,” he said, letting go of the bags and tugging his shirt off. Taking a deep breath, Eric grabbed his t-shirt at the collar with both hands and pulled, tearing it in two with a loud rip. He then wrapped the pieces around each hand, and began picking up the bags, his hands protected from the cutting straps. Jansen, his own hands in pain, followed suit. “Good idea,” he said, as they resumed their rush to the party pavilion. Finding the door locked, Eric fished for the key, glad that he still had one. They dumped the food inside, bags and all, and then relocked the door before racing back towards the store in the tropical heat, their sweat beginning to trickle down their bare torsos. Growing ever more frustrated, The Scar stepped away from his men and phoned Yuri. “The guests are fleeing the resort and as yet we have been unable to secure a vehicle. I have a man in the parking lot on the lookout, but I fear that the band may have gone as well, along with the General and the traitorous bitch – if those two were ever here. The two remaining devices may be lost to us, Yuri, and it appears that the danger from the volcano is indeed imminent. Send a car... no, two, and I will make my way to you. I think it may be time for us to leave this besotted isle.” Yuri squinted for a moment, deciding which men to pick. Language barriers were part of the problem. The guard force from The Scar’s Sudan base, from whom Yuri had drawn the thirty men they’d taken to La Palma, were unevenly skilled. The rank and file were largely African militia-for-hire, trained in large part by the Russian lieutenant who commanded them. He had, fortuitously, trained them in paratroop tactics, though their drop into La Palma had been the first for several of the men, and the third for the most experienced. As a result, several were hobbling around on sprained ankles, and Yuri was amazed that none had died in the night drop. The language barriers stemmed from the origins of the men; most spoke one or more African languages. A few of the men were European soldiers of fortune, adding further to the linguistic mix. The Russian Lieutenant, Survov, spoke Russian and some English. Many of his men spoke almost no English, and all but the most basic of orders had to be translated for them. Making his choice, he pointed to one, and then another. “You two, take the cars and go.” Working as fast as he could, he circled the resort on a map and then highlighted their route handing the map to the first of the men. “Get there as fast as you can. The sooner you bring our employer here, the sooner we can all be on the plane and gone from this island.” Minutes later, having been told by Yuri that the cars were on their way, The Scar realized that, given the chaos of the evacuation, it might take them a while for them to arrive. To the men in the suite with him, he said, “There must be something still here... perhaps a service vehicle. Come with me.” His mood rapidly darkening, The Scar led his men out of the suite, and after thinking for a moment, decided to begin his search at the resort’s main building, for no other reason than he had no idea where the resort’s service vehicles might be, and did not care to admit it. The lobby building seemed as logical a place as any to begin the search. Stumbling through the lobby with a second load of tote bags bearing food and beverages, Eric and Jansen neared the main doors. Rushing through, Jansen looked ahead and saw a hunched, one-armed man accompanied by three large, tough-looking men headed in their direction. He thought to say something to Eric, but realized that the men were likely already within earshot. Jansen lowered his head a little to avoid making eye contact with the approaching men, intending to keep on going. The Scar had not yet given up hope of finding Instinct and Helen. He stopped in his tracks as he glanced at the nearest of the shirtless teens – Jansen –, thinking for a moment that there was something familiar about him. It only took an instant for The Scar, who had never seen Jansen before, to realize that he was mistaken, and he took a step forward, waiting for the face of the second teen – Eric – to emerge from behind the first. For Helen and the other occupants of the Jetta, the drive back to the resort proved to be a long one. The day before, it would have taken little more than an hour. Now, three hours after leaving the gas station, Helen swore at an oncoming driver, jamming on the brakes at the last possible second, as they reached Las Indias. Helen refused to back up, and waited until the oncoming driver had forced his way back into his lane. Advancing again, leaning continuously on the horn, she drove for another fifty yards before finding her way blocked by more oncoming cars. After stopping to wait for the oncoming cars to return to their lane, she said, “I don’t think it’ll clear this time. There’s too many ahead and it’s about a mile to the intersection. See if you can find a map; we need another way to get to the road down to the resort.” A frantic search ensued, and Brandon found a map in the seatback pocket. General Bradson found another in the glove box. Brandon handed his map to the General and said, “At least we’d have seen Jon and the van if they were on the road. No way could we have missed them.” While the General studied the map, Helen replied, “Yeah, unless they started out when the alert went up. That would be the smart move and I hope they did. I just wish I’d have thought to give them a rendezvous point so we could find them. I’m guessing Jon would head north, but to where, I don’t know. I don’t think he’d try to take the highway south and then round the southern tip of the island to head north on the east side, way too much ash, and last I heard that road was closed.” Chase weighed in to say, “Jon has the General’s satphone number and he’ll have a good chance of finding a working phone up north. At the press conference, the wall phones were working; I saw a reporter using one. I hope that means they work at least some of the time.” Feeling slightly better, Helen said, “Thanks, Chase. I just wish we knew so we didn’t have to go back to the resort.” General Bradson jabbed a finger at the map. “I can’t see another way down. Looks to me like the intersection ahead is the only way from here to Las Indias, and we have to go through there to get to the resort.” “No chance, not unless this traffic lets up. Our lane is blocked by a string of oncoming cars as far as I can see.” Brandon, sitting in the right rear seat, glanced out his window. “We’re pretty close. If I look straight down the mountain, I can see the parking lot for the beach where Chase and I got married. I’ll bet we’re less then two miles from the resort. Maybe we should try it on foot.” Helen shook her head. “We’re nearly three thousand feet above sea level here. It’d be a damn steep walk, and a hell of a lot longer on that switchback road down. I’m guessing six or seven miles. The other thing is there are people heading north on foot, so if we leave the car I’m sure it would get stolen, or at least wrecked by people trying. Then if Jon and the van are gone, we’re stuck at the resort with no way out.” “Brandon and I can run it,” Chase said, and remembered looking upslope from the beach. “It’s a steep slope, but just a slope, no cliffs or anything, as far as I can remember. You and the General stay with the car and we’ll go to the resort. If Jon and everybody are gone, we’ll come right back.” “I sure as hell wish we had two phones,” Helen said, tacitly agreeing to the plan because she could see no other options. “Okay, that means I have to get off this road and I want you two to know where I’ve parked. General, can you see anywhere to pull off?” The General looked at the map, and then stuck his head out the window to check. “Looks like a little dead-end lane a couple hundred yards back, but you’ll have to turn around.” “Turn around my ass,” Helen said, as she slammed the Jetta into reverse. “At least we’re going the right way.” Backing up, having to slow to a crawl after a hundred yards, Helen moved with the flow of traffic, and then jammed the Jetta past the car behind, scratching both of their fenders, as she backed into the narrow dirt lane. Slamming the Jetta into park, she said, “Go to the resort. If no one in our party is there, get back here as fast is you can. If they’re there, get ‘em loaded up and moving in this direction. When you get close get in the southbound lane. Don’t pull in here; have Jon keep going and one of you get out on foot to warn me, so I can pull in ahead and lead ‘em through the tunnel. If anything happens, we rendezvous at Felecia’s hotel. Try the phones and your cells from the resort, just in case they’re working. Got all that? If so, get going and be careful!” Watching Brandon and Chase jogging awkwardly down the steep slope, General Bradson said, “I’ll try Fel again.” A few moments later, he had to tell Helen, “Still nothing. She’s already driven the likely route and checked with her men. There are a few other roads that go through to the main highway from the hotel, so Fel’s checking those in case Jim took one of ‘em. She said they might not be able to do much more; the engine is wheezing badly. I tried the resort, too; line’s still dead.” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Helen said, feeling herself shiver in spite of the warm weather. A jostle at The Scar’s elbow caused him to turn, as the man pointed at a wooden palisade, which concealed the resort’s landscaping equipment. The man gestured again, “I see it, a vehicle.” The Scar was half a head shorter than the smallest of the three men, and could not see over the palisade. The lure of transportation beckoned, and the two shirtless teens forgotten, The Scar said, “We shall look.” Already past The Scar and his entourage, Eric and Jansen continued on. For a moment, Eric felt a sense of foreboding, accompanied by a shiver running down his spine. Intent on his task, having been largely oblivious to the men they’d just passed, he attributed his feeling to the very real risk posed by the volcano and their predicament. The vehicle The Scar’s man had spotted took some getting to; they had to kick down the gate of the work area. What that effort revealed was a small golf cart that had been turned into a landscaping truck. To The Scar’s intense irritation, it proved to be electric, not gasoline-powered, and thus useless for their needs. “The battery will flatten before we get halfway up the slope,” he said in an icy tone. Their search turned up no further vehicles, and served only to sour The Scar’s already dark mood. Keith, standing in the deserted parking lot at the resort’s main entrance, found that boredom was indeed a problem, even when one’s life was at risk. Wishing that he’d thought to bring along his iPod – which was back in his room – so that he could at least listen to music, he began to pace. Every so often, he looked up the volcano’s slope, nervously eyeing every small ejection of ash from its active vents. Lowering his gaze slightly, he squinted to focus on the few streches of the switchback road that he could see, hoping to see the Jetta or the truck approaching. Higher on the road, he could discern the beginning of the traffic jam, but closer to the resort, it appeared deserted, save for a few stragglers on foot. The one exception was a large black man in sunglasses and ill-fitting clothes, standing on the other side of the parking lot. Keith wondered, for a moment, if the man was, like himself, waiting for someone. Tracing the route of the road upwards again, squinting against the sun’s glare, Keith could see some of the buildings in Las Indias, and tried to pick out the main highway just above, hoping to see what the traffic situation on it might be – though he fully expected it to be jammed solid. The sound of running feet to his left caused Keith to snap his head around and look. As the two sweating, shirtless runners raced towards him, their unexpected method of approach and disheveled appearance caused Keith to hesitate, not fully sure who he was looking at. As the distance closed to forty feet, he knew, and called out, “Hey, are you guys okay? What’s going on?” Brandon and Chase, breathing hard from their difficult run, skidded to a halt in front of Keith. Struggling to catch his breath, Chase said, “Where are the others, and why are you still here? We’ve got to get out; volcano could blow at any time.” “We’re rounding everyone up at the pavilion where you guys had your bachelor party, come on.” Keith led the way and added, “The van’s gone so we couldn’t leave. Why are you guys on foot?” “Traffic... Let me catch my breath,” Brandon said, intending to tell everyone at the pavilion what was going on. Yuri was not having a good day. “Get the damn thing working!” he yelled, growing more exasperated by the minute. The engine of the second car had coughed and begun belching smoke after traveling less than a mile, and had turned back. Yuri paced while two of the troops had a look under the hood. To Yuri, based on his own background, the force they now commanded was not a proper military unit at all. They were, in his mind, by and large merely paid henchmen of The Scar. Still, they were all they had, and they would have to do. Yuri had no illusions how those henchmen would fare in an even match with Felecia’s mercenary force. He just hoped that, when the time came, his troops – The Henchmen, as he now thought of them – could secure the airport for long enough to land and load the C-130. Looking back at the car, which was being ministered to by two of the henchmen, one European and one African, Yuri could watch a problem in action. Neither spoke English, so any words between them as they worked were translated via English, causing much slowness and not a small amount of misunderstanding. What should have taken a minute took five, until the translator was able to tell Yuri, “The air filter is missing and there is ash in the air intake. They think the engine won’t work anymore.” “For this, I need experts?” Yuri said in exasperation. He then eyed the van he’d stolen, wondering if he might end up needing it to rescue his employer. A hurried rush of words from his side caught Yuri’s ear, and he raced over to where several men were listening to the radio. They’d heard the news of Helen’s press conference. Sitting in his suite with one of his henchmen, The Scar was in a somewhat different situation. Yuri had been careful to ensure that the five men who would remain with The Scar all spoke at least a smattering of English. That had proven useful at times, but at the moment The Scar wished it was otherwise. Two of his henchmen, out patrolling the resort grounds, had heard about the volcanic alert. They had promptly told the other three, two of whom had slipped away and fled on foot. The remaining three, after listening to The Scar’s best attempt at friendly persuasion – he’d promised them that he and Yuri would hunt them down and shoot them if they fled and somehow survived the volcano – had decided, based upon the assurance that cars were coming for them, to stay. The Scar was far from happy. He was down to three men, and even those were beginning to chafe under his command. They were, it was plain to see, far more interested in leaving than in finding Instinct. Still, by sheer intimidation, he’d managed to get one to resume patrolling, while another had drawn the more welcome duty of waiting for their rescuers in the parking lot. It was the henchman in the parking lot – A native of northern Sudan, who spoke Nubian and some Arabic, along with a little English – who had spotted Brandon and Chase. Based on the photos he’d been shown, he was almost certain that he recognized Brandon, though he wasn’t absolutely sure. He trailed them at a distance to the party pavilion, before returning to his post. That left him with a dilemma. He could tell his employer, thereby risking his wrath if he was mistaken or they were no longer there. The deciding factor was the henchman’s opinion that The Scar might delay their departure if he found that his quarry was still at the resort. With that in mind, the henchman decided to keep quiet about what he’d seen, for the time being. Yuri phoned The Scar and briefed him on Helen’s news conference, and then the situation with the vehicles. The Scar thought through the first of the implications and said, “It is good that they do not believe Helen or Bradson, but now our troops have heard of my past. Do you believe this will be an issue?” Yuri glanced at the troops near the radio. Stepping further away to ensure privacy, he replied, “I do not. They seem interested but not overly concerned. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that they believe what was said about you. They are far more focused on the volcano.” Knowing that one car would be enough, The Scar made a decision. “Do not send the van; we may need it to move the device...” The Scar’s voice trailed off, as he realized that he was missing something, something big. Thinking aloud, he said to Yuri, “Wait. This tells us many things. We know that Helen has the two bombs. We also know, based on what you told me of the government’s response, that she’s in a standoff with them. It would be reasonable to assume, would it not, that she would have hidden the bombs where the government cannot find them? Given the paucity of vehicles, it is possible that they used the truck we captured to move the other devices as well.” Growing more certain, The Scar ordered, “Search the truck. Look for any clues, no matter how seemingly trivial.” “I have searched it once already but I will do so again. I found nothing that I thought significant. I do remember seeing the truck at the resort; it was parked next to the van, though there was nothing in its cargo bed at that time.” “Check it again, at once. Did you search the bodies?” Paling slightly, Yuri replied, “No. They were buried back at the ambush site. I have never been there.” “Ask to see if our lieutenant thought to check the pockets, at least?” the Scar asked in an irritated tone. After a quick check, Yuri had to report, “The bodies were not searched.” Yuri did not bother to say the reason; that Lieutenant Survov had been eager to depart the scene and to get the bomb to safety. Yuri knew that his employer disliked excuses, no matter how valid. “Send a team immediately. No, go yourself; I trust your judgment above that of the others. Let me know what you find.” “I will call you soon,” Yuri said, aware that he’d just been ordered to search the truck and go to the bodies at the same time. Deciding that new eyes on the truck might prove useful, Yuri ordered the lieutenant to search it. Taking a man with him to show him the route, Yuri headed for the ambush site. At the pavilion, Brandon told everyone where Helen was, and what had happened. Then he asked, “Is Jim here with the truck?” Jon shook his head, “No, I thought he was with you. With the other... thing.” Jon had caught himself just in time; the other members of the wedding party were unaware of the nuclear problem, and Jon figured that now was not a good time to have to explain it. “He never showed up. Felecia’s looking for him but no sign so far of him or the truck,” Chase said, before downing a bottle of water from Jansen and Eric’s pile of supplies. “Oh fuck. I hope Jim and Linda are somewhere safe. What else can go wrong? ” Jon asked in exasperation. Brandon reached for a hotel phone, and found it dead. Eric tried his cell phone, yielding the same results. Undeterred, Eric kept trying. Hanging up the dead resort phone, Brandon told Jon, “Helen and the General are waiting for us on the other side of Las Indias, because they think if you’re still here, you have the van. Somebody needs to run up and tell them. So, we’ve got what... almost thirty people and just the Jetta to move them in? We’re in deep shit. Best thing I can think of is to hope the traffic clears and then make multiple ferry runs to the other side of the island.” Jon slumped into a chair, feeling the full weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He was in charge and had to make a decision. “Okay, but we have to make every minute count. I’m guessing we could cram four people into the back seat, as long as they’re not big. Two in the passenger seat. That’s six, so minus the General and Helen they can take four on the first trip.” Raising his voice so everyone there would be sure to hear, Jon said, “You’ll have to draw straws for a place in the Jetta. You’ve gotta be in good shape to draw for it; the car can’t make it down here this trip, but it should for the next. Draw, but be quick about it.” By that point, the only member of the wedding party not present was Jane, who could not possibly run up an elevation gain of nearly three thousand feet. Brandon and Chase, though young and in excellent shape, had been badly winded by coming down. Going up would be far harder. Keith dashed behind the bar and snatched up a box of toothpicks. He snapped four off, and then said, “How many are drawing?” Three of the male crewmembers shoved their girlfriends forward, one accompanied by the declaration, “She’s a marathoner: she should draw.” Two of the couples began to argue, neither partner wanting to leave without the other. Jon quickly saw that time was wasting, and ignoring Eric’s rushed and garbled words from the other side of the room, said, “Never mind, I’ll pick who goes. This is just the first trip; there will be others, hopefully without any running.” “Wait, I’ve got General Bradson on the phone,” Eric said, rushing forward to hand Jon the cell. Jon pressed it to his ear, said ‘Hello’ twice, listened for a moment, and then looked at the screen. “Fuck, it’s dead again,” he said, seeing that it no longer had a signal. “When I got him, I told him we were stuck here, no transportation. I figured the line might quit again,” Eric said, and then added with a smile, “He said, ‘We’re coming.’” “It’ll take a while with that traffic, if they can even get through.” Brandon said. Eric tried his phone again, with no luck. “Helen’ll think of something.” Eric was right. Upon hearing the news, Helen started the Jetta and forced her way into the oncoming traffic, losing some fender paint and a wing mirror in the process. As soon as the northbound cars in the southbound lane came to a halt in front of her, she said, “It’s moving a little more than it was before. Get out, General. Go tell the drivers ahead of me that I’m coming through no matter what. If I have to shove my way through, I will. Tell ‘em to move to the right so I can squeeze by, otherwise they’re stuck too, because I’m not budging.” General Bradson got out, and putting on his most official face, did as Helen had said. What neither of them had counted on was a language barrier; many of the drivers spoke little or no English. It took several minutes and much gesturing, but the traffic, now moving northward at a crawl, had slacked enough so that the drivers in the southbound lane were inclined to try shoving their way into the northbound lane to get around the obstruction that the Jetta posed. Helen, by virtue of force of will and fender metal, shouldered her way through the resulting openings. In five minutes, she was able to pick up the jogging General and turn right, heading for Las Indias and the resort below. The town offered several possible routes, and with the General’s directions, they crossed it quickly, finding the road on the downhill side almost bereft of traffic. Helen roared downhill towards the resort, tires squealing, taking the corners as fast as she dared. © 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 Wildone, for spotting my mistake in this chapter, which enabled me to fix it. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  4. Chapter 37: The Best Laid Plans... Their minds still awhirl, Jansen and Eric walked side by side through the dark resort grounds, feeling the cool air and smelling the soft scent of pines intermingled with the tang of volcanic sulfur. The sulfur scent had been so prevalent in the prior days that they now almost didn’t notice it. Almost. It was always there, a stark and persistent reminder of the volcano on which they stood. The recent addition of nuclear warheads to their situation had caused them to focus even more on the here and now. Always, lurking just beneath the surface of their conscious thoughts, was the knowledge that there might not be a tomorrow. Jansen waited a few moments more before asking, as casually as he could, “Mind if I crash at your place? Brian is in my room I don’t want to wake anyone by trying to fix up the sofa bed.” Jansen consoled himself with the fact he’d told the truth, though far from all of it. “You don’t need to ask, man,” Eric replied as they walked through the dark pathways. Entering the suite, Eric grabbed a bag of corn chips and plopped them on the kitchen table, “Want a snack?” he asked with a smile as he tore open the bag. “If not, I’ll get your bed fixed up and I’ll munch later.” Chuckling, Jansen grabbed the bag of corn chips, dug one out, and slowly held it up to Eric’s lips. Eric snapped it up, laughing with his mouth full as he ate, and then Jansen fed him a few more while taking a few for himself. Jansen smiled as he took another chip and handed Eric the bag. Angling his head a little to the side, he watched Eric’s face for a moment before saying, “You picked up on something earlier, something that was bugging me a little. It was just the way you answered Brian’s question... it kind of reminded me of a concern I have.” Growing concerned, Eric replied, “If I said something the wrong way–” Shaking his head, smiling, keeping his eyes on Eric’s, Jansen said, “No, it wasn’t you, not really. It was just the way it sounded... when Brian asked us about our date. I was worried for a second how you’d react, whether you wanted to keep it a secret–” “I don’t–” “I know,” Jansen said with a smile and a nod, “and that made me feel great. I know you want this to work. But then you said, ‘Brian’s like you.’ You, not us. See what’s worrying me?” Eric blinked in confusion. He looked at Jansen’s face, and saw a smile which belied any hurt. After thinking a moment, Eric replied softly, “I think I get it. You’re worried that I didn’t say ‘us’, because it’s like me saying I’m straight...” Jansen chuckled again. “Close, but no cigar. No, it’s because you were right. We are different, very different. I’m gay, and you think you’re bi but you’ve never been with a guy. You said it just right and it’s because you were right that it set something I’ve been trying to ignore nagging at me again; you don’t know for sure – because you can’t – that you’ll like sex with a guy.” Eric began to object, but Jansen took a step closer, put his hands on Eric’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes before saying, “I believe that you think it, but you can’t know. Not yet, and that’s what’s nagged at me a little. I’ve got feelings for you, strong feelings, and I know you do for me. But what if you find you don’t like it? That’d hurt us both and that’s always there, in the back of my mind, and the longer this goes on, the worse that hurt would be.” Eric looked deep into Jansen’s eyes, seeking answers where none were to be found. Jansen’s soft smile held no finality, and that, combined with his own inner feel, made Eric sure that Jansen was not trying to end their relationship. For Eric, the knowledge of what wasn’t happening was comforting, though it still left the glaring question of how to answer. “Can’t you feel it, when I kiss you?” Eric asked, in a voice barely above a whisper. “Yes,” Jansen said, with a barely perceptible nod, his eyes remaining fixed on Eric’s. “And that’s almost enough, but it still leaves a trace.” Jansen inched a little closer, close enough that Eric could feel Jansen’s warm breath. Jansen’s soft smile began to fade a little, and he angled his head, his eyes leaving Eric’s, tracing down the bassist’s face. Jansen eased his right hand off Eric’s shoulder, lowering it as he said in a whisper, “There’s a reason I wanted to wait until we had privacy...” Trying to find answers in Jansen’s face, Eric was surprised when he felt a gentle tug on the drawstring of his shorts. Eric’s breath caught for a moment, as he finally understood. “You’re sure?” he asked, his gaze on Jansen’s fingers as the knot began to loosen. “I’m not doing a very good job of seducing you if you need to ask,” Jansen said with a chuckle, still unsure of Eric’s response. Eric cupped his hand behind Jansen’s neck, pulling him in for a kiss. As their bodies came together and Eric’s kiss become deeper, more passionate and insistent than ever before, Jansen had the first part of his answer. Coming up for air, Jansen whispered, “Just let me know if I do anything you’re uncomfortable with...” Eric eased away a few inches and for a moment Jansen grew concerned, until he heard Eric say with an insatiable grin, “I’m uncomfortable with this, it’s in the way,” as he began fumbling with the hem of Jansen’s shirt. Jansen raised his arms, allowing Eric to peel the shirt off. Eric tossed it onto the couch and then sent his own flying after it. Eric looked at Jansen, and thought, ‘I’ve got to do this right.’ Eric had an enormous amount of sexual experience with girls, but he’d never had a relationship, nor did he have any clue how to act. All he had to go on was what he’d seen on TV and in movies. Eric reached out, trying his best to be romantic. “You’re so beautiful in this light,” Eric said in a whisper, reaching out to touch Jansen’s hair, as the dancer fought the urge to roll his eyes at Eric’s uncharacteristic words and awkward delivery. Taking Jansen’s hand, Eric led his boyfriend towards the bedroom... A muffled thump and a yell, and then a crash, came from the room where Brian had been sleeping. Suddenly very much awake, Keith listened, and then heard the door open. Pausing only long enough to tug on his boxers, Keith hurried out into the living room. There, he found Brian, slumping down to sit on the sofa. Taking a seat beside him, Keith asked softly, “I heard a crash. Are you okay?” Keith had no idea what, but he could tell that something was very much amiss. Brian looked at Keith through half-open eyelids for a moment, and then said, “Sorry, I think I broke the lamp. Nightmare. Maybe I should just try and stay awake.” The look of misery mixed with resolve on Brian’s face tugged at Keith’s heart. He knew that Brian had been through hell, and was still suffering in many ways, some not so visible as others. Keith answered softly, “You’ve got to sleep sometime. Maybe the nightmare won’t come back.” Brian nodded halfheartedly, and Keith noticed that Brian was looking a little pallid, and more so by the second. Brian stood up suddenly, staggered to the bathroom, and Keith could hear the sounds of retching. Brian returned a few minutes later, and muttered, “I guess eating three steak dinners after starving for so long wasn’t a great idea. Just what I needed, puking my guts out and nightmares.” Upon mentioning the nightmares, Brian’s head drooped a little as he continued in a quiet voice. “It happened on the plane too, just not as bad. I kept dreaming that I was back in Iran. They didn’t just beat me; they used all kinds of stuff – like electric shocks. It wasn’t as bad on the plane because the noise of the engines was there. It kind of let me know it was a dream, if that makes any sense.” Brian’s words brought the memory of an onrushing bus to Keith’s mind. “Yeah, I can understand that. When I was eleven, I nearly got hit by a bus. I was crossing a street. Just forgot to look. When I saw it I froze, and watched as it missed me by inches. I had nightmares from that. My little brother, Jansen, helped me through it. He heard me cry out, so he came into my room. I told him about the bus and the nightmares. He didn’t say a word; he just climbed into bed and hugged me, and held on. We slept that way for a week.” Keith only realized, after he’d said it, what it could seem like he was offering. That wasn’t what he’d intended, but then he thought, ‘What the hell, it might work, and he needs the sleep.’ “I don’t have a brother and Dad’s got company already,” Brian said, too tired to think straight. “You don’t know me, but... if it’d help, I’m here. You need to sleep, man. I can turn on the stereo too, for some noise, kind of like the aircraft engines.” Keith hoped that it wouldn’t sound like a cheap come-on. He was sincere in his offer of platonic help, but he could imagine how it sounded. Keith hoped that Brian hadn’t heard that Keith was gay, and worried that if he had, the words he’d just spoken would give Brian the wrong impression. The last thing Keith wanted was to piss off a tired and wounded Marine. “If you’re cool with it, I’ll try anything,” Brian said with a wry, tired smile, and got up to stumble back to his room. For a fleeting moment, Brian’s head cleared long enough for him to think, ‘Either Dad somehow missed Keith while blabbing my business to everyone, or Keith knows and doesn’t care.’ Brian was far too exhausted to give that, or anything, any further thought. Keith clicked on the stereo and followed, leaving the door open, and climbed into bed with Brian. Brian rolled over on his side, away from Keith, and backed up into him as the dancer hesitantly enveloped the Marine in his arms. As Brian’s breathing quickly slowed, Keith heard what he thought was chuckle, followed by some mumbled words; “Best blanket ever.” Brian had no idea he’d spoken the thought aloud. Through the night, Keith slept lightly, eventually removing his left arm from under Brian, but leaving his right arm draped over Brian’s torso. Wherever he felt Brian begin to tense and shake, Keith gave the Marine a one-armed hug and said, “It’s okay, you’re safe.” Jim, with Helen riding shotgun, eased the truck gingerly into gear as Jon opened the doors wide. Carefully, he retraced Eric’s route in, and within minutes was heading away from the resort. Helen kept the AK-47 low in the cab, not expecting to need it but preferring to be prepared. She had a sudden thought and glanced at Jim to ask, “Did you get padlocks?” Jim, keeping his eyes on the road, replied, “The storage unit has its own lock, so we only need one padlock. I have a good one, from my suitcase. I never travel without it because of the kind of places I usually stay. It’s in the van, along with the mattresses and other gear.” Helen took her eyes off Jim to glance in the sideview mirror, seeing the glare of the van’s headlights. Brandon, from his seat in the passenger side of the van, watched the truck’s taillights, hoping that Jim knew what he was doing. The idea of rolling nuclear bombs around like barrels of scrap did not sit well with Brandon. Jon, driving carefully and maintaining a hundred-yard gap between the van and the truck, felt his palms begin to sweat. Chase asked from the back seat, “You’re really sure the bombs won’t go off if they get bumped hard, right?” Jon hesitated before replying, “Jim said that based on what he’s heard, plus what the General said, the bomb isn’t armed. That means they aren’t easy to set off. Plus, he said that even if the high explosives did go off somehow, they’d have to go off just right to slam the pieces of uranium together. Most likely it wouldn’t happen and it would just be a conventional explosion.” Chase weighed that answer for a few moments, and then exchanged a glance with Brandon before replying dryly, “So, we’d just be blown to bits instead of being atomized, right? That’s very reassuring...” Chase’s attempt at gallows humor fell flat, so he added, “This mess takes the cake, even for Eric. Hell, this makes him on tequila look almost safe...” This time, Chase got a few awkward laughs from Brandon and Jon, easing the tension a little. Passing through the village of Las Indias, Jim slowed the truck to a crawl on the narrow, dark, almost deserted streets, momentarily becoming unsure that he was heading in the right direction. Then he saw the ghostly white of the church spire in his headlights. “I saw the church from the storage place. We’re close; it’s just up ahead on the left.” The storage facility was small and modern, largely hidden from the road by an old stone wall. Jim pulled the truck into the entranceway, and waited until the van pulled in behind them to use the keycard he’d been given to open the motorized gate. Once inside, Helen could see that the storage facility consisted of a square access roadway, with storage units of various sizes in both the canter and perimeter of the square. She nodded approvingly, and then said, “This looks good. Private and secure.” Jim pulled the truck around the last corner and then slowed to a halt. “Damn,” he muttered, and then explained, “I screwed up. I figured we’d back the truck up to the storage unit, but I think this driveway is too narrow. I’ll try, but I’ll need you to get out and guide me.” Helen did so, leaving the AK-47 in the cab of the truck. Jon backed the van into the accessway, stopping fifteen feet from where Jim was struggling to maneuver the truck. It took five minutes and one scraped bumper, but Jim got the truck into position, its back end lined up with the storage unit. As Jim clambered out of the cab, Helen said, “Good job, that was a tight fit.” “We could still have done it, but this way will be easier and faster,” Jim replied, and then added in a whisper, “They have security cameras, but I picked this one because as far as I can tell it’s in a blind spot. Unloading this way might have gotten someone curious.” Jim opened up the locker, again using his key card. He rolled up the tin door, revealing the interior, which was lit by a single bare bulb: tin walls and a concrete floor, enclosing a space eight feet wide by fourteen feet deep. It was empty except for the oversized bricks and timbers that Jim and Jon had liberated from an old abandoned farm down the road, right after they’d found the storage unit. Working quickly with Jon, Brandon, and Chase, Jim began to stack the bricks, creating a support for the heavy timbers, forming a ramp from the truck bed to the storage unit floor. The bricks were stacked under the rear of the truck to support the timbers, and Jim made sure that the edges of the timbers were just a little lower than the bed of the truck. The queen-sized down mattresses, borrowed from Jim and Linda’s suite as well as Helen’s, came next. One was placed on the floor of the storage unit, and the second leaned up against the rear wall. Ten minutes after arriving, they were ready. The four guys climbed onto the truck, removed the tarp, and unchained the rearmost bomb. Together, they rolled it to the back edge of the truck, lined it up, held their breaths, and gave it a shove. Reflex overrode logic, and everyone there flinched as the bomb rocked down the heavy beams, thumped onto the first mattress, and bumped to a halt against the one lining the rear wall. Jim, a very nimble man for his size, walked down one of the means to inspect the results. A few of the bricks had shifted, so Jim made the adjustments, gave a thumbs-up, and then pulled the mattress from the wall and put it in front of the bomb. After being maneuvered into place on the truck, the second bomb hit the mattress, coming to a halt just about where they’d planned. The four guys entered the storage unit, and Jim pulled the mattress from between the two bombs, and let Brandon and Chase haul it back to the van. Then he looked down, at the mattress the two bombs now rested on. Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t want to bounce the things around trying to get that mattress out of here.” Helen shrugged. “Leave it be. That’s the one from the second room of my suite. I’ll just leave the do-not-disturb sign in the door to keep the maid out. Shouldn’t matter much; this whole mess should be over in a day or two, and a missing mattress is the least of our worries.” Working fast, they covered the bombs with the tarp, and then piled the bricks and timbers on top. They had to put them somewhere, and Jim felt they might as well use them for added concealment. Jim pulled down the door and added his own padlock before engaging the main lock with a swipe of his keycard. Slipping the keycard back into his wallet, next to the storage unit’s receipt, Jim paused, realized what he was doing, and handed the card to Helen, along with the key to the padlock. Driving down the switchback road, they rounded a corner and Jim slammed on the brakes, barely in time. With the unit locked, Jim, with Helen’s help, maneuvered the truck out, leaving little more than dark rubber scuffmarks on the concrete. Within minutes, sweating but feeling a profound sense of relief, they were on their way back to the resort. Driving down the switchback road, they rounded a corner and Jim swore as he jammed his fist on the horn, “That damn idiot was walking in the middle of the road in the dark; he must have a death wish.” Helen had seen the man as well, dressed in dark clothes, jumping out of the way. She had too many other things on her mind to give much thought to a careless nighttime pedestrian. “Probably drunk,” she said, before going over the plans for morning with Jim. “The locals drive like maniacs,” Yuri said as he returned to where The Scar and their ten troops were sheltered, along with their AK-47s. “I was scouting ahead and almost became road kill.” The Scar glanced at Yuri’s dark clothing ­– they had all worn civilian clothes under their jumpsuits – and said, “Dark clothes on a dark night. We need to bear that in mind. Let’s get to the resort and then we can wait for the morning in comfort.” Yuri asked in surprise, “You plan to check in?” Yuri had been careful to keep his question neutral. He thought that potentially exposing themselves by checking in was a bad idea, but he knew better than to voice disagreement with The Scar. The Scar got to his feet before replying, “Certainly. Far less suspicious to do so than to be lurking in the bushes all night. We should be able to smuggle the guns in as well, but if not we’ll leave a man to guard them. You will handle the check-in. The band and their manager will not recognize my current appearance,” he said, referring to his burn-disfigured face, “but there is the off-chance that Bradson or the traitorous bitch might have mentioned my description.” The Scar fell silent and paced for a few moments as he thought through his plans. “So, you will check us in. One large suite for us, three for the men, adjoining if possible, and with exterior entrances. Then, come morning we shall seek out our quarry, unless we find them sooner. It will prove interesting to see them again.” Anticipating the encounter, savoring its potential, The Scar allowed himself a cruel smile. Helen decided to leave the truck in the parking lot, next to the van. As they pulled in, Helen, though she realized it was too late for second thoughts, said, “I hope that storage unit is far enough away so as not to be obvious. It might have been nice to go further south. If the US government starts looking, they might start with Las Indias.” Jim grinned. “Jon and I had to drive quite a few miles down the coast to find the bricks and timber. So while we were out that way I topped up the van with gas and paid by credit card. If anybody is checking records, they’ll see that and assume we were heading south.” Helen gave the big biker an approving pat on the back. “That’s what I like about you, you’re sneaky. You did great today, Jim. Thanks.” The one awkward task remaining was to return the mattress to Jim and Linda’s suite. Hoping they would not be noticed, they maneuvered it along the dark walkways, thankful that the suite was close to the parking lot entrance. Jim maneuvered the mattress into the suite and back onto the bed. Linda stood watching, a bemused expression on her face, and said, “Jim... I didn't ask when you took it, because you said it was important and you'd tell me later, but... what the hell is going on?” Looking into his bride's eyes, Jim found himself incapable of lying to her. He rationalized that Helen was about to tell the whole world anyway, so as long as he didn't mention the bombs’ location, what was the harm? His decision made, Jim said, “Honey, let's sit down and have a drink. I have a hunch you won't believe me, but man, have I got a story to tell you...” To Helen, it seemed like she’d barely shut her eyes when the alarm went off. Her first stop was Jon’s suite, to wake the General and Felecia. Helen arrived to find them already awake, thanks to their own alarm. General Bradson ushered Helen in and closed the door before smiling. “I feel a hell of a lot better, Helen. Thanks for the shut-eye. I was just about to head over to the pavilion to get Brian set up on guard–” Helen interrupted to announce in a businesslike way, “I’ve chosen to relocate the bombs. I wasn’t comfortable with them here so I moved them to a farmhouse we rented. They’re concealed, locked up, safe and sound, and only I know where.” She had decided to keep to herself the fact that Instinct and Jim knew the real location. The General’s demeanor changed in an instant. Scowling, raising his voice slightly, he said, “I want them under guard, by Brian–” “No. There is no point in arguing, because I will not change my mind. I did this to protect the investment we’re about to make. With the bombs here, it would be too easy for the U.S. Government – or anyone else – to deduce their location and seize them. However, if you prefer to call the whole deal off, I’ll tell you where to find them and wash my hands of this mess. Those are your only options.” Helen stood firm, her expression leaving no doubt as to her resolve. General Bradson shared a worried glance with Felecia, who had heard the exchange but had remained silent. Before the General could reply, Helen said, “We’ve got a press conference to do, and we also need to effect the funds transfer and take possession of the third bomb.” General Bradson’s temper began to rise. “Helen, this is insane. Those devices must be guarded. Spiriting them off in the middle of the night is a reckless, irresponsible act–” Her own temper boiling over, Helen snarled, “You’re either a hypocrite or an idiot, General. The reason I did what I did is I simply do not trust the idiots in control in Washington to act responsibly, or sanely. They believe their own hype, and there are few things in this world more dangerous than that kind of fool. I simply do not trust them to act sensibly in this matter. I judge there is a very real chance that they will attempt to play politics and use heavy-handed tactics, perhaps even attempting to make us some kind of scapegoat. I’ll allow that they might, or even probably will, do as we hope, but ‘probably’ just isn’t good enough. I believe in always having a fallback position. Surely you of all people should understand that. If you think I’m off base with that assessment, kindly explain to me why, exactly, you ended up having to go into Iran yourself to get your son? Or how the Iranians happened to have nuclear bombs? Or how you came to be a former General? Now, you look me in the eye and tell me you trust those sons-of-bitches to do the right thing this time.” General Bradson’s mouth opened, and then closed, and in confusion he looked at Felecia. She chuckled at his dumbfounded expression and said, “She’s got you there, Walter.” Angling her head to look at Helen, Felecia added, “Your assessment of government ineptitude matches both his and mine.” Returning her gaze to the General, she continued, “I’m not a party to this once my men are paid, but if you want my opinion, she’s right. Brian would take an order from his government, as he is duty-bound to do. Helen’s interests and those of the band are her prime concern. She wants to protect her own, just like I did for my men when I refused to land at a U.S. base, and like you did when you set up the attack on Iran to save your son. So, why don’t we just get the deal done so we can all put it behind us?” Both Helen and General Bradson blinked in surprise. The General was not happy that the bombs were out of his grasp but he had to admit, he could understand the reason. He himself had been less than pleased with the number of people who knew of their location. Somewhat chagrined and knowing that he had to do so in order to complete the deal, he said, “Okay, Helen, I see your point. As I seem to be both outvoted and have no choice in the matter, we’ll do it your way.” The General consoled himself with the fact that Helen’s actions were not likely to hinder the bigger play he planned to make at the press conference. He wondered how Helen would react to that. Helen nodded her acceptance and then looked at Felecia, sending her a prim smile as a way of saying thanks, and at the same time revising upwards her opinion of the no-nonsense mercenary commander. Helen then returned her gaze to the General and said, “First things first. Let Brian know he’s got nothing to guard. If you like, take him to the airport with us. He can guard the third nuke once we take possession. I’m fine with that, especially if we end up needing to show it to the press. As for me, I have business to attend to. I’ll see you in an hour.” Helen took her leave, and returned to her suite and the waiting phone, intent on carrying out one other bit of insurance that the band had agreed to. That plan went awry when she found the phone had failed, again. She returned to Jon’s suite and asked the General, “I’ll need your satellite phone. I hope it has an input port, because I need to fax some documents, right away. This has to occur before the press conference.” The General shook his head. “Sorry, but the battery is half gone already and we may need it, and the charger is back on the C-130.” Helen began to reply, intending to inform the General that unless she was able to do what she intended, the deal was dead, but Felecia cut her off to say, “Walter, my phone isn’t working, but I did bring the charger. I’ll get it.” The General nodded his agreement, and five minutes later, Helen was back in her suite, with the General’s phone –hooked up to Felecia’s charger – connected to a portable fax. Helen breathed a sigh of relief as she received fax confirmation to the transfer orders, which bore her signature as well as that of every member of Instinct, authorizing the pre-arranged transfer of almost all of Instinct’s assets out of the United States. The documents had been signed along with the transfer orders for the mercenaries. The faxed copies, along with Helen’s verbal instructions, were all that had been needed. Helen hoped she was being paranoid, but, as she reminded herself, paranoia was part of her job. The alarm went off, jarring Keith awake. Brian began to stir, and rolled over, looked Keith in the eyes, and said simply, “Thanks.” Brian rolled upright, and Keith felt an unmistakable hardness pushing against his bare side, cushioned only by the thin fabric of Brian’s shorts. Keith turned away to hide a grin. ‘That’s some morning wood,’ he thought, and then realized with a start that unless Brian had some bizarre anatomy, what he was feeling was in the wrong place. Brian noticed the sudden disturbed look in Keith’s eyes, and misread it. Thinking that, given his father’s repeated disclosures, that Keith might know too, Brian said hurriedly, “Don’t worry man, that ain’t what you think, honest.” Keith’s genuinely confused look prompted Brian to reach into his pocket and fish out its contents, holding it under Keith’s nose. “See, it’s just a grenade.” Keith stared at the deadly olive-green canister and eased back a bit before saying, “You sleep with a live grenade in your pocket?” Brian chuckled at Keith’s stunned look. “It’s safe, the pin is in. I normally wouldn’t but I was so tired I forgot I had it.” The conversation was cut short by a knock at the door. The General had come to tell his son of the change in plans. Jansen woke up slowly, feeling the reassuring presence of Eric by his side. From Eric’s uneven breathing, Jansen could tell that he was awake, and guessed correctly that he was likely stewing over the results of their attempted lovemaking. Speaking softly, Jansen gave Eric a one-armed hug and said, “Don’t worry about it. My timing sucked. After everything that happened yesterday, springing that on you was a stupid idea. I didn’t realize it, but I also put you under a hell of a lot of pressure.” With a sad smile on his face, Eric rolled on his side to look at Jansen. “That sure sounds like you’re talking to a guy who couldn’t get it up.” Chuckling, Jansen replied, “Hey, I didn’t mean that, and I sure saw that getting it up wasn’t your problem. It was just so awkward. We both decided to try it again another time, preferably when there weren’t nuclear warheads a few yards away.” Eric tried not to flinch at Jansen’s words. Jansen didn’t know that the warheads had been moved, and Eric couldn’t tell him. Keeping that secret from Jansen had been a small part of the difficulty Eric had encountered. The bigger one was what he decided to tackle. “Yeah. I’ll do better next time–” “Whoa,” Jansen said, shaking his head and grinning. “I think that was the problem: you tried too hard. You were forcing yourself to be all romantic and serious. Dude, that just isn’t you, or, for that matter, me.” Eric could feel the honesty of Jansen’s words. Pulling his naked body closer to Jansen’s, Eric said, “I guess it took the wind out of my sails when you started laughing at me.” Smiling at the memory, Jansen relied, “Yeah, sorry. You were just being so... sorry, but I gotta be honest here, corny, that I couldn’t help it. That heavy serious romantic stuff, that’s just not us. Telling me how beautiful my eyes are and then kissing me on the forehead, holding me like some fragile porcelain doll, just was too much and I lost it and giggled.” There was no recrimination in Jansen’s words, and Eric knew it. The fact that they could talk so easily was one of the things Eric had grown to love about Jansen. That, however, didn’t solve the problem. “So, what do we do?” Eric asked. “First, we just be us. Sex is supposed to be fun. Just be yourself and enjoy. Second thing is, don’t stress on it. It doesn’t have to be right the first time,” Jansen said, reaching down to give Eric’s morning wood a playful squeeze. Eric felt himself shudder at the touch, reveling in it. Reaching down to return the favor, Eric said with a grin, “You keep that up and we’ll soon see.” Jansen replied, “That’s what I mean. Just relax and have fun. No stress.” Before things could progress any further, the two frustrated lovers were interrupted by a knock at the door. Eric got up, pulled on some boxers, and answered it, and Jansen heard Helen’s voice. While Helen told Eric to be sure to watch the press conference and to stay out of trouble, Jansen thought about the situation between himself and Eric. He was sure that Eric had just been trying too hard and just needed to relax and have fun. Recalling what Eric had said of his make-out attempt with Brandon, and remembering how Eric had been after taking a shot of tequila, Jansen thought with a smile, ‘At least I know how to make him relaxed and uninhibited.’ Jansen had no way of knowing that Eric’s behavior on the one night he’d witnessed had been so exemplary by comparison that it had deeply shocked Helen. In well-intended ignorance, assuming that Helen had exaggerated, Jansen decided that soon, he’d visit the resort’s store and buy a bottle of tequila. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special thanks to Wildone, for spotting my mistake in this chapter, which enabled me to fix it. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  5. C James

    Fallen

    Chapter 38: Fallen The morning of the news conference, chaos reigned. Helen took charge, dealing with each item in turn, or trying to. Some things were to prove beyond even Helen’s ability to control. The first bit of news came from Jim, who told Helen that his wife Linda had grown suspicious that something big was going on. With a sheepish expression on his face, Jim then said, “Helen, that press conference is in a few hours and Linda would see that... I felt I had to tell her about the bombs, but I swear I didn’t tell her their location. I’ll tell no one that.” Helen nodded, knowing Jim well enough that she trusted his judgment. She also had a hunch that he wasn’t done. He wasn’t. “Helen, she wants to come with me to pick up the third bomb. She insisted, saying I couldn’t handle a gun and drive at the same time. She’s right on that, and... Helen, Linda is now my wife, and I didn’t feel right keeping a secret like this from her, especially as you’re about to tell the whole world–” Helen cut Jim off with a wave of her hand. “It’s okay, Jim. I trust Linda. Frankly, the more people we have with us when we pick the bomb up, the better. It would also be handy to have an extra person around when we show the thing to the press. Bring it to the press conference, but not all the way. We’ll pick a spot on the map a couple of miles away and I’ll bring a few reporters there. Tell no one where, not even Linda, not until you’re en route with the nuke.” Jim nodded and beat a hasty retreat, relieved that Helen hadn’t had his head for sharing the nuclear secret, short-lived though it was intended to be, with Linda. Jansen and Keith decided to stay in their suite while Eric saw Helen and the others off. While they felt comfortable with Eric, they hadn’t been around Helen and the rest of Instinct long enough to be fully at ease with them, and still felt, to a small degree, like outsiders. With Keith in the shower, Jansen lolled on the couch, occasionally casting a glance through the open door at the wardrobe in the bedroom. Inside, as he’d just been shown, were Brian’s AK-47 and RPG. Brian had left them behind, due to concerns over traveling with them by car. The weapons, due to their close proximity, caused Jansen even more disquiet than the nuclear warheads. The warheads, he’d heard, had been moved and were no longer at the resort. That suited him just fine. However, Brian’s weapons, combined with the volcano and everything else that had occurred, gave Jansen good reason to worry that any day might be their last. That made the decision easy, because there very well might not be a tomorrow, not for him and Eric. Easing himself up off the couch, Jansen headed for the resort’s store. Once there, he looked at the liquor display, and then purchased a half-liter of José Cuervo Gold, which he knew to be Eric’s favorite tequila. After handling a few more minor crises, Helen rounded up everyone who was going and headed for the parking lot, accompanied by Jon and Eric. Helen put the General, Brandon, Chase, Felecia and Brian in the VW Jetta, while detailing Jim and Linda to follow in the truck. Loading everyone into the vehicles, she said, just before climbing into the crowded Jetta, “Jon, you’ve got the keys to the van. Get everyone out and to the north at the first sign of a major eruption from the volcano. Eric, try to stay out of trouble. Barbra, try to keep Eric out of trouble, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The Jetta, driven at Helen’s suggestion by Felecia, backed out from its parking space next to the van. Jim fired up the truck, and with the Jetta in the lead, they wheeled out of the half-empty parking lot, headed for the mercenaries’ hotel. Jon watched, butterflies in his stomach, hoping that all would go well. Eric, standing a couple of paces behind him, grumbled, “I don’t see why Helen had to say that about me. She’s going to make everyone think I’m always causing trouble.” Rolling his eyes, not turning to look at Eric, Jon replied, “Yeah, as if those Iranian souvenirs you brought us less than twenty-four hours ago could make anyone think that...” Jon felt a presence at his shoulder, and assuming it was Eric, turned to say, “Don’t worry, they’ll take care of...” Jon let his voice rail off as he looked to his left at the person who had joined him. “Hi, Mom. You’re up early.” Jon said, more than a little awkwardly. Jane glared at Jon for a moment, before asking in a level tone, “Just where are they going, and who are those people with them? What on earth is going on around here? I tried to talk to Helen last night and she rudely brushed me off.” Jon glanced around, and saw that he was alone except for his mother; Eric had already left, spurred by the sight of Jane’s determined approach and deciding that he could do nothing to help. Biting back a curse at being left to deal with their mother, Jon replied, “It’s business, that’s all I can say. You’ll find out soon, honest.” Jane glowered. She could tell that something big was being kept from her. Crossing her arms, she said, “I trust this has nothing to do with the cruise ship?” “Cruise ship?” Jon asked, before he realized what he’d just done. The stress of the nuclear warhead problem had caused the ship to slip his mind for a moment. Her eyes flashing fire, Jane yelled, “How could you forget? The cruise ship that’s supposed to take us off the island tomorrow! Now, what the hell is going on here? At least tell me we’re still getting on that ship.” Taking a step back, Jon carefully phrased his reply, though he knew full well that the recent developments had likely derailed their plans to leave the island. “As far as I know, that’s still set. Helen will be back in a few hours. I’ll let her explain. In the meantime, how about joining me for a late breakfast at nine, so I can tell you about our tour and PR plans for the new album?” Enticed by the offer to include her in the band’s plans, and willing to let the matter drop until breakfast, Jane agreed. Jon walked her back to her room, hoping that taking her to breakfast would keep her from watching the news. He had no doubt that the press conference announcing the nuclear warheads would send his mother ballistic, were she to find out. He doubted that they could keep her in the dark for long, but in his opinion, the longer, the better. At the resort, The Scar paced impatiently in the suite, and as Yuri returned, The Scar demanded, “What have you found?” Apprehensive due to his employer’s tone, Yuri replied, “I tried bribery, posing as a reporter. Nothing yet. I still do not know the room numbers of the band.” The pre-dawn check-in had not gone smoothly. According to Yuri, who had handled the transaction, the lone clerk had been suspicious about a large group checking in, given the ongoing concern over the volcano. That had not pleased The Scar, who blithely overlooked the fact that it had been his idea. However, when he had learned of this, it had been too late to do otherwise, so he and his small force had occupied the suites. The weapons had been spirited in under cover of darkness, which was the one thing that had pleased him. Still, his mood had been soured and he let Yuri know it. “They are here, you said so. Surely if you can track them across the world you can find a group of celebrities in this damn resort?” Yuri shrugged apologetically. “I am trying. Unfortunately, our troops are largely from Africa and Eastern Europe and are not subject to western media. Therefore, they did not know what Instinct’s members looked like. However, I pulled up some photos on the computer to show them and I have several of them prowling the grounds at all times. We should find out, soon enough.” Changing tracks a little, Yuri said, “Our airport force has some of the mercenaries under observation in a hotel near the airport, where they tracked them in the ash. As yet there is no sign of the bombs. They were not on the plane. Also no sign of the General or Felecia. What we did find on the plane was much of the mercenaries’ heavy weaponry. They will be limited to small arms at most and we can take them by surprise. I suggest that we attack at once.” Shaking his head, The Scar replied, “Not yet, not until we know where the bombs are. We can risk no rash mistakes. I want to ask some questions of this band. I suspect they know. We can wait a few more hours. In the meantime, find them, and find my bombs!” Helen, along with the others who had yet to see it, were shocked by the bleak, ash-shrouded landscape that awaited them when they emerged from the tunnel. Largely in stunned silence, they stared out at the devastation as they completed the slow journey to the mercenaries’ hotel. Lacking a private area where the mercenaries could assemble, Felecia moved from room to room, announcing that their money would be in place within minutes. After meeting Horst and inspecting the third bomb, Helen decided that the pickup truck in which it sat, bulging tires and all, would not suffice, and decided that, as planned, the bomb should be moved to the truck Jim had driven. Horst assured her that it could easily be done, as soon as Felecia gave the order. Satisfied, Helen took a deep breath, phoned the Swiss bank on the General’s phone, and with Horst standing by her side gave the orders to distribute the thirty million dollars to the numbered accounts set up for the mercenaries. It was then that she received some irksome news; the transfer would not be immediate, but would take up to twenty minutes to go into effect, in spite of the bank’s prior assurances to the contrary. Helen walked into the hotel to give that bit of news to the General and Felecia. She found them in one of the rooms, talking to Private Johnson, François, and two other mercenaries. Helen saw no reason for privacy so she explained the short delay, earning her a scowl from François. The French mercenary then said in a haughty tone, “We had a deal, which you have now broken. No money, no bomb.” Felecia rounded on François, bringing her face inches from his and snarling, in a voice dripping with menace, “The last time I checked, I command here. I speak for us. We will get our money. You will keep you damn mouth shut.” After checking her watch, Helen announced loudly, “We’re tight on time. The press conference is at ten and according to Jim it could take over an hour to get there, depending on the roads.” Consoling herself with the fact that the loan was guaranteed by the two nukes already in her care, Helen continued, “I’ll leave Jim and Linda here. They, plus Brian and Private Johnson, can transport the bomb once you have confirmation and hand it over. The General, Brandon, Chase, and I, need to leave for the press conference. We can’t wait. Would that be agreeable to you, Felecia?” Smiling, Felecia replied, “We keep the bomb until the money is confirmed, so no problems here,” Felecia cast a glare in François’ direction. Looking back to Helen, Felecia continued, “For what it’s worth, I’m well aware that transfers often take a little time. There’s only one issue; we will probably need the satellite phone to get the confirmation, but you’ll likely need it right after the press conference to talk to Washington. So, leave me the little pickup truck and I’ll bring you the phone. I’ll probably be there before the press conference is over. I’ll tell no one where you are staying, you have my word.” Helen blinked at Felecia’s words. They made sense, but what surprised Helen was that she found, at a visceral level, that she was inclined to trust the tough mercenary commander. Rationally, that feeling could not affect Helen’s actions; Felecia already knew where Instinct was staying and was also aware that the bombs were no longer there. General Bradson made one small change. Turning to look at Felecia, he said, “Bring either Brian or Private Johnson with you to the press conference. They’re further proof of what happened in Iran and having one of ‘em there for the press to see would help.” By nine, Helen, the General, Brandon, and Chase were in the Jetta, approaching the tunnel. Felecia was busy at the hotel; for each mercenary, she checked to make sure the million dollars was in their account, and then handed the phone to the mercenary so that they and they alone could select a control number or give further transfer instructions. Several chose to move the funds to other countries. In François’ case, he moved the funds to his Cayman Islands account, and for the first time in ages, a smile cracked his dour face. Once the mercenaries had each confirmed their accounts, Felecia marched down to the garage and told Horst, “Turn over the bomb. We’ve been paid.” At Horst’s direction, Jim backed the truck up to the pickup, and then Horst smoothly supervised the efforts of ten mercenaries as they manhandled the bomb, dragging it out of the pickup and onto the bed of the truck. This occurred, by necessity, in the open. They had no way of knowing that, concealed in some bushes on a hilltop a half a mile inland, a man with a spotter scope was watching, and giving a description into the satellite phone clutched in his hand. Yuri quickly gave the news to his employer. The Scar’s ruined face twisted into a hideous smile. “Excellent. Can they intercept?” Yuri nodded. “They’re in a good position near the likely route, assuming the bomb is coming here, and they’ve also hotwired two cars so at least some of the force can pursue if need be. Should they seize it now or should we wait until it arrives here?” “Take it now!” The Scar roared. “We don’t know for certain they will come here. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so take it at once, as soon as they are clear of the bitch’s force. Small arms only; we dare not risk damaging it.” The Scar shuddered at the thought of having the bomb destroyed – when so nearly in his gasp – by a stray mortar or RPG round. Yuri gave the order over the satellite phone, “Seize it as soon as they’re clear, any means necessary, small arms fire only.” The Scar paced for a moment and then said, “Once they have it, tell them to seek cover and a good defensive position anywhere they can, but not too far from the airport. Can our C-130 still get here within the hour?” Yuri smiled, glad he’d already called. “Yes. The plane is on Tenerife, about seventy miles from the airport here. I told the pilot to stay in the cockpit and to be ready. He is already refueled and has the JATO rockets mounted.” “Yuri, I want you with the bomb. You are the only one I fully trust. Steal a vehicle and go. Once you have the bomb in a safe location, wire a shaped charge to the case above the pusher high-explosive charge so that we may detonate the warhead if need be. I do not expect to, but one never knows when one might need a bit of leverage and persuasion, something nuclear weapons do very well indeed.” The Scar, his mood vastly improved, sat down, and poured himself a vintage brandy from the mini-bar. Yuri took a satellite phone, leaving one for The Scar, and then he, together with five of the ten men with them, headed for the parking lot. Yuri, a former Spetznaz, was well trained in both covert and overt operations, but he strongly disliked operating brazenly. It was always a risk, and worse still when in unfriendly territory. However, he saw no option under his present circumstances. He needed transportation immediately. Scanning the parking lot, he selected his target with care; he wanted an older vehicle – thus easier to hotwire – and he preferred something large enough to move the bomb should the truck prove unserviceable. One vehicle met his criteria so he walked towards it, fingering the unraveled wire coat hanger he’d hidden inside his jacket, next to his gun. Detailing the five men to keep watch, Yuri used the coat hanger to unlock the driver’s side door. Scrambling in, he set to work bypassing the ignition key. It didn’t take long; part of his basic training for the Spetznaz – Soviet Special Forces, intended to operate behind enemy lines – had involved how to steal various kinds of vehicles. Jim watched in the rearview mirror as Private Johnson and the bomb were covered with a tarp. Jim felt a sickening sense of unease; the mercenaries milling around made him nervous. Horst had given Private Johnson an AK-47 and a grenade launcher, but the fact that the bomb was worth millions and surrounded by a band of armed mercenaries was never far from Jim’s mind. He felt Linda give his hand a squeeze, and relaxed, just a little, his other hand coming to rest on the pistol General Bradson had given him. Linda had an AK-47 resting across her lap. After what seemed like an eternity, Felecia walked up to Jim’s window. “That’s it, you’re good to go. Brian and I are heading for the press conference. I’m leaving first because we’re in a hurry; they need the phone. However, if you want me to escort you, I will.” Jim just smiled and shook his head, declining in a friendly way. He felt that letting Felecia – the leader of the mercenaries – know his route was an unnecessary risk. He was still thinking that the greatest danger came from the mercenaries, should they have second thoughts. Felecia took her cue from Jim’s response and with Brian by her side wheeled the small pickup out of the hotel compound and roared away, heading for the press conference as fast as she could. Jim exchanged a friendly wave with Horst and put the truck in gear, gently easing it out of the parking lot and onto the street. With Felecia already out of sight ahead and no sign of pursuit from the mercenaries, Jim breathed a sigh of relief. Gradually, he accelerated through twenty miles an hour, rumbling along the rural road and kicking up a dust cloud from the ash that covered everything. Jim made a left turn, followed by an immediate right, as he drove through the farmland uphill from the mercenaries’ hotel, heading for the tunnel. By the time the hotel was half a mile behind him, he was on a road bounded by low stone walls. He relaxed enough to say to Linda, “That was the hard part. We’ll be okay now. I know the way for a few miles; we’re heading back the way we came, through the tunnel, but then we head north, not south, because we have to go meet Helen and some reporters... You really didn’t have to come, you know.” Linda looked at her husband and grinned. “For one thing, you’ll need me to read the map. I know how you navigate, and ‘badly’ is an understatement. You didn’t think I’d let you face a mess like this alone, did ya, you big lug? We’re a team. ‘For better or for worse’, ‘till death do us part’, and all that. Besides, riding shotgun on a stolen nuclear bomb is something I can tell our grandkids about.” At the mention of grandkids, Jim had to fight the urge to take his eyes off the road and look at Linda. Something about the way she’d said it let him know that it wasn’t just a passing remark. “Linda, does that mean you think you’re–” A quick flicker of light – sunlight reflecting off the barrel of a sniper scope – was all that Jim had time to see before the first bullet slammed into the truck’s windshield, plowing into his right shoulder. Flinching from the sudden burning pain, Jim tried to keep his hand on the gearstick and downshift – he wanted to speed up to escape the ambush, as he now guessed it to be. His shattered shoulder left him no way to control his hand. Turning to his bride, intending to tell her to shift for him, his eyes meeting hers just in time to see her head explode from a second sniper’s bullet. “Linda!” Jim cried out in anguish, for he knew that she was gone. On the bed of the truck, Private Earl Johnson, laying prone, heard the first shot, then the second, and felt the truck lurch to the side. Rolling onto his stomach, he clicked off the safeties on the AK-47 and the RPG. Wracked by agony, grief, and growing rage, Jim ducked as he heard a third shot slam through the glass. Driven more by fury and hate than logic, thinking there was a lone gunman ahead, he let his left hand slip from the wheel and bring up the Makarov pistol he’d been given. Thumbing off the safety, he returned his arm to the wheel, trying to steer with his wrist while pointing the pistol through the windshield. Snapping off three shots in the direction of the flash he’d seen, Jim struggled to see through the myriad cracks that now partially obscured his windshield. Sheltering behind the stone walls with a dozen other men, the second sniper waited until the cab of the truck drew parallel to his elevated position, and fired slightly downward at the passenger-side window. The bullet slammed into Jim’s thigh, causing him to jerk the wheel to the right, sending the truck careening into the wall, grinding to a noisy, dust-shrouded halt. Pushed beyond rational thought by the pain of his wounds and the greater agony of the sight of Linda’s corpse, Jim gritted his teeth and rolled out of the cab, crashing to the roadbed in a bloody heap. Struggling to roll over, choking in the ash, he brought the pistol up, seeking any target. A dozen feet away, he saw three black-clad armed men scrambling over the wall. Focusing on them, oblivious to the enemy behind him, he fired. Jim’s first shot went wild, but his second found the chest of the nearest target, who was dead before he hit the pavement. Shifting fire, Jim sent three rounds in the direction of his second target, who unwisely froze, like a deer in the headlights, upon hitting the pavement. That allowed Jim, in spite of his shaking hand, to send a round smashing through the man’s gut, a slow but fatal wound. As that man went down, Jim began to line up on a third target. Jim neither heard nor felt the volley of shots from behind that ended his life. As the big biker’s head dropped to the pavement and the final darkness closed in, his last thought was of Linda. The staccato bursts of gunfire from so close to the obscuring green tarp gave Private Johnson a dilemma. He could fire from cover, but that would mean firing blind, likely to little effect. He could throw back the cover, but doing so would make him a target. He remembered that his first duty was to keep the bomb from falling into unfriendly hands, at any cost. He was well aware that the price would be his own life. Rolling onto his back, he cradled the RPG in his left arm and aimed it at the center of the cylinder-shaped casing of the nuclear warhead, just five feet away. General Bradson’s instructions, identical to those given to his son, had been simple: fire the RPG at the nuke to prevent its capture. By aiming in the center, the RPG would destroy the barrel that connected the two masses of uranium, making it impossible for the bomb to detonate as a nuclear explosion. What the General, Brian, and Private Johnson well knew was that doing so was a death sentence to whoever fired the RPG. They had no hope of surviving its blast, which would be immediately followed by the detonation of the nuclear device’s high explosives. The explosion would not be nuclear, but would be large enough to kill anyone within a hundred feet, and contaminate a large area with radioactive debris. Taking aim – at that range, he could hardly miss – Private Johnson waited, intending to fire at the first sign that the unseen enemy were taking the truck. The Private had no way of knowing that Jim and Linda were dead, nor who had shot them. He thought, or at least hoped, that there were not many, because then he would still have some chance. He was willing to die, though not eager; he still clung to a shred of hope. He heard a soft rustle to his right, and used his free arm to swing the AK-47 in that direction, brushing against the tarp with its barrel. Seeing the motion, one of the attacking troops jammed his assault rifle into the tarp and fired a five round burst. Private Johnson never felt a thing; the first bullet hit him in the head, killing him instantly. Two minutes later, the leader of the assault force was able to report to Yuri by satellite phone. “We have the device and the truck is damaged but running. Relocating now.” Yuri, who was just passing through the village of Las Indias in the van he’d stolen – and unbeknownst to him he was only yards from the other two devices –, relayed the welcome news to The Scar. There were a few farmhouses within hearing distance of the gunshots, and all but one had been abandoned as their owners fled the ash. The one remaining owner, a widowed man in his eighties, had decided that he had little to live for if he lost his home, and had stayed. His hearing was poor, but he couldn’t mistake the sound of gunfire. He tried his phone, finding it still out of order, and grumbled a few curses. He decided to wait a few hours and drive to the local police station, to report what he was sure were looters or vandals. Dawn had come and gone, and to the distress of the vulcanologists, the situation on Cumbre Vieja showed no sign of easing. A hurried conference was called, and as such things are wont to do, it stretched for hours past their self-imposed deadline. Driven by caution over the panic they knew they would cause, the scientists at last decided that they had no remaining options. The lone voice of dissent on the panel had pointed out that not all lateral collapses are fast enough to cause massive tsunamis, but the presence of the vast amounts of superheated water made that scenario highly unlikely. The consensus – a rare thing amongst vulcanologists – was that a high-speed lateral collapse was a near certainty and their best-case estimate, unlikely in itself, called for a tsunami considerably larger than the 2004 Indian Ocean event. The scenario judged the most likely was worse. Thus, the decision was made: they had to issue the warning and do so immediately. The problem they faced was that the eruption would likely be triggered by one of the numerous earthquakes accompanying the volcanic activity, and they could not know precisely when. What they did know, at last, was that the feared eruption and accompanying catastrophic lateral collapse would almost certainly occur within hours or days. The warning went out, first to civil defense authorities throughout the Atlantic Basin. It was terse and clinical in its wording, as befitted the professionals who had drafted it; CUMBRE VIEJA VOLCANO 28°35'54.08"N 17°50'22.15"W Summit Elevation 7959 ft Current Aviation Color Code: RED Current Volcano Alert Level: RED: Special Alert Current activity at Cumbre Vieja suggests that a significant explosive event is imminent in the coming days. The level of seismicity, rate of magmatic incursion, and gas output indicate that an explosive event could occur at any time with little or no warning. Shallow earthquake activity beneath the actively growing magmatic rift system has been slowly increasing. Recent observations indicate that massive volumes of subterranean water have been superheated, with no sign of significant release. The seismic activity consists primarily of seismic shocks up to magnitude four occurring several dozen times a day, in conjunction with continuous volcanic harmonic tremor. Ground deformations are occurring and growing at an accelerated rate along the western edge of the 1949 fault. As the western flank swells and deforms, it grows increasingly unstable and is more and more likely to experience a complete or partial failure. An earthquake could trigger this at any time. Should a significant explosion and flank collapse occur, the event will likely produce high altitude (>30,000 ft ASL) ash plumes, localized devastation, lahars and flooding throughout the southern region of La Palma, and pyroclastic flows in the immediate vicinity of the volcano. The phreatic-eruption driven full lateral collapse of the entire western flank of Cumbre Vieja is likely to generate massive tsunamis throughout the North Atlantic Basin. The resulting initial wave may attain a local amplitude (height) in excess of two thousand feet and a peak-to-trough measurement of over a mile. The wave will rapidly diminish in height in deep water, traveling at over six hundred miles per hour. The tsunami would strike the southern coast of Europe in less than four hours and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States roughly two hours later. The wave’s arrival time is predicated mainly upon distance. In deep water, the wave height will be under a foot but as the wave reaches the continental shelf it will begin to build, growing larger as the swallowing water slows its forward progression. Computer models indicate an average estimated wave height of no less than eighty feet along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, though localized seafloor contours will mitigate the wave force in some areas while enhancing it in others. Due to the angle of Long Island relative to the New Jersey shore, wave height in Battery Park, New York City, is estimated at three hundred feet. Localized distortions and reflective redoubling may cause wave heights of several hundred feet in some areas. La Palma Volcanic Observatory is monitoring the situation closely and the observatory is staffed 24/7. La Palma Volcanic Observatory will provide frequent updates of the volcano's status and the earliest possible warning of significant explosive/collapse activity and other hazardous phenomena. Until further notice, La Palma Volcanic Observatory considers the eruption scenario outlined above imminent and likely to occur within hours or days, and recommends the immediate evacuation of all at-risk areas. The at-risk areas are the entire Atlantic Basin. Shortly thereafter, at nine-thirty in the morning on La Palma, the press was given a copy, and all hell broke loose. Around the North Atlantic Basin, evacuation warnings were posted by all available means, kicking off the largest evacuation ever attempted. The task would prove impossible; there was simply no way to transport, let alone house, so many people in so short a time. Chaos, devolving to panic in some locations, reigned supreme. The situation quickly surpassed the ability of the various national governments to cope. The scientists on La Palma had feared this result, yet they had felt it better than the alternative. The Jetta, with Helen at the wheel, arrived at the hotel the press had chosen as their media center. Helen took one look at the reporters racing around, at first thinking that the response to her call for a press conference had been far better than anticipated. It took her only moments to realize that the frenzied activity was far in excess of anything her call could create, and the fact that the reporters were ignoring the approaching Jetta reinforced that deduction. “Something big is happening,” she said, stating the obvious and casting a nervous glance south, half-expecting to see Cumbre Vieja erupting violently. The volcano’s ostensibly tranquil appearance did nothing to solve the mystery, so Helen gathered Brandon, Chase, and General Bradson on the sidewalk. Putting Brandon in the lead, she said, “We’re going in. Whatever is going on has the press distracted but we’ve got a news story that will trump whatever they’ve got.” Rarely had Helen been proven so wrong, and never quite so quickly. Ten minutes later, inside the press center, Helen struggled to digest the news. Shocked, she told Brandon, Chase, and the General, “All we can do is hope the damn volcano doesn’t blow. Everyone will be trying to get off the island. General, unless you can get that C-130 off the ground again, we’re stuck here until the ship arrives tomorrow, though with this news they likely won’t come anywhere near us. We’ve also got to keep an eye on the damn bombs. So, change of plans. Part of the deal with the government will be that they evacuate us and our party along with the warheads. Any objections?” General Bradson glanced at the tsunami impact map before replying. “If that works, great, but it may take a while. In the meantime, I may have another option for you. I can’t take off in the loose ash, not without a JATO pack, which we don’t have. I’ve been thinking about that, because I do need to help Felecia and her men get off the island, now more than ever. If we used fire hoses to wet down some of the runway, that should lay the ash enough that I can do a short-field takeoff, provided there’s no wind to stir up any ash. We can’t take off if the ash is airborne. Also, looking at that,” The General flicked his thumb at the tsunami map, “It seems to me that areas due east of Cumbre Vieja will be safe from the wave, thanks to the shielding effect of the island. Seems to me that the safest place to be is on the east side of La Palma, like at the hotel Felecia and the troops are at, until we can fly out. After the conference, why don’t we get everyone to bug out and head over there?” Helen considered that, not liking the idea of taking Instinct to the mercenaries one bit. However, she had no better ideas and agreed. “Sounds like a plan. I don’t like sending them through that damn tunnel under these circumstances, but it’s by far the fastest way. I’ll call Jon right now and tell them to get started.” Once again, Helen found her cell phone useless. Snapping it shut, she said, “Felecia should be here soon with your phone so we can try then, assuming the resort’s phone lines are working, which they probably aren’t. Let’s get the press conference over with, then we can drive down and tell them in person.” Helen did her level best, but in the end, only a quarter of the reporters present bothered to attend Helen’s press conference, and those few had only done so based on General Bradson’s assurance that they had a critical story to tell, one having nothing to do with music. Brandon and Helen stood on the stage and Helen prompted Brandon to make the initial announcement, which Helen had written: “I’ll make this short and General Bradson can fill in all the details. Jerry Clump is alive and almost got his hands on three nuclear warheads. General Bradson stopped him and the warheads are now temporarily in my manager’s custody, here on La Palma, until they can be turned over to the U.S. Government.” It takes a very great deal to silence a reporter, but that did it. A stunned hush replaced the murmur normally present in a press conference. It lasted ten seconds, and then a wave of shouted questions deluged Brandon and Helen. That was General Bradson’s cue. He strolled onto the stage, standing tall, and faced the gathered reporters, motioning with his hands for some quiet. At first all he could do was say, over and over again, “I’ll answer any questions you have but first, let me speak.” © 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.
  6. Chapter 35: Special Delivery Standing on the tarmac of the deserted La Palma airport, General Bradson turned and said to Eric, “Drive safely. Not too fast. See you soon.” Eric nodded, and then waved at Jansen, calling him over. Jansen arrived at a jog, wondering what was going on. He’d seen the two cylinders loaded onto the truck, but his angle had concealed Brian from his view. Suddenly realizing that he had yet another issue on his hands – how to tell Jansen – Eric said, “We’re heading back to the resort in the truck. General Bradson is taking the car. I’ll explain on the way.” Growing ever more puzzled, Jansen nodded and climbed into the passenger seat of the truck. “You’re doing your country and the world a great service,” General Bradson said, just before Eric fired up the truck and gingerly shifted into first gear. As Eric drove forward, two mercenaries pulled apart the break they’d cut in the airport fence. As he entered the airport tunnel, Eric said, “Jansen, could you move the barriers again, please? I’ll start explaining in a minute.” Jansen did as he was asked, and once back in the truck, he waited while Eric hesitantly pulled away, easing the truck into second gear. Glancing at Eric, Jansen saw the sweat on his brow and the pallid look on his face. “What’s wrong?” Jansen asked. Taking a deep breath, Eric said, “You recognized General Bradson, right? You know who he is.” Jansen nodded, “Yeah, the ‘nukes in the cities’ thing you guys were mixed up with and nearly got killed in. I remember seeing him on the news a bunch of times.” Not knowing quite how to get to the point, Eric continued, “His son was a prisoner in Iran. The General flew over on my plane when I first came to La Palma. Then the flight crew dropped him off somewhere, but you know that part. That’s why I was looking for him. I had no idea he’d show up today. Him and those people he’s with went in and got his son out. They’ve just come here, direct from Iran.” “Whoa. You sure do get mixed up in some weird stuff. Never a dull moment with you, is there?” Jansen said, looking at Eric with astonishment. “But why are we in this truck?” Eric glanced in the cab’s rearview mirror, looking through the small rear window, where he could see, under the tarp, the edge of one of the nuclear bombs. Still having no idea how to tell Jansen about that little detail, Eric simply said, “They stole the truck.” “From Iran?” Jansen asked, growing even more perplexed. “From the airport here.” Eric replied. “So you’re telling me we’re in a stolen truck? Dude, do you have any freaking idea how much trouble you could get in?” Eric glanced in the mirror at the nuke again, and said. “That’s really not all that big of a deal, considering…” Growing more alarmed by the second, Jansen said, “Spill it Eric, what the fuck is going on?” Taking another deep breath, Eric replied, “The General’s son, Brian, is right behind you. You’ll see him if you open the window and stick your head through. Do it slow though, because he’s got an assault rifle… and a grenade launcher.” “Yeah, right,” Jansen said with a sarcastic laugh, thinking that Eric was playing a prank. Twisting around, Jansen slid the little window open. As he eased up to stick his head through he said, “You had me right up until you mentioned the grenade laun­–” “Hi,” Brian said, looking up at the blond head that was staring at him, or more precisely, staring at his AK-47 and RPG. “Hi,” Jansen replied in a shaken tone and then, his eyes wide in shock, he slid back down in his seat and completed his sentence to Eric. “Launcher.” After a couple of seconds, Jansen asked, “Is that really a grenade launcher?” Brian could hear through the now-open window, and wrongly assuming that the question was directed at him, said, “Yeah, RPG-7.” “Why,” Jansen asked Eric, his voice barely above a strained whisper. “You wouldn’t believe me. It sounds nuts. Hell, it is nuts,” Eric said. “Just… Just swear to me that you’re telling the truth and I’ll believe you,” Jansen said, placing his hand over Eric’s on the stick shift. Feeling the reassuring warmth of Jansen’s hand, Eric said, “I swear I’m telling you the truth. It’s a little… complicated.” Raising his voice a little, Eric said, “Brian, could you please tell Jansen what you’re guarding.” Seeing no harm in doing so – his father’s plan called for breaking the news worldwide via press conference within hours – Brian said, “Two Iranian uranium-core gun-assembly nuclear warheads.” Jansen’s face froze in place and Eric said, “Now you see why I said you wouldn’t believe me. I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t believe me either. I swear it’s true though.” “Oh, shit,” Jansen mumbled. “That pretty much sums it up,” Eric replied. Jansen sat in stunned silence, and after a few seconds, as if to reassure himself that it was all real, Jansen stuck his head through the window again, and looked at the two nondescript metal canisters, then at the grenade launcher, and then at Brian, who said, “Don’t worry. It’s just temporary. We’ll be having a big press conference tomorrow and telling the world.” Jansen turned around and sank back into his seat, returning his hand to its place on Eric’s and staring blankly out the windshield. He then turned to look at Eric, seeing that he was sweating profusely. That, in addition to his trust of Eric, caused Jansen to accept that, at least, Eric believed what he was saying. A few seconds later, as they entered the La Cumbre tunnel, Jansen said in a numb tone, softly enough that only Eric could hear, “We’re driving atomic bombs through an erupting volcano in a stolen truck.” Feeling more than a little manic thanks to the news, Jansen added, “That’s it. From now on I plan our dates.” They drove on in silence, exiting the tunnel and then turning south for the resort. As they neared it, Eric said, “I think the truck will fit through the doors into the party pavilion. We need to park it somewhere safe.” Jansen only nodded in response. The one thing Eric had forgotten was the resort’s security gate. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found it open and unmanned, thanks to the resort being direly short-staffed due to the volcano. It was a tight fit, and Eric managed to tear off a side view mirror and crush the dance floor in the process, but Eric parked the truck in the private, walled party pavilion, between the dance floor and the pool. As Brian eased himself out, Eric locked the entrance door and walked to the house phone and dialed for Helen. As soon as she answered, he said, “We’re where we had the party. We need you, right away.” Without waiting for Helen to answer, Eric hung up and sat on a barstool as Jansen joined him. Brian settled into a chair near the truck, the AK-47 nestled casually in his lap. Eric glanced at Jansen and said, “Sorry for getting you mixed up in this. I didn’t know when we left, honest.” Still staring at the tarp, Jansen said, “It’s okay. It’s just… Shit, this is weird.” Helen rushed in, accompanied by Jim, Jon, Brandon, and Chase. They stopped when they saw Brian and his assault rifle. “Hi, I’m Brian Bradson, pleased to meet you,” Brian said with a smile, wondering how they would take the news. “Your collateral is on the truck, under the tarp.” Putting business first, Helen looked under the tarp, and upon seeing the two big metal cylinders, she turned to ask Eric, “What the hell are those?” Brian answered, “Two uranium-core gun-assembly Iranian nuclear warheads–” “From Iran,” Eric added in a shaky voice. Brian smiled and nodded. “The third is with Dad. You’ll get it after the mercenaries are paid.” Helen’s visceral reaction, for a moment, was that it was all some kind of insane joke, but then she remembered the General’s words and looked at Eric and Jansen’s pallid faces. “Eric, what the fuck? Not even you could–” “Blame my Dad, he talked him into it. It really is important. We had to get the nukes out of the mercenaries’ hands. Giving you the bombs serves that purpose and gives you collateral that the U.S. Government will be sure to pay you to get. Dad said to tell you that the mercenaries still have one nuke, so please hurry. The nukes are safe, they aren’t armed. I’ve got to stay with these. Dad said to make sure you call the press conference. He’s coming here in a few hours and then the two of you announce what’s going on.” Helen glanced at Brian, then the nukes, and then at his weapons. “I’ve arranged it, but the press is up north, we have to go to them.” Glancing around, she said to the four members of Instinct, “We need to talk, now.” To Brian and Jansen, she said, “We’ll be right back.” Helen led Instinct, plus Jim, away. As soon as they were out of Brian’s earshot, Helen rounded on Eric and snarled, “Are you completely fucking insane?” Calming down slightly, Helen added, “I need to know, right now, what your gut read was on General Bradson. All of it.” Deciding that he’d done the right thing, Eric straightened his back, met Helen’s eye, and replied, “I don’t know him well, but I felt that he wasn’t lying. I also thought you knew about this, but I guess not. I think they’re real, and I think the General is telling the truth. If we don’t do this, they could auction off those nukes. That’s why I did it, because I believe the General is telling the truth.” Helen felt dizzy for a moment, and leaned against a wall for support. Looking at the other band members, Helen asked, “What do you three think? Your call.” Jon looked Eric in the eye and said, “If Eric says the General is telling the truth, he probably is, and that means those damn things are real. I say we do it; the government will cough up the cash fast because they won’t want the bombs floating around. If we don’t do this, we could end up with nukes in our cities again and this time somebody might set ‘em off.” Brandon and Chase shared a look. Both were still somewhat shell-shocked by the news, but they turned and nodded. The deal was set. Chase glanced at Eric and said, “Bro, I hope you realize that, assuming we live through this, no way in hell are you ever going to live this down?” The four band members shared an awkward but much needed laugh, and Helen said, “Okay, we’ll get everything ready, but we’ll hold the actual transfer until after I speak with General Bradson.” Helen was not yet convinced, not enough to risk thirty million. Brian felt and heard his stomach growl. “Hey Jansen, could you do me a favor? The Iranians starved me and all I had on the plane was granola bars plus coffee. I haven’t had a hot meal in over a month. Does this place have a restaurant?” Jansen nodded, still feeling severely rattled. “Yeah, I can order room service sent here.” “Not a good idea,” Brian said, nodding towards his weapons. “They might not appreciate the truck, either.” “Let me call my brother and ask him to bring something over. What do you want?” Jansen asked, so badly rattled that he didn’t even realize that he’d omitted the usual ‘cover’ of referring to Keith as his boyfriend. Brian licked his lips and then answered, “Two… no, three, steak dinners with baked potatoes. Medium well. Oh, be careful what you say on the phone.” “He wouldn’t believe me anyway,” Jansen said, and then dialed the phone. When Keith answered he said, “Keither, order three steak dinners, medium well, and then bring them to the party pavilion. Don’t tell anyone and don’t ask why, please?” Jansen hung up before a puzzled Keith could ask any questions. When Helen, Instinct, and Jim returned a few moments later, Helen cut to the chase. “Brian, we’ve decided, in spite of everything, to go through with it. The money is ready for transfer after I speak with your father again.” Smiling, Brian said, “Could you please call Dad and let him know?” Shaking her head, Helen replied, “Two problems with that. One: his number never showed up on my caller ID and I never had it. Two: the phones are intermittent here, due to the ash. The further you get from the main switching station on the east side of the island, the worse it is. Cell phones are even worse than land lines. I’m assuming that you have his phone number?” Brian’s smile quickly faded. “Uh, no. I guess he didn’t think of that. We’re all tired and things have been pretty hectic. Everybody’s a little punch-drunk, I think. He should be here soon though.” Wondering what else might have been forgotten, Helen asked pointedly, “I assume someone told him where ‘here’ is? Or at least the name of the resort, so he can get directions?” Brian shrugged, and Eric replied, “Yeah, I wrote it down for the General. Only he has it.” Sighing in exasperation, Helen said, “First things first. I’m going to the front desk and make sure we have exclusive access to this pavilion. We’re lucky no one has shown up already. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Lock the damn doors behind me.” Eric returned to his seat next to Jansen, and Jon went over to talk to Brian. Brandon and Chase, along with Jim, not knowing what else to do, sat down at a table and stared at the truck. Keith’s attempt to open the door, followed by his knocking, caused them all to jump. They only relaxed when they heard his voice. Eric let him in and closed the door behind him. Carrying a tray, and with his vision blocked by the entryway, Keith could only see Eric. Assuming that the steaks were for himself, Jansen, and Eric, Keith smiled as he strolled into the pavilion, asking, “So, did you guys have fun on your date…” Keith’s voice trailed off as he caught sight of Brandon, Chase, and Jim sitting at a table, and then he noticed the truck off to his right. Keith stopped in his tracks and Jansen called out, “The dinners are for Brian, he’s over there.” Following his brother’s gesture, Keith spotted Brian and the AK-47 slung across his shoulder, and then noticed the RPG-7 resting on the floor beside his chair. “Food!” Brian said with an ear-to-ear grin and glee in his eyes as Keith approached. Wondering what the hell was going on, Keith set the tray down on the table by Brian’s side and glanced at the truck, then back at Brian’s assault rifle. Brian immediately began to tear into the first steak, and between mouthfuls he told Keith, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.” “Uh huh,” Keith said, his gaze finally taking note of the grenade launcher under the table. Brian’s nonchalant demeanor seemed to preclude the possibility that Brian was holding Instinct hostage, but that left Keith more confused than ever. He turned to glance at his brother, hoping for an explanation. Jansen gave his brother a confused shrug, having no idea where to begin. Chuckling, amused by the absurdity of the situation, Brian said, “Sit down and I’ll explain everything. I’ll be talking with my mouth full though, because I was a prisoner in Iran until yesterday and the bastards starved me. Thanks for the chow.” Keith nodded, taking a seat in stunned silence, shocked by what Brian had just said. As Brian, between mouthfuls, filled Keith in on the rest of the story, Keith kept glancing at Eric and Jansen, who merely nodded each time, in confirmation of Brian’s words. Brian’s nonchalant conclusion, when he mentioned what was under the tarp and why, did absolutely nothing to help Keith’s composure. Looking in turn at Jansen, Eric, and the rest of the people present, all of whom merely nodded, Keith began to wonder of they’d all lost their minds. His golden tan began to fade from his face as he concluded that he wasn’t being pranked. Helen’s return did little to help. Keith let her in and asked in a stuttering voice, “Are… are… those really…” Ignoring Keith, Helen said, “We’ve got the pavilion to ourselves. Now, we’ve got to wait for General Bradson, because I want to make damn sure his plan will work. Brandon, Chase, go wait for the General at the main entrance. Even if he knows where the resort is, no way will he know where we’ve stashed the nukes.” “Nukes,” Keith mumbled, suddenly turning an even lighter shade of pale as he remembered that Instinct had been mixed up with nukes once before and thus the possibility that it had done so again became even more chillingly real. “Don’t worry, they should be gone by tomorrow,” Brian said in a cheerful tone, his attention focused on his second steak. “I’ll make sure the press conference is all set. Fortunately, there is a large press contingent in Tazacorte, ten miles up the coast from here, because of the eruptions. They’re there anyway so they’ll hear us out, assuming the damn volcano doesn’t act up.” Helen paused to think for a moment before adding, “No one outside of this room is to know what is going on. That means especially Jane Carlshitski: she’s on edge enough about the volcano. I’m sure she wouldn’t be pleased to know what we’ve got in here.” With that, Helen stomped off to make some phone calls to the press, hoping that the intermittent phone system would cooperate. Jon and Jim sat together, staring at the truck for a while, and then Jim asked Jon, “I’ve got to check the other van to make sure it’s up to the trip tomorrow. Want to give me a hand?” Eager to be away from the bombs and the unreal situation, Jon nodded and followed Jim quickly out the door. Keith watched Brian eat for a while and then walked over and took a seat beside Eric and Jansen. His head still swimming, Keith asked without thinking, “So, how was the date?” “Aside from the mercenary army, the guy with the gun and grenade launcher over there, driving through an erupting volcano, and the nukes, not bad,” Jansen replied. Brian made it halfway through the third steak and then leaned back, rubbing his stomach, feeling decidedly overfull. Looking up at the three nervous guys, Brian said, “Hey, do I stink that bad? Y’all don’t have to sit way over there.” Brian then took a whiff of his own armpit and added, “Uh, maybe I do. I haven’t had a shower since I was captured, and all I could do on the plane was wipe off with a wet towel. Man, I can’t wait to get a shower, clean clothes, and a clean bed. I just gotta hold out until Dad relieves me.” Eric got up, and as Jansen and Keith followed, took a seat near Brian, though still six feet away. Relaxing a little, Eric said, “Anything we can get you? More food maybe?” Brian shook his head, “No thanks, I’d explode if I ate another bite. I’ve got to wait until Dad gets here to relieve me. Man, it has been one hell of a day.” Glancing at the nukes, Eric said, “Yeah, I can see that.” Looking back in Brian’s direction, Eric looked past him, at the pool, and to the open showers at the far end. Pointing, Eric said, “If you want to take a shower, there’s some over there.” Brian turned to look, and began to smile at the thought of how good it would feel. “Close enough to keep a watch on the truck, I guess. Any chance one of you guys could rustle me up some clean clothes and shampoo?” “We’re about the same size, I’ll see what I can find,” Keith said, and turned to leave. Once Keith was gone, Brian asked Eric and Jansen with a grin, “So, a date, huh? How long have you two been going out?” Brian was a little surprised. He’d heard, via his father and the news media, about Brandon and Chase, but he’d always heard that Eric Carlisle had a huge reputation when it came to women. Jansen glanced at Eric, feeling a rush of concern as to how Eric would react to the disclosure. Seeing Jansen’s look of unease and misinterpreting it, Eric said, “Relax, Brian’s like you.” Eric turned to aim a knowing grin at Brian and missed Jansen’s fleeting change of expression in reaction to his words. “General Bradson told me about you,” Eric said to Brian. Brian rolled his eyes. “My old man has a big mouth sometimes,” Brian said, just a little irked that Eric knew about him via his father, but not the other way around. Brian had no way of knowing that to the best of his father’s knowledge, Eric was straight. After a moment’s pause he added, “Yeah, that’s true. No worries here.” “Jansen said he won’t let me plan any more of our dates,” Eric said with a mock pout. “Today was our first date,” Jansen said, and then glanced at the nukes before continuing, “It’s sure one to remember.” For the first time since hearing about the bombs, Jansen smiled. A little crookedly, but he smiled. At the airport, Felecia and the General were busy making preparations to abandon the C-130. They were both well aware that, sooner or later, it could draw the attention of the local authorities. The plan they’d come up with was simple; Horst would take the remaining nuclear warhead on a truck and find a safe place to lay up overnight. The remaining men, after sequestering most of their weapons on the C-130, would camp on the beach near the runway. It was, they all hoped, only for one night. Then, the General had an idea. Hefting his phone, he began making calls, first to information, which did not involve the local phone system in any way, and then to a nearby travel agent. The call, routed via a satellite ground station on Tenerife and from there to La Palma by undersea cable, went through. It was a matter of luck more than anything else; the cell towers – the ones serving the resort’s area were located on the volcano itself – had been the hardest hit by the ash, followed by the land lines. The travel agent happened to be close to the main telephone switching station and was serviced by a line that was still in working order. To the General’s pleasant surprise, he found a small hotel three miles away that was still open, though nearly empty. Glad that he’d retained some cash, he made reservations under an assumed name, booking the dozen available rooms. Grinning, he said, “I think your men will prefer a hotel to a tunnel and it’ll be less suspicious.” Felecia nodded, and then deciding it was time, she said with a shy smile, “You sure are a good planner, Walter.” Turning to the copilot, who was the only other occupant of the flight deck, Felecia said, “Time for you to take a break.” Rolling his eyes, the copilot got up to leave but was irritated enough to say, “I already know what’s going on.” Chuckling, Felecia replied, “This isn’t business, it’s personal,” and added a wink that the General could not see. The copilot figured it out, it wasn’t hard, and smiled as he left the C-130’s flight deck for the final time. Slipping into the vacated copilot’s seat, Felecia said casually, “You’re pretty good at predicting things, so did you predict this?” She quickly leaned over and pulled Walter Bradson into a deep, passionate kiss. A minute later, when they came up for air, she caught sight of the stunned look on the General’s face and said with a laugh, “I guess not in this case.” “I’m twenty years older than you,” General Bradson said, wondering if he could possibly… “Closer to thirteen actually and so what?” Felecia said. The General felt a disjointed cascade of conflicting emotions. He’d been alone for so long, just him and his son, ever since cancer had sent his wife to an early grave. The Air Force had partially filled the void, but now that was a thing of the past for him. In that moment, Walter Bradson realized how empty his life was, and how much he longed for more. Looking at Felecia, he saw a woman whom he’d grown to admire and respect, on both a professional and personal level, in spite of the fact that she’d done a few things of which he did not approve. Her fiery temper so reminiscent of his late wife, her calmness under fire and dedication to her men making her someone with whom he was honored to serve. He well knew that she could have killed him, but hadn’t. From camaraderie and shared peril came something more, and the General’s response came from the heart; he leaned over and kissed Felecia. At Horst’s direction, the mercenaries stole another truck, a small pickup, which was barely able to handle the long, heavy nuclear warhead, now guarded by Private Johnson. Horst drove it to the hotel, while Felecia led her troops there on foot after sealing up the C-130. General Bradson brought up the rear in the little Mercedes he’d borrowed from Eric. They’d waited in Tindouf, Algeria, for a message that never came. During their sojourn on the ground, The Scar recalled that Yuri had been able – via Eric’s credit card number, gleaned from the jet charter manifest – to identify the hotel in La Palma. He ordered Yuri to do so again. Yuri was thankful that he had brought his laptop along, and thus still had a record of Eric’s credit card number. A few minutes on the phone, once again posing as a personal assistant concerned over a charge, were all that was needed. Yuri ended the call and told The Scar, “A credit card charge, most recently two days ago, at the same resort he was at when the General arrived in the Cape Verdes. The airport is still closed so it would seem likely that they are still there.” The expected call from The Scar’s former cook never came. Seething, suspecting further betrayal, The Scar had ordered Flight Two into the air. Flying low, they approached La Palma from the east. Ten miles out, The Scar studied the island through binoculars and found what he sought on the seaside runway. “Turn south immediately, I see them,” he said to the pilot, and then told Yuri, “The C-130 is parked near the terminal. I doubt there are many with that paint scheme and unlike the other aircraft, it is not coated with ash. It is Flight Three; it has to be; it all fits. It will be dark within the hour. Prepare the men for a night drop.” Turning to the pilot, he said, “After the drop, land at Tenerife. It is under a hundred miles away so it is close enough. You have the needed paperwork and there will be nothing suspicious on the plane. Merely say that you are standing by for a supply airdrop into La Palma. Await our calls for instructions.” “Where will we be dropping?” Yuri asked as he unfurled a map. “Inland from the airport, about three miles,” the Scar said, and then added, “Most of the men, in any case. Their mission will be to reconnoiter the C-130 and seize the weapons if the opportunity presents itself. You, ten men, and I will drop on the other side of the island, near the resort. I will need your help, Yuri. I have only jumped a few times, never at night, and not since I lost my arm. We have to find the bombs and then get them back. If, as I suspect, Felecia is using Instinct as a go-between or perhaps even as a purchaser, it may be best to kill them first, once they have told us all that they know.” ‘It never hurts to mix business with pleasure,’ the Scar thought with a crooked smile. The troops, some at least, had greeted the news that Horst would drive off with the remaining bomb unenthusiastically. François spoke for that faction when he said, “That bomb is our guarantee. We want it with us; there have been enough double-crosses for one day.” That left Felecia and Horst with a problem, for they did not wish to alienate any of their men. It was Horst who thought of a solution. He went to the little hotel’s desk, and asked if they had any garage space, explaining that he had industrial equipment that he wished to keep out of the ash. The innkeeper’s shaking head quickly became a nod as Horst produced a thick roll of American banknotes – still the most widely accepted currency on the planet and thus the mercenary’s preferred choice. Ten minutes later, the truck was concealed in a small detached garage that had, until moments before, housed the innkeeper’s car, and Horst made plans to sleep in the vehicle. It would do for one night, he hoped. General Bradson checked on Felecia one more time, and then spontaneously asked, “Come with me, Fel. I’d like you to meet them and I want you with me.” Felecia shook her head. “I can’t leave my men. If I leave, it might look–” “Like you’re bugging out on them,” the General said, and then nodded. “I see your point but I think you’re wrong. Horst and the bomb are here. Also, it makes sense for you to go with me to secure the money.” Felecia called Horst in from outside to ask his opinion, and he agreed. Her mind made up, Felecia said, “Okay, but I’m driving. I’ve seen how you fly.” With a laugh, the General threw Felecia the keys. “Let’s go.” It was half an hour after dark when they left, and General Bradson did remember the name of the resort and knew that it was somewhere on the west side of the island. After passing through the tunnel, they stopped to ask for directions. It was then that the General learned a detail he’d been previously unaware of; the resort was on the flank of Cumbre Vieja. That did not sit well with him but there was little that he could do. Driving south along the coast road, the darkness, coupled with the glare of the occasional roadside light, prevented them from noticing the dark parachutes coming down a mile southeast of the resort. When Keith returned, Brian greeted him in an ecstatic voice. “Thanks so much, man. This is going to feel so fucking good…” Keith handed over the clothes: flame-print boardies, a concert T-shirt, boxers, and socks, stacked on top of a towel. “I thought these might help you blend in a little better,” he said. Brian accepted the clothes with a grin and said, “I’ve been dreaming about this for weeks.” As Brian stood up, Keith handed him a bottle of hotel shampoo and a tiny bar of soap. Brian again glanced around the private walled pavilion. Seeing that most of it was concealed from view, he left the clothes on the table so they wouldn’t get wet. Taking the AK-47, RPG-7, and shampoo with him, he trotted over to the shower and began to strip. Keith joined Eric and Jansen, and sat with them as Brian, keeping the weapons in easy reach, finished stripping naked and began to shower. From a distance, they could see that Brian had a lithe, well-toned build, and it was obvious that he wasn’t shy. Brian finished rinsing his hair, and called out, “Could somebody throw me that towel? Keith walked the towel and clothes over, and as he handed the towel to Brian, he noticed the bruises and contusions still marring Brian’s handsome body. “Whoa,” Keith said as Brian toweled his hair, “What happened to you?” Shuddering at the memory as it took him back to a place he was trying hard to forget, Brian said, “The guards in Iran liked using me for a punching bag. I’m still pretty messed up, huh?” Keith could only nod in stunned agreement. “Is there anything I can get for you? Bandages, maybe some aspirin?” Pulling on the boxers and shorts, moving slowly due to his battered ribs, Brian replied, “Nah, I’ll be okay. These clean duds are the best medicine I could have. That and the chow you got me. Thanks, Keith.” Keith was a little surprised; he hadn’t known that Brian knew his name. Brian left the T-shirt in his hand and slung the AK over his bare shoulder, intending to let himself air-dry for a while, and carried the grenade launcher back to his seat. Once there, he transferred the contents of his pockets, which included a grenade, to his shorts, and then tossed away the dirty clothes. Two miles from the resort, General Bradson relaxed in the passenger seat, feeling the reassuring warmth of Felecia’s hand in his own. With a depth of emotion he hadn’t known he still possessed, he returned the gentle pressure while wrestling with his concerns. Deciding to meet the issue head-on, he said, “Fel, I like what’s happening between us, I really do, but there’s something we need to talk about first. Brian is my son and there’s something I’d like to talk to you about… Something I need to make sure you’re okay with… It’s about Brian–” Concealing a laugh brought on by General Bradson’s tongue-tied state, Felecia patted his hand and said softly, “It’s okay, Walter. I already know he’s a jarhead.” The General’s words had given Felecia a good hunch what he was about to say, so she’d decided to have some fun with it. Glancing over at her slack-jawed passenger, she added with a wink, “And if I can accept that, plus the fact that you’re a freaking fly-boy wing-wiper, there’s not a lot that can bother me.” “Even if he’s gay?” General Bradson asked, beginning to relax. Laughing, Felecia replied, “Like I said, if I can accept someone being a jarhead or a wing-wiper, I can accept anything. However, there are treatments available, you know.” Felecia watched as the General’s face began to cloud, and, judging the timing just right, she added, “An inter-service transfer might cure him of being a jarhead, though there’s a school of thought that it’s some kind of genetic thing and not a choice… not as bad as being a wing-wiper though, as that’s caused by brain damage…” Laughing hard, General Bradson looked at Felecia with newfound respect. He was seeing a very different side of her. Gone for now was the mask of a hard-nosed combat commander, supplanted by a woman with a great sense of humor. With a wry grin, General Bradson said, “Like I once told the people you’re about to meet, Brian made a lifestyle choice, one I strongly disagree with.” The General let that statement hang in the air for a moment. “He joined the Marines instead of the Air Force. That came as one hell of a shock to me and it’s still a bone of contention between us. However, I’ve never had any issue with him for being gay, and he came out to me when he was fourteen.” Felecia laughed, and as they neared the resort, she said, “I agree with him about not joining the Air Force, but becoming a jarhead? That’s just way too much.” “I think we’re going to get along just fine,” General Bradson said with a heartfelt smile. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  7. C James

    Convergence

    Chapter 36: Convergence Dashing inside the resort’s main entrance, Brandon used the hotel phone to alert Helen. “General Bradson is here and he’s got a woman named Felecia with him. Chase is taking them to the pavilion–” Helen didn’t even reply, she hung up and rushed out the door of her suite. After listening to the dead line for a moment, Brandon hung up, shrugged, and took off at a run, soon catching up with Chase, the General, and Felecia. They arrived at the pavilion and knocked. Brandon said, “Open up.” Hearing Brandon’s voice, Eric let them in, and the General entered first. He took one look at Brian, the incongruously parked truck, and stared for a moment at the loud shorts and T-shirt Brian was wearing. Smiling, the General said, “You’re out of uniform, Marine.” Brian grinned but before he could answer, Helen pounded on the door. Holding his breath, Eric let her in. She stormed right up to General Bradson, jabbed a finger in his chest, and said in a steel-edged tone, “You and I need to talk – right now!” The General followed Helen outside, and as soon as they were far enough away for privacy, she turned on him to say, “Are you out of your fucking mind? You sent us nuclear weapons as loan collateral!” “I had to, Helen. We couldn’t deal directly with Washington, and if I didn’t come up with something, those bombs would have been turned over to the arms dealer who put the mission together. I couldn’t say before, but I think you know him: we believe he's your old acquaintance, Jerry Clump. Apparently he survived the explosion in South America. His injuries and traits match what we know. Given what he’s done in the past, I figured you’d be as eager as I am to keep nukes out of his hands.” Shocked by that bit of news, Helen replied, “Look, I see your point, but my first duty is to those boys in there. I need to be damn sure that they’ll be reimbursed.” Smiling, General Bradson replied, “That’s the easy part. We aren’t going to tell Uncle Sam where the nukes are until you’re paid. No way in hell will the government want those things on the loose. They’ll pay.” Seeing a hole in the General’s plan, Helen narrowed her eyes. “That’s predicated on a mighty big assumption: that they believe us.” Shaking his head, his smile becoming a self-assured grin, General Bradson replied, “Oh, they’ll believe it. When we were leaving Iran, the mercenaries used one of the bombs to destroy the Iranian production facility. That fact will be evident. I’ll make a call shortly to make sure they’re looking in the right places. If that’s not enough, we have three of the bombs so we’ll have other options, up to and including a nuclear demonstration at sea for the press. You have my word: I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re paid back, and in this game we hold three very big aces.” “The mercenaries used a nuke? And they still have one, and it’s here on the island?” Helen asked, feeling a sudden chill in spite of the tropical air. “They aren’t easy to detonate, and that bomb is their only guarantee of being paid, so they won’t use it. They’d have no reason. They’re well aware that it’s part of the deal, and to be turned over to you as soon as the money clears. I’ll be there to make darn sure that occurs. They were under orders to use a nuke in Iran but they turned on their former employer. All they want is to make sure they get paid so they can get out of the business they’re in. It’s the only way out for many of them.” Rolling her eyes, Helen said, “Very well, let’s go check with the guys, and if they agree, I’ll send the transfer order to Switzerland. I’ll do so at dawn tomorrow; the actual transfer can only occur within banking hours. The money will be in the numbered accounts within twenty minutes after they receive the transfer order. It’s all set up.” His exhausted mind deciding that now might be a good time to broach a different subject, General Bradson said, “Helen, before we do, I’ve got a huge favor to ask. Once this is all done, I’ll be dead broke. Is that job you offered still available? If so, count me in, but it would be a ‘two for the price of one’ deal. You’ll like her; she’s the lady I came with tonight – Fel. We’re dating now; I haven’t even told my son that yet. If this nuclear deal works out to your satisfaction, just give us an interview and hear us out, that’s all I ask.” Helen wasn’t pleased by the question, especially as she had no idea who Felecia was, nor why the General assumed it was safe to bring her to the bombs. Helen suppressed her anger; she didn’t wish to offend the General unnecessarily, not at that point. She knew that the assurance she was about to give had no real force and therefore she had no reason not to make it. “You’re chock full of surprises, aren’t you? I certainly can’t see the harm in an interview and yes, the position is still open,” Helen replied, and then headed back into the pavilion, with General Bradson following close behind. While General Bradson and Helen were having their private chat, Felecia took a seat next to Brian. Giving him a sympathetic smile, she asked, “You hanging in there, Kiddo? You must be exhausted.” Surprised by Felecia’s question, Brian nodded and returned her smile. “Yeah, I’m doing okay, thanks. I need to sleep for a few days but I think I’m healing up.” “I’ve been in a few tight scrapes myself over the years, and I’ve got to tell you: you’ve impressed me. You’ve been through hell but you’re toughing it out. That takes guts. Just... Just don’t try and be too tough, okay? If you need someone to talk to, someone who’s been in bad places, I’ll lend you an ear. Don’t try and handle it all alone.” Brian could only look at Felecia in surprise, colored by lingering suspicion, astonished that she’d seen through his front so well. When he’d slept on the plane, he’d repeatedly woken from nightmares. Now, he feared returning to that chamber of horrors in Iran every time he closed his eyes. Still, he believed that he could handle it himself. “Thanks, I mean that, but I’m okay.” Glancing at the bulge showing on Brian’s pocket, Felecia lowered her voice for privacy and grinned. “Either you’re really happy to see me or you’ve still got the pineapple. I’m guessing the latter because I know I’m definitely not your type. Your father told me about you, and I just wanted you to know that you’ve got no worries from me.” Then, with a wink, Felecia added, “I’ve got a cousin like you.” Brian’s jaw dropped open for a moment. He’d never been secretive about his sexuality, but he didn’t announce it, either. He considered it his own business. ‘What the fuck is he, a public address system?’ Brian thought, wondering what on earth had possessed his father to share that sort of personal info, first with a rock star, and then with the commander of the mercenaries, and God only knew who else. With that subject out of the way, Felecia and Brian began talking about his time in Iran and to his surprise, Brian found himself warming to the mercenary commander. As soon as she was inside the pavilion, Helen pulled the four members of Instinct aside and explained what she’d been told, including about Jerry Clump. At the mention of Jerry’s name, Eric’s eyes flashed fire as the old hatred returned. He then led his bandmates in agreeing to the deal. Solemn nods and a few questions followed. A minute later, Helen led her charges to General Bradson and, ignoring Felecia who now stood a few paces away, said tersely, “It’s agreed. We’ll effect the transfer as soon as the bank opens in the morning.” Breathing a sigh of relief, Felecia walked over to say, “Thank you,” to Helen. She then reached for her satellite phone and turned to General Bradson to ask, “Any objection to me letting my men know?” “Your men?” Helen asked pointedly, arching an eyebrow. “Fel is their commander,” General Bradson said, with an open-handed shrug. “I see,” Helen said in an icy tone, furious that General Bradson had omitted that little detail. She was even more concerned that the mercenary commander knew of the bombs’ location. However, she rationalized it by the fact that the mercenaries wished to be paid and neither Felecia nor the General would know the bomb’s location for long. Helen then added, “Very well, but do not disclose our location.” Hearing no other objection, Felecia flipped open the phone. After a few seconds she said, “It’s dead, no service.” “The phones keep going out due to the volcanic ash shorting out some of the lines,” Helen said. Shaking his head, General Bradson pulled out his own phone and said to Helen, “These are satellite phones, not cells. They should be unaffected.” Checking his phone, the General said, “Mine’s working,” and handed it to Felecia. Felecia dialed Horst’s number and listened for a few moments. “It says it’s disconnected.” Realizing what had likely occurred, General Bradson said, “Those came from your employer, right? Looks like he was nice enough to pull the plug. He can’t touch mine because I didn’t get it from him, but it’s not a lot of use without a working phone on the other end. Felecia fished out a card from the hotel they were staying at, and dialed. The call, routed via a satellite ground station on Tenerife and from there to La Palma by undersea cable, went through. It was a matter of luck more than anything else; the cell towers – the ones serving the resort’s area were located on the volcano itself – had been the hardest hit by the ash, followed by the landlines. The mercenaries’ hotel happened to be close to the main telephone switching station and was serviced by a line that was still in working order. Working fast, Felecia had the innkeeper put her through to each room in turn. Her message was the same: “We have a finalized deal. We’ll have our money first thing in the morning, every bit of it, a million each.” François hung up the hotel phone after receiving the message and relayed the news to his roommates. The cheering and high-fives were echoed in the other rooms, and for a few moments, the hotel reverberated with the sounds of celebrating men. Even Private Johnson, the only man there who had no financial stake in the proceedings, joined in the joyous outburst, delighted that the nuclear weapons were a step closer to being in safe hands. François gazed out the window, watching several men running towards the garage to give the good news to Horst. Turning to face his two roommates, François said with a wry smile, “I am beginning to think that this mad venture might just pay off and should tie things up nicely. I prefer the Caymans for such things, but Switzerland will do very well indeed, for the moment. I will believe it when I see it, but for now, even I am feeling somewhat optimistic.” In the pavilion, General Bradson used the satellite phone to call Bill. “I’ve got a bit of a situation here and you probably won’t like it. I’ll make it quick: we were partially wrong about that base. It had chemical weapons like we thought but it was also a nuclear enrichment facility. Their nuke program was further along than anyone thought. We found four operational nukes and used one to blow the underground base to hell. We have three more nukes with us. We’re going to hold a press conference in the morning and announce these facts. I need you to make sure, if they haven’t noticed it already, that the seismic signature of an underground nuclear blast at the base has been seen. The blast broached the surface so confirmation can be gained through air samples.” Bill’s palms began to sweat. His voice a little unsteady, he said, “You used a nuke? Are you fucking nuts? Holy shit, no way in hell will we be able to keep this quiet...” Bill’s voice trailed off as the rest of the General’s words sank in, and he continued, “A press conference? Are you out of your fucking mind? What the hell for? Just call the nearest U.S. base and get them there, ASAP–” “I know this puts you in a difficult situation, but it can’t be helped...” General Bradson explained about the loan and its need to be repaid. Bill remained silent for a few moments, mulling his response. “Just keep me out of this. I’ll do what I can to make sure the seismic monitoring people are looking in the right places. The NRO,” Bill said, using the acronym for the National Reconnaissance Office, “saw the refineries blow so I’ve got an excuse to ask a few questions, but that’s as far as I can go.” General Bradson smiled, assuming that the seismic signature of a nuclear blast would be unmistakable proof. “That’s all I ask. I’ll keep you out of this, you have my word.” After hanging up, the General’s thoughts turned to more immediate needs. Looking at Helen, he said, “We’ve got a long night ahead of us. We need to keep a guard on the nukes. Fel and I are exhausted; we’ve had no sleep since launching the mission into Iran. Brian is even worse off, due to being brutally treated while a prisoner, plus forced sleep deprivation. Is there somewhere we could take turns sleeping? Or at least get some blankets and pillows for the loungers on the other side of the truck?” Helen shook her head. “I’ll check with the front desk. I’m sure there are rooms available–” “Thanks, but please don’t,” General Bradson said. “It might look odd that people are checking in with the volcano acting up. I don’t want to take any more security risks, not tonight.” General Bradson was already decidedly uncomfortable regarding the number of people who knew of the bombs and their location. What was worse, he knew that the fault was largely his, due in large part to his exhaustion-addled mind. Helen glanced around, doing a quick mental review of everyone’s accommodations. “Jansen and Keith have a two bedroom suite. I’m sure we can change around a bit and free up a room or two. At worst, each suite has a sofa that converts to a bed.” The mention of ‘bed’ had a very special meaning to a man who had been awake and under massive stress for almost forty-eight hours. General Bradson nodded appreciatively, and then turned to tell Brian, “You and I have to do the guarding. You go get some sack time and relieve me about four AM.” Brian gave his father a wry smile. “I hope that’s not an order because I’m not going to obey it. You’ve got to handle the press conference in the morning so you need to sleep. If somebody will get me a few pots of coffee, I’ll handle the guard duty. Marines are used to going without sleep. We’re not soft like the Air Force.” General Bradson laughed at the barb. He’d spent precious little time with his son since the rescue and Brian’s returning sense of humor was the best evidence so far that he was recovering from his ordeal. However, the General was also well aware that Brian was near exhaustion. “In spite of your jarhead bravado, you can’t do it. You’ve got to guard the bombs while I’m at the press conference.” Felecia chimed in to remind the General, “I’m pretty handy with a gun, Walter. I can take a turn.” The idea of turning the bombs over to the mercenary commander did not sit well with Helen. “Enough. Those bombs are Instinct’s now so Barbra and I will take a shift and the boys can help. If you’ll recall, we’ve seen our share of gunplay. Let Brian take it until midnight while I have a quick nap. I want you in good shape for the press conference, as you’ll be doing most of the talking.” Felecia was sharp enough to grasp the likely real reason that Helen had intervened. Felecia could understand Helen’s unwillingness to trust her, but her objection was practical, not personal. “With all due respect, Helen, how much experience do you or Instinct have with an AK-47 or an RPG-7 grenade launcher?” Knowing that Felecia was expecting a far different answer from a civilian, Helen replied, “I’ve been packing a pistol for years and I do believe in training. Ever since a shootout in Telluride the General can tell you about, I’ve become a little more proactive on the weaponry side. One of my guns is an SKS, which happens to be a Chinese copy of an AK-47. It’s not full-auto, just semi, but I know how to shoot the gun. So do the boys. We go shooting quite often, with rifles, pistols, and shotguns. The RPG, you’ve got me there. I’ve never even touched one.” With a smile, Helen added, “However, Jim, the biker who is our bodyguard, is ex-military, so I’m betting he knows how to use a grenade launcher, even if not that particular model.” The debate went on for a few moments, until Helen literally put her foot down and said, “We’re going to compromise and do it my way. General, Felecia, you two go get some sleep, right now. Brian, if you can hang in there for a couple of hours, I’ll be here at midnight to take over. Jon, you’re sacking out in Brandon and Chase’s living room so the General can have your room. Jansen, Keith, one of you gets to sleep in your living room so Brian can have a room. Eric, Felecia can have your room and you can sleep in the volcano. There, we’re done.” With a soft smile, Felecia said, “Walter and I can share, to make it easier on everyone.” That comment caused Brian’s head to snap around. For a moment he wondered if Felecia was up to something, but then he caught sight of his father’s crimson blush. Shaking his head as if to clear it, Brian stared in shock. Then he began to smile, his tired mind finding wry humor in the absurdity of it all. General Bradson and Felecia left in a hurry as soon as Helen handed them the keycard she’d taken from Jon. General Bradson regretted that he had not been the one to tell Brian about his new relationship but, tired as he was, he could only hope his son would understand. Felecia and the General were far too tired to do more than share a kiss, and were both asleep within minutes. Helen too made a speedy departure from the pavilion and after filling in a still-incredulous Barbra, set her alarm for fifteen minutes before midnight. Jon, Brandon, and Chase lingered for a few minutes, talking with Eric, the dancers, and Brian, mainly about the volcano. Brandon suggested that they see what they could find out regarding any updated forecasts, and led Jon and Chase back to the suite they now shared. They weren’t the only ones concerned by the volcano. The vulcanologists doing the monitoring had confirmed that water was being superheated within it, with no significant venting of steam to release the pressure. The hoped for steam venting had not occurred. Seismic data indicated that magma was spreading throughout the rift system, along the old fissures, bringing it into contact with more groundwater and increasing the pressure. Tiltmeters on the western slope had detected ground deformation all along the 1949 fracture zone, forcing the scientists to conclude that the scenario they most feared was becoming more likely by the hour. The water, once freed by a massive eruption, would flash to steam and act as both a lubricant and driver along the fracture, causing a lateral collapse of the western slope of Cumbre Vieja. The power of a steam-driven – also called a phreatic – eruption cannot be understated; the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which obliterated most of the island and created the loudest sound in recorded history – heard thousands of miles away and detected as far away as London – along with massive tsunamis, was a phreatic event. Cumbre Vieja had become a powder keg, and the fuse was lit. The decision was made: unless conditions changed – there was still hope that they might, and thus the scientists were reluctant to act immediately, knowing the panic they would cause – they would issue evacuation orders for the southwestern coast of La Palma at dawn, though the island was not their prime concern. They would also send a tsunami warning for the entire Atlantic Basin, including the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, which was the area judged most at risk: the massive tsunami that a lateral collapse could trigger, the largest such wave in human history, would hit the East Coast of the United States, and once it began, nothing on earth could stop it. Keith made a quick trip to the restaurant and returned with several thermoses of strong coffee. Taking a seat beside Brian, he waited while the Marine poured a cup, and then asked, “Mind some company?” Brian gave Keith a tired smile. “Actually, I’d really appreciate any company I can get. I need to stay awake. So, what’s you’re story? What brings you to this erupting volcano?” Keith laughed, hard, before jabbing an accusing finger in Eric’s direction, “That nut over there, he’s the one. He hired Janse and me for Brandon and Chase’s bachelor party...” Keith settled in, taking his time as he told Brian the story. The one part he omitted was his own sexuality; in spite of Brian’s apparent acceptance of Jansen and Eric, and unaware of the disclosures regarding Brian, Keith felt no reason to out himself to the armed Marine. Jansen and Eric, sitting together at a table a few feet away, listened to Keith’s long recount, occasionally butting in to add a detail or two. Jansen was a little quieter and more distant than usual, and at first Eric chalked it up to the monumentally bizarre day they’d had, but as the evening wore on, he began to feel there was a larger issue. When Keith finished his recount, Eric looked at Brian and Keith to say, “Jansen and I had a date planned for tonight. Would you guys mind if we took off for a while?” Turning to Jansen, he asked, “That is, if you still feel like it?” Jansen nodded with a lot more enthusiasm than Eric had expected, given his prior melancholy air. Brian and Keith shared a look, a shrug, and a smile. “Yeah, you guys go. Have fun,” Brian said. “Lead the way, since you planned this one,” Eric said with a grin. On the way out the door, Jansen replied with a chuckle, “Yeah, I’m planning all our dates from now on, remember?” Keith got up to lock the pavilion door, and then returned to his place by Brian’s side, shaking his head in amusement. Brian gave Keith a sideways glance and asked, “So, what’s it like, being an exotic dancer?” That led to another conversation, as the two extroverted guys, strangers only hours before, fell into an easy rapport. Strolling by the resort’s main pools, looking at the moonlight and tiki-torches, Eric walked with Jansen until they reached a dark area far from the lights. Taking a seat on a bench, gazing out at the starlit sea and brilliant stars, Jansen said, “This place is so beautiful. Thanks,” and in the darkness, he took Eric’s hand. In spite of Jansen’s reassuring touch, Eric could feel the return of a distance between them. After mulling it over for a while, he decided to just ask. “Jansen, something’s bugging you. If it’s what happened today at the airport, I’m really sorry, I had no idea–” Jansen gave Eric’s hand a gentle squeeze and chuckled. “Damn, you’re good at picking up on stuff. Yeah, I’m still shook up from today. I don’t blame you, don’t think that, but you gotta admit, this was one weird day. Maybe it’s making me read too much into things, or worry too much. I want to talk to you about it but not here, okay? It’s nothing to worry about; I just want to wait until we’ve got more privacy.” Eric glanced around in the darkness, thinking that where they were was fairly private, but he said, “Okay. Anytime you’re ready.” They sat for a while, enjoying the view and the company, before changing into shorts and going for a moonlight swim. Ignoring the fact that there were a few people still roaming the grounds, Eric cornered Jansen in the pool, pulling him in for a quick but passionate kiss. The emotions it held did much to assuage Jansen’s concerns, but it wasn’t enough to dispel them entirely. Eric broke the kiss and pulled away before launching a splash attack on Jansen. Laughing, playing, they chased each other across the starlit waters until it was time to return to the pavilion, intending to help Helen guard the bombs. When they arrived, shirts in hand and still dripping from the pool, Helen let them in and shot Eric a withering glare. “You’re late.” Confused, Eric glanced at his watch. “It’s three minutes ‘till midnight, and you said midnight.” Walking towards Brian, Helen grumped at Eric, “If you’re going to make me sit up all night guarding goddamn bombs, the least you could do is be early.” Brian stood up, slightly unsteady on his feet due to exhaustion. He glanced at Helen, the two dancers, Jim, and the four members of Instinct in turn. He then gave Helen a quick rundown on the AK-47 and handed it to her, pleased to see that she seemed comfortable with it. He left the RPG on the table after giving some instructions to Jim, but stressed that she should call him and his father at the first hint of any concern. “How about I crash out in the cab of the truck?’ he asked, not feeling comfortable leaving his post. Shaking her head, Helen replied, “No, hon, you’ve been through hell. You’re sleeping in a real bed tonight. Jansen and Keith’s suite is close by, and the boys and I will be here. Go, before you fall over. We really need you rested and conscious by morning, remember.” The lure of a bed, a real bed, was too much for Brian’s dazed mind to resist. “Thanks,” he said, weaving slightly as he walked towards the door. Keith trotted to catch up, telling Helen, “I’ll go get him settled in.” Nodding, she replied, “Get some sleep yourself, he’ll need some company in the morning.” Helen suppressed a smile; she wanted both Brian and Keith out of the way, and she was pleased that she’d phrased her words in such a way as to avoid lying. As Brian and Keith left, Helen made a phone call to the press office, confirming the ten o’clock conference for the reporters who were there covering the volcano. It had been an easy thing to arrange. The reporters were hungry for any news, given their mistaken impression that Cumbre Vieja’s eruption was tapering off. Keith led Brian to the suite, noticing his half-closed eyes. Leading Brian to Jansen’s Room, Keith watched as Brian half crawled, half fell into the bed. Brian nestled in, face down, and mumbled, “Don’t forget to wake me...” Keith was amazed. He’d never seen anyone fall asleep so quickly. He clicked off the light and eased the door closed before going to his own room, where he stripped to his boxers, set the alarm clock, and rolled over, intending to get what sleep he could. At the Pavilion, Barbra arrived with coffee and sat down with Helen. Helen glanced at the four members of Instinct, who were, along with Jansen, sitting at the next table, and said, “Jim and I will stay up. As for the rest of you, let’s make some plans for in the morning. First, I’ve got to finalize the bank transfer when the bank in Switzerland opens at eight their time, which is seven our time. I need to be at the airport when that happens, to take possession of the third bomb. Jim checked out the remaining van and it’s fine, but I won’t leave anyone here without emergency transportation. So, we’ll be using a little Volkswagen Jetta that I’ve borrowed. It can seat five. The General and I have to go and he wants Felecia there too. We’ll need Brandon as he’s the lead singer and we need the most famous face for the press conference. We’ll round it out by taking Chase. It’ll be a tight fit but we’ll make it. We’ll leave at nine.” Helen had been careful to omit much of her plan. “What can I do to help?” Eric asked. With a smile, Helen asked Jansen, “Hon, could you get us some coffee?” Jansen figured Helen had something private to say, but he didn’t mind. He nodded and set off for the lobby, where he knew they had coffee for the guests at all hours. As soon as Jansen had left, Helen fixed Eric in her gaze. Softening a little, Helen replied to Eric’s question, “I’d planned on yelling at you all night to keep awake. There’s the matter of you sneaking off to the airport and shutting your phone off, plus of course the little presents you brought us,” Helen used the AK-47 to gesture at the nuclear warheads. “However, as a practical matter, you and Jon need to keep an eye on things in the morning. Jim and I will stay up for a while and the rest of you should get some sleep. Tomorrow might be a very busy day and at least some of us need to be well rested. Eric, I need you to go so Jansen will.” “You’re planning something,” Eric said as a statement, not a question. That comment resulted in some puzzled looks, and Helen continued, “I’m very uncomfortable with two things. One is that the commander of the mercenaries is here and knows where the bombs are. The second is that, once we announce what we have to the world, the U.S. Government, plus anyone else who can access credit card info or phone records, will know where we are and have a good idea where the bombs might be. I’m not turning them over to the government until they cough up the money we’re out, so we, except for Eric, will be moving the bombs. Where they are going will be known only to us, understood?” The four members of Instinct nodded in agreement. Jim stood up and walked over the truck. “I’ve cleared the air filters so it should be runnable enough for what we need. A couple of hours ago, Jon and I took the working van and did some scouting. We found a place in the town uphill from here, Las Indias. It’s a storage locker complex. They have a twenty-four-hour place – keycard operated – due to all the holiday rentals and timeshares around here. I paid cash and that’s all set up. The truck won’t fit – plus, I’ll need it to move the third nuke tomorrow – so we’ll have to offload the bombs. The things weigh over a ton but the cylinders can roll. I scrounged up some bricks and lumber. I’ve also borrowed a mattress from my room. We’re going to roll the bombs off the truck, right into the storage locker, then padlock it. Secrecy should be our best protection.” Helen gestured at the RPG. “Brian and the General might not be pleased when they find out the bombs are gone. However, they did turn them over to us and we never agreed to their having access. I like the General, but I believe his overriding concern is getting the bombs out of mercenary hands and turned over to the U.S. Government. Brian is a serving U.S. Marine so his first loyalty, naturally, is to the government. I support them in that, of course, but we also need to be reimbursed. Most of my, and much of Instinct’s, net worth is tied up in this so I’m not inclined to take any chances. It’s always possible that the government might try to take the bombs without paying us, or screw it up in some other way. They might even try to get cute and tax us for ‘selling’ the bombs to them. This way they won’t have the option of screwing up, or screwing us. The bombs will be as safe hidden in a storage locker as they are here. Probably safer. However, no one but us must know where, understood?” “That’s why you made the General, Brian, and Felecia leave, right?” Chase asked. “Exactly. It was either that or tell them ‘no deal’ unless they agreed. This way was easier,” Helen replied. Jansen returned with the coffee, and Helen said to Eric, “You and Jon need to keep an eye on things in the morning. So, as a practical matter, Jim and I will stay here and the rest of you should go get some sleep. Tomorrow might well be a very busy day and at least some of us need to be well-rested.” Jon, Brandon, and Chase hung back a little, allowing Eric and Jansen to leave ‘first’. Eric understood the need for secrecy, but he still felt a little bad for not leveling with Jansen. Once Jansen and Eric had gone, Helen waited for five minutes, and then ordered, “Let’s saddle up! We’ve got some nukes to move.” A mile upslope from the resort, The Scar sat in the darkness with Yuri while his men scouted ahead. The Scar massaged his aching ankle, bruised during the parachute landing, while Yuri finished a whispered conversation with their airport force on a satellite phone. “Some interesting news,” Yuri said upon hanging up. “Felecia's C-130 is abandoned. However, there are many tracks in the ash and our men are trying to follow them. They will report anything they find. Perhaps we should secure a vehicle and join them?” The Scar considered that for a moment. “No. They can handle it for now, with you in command by phone. We shall attend to matters here first, unless the warheads are located. I still believe that the band is mixed up in this and may well know the location of the warheads, or even have them. There are too many coincidences for it to be otherwise.” © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  8. C James

    Rendezvous’

    Chapter 33: Rendezvous’ On board Flight Three, flying low in the amber light of dawn over the Red Sea, General Bradson said, “We’ll tell your men that the base in Sudan has been compromised so we’re heading back to the Cape Verde Islands. En route, we’ll level with them. We’ll tell them they’ll have a million each, in a numbered Swiss account, confirmed to their satisfaction, by the end of the day. I’ll stay with you after the turnover and I’ll get you and your men to safety. I’ll also make sure that the U.S. Government leaves you the hell alone. You’ll be out, all the way out, just like you wanted for your men.” Felecia nodded, and called over the intercom for Horst to join them in the cockpit. She knew she’d need his help with the men, and she trusted him. Once Horst entered, Felecia gave him a quick rundown on what they had planned, and was not surprised when he merely nodded. She had expected nothing less. She then pointed at the other C-130, which was a mile off their port wing. “Our immediate problem is getting away from Flight Two. They must have orders to keep us in sight.” General Bradson glanced at Flight Two, and then ahead before replying, “We can’t outrun ‘em, we’re carrying more weight so they’re faster. I can out-fly them easy enough, but that would be a wild ride and it might be kind of hard to explain to your men. Better to use that,” he pointed ahead, at a morning fog bank hugging the Sudanese coast, “and give them the slip.” Felecia let out a sigh. “Two of the men on board that plane are mine. I don’t like the idea of leaving them to Frankenstein.” Horst sat up a little straighter, and reminded, “Felecia, I think they intended to kill you as well as the General when they came on board in Oman. That would be their logical move. Even if not, they were acting against your orders. They have chosen their side.” “I know, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Felecia replied. The General waited until they were over the narrow fog bank, skimming a hundred feet above it. “It looks like it’s about four hundred feet thick and we’re still three miles from the coast, so we should be okay. Going in now.” General Bradson eased the yoke forward, and Flight Three nosed downward, enveloping itself in the grey mists. As soon as he felt they were concealed he banked to the right, rolling out on a northwest heading. The General was thankful for the fact that neither C-130 they were using was equipped with radar. Felecia’s phone rang; it was Flight Two asking a little too excitedly where they were. Felecia told them, “We’re proceeding due west, using the fog for cover. It’s daylight and seeing two transports flying in formation might arouse suspicions. We’ll see you at the strip, Felecia, out.” To the General and Horst, she said, “I doubt that’ll work. They’ll be looking for us on the other side. This fog bank only looked a few miles across.” “It won’t matter. We’ll be out of their visual range by the time we emerge,” General Bradson said, while keeping a close eye on his instruments. Felecia was right; Flight Two circled for five minutes, and then tried to phone Felecia again. Receiving no answer, they phoned The Scar. The answer was swift. “Land here immediately.” Turning to face Yuri, The Scar said, “It is as we feared. Make certain the men are ready, full airborne assault gear and parachutes. We’ll follow that traitorous bitch and give them a surprise they’ll not soon forget.” On board Flight Three, Felecia and Horst made their way into the cargo bay to tell their men that plans had changed. Calling for everyone’s attention, Felecia said, “We’ve received word that the Sudan base has been compromised. We’re returning directly to the Cape Verdes, after a fuel stop. We’ll still be paid, and sooner than we expected. It’s all arranged. You have my word on that. We’re just going a little further than we planned.” Felecia took care to keep her voice casual, and then left Horst to fill the men in on the details of their fuel stop and what they’d need to do. Flight Three followed the Egyptian-Sudanese border westward, staying just south of it, in Sudan’s airspace, where they were less likely to draw unwanted notice. Reaching Egypt’s western border, they turned northwest as they entered Libya, staying low, for the one-hundred-seventy-five miles remaining to Kufra. Kufra is one of the most remote places on earth. Literally an oasis in the vast Sahara, long an important stop for trans-Sahara caravans, Kufra is over four hundred miles from the nearest Libyan base. Its modern importance is due to its use as a transport hub for the oil industry. While en route, General Bradson phoned Bill to ask if Kufra had any Libyan military presence at the moment. As Libya’s southernmost airfield, General Bradson was aware that it sometimes did, though it was not a permanent military facility. Bill was unable to find anything out, which left Flight Three with a problem. “We’re going in blind,” General Bradson said, “We’re critically low on fuel. We have to land at Kufra; we have no choice, so there’s no point in doing a flyby. Might as well use the element of surprise. The runway is roughly north to south, so I’ll bring us in from the south and roll to a stop next to the hangers and fuel. Get your men ready. Keep the weapons out of sight, if we can. We can send one of your men and Private Johnson out; he knows a few words of Arabic.” Felecia nodded, reading between the lines. “Thanks Walter, that’s a nice gesture, but we’re in this up to our eyebrows now. I’ll trust you to send out who you like. You don’t need to include one of my men as a watcher.” Glancing at Felecia in surprise, General Bradson’s eyes opened wide as he looked at her uniform and realized one thing he’d forgotten. “Thanks Fel. We’re in this together from here on out. You have my word on that. One other thing; get your men changed, fast. We’re all still in Iranian uniform and that’s not a good idea. See if you can rustle up something for Private Johnson and my son, too. I’d like to join Johnson on the ground and see if we can bribe our way out of any difficulties. Send Horst too, three of us should be about right and he knows Africa pretty well from the sound of it.” Felecia headed aft, and told Horst to get the men changed back into the nondescript clothing they’d worn when taking off from Somalia. She checked their stores, and found a few spare t-shirts. Taking two, she crouched down beside Brian and Private Johnson to say, “We’re making a quick refueling stop in Libya, so the Iranian uniforms have got to go. The pants should be fine, but ditch the tops and put on the t-shirts.” Brian was not happy to hear that they would be stopping in Libya, so he asked, “Does my father know about this? Is he okay?” Felecia laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yep, kiddo, he’s okay and considering this stop is his idea, I’d say he’s fine with it. Why don’t you two join us in the cockpit after you get changed? I know he needs to talk to you, Johnson, regarding what we’ll do on the ground.” Brian and Private Johnson locked eyes for a moment, unsure of how to respond, given the General’s orders to keep an eye on the nukes. Felecia picked up on the hesitation and said with a chuckle, “I think you should both come, but if one of you wants to stay here, that’s fine too. Now, get changed.” Felecia watched as the two young Marines shucked off their uniform tops, and bit her lip as she saw the mass of bruises on Brian’s torso, and the lesser, but still glaring, ones sported by Private Johnson. With a sympathetic smile, she said, “Those bastards really worked you two over. I’m glad we got you out, and I’m not sorry we blew their base to hell.” Felecia stood up to return to the cockpit, while Brian, nursing his bruised ribs, eased into the tan t-shirt Felecia had given him. Edging closer to Private Johnson, he lowered his voice for privacy before saying, “She seems okay, not what I was expecting. Maybe you should go forward first and see what my Dad wants, and I’ll stay here.” He didn’t mention the grenade in his pocket, but Private Johnson understood, and nodded. Their conversation ended as Brian spotted his father, no longer in Iranian uniform, walking towards them. “Come on up front, both of you, we’ve got plans to make,” General Bradson said, adding a nod to let them know it was okay. Getting up with a little difficulty due to their injuries, the two Marines followed General Bradson to the cockpit. As they entered and he resumed his position at the controls, Felecia told the copilot, “Take a break.” With an exasperated roll of his eyes, because he’d already figured out much of what was going on, the copilot complied. Once the copilot had left, Felecia glanced at the two Marines’ pants, noticing the bulge in Brian’s pocket, which confirmed her suspicions. With a smile, she said, “Walter and I have cooked up a bit of a switch. The nukes won’t be going to my former employer. Brian, I do hope you have a pin in that grenade. Just keep it safe, okay?” Brian struggled to keep the shock off his face. General Bradson glanced back, surprise in his eyes, as Felecia began to laugh. “It was the obvious move, guys. I’d have done the same. However, we’re all on the same side now, right? Keep the grenade, Brian. I just wanted you to know that I’d noticed, and that means Horst almost certainly has, too. He doesn’t miss much. Please bear in mind that neither of us has objected.” “You sure know how to make a point,” General Bradson said with a chuckle. “Okay Johnson, you’re going to get a chance to try out your Arabic. I’m wearing a money belt with fifty thousand in it. First, we’ll pretend to be Canadian oil workers, flying in some drill bits. We’ll try to buy the fuel for cash, overpaying a bit. If we have any hassles from anyone wanting to look in the plane or check passports, we may need to take what we need by force.” “I’ll try sir, but I only know about a hundred words,” Private Johnson said. “That should be enough. We’ll find out soon, we’re fifty miles from Kufra, Libya, and have to land there. Our mission is to get fuel then get the hell out as fast as possible.” Turning to look at Felecia and Brian, General Bradson said, “Brian, I want you to watch over the nukes with an RPG. If it looks like the plane is being taken, destroy those bombs.” Felecia nodded her consent. General Bradson touched down about a third of the way down Kufra’s runway. It was early morning and the desert air was still. They saw no signs of human presence as they taxied off the runway, taking a taxiway diagonally to the right, coming to rest on a large, empty concrete apron, adjacent to two old hangers. Leaving the engines turning, General Bradson left Brian and Felecia on the flight deck, and with Private Johnson in tow, headed aft just as Horst opened the small side door and tossed out a rope ladder. With his wounded ribs, Private Johnson had to struggle to make the six-foot descent to the concrete. Once Horst had joined them, General Bradson said, “I’ve got the cash in my pocket but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Worse, I don’t see a fuel truck.” The three unarmed men glanced around, hearing the oppressive silence, and seeing nothing but the airport and miles of empty, flat desert beyond. With a mix of dread and relief, General Bradson heard it first: an approaching vehicle, coming fast. A new-looking pickup truck wheeled into view from around a hanger, coming fast, heading directly for them. Horst’s fingers twitched and he wished that he had a gun. The pickup came to a halt between the three men and the C-130, and a short, rotund man in a nondescript olive-green uniform got out. With a scowl on his face and his hand resting on the butt of his service revolver, he began to speak in rapid-fire Arabic. Private Johnson tried as best he could to follow along. As soon as the man ­– the airfield’s manager – stopped speaking, Private Johnson told General Bradson and Horst, “I think he said that we have landed here unscheduled, and we need some papers.” “Actually,” the airport manager said in a precise Oxford accent, “I was educated in Britain, and I speak English. In fact, I speak it well enough to recognize various accents, such as American. You have made an unscheduled, unauthorized landing here and I am impounding your aircraft until you produce the necessary government permissions and certificates for operation in Libya. Now, state your business here.” Smiling, General Bradson said, “Well, that eliminates our language barrier. We’re flying drill bits in from Saudi for the Occidental Petroleum team that’s wildcatting about a hundred clicks north of here. We do indeed have permission to enter the Great Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” General Bradson used the full official name of the country, hoping to sway his host. “Occidental Petroleum is looking for a new field in partnership with your government. We’re trying to keep this all very low-key until we bring in the first well. We weren’t supposed to land here but the temporary strip up north was having a dust storm so we came here as an alternate. We need fuel, for which we can pay well, and then we’ll be on our way.” The General remembered reading that Occidental Petroleum was doing something in Libya, but he had no idea what or where and hoped that the same applied to the airport manager. The airport manager shook his head. “Your plane has been impounded until I verify this via the interior ministry in Tripoli. If you are indeed authorized, you will have the appropriate paperwork with you. You have not yet produced it.” With an agreeable nod, General Bradson withdrew a thick bundle of hundred-dollar bills for his wallet and offered them to the Airport Administration, along with an apologetic shrug. “This was a rush job, they need these drill bits right away so they told me to smooth things over if need be. Will this take care of any fees or paperwork?” The airport manger accepted the money and flicked through it with his thumb. Determining that it was about five thousand American dollars, he said, “You have just tried to bribe me,” and drew his gun. “Now, let us see what you have on the aircraft. Open it up.” General Bradson yelled, “Drop the main door, looks like we’re staying a while.” The hiss and hum of hydraulics announced the opening of the main cargo bay door, and as the ramp lowered, the airport manager said pointedly, “After you, gentlemen.” As they approached the lowered ramp, the airport manager reached for his radio. General Bradson, two paces in front, stopped suddenly, which distracted the airport manger. Horst, who had been waiting for the opportunity the General had created, spun on the ball of his foot and lashed out with an open left hand, slapping the pistol aside, and then deftly plucking the radio from the other hand of the stunned airport manager, as Private Johnson snatched the pistol away. “You cannot do this,” the manager said, while looking down the barrel of his own gun. “I am not alone here.” General Bradson smiled coldly. “Neither are we. Take a look in the bird.” The airport manager glanced up the ramp, to find five men with AK-47s racing down towards him, covered by at least twice as many more from the cargo bay. “Take his truck and go find us some fuel,” the General said to the first of the arriving troops. Retuning his attention to the airport manager, the General held out his hand. “Keys, please.” “They are in the ignition. What is it that you want?” the airport manager asked, wondering if his country was being invaded. “As I told you, we want fuel and then we’ll leave. We mean no harm to you. In fact, my offer to pay, and pay well, still stands.” The General fished out a much larger wad of cash, and then another, followed by a third. “That’s thirty thousand dollars, and you already have five. All we need is fuel. Think it through: if we don’t cut a deal, we’ll just take what we want and that will make you look bad, won’t it? On the other hand, if we cut a deal, you keep the cash, which is worth several times what the fuel is. You keep the difference, as our way of thanking you for your trouble. Then, we leave you and your country behind and everybody’s happy.” The airport manager stood, sweating under the hot early morning sun, more from nerves than the heat. He watched the soldiers climbing into his truck, and knew that as soon as they passed the hanger, they would see the fuel tank farm and the fuel trucks. He looked again at the cash, and then up at the guns still pointed at him from the cargo bay. The decision was not a hard one to make. “I think your paperwork is in order after all. There is one guard at the airport gate, please do not harm him. He is old and will remain at his post. He is also my father-in-law. The fuel crew is not here. How much do you need? If it is more than the one bowser holds I will need help refilling it.” Grinning, General told the troops in the pickup to stay put, and then handed the cash to the airport manager. “About fifteen thousand gallons.” Nodding, the airport administrator said, “That will take several trips with the bowser, as it only holds ten thousand liters. I can do this for you, but I will need one of your men to assist.” Shaking his head, not willing to let the man out of his sight, General Bradson replied, “We have some extra hoses and pumps. If we can taxi to within a hundred yards of your storage tanks, we can get this done right quick and be on our way. We’re in a hurry and I’m sure you’ll be happier when we’re gone.” “Move the aircraft forward a thousand meters and you will be within reach,” the airport manager replied, pocketing the thick sheaves of cash. In a flurry of activity, the C-130 was moved and then given a full load of fuel. Then the fuel bladders in the cargo bay were filled. During the refueling, The Scar’s former cook found the time to send a text message, giving their location and the announced plan to return to the Cape Verde islands. It was time to go, and General Bradson had a problem. Glancing at the airport administrator, who was standing in the shade under the C-130’s wing, guarded by Horst. The General told Felecia, “We should be off the ground before he can do anything. I paid him, so I’m hoping that he keeps his mouth shut, for a couple of hours anyway.” “We could always take him with us and then boot him out of the cargo bay,” Felecia said with a chuckle. Noticing the General’s shocked look, she added, “I meant on the runway. That way he’ll have to walk back to his truck before he can do anything. That would get us off the ground and away from here before he can sound the alarm.” General Bradson laughed and smiled. “Good idea. Cover the nukes with a tarpaulin first, just in case. I doubt he’d know what they are but you never know.” General Bradson left Felecia to attend to getting her security perimeter pulled in and on board, and walked over to the airport administrator. “We’re ready to go. We can’t risk having you raise the alarm before we’re off the ground, so here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going with us, as far as the end of the runway. I’ll leave your keys and gun in your truck. By the time you walk back to it, we’ll be long gone. I’ll leave your radio there too, but I’m keeping the batteries. After what I’ve paid you I think you’ll be able to afford new ones.” The General had a reason for adding the last sentence: to reassure the Libyan that the money was his to keep. With everyone loaded on board, the C-130, with General Bradson back at the controls and Felecia in the navigator’s seat, taxied out onto the runway and headed for the north threshold. The copilot raised an eyebrow and glanced at the windsock, confirming that the wind, though barely a breeze, was from the north. General Bradson noticed the look and replied to the unspoken question, “We’ve got more than twice the length of runway we need so a couple of knots of wind won’t bother us. We’re taking off downwind so our passenger can watch us disappearing out of sight, southbound, towards Chad. Once we’re out of sight, we’ll turn due west. That way if he does sound the alarm, they’ll be looking in the wrong direction. I doubt they could get here in time to bother us, but it’s free insurance.” As the C-130 turned onto the threshold, lining up with the runway, Horst opened the side door, dropped the rope ladder, and told the airport administrator. “Time for you to go.” The man didn’t need to be told twice. With all possible haste, and with surprising agility for a man of his girth, he scrambled down the rope ladder. Horst pulled the ladder up and slammed the door. Thumbing the intercom, he said, “Ready for takeoff.” General Bradson, who had already completed his pre-flight checklist, advanced the throttles, and the C-130 began to roll. The airport administrator had walked aft of the plane, and was not quite far enough away to avoid being bowled over by the propwash. He decided to stay down, watching as the C-30 lumbered down the runway and gradually climbed out, heading south. The man stood, and checked his pockets to be sure the cash was still in place. Finding that it was, he began the mile walk back to his truck. Upon retuning to his office, he wrote up and signed a sales invoice for the fuel, and placed enough money to cover it in the office safe. Selling fuel was one of his duties, so that, he believed with good reason, would not arouse any suspicion. The C-130, to the best of his knowledge was already gone from his country, so as far as he was concerned, what harm could there be in keeping the secret? Telling of it, on the other hand, could be quite harmful… to him. Then, with a smile on his face, he fired up his computer and began looking at new cars. Two hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, The Scar stood by the side of Flight Two, while Yuri supervised its fueling and loading. Deciding that he had nothing to lose, The Scar phoned Felecia. Felecia eyed the display and accepted the call with a cheery, “Hello?” “Where are you going with my property?” The Scar asked. “It’s not yours and never will be. Goodbye and good riddance Frankenstein, you son of a bitch.” Felecia’s voice held venom, though she was grinning from ear to ear. Ignoring the barb, The Scar said in a level tone, “Turn back now or you and your men will die.” “Fuck off,” Felecia said, and ended the call. “I guess he won’t be giving you any glowing job references,” General Bradson said with a laugh. With a frown creasing her face, Felecia replied, “That’s a minor concern compared to a larger one that I have. What if he’s got a remote-detonated bomb hidden on board?” General Bradson nodded. He’d had the same thought. “Possible, but he wants the cargo. I think that would make him unlikely to take such a step. He’d have had to either wire up both C-130s, or install the bomb in Somalia, because he didn’t know which C-130 I’d use for Flight Three. Also, if he had the means, I think he’d have used it by now. The final thing to consider is that there’s nothing we could do if he does have a bomb on board: it would probably be in the wings somewhere and there’s no way we could find it. All we can do is keep going.” On the dusty runway of his base in Sudan, The Scar resisted the urge to smash his phone. “I’ll kill that traitorous bitch,” he swore, though no one was in earshot. Thanks to his former cook, he knew that they had stopped in Kufra and were heading west, with a claimed destination of the training base in the Cape Verdes. He knew that had to be a lie. The westward direction itself also made no sense to him; if they were going to turn the devices over to the Americans, why head for West Africa? There were American bases far closer than that. That meant, the Scar decided, that they had another buyer, and that buyer was in West Africa, or maybe further… He knew they had told their men that they were heading for the Cape Verdes, which would be at or beyond the C-130’s maximum range, even with some extra fuel bladders. They could always refuel again, and he began wondering where… and suddenly, he remembered a photograph in the General’s camera, and how it had explained how the General had arrived in the Cape Verdes. “The annoying one,” he muttered, “He is involved in this somehow.” Calling Yuri to his side, The Scar said, “There are JATO rockets in the first warehouse. We don’t have time to mount them so just place two sets in the cargo bay. Make certain the men are equipped for airborne assault, full load. I have a hunch where the traitorous bitch is going and if I am correct, we may need the JATOs to take off. In the meantime we will follow their route, assuming our cook can keep us posted.” After thinking it over for a few moments, The Scar sent the cook a text message. Ten minutes later, Flight Two, with The Scar, Yuri, and thirty troops on board, lumbered down the runway, air-starting its number three engine, and climbed into the sky, turning west. The vibration of the satellite phone startled the former cook. He had not realized that the device could do that and muttered silent thanks that the infernal device had not been set to ring. Several minutes later, he slipped into the lavatory and read the message; ‘Take control of the aircraft. If you cannot, prepare to destroy it and all aboard. If you succeed, I will pay you ten million.’ With visions of the money running through his mind, the former cook returned to his jumpseat to bide his time and await an opportunity. He had two options: destroy the plane while it was on the ground, or destroy it in the air and escape via parachute. He judged the latter far too risky. Flight Three banked to the west, staying low. They transited the southern edge of Libya and entered Algerian airspace. General Bradson began to relax a little. “We’re out of Libya and over some of the emptiest country on earth. From here we cross southern Algeria, heading west.” Felecia shooed the copilot out of the cockpit and called Horst in. Then, the General continued, “My aim point is the boundary between Morocco and Western Sahara. We’ll parallel that all the way to the coast. When do you think we should tell your men that we aren’t going to the Cape Verdes? I’d prefer to leave it as late as possible. Given how things went with Flight Two, I’m betting that your former employer might have ears on board.” Felecia considered that for a moment. “I think so too. I’d say we should wait until just before landing. Speaking of… you might start by telling me how the hell you plan to land this crate. The airport is closed, remember?” With a chuckle, the General explained, “Ash clogs engines. So, as long as the engines aren’t running, no problem. I’ll just shut ‘em down and do a dead-stick landing. If there’s an ash plume in the air, we’ll just approach from high altitude and glide in.” After picking up the keys from the resort employee – Jansen’s eyes had opened wide upon seeing the size of the check that Eric had handed over – Eric and Jansen walked into the employee parking lot. Jansen stopped when Eric did, and after glancing around at the dozens of various vehicles, asked, “Which one is it?” Eric shrugged. “I have no idea. He said it’s a Mercedes but I don’t see one.” Eric assumed that he was looking for a car. Spying the keys in Eric’s hand, Jansen said, “I see a remote. Try that.” Eric looked and saw three buttons, though the symbol had worn away. On his third try, he was rewarded with a distant ‘beep’. Turning to Jansen, he said, “Good thinking, for a stripper.” “That’s exotic dancer, you brainless bassist,” Jansen said with a laugh, as he walked with Eric towards the distant beep. “Is that a car?” Jansen asked, as Eric triggered the remote again, just to be sure. “It’s responding to the remote, whatever it is, and it does have a Mercedes logo. I think it’s at least part of a car,” Eric said, staring at the tiny vehicle. Jansen walked up to the diminutive Mercedes ‘Smart Car’, and said, “Good thing Keith isn’t going with us. It’s a two-seater. One of the smallest production cars ever made, the Mercedes Smart Car is less than nine feet long, which prompted Eric to say, “At least it should be easy to park.” After getting in, they found that the two-seater was not as cramped as they’d expected. The next puzzle Eric faced was the gear selector. “I can drive a stick, but this doesn’t look like one, or an automatic. I guess we’ll find out.” Firing up the tiny car, Eric eased the selector to ‘R’, and found himself in reverse. Carefully, he backed out of the parking space, and put the vehicle in drive. After accelerating out of the parking lot, he said, “It’s weird. If feels like it’s shifting manually but I’m not touching it, plus there’s no clutch.” “As long as it gets us where we’re going,” Jansen said with a laugh. Eric quickly got used to the little car, taking the switchback road with ease as they climbed towards the village of Las Indias and turned north on the main highway, LP-1. The climb had taken them closer to the summit of Cumbre Vieja and Jansen glanced up at it, seeing that at the moment it appeared deceptively quiet, just some steam plumes, not even any clouds of ash. As the route wound its way north, clinging to the nearly vertical mountainside, both guys enjoyed the spectacular views of the sea, over two thousand feet below, and the walnut and pine trees clinging precariously to the lush cliffs. They turned inland heading east, and as they neared the massive ridge that divided the island. Eric began to grin, relishing the surprise he was about to unleash. “Oh, one other thing: you’re going to love the next stretch of road. The guy I rented the car from told me about it,” Eric said, looking over at Jansen. Jansen knew Eric well enough to figure out that he had something up his sleeve. There was only one thing he could think of so he asked, “Just how close to the volcano is the road?” Eric shrugged and gave the dancer his best innocent smile. “I don’t know if ‘close’ is the right word. Not that close, really.” Eric wasn’t quite lying; the road didn’t pass close to the active crater. The fact he was concealing was that the road, Camino De La Cumbre, transited the mid-island ridge via the La Cumbre tunnel, which just happened to pass through the northernmost flank of the volcano. Eric had been surprised to find that it was still open. The reason was that it was needed and also had been judged safe; the volcanic vent that was currently active lay over two miles to the tunnel’s south. ‘I’ll tell when we enter the tunnel’ Eric thought, sporting a wicked grin as he envisioned the dancer’s likely reaction. The tunnel was indeed safe enough; an older tunnel following the same route had remained open during Cumbre Vieja’s 1971 eruption. They entered a straight stretch of highway, and ahead, they could see the shallow white arch of the concrete road tunnel, with twin rows of lights embedded in the ceiling. “This is a tunnel,” Eric said with a wicked grin. Laughing at Eric’s outrageous obviousness, Jansen replied, “No shit, Sherlock. So, where does it come out?” As they entered the tunnel, Eric replied, “It’s one and a half miles long. It comes out on the other side of the mountain, and from there we’re close to the airport. The tunnel is kind of unique. It’s two thousand feet underground near the middle. Oh, I guess I ought to mention, the mountain it’s going through is the same one that put on the great show last night. We’re driving right through the northern flank of Cumbre Vieja.” Jansen had expected a nasty surprise of some sort, but definitely not that. He began to cough, and gave Eric a horrified look. “You’re bullshitting me. You have to be.” “Nope, it’s true. According to the guy at the resort, this is the only road tunnel in the world that goes through an active volcano.” Seeing Jansen’s scared face, Eric immediately felt bad and added, “Don’t worry, it’s just the north edge; we’re not going through the active area. They’d close it if there was any danger.” Glaring at Eric, though the grin creeping onto his face belied any anger, Jansen said, “You ass. You waited until we were inside to tell me. You’ve been planning that all along, haven’t you?” “Uh huh,” Eric replied with a grin of his own, and then added a wink. When they emerged from the tunnel, it was into a world starkly different from the one they’d left behind. A moonscape of volcanic ash coated everything as far as their eyes could see. Jansen said, “Oh, shit. Helen was right not to move us to this side of the island. I’d heard it was like this, but seeing it…” Sobered, Eric looked at the dull grey landscape. “Yeah, and I’ll bet it’s hell to breathe when the wind’s blowing or this stuff is falling. No wonder most everybody hightailed it for the north end of the island. They drove on. The road had been cleared but still retained a thin coating of ash. The few vehicles they encountered heading the opposite direction passed in blinding clouds of ash, and Eric discovered that the windshield wipers just made a muddy mess. After finding some towels behind the seats, which due to their condition they incorrectly guessed had been used for that purpose before, they cleaned the windshield and carried on. Instead, the towels had been used by the car’s owner as a substitute for the air filter after it had clogged. From the end of the tunnel to the airport was only five miles, but to Jansen and Eric, it seemed like fifty. With Barbra by her side, Helen walked into the private dining room for breakfast, to find Jon, Brandon, and Chase, but no sign of Eric. In no mood to bother with niceties, Helen said, “Something absolutely critical and urgent has come up and I need to talk to you all. Where is Eric? We need him here for this.” Chase had talked to Eric half an hour before, and seeing that Helen was in dire earnest, Chase disregarded Eric’s earlier plea and said, “He’s on his way to the airport. He should be back in a few hours.” Kicking herself for not giving the band members a heads-up as soon as she’d heard from General Bradson, and cursing Eric for doing something as risky as driving around with the volcano acting up, Helen whipped out her phone to call him. Seconds later, she snapped it shut and handed it to Barbra, “Now the damn phones are out again, all I get is a recording.” Helen was mistaken; the reason she’d received the recording was that Eric had his cell phone turned off so that Helen couldn’t call him. “Keep trying him while I explain to the guys what’s going on… Chase, why in the name of all that is holy is Eric going to the fucking airport?” Chase shrugged. “He wants to talk to our pilots to find out where General Bradson went. He’s worried about him. He took Jansen along… for a date.” “That boy has the worst timing on earth,” Helen snarled, and then proceeded to explain what was going on. Five minutes later, Jon, Brandon, and Chase all nodded in stunned silence. Jon trusted Helen’s judgment, so he offered, “The three of us, plus you, can swing this without Eric if we have to. You said General Bradson would have collateral. What is it?” Proud that Jon was showing caution, which she could see from their expressions that Brandon and Chase also shared, Helen gave an embarrassed shrug, “He couldn’t say and I have no idea, but unless it’s adequate and we both have it and approve of it, there will be no loan. Given his problems with the government before he left ­– that’s why he had to sneak out of the country on Eric’s jet – I have a hunch that he can’t get any help from the government, at least not directly or quickly. Maybe he needs a conduit between himself and Washington. He won’t speak freely over a phone, so we’ll find out when he can talk to us directly. From anyone else I’d suspect a scam, but given what he’s done in the past…” Helen’s guess was that the collateral would be something to do with the U.S. government. She was both very wrong and very right. “Okay, I’m in,” Jon said, as Brandon and Chase followed suit. Helen produced a thick bundle of paperwork, along with a warning: “There will be a lot more when the European banks open in a couple of hours.” Helen then picked up a house phone to call Jim, and told the big biker, “We need you right away. Meet us in the dining room.” © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  9. Chapter 34: Miscommunications After a quick glance at his navigational display and then his watch, General Bradson said, “Time for another call,” and flicked on his satellite phone. Helen answered on the first ring. “Hi, how do things stand?” the General said, still observing caution regarding the open phone line. Taking a deep breath, Helen answered, “The boys and I will do it, provided they and I approve of the collateral you mentioned. How will you be doing this?” General Bradson gave Felecia a thumbs up and a grin, and then answered, “I’m bringing it to you. Then, you will call a press conference and immediately thereafter you will be reimbursed in full by our Uncle.” “That sounds acceptable,” Helen replied, wondering what was going on. Then it occurred to her that there was no way the General could get to La Palma, any more than she could leave. “There is a problem here; the airport is shut down–” General Bradson smiled and replied, “Don’t worry; it won’t be, for me. I’ll be there in a few hours. It would help if one or more of the group is there; meeting someone famous and having them make the offer would help greatly.” Cringing inside, knowing who it would have to be, Helen said, “Through his own pigheaded stupidity, Eric is near the airport right now. If I can get a hold of him, I’ll have him stay put. Can you guarantee his safety?” “Yes, but I’ll let the boss answer that too,” General Bradson said, and handed the phone to Felecia. Helen repeated her question, and Felecia replied, “Under the circumstances, considering what he’s offering us, he’ll be perfectly safe. You have my word on that.” Not fully convinced, but planning to be there herself with Eric kept at a safe distance at first, Helen said, “Very well, I’ll have Eric meet you. I’ll be there as well.” The only guess Helen had, based on knowing that the General was in a plane and her assumption a plane could not land, was that the General would be parachuting in with his friend. Helen tried Eric’s number again, and after verifying that she could make other calls, and knowing Eric’s ways, she at last deduced that he’d shut off his phone. Hoping that Jansen had a cell phone with him, Helen hurried out the door, heading for Jansen and Keith’s suite. Eric, with Jansen by his side, walked down the small hotel’s ash-encrusted stairs, a sad look on his face. Jansen threw a comforting arm over Eric’s shoulders and said, “You tried. At least now you know the names of the pilots to ask for when we get home.” Eric, shielding his eyes from the ash that the rising wind was kicking up, replied, “Thanks, Jansen. I just wish I hadn’t dragged you all the way out here. When we get home, I’ll–” Eric stopped talking while Jansen fished out his ringing cell phone, and glanced at the ID before answering it. Jansen’s face went blank, and he handed the phone to Eric. “It’s Helen, calling from Keith’s phone. She needs to talk to you immediately, says it’s urgent.” Eric took the phone and was shocked to find out that Helen knew where he was, and even more surprised that she wanted him to stay there for a few hours. His eyes opened wider still when she told him that she couldn’t get into details over the phone, but that someone would be arriving at the airport in a few hours. Eric pointed out that it was closed, but Helen told him to just be at the airport and that she would meet him there. Snapping the phone closed, Eric returned it to Jansen and filled him in on what Helen had said. With a puzzled look, Jansen replied, “But the airport is closed. It’s not just there’s no planes flying, but shut down with barricades across the entrance. We drove right by it.” Eric nodded, well aware of the seeming impossibility. He couldn’t think of any reply to Jansen’s comment, so he said,” Whatever’s going on, it must be serious: Helen didn’t even yell at me for being here. She never misses a chance to yell at me…” “So, what do we do now?” Eric shrugged, and as he returned his phone to standby be said, “Wait for a call I guess, and be back here in a few hours. There’s a town not far from here, and unless they’re shut down by the ash, there’s a bakery that makes great sandwiches. I ate there on my first trip here, when I ordered the cakes.” “It’s a date,” Jansen said with a grin. Eric and Jansen spent the next few hours strolling around the nearly deserted, ash-covered streets of Santa Cruz De La Palma. For Jansen, it was his first time in a foreign city, and he ignored the ash as he just enjoyed the feel of the unusual town, its old colonial Spanish architecture, and cobblestone streets. The sandwich shop was closed, so they walked on, with their shirts pulled up to the bridges of their noses to keep out the ash. Eric couldn’t help but smile; Jansen’s joy was infectious, and he loved the way the dancer could still enjoy himself in spite of the ash. From Jansen’s happiness, Eric found his own. On board Flight Three, over the Western Sahara, General Bradson said, “About an hour out of La Palma, we’ll need to level with your men. We’ll tell them they’ll have a million each, in a numbered Swiss account, confirmed to their satisfaction, by the end of the day. I’ll stay with you after the turnover, and I’ll get you and your men to safety. I’ll also make sure that the U.S. Government leaves you the hell alone. You’ll be out, all the way out, just like you wanted for your men. Now, I’ve got to ask, what’s your story? I know you were regular Army; you call the Marines jarheads and you talk like a drill sergeant, and I remember some of your colorful epithets for officers. You’re a pro, so why did you become a mercenary?” Felecia paled a little at the memory, but reluctantly decided to tell something she’d kept secret for years. “You’re right, I was in the Army. I’d just been bumped up to E-8, Master Sergeant. The Army was my life, until one night on the DMZ in Korea. I’d just returned from a patrol. I found one of my troops in the barracks, beaten and bruised. She’d been raped. I went to the Colonel, but–” The story caused a memory to click in the General’s mind. “I remember reading the report. The guy you were reporting was the Colonel’s cousin and you didn’t know. The Colonel didn’t file charges. His official notes claimed the soldier was lying, trying to use blackmail… and the soldier killed them both and then shot herself. You deserted, probably because of how you’d been treated. At least, that’s what the investigation came up with, based on DNA evidence and the Colonel’s official notes describing the blackmail attempt. But that’s all wrong, isn’t it?” Felecia sighed. “Yeah, a clusterfuck after a cover-up. That wasn't what happened, though I'm not surprised if that's what the report said. The Colonel had a racket of some kind going with his cousin, not sure exactly what. I’d picked up rumblings before all this went down but I didn’t put two and two together until it was too late. As for my soldier... I was the one who found her, later that day. Suicide. She’d been pushed beyond her limit, Walter, first by the rape, then by having official charges of blackmail filed against her. In my mind, the damn Colonel and his cousin were just as guilty as if they’d pulled the trigger themselves. I couldn’t let them get away with doing that to one of my people and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let them stay around and endanger the rest of my troops. I thought that if I went by standard procedures the Colonel would at most get a slap on the damn wrist, but most likely he and his cousin would get off scot-free while my soldier was rotting in her grave. I was also wondering if I’d become a loose end and they’d set up some kind of accident for me. So I went hunting. I used her knife, just seemed like poetic justice. After I was done, I figured I’d better make myself scarce so I left. I had no idea where I’d go or what I’d do. A week later I was in Bangkok, staying at a raunchy dive downtown. I got good and drunk. When I’m stressed and I drink, I tend to fight. I bit off more than I could chew that night. I was losing, and then a young guy came out of nowhere and jumped into the fray. Saved my ass. That’s how I met Wilhelm. I sobered up a little and we talked. He told me about working in Africa as a mercenary, and I figured why the hell not? Not like I had anything else to do. God, I miss him…” Without thinking, General Bradson put a reassuring arm across Felecia’s shoulders. Surprised both by his own action and that she did not react badly, he said, “I could tell that you two were close. I’m sorry. But Fel, you’ve got to think of yourself now. Get out of the business. You’ll have the money, get out.” “I want that for my men… but for me? I can find other employers. I’m not the retiring type, Walter. I need the mission, that’s why I joined the Army. I can’t do much else besides being a mercenary, not with my record.” “Fel, you're only wanted as a deserter, not a murderer. You must have found that out eventually? As far as I’m concerned, you did the Army a favor by taking out two bad players.” General Bradson had no grounds to criticize Felecia’s actions. His own response to government inaction and a miscarriage of justice had been to raise a private army and attack multiple points in a foreign nation, so he could hardly object to Felecia’s unorthodox administration of justice. He then added, “However, I can understand about needing a mission. I’m the same, and doubly so ever since Brian left home. When the government cashiered me, I was at my wits end–” “Cashiered you? I thought you resigned?” Felecia asked in genuine surprise. General Bradson shook his head with disgust. “I was given a choice: resign and keep my mouth shut regarding why, or kiss my pension goodbye. I pissed off the wrong people; I went ahead, without approval from up the ladder, and had the bombs in Los Angeles and New York disarmed. I knew Washington would take too damn long to make up its mind. I was right, too. A detonation code was sent, just after the bombs were disarmed. Had I waited…” “You did the right thing, saved millions of lives, and the bastards fucked you over for it. I get that, I do indeed.” After checking his navigational display, General Bradson said, “If your former employer has ears on board, we’d better see what we can do to put an end to it. My guess is that one of your men has a satellite phone or similar small communications device. Might be a good idea to have Horst start a search before we tell your men where we’re going. “I’ll do it if there’s no other choice, but my men won’t like it and they’re edgy enough. There’s a ton of places a small communications device could be hidden on this crate, so I doubt we’d find it. Horst is keeping an eye out. I don’t suppose you know how to jam a signal?” Felecia asked. Shaking his head, General Bradson replied, “Nope, not without gear we don’t have. However, maybe we should just use this to our advantage. I doubt your men will know one island from the other, so we’ll say we’re landing on Hierro, which is about fifty miles south of our destination. If we’ve got a spy on board they’ll likely try and get word out after we announce.” Felecia nodded her approval and got up to fill Horst in on the plan. When she returned, Flight Three, still at low altitude, crossed the beach three miles south of the Moroccan border, leaving the Sahara behind. General Bradson banked the C-130 into a left-hand turn, completing a slow and careful circle before resuming course for La Palma. “No sign of any pursuit,” he said. He hadn’t expected there to be, but he liked to be sure. “I’ve got an idea of my own,” Felecia said, snapping open her phone. With a wink and a sly smile, she dialed The Scar. Three hundred miles behind Flight Three, Flight Two sat on the sun-scorched old runway at Tindouf, taking on fuel. The Scar often used that airfield, in the far southwest of Algeria, for a staging point. He’d done so again. In mild surprise, he saw who was calling him and answered by saying, “Have you reconsidered?” “Yes. Our other deal fell through. We’re willing to deal with you. We’re returning to Sudan and will land near you. The General is dead. I’ll call you shortly, once I figure out a way to keep my men safe while we renegotiate,” Felecia said. “Very well. I will await your call.” The Scar said, and then heard Felecia hang up. He then turned to Yuri to say, “The traitorous bitch thinks I am a fool. I believe I am correct regarding their destination. We should have confirmation soon if so.” Smiling, pleased that she’d found out what she was after, Felecia said, “Guess what, Walter? No engine sounds. He wasn’t in the air. So, maybe he doesn’t have ears on board after all. He could have merely issued contingency orders to Flight Two back in Oman.” “Putting a spy on board just makes too much sense to ignore. There’s also the possibility of some sort of remote-activated tracking device in the airframe, though I doubt that; anything that radiates a signal would have cooked our goose in Iran, and he wouldn’t want to risk his precious cargo. Scar might not be in the air but we don’t know where he is. Let’s play it safe. Let’s make the announcement that we’ve cut a deal with a new buyer, and we’re landing on Hierro.” Changing the subject slightly, General Bradson said, “I’m climbing now. I want Air Traffic Control in Tenerife to pick us up. I’ll tell ‘em we’re carrying some urgently needed gear for the geologists. That should keep any authorities on the island out of our hair for long enough.” It would prove to be an unneeded precaution: the General had no way of knowing, but the airport had been completely evacuated. Felecia went aft to make the announcement in person, telling her men first that a new deal had been cut, with a new buyer, because their former employer was planning to double-cross them. She said they’d be paid, and that a famous musician would be verifying the deal in person. The brief, vague explanation was enough, for many of the men. Some had grown to trust General Bradson, others trusted Felecia and Horst. They were the majority, but for nearly as many more, the news did not sit well. After the announcement, Horst kept watch on the lavatories out of the corner of his eye. The first to use it was The Scar’s former cook. That much was enough to trigger Horst’s suspicions, but the man’s momentary surreptitious glance around before entering the lavatory confirmed it. Less then a second after the door closed, Horst wrenched it open and hauled the former cook out by the neck, the satellite phone still in his hand. They had their spy. Horst dragged the man to the side door, and thumbed the intercom. “Herr General, the side door will be opening.” Signaling with a nod to two of his men, Horst then waited with the squirming spy until the door was open, and then, yelling above the howling slipstream, said, “Tell us everything, right now. Any hesitation, any lies, and I will remove you from the aircraft.” The former cook, staring into the gaping void, was suddenly deathly afraid of what Horst would do, if it was discovered that he’d helped conspire to kill them all. He blurted, “I was just given that in case of trouble. I haven’t used it.” The cook had overlooked a small detail. Being unfamiliar with the satellite phone, he was not mindful of the fact that it retained text messages in memory. Horst was under no such limitation. Handing the squirming spy off to two of his men, Horst examined the device and found the messages, including the one from The Scar. Turning to yell down the cargo bay, he said, “Here is proof: our former employer gave orders to kill us all. Anyone who wishes to see the proof for themselves may do so. This man was conspiring to cause our deaths.” Turning to face the former cook, Horst began to smile as he realized that he could make a point while solving a problem. “One cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” he said to the former cook, and then signaled his two men with a nod. One of the men slammed a vicious jab into the spy’s gut and as he doubled over, gasping for breath, they spun him around and heaved him headfirst out the door. Horst smiled coldly and then aided his men in pushing the door closed and dogging it down. In his command voice, Horst said, “I do not tolerate traitors and spies. That one will be fine provided he learns how to fly.” Horst strolled forward to give Felecia and the General the happy news: they’d solved at least part of their spy problem, and the last message the spy had sent listed the Cape Verde Islands as their destination. The Scar’s former cook, tumbling though the air, was treated to alternating views of the sea, two miles below, and the sky, containing the fast-receding C-130. Over the following minute, he began to have trouble breathing, his heart racing, driven by purest fear as the sparkling blue sea, and his watery grave, grew inexorably closer. In the cockpit, Felecia turned as Horst entered, and asked, “What happened with the door?” Horst took a seat before replying, “I found a spy.” Horst handed over the satellite phone and showed Felecia and the General the text messages. “That doesn’t explain opening the door,” General Bradson said, beginning to suspect the reason why. “I used it to threaten the spy. I gave him an ultimatum. He lied, and once I had what I needed, I thought to solve a problem while making a point with the men.” Horst replied. “How?” The General asked. Horst came to attention before replying, “I removed the spy from the aircraft. I did not give him a parachute. He was conspiring to kill us all, Herr General, and he would have been a complication once we land. It was also useful to use him as an example since I could show the men that he and our former employer were planning to kill us.” General Bradson turned to look at Horst. The man’s professionalism had long since impressed the General, but this was another matter entirely. General Bradson did not approve of what Horst had done, but the General’s options were few. Choosing his words with care, he said, “Horst, you’ve overlooked something. What if he was not the only spy? It might have been useful to question him further, but now that option is closed to us.” “The General is right, Horst. No more flying lessons without our say-so, okay?” Felecia said in a conversational tone, though her words were clearly an order. Horst, though sitting, snapped to attention. “Yes, Felecia. Sorry, Herr General.” Nodding, Felecia said, “If there is another spy, he now knows that Frankenstein was trying to kill us all, them included. They won’t like that. They may just decide to take the cool million we’re offering and call it a day. However, we can’t take any chances. From here on in, no one uses the head, or is alone in any way, without being patted down. No exceptions, as that would look bad to the men. I'll make sure I'm the first one who gets patted down.” “I will see to it,” Horst said, and returned to the cargo bay. Helen was not having an easy time. She had intended to go with Jim to the airport, leaving Jon, Brandon, and Chase in what she thought was the relative safety of the resort. Jim noticed the first warning signs as they drove north on the coast road. “The engine is running rough and hot. Let me pull over and have a look.” It didn’t take long under the hood for Jim to find the trouble. “The air filter is missing and there’s ash in there. My guess is that it clogged and someone took it out so the vehicle would run. Stupid move; the ash looks like it’s gunked up the cylinders and there’s no way I can fix it. We can probably make it back to the resort, though. It’s mostly downhill.” Helen began to swear. “This is just fucking great. How the fuck can it be ash?” she looked around at the ash-free landscape, “There hasn’t been any in this area.” “The vehicle must be from the other side of the island,” the big biker replied. “I never thought to check for that. The guy who rented them to us told me they were from Las Indias, right next to the resort. I checked under the hoods but didn’t think to check the air filters. I didn’t see any ash, so they took the time to wash the damn van down first, including under the hood. I wonder if the other one is as bad?” Jim had arranged for two vans to serve as emergency evacuation vehicles for the wedding party, in case the volcano made immediate departure necessary. Ignoring Jim’s oversight, Helen snarled, “We can’t take the other van, even if it’s fine. That would leave the boys with no way to leave the resort. I’ll phone the resort and see if I can arrange for a car, a working one.” Helen was furious, mainly with herself, for not giving herself more time to get to the airport. It couldn’t have been helped due to the bank paperwork, but that didn’t help her temper. “I don’t even know when the General is arriving,” she said, just as her phone rang. “Hi, I’ll be there in about half an hour,” General Bradson said. Helen glanced at the van and replied, “I can’t get there that fast. Eric will be there though. Where exactly should he be?” The phone line began to crackle, so General Bradson made it quick. “He’ll see us land so anywhere near the runway will do. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon. Bye for now.” Nothing the General had said disabused Helen of her assumption that the General would be parachuting in, either alone or with the woman she’d spoken to. Helen phoned Eric, and as he answered, the call dropped. She dialed again, and said over the noisy line, “Get to the airport. He’s arriving in less than half an hour. I’ve had car trouble. I’ll be late so you’ll have to handle it.” Eric began to ask a question, but the call dropped again and she could not reconnect. Once again, the conductive ash was playing havoc with the island’s phone system by shorting out a main phone line. Helen took some consolation from the fact that, based on the beginning of Eric’s question, he’d understood her words. The only problem was, he’d understood them a little too well. “She can’t get here in time so she wants me to handle it,” Eric said, and Jansen nodded. “We’ve got to get to the airport. Don’t know what the fuck for; no one can fly with all this ash.” “Any idea who’s coming, or why?” Jansen asked as they headed for the car at a jog. Shaking his head, Eric replied, “Not a clue.” “Dates with you sure are interesting,” Jansen said with a laugh. Half way to their airport, they felt the car’s engine hesitate and then begin to intermittently cut out. Eric tapped at the gas gauge, “Feels like we’re running out of gas, but this says we’ve got half a tank.” The engine died completely and Eric coasted to a stop by the side of the road. Getting out, he looked under the car and found the gas tank, and tapped it. “Sounds full,” he said, and then, after some searching for the release and fumbling for the catch, opened the hood. Dusting away some ash, he quickly guessed at the likely problem, and opened the air filter housing. Inside, he found a towel, clogged with ash. He shook it out, but the fine particles still clogged it. Pulling off the unbuttoned short sleeve shirt he was wearing over his tank top, Eric stuffed it into the air filter housing and replaced the cover. Jumping back into the car, he tried the ignition and grinned as the engine came back to life. Pulling away and stomping on the gas, he told Jansen, “Clogged air cleaner. That’s what the dirty towels were from. We should be okay, but at this rate we might both be naked by the time we get back to the resort.” “I can think of worse things,” Jansen said with a laugh and a wink. La Palma’s airport has an unusual layout. Due to the steepness of the island, the only way to build it had been as a single runway, running parallel to the sea, right at the water’s edge. At the north end, the runway actually protrudes into the sea. The terminal is wedged on a strip of land between the center of the runway and the sea. The airport road approaches it from inland, reaching the northern end of the runway, and crossing under it via a tunnel. That’s the only way out, and that tunnel was where the airport staff had placed a row of road barriers before evacuating. At the tunnel entrance, Eric pulled to a stop while Jansen jumped out to shove aside the road barricades. Eric pulled through and Jansen replaced the barriers before climbing back into the diminutive car. Eric raced through the tunnel, and as he emerged on the other side, checked his watch. “Five minutes,” he said, and slowed to a crawl near the terminal building. Spying an entryway to the apron, he pulled up next to it and said, “I guess we wait.” “Not for long,” Jansen said, pointing through the windshield, to the south. Eric looked, and saw the C-130 heading in their direction, but higher than he’d have expected if it was landing. Puzzled, he watched it perform a steep glide on final approach, kicking up a cloud of ash as it flared and then touched down. Then, he saw the reason it could land. “The propellers aren’t turning,” he said. After the dead-stick landing ­– General Bradson had shut off the engines during final approach to protect them from the ash – the C-130 coasted to an almost silent stop. As Eric and Jansen watched, the ramp lowered and thirty men got out. Taking positions at the main gear and nose gear, they began to push. They moved the plane a hundred yards, to the parking apron, wheeling it to a halt near one of Instinct’s grounded chartered jets. “Is that who we’re supposed to meet?” Jansen asked. Eric shrugged and then got out of the car. “The timing is right, and it can’t hurt to ask. Come on.” Seconds later, Jansen and Eric jogged up to the C-130, and were met by hard stares from even harder-looking men. Even without any outwardly visible weaponry, the mercenaries were an imposing sight. François stepped forward, took a long glance at Eric, and frowned in recognition as he said, “Ah, the musician. Please go onboard. General Bradson is expecting you.” Eric’s eyes flew open wide in surprise. With a smile, he walked up the cargo ramp and into the bay of the C-130. He entered just in time to see General Bradson exit the cockpit, looking tired and haggard. The General spotted Eric and waved in greeting. Felecia took the cue and ordered her two remaining troops off the plane. Growing more curious by the second, Eric, with Jansen following behind, walked towards the forward end of the cargo bay and reached out to take the General’s proffered hand. “Hi Eric, good to see you again. I’d like to introduce you to Fel and my son, Brian,” General Bradson said with an easy smile. Eric exchanged nods of greeting with them both and then said, “This is Jansen.” General Bradson exchanged a glance with Felecia before saying, “Jansen, pleased to meet you, but could I ask you to leave the plane? I need to talk to Eric alone for a bit.” That request unsettled Jansen only slightly. He assumed it was something to do with business so he said amicably, “Sure, no problem. Eric, I’ll be in the car.” Eric watched Jansen leave and then took a seat on a convenient cylinder before asking in a puzzled tone, “Would somebody please tell me what’s going on?’ General Bradson couldn’t help it, he laughed. Pointing at what Eric was perched on, he said, “You really have to stop doing that.” Glancing down at the canister, Eric replied, “Doing what?” “Remember what you told me, about New York? When you sat on the big square steel cube Jerry Clump had?” Nodding once, Eric trembled at the memory and said, “Yeah, as if I could forget. That was a fucking…” his voice dropped a few decibels and he squeaked, “atomic…” “Bomb,” Felecia added helpfully, beginning to chuckle at Eric’s horrified expression. “And you’ve done it again,” General Bradson said with a laugh, and then added, “But don’t worry. This one’s as safe to sit on as I said that one was. Even safer as there’s no easy way to detonate it. I take it Helen isn’t here yet? Did she tell you why you’re here?” Easing himself gingerly off the bomb, Eric backed away, almost stumbling over another nuke in the process, before replying, “The phone keeps cutting out, and she had car trouble, so she asked me to handle it. She didn’t say exactly what, but she made it clear it was very important.” Wondering how Eric would take the news given his evident fear of the things, General Bradson said, “Here’s the short version. We went to Iran to get my son out. While there, Fel and her men seized some Iranian nukes, and here we all are. I need thirty million dollars to pay them or these things will get into the wrong hands. On the black market, they’d be worth many times what we’re asking. Helen said that she and Instinct would give us a short-term loan and she’d be here to approve of the collateral and take possession. You’re here to tell all these people that they’re getting a million bucks apiece.” “So that’s what Helen meant when she told me to handle it. Holy fuck…” Eric said, feeling numb and still staring at the nuclear warhead. Eric had misconstrued Helen’s hurried words and thus was unaware that Helen intended for him to handle meeting the General and had not intended to have him accept the collateral. A little surprised, General Bradson asked, “You mean approve the collateral and take possession?” Eric nodded and then, meeting the General’s eyes, he asked, “What is it, the collateral, I mean?” Looking Eric square in the eye, General Bradson replied, “You just sat on one of them.” Back at the resort, Helen was yelling at the cowering desk clerk, “You said you’d have a car for us. I need it now. Right the fuck NOW!” Stammering, the clerk replied, “We called the driver, he said he was on his way–” “That’s not now, is it?” Helen yelled, and then thrust out her hand, “Give me yours.” Standing just behind Helen, Jim casually punched his right fist into his open left hand while looking the clerk in the eye. To Helen’s mild surprise, the clerk deposited his keys in her hand and then backed away two steps, fear in his eyes, before muttering, “Blue Jetta, in back.” The clerk couldn’t make up his mind which of the two guests scared him the most. “Thanks,” Helen said icily, and then, along with Jim, she turned and rushed for the door. In the C-130, Eric blinked in shock. His mouth opened, and then closed again. “You want me to take an atomic bomb­–” “Two now and a third when we get the money,” Felecia interrupted to add. General Bradson nodded. “That about sums it up. Before you go though, we do need you to address Fel’s troops and tell them they’re getting a million each.” Eric stared at the General for a few moments, and then shifted his gaze to stare at one of the nukes. Numbly, he said, “I… uh, even if I wanted to, I can’t hand over thirty million, I don’t have access–” Giving Eric a reassuring pat on the shoulder, General Bradson said, “No problem. Just take the devices to Helen. Do not mention them over the phone, but take them to her. Your security, and that of the bombs, will be provided mainly by the fact that no one knows where you are staying. All you’re doing is accepting some of the collateral. Helen will be calling a press conference tomorrow and after that, the U.S. Government will reimburse you and take them off your hands. I’ll make damn sure of it, because we won’t tell them where the nukes are until they agree to cough up the money. We just need this deal as a go-between, because Fel and her men won’t deal directly with the U.S. Government, and for that matter I can’t either.” Eric stared at the bomb in silence for a dozen seconds and then asked, “How would Helen know they’re real?” Felecia blinked twice at the unexpected and apt question. She walked to the door and bellowed, “Joachim! In here, now!” As soon as the technician arrived, she asked, “How can we prove that the nukes are what we say they are?” Eric was hoping that they were not, but his read on General Bradson was that the General was telling the truth, no matter how much Eric wanted to believe otherwise. Joachim removed a screwdriver from his belt and began opening an access hatch on one of the bombs. Once he had it open, he coaxed Eric in for a look and proceeded to explain the various components. He then handed Eric a Geiger counter and said, “Move the sensor into the casing, it will detect the radiation.” Still somewhat in shock, Eric moved the sensor towards the hatch opening, and as it began to rapidly click, he realized what had just been said and leaped back, looking up at Joachim in horror to say, “Radiation?” “Not enough to be dangerous for a brief exposure,” Joachim replied. “I’ll take your word for it,” Eric said, placing the Geiger counter on the floor and taking yet another step away from the open bomb. “Have you seen the news lately?” General Bradson asked. “There should be more proof any time now. We set one of ‘em off in Iran, to get rid of the facility where they were making them. Seismic evidence coupled with airborne radiation should have been noticed and they’ll probably be reported as a surprise Iranian nuclear test. Though there have been a few suspicions, nobody knew that Iran had nukes, so that’ll create quite a buzz. Hear anything like that?” Eric, his eyes still on the bomb that Joachim was resealing, shook his head, “I haven’t seen any news about that, sorry.” General Bradson could tell that Eric was badly rattled, and asked in a calm tone, “So, will you do it? I’ll be sending an armed U.S. Marine with you, who happens to be my son. Just take ‘em back with you, after you give a little speech to Felecia’s troops.” Grasping at straws, Eric said, “They won’t fit. All I have is a tiny little car. A two-seater.” General Bradson smiled again. “No problem, there must be a truck around here somewhere and as I now know, my son can hotwire.” General Bradson aimed a wink in Brian’s direction, trying to keep the atmosphere light and friendly in order to calm Eric down. “Steal a truck… okay.” Eric said in a dazed voice, and then pulled out his phone to call Helen. The General cautioned him to avoid mentioning any specifics, and Eric nodded. Three dropped calls later, Eric finally got through, just as Helen and Jim were leaving the resort in the Volkswagen. The connection was poor, so Eric tried to be quick. “Helen, I’m with… you-know-who. He asked me to take two of the… collateral to you. You know about all this, right?” “Are they worth thirty million,” Helen asked, hurrying in case the phone connection dropped again. Staring at the bombs, Eric said, “Uh, yeah.” “Should be fine then. Come straight back here, and no stopping or sightseeing. Got that?” Helen felt fairly confident in her words; she knew the deal could not go forward until she had reviewed and accepted the collateral. She alone could give the orders needed for the banks to complete the transaction. Eric nodded. “Yeah, I … Helen? Helen?” The line had failed. Helen, unaware that she had misinterpreted Eric’s words as badly as he had done with hers, told Jim, “Turn around. We’re going back to the resort. Eric’s on his way back with the General and the collateral, and then we’ll see what the hell this is all about.” Staring at the phone in his hand as his redial attempt failed, Eric felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was out of his depth and knew it. He had to keep glancing at the nuclear warheads in order to reassure himself that what he was hearing was real. The memory of how close they had come the last time played through his mind, and he remembered the hard-looking mercenaries outside. General Bradson prodded Eric. “If you don’t do this, the men outside, some at least, may turn on us. All I’m asking for is a verbal commitment. The money is up to Helen.” Eric didn’t know General Bradson well, not well enough to have a good feel for what he was thinking. However, Eric’s inner sense was enough to convince him that General Bradson was telling the truth. “I’ll do it,” Eric said, more to his own surprise than anyone else’s. With the decision made, General Bradson dispatched Brian in search of a truck, and Eric said, “When do I talk to your troops?” “There’s no time like the present,” General Bradson said cheerfully, and then warned, “Just don’t tell anyone where you’re taking the bombs. Speaking of which... write down some directions for me.” Eric did as he was asked, writing down directions and the name of the resort, and handing the General the paper. Only then did Eric realize why the General had asked for it in writing: to avoid revealing the location to anyone within earshot. General Bradson ushered Eric to the mouth of the cargo bay and clapped for the attention of the mercenaries, who gathered around on the ground below. Felecia and General Bradson stood on each side of Eric, Horst took a position a few feet away, to their left, and Felecia said, “Many of you will recognize this young man. He’s Eric Carlisle, of the band Instinct. He’s the musician I told you about. Basically, he’s saving our bacon. I received word that our former employer was going to cross us. General Bradson here – who our old boss wanted me to kill – and Eric’s manager, put together a deal for us. We’ll get paid even more than we were expecting within twenty-four hours. He’s taking two of our prizes with him. We’re retaining the third until each and every one of us has been paid, via a numbered Swiss account. Each of us will be able to verify that the funds are there, in our individual accounts, before we turn over the final bomb. Then, we begin our new lives.” After receiving a gentle nudge from Felecia’s elbow, Eric said, “Most of the paperwork is already done. You’ll have a million dollars apiece by tomorrow.” Many had concerns, but the fact they were retaining one nuke mollified them somewhat. Only a few knew enough about aviation to know that the C-130 was trapped by the ash. Watching from the car two hundred yards away, Jansen saw the crowd of men cheering Eric, but he was too far away to hear what was being said. He wondered if Eric had promised them free concert tickets. Felecia led Eric down the ramp, and spent a few minutes introducing him to her men, letting them shake his hand. That, she well knew, would help in building trust in both directions. A few minutes later, Brian and one of the mercenaries, with the mercenary driving, returned in a small flatbed truck that they’d found near a hanger. Brian jumped out and walked over to his father to say, “We found the keys behind a visor but I can’t drive it because it’s a stick shift.” General Bradson kicked himself for overlooking that detail. Turning to Eric, he said, “Can you or your friend drive a stick?” Eric nodded. “I can… but I want Jansen with me. I’m not leaving him.” Eric’s reasons were mainly emotional, beyond his conscious knowledge. He was still badly rattled, and in Jansen’s presence, he knew he’d find the comfort of reassurance. Turning to look at Brian, Eric said, “You can drive the little car we came in. It’s an automatic.” General Bradson put a stop to that. “No, Brian needs to stay with the devices. We’ll cover the bombs with a tarp and he’ll ride between them and the cab. Brian, take an AK, just keep it out of sight. You will stay with the bombs until they are taken over by the U.S. Government or I relieve you, understood?” Brian saluted his father, and simply replied, “Yes, sir.” Then with a smile, he added, “I’ll see you soon, right?” General Bradson nodded and replied, “I’ll join you in a few hours, along with some relief for you, as soon as I get Fel and her troops moved and settled in. I’ll drive Eric’s car over if he’ll let me have the keys.” Without a word, Eric handed over the car keys. Under the circumstances, being on the hook for the small car was the least of his concerns. “Let’s get the cargo loaded and covered,” General Bradson said, and then began directing the procedure. The ramp was raised a few feet of the ground and the truck was backed up under it. Then, they lowered the ramp to the bed and rolled two of the nuclear warheads onto the truck, where they were chained down and covered with a tarp. Brian eased himself into place and General Bradson handed him an AK-47, and, for good measure, an RPG-7 grenade launcher. Eric had seen the stereotypical RPG in countless movies, and recognized the familiar double-cone shape. He blinked in surprise, but given the cargo, that was the least of his concerns. Horst secured the tarp in place, tying the forward edge to the top of the truck’s cab to form a small tent-like enclosure for Brian, between the warheads and the cab. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  10. C James

    Wings of Fire

    Chapter 31: Wings of Fire Tapping lightly at the door of his mother’s suite, Eric wondered if she was already asleep. He didn’t have long to wonder as the door swung open. The first thing he noticed was the puffiness around her eyes. ‘She’s been crying,’ he thought, and gave her a wan, sympathetic smile as he walked through the doorway. As they sat down on the couch, he said, “Sorry to come by so late, Mom, but I was worried about you.” Jane stared at her son for a moment, and then, her upper lip quivering, reached out and drew him into a hug. Her voice, normally filled with dignified resolve, came in an uneven, hesitant timbre as she held Eric tight and said, “Thank you. After all I’ve done, I don’t deserve a thing, but here you are. I’ve made a right mess of things again, haven’t I? I’m sure you must have heard an earful from Helen and your brothers. I only wanted to help, and I know I rubbed them all the wrong way. I just wanted to be... useful. I can’t seem to do anything right.” Eric felt his mother’s chest heave as she stifled a sob. Patting her on the back and holding her tight, he said in a soft voice, “It’s okay, Mom. I’m here for you, we all are, and always will be. Don’t worry about tonight; things happen. I know you were trying to help, but you know what? You don’t need to do stuff like that. We already know you care, because of all you gave up to be here. You don’t need to be useful to be part of us, because you already are and always will be. Just let us be here for you, to help you through what’s happening.” Jane didn’t reply, she couldn’t. She just held onto her son as the tears, so long hidden, began to flow freely. All the emotions she’d been feeling washed over her; the fear of being alone in the world first amongst them. That, she now knew, would not be the case, and her tears bespoke more of relief than of the anguish she’d been feeling. Holding Eric tightly, feeling his strong arms around her, Jane felt, for the first time in a very long time, truly loved. She had been seeking without knowing what she sought, and now, her heart was home. Releasing Eric, she dried her tears. “I’m a mess, in so many ways. Thank you Eric. I feel I’m going to be all right now. It’s just so hard... I gave over twenty years of my life to JT, hurt you and your brothers horribly, and for it all to end... he’ll never change. Everything, no matter what, has to be his way. Enough of that. I’m starting over. With the three of you, and with my life. It was high time for a change. Thank you for coming, Eric. That’s the thing I most remember about you from when you were little; you always seemed to know just what to say, especially when someone was feeling down. How did you get so wise?” Eric chuckled and shrugged. “If you tell anyone you think I’m wise, they’ll have you committed. It wasn’t hard to figure out. Just remember what I said; we’re all here for you. Having you come back into our lives was the best thing ever, as far as I’m concerned. Look, it’s going to be rough at times, but things will be okay. Just give it some time.” A nod, as a slow smile found its way onto Jane’s face, and she said, “I’ll be okay. Life is too short to spend it being miserable.” Jane glanced at her son, as her own words rang true to her, prodding her to continue. “We all need to make ourselves happy. To that end, Eric, I want you to know that whatever path you choose in life, I’ll give you no grief. If this club idea is what it takes, so be it. I can’t say I understand why you want to be a stripper, but that’s your decis–” “Whoa, Mom, I think you misunderstood. I’m not going to be a stripper.” Eric knew he wasn’t being completely honest; he had enjoyed doing his act at the Oak Leaf, but planned on doing an occasional small act for the thrill of it, not as a full time occupation. “I’m going to do a four-second routine, just pull my shirt off, when I open the club on its first night. That’s what Jansen is trying to teach me. My main job in the new business will be finding the bands. Jansen and Keith are handling the exotic dancing side. Helen would kill me if I tried going on stage as a dancer.” Jane sat motionless for a moment, her face blank. Then, she blinked. “Oh. I certainly did have that wrong, didn’t I? I suppose that’s why Helen does not disapprove of this venture, and why she likened it to you opening a restaurant or a nightclub. You told me about the bands before, and now I think I understand. I seem to have put my foot in it, yet again. I’ll be honest, I still have reservations regarding this new business of yours, but I meant what I said: If you are doing what makes you happy, then you’ll have no grief from me.” Jane warred with her conscience for a few moments, and then added, “That applies to things other than business, too. Brandon and Chase seem to be happy; I’ll be the first to admit that. It’s taking a little getting used to, but so long as they are happy, it is their life and I will be happy for them. The same applies to you, of course.” It was Eric’s turn to be surprised. ‘Is she saying what I think she’s saying?’ he wondered, and then looked into his mother’s eyes. With a smile and a nod, Eric replied, “Thanks Mom, that means a lot to me.” Eric didn’t go further; he felt it would be a case of too much, too soon, to actually talk with his mother about his budding relationship with Jansen. However, he now felt certain that when the time came for that discussion to occur, his mother would greet it with an open mind. By mutual, unspoken consent, the conversation shifted to more comfortable grounds, and they spent the next hour reminiscing. By the time he left, Eric could tell that the walls his mother had built between herself and her family were at last beginning to crumble. Returning to his suite, Eric settled into bed alone, his thoughts on the date Jansen had asked him on. Smiling to himself, he clicked out the light and decided that there was an earlier opportunity for a date, assuming that Keith didn’t mind. Eric’s final thought before falling asleep was that he needed to ask Keith, and just hoped he’d be the one to answer the phone in the morning. Deep beneath Cumbre Vieja, changes were underway. Cumbre Vieja is not a stereotypical cone-shaped volcano. Seen from above, it runs from north to south, several times longer than it is wide. Its shape is a result of its history; its eruptions occur along a fracture zone that runs north to south. Typically, the initial activity of an eruption occurs in a central crater, and then the magma forces its way into the fracture zone, erupting along it. This process is what gave birth to the many cinder cones and craters on the mountain. As before, so it was happening again: the magma, seeking the paths of least resistance, was spreading out, forcing its way both north and south. As it advanced, it encountered ground water, heating it to thousands of degrees. The water would have flashed to steam, except that it couldn’t; the tremendous weight of the overlying rock contained it. Instead, some of the superheated water dissolved into the magma. The pressure continued to build, expanding further and further north and south. The magma itself took up space, and this caused Cumbre Vieja to swell. The change, a deformation of mere inches but over three miles in length, was detectable by tiltmeters installed on the volcano’s slopes for that very purpose. For the geologists monitoring the eruption, this proved ominous; it was hard evidence that the eruption, previously confined to a single crater, was spreading out along the rift zone. It was this rift zone that had slipped slightly on its western side during the 1949 eruption. That fact, combined with the evidence from the tiltmeters, was enough to raise serious concerns that the lateral collapse of the western side of Cumbre Vieja, previously deemed unlikely, was now a possibility, one growing more serious by the day. A quiet warning was sent to government authorities on La Palma and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard: an evacuation warning might be coming, stand by. Over copious amounts of coffee and donuts, the geologists decided to see what the following day held. They thought they had the time, and wished to avoid sparking an unnecessary panic. What the geologists did not know about was the vast amount of groundwater the magma had encountered. Had they known, they would have considered the situation to be far more serious, based on the risk that the superheated water could play the role of a lubricant if a collapse, most likely triggered by an earthquake, began. Once the pressure on the magma diminished, the gases trapped within it would violently expand. That same process had driven the devastating landslide and lateral explosion at Mount Saint Helens in 1980, which for the moment held the record as the largest landslide in human history. In the cockpit of the C-130, General Bradson’s eyes swept the instruments and he glanced over at Felecia, judging that it was time to put his cards on the table. He said in a casual tone, “There’s something you need to know. If you’ll recall, I was prepared to die – and take my son with me if need be – to wreck that Iranian facility. Just how do you suppose I feel about delivering live nukes to your employer?” The implied threat was obvious. Felecia dropped her hand to the butt of her gun as she replied, “Odd that you should say that, after telling me how to get us out of here.” The General chuckled softly. “As you might guess, I left one part out. It’s what we need the JATO rockets for. You’ll never figure it out, and no one on this aircraft will survive without it, not now the Iranians are on full alert and hunting for us. Now, down to business: I will not allow those nukes to fall into your employer’s hands. There’s probably more to this than you know; I think he’s had nukes before. When I realized what you’re after, I remembered his injuries, specifically his burns and missing arm. That matches what we found in Buenos Aires, when we thought we’d found the remains of Jerry Clump, the man who set off the bomb in Toowoomba and planted the bombs in New York and Los Angeles. A detonation command was sent for those, Fel. I took ‘em out just barely in time. He incinerated an entire city just to demonstrate that he had the capability, and then tried to add Los Angeles and New York to the pyre when he figured the jig was up. Even if it’s not the same guy, I cannot and will not let someone like your employer get his hands on nuclear warheads. Just what the hell do you think he wants them for? Paperweights?” Thinking over what the General had just said, Felecia resisted the urge to draw her gun. “Let me tell you something, Walter. My men are all I have and I lost a lot of them tonight. I knew I would, but I did it because I had no choice. If we cross Frankenstein,” she said, using a nickname for The Scar that she almost never dared use, “he’ll shop us all to Interpol and anyone else who wants our heads. That’s a pretty big group, given the work we do and the enemies we’ve made. He can trash our reputation, and that’s lethal in this business. The flip side of that is if we get him what he wants, then he pays my men for this mission, enough to get the hell out of this business and start new lives. Most of my mean can’t go back to their old lives, they became mercenaries because they had nothing else left, no other options. That’s why I agreed to this mission: so my men can get out, instead of ending up in an unmarked early grave somewhere, forgotten victims in somebody else’s war. What it all boils down to is this: the lives of my men depend on it, so Frankenstein is getting his nukes. I fucking hate that but I have no choice. What this means for you is that if you won’t get us out of here on those terms, you might as well shove the nose down right now, because my men will be just as dead. I also prefer quick to slow, it’s kinder. If you don’t believe me, think on this: when the mission started, I gave orders to Horst and Wilhelm: kill any of my men who would be left behind. I did that so they wouldn’t be taken prisoner by the Iranians.” General Bradson felt his gut clench; he hadn’t imagined that she would be ruthless to her own men. Not understanding her real reason and assuming she had done that for operational security reasons, he said, “I misjudged you, I guess. I had you pegged for a commander who cared about her troops–” “SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!” Felecia yelled in a blind fury, as her gun came to bear on General Bradson’s head. “You have no fucking idea, do you? In your world, being taken prisoner means at least a chance of survival. Not so in mine. Think it through; just what do you suppose would have happened to any of us taken prisoner back there? We’re mercenaries, in Iranian uniform. We’d be executed, most likely after torture. Better a bullet in the head than that, so that’s why I did it. So don’t you even think you can blackmail me; I’ll kill us all unless I can see a way that my men get out of this alive, and I don’t mean being thrown into a damn cage for the rest of their lives. Better to end it quick. So unless you’re getting us out of here, shove the damn nose down or I’ll shoot you and crash us myself.” “I’d prefer that we all live through this, your men included,” General Bradson said calmly. “I have an idea on that. It’s risky, but I think I can promise your men as good a chance at the outcome you want. Better, actually. Factor this into you calculations; are you sure Scar won’t double cross you? You’re all loose ends. If he’s who I think he is, he’s utterly ruthless. We believe he personally killed at least one man who would not give him what he wanted, and when he was after the Kryton switches he kidnapped the manufacturer’s daughter and had her returned to him a piece at a time. Then when he had the switches he killed them both. He put a bomb on a private jet to kill a rock band because he’d used their shipping containers to transport the bombs and thought they might be a loose end. That plan failed, so he sent his henchmen to Telluride to try again, to kill them and any other loose ends with them. One of the 'loose ends' in Telluride was his own son. We believe he knew that. We also believe that he moved his bomb assembly workforce into Toowoomba so they’d die in the blast. He does not like loose ends: he kills them.” “I know him well enough to know that, you sanctimonious ass. That’s why I planned to keep at least one of the bombs wired up to detonate until he coughed up the money, paid my men, and they were out of his reach. It was his idea to nuke the underground base if we could. I don’t know if he is Jerry Clump, it doesn’t really matter from my point of view. I do know that he plans to auction off one of the bombs and said that nuking the base would make the bombs more valuable, both by drying up the rogue supply and proving that they work. He ordered a nuclear attack for purely financial gain. I had no objection to nuking that base, but I know he’s a snake.” Felecia took a deep breath, and made her decision, trying to do her best for her men. “If you can offer my men a way out, or at least a solid chance of one, count me in. But I’ll warn you now; not all of my men would side with me if I turn against ‘ole Frankenstein. Money talks in this business.” With a relieved smile, pleased with both Felecia’s motives and her tentative agreement, General Bradson said, “I don’t have it all worked out just yet, but here goes: We refuel from Flight Two and continue the mission. We’ll tell your men we’re heading back to the training base in the Cape Verdes–” “Forget it. Our fearless leader will be waiting for us in Sudan. He’s got his own troops there, about thirty of ‘em, loyal to him alone, and they’ll disable this plane at the first hint of trouble, count on it. So will some of my men, for that matter.” General Bradson shook his head. “We won’t be going to Sudan, and your men don’t need to know the real reason why. I’ll discuss this with you in detail after we take off from Oman; there’s no need to commit until then. In the meantime, we have to get out of Iran. Private Johnson is using my phone at the moment, so use yours and check on the status of the second fishing boat. Make sure the other boat took its crew off, and get me the updated coordinates. Then call your flight crew back in, because we’ve got to go see what our Marines have found out.” Three minutes later, Felecia and the General, coffees in hand, stooped beside the two sitting Marines. Felecia handed a cup to Brian. To his surprise, she did so with a wink and a smile. Private Johnson gratefully accepted his coffee from the General, and as he returned the General’s phone said, “Sir, I got through,” while casting a wary eye at Felecia. “Go ahead, it’s okay,” General Bradson said. “Sir, I called and asked for a seat on the Iran Air charters scheduled for departure this morning. I said I was in a bus, coming in. The lady at Iran Air didn’t like my accent, so I told her I was an Indonesian tourist, hoping like hell she didn’t speak Indonesian, because I sure don’t. Anyway, the next charter pulls away from the gate in ten minutes. We missed the first one. There’s another an hour later, then a third one just before noon.” Smiling, General Bradson turned to ask Felecia, “So, are you going to threaten to shoot me again?” That remark caused Brian and Private Johnson to look up in surprise. Rolling her eyes, Felecia said, “I’m sure what I’m thinking is wrong. No way can you get on those planes.” “True, but they are part of our ticket out of here. I wasn’t sure they’d still be flying due to the alert – the original plan called for us to be here sooner, before the alert, and just fly across. These were contingency plans, but now our lives depend on them. One option was to set this bird down in a remote spot I’ve picked out, and wait. Risky but feasible, and that’s our fallback plan. The Iran Air plan is what we’ll go with. When I came up with it, what I was hoping for is that our Iranian friends hadn’t learned their lesson from 1988: Iran Air 655. The Iranians were on alert then too, due to an ongoing naval clash with the U.S. in the Gulf. But they didn’t ground the air charters taking pilgrims for Hajj, and one flew out of Bandar Abbas just in time to be mistaken for an F-14 by the USS Vincennes. It was shot down. Right now, they’re running air charters out of Bandar Abbas to Jeddah in Saudi, for pilgrims heading to Mecca for Umrah. Those are passenger jets and they’re heading in roughly the same direction we want to go, and we know roughly when they’re taking off.” Felecia shook her head as if to clear it. “You’re making no sense, Walter. How will that get us out?” General Bradson turned and shouted down the cargo bay, “Check the pallets, make sure they’re ready to drop. We’ve got one shot at this. Then get everything that can move lashed down tight, we’re going to be doing some violent maneuvering.” Without waiting for Felecia to confirm the order, a fact not lost on Felecia, a dozen of her men began inspecting the pallets while others swarmed through the cargo bay, carrying out the General’s orders. General Bradson smiled as he looked at Felecia to say, “The problem we face is radar. If a fighter radar or air-search radar sees two planes, one directly under the other, it will paint them as a single target. We’re going out under one of those charters; preferably the one leaving in fifteen minutes and I hope like hell they aren’t late.” Felecia shook her head again, “Not possible, Walter. This crate is prop driven and has a max airspeed of what, three-sixty? A lot slower than a jet… but, you know that, so what gives? Can’t be the JATO rockets, those only burn for about twenty seconds…” “I’ll explain in the cockpit. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. Let’s just say you were more right than you knew when you said it’ll be one hell of a ride.” Back in the cockpit, with Felecia standing behind him, General Bradson resumed command and checked the navigation display. His phone rang, and knowing that it was Bill, he answered it by saying, “We’re twenty miles northwest of Bandar Abbas International. We’ll have visual soon. Any update on the Iran Air about to take off?” Bill was surprised by that, and said, “Yeah, looks like they just left the gate. How the hell did you find that out?” “Telephones are handy things my friend, and airlines have flight information desks.” Bill mentally kicked himself for not thinking of that, and then added in a dire tone, “You’ve got six MiG-29s over the Strait, lighting up the sky with their radars. That’s as of five minutes ago. Keep it tight or they’ll nail your ass. I’ll call if I get any updates. Good luck and good hunting.” General Bradson returned the phone to his pocket, and told the copilot, “The ridgelines run east to west here. I’m going to fly parallel to the last one north of Bandar Abbas, and pop up so you can see the airport. You’ll see a jetliner getting ready to take off to the southwest. I’ll need to know the second he starts his takeoff roll.” The copilot removed his night-vision gear, and snatched up a pair of binoculars. “Ready.” Having satisfied himself that Felecia was willing to trust him, the General decided to explain his plan in full. “Here’s the situation we face; we need to get under that Iran Air flight. It’s the only way we can get across the Strait. They’ll be climbing to get to their cruising altitude. During climbout, they’ll have a lot slower groundspeed. Two-fifty or so initially, then increasing through about four hundred around eighty miles out, which is past where we need them. We’ll be fine in sixty miles. The main problem is that we need to be in level flight; we can’t match their climbout speed if we’re climbing too. We also need to get closer to their altitude, or there’s a chance the fighter radars might discern us as a separate bogie. However, we can’t climb now, because we’d show up on radar. That’s what the JATO rockets are for. At the right time, I pull up and then those eight solid rocket motors are going to put us in a nearly vertical climb, maintaining our airspeed, and as they burn out, I drop the nose and we should be about five hundred feet below and a little behind the Iran Air jet. We’ll close up and stay directly under it as we cross the Strait. The altitude separation will increase as they climb, but by the time that’s a major factor, we should be getting close to Omani airspace. Then we’ll blow the fishing boat to draw their attention, and make the Iranians – and anyone else looking for us – think we’ve crashed.” Felecia nodded in stunned silence, and then said, “Won’t they see the flare of the JATO rockets? That’ll be visible for fifty miles… oh.” General Bradson chuckled. “Exactly. That’s why we need to fill the sky with fire, which will also make a big fat clutter on their radar scopes for a few seconds.” Three minutes later, General Bradson banked the C-130 to the right and pulled the nose up, climbing to just above the level of the ridge to his south. From twelve miles away, the copilot was able to discern the brightly lit, taxiing Iran Air 737. “Aircraft in sight, in motion but hasn’t turned onto the threshold yet,” the copilot said. “I need to know the second he begins his takeoff roll,” General Bradson replied, ducking the C-130 down below the ridgeline for a few moments and checking his navigational display. Thumbing the intercom, he said, “Prepare to drop all pallets, eight second intervals, on my mark!” General Bradson reefed the C-130 around, orbiting a fixed point in the broad valley just north of the ridgeline. Completing one circle every sixty seconds, he pulled up to just above the level of the ridgeline every time the nose was pointing at the airport, to give the copilot a chance to observe the Iran Air flight as it taxied out. During their fifth orbit over the valley, General Bradson, as on every prior circuit, popped up above the level of the ridgeline and waited while the copilot reacquired the Iran Air flight. “Turning now, not slowing. Still turning. He’s accelerating, not stopping at the threshold, looks like a rolling start… still accelerating,” the copilot said. Ramming the throttles forward, General Bradson rolled out on a course of due south, cresting the ridgeline and following its seaward slope down, holding the C-130 two hundred feet above the ground. That was just low enough, he hoped, for the plane to be concealed by the ground clutter of the ridge behind him, for the few seconds he needed. Checking his display, he called out, “Three miles to initial point,” and pulled back on the throttles, slowing to two hundred and fifty miles per hour before lowering the ramp. “Iran Air just rotated off the deck,” the copilot said, announcing that the jet had left the ground. General Bradson gave the men manning the pallets a five second count and then yelled, “Drop! Drop! Drop!” Four seconds later, as the General firewalled the engines, Horst reported from the cargo bay, “Pallets away, door coming up.” The first of the four pallets, containing five hundred mayonnaise jars, each holding a grenade, scattered its cargo into the dark skies west of Bandar Abbas. For the mayonnaise jars, gravity took over and they arced towards the ground. A few collided and released their grenades early, but the low altitude meant that they would be on the ground before they could detonate. This time, due to the far lower altitude and more accurate drop, over ninety percent of the jars settled into trajectories that would terminate within the bounds of Iran’s largest surviving refinery. That status was not to last. The massive Bandar Abbas Petrochemical oil refinery was not the only target. The delay between pallet drops had placed the massive oil storage tanks of the Dodgerdan oil terminal, which abutted the refinery’s southern perimeter, squarely in the target zone. Horst watched the pallets being shoved out, and beyond the gaping open cargo bay door he could see the lights of the refinery whizzing past two hundred feet below. As he watched, the first of the grenades detonated, lighting up the darkness as they sent out their blasts of fire and shrapnel, shredding the fragile infrastructure of the refinery and oil tank farm. A ripple of fire, beginning at the north end of the refinery, flashed towards the sea, chasing the speeding C-130, rending the sky as a series of secondary explosions immolated the facilities. From Horst’s viewpoint, the scene framed by the bay door became seething hell incarnate, and he could feel the heat on his face as hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil joined in with the blazing gasoline, perpetuating the hellish maelstrom. Instinctively turning away from the blast, he slammed his palm down on the bay door switch. A massive fireball, two miles long and half a mile wide, lifted into the sky, soon towering over and behind the southbound C-130 as the plane accelerated through three hundred miles per hour. Streaking over the Strait of Hormuz, General Bradson banked a few degrees to the left, not needing his night vision goggles to see the brightly lit Iran Air jet. Steering until he judged that he was roughly under its ground track, he pulled the C-130’s nose up into a forty-five-degree climb. Their airspeed began to bleed off, allowing the Iran Air jet to begin to pull ahead. With the massive fireball still rising behind them, General Bradson told the copilot, “Give me a count, every second after ignition,” then he held his breath and punched the JATO ignition switch. The C-130 shuddered as the JATO rockets lit off, and the C-130 surged into the sky on a pillar of fire. Taking his cues from his airspeed indicator in order to keep their airspeed below redline, the General pulled the nose further up, to within fifteen degrees of vertical, as the plane maintained three hundred and fifty miles an hour, gaining four hundred and fifty feet of altitude every second. When the copilot’s count reached fifteen seconds since ignition, General Bradson began lowering the nose and reducing throttle, concentrating on the airliner filling his vision, easing the C-130 onto its ground track from behind, two hundred feet below its altitude. Feeling the thrust decrease as the JATOs burned out, he advanced the throttles to maximum and beginning a shallow climb, continually glancing almost straight up at the Iran Air’s fuselage. Forcing himself to breathe again, the General said, “We can’t match their rate of climb, but their groundspeed is about two-ninety so I can keep us close to their rate of climb for a little while.” Sparing a fast glance at his radar detectors, he added, “We’re picking up fighter radars, probably the MiGs, but they should see us and the Iran Air as one aircraft. We should be fine, unless one of ‘em decides to do a flyby and make sure.” The General didn’t know it, but in the Tehran command center, the news was out. The C-130 had been seen heading east over Kerman, and fighters were busy combing its possible routes to Afghanistan. What General Bradson had not counted on was an almost immediate report from Bandar Abbas Naval Air Station, four miles from the refinery complex, telling of the refinery’s destruction. That was enough to clue the Iranian commanders in on the fact that their target might be in the area. Some of them feared another ruse, like the one at Abadan: a decoy. It didn’t matter; the MiGs over the Strait were detailed to redouble their efforts, and told to expect a southbound enemy aircraft. The MiGs' radars did, as the General had hoped, paint his aircraft and the Iran-Air 737 as a single target, marking it with the Iran Air’s civilian transponder code. The fireball over the refinery had been plainly visible to the MiG pilots thirty miles offshore, and it had shown up on their radars as a giant reflection, clearing a few seconds later, leaving only the Iran Air flight, heading southwest. That, combined with the alert from their ground controllers, was just a little too coincidental for the MiGs' commander. He queried his ground controller and was told that the Iran Air flight had just taken off from Bandar Abbas, destination Jeddah, and should be where he was seeing it. He glanced at his radar screen, remembering that the jet had been almost in line with the fireball, just a little offshore. No, he decided, he did not like coincidences, and he was well aware that he would be held responsible should the enemy escape. With that thought in mind, he gave a command to one of his squadron. Leaving the rest of his flight to continue the search, the pilot of the last MiG-29 in line responded to his orders by peeling off, reefing around in a high-G turn, advancing his throttles to full military power and rolling out on a nearly head-on intercept vector for the Iran Air 737. Cursing the unfamiliar darkness – the Iranian Air Force rarely flies at night – the MiG pilot studied his radar display, seeing only the Iran Air flight, planning to confirm its identity via a head-on pass half a mile to the jet’s west. That would be close enough, he reasoned, and the fastest vector. Five minutes later, the C-130’s copilot, using his infrared night vision gear, spotted the inbound MiG. “Twin engine fighter, inbound at two o’clock high,” he said, the stress showing in his voice. “Let’s hope they don’t see us,” General Bradson replied, looking at the fighter and then up at the Iran Air flight, which was now over thousand feet above the C-130. He could see that the MiG – it was close enough that he could make out the familiar profile of the deadly MiG-29 – was slightly below the same altitude as the Iran Air jet and was, he hoped, going for a visual ID on the brightly lit commercial flight. Unless the enemy pilot was using infrared vision gear, General Bradson felt that it was unlikely that the MiG would see the blacked-out C-130 below. He was wrong. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Special thanks to Wildone, for noticing one of my goofs and letting me know so I could fix it. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  11. Chapter 32: A Favor to Ask The Strait of Hormuz is the sole access to the Persian Gulf. Over a hundred ships of all sized transit the Strait every day. At night, these ships are usually brightly lit. The MiG was over a thousand feet above the C-130 and passing half a mile to its west. Looking at the Iran Air jet, the MiG pilot could see in his peripheral vision the lights of several ships in the Strait, well to his east. That was to be expected. What was not expected was what he saw next: the lights of a large tanker appeared to blink out for a fraction of a second. The human eye is drawn to movement, and he reacted to the sudden change by looking. Seeing nothing, he scanned the skies for a few seconds, and then realized that if something had occluded the ship’s lights, then that something was directly below the Iran Air jet. A second flicker of occluded lights, this time from a distant oilrig, confirmed the pilot’s hunch. The pilot reefed the MiG into a hard right turn, pulling four Gs before rolling out on the Iran Air jet’s course, two miles behind. Glancing at his scope, he could see just the single target, but to be sure, he switched his radar to fire-control mode – a high frequency narrow beam, used for missile guidance. He then dropped his nose, aiming at the area under the Iran Air jet. A targeting reticule appeared in his HUD – Heads Up Display – well under the Iran Air jet, where nothing ought to be. His eyes widening as he realized what he’d found, he radioed in to his ground controller, and then reported, “Am engaging now. Weapons hot.” The ground controller, who had only the pilot’s word that the Iran Air wasn’t the target, radioed back, “Negative on missiles. Guns only if the Iran Air is within missile range.” The MiG pilot activated his night-vision gear, only to find that it was not in working order, like so much else in Iran’s Air Force. He correctly suspected that it was due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts, which evoked a string of curses. He didn’t need the night vision gear, not with his HUD, but it would have been nice. He advanced his throttles to maximum and began closing the range. In the C-130’s cockpit, General Bradson glanced again at the steady red pulse from one of his radar detectors. The signal was strong, not fading at all. That meant… “Prepare for violent maneuvering. The MiG has us locked up, fire control mode. He’s behind us,” the General shouted, wishing that he had some easy way of seeing directly behind the aircraft. Felecia alerted her troops over the intercom with a terse “Hang on!” Then, strapping herself in, she asked the General, “What now?” General Bradson ignored her. He had other things on his mind. He ordered the copilot, “Night vision gear, look aft. I want your best guess regarding range and speed on the hostile.” General Bradson waited for a couple of seconds as the copilot twisted around and leaned over against the cockpit’s right side window, which gave him a view to within ten degrees of dead aft. General Bradson stepped hard on the right rudder pedal, slewing the C-130 into a horizontal yaw, causing it to shudder and bleed off airspeed, but also giving the copilot the needed view. “About a mile back, coming in fast! Straight in!” the copilot yelled. General Bradson reversed the rudder, keeping the wings level on the mistaken assumption that the MiG pilot had operational night-vision gear and would see any bank and use it to predict the turn. The General pulled back on the yoke, yanked the throttles all the way back, and hit the switches to deploy full flaps and drop the landing gear. The C-130 lurched upwards as a string of tracers streaked past the cockpit. The MiG pilot cursed as his target lurched upwards, and raised his nose to follow. Using the HUD, concentrating on the targeting reticule and ignoring his range readout, he had no sense of depth and thus no idea that the C-130 was slowing drastically. His first clue came from the targeting reticule as it began to grow exponentially larger. Just in time, he understood what was happening and yanked back on his stick, racing past the C-130, passing less than twenty feet over its port wing. General Bradson had to fight for control as the MiG’s wake vortices slammed into the C-130’s left wing. Then a steadier, more even shaking began, followed by a sickening lurch downward, like the beginning of the descent of a high-speed elevator. A blaring warning horn sounded in the cockpit, and the copilot said needlessly, “Stall warning.” “Track the fighter,” General Bradson ordered as the C-130’s nose dropped, and he hauled the yoke all the way back. The General raised the flaps and landing gear, but kept the yoke full back, as the C-130, its fuselage level, dropped like a rock, locked into a full stall. The copilot called out, “The MiG is circling around, not descending, just turning.” The General watched his rate of decent gauge creep well past redline, passing through ten thousand feet per minute and still accelerating. He had entered the full stall to lose altitude as fast as possible. The only catch was, he’d never stalled a C-130 before and only had a guess, based on a dim memory of reading its manual back at the academy, as to how much altitude he’d need to recover from a full stall. A new warning horn sounded as the C-130 plummeted past four thousand feet, and General Bradson shoved the yoke forward, trying to lower the nose as he shouted to the copilot, “Compressor stall on number three, relight procedures now!” The General advanced the other three throttles to maximum and hoped like hell that there was still enough altitude. The nose didn’t drop as fast as he’d expected, and the General chewed on his lip as the aircraft slowly, too slowly, pitched its nose down. With three engines at max power and no trim, the nose began to slew to the right, but that was the least of his worries. “Come on,” he muttered, as the altimeter spun down through two thousand feet. At last, the C-130’s nose pitched further down with a lurch, denoting its return to forward flight, and General Bradson hauled back on the yoke, fighting to pull out of the dive. “Five hundred feet,” the copilot yelled, with fear in his voice, the restart procedure momentarily forgotten. The C-130’s nose swung up, and the altimeter paused at two hundred feet, before beginning to increase slightly. “Fighter?” the General asked. Glancing nearly straight up, the copilot reported, “Passing under the Iran Air, looks like he’s flying figure-eights, looking for us. No sign of a descent yet.” The copilot looked at the engine temperature gauges and announced, “Chamber temp on three is coming up, it’s lit.” “We’re out from under the Iran Air’s radar shadow,” General Bradson said, as he glanced at his navigational display. “We’re about twelve miles from the Musendam Peninsula on the southern side of the Strait. We’ll be in Omani airspace in a few seconds, but that won’t stop the MiG. I doubt Iran is in any mood to observe international niceties at the moment. Fel, get ready to use the fishing boat. It’s about five miles east of us.” To the copilot, the General said, “Call out at the first sign of a descent, and watch out for other inbounds.” Felecia got out her satellite phone and prepared to dial the number. General Bradson banked hard right, rolling out on a northwesterly course, heading towards the unmanned fishing boat, trusting that the MiG would follow. He needed it to be directly astern. The MiG 29’s radar is classified as having look-down shoot-down capability, meaning that it can use its coherent pulse-Doppler mode to detect, track, and lock onto a target that is below the aircraft’s horizon. Freed of the interference provided by the Iran Air jet, the hunting MiG pilot studied his radar display and reported the C-130’s course, speed and altitude to ground control as well as three other MiG 29’s that were now thirty miles out. The three inbound MiGs had nosed over into a shallow dive, advanced to max power and then punched their afterburners, accelerating to mach two. “Ready on the flare gun, side door,” General Bradson yelled, hoping that it would not be needed. He checked his nav display again and called out, “Three miles to the boat.” “Fighter is diving, he’s at five o’clock high, boring straight in on our six,” the copilot yelled. “Ready on the phone, Fel. Dial now, then key in all but the last number of the code,” General Bradson said. “Missile, missile, inbound!” the copilot yelled. “Flares, now,” General Bradson ordered over the intercom, as he pulled the throttles all the way back and pulled the nose up, trying to reduce the engine exhaust temperature and interpose the wing between the missile’s seeker head and the engines. “I hope that’s an Aphid he just fired,” the General said, referring to the NATO designation ‘Aphid-8’ for the Russian-made infrared-guided missile known to be in Iran’s air-to-air arsenal. He had good reason to be concerned: if the missile was radar-guided, his countermoves had just made the C-130 a much better target. He was betting all their lives that the fighter, nearly directly above, would follow standard air-combat doctrine and opt for a heat-seeker, given the range, closing angle, and aspect. The flares – standard phosphorous-based rescue flares – were seen by the Aphid’s seeker head, but ignored due to their high frequency range, one the seeker had been designed to avoid. The missile raced in, homing on the hot gasses training from the C-130’s engines. Coming in from almost directly above, the missile aimed for the broadest area of infrared glow, which occurred where the exhaust flow began to spread out in the C-130’s wake. The Aphid bored through the hot gasses a hundred feet behind the C-130, just outside of the range of its warheads’ proximity fuse. Inside the C-130’s cockpit, they heard the crack from the supersonic missile’s passage, and the dull thud as it detonated a few feet above the sea behind them. “Fighter pulling up, half a mile behind us, closing fast!” the agitated copilot yelled. General Bradson glanced at his navigational screen and could see the marker denoting the fishing boat’s last known position, a mile ahead. He wished they were closer, but hoped it would do. They were out of time. “Now,” he told Felecia. Felecia keyed in the final number ­– they had used 1-2-3 so it would be easy to remember – and nearly a mile ahead, the modified digital answering machine took note of the code, and sent a signal down a wire that was normally connected to a relay that controlled a memory chip. In this case, it was connected to an external relay, which sent a pulse of power from a battery into two detonator caps, each attached to a stick of dynamite. Stacked around the dynamite were ten barrels of gasoline. The sudden bright flash of the fireball directly ahead caused the General’s night-vision goggles to flare: he’d forgotten to take them off. Ripping them away so that he could see the instruments, he checked altitude – three hundred feet – and banked hard left, towards the Omani coast. Half a mile away, the fireball, plainly visible to the incoming MiG, faded away, leaving sheets of flame on the surface of the sea as the last of the gasoline burned. The fireball, coming so soon after his missile had exploded, gave the MiG’s pilot a thrill of victory; he thought he was seeing the burning remains of his target. His radar had a major limitation in fire-control mode; it could track only one target at a time. The C-130 had been directly in line with the fishing boat, and the radar had shifted lock to the larger target that had flared dead ahead: the flying pieces of metal barrels, plus the debris of the sheet-metal awning that had sheltered them, whirling through the air. One by one, the pieces splashed into the warm waters of the Gulf, and the radar return ebbed and faded out. The MiG raced over the fishing boat’s fiery grave, heading southwest, while the C-130 raced at full speed southeast, heading for the tip of the Musendam Peninsula, now only five miles away. The few passing ships in the area were far enough away to be of no concern. “What if that fighter comes after us before we make the coast?” Felecia asked. With an affected casual shrug, General Bradson replied, “Then, we probably die. However, we’re about four miles out now, inside Omani airspace, and that fishing boat should confuse it for long enough. There are some deep canyons, almost like fjords, that start right at the coast. If we can make it into those, we’re safe from their radar. Three miles now, that’s well under a minute.” General Bradson flipped his night-vision goggles back down into place, and in them, he could see the coast ahead, and altered course by a few degrees, aiming for a gap in the ridgeline. “Fighters coming in, three of them, your side, high!” the copilot yelled, having chanced to look past General Bradson. The General whipped his head around and looked to his left, seeing the three pairs of white dots – the heat from the MiG’s engines – as they tracked to his left. “They’re heading for the fishing boat, we should make it,” he said, wondering if that was true. He shoved the nose down, leveling off barely sixty feet above the water, hoping that the ridge that was now just over a mile ahead would shield them from the searching radars by generating ground clutter. At the last possible second, he yanked the nose up, climbing to clear the two-hundred-foot ridge by thirty feet, and diving again, banking to the right over the bay on the far side, turning south. “Welcome to Oman,” he said with profound relief. The Iranian MiGs circled the guttering flames for a minute more, before being ordered out of Omani airspace by their ground controllers and sent to resume their barrier patrol. An Iranian gunboat was sent to investigate the presumed downed aircraft, but by the time the ruse was discovered, it would be far too late. Flight Three had escaped. General Bradson kept as low as he could, casting an occasional nervous eye on his now-blank radar detectors. “Fel, we’re about twenty miles from Flight Two. Let ‘em know.” Felecia did as she was asked, and the four men of Flight Two raced down the dirt road, dropping glow sticks to mark a centerline. Flight Three’s landing was routine, or as routine as such a thing can be, under the circumstances. Taxiing to a halt by Flight Two, the General left the engines idling and said, “Let’s get her fueled up, we don’t have long before sunup and we still need to cross Saudi Arabia. I’d prefer not to try that in daylight.” The one thing that General Bradson had not counted on was that The Scar had given very specific orders, accompanied by the promise of a million dollar bonus apiece to the men of Flight Two. While some of Felecia’s men rigged the fuel lines from the bladders in Flight Two to Flight Three’s almost-dry tanks, three of the men from Flight Two came aboard Flight Three. They tried to appear casual and friendly, as if enjoying the reunion with their fellow troops, but Horst was not so easily fooled. To his eye, their too-casual stroll towards the cockpit was a giveaway. Getting up, he waited for them to pass, and then aimed his AK-47 in their direction before saying, “Halt. No one approaches the cockpit. Felecia’s orders.” Turning to see Horst and, more to the point, his gun, the three mercenaries each decided to put their mission of assassination on hold. A million dollars was of no use to a dead man, they all knew. Raising their hands, palms out, the three men smiled, and one said, “No problem, Horst. We just wanted to congratulate her.” Not buying the excuse, Horst nodded agreeably. “There will be time for that later, in Sudan. There is no time now. Return to your aircraft, at once.” The barrel of his assault rifle flicked momentarily to his left, and that was all the prodding the three would-be assassins needed. Single file, they walked meekly past Horst and exited the aircraft via the cargo bay ramp. Horst watched them go, and then entered the cockpit, where he gave Felecia a full report. Felecia nodded, immediately realizing that if Horst was correct, then The Scar somehow knew that the General was still alive. Looking Horst in the eye, she said in a quiet voice, “Get the fuel bladders onto this aircraft as soon as they are empty.” She turned to ask General Bradson, “How many do we really need?” “They’ve got ten… at least five should have been empty by the time they got here. We can make do with three, but four would give us a cushion if you can manage it.” “Horst, get a detail together to move four empty fuel bladders. We’ll say… We’ll say we took some damage to a fuel tank. Show ‘em the bullet holes in the aft fuselage if you need to. Tell ‘em we need the bladders in case we have to transfer fuel, because we aren’t sure the self-sealing wing tanks will hold and might start losing fuel.” Horst nodded once. His loyalty was to Felecia, and so his reply was an easy one. “You can count on me for anything. You know that. I will see to it.” It took thirty minutes to transfer the fuel, and by the time it was done, Horst had four empty bladders lined up in a row down the centerline of Flight Three’s cargo bay. He had detailed a few men he felt he could trust to keep a quiet eye on the men of Flight Two, but the would-be assassins had made no overt moves. However, they had, from the privacy of their aircraft, reported to The Scar. Flight Two took off first, air-starting the engine that had been damaged in Somalia. Flight Three took to the air two minutes later, and both aircraft, one after the other, flew due south, staying low to avoid radar, as they left the small enclave of Omani territory and entered United Arab Emirate airspace. They continued south, staying in the mountains, roughly paralleling the Emirate-Omani boarder, until they entered Saudi airspace at the northern edge of a region known –for good reason – as the Empty Quarter. There, staying low, they turned to fly due west, on a direct course for northern Sudan. Over the Red Sea, Felecia told the copilot to leave for a while and take a break. As soon as he was gone, Felecia asked, “I need to know exactly what you have planned. If I don’t approve of it, I’m going to drop you and the jarheads off at that Egyptian resort I told you about.” Taking a deep breath, General Bradson said, “I need to get you, your men, and your cargo to a safe place, and arrange for your men to be paid and then given safe passage out. But before that, we need to find an alternate fuel source. We obviously can’t go to Scar’s base in Sudan. We have the range, barely, to make it to the southeast corner of Libya. There’s an airfield there, Kufra, used mainly by the oil industry. It’s hundreds of miles from anywhere. We should be able to either buy or steal fuel and be away before the Libyans can send anyone after us. Those fuel bladders will give us the range to get where I have in mind. Now, how much is Scar offering you and your men?” Felecia answered the question, and General Bradson let out a low whistle. “He does pay well, doesn’t he? Assuming he actually pays, that is. Okay, we’ll round that up just a little, make it a nice round number for each of you. Going with me, you get paid right away: no waiting around for some auction or a bullet in the back of the head from your charming employer. Before we go any further, I need to find out if I can pull the money together. Let me have my phone back.” Felecia handed it over with a warning: “Make no mention to your friend about our cargo, or the U.S. Military is going to be hunting us with everything they’ve got. I’m guessing he has to be either in the military or the intelligence agencies, and–” Shaking his head, General Bradson cut Felecia off to say, “It’s not him I’m calling. Yeah, given what we’re carrying, he just might tell people who would order us blown out of the sky. I’ll be circumspect as I’ll be talking over an unencrypted line, but I have to let her know what this is about. Trust me, Fel. That’s my son back there, I’m not going to put us in the crosshairs, okay?” The General was dissembling slightly and he knew it. He’d been willing to kill them all, if need be, to keep the nukes out of The Scar’s hands. Felecia knew that, but trusted that the General would only do that as an absolute last resort. The General explained a little more of the history behind his idea, and Felecia at last nodded her consent. General Bradson dialed a number from memory, and waited until the cell phone at the other end answered. “Hey there. This is your old friend who tried to fix the family feud in Idaho. How have you been?” the General said in a casual voice, hoping that Helen would pick up on the fact that he didn’t want to give his name. It was well after midnight in La Palma, and Helen, concerned because of the volcano’s near-constant rumblings, had not yet fallen asleep. It took her a moment to figure out who the familiar voice at the other end of the line belonged to. She immediately understood that he was avoiding using any names, but thinking that he was calling as promised to let her know about his son, Helen said, “Good to hear from you, Charlie. So, how goes the family reunion?” General Bradson grinned at Helen’s response, which made it clear that she’d figured out that they needed to be circumspect. “The accommodations sucked, so we decided to blow the joint and head for home.” Felecia heard that and began to laugh. The General continued in a more serious tone, “How are things with you? Are you still on the island? I heard you were having a bit of trouble with a volcano.” “Yeah, we’re stuck for another couple of days. The airport is closed due to ash,” Helen said. General Bradson, well aware that everything was riding on Helen’s response, said, “I’ve got a little situation here and I’m afraid I need a rather large favor… a short term loan, just for a few days.” Helen began to stutter a little when told of the size of the favor, and was about to decline in no uncertain terms when the General said, “Helen, remember what was going on when I first visited you at the ranch? It’s happening again and I need your help to prevent it. If we don’t pay the people I’m with, things could well end up the exact same way. I guarantee that you will be reimbursed within a few days, and I will provide collateral worth far more than the loan, but this is of the utmost importance.” The strange, vague conversation came to an end when the General said, “I’ll be in touch in a few hours, but I need your agreement now. You will have collateral, up front, that much I can promise. I’ll also guarantee that this will be the best PR you and the group could ever have. Better than last time.” Helen’s mind raced. Shock, mixed with dread, left her hands shaking. It was the General’s assurance of the situation, combined with his promise of collateral for Instinct that made up her mind. She swallowed once as she thought, ‘We can do without the PR, if getting it means going through anything like what we went through the last time.’ Still half-thinking that it was all some bizarre dream, Helen replied, “I can’t swing that alone. I’d need the boys. Call me back in a few hours, but yes, if I have your word and if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, and the collateral is sufficient and in advance, I’ll get this done.” “You have my word of honor. Discuss it with them alone and in person, don’t trust the phones. I can’t stress enough how critical this is. Goodbye for now,” General Bradson said, hoping that what he’d just said was the truth. Helen listened as the drone of engines in the background was replaced by silence as the call disconnected. Stunned, she closed her cell phone and returned it to its place on her nightstand. She stared at the phone for a few moments, picking it up, opening it, then with trembling hands returning it roughly to its place, hoping that somehow it was indeed all a dream, until Barbra’s drowsy voice from the other side of the bed asked, “What’s wrong, hon?” “If I’m really awake and that call really happened, plenty.” Helen checked her clock, and then said, “I’ve got to call some banks, then I need to get the boys to sign off on one fucking hell of a loan. By the time I have the banks lined up and the paperwork faxed over, it’ll be breakfast time. I’ll tell the boys then, no point in waking them now. They’ll think I’ve flipped, and they’ll probably be right.” In the years they had been together, Barbra had seen Helen in many moods, but never, not once, had she seen her partner rattled, which Helen most clearly was. Barbra’s business was a successful one, so she asked, “How much do you need? Maybe you and I together could cover it­–” “Thirty million dollars and I need it in a few hours,” Helen replied numbly. “I guess not,” Barbra replied, and then, as Helen explained, Barbra’s eyes grew wide in shock. “…otherwise General Bradson sort of said, in a roundabout way, that we’d have nuclear bombs in our cities, like last time,” Helen concluded, not fully convinced, and reassuring herself that he had promised acceptable collateral, even if he hadn’t mentioned what. Helen worked feverishly, making what arrangements she could, given the hour and the still-temperamental phone system. The fact that European banks were involved helped; they would be opening in time, due to their time zone. The brokerages in New York were a different matter; two had 24-hour banking, which allowed Helen to put the deal together. Then, together, Barbra and Helen decided that Helen would pledge their home in Bel Air as collateral, but there was no time for a formal loan. She would pledge it to Instinct, via a promissory note and quitclaim deed, along with her entire investment portfolio, to cover half of the risk they’d be taking at her behest. Fresh out of the shower, Eric checked with the resort employee he’d arranged to rent a car from. Finding everything still in order, Eric chewed on his lip, and then decided to just be honest. He dialed Jansen and Keith’s suite. To Eric’s relief, it was Keith who answered. Taking a deep breath, Eric said, “Hi Keith. Don’t let on it’s me. I have a kind of a favor to ask. I was thinking that maybe Jansen and I could go to the airport together, just the two of us, to make it a date. If you still want to go with us great, but I was just thinking, and thought I’d ask if you’d mind­–” Listening to Eric’s awkward words, Keith tried his best not to laugh. “No problem, I wanted to spend some time by the pool anyway. Besides, if you drive like you dance, I’m safer here with the volcano. Could you let me borrow your laptop, so I can get some business stuff done? I need to make some notes, get some ideas written up…” Relieved, Eric said with a chuckle, “You weren’t supposed to let on it’s me.” “Janse is in the shower,” Keith said with a laugh. “I’ll be over in a few minutes, and I’ll bring the laptop,” Eric replied, and then hung up. Then, his mind turned to picking something to wear for his first real date. Drawing a blank, Eric picked up the phone again. “Help,” he said, as soon as Chase answered. Five minutes later, Eric let Chase into the suite. Chase took one look at Eric, who was wearing nothing but a towel, and said with a smirk, “Either you still can’t make up your mind what to wear, or you’ve decided to wear nothing. Which is it?” “Smart ass… Come on, help me, I want this to be right. It’s our first date,” Eric replied, leading the way towards the suite’s small closet. Chase, who had the best fashion sense of any of the Instinct members, glanced in Eric’s closet. Seeing Eric’s usual collection of T-shirts and shorts, Chase said, “You don’t have much to choose from. I guess you didn’t bring much. Brandon and I didn’t either. Okay, first, tell me what you’ve got planned for this date. A formal breakfast, lounging around the pool, what?” Eric gave his brother an awkward shrug. “Not exactly. Don’t tell Helen, but I rented a car from one of the resort staff. We’re going to the airport, but we’ll probably do some sightseeing after.” “You do remember that the airport is closed right? Because of the ash, which is most everywhere on that side of the island?” Eric rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know, I know. I just want to go talk to the pilots of our planes. They dropped General Bradson off somewhere, and he’s disappeared. I’m worried about him, so I want to find out where they took him. I felt I’d have better luck going in person.” “So, my brother’s idea of a great first date is taking his new boyfriend through a volcanic wasteland, to a closed airport, to look for a missing Air Force general, who isn’t even here… Eric laughed. “When you say it that way, it sounds like a bad idea… Come on Chase, help me, please?” Chase began flicking through Eric’s closet, and soon had a few selections. “Okay, try these. Cargo shorts, a low cut black tank top, and a short sleeve shirt, leave it unbuttoned.” “Thanks Chase. Okay, I gotta hurry; he’s probably waiting for me.” Happy for his brother, Chase smiled, and before he left he said, “Just be real careful about the ash and stuff, and try to relax. Remember, dates are supposed to be fun.” Five minutes later, his laptop under his arm, Eric combed his hair for the seventh time that morning, and then tapped on Jansen and Keith’s door. Keith opened the door, and Eric handed him the laptop as he walked in. “It’s set up for the resort’s Wi-Fi, but it’s been really intermittent lately, probably due to the volcano. The front desk said the ash is playing hell with the phone lines. The account password is octopus.” “Thanks. I just want the word processor so I can write up some ideas I have for decorating the club, and some ad layouts,” Keith said, ushering Eric into the suite. Eric came to a halt as he saw Jansen coming out of his room. Jansen was wearing shorts and a sleeveless white T, and Eric loved the look. “Hi,” Eric said, suddenly realizing that Jansen might not know they were going alone, on a date. Keith had, after some prodding, spilled the beans to Jansen a few minutes before, but Jansen was unsure whether Eric was expecting him to be surprised. After a long pause, at a loss for what else to say, Jansen said, “Hi.” Rolling his eyes, Keith said with a laugh, “Gotta love the high level of discourse around here. So get lost already and let me get to work.” Sharing a laugh, which eased the tension, Jansen and Eric headed for the door. Just before they left, Keith said, “Have fun, guys.” After the door closed, he set the laptop up. While waiting for it to boot, he thought about Jansen and Eric, finally letting go of his lingering reservations. He could see that their feelings were mutual, and with that thought, he set to work writing up some advertising layouts. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  12. C James

    Ignition

    Chapter 29: Ignition “So, how am I doing?” Eric asked, his breath coming in short, heated gasps. “Pretty good so far, especially for a beginner,” Jansen replied, and then added, “Thrust a bit harder, don’t hold back, work your hips.” Eric thrust his hips forward, once, then again. “Thanks for teaching me this. It’s hot.” “It’s hot in a lot of ways. We’re both soaked,” Jansen replied with a smile, accompanied by an admiring glance at Eric’s sweating torso. “We’ve been working at this all morning. Let’s take a break.” Following Jansen off the pavilion’s dance floor, Eric agreed. “Yeah, that bump-and-grind stuff is pretty strenuous.” “That’s not bump-and-grind, and you’re only supposed to thrust your hips forward once, not dry-hump the air,” Jansen said with a laugh as he sank into a chair. Eric sat down in the chair next to Jansen, in spite of their being four other chairs around the table. Giving Jansen’s shoulder a playful bump with his own, enjoying the sensation of their bare, sweaty skin touching, Eric said, “I had no idea that just pulling my shirt off and dancing for three seconds would be so hard to learn.” “Keither and I spend a lot of time training. You can’t expect to get it overnight,” Jansen said. Eric angled his head a few degrees and a quizzical look began to appear on his face. Trusting his instinct, and taking note of the fact that Jansen was not as upbeat as usual, Eric said, “Something’s still bothering you, I can tell. If it’s about what happened here last night, let’s talk about it.” Jansen’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He had been sure that he was concealing his regrets, and had yet to learn of Eric’s special knack. Jansen tried to find the right words to explain, without either lying or telling the whole truth. After several seconds of frantic thought, Jansen opened his mouth to say, “Uh...” Jansen closed his mouth, and Eric snickered before saying, “Strippers aren’t exactly eloquent.” Laughing, his stress ebbing, Jansen replied, “That’s–“ “Exotic dancers, you ass,” Eric said, completing Jansen’s sentence before placing a friendly hand on the dancer’s shoulder. “I’m just trying to help. I care about you and I don’t like to see you down.” Jansen stared into Eric’s eyes, seeing the concern, and feeling the caring spirit within. With a sad smile, Jansen glanced down at the table before saying, “I’ll get over it. I... Basically I’m just...” Jansen paused, unsure of what to say, and then, to his own surprise, he said, “I’ve been kicking myself, wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t...” “Look at me,” Eric said, waiting until Jansen’s eyes met his own before continuing. “Kicking yourself sucks. I know, because I’ve been doing it too, wondering if I’d said things a little differently... I didn’t mean I wanted to use you to try out sex with a guy, I meant I wanted to try... dating, I guess. I’ll be honest; the only time I’ve ever kissed a guy–” “Keither told me about that, after you left last night,” Jansen interrupted to say, with a shy smile. “That’s why I’ve been kicking myself, wondering if...” “Stop kicking. Nothing’s changed as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never really dated so I don’t know how, but that’s what I meant when I said I wanted to try.” “So do you still want to?” Jansen asked in a whisper, letting himself lean closer to Eric. Eric smiled, nodding once, angling his head and he leaned towards Jansen. “Yeah, I do,” he said, butterflies in his stomach as he unconsciously wet his lips in anticipation. Jansen angled his head. Closing his eyes, he leaned further forward, his lips brushing Eric’s. The click of the door opening caused them both to jump back, and Eric looked past Jansen as Jane walked in. “Helen told me I might find you here,” she said to her son, pretending to be oblivious to what she had interrupted. The Tehran command center was the realm of chaos, though the senior commanders, roused from their sleep, strove to restore some semblance of order. Upon arriving, they’d been told of what appeared to be a dreadful accident that had resulted in the destruction of a critical refinery. The magnitude of the refinery loss could not be understated. It was devastating, but an accident nonetheless. Then, one by one, the cracks in that comfortable assumption had begun to appear. First, a colonel had wondered aloud why anyone would be flying lemons into Iraq, when that country produced and exported them. Iraq, the ostensible destination, had provided the details of the flight plan, and a cursory check had turned up a further incongruous fact; the pilot had filed the flight plan in the air, via radio. However, a phone call to the air fright company had revealed that its lone C-130 was down for repairs, and had been for weeks. That was not, in and of itself, an indicator of foul play; smuggling was rife in the region, and smugglers most often gave false identification. But smuggling lemons? That led the commanders to consider that their country might indeed have been the victim of some form of attack, one that had obliterated its most critical refinery. They were reluctant to accept that possibility; the stand-down orders, while not given by them, were their responsibility. As the senior commanders were all too well aware, the loss of the refinery would plunge Iran into a massive fuel shortage, and the government would be left trying to explain why that was possible for a country sitting atop a veritable sea of oil. Heads would roll, of that they were certain, but they preferred that their own not be amongst them. Fearing the wrath of the Mullahs of the Guardian Council – the true rulers of Iran – the commanders continued to hope that it had indeed been an accident. The next disquieting bit of news came from the team investigating the plane wreckage; they’d found an inexplicable nozzle bolted to a section of wing that had survived largely intact. Further reports from the area around the refinery told of multiple small explosions all around, just prior to the main blast at the refinery itself. More worrisome yet, a number of damaged grenades had been found. Over a span of minutes, dark suspicions began to grow stronger amongst the senior commanders. The first of a series of frantic phone and radio calls from their base near Kerman, over five hundred miles from Abadan, were more than enough to cement their concerns and spur them to action. The commander of the Iranian Air Force, Arteshbod (Lieutenant General) Mohammed Shah-Safi, cut the orders himself: “Scramble, Scramble, Scramble. Enemy airborne assault force at Kerman Revolutionary Guards Center. Barrier and Interdiction.” The follow-up tasking orders sent three Mirage F-1 fighters roaring aloft from Zahedan Airbase near the Pakistan boarder, two hundred and fifty miles east of Kerman. Arteshbod Shah-Safi cursed his luck; the airfield at Kerman, just seven miles from the Revolutionary Guards base, was home to seven Bell attack helicopters. He had ordered them into the air with all possible speed, but had immediately received unwelcome news; all seven were in various states of disassembly due to ‘temporarily’ being cannibalized for spare parts, victims of the chronic spare parts shortage that was a perennial problem in Iran. The Iranian General would have been even less pleased to learn that General Bradson had more timely information than he: via Bill’s access to reconnaissance satellite data, the General had been aware of that situation for weeks, and thus had been able to dismiss the Kerman airbase from his planning concerns. Iran’s available forces were slow to respond. Contrary to popular belief, fighter aircraft, with the exception of those on runway alert, take a considerable amount of time to get into the air. They must be fueled, armed, and a pilot must be found. As a result, the next sortie of Iranian fighters took a further ten minutes to get into the air, this time from Bandar Abbas, on the Straits of Hormuz. These were a flight of six MIG 29s, very fast and capable interceptors. One of their best features was their powerful air-to-air radar. They were tasked to barrier patrol over the Straits of Hormuz. Piecemeal, other airbases sortied fighters. The majority of the aircraft, for reasons that had more to do with geographical convenience than tactics, were tasked to barrier patrol. Within fifteen minutes of giving his orders, the Iranian commanders felt certain that they had slammed the door on any possible escape, barring inbound air support. Over the flat deserts near the Afghan and Pakistani borders, his fighter radars could pick up any aircraft, no matter how low. Over the open waters of the Straits of Hormuz, those radars would be more effective yet. A quick glance at the map indicated that those two avenues were the most likely routes of retreat for the invaders, but just to be sure, every available plane, save for those now boring in on Kerman from two directions, were ordered to patrol the skies. As an afterthought, to prevent further friendly-fire incidents, the commander made certain that Iran’s military transport aircraft were on the ground and would stay there. Concerned over the possibility that whoever was staging the raid would follow up with a fighter sweep to aid in their assault force’s escape, Arteshbod Shah-Safi spared no effort to get everything he could into the air, and Iran’s air defense network went to its highest state of alert. With the immediate needs taken care of, the Arteshbod’s thoughts again turned towards the question of who. The lack, so far, of intervening enemy fighters indicated a clandestine raid, and he knew that the Kerman facility housed, amongst other things, Iran’s nuclear weapons cache and, in the Revolutionary Guards’ compound, two American prisoners slated for execution. It was, Arteshbod Shah-Safi decided, most likely a covert raid, designed to offer plausible deniability to the perpetrator. That would explain the lack of overt enemy fighters, and that made their appearance at this stage even less likely, but it was not a possibility that he could afford to dismiss. With that in mind, he confirmed that every available fighter would be airborne as soon as possible. His foremost hope was that the raid had taken only the American prisoners. If anything had happened to the underground base, its centrifuges, or worse still the nuclear weapons, the Arteshbod had no doubt at all that his own life would be forfeit. With that unpleasant thought on his mind, he returned to his status board and watched as the blinking lights representing his fighters inched ever closer to Kerman. Jane had taken a seat across the table from Eric and Jansen, and after making small talk for a while, wishing that the dancer would leave. She finally looked Eric in the eye to say, “I need to talk to you alone. I managed to get a phone call through to your father this morning.” Eric’s alarm bells went off at once, but before Eric could even turn to ask, Jansen stood up and said, “I’ll be back at my place,” and turned to leave, wishing that Jane had picked some other time to appear. Once they were along, Eric asked softly, “How did it go, Mom?” Jane’s brow wrinkled, and struggling to retain her composure, she said, “I told him where I was, and why I had come. He is furious, to put it mildly. Things were said... hateful things. I half expected this when I agreed to come here, but that makes it no easier. I do not think he will change his mind, nor do I think I care to take him back if he does. JT and I... all those years, wasted. That, and the pain we caused. I’m alone now, Eric. I suppose it is fair, after what I did to you and your brothers. You lost your home, now I have lost mine.” Eric could feel that his mother was, barely, maintaining her facade of dignity by hiding the flood of emotions she was feeling. Reaching across the table, Eric took his mother’s hand in his own. “You’re wrong, Mom. You aren’t alone, you have us. Come back to Los Angeles with us. We’ll find you a house, there or anywhere you want.” Smiling for the first time that day, Jane replied, “Don’t worry, I will be fine financially; JT and I have done well and half of that is mine. I’ll be filing for...” she paused, resisting for a moment the finality that giving voice to the word would impart, “a divorce, as soon as we are back in the United States. I just don’t want to be alone.” “You won’t be, Mom,” Eric said, before getting up to give his mother a hug. “You’re a sweaty mess,” Jane said, and Eric pulled away with a grin. “What were you doing?” The reality of that casual question rocked Eric back on his heels. His first thought was a casual answer, leaving out anything personal between Jansen and himself. ‘No, no way am I hiding,’ Eric thought, and opened his mouth to tell his mother the truth, but words failed as he realized two things; that nothing had actually happened yet, and that his mother might not be in the best frame of mind to hear a new revelation regarding the sexuality of one of her sons. “Jansen is teaching me some dance moves, for a club we’re opening.” “What kind of a club?” Jane asked, which resulted in a long and detailed conversation as Eric explained. Jane kept her true opinions to herself, and made plans to bring the matter up with Jon and Helen. By the time Jane left to go see Jon, it was mid afternoon. Eric glanced at a wall clock, realizing that it was too late for a trip to the airport that day. There was also the little matter of some very unfinished business which was foremost on Eric’s mind. The Mirage F-1 fighters roaring in from the east were less than ten minutes out, though Flight Three had no way of knowing that. Felecia heard the shrill, ominous whistle of the first incoming howitzer round, but not in time to duck. One hundred yards to her left, the night erupted as the 105-millimeter shell slammed into the earth and the blast wave washed over her. Staggering, she glanced around one last time, making sure that her remaining men were aboard. Hearing the planes engines spool up, she ignored the incoming small arms fire as mercenaries on the cargo bay began trading small arms fire with the lead elements of the Iranian advance force closing in from the rear. The young artillery officer listened as the sentry reported in, and then commanded; “Drop one hundred and fire for effect. Maximum fire rate!” Two seconds later, the sky lit up again as his three old howitzers sent their shells whistling downrange. Wincing as a round grazed her shoulder, Felecia backed up the ramp, stumbling slightly as the plane began to accelerate, firing from the hip. As she entered the bay, she turned and raced for the cockpit. Over her shoulder she yelled, “Raise the door in five seconds but keep firing until then.” General Bradson, in the pilot’s seat, eased the throttles the rest of the way forward as the C-130 picked up speed. The shattering flash of the howitzer shell detonating ahead caused him to wince, and as the plane trembled from the shockwave’s impact, he yanked the throttles back and began braking. Dashing headlong into the cockpit, Felecia lost her footing due to the unexpected motion of the plane. Falling in a heap just behind the pilot’s seat, she yelled, “Light off the JATO’s and go or we’re dead!” “We need the rockets for later, they’re critical. I’ve got to taxi past that shell crater; if we hit it at speed we won’t make it.” Horst appeared in the cockpit doorway, and Felecia shouted, “Time?” Horst glanced at his watch. “One minute, forty seconds.” “Walter, get us away from here fast,” Felecia said. Assuming that she was referring to the incoming howitzer fire, he replied, “Hang on, I’ve got to swerve but then it’s clear.” General Bradson firewalled the engines fifty yards short of the shell crater. It was directly in his path, and he could not steer far enough to the left of it to clear it with the right main gear. That left just one option. The plane accelerated through forty miles an hour as it neared the crater and General Bradson steered as far to the left as he dared. At the last second, he snatched the nosewheel steering to the right and lightly pressed his foot on the right brake while throwing in full left aileron. The C-130 began to swerve, leaning over to the left, shifting the majority of its weight to its left main gear. Inertia and motion proved just barely enough, and the right main gear bounced lightly over the crater rim, sailing over the void. General Bradson struggled to re-center the careening aircraft, and a hundred yards behind them, two howitzer rounds slammed into ground, one scoring a direct hit on the old Jeep that Brian had hotwired. “Door up,” Felecia called out over the intercom, just to be sure. A downwind takeoff requires a higher groundspeed than an upwind takeoff, which is why it is a very rare maneuver. The General watched his indicators, feeling the heavily laden plane shudder as it roared down the rough dirt road. After what seemed like forever, the airspeed indicator reached the peg he’d set and he called out, “Rotation” as he hauled back on the yoke. Twenty feet off the ground, he retracted the landing gear and unloaded the first notch of flaps as he began a combat turn to the right, towards the east. “Walter, put as much distance between us and the underground complex as you can. We left the Iranians a surprise and it’s set to blow in about a minute,” Felecia said, as she looked at the gyrocompass and saw the eastbound heading. Concentrating on the task of keeping the accelerating C-130 less than a hundred feet off the ground, General Bradson dismissed the concern, “We’re already three miles away and I’ve got the engines redlined. Nothing that far back can touch us.” “This just might. Prepare for one hell of a bang, and you might want to turn off every electrical system that you can.” Felecia said, and then turned to ask Horst, “Time?” Behind his night vision goggles, General Bradson’s eyes opened wide in shock as the comment about the electrical system led him to an obvious conclusion: a nuclear explosion. If the fireball broached the surface, he knew that there would be a radiation pulse. Frantically, as a precaution, he began powering down every subsystem that he could, starting with his modified radar detectors. “Thirty seconds,” Horst replied. Thinking that there might not be a later, he added, “Wilhelm was hit in the stomach, badly. He believed he would not survive so he stayed with the bomb. He told me to tell you farewell, and that he would make sure.” He checked his watch again. “Twenty seconds.” They would not have that long. Wilhelm, cradling his AK-47 under his arm, fought off the grayness and the pain, struggling to remain conscious. There had been no way to reseal the steel door, so he did the best he could, firing back, trying to delay the Iranians. He spared a glance at the timer Joachim had attached to the bombcase: twenty seconds remaining. Wincing from the agony in his gut, he sent a final burst from his gun out the door. He’s heard them come, and knew there were at least five Revolutionary Guards preparing to storm his position. His one thought was to give Felecia all the time he could. It would be his last gift to her. He wished that he could somehow confirm that she had taken off, but there was no such way. He saw it before he heard it, the grenade clattering in through the door. Had he the time, Wilhelm would have smiled; that was proof that the attacking troops had no idea what the room had contained. Lifting his blood-covered left hand, Wilhelm slammed it down on the pressure switch that Joachim had rigged. In that one fleeting, final moment, Wilhelm thought of Felecia, and regretted that he had never summoned the courage to tell her that he loved her. The switch Wilhelm had pressed closed a circuit, bypassing the timer on the bombcase and applying twelve volts of power directly to the detonating cap within the small shaped charge Joachim had carefully positioned inside the bombcase. The white-hot jet of flame from the shaped charge lanced into the pound of high explosives that served as the firing charge of the Iranian device, igniting it. The result was not symmetrical, nor did it need to be. The expanding gases slammed into the back of the driver cylinder, ramming it, and the attached ninety-pound hemisphere of Uranium 235 towards its target. The hemisphere and its driver, encased in a thick steel tube, were essentially the bullet in a very large gun. The driver surged towards its target, accelerating through four hundred miles an hour in the hard vacuum of the seven-foot long tube. At the far end of the tube was the target, a nearly identical half sphere of Uranium. The only difference was that, in what would be the center of the assembled sphere, was a hollow spherule made of two nickel-coated halves, it was one centimeter in diameter. Its grooved surface contained a coating of Polonium. It was called the Urchin: the trigger, the spark that would ignite the atomic fire. With massive force, the two hemispheres of uranium collided, vacuum-welding themselves into a near-perfect sphere. There was no matching indentation in the other hemisphere to conform to the Urchin, and the crushing shock collapsed the tiny, hollow spherule, shattering its surface along the pre-cut grooves, exposing the beryllium in the hollow spherule to the alpha particles emerging from the polonium coating on the central spherule of the Urchin. For seven nanoseconds, this produced a small cascade of high-energy neutrons: a spark. As the Spherule collapsed, the surfaces of the grooves collided, forming what physicists have named a 'Munroe effect jet': essentially similar to a shaped explosive charge. The jet, lancing through the thin layer of polonium and nickel into the central spherule, atomized some of the remaining polonium, driving it as high velocity plasma onto the beryllium, producing an additional pulse of neutrons, which radiated out into the supercritical mass of Uranium. Ignition. The assembled sphere of Uranium, already nearly twice critical mass, absorbed the initiator’s neutron flux. The neutrons served their function, splitting atoms of Uranium 235, each split releasing two neutrons, and the chain reaction fed upon itself, doubling, doubling again, as the neutron flux grew geometrically. From the pressing of the switch to the fission reaction, just enough time had passed to allow Wilhelm’s heart to beat one last and final time. The room itself 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. Heat and pressure, rivaling that at the core of the sun, began tearing the fissioning core apart, dampening the reaction, but its job was done: it had converted just over a gram of matter into energy, equivalent to twenty thousand tons of TNT. Wilhelm, the room, and everything in it flashed to plasma as the bomb case disintegrated, allowing light and heat to shine forth with irresistible force. The blast was like any other explosion, notable only for its size and power. Confined by the inertia of the surrounding rock, a fraction of its energy sought the path of least resistance, and the full fury of the nuclear blast pulsed through the tunnels and chambers, speeding out. One chamber to the north, something stood in its way; the centrifuge array that had completed the final enrichment stage of the uranium. The centrifuges, numbering over a thousand and spinning at nearly twenty thousand rotations per minute on their magnetic bearings, held the uranium hexafluoride, and its uranium component had already been enriched to near weapons-grade. This devil’s brew lay directly in the path of the neutron pulse from the nuclear detonation a hundred yards away. The surge of high-energy neutrons, diminished somewhat by the steel cases of the centrifuges, caused a fission reaction in the uranium hexafluoride. It was not a chain reaction; the density was insufficient. Instead, it passed in one brief pulse, releasing just over five additional kilotons of energy. It made little immediate difference; the contents of the chamber were rendered down to their constituent atoms before the first evidence of the blast had even reached the surface. Twenty yards past the centrifuge chamber was the ventilation shaft junction. From there, a shaft ten feet in diameter ascended skyward through five hundred feet of granite. Except for two slight doglegs designed to defeat a down-the-shaft smart bomb, the shaft had an uninterrupted run to the surface, where it emerged into the blower array disguised as a farmhouse. The hot plasma from the core of the nuclear blaze surged up the shaft, smashing the rock around it to dust, emerging into the night sky as a column of actinic light. Similar beams of furious light escaped from the disguised entrance tunnels for a brief moment, before the expanding fireball within the mountain collapsed them forever. The fireball forced the creation of a massive cavity within the mountain, causing a powerful shockwave in the surrounding rock, similar to that produced by a major earthquake. The underground cavity, two hundred yards in diameter, lasted for a brief span of seconds, until the fireball that had created and supported it guttered and died. The shattered mountain collapsed in upon itself, leaving a crater over the grave of the underground facility. From the rubble, radioactive gases, including large volumes of uranium hexafluoride, belched forth. The residents of nearby Kerman were fortunate; the westerly wind would cause the radioactive cloud to pass to their north. The seismic shockwave would not go unnoticed. Earthquakes, when recorded on a seismograph, begin and then increase in intensity. An underground explosion on the other hand shows up as sudden shock which then trails off. It would take time, but the global nuclear detection seismograph net, consisting of over five hundred stations, would determine that something unnatural had occurred beneath the mountains northwest of Kerman. The second clue, needed for confirmation of a nuclear event, would be air samples gathered far downwind that would detect the radiation. That would come, with time. The sudden pulse of light from the mountain shafts was enough to light up the sky, and General Bradson’s blood ran cold as he waited for the shockwave. It came, diminished by distance, as a thunderclap barely audible above the roaring engines. The radiation pulse that hit the C-130 was far too weak to do any damage. Taking a quick look at his instruments and seeing no sign of trouble, the General began to breathe again. “Farewell, Wilhelm,” Felecia said in a soft, somber voice, as she drew her pistol and placed the barrel against the side of General Bradson’s head. Eric crossed the resort grounds, heading for Jansen and Keith’s suite at a run, driven by the need to know. Tapping on the door, Eric waited impatiently until Keith opened it. Eric bolted through the door, and Keith said, “I’ll see you guys later,” and closed the door on his way out. He’d heard what had happened and was eager to be elsewhere. Jansen stood up as Eric walked towards him. Eric stopped for a moment, letting his eyes trace Jansen’s chiseled chest, looking upwards until he found himself gazing into sapphire blue eyes. Opening his mouth, Eric was about to say ‘Sorry,’ but stopped as Jansen smiled and shook his head, saying without words that there was no need. With a silence born of trust, Jansen reached out, intertwining his fingers with Eric’s. Eric edged forward, crossing the gulf that had once stood in his way, feeling a slight shudder down his spine as their bare chests touched. With their hands at their sides, fingers intertwined, they leaned in closer, chins grazing for a moment as their lips touched, lightly, lingering for a moment. Eric let his tongue trace Jansen’s lips, feeling the heat of the dancer’s breath. Hesitancy, sundered by desire, gave way to passionate abandon as Jansen’s lips parted, and their tongues began to dance. Eric disentangled his hands from Jansen’s, and let them roam on the dancer’s bare back, feeling the hard muscles tense and move under his golden skin. Reaching up, Eric traced his fingers through Jansen’s blond hair. Jansen traced his fingertips down Eric’s spine, raising goose bumps, and Eric trembled, pulling Jansen in tight as they deepened the kiss. Feeling the blood roaring in his ears, driven by his rising passion, Eric at last knew. He never wanted it to end, but be pulled away, gasping for breath, smiling as he brushed Jansen’s hair from his eyes. With no need to ask, well able to feel Eric’s desire, Jansen said with a gentle smile, “Did you feel what you were trying to­–” Eric put his finger to Jansen’s lips. Angling his head, Eric said with a soft chuckle, “I think we need to try that again,” and pulled Jansen in for an even more heated kiss, igniting a depth of feeling that Eric had never before known. Coming up for air, he eased back and traced his fingers in slow circles on Eric’s heaving chest. Grazing Eric’s nipples with his thumbs, Jansen gave Eric a lopsided smile. “We better sit down. If Keither came back now, we’d have to walk doubled over.” Reluctantly, Eric eased away, hooking Jansen by the arm and leading him to the couch. “You’re not getting away that easy,” Eric said with a grin. Five minutes later, they broke their kiss and leaned back, side by side on the couch, hands in their laps, as Keith hesitantly knocked on the door on his way into the suite. He glanced at his brother and Eric, their ear-to-ear grins, disheveled hair, and instantly knew why they had their hands in their laps. “Sorry to interrupt, but the volcano is putting on one hell of a big show – it’s like fireworks. You guys should see it.” Jansen and Eric shared a grin, and then Jansen intertwined his fingers with Eric’s, held up their joined hands, and said, “That’s not the only fireworks that happened here today.” “I’m happy for you guys,” Keith said with a grin of his own, hiding the few lingering reservations that he had. He then turned to walk out onto the patio. Their hands still linked, Eric and Jansen joined him, and together, they looked up, at the column of ash, framed about its base by thousands of glowing chunks of lava sailing up and then arcing downwards, that did indeed look very much like fireworks. “It looks different this time, angrier,” Keith said, the concern that had prompted him to return to the suite beginning to show. “I read about its last eruption, and it did this then, too. It’s called a Strombolian eruption. What happened last time was it did this before it changed to lava flows. That would be good for us, wouldn’t be as much ash so maybe they’ll get the airport open sooner. I’ve got to get there tomorrow. After breakfast sound okay?” The two dancers nodded, their eyes on the volcano, but Jansen’s attention was on the hand he held in his own. Looking to his side at Jansen, Eric took in the dancer’s smile, his blue eyes, and his golden hair backlit by the last rays of the setting sun. To Eric, it just felt right, and he sensed that Jansen felt the same. Together, they watched nature’s own grand show, trying their best to forget the peril it posed. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  13. C James

    Feelings

    Chapter 30: Feelings “We need to talk,” Jane said without preamble as she walked into Jon’s suite and took a seat, leaving Jon standing by the door he’d just opened. Helen arched an irritated eyebrow, not at all pleased that Jane’s imperious tone had returned for an encore performance, nor the fact that Jane was barging into a business meeting. Brandon and Chase looked up with concern as Jane continued after a long pause, “Eric is planning something that would be a disaster for Instinct’s career. A strip club. Helen, this is your bailiwick. Did you know about his plans? Am I right, that this could be a disaster?” Jane’s deference mollified Helen somewhat, and she replied, “Yes, I approved the venture. It looks to be profitable and should not unduly harm Instinct. Celebrities often open clubs and restaurants, and I believe that it is a good idea for the boys to branch out.” Helen glanced at the three members of Instinct, seeking their approval to disclose a little about the business. Receiving their subtle nods, she continued, “Instinct cannot be their entire life forever; their next album, Changing Lanes, may be the last. The reason I called the band together tonight was to discuss the disturbing drop in concert pre-sales.” That much had come as no surprise to Jon, Brandon, and Chase; Helen had warned the band, more than once, that Instinct’s revenues, especially the critical concert advance sales and merchandising, were beginning to falter. Demographics were one issue and Brandon and Chase felt themselves to blame for that. Their decision to come out was hurting Instinct, but they hoped it would not be fatal. Everything depended on Changing Lanes; if the album proved a dud and concert attendance tanked, there would be little reason to produce another album anytime soon. “I’ve been thinking of opening a recording studio,” Jon added, floating the idea for the first time. Jane nodded once, and asked Chase, “And what about you?” “Brandon and I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it,” Chase said, making the point to his mother that Brandon was very much a part of the conversation. Jane conceded Chase’s point. “Well, you should both make plans. Eric’s venture does not bode well in my opinion. Those two strippers he’s going into this business with… pardon me for saying so, and I mean no offence Chase, but I’ve heard they are a couple, and Eric’s involvement with them, especially as he seems to spend all his time with them, might lead to… rumors. Given that you and Brandon have made your relationship public, any rumors regarding Eric could be taken more seriously than would have otherwise been the case.” ‘A fishing expedition… she has suspicions about Eric’ Helen thought. “Jane, Eric’s concept for the club is for a classy establishment, based in large part on the music industry, and as such is hardly any stain on his image. It is not much of a secret that Barbra and I are a couple, so why does Jansen and Keith’s sexuality reflect on Eric any more than my own does? Perhaps I’ve missed any tabloid items in this regard, but I’ve yet to hear of any rumors that Eric may be a lesbian,” Helen said, delivering the last word in a cold tone. Jon nearly choked on his drink, and he hoped his mother had the sense not to push Helen on that issue. Brandon and Chase shared a concerned glance, thinking much the same thing. Jane crossed her arms and directed an angry glare at Helen. “From a purely business point of view, which I’m sure that you above all others can appreciate, having you as their business manager was unwise. Had JT and I known of that–” “You’d have installed a more pliable manager who would have taken your side when you turned your back on your own sons, treating them like yesterday’s fucking trash, thus destroying their careers and perhaps their lives,” Helen said, her voice rising as she shoved her chair back and stood up. At full volume, loud enough to shake the walls, Helen added, “How dare you, after what you have done, imply that I am unsuitable for this job. If you were a fit parent you might have that right, but you threw that away.” Fearing for his mother’s safety, Jon weighed in. “There wouldn’t be an Instinct without Helen, and thanks to her strict rules regarding money the four of us could walk away tomorrow, set for life. You owe Helen an apology.” A quick glance at Brandon and Chase showed no support from that quarter, so Jane replied, “Very well. I’m only trying to help. I know I have a great deal to make up for. Helen, I know that you have worked long and hard. It is clear to all, myself included, that you have achieved spectacular results. I am also well aware that you filled in as a parent when JT and I failed dismally in that regard. I shall be forever in your debt for that. What I meant was, it could be harmful, from a business point of view, to have sexuality issues, real or otherwise, become public. Can you honestly tell me that what Brandon and Chase have done is not the cause of Instinct’s current uncertain future?” Forcing her temper partially back in its box, and wishing that Jane would leave that particular issue alone, Helen sat down and nodded once. “Yes, Jane, I can tell you precisely that. In today’s music business, a band can be on top one minute and forgotten the next. Instinct’s rise was fast and furious. The publicity avalanche resulting from the bomb incident put them in the spotlight in a way no band has ever been. There’s a phenomenon known as overload burnout; too much publicity can lead to decline as the public tires of non-stop exposure on a single topic. Look at all the celebrities who were the latest big thing one minute and has-beens the next. Instinct’s decline would have likely occurred without Brandon and Chase’s decision to make their relationship public. Is it a factor? Yes. Is it the largest factor? No. The new album might turn the tide, but it might not. That can be said for any band coming off a meteoric high. Don’t write Instinct’s obituary yet; we’ve got at least this new album and a six-month concert tour to go. We may be down, but I assure you, we are far from out. “The fact of the matter is, we just don’t know what the future holds,” Helen continued, her tone softening slightly, “No one does. That’s why I’ve been such a hard nose with these boys, making them save their incomes instead of squandering it like so many in their position have done. Now, if the band fails or goes on hiatus for a while, they have virtually unlimited options. We’ll be off this island soon, back in the studio in L.A., and we’ll do our best on Changing Lanes.” Having said her peace, Helen calmed down a little more. Hoping to change the subject, Chase asked, “Speaking of L.A., any news on that big earthquake they were expecting?” Helen noticed Chase’s attempt for what it was, and gave him a quick smile before answering, “It looks like it was a false alarm, or perhaps a premature one. The claims of an imminent massive quake have subsided and now the consensus seems to be that it could happen in a month, a year, or a decade. No one knows, and at least they’re admitting that now.” “So in other words, things are back to normal in California; the Big One is coming, but it might be tomorrow, or years,” Brandon said with a grin. “That about sums it up,” Helen said with a genuine laugh. Like many people who called earthquake country home, she had a cavalier attitude towards temblors. Jane sighed. “Given our current location on an erupting volcano, I suppose an earthquake threat is a minor concern. I’m sorry for any distress I’ve caused. The stress of being here under this constant threat gets to me. Enjoy your meals.” With that, Jane got up and let herself out of the suite. Helen could sympathize regarding the stress, though she thought Jane’s use of that excuse was wearing rather thin. Eric arrived a few minutes later, to find his band mates and Helen in an animated conversation. Helen looked up for just long enough to say, “You’re late.” “I was watching the volcano with Jansen and Keith,” Eric replied, smiling at the memory of his goodnight kiss with Jansen. As Eric took a seat, Jon said, “Damn, now we can’t talk about you behind your back anymore.” “Like me being here ever stopped you,” Eric said with a grin. “So, anything new?” Helen gave Eric as quick rundown on the sales data and what had transpired with his mother, and he replied, “Please try and go easy on her. She’s being a pain, no argument there, but coming here has probably ended her marriage. She’s afraid; I can tell. So, she’s trying to jump in and be a part of things. I don’t think she realizes it, but she’s trying to make a new life for herself and that’s why she’s jumping into ours with both feet.” “I know exactly where I’d like to plant my feet,” Helen said with a snarl, and then arched an inquiring eyebrow to add, “I think she has suspicions about your sexuality.” Eric shrugged, and then grinned. “Yeah, well, she walked in on me and Jansen when we were about to kiss. I need to talk to all of you about that, because later, we did. Then another when I left for this meeting. I guess we’re dating now. If it works out, I don’t want to hide it. What would that do to Instinct?” Eric waited for the reply, casting a nervous glance in Jon’s direction. To Eric’s surprise, the reply came from Chase. “That’s not a good idea. Brandon and I going public hurt Instinct. I know it’s not the entire problem, but it is a part. Keep it private, for all our sakes, and yours and Jansen’s as well.” For Eric’s second surprise, Jon chimed in to say, “I think you should just be you, whoever you’re with. I’m not saying you should come out live on national TV like those two did,” he gave Brandon and Chase a nod and a smile, to indicate that he meant no offence, “but you don’t need to hide yourself, either. You need to do what makes you happy. That’s my take on it, anyway.” Eric glanced around the table in confusion before saying, “Why do I feel like I’m in a remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’? What did you guys do, swap brains or something?” Jon chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “I wasn’t too cool about the idea of you dating a guy, but… it’s your life. If that’s what makes you happy, then that’s it. I still find it a little weird, and I’m not thrilled about being the only straight guy in the band, but hey, that’s life. Just do what feels right, but give it some time to be sure.” Helen, like Eric, was startled by the roles Jon and Chase had taken. It was Chase’s that concerned her more, and guessing the cause, she said, “Brandon, Chase, I meant what I said. Your coming out hurt us in one demographic, to a degree, but it’s a small part of the issues we are facing. I supported you and pushed you to do it, so blame me, not yourselves. However, that said, I feel that what you did is at most ten percent of our recent decline. The other ninety percent has nothing to do with it, so stop kicking yourselves.” “I’ll second that,” Jon added. Brandon and Chase shared a glance, and then Brandon said, “Thanks. I mean that. Yeah, we’ve been worried about the impact the coming out and the wedding are having on Instinct.” Brandon’s concerns in that regard were diminished but not abated. The same held true for Chase. Chase turned and told Eric, “Bro, forget what I said. Jon’s right. Don’t rush into anything, but do what makes you happy.” Eric couldn’t help but smile at that, but his smile faded before he asked a more pressing question. “I want to date Jansen. We talked about it, and he wants it too. So, I want to ask him on a date but I don’t know how, or where to go or what to do. Advice, please?” Eric asked, glancing around the table with a pleading look on his face. Jon went first. “Maybe just ask him out for pizza and a movie? Kind of hard with us stuck here, though. I don’t know. I’ve never really dated.” Chase chimed in with a shrug. “Same goes for me. Just hang out, do stuff together.” Brandon was at almost as much of a loss. “Back in Phoenix, before I moved to L.A., I went to a few parties with guys but that was it. Chase and I had dinner in his suite a couple of times when we first got together.” Helen’s hand slamming down on the table caused the bandmates’ heads to snap around and stare in her direction. Seeing that she had their attention, Helen crossed her arms and hid a smirk as she said, “This is pathetic. None of you knows how to date? Okay, Eric, you’re about to get romantic advice from the most knowledgeable person in the room, me. The key to dating is finding something you both enjoy doing, and then doing it together. Variety helps. It could be a candlelight dinner or a walk on the beach, or a trip to the movies. The one thing that matters is that you both enjoy it, and spending some time alone together is a big plus.” “So, how do I ask him?” Eric said. Seeing that no one else wanted to field the question, Helen said, “Just ask. Suggest doing something together, just the two of you.” Eric’s face went blank for a moment, his eyes opening a little wider as he connected the dots. “You mean, like… ask him to go on a walk around the resort grounds, and do some volcano watching, and maybe kick back by the pool and look at the stars, just the two of us?” Helen nodded approvingly. “That sounds perfect. See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?” With an embarrassed shrug, Eric replied, “That wasn’t my idea. That’s what Jansen asked me to do tomorrow night.” A round of poorly stifled laughs greeted Eric, and Helen rolled her eyes., “Congratulations, Einstein, he asked you on a date and you didn’t know it.” Jon set aside his lingering reservations to say, “I’m happy for you. Have fun. I hope it works out.” Eric could tell that Jon meant what he’d just said, and cracked a big smile, feeling on top of the world. Feeling the cold steel of the gun barrel pressing against his temple, the General said, “Don’t be stupid, Fel. Shoot me now and we’ll crash.” “The copilot can take over in time and I know how to get us out of here. I also see that you’re heading east, not south. No way in hell am I letting you take us to an American base in Afghanistan. They’d lock my men up forever. Turn or I’ll kill you.” General Bradson didn’t move. He wondered if she’d really do it, but it made no difference. “Fel, put the damn gun away. There aren’t any U.S. bases close enough to be in range, not with the fuel we have left, plus there’s an Iranian fighter base near the border. In case you haven’t guessed, my government would be just as interested, probably more so, in locking me up, so Afghanistan is out of the question, for both reasons,” he said, mainly for effect. The fuel argument was true, as was the comment about the fighters, but given their cargo, he’d have willingly set down at any American base, consequences be damned. “I’m turning south in about two minutes. We’ve got to fly this course for two reasons: to skirt their SAM envelopes and to let the city of Kerman get a good, hard look at us, heading east. They’ve got TOR-M1 mobile surface-to-air vehicles deployed south of us and turning south right now would take us right down their throats. That’s the Russians’ best air-defense missile system and we’d have zero chance if we blunder into their engagement envelope. Shoot me if you want, but I’m holding this course and I’m turning on the landing and navigational lights.” Easing back on the yoke, he began a gradual climb. General Bradson began throwing switches, powering up the deactivated electrical systems. As his navigational instruments came back to life, he told the copilot, “Navigation and landing lights, now.” The General could have done it himself, but he wanted to make a point: that he could give orders to Felecia’s people, and at least some of them would obey. The copilot vacillated, and then made his choice by turning on the lights. Three hundred feet above the rooftops of Kerman, the C-130 lit up the night, to the shock of dozens of residents. Brightly lit and with its engines roaring at full throttle, the C-130 was noticed by dozens more residents with every passing second. Included amongst them were police officers, and a few members of the ground staff at Kerman’s airport. After staring in shock for a few seconds, some of the witnesses reached for their phones, precisely as the General had intended. Felecia hesitated for a moment, not quite convinced, but she put away her gun. She then sent a text message to The Scar from her satellite phone, a prearranged code of just a single word and number: Valkyrie3. The Scar had indulged his taste in irony with the choice of the codeword for success. The Valkyries of Norse mythology are the choosers of the slain; female demigods who choose those who die in battle and take them to Valhalla. The numeral simply denoted how many nuclear devices they had retrieved. Passing just north of the city center, five hundred feet over the rooftops, the General told his copilot. “Call out the altitude every five seconds. The ground level here is about five thousand eight hundred feet, but we’re heading straight for a mountain ridge on the eastern edge of the city, about three miles ahead. We need to be at six thousand four hundred about ten seconds before we get there. Call it out.” The copilot could already see the sheer wall of cliffs ahead, looming out the darkness in the unearthly green glow of his night vision gear. Ripping it off his head so that he could concentrate on the instruments, he called out, “Six-thousand-two-hundred.” The copilot called out the altitude as the C-130 roared towards the sheer cliffs. One minute later, he called out the final number, “Six-thousand-four-hundred,” as the cliffs ahead, lit by the landing lights, loomed out of the darkness. Felecia stifled a gasp as the mountain seemed to race towards them, and shut her eyes. General Bradson flicked off the lights as the C-130 neared the ridge, still twenty feet below its crest. Yanking back on the yoke, he cleared the crest with thirty feet to spare and shoved the yoke forward, beginning a shallow dive as he throttled back to eighty percent power – optimal cruising speed. “Two more miles and we turn south,” he said. Rolling out on a course of due south, descending to five hundred feet above the desert floor, the General’s thoughts turned to another problem: the truck. “Fel, we’ve got to lighten the load. We’re critical on fuel and unless we lighten the plane, we won’t make it. Get that truck unloaded and jettison it and every scrap of weight that you can.” Felecia turned, motioning for Horst to follow, but then paused to ask over her shoulder, “What about the remaining pallets?” “No,” the General said sharply, realizing the grievous error that had almost occurred. His voice returning to normal and he added, “We need those to get out of here. I’ll explain later, but get this plane lightened as fast as you can.” General Bradson decided to alert Flight Two that they were inbound, and made them his first phone call. It took ten minutes and the work of twenty men, but the three nuclear bombs were wrestled off the truck, rolled and dragged to the sides of the cargo bay – leaving enough room for the pallets to pass – and secured with tie-downs. Brian Bradson and Private Johnson, their sleep deprivation having caught up with them, slept through the entire process in the forward end of the cargo bay. Felecia took a quick glance around, and gave an order to the driver, who was still in the cab of the truck, with his foot firmly on the brake. “Release the parking brake only and be ready to jump when I give the word.” Thumbing the intercom, she told General Bradson, “Ready on the truck.” The General replied, “Reducing speed now. Once the door is down, I’ll give you a three count before I pull up.” The howl of the wind ripped through the cargo bay as the ramp lowered. “Ready,” she told the driver. Over the intercom, General Bradson gave the count, and Felecia yelled at the driver, “Jump.” The driver leaped from the truck’s cab, half-falling to the deck, and rolled to the side of the cargo bay where he grabbed a load ring and held on tight. General Bradson completed the count and pulled back on the yoke. The C-130 nosed up, and as the angle of the deck passed five degrees, the truck began to roll. Felecia watched it all the way out, holding her breath as it began to track a little to the right. Moving faster as it rolled downhill, the truck’s front wheels cleared the edge of the ramp and the truck scraped along on its chassis, slowing for a gut-wrenching moment before it flipped forward, dropping out of sight. Felecia hit the bay switch to raise the ramp and began to breathe again. “Truck away,” she told General Bradson via the intercom. “Good job,” he replied, as he leveled off and advanced the throttles to eighty percent. “Use the side door for the rest.” A fast search of the cargo bay turned up very little. François cast a thoughtful glance at the two sleeping Marines­, who had stirred only briefly when the truck was dropped, and said to Horst, “Every pound counts, right? Pity we can’t spare any parachutes.” Felecia heard François, and turned to fix him in a withering stare. “Not unless you wish to join them. They are under my protection, is that understood?” With a very Gallic shrug, François replied, “I was just trying to be helpful.” Ten feet away, the man who had served as The Scar’s cook took concerned note of the exchange and decided that the time had come to inform The Scar that the General and the Marines were on board and still alive. While Felecia and most of her force busied themselves gathering up everything that could be jettisoned, the erstwhile cook, who went by the name of Mike, slipped into one of the C-130’s tiny bathrooms. There, he used the satellite phone The Scar had given him – it was roughly the same size as a cell phone and easy to conceal – to send his employer a text message. In his base in northern Sudan, The Scar wished that he could sleep. He despised waiting, and the mission was at a critical juncture. So, he paced, distracting himself with frequent glances at the dog-eared map tacked to the old bare planks of his wall. Startled by the buzzing of his phone – he was not expecting any further messages until the planes left Oman – The Scar picked it up and read the text message. He considered sending a reply but decided against it, preferring a different approach. Better, he thought, to keep his man on board covert. The Scar stalked down the hallway and pounded on Yuri’s door. When Yuri answered, The Scar said without preamble, “We have a situation. The General survived and he, plus two Marines, are on board Flight Three.” “Has Felecia betrayed us?” Yuri asked. The Scar walked to a window. Glancing out into the darkness – he kept his Sudan base blacked out at night – he said, “I wish I knew. From the start I have made it quite plain to her what would happen to her precious men if they do not fulfill their task. We do know that the Iranians are alerted. Flight Three was on the ground longer than anticipated, and that is surely complicating their egress. Perhaps she feels she needs him to get them out. That would be logical of her. However, once they land in Oman she will have no further plausible need of him. If he is still alive at that point, we will need to take action. There is nothing we can do until they reach Flight Two in Oman.” Thinking quickly, Yuri replied, “What about the second fishing boat? We could deprive them of that rather easily. The crew has already been taken off; they are all aboard the fishing boat that picked up Smith after he jumped from Flight One.” Shaking his head, The Scar replied, “No. That would put the aircraft and the bombs in danger. We must wait until they reach the refuel point in Oman. I think I need to have a word with our men on Flight Two and make them a rather generous offer.” In the cockpit of Flight Three, General Bradson was making a phone call of his own to Bill. “We’re southbound, sixty miles south of Kerman. We were delayed. I’ll need an updated departure schedule for Bandar Abbas.” “Did you get ‘em?” Bill asked, referring to the two Marines. “Roger on that,” General Bradson replied, allowing himself a smile, and then added, “Getting in was easy, getting out is going to be a bitch.” “The Iranians are stirred up like a nest of hornets. We’re seeing fighter sorties, looks like a full-scale scramble, and they’ve lit off just about every radar they’ve got. I’ll get what I can for you.” In the cargo bay, Felecia unlatched the side door and propped it partially open into the howling slipstream. Yelling above the roar, she said, “Start tossing.” Spare weapons, water bottles, empty weapons crates, and a host of other odds and ends were shoved through the door. Just before Felecia closed it, François, smiling, reached into his pocket and withdrew the keys that had proven useless. Chucking the keys out the door, he said with a smirk, “Every pound counts, as you say.” Felecia dogged the door shut as the keys to the Revolutionary Guards’ officers’ latrine fell through the night skies, hurtling towards the craggy slopes of the Zagros Mountains five hundred feet below. Felecia made her way forward and stood behind the pilot’s seat. “That’s everything I could find. Will it be enough?” General Bradson nodded. “Should be. We’ll be in Oman before dawn. I’ve called Flight Two to let them know we’re inbound. They said they’ll relay the news to your employer. Right now, I need to use the head and then have a word with my son. Copilot’s airplane.” As General Bradson stood up, Felecia held out her hand. “Give me that satellite phone. Sorry, Walter, but I can’t have you calling your friend back in the ‘States and spilling the beans about our cargo.” Pausing for a moment, General Bradson stared at Felecia and then replied, “I’ll have you know that I’ve already talked to him, and no, I didn’t mention the cargo. I have no intention of doing so, as I do not know what he would do and I don’t want to put him in a moral dilemma. However, I need the phone; I’ve got an idea regarding one of our Marines. He might need to make a few phone calls to get us out of here.” The General then told Felecia what he had in mind. Felecia nodded once, and then said, “Fine, but I’ll have a man keeping an eye on whoever is using that phone, understood?” General Bradson gave her a cheerful smile before replying over his shoulder as he strolled out of the cockpit, “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Fel.” Felecia watched suspiciously as General Bradson headed aft, and got up to signal one of her men in the cargo bay to keep an eye on the General and his phone. Shaking Brian and Private Johnson awake, the General waited until he thought they were coherent to say, “I’ve only got a minute, then I’ve got to return to the flight deck. Johnson, you were yelling in Farsi when you were in your cell. Why?” Private Johnson, still slightly groggy, answered honestly, “I was cussing the cowardly bastards out, sir. They left us, probably thinking we’d die from the gas. I know a few words; before we deployed, I thought it’d be a good idea to learn some of the local lingoes, so ever since I learned we were deploying to the region, I’ve been studying. I know about as much Arabic as I do Farsi.” “How fluent in Farsi are you?” the General asked. “Not very, sir. I can understand Farsi better than I can speak it.” “Think you could make a phone call for me, in Farsi, to an airline and ask about flight departure times?” “I can try, sir, but no way in hell will they take me for a native speaker.” “They don’t need to. The phone number you need is on those notes I gave you, and so is what to ask about. Your Farsi skills should make this easier. I have a friend stateside trying via other means, but it can’t hurt to try this way as well.” The General glanced around, and lowered his voice, trusting the engine noise to ensure privacy, “I’ve got to make this quick. We’re among mercenaries. Those three big canisters in the mid bay are stolen Iranian nukes that they’re taking to a private buyer. The three of us have a higher duty here: to stop that, at any cost. I’ve got some ideas but if I fail, you two need to do your duty. Those devices cannot fall into the wrong hands, no matter the cost. That’s your duty.” Brian glanced at the three bombs, and knew that his father was right. Feeling the lump in his pocket, Brian had no doubt that the grenade, detonated in the cargo bay near the wing root, would destroy the aircraft. He understood his orders, and was prepared to carry them out if need be. In that moment, in the noisy cargo bay of the C-130, leaning back against a cargo pallet and wrapped in a blanket, Brian studied his surroundings and understood what his father’s message really meant; Brian was to become the scorpion. The two Marines nodded, and Brian Brian said, barely loud enough to be heard, “I’ve still got a pineapple.” Nodding solemnly, knowing that his son was referring to a grenade, General Bradson waved Felecia’s man closer and then handed the satellite phone to Private Johnson. “Make the calls. We’re about a half hour from the Strait,” he said loudly. General Bradson reentered the cockpit and slid into the left seat. “Pilot’s Aircraft,” he said, after putting on his night-vision gear and taking the plane’s controls. “Are the jarheads comfortable?” Felecia asked, and then softened a little to add, “Is your son doing okay?” “They’re exhausted and they’ve had some brutal treatment, but I think they’ll be all right. So, what happens now, Fel?” Felecia barked an order in her command voice, “Everybody out of the cockpit, now!” The copilot and navigator made a hasty retreat and closed the door behind them. Alone in the cockpit with the General, Felecia took the copilot’s seat before saying, “I’ve got two choices. I can leave you and the jarheads in Oman. Or, I can drop you off in Egypt, literally. Our flight path from the refuel point to our base in northern Sudan takes us over the Egyptian-Sudanese border where it meets the Red Sea. I can bend north a little, about a hundred miles, and drop you about five miles south of a big fancy resort they’ve got there. By the time you hike in, we’ll be out of Egyptian airspace and you won’t know exactly where we’re heading.” Felecia paused to gather her thoughts before saying, “I don’t like the Oman option. There’d be a chance you could get the word out in time to stop us. I know you want to, now you know about the nukes. So, I’ll drop you at the resort. I was there last year; they make a damn fine Singapore Sling. Order one for me. I wish I could join you. I know you’ve got a thick wad of cash on you, so my suggestion is you and the jarheads lay low for a while. Disappear if you can. Setting off that nuke if going to get a lot of the wrong kind of attention, so disappearing and getting new names is probably your best bet.” Deciding that Felecia was probably on the level – she thought she no longer needed him, so there was no point to any deception on her part – General Bradson said, “There’s one little detail remaining, Fel. Two, actually. The first is that you only figured out half the reason why you’d get blown out of the sky without my help. The Iranians are on full alert and they’re looking for us. We’ve got to cross the Strait of Hormuz: sixty miles of open water. They’ve got fighters up. Hugging the terrain should shield us until we get to the coast, but there’s no way we can use that trick to sneak across the Strait. The barrier patrol they have up would nail us, guaranteed, and there’s no way we can dodge their radar over water.” Felecia felt the blood drain from her face as she realized that the General was telling the truth. “Okay, so where are we going?” “We’re crossing the Strait of Hormuz,” the General said, and then explained some of his plan to Felecia, though he left out a critical detail. It took her a few seconds to digest the information, but she nodded once and, in a stunned tone, said, “That’s going to be one hell of a ride.” © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  14. Chapter 27: Drums out of Darkness ‘So far, so good,’ General Bradson thought, as they raced down the corridor towards the main door of the guardhouse. There, they joined up with the two mercenaries who had been searching for keys and who had stayed to guard their only exit. One mercenary, an ex French Foreign Legionnaire by the name of François, shrugged and then said in his thick Gallic accent, “We finally found some keys, but you had already blown the doors.” François held up the keys for a moment, before sliding them absently into his pocket. He had no way of knowing, but what he’d found were the keys to the officers’ latrine. The General nodded once, wishing that they had found the keys – which he assumed were for the cell locks– a few moments earlier. He took note of François’ cold glance at the two rescued Marines. “Let’s move out. Keep an eye out for anything we can use for transportation. Otherwise, we break south and double-time it to the C-130. It’s only a mile and a half south by southwest of here,” the General said, adding the last sentence for the benefit of the two Marines. He handed his AK-47 to Private Johnson, and then handed a couple of grenades to Brian, along with a spare nine-millimeter pistol. “Let’s move,” he said, and led the way out the door. Radio does not penetrate far into the ground, and thus the telephone lines were the only means of communication between the base and the underground facility. Abdullah, a newly minted Gruhban yekom (Sergeant), was a special weapons technician and was in possession of the only full chemical warfare protective suit on the base. Because of this, he had been detailed to stay behind and monitor the phones. Glancing out a window, he’d seen the General and his team enter the guardhouse. Abdullah had seen six men go in, and now eight coming out. He could see that they were using combat tactics, and that, in his opinion, made them possible hostiles, though he wondered how they had gotten inside the base. Abdullah knew two things: one was that what he’d seen made no sense, and the other was that he had to let someone know, otherwise he would be held responsible. Over a unit radio, he asked to speak with the Sartip (Brigadier General) who commanded the base, and was now two miles to the north with the bulk of men that made up the battalion of Revolutionary Guard stationed there. Asked to wait while the Sartip was located, Abdullah fingered his assault rifle while he thought, and instead left a brief report on what he’d seen. He then clicked off the radio and used a side exit, intending to get the drop on the presumed intruders. As General Bradson edged outside with night vision goggles on, he spotted movement near the door of an adjoining building. Before the General could react, a series of two soft pops sounded from his left, followed by two more. Abdullah had never used night vision gear, and had assumed that the darkness would shield him. It had proven to be a fatal mistake: Abdullah was dead before he hit the ground. François, who had fired the lethal shots, darted forward, pistol at the ready, and fired a fifth and final shot, directly into the headpiece of Abdullah’s protective suit. Returning to the General’s side, François whispered, with a trace of amusement, “Dead men tell no tales.” General Bradson signaled with his hand, sending a two-man element forward as they resumed their escape. Keeping low but moving fast, Brian knew what he’d seen. Men with strange accents, who didn’t bother with military courtesy such as calling an officer ‘sir’. That, combined with his father’s odd Morse-code message, led Brian to one very firm suspicion: mercenaries. Still somewhat dazed from the sleep deprivation and brutal treatment, Brian cast his eyes about, looking at the hardened men around him. ‘Mercenaries. They have to be…’ he thought, growing surer. And what was their nature? The scorpion… Was that what his father had warned him about? Brian didn’t know, but that was the most likely thing he could think of in his impaired metal state: some kind of double-cross. There was, he knew, little that he could do on the ground, but in the air was another matter entirely. Eric stared at Jansen’s retreating back in disbelief. The first emotion to penetrate his shock was anger. He took a step to follow Jansen, confrontation in mind. The sound of the pavilion door slamming jolted Eric, and at many levels he felt Jansen’s rage. Eric came to a confused halt, very much alone, as he tried to make sense of what had just occurred. He remembered feeling the rage emanating from Jansen and how sudden and intense it had been. Thanks to both his innate gift and the overt signs, Eric had a flash of insight, ‘I touched a nerve. Something bad.’ Sure that Jansen would be returning to the suite he shared with Keith, Eric knew that he had to act fast. Racing to the hotel phone on the bar, Eric dialed and waited anxiously for Keith to answer, then said, “Keith, meet me at my room, right away,” and hung up before Keith could reply. Eric raced for his suite, hoping that his plan worked and that he could talk to Keith before Jansen did, and so find out what might have gone wrong. Eric felt that Keith had misgivings, but he also knew that Keith was a friend. The only thing that Eric had overlooked was that Jansen’s route back to his suite would put him on a collision course with Keith. Keith raced down a covered pathway, and nearly slammed into his brother as he rounded the corner. “Janse, where’s–.” Keith stopped instantly as he recognized the look of anger and hurt in his brother’s eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it. You were right… Just leave me alone.” Jansen said, and lowered his shoulder to push past his brother. Beginning to get an idea what could have happened, Keith took a step to follow, and then halted. He knew that when Jansen was in a bad mood there was little he could do. That left one likely source of information, and Keith spun on his heel and resumed his run to Eric’s suite. Keith felt as if the world was crashing down around his ears. He trusted Eric, and considered him a close friend, but the reality was that he hadn’t known Eric for all that long, not enough to trust him to act fairly if he felt wronged in some way. Keith could see a business deal that he and his brother were relying on screeching to a halt, and worse, stranding them on the island if Eric put a stop payment on the check he’d given them for the party job. Trying to put those thoughts aside and focus on the fact that Eric had called him, Keith dashed around the final corner to find Eric sitting against his door. Keith came to a halt, and Eric, looking as downcast as he was feeling, got up, opened the door, then said, “Come in, we need to talk.” Nodding, Keith followed Eric in, deciding to keep the fact he’d bumped into Jansen to himself for the moment. Plopping into a chair with a sigh, Eric got right to the point. “Jansen and I had a fight of some kind. All I know is he’s furious with me. I want us all to stay friends, so I want to fix this, but I can’t unless I know what I did wrong.” Settling into a chair, Keith decided to play his hunch and asked, “Tell me what happened.” Eric let out another sigh and then looked Keith in the eyes, telling him everything that had happened, both at the suite before Keith had arrived, and later at the party pavilion. Keith kept quiet as Eric told the story, and the final words seemed to confirm what Keith suspected. Narrowing his eyes a little, he said with a touch of anger, “Yeah, you hurt him, bad. No wonder he’s pissed.” Keith was well aware that he could be risking the business deal, but his main concern was for his brother. Eric’s eyes shot open in surprise. He could tell that Keith was both sincere and a little angry, but not why. “Mind telling me what exactly I did wrong?” Eric said, with a touch of exasperation in his voice. “Let’s see, my brother falls for you, and then you tell him you just want to use him to try having sex with a guy? Don’t you get how that would hurt?” Keith said levelly. Eric opened his mouth to reply, but for a moment, no words came out, as he remembered exactly what he’d said. He closed his mouth and then, as he finally understood, said in a quiet tone, “I guess I see how he could have taken it that way… but I didn’t mean sex.” Keith arched an eyebrow in surprise, and then asked, “Then what did you mean?” Eric gave Keith an awkward, sad smile. “I like him. At least I think I do. I know I like him as a friend and I don’t want to lose that. I’ve been with lots of girls, but I’ve never really dated anyone. I never wanted to, not until now.” Nodding slowly, Keith realized again that Eric came from a very different world; a lifestyle where dating was not the norm. Trying to see things from Eric’s perspective, Keith began to understand what he was seeing; someone with no experience at dating, and thus prone to mistakes and misunderstandings, along with not a little confusion. Keith closed his eyes before replying, “Oh. You meant try dating, not try a one-night stand. Uh, dude, there’s something you probably need to know. Janse will be pissed at me for telling you this, but… there’s a reason he flew off the handle. The first time he ever fell for a guy, they hung out for a few days, and the guy was all over Jansen. Then they had sex, Jansen’s first time. The next day, the other guy said he was just looking for fun, no strings, and he was going out with a girl that night. Janse was crushed, so yeah, he’d fly off the handle if he took what you said the wrong way, and it sure looks like he did.” Deciding to clear the rest of the air, Eric asked, “Okay, that’s Jansen. What about you, when you got back from the disco?” Keith thought about that for a moment and decided to be honest. “Part of it was I was concerned, for Jansen’s sake. You’ve got a hell of a rep with girls, and… I had my doubts about you and him because I thought you might not want to give up girls. I was also worried that if things went bad, like tonight, it could fuck up both our friendship and the business deal. Jansen made it pretty damn clear to me that I was wrong to butt in, so, I’m sorry I did.” Eric considered that for a moment, and sensed that Keith was on the level. “You need to learn to trust me. Okay, I see where you’re coming from. I get that, but now what? Is Jansen going to be pissed at me forever?” “He calms down quick so I doubt it. It would help, a lot, if I could tell him that you weren’t out to... use him as some kind of experiment.” Eric was about to answer, and then paused, remembering that he did have something in mind, something that he needed to know. After thinking it over for a few moments, he said, “Well, sorta. One time, at a concert, I kissed a guy I was alone with backstage. I liked him, he was a really cool guy, but when I kissed him, I just didn’t feel… I don’t know the words. There just wasn’t anything beyond the kiss, if that makes any sense. So, I wanted to kiss Jansen, to see… how I felt. Look, I just don’t know if a relationship would work out. I want it to, but I just don’t know, so I can’t promise anything. If you think he’s going to get hurt, I’ll just back off and be a friend.” Keith stared at Eric for a long moment, and then began to chuckle. “Whoa. Okay, first off, sometimes relationships don’t work. That’s life. I’ve got a pretty good hunch that Janse would be fine with a kiss, that’s a lot different from just using him to try out sex with a guy, like I bet he’s thinking. Look, could you be faithful to him, for however long you were in a relationship? That was my concern, with you being bi and notorious for your countless hookups. You are a rock star, after all.” Beginning to realize that the conversation was getting a little ridiculous, Eric laughed. “Okay, mom, yes, I’d be faithful. And yeah, on tour I hook up a lot, but I wouldn’t if I was with someone. I haven’t hooked up with anyone since we’ve been here, and it’s not like I haven’t had opportunities.” Keith rolled his eyes and replied with a grin, “Okay, I guess I deserved the ‘mom’ comment. I think I better head back and see how Jansen is doing. Let me go alone and I’ll talk to him.” That idea provoked a frown from Eric; he wanted to go see Jansen himself and put things right. That thought died as Eric reflected that Keith knew Jansen best. “Give me a call, one way or another, okay?’ Eric asked, dreading the waiting that he knew was coming. Keith got up to leave, and said on his way out the door, “Count on it.” Keith walked into his suite, to find Jansen curled up on the couch, a small bottle of scotch in hand. Eyeing the bottle, Keith judged that Jansen was probably buzzed, but not flat out drunk. Keith sat down next to his brother, and asked softly, “How are you doing?” Staring at the bottle, a morose scowl on his face, Jansen replied, “Fucked up, that’s how. I keep going over it in my head. Either Eric just wanted to use me as an experiment, and that ain’t like him, or… I just fucked up, big time, and blew everything… our friendship, the business, everything. Sorry Keither… you were right.” “I’ll spare you some stress. I was on my way to Eric’s when I ran into you. He called me, wanted to talk. We talked. I think you got him wrong. We talked–” “Yeah, you said that already, so what did he say?” Jansen asked, looking even more miserable. “Look, this is between you and him, but I’ll say this; he says he wasn’t just after a one time thing.” “You told him.” Jansen said, scowling. Seeing no point in denying it, Keith nodded. “Yeah, I did. Under the circumstances, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Feeling more miserable than ever, Jansen took another swig of scotch. “So, I really screwed up. If I hadn’t flown off the handle, things could have… damn. How mad at me is he? Think there’s any chance of patching things up?” “You need to talk to him, Janse. I don’t think he’s mad, not when I left anyway. Just call him, okay?” Jansen contemplated his scotch for a few moments before replying, “He’ll be mad, I know he will. Maybe by tomorrow he’ll cool down and I can talk to him.” Recognizing his younger brother’s talent for procrastination and figuring that waiting would only make his brother and Eric miserable, Keith lifted the phone, dialed Eric’s number, and before Jansen could snatch the receiver away said, “Come on over,” and hung up. Helen felt a wave of relief. The intermittent phone system had held together for an hour, and that had been just long enough. Hanging up, she dialed a room number, and waited for Jane to answer before saying, “I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I thought you should be the first to know; I’ve arranged for us to leave the island, three days from now. A cruise ship on a transatlantic repositioning voyage will be passing by and doing a sightseeing circumnavigation of the island. They’ll send a tender to pick us up at the beach Brandon and Chase were married on.” Jane did her best to remain calm. Her initial reaction was horror; the thought of three days sitting on what she considered to be a powder keg was not welcome news. “Thank you, Helen,” Jane said, in a formal tone, and then asked, “In the meantime, can we relocate away from this volcano?” “I’m still trying, Jane. There just isn’t anything available, and even if there were, it would likely be on the east side of the island, where we’d be dealing with ash. We’d also have to worry about getting back. The experts are saying that the eruption is likely to continue as it has, and then probably some slow moving lava, which we’d be safe from here. In fact, the eruption seems to be tapering off; the ash venting today were considerably less than yesterday.” Helen struggled to remain civil. She was still steaming from the breakfast confrontation, and Jane’s demeanor was not helping. Jane considered the news for a moment, and shifted to a softer voice before saying, “Helen, thank you. I know that you are doing all that you can. I just have a very bad feeling regarding all this. Please, if you can find a way to get us away from this accursed mountain, please do so. I can’t explain, but I just ... I just feel that we are in grave danger here.” Mollified by Jane’s more pleasant tone, Helen replied, “I’ll keep trying. Have a good evening, Jane.” Once the call had ended, Helen’s first thought was that Jane had become slightly paranoid due to the stress. The memory of Jane’s claim of a ‘feeling’ evoked a snort of derision from Helen. Then the nagging thought that was battling its way to the forefront of Helen’s mind surfaced, and she remembered that another Carlisle had a somewhat spooky ability that defied rational explanation. Dwelling on Eric’s gift for a moment, Helen reflected that she’d seen it in action far too many times to doubt its existence. That thought made Helen pause, pondering if there might be some hereditary aspect, and thus if Jane could be right. Glancing out the window, towards the mountain shrouded in darkness, Helen could only wonder. Jane, contrary to Helen’s suspicions, had no special gift. Her fears alone were enough to make her wary, and though she had no real basis, that did not preclude her from being right. Deep beneath Cumbre Vieja, magma was on the move, forcing open fissures deep underground as it pried open its ancient rift system, which ran north to south along fracture zones. Along the way it encountered ground water, heating it to thousands of degrees, generating enormous pressures that could not yet find relief. Sartip Qassem Jaffari-Reza was at last getting his men under control, and his officers were doing their jobs, forming them up in their units. The Sartip began to relax slightly as the chaos abated. He jogged toward the chemical detector van, seeking an update, his mind focusing on the assumed chemical leak. At the van, he was given the radio message from Abdullah, and everything changed. “Try those keys you found,” General Bradson said, waving his team forward as he swung back to cover their rear. The old Jeep, parked beside a barracks, looked like just what they needed. There were no keys in it, and the General, ever hopeful, wondered if the ones from the guardhouse would fit. The General knew that they could run the distance to the rendezvous, but his son and Private Johnson were weak due to their ordeal, which would slow them all down. It could be done, but the Jeep would make the journey easier and, more importantly, faster. François leaped into the driver’s seat, unmindful of keeping low, and began to try the keys. Within seconds, he was able to report, “No joy, Mon General.” As François hopped out of the Jeep, Brian took his place. After a quick glance under the steering wheel, he whispered, “I need a knife and a light.” François drew his K-bar, flipped it in mid-air, and handed it handle first to Brian. General Bradson, suspecting what Brian was trying to do, fished out a penlight and handed it to his son. Brian ducked under the dashboard and cut the wires leading to the ignition switch. Working as fast as he could, he stripped the thickest pair, and then the rest. Several seconds later, the starter motor growled once, and Brian said, “I think I’ve got it. Pile in.” It took a few tries, but with the alternator wires twisted together and raising a few snapping, hissing sparks as he crossed the starter wires, Brian got the Jeep going. François tapped him on the shoulder, “Move over, I’m driving,” the Frenchman said, indicating his night-vision rig with his thumb. Brian clambered into the back seat, shoehorning in to make room as all eight men piled into the four-seater vehicle. The relief and excitement of his rescue, combined with sleep depravation, made Brian a little less guarded. Glancing at his father, he said with a smile, “I guess I should ‘fess up; that’s how your staff car disappeared for the night a couple of times when I was sixteen.” Rolling his eyes and smiling at the revelation of something he’d long suspected, General Bradson growled, “That’s it, you’re grounded.” The moment of levity over, he glanced behind them as they pulled away and said to François, “Stay off the brakes; we can’t have any lights showing.” François ground a few gears as he got used to the old Jeep’s stiff transmission, but within seconds, they were racing out of the base, following the road to the west, and then south towards the rendezvous point. General Bradson used the satellite phone to call ahead and tell Felecia, “Have you in sight. Coming from the north, in a single Jeep, ETA one minute.” Gritting her teeth, Felecia replied, “Welcome back,” and hung up. Using her radio, she ordered the northern perimeter, “Friendlies inbound, one Jeep. Let them pass.” “Affirmative. Have them in sight,” came the reply, and Felecia got up to walk back to the C-130. Felecia’s northern perimeter force was not alone in having the Jeep in sight. Five minutes before, the Iranian sentry on the mountaintop two miles to the west had thought to look at the square embankments, thinking that the weapons temporarily storied there might be the source of the leak. A quick glance had caused him to blink, and then look again, at the C-130 incongruously parked amongst the embankments. Iran had several C-130 transports in its service, but the sight of one there was impossible to explain, unless… He lifted his radio and sent a report. In the back of the racing Jeep, General Bradson tried to steady himself enough to survey the C-130 ahead with his night vision gear. He couldn’t make out much detail, only that there were very few men around. He’d expected as much. François pulled the Jeep to a dusty halt a few yards from the C-130’s rear ramp. He was the only one amongst the General’s team who Felecia had warned what to expect. The others were, she judged, at least partially loyal to the General. Flanked by two of her men from the plane, Felecia walked up to the Jeep as François got out and moved aside, his AK-47 not quite raised, but ready. Felecia didn’t hesitate. She strode up to the driver’s side of the Jeep, drawing her pistol with the final step, and leveling it at General Bradson’s head from three feet away. Her two flanking troops added their AK-47’s, pointing them at the men in the Jeep. François joined in, aiming his gun at General Bradson’s chest. Nodding, casually at Felecia, General Bradson said, in a voice devoid of emotion, “I was wondering when you’d make your move.” “Keep ‘em covered, all of them, make sure they stay put,” Felecia ordered her men, ignoring the shocked, betrayed looks from her men in the Jeep. Glaring at General Bradson, she said, “With me, now.” General Bradson kept his hands in plain sight as he climbed out of the Jeep. Felecia reached forward and took the nine-millimeter pistol from his belt, and holding a gun in each hand, she said, “We need to talk. Walk straight ahead.” After fifty feet – enough distance for some privacy – General Bradson stopped, turned slowly to face Felecia, and said, “Mind telling me what the fuck you’re playing at? You can’t get out of here alive without my help.” With a sigh, Felecia replied, “What I’m playing at is saving your damn hide, for one. Our fearless leader Frankenstein has a somewhat different agenda than you. As you figured out, he’s after something here, and you were the means of access. You got us in. His orders to me are to kill you, and anyone you rescued, if you showed up at the rendezvous point.” Narrowing his eyes, General Bradson replied, “Seeing as I’m still breathing, I take it you’ve had second thoughts. That note I left you, perhaps?” Sighing, Felecia said, “You ornery, sanctimonious son of a bitch… no, I am not an idiot. I’m well aware that the plan you gave me won’t get us out alive. What you didn’t count on was me figuring that out in advance. It’s the SA-6 batteries around this site; they’ll be alerted and blow us to kingdom come about a minute after we take off. Your egress route takes us right through the engagement envelopes of two of them. The way to beat them is terrain and course, plus a downwind takeoff. Yeah, I figured it out, but guess what, you’re still alive. Now maybe you get why I tried so hard to keep you off the ground mission. I wanted you somewhere safe, like in a small plane over the gulf, running things from the air, because I don’t want to have to kill you. Walter, I’m going to ask you to trust me and play along. You don’t have a choice. We’ll get you, your son, and the other jarhead to safety, but as far as most of my men are concerned, I’ll tell ‘em we’re keeping you breathing because we’ll need your help to get out. I’ve got to do that, because some of my men, maybe even most of ‘em, are more loyal to ‘ole Frankenstein and his money than they are to me. I’m also damn well aware that you’ve won over quite a few, which is why I just had to put some of my best men under guard in that Jeep, damn your hide.” Nodding once, General Bradson was pleased that Felecia had figured out half of the reason why the plan he’d given them would get them all killed. Deciding to keep that detail to himself – the notes he’d placed in the uniforms he’d given the Marines held the details, just in case he didn’t survive ­­– he replied, “Let’s say I believe you. Now what?” “You act like a prisoner, at least to a degree. They’ll buy that, especially as it happens to be true. I’m also well aware that some of them would take your side. However, if you try to interfere with my mission, I will kill you. My men and I, we need the money, and Scar has promised us a mint. He’ll turn on us if we don’t deliver. For my men’s sake, the mission must succeed.” General Bradson was still unsure, but for the first time since he’d met her, he felt that Felecia was leveling with him. “Okay, I’ll play along. Where the hell are most of your men? If we don’t get out of here immediately, we’re dead. I was sure you’d have loaded up some chemical warheads and be ready to go by now. Remember, we’re weight critical due to fuel constraints; you’ve got about five tons capacity, max, or we’ll run dry on the egress.” To General Bradson’s surprise, Felecia shook her head, “We’ll be a while longer. My men have run into some trouble, but you don’t need to know what we’re after.” Setting aside his concerns regarding what Felecia was really after, General Bradson said, “Let me help if I can. Getting out of here as soon as possible is critical, for all of us.” Nodding, Felecia turned and began to jog back towards the C-130, saying over he shoulder, “Come on, I’ll show you.” With the General in tow, Felecia approached the Jeep and said to its occupants, “Sorry for that, it was necessary. The General will be helping us get out of here, in return for safe passage for himself and our new guests. Get them,” she indicated the two marines with a nod, “on the plane and get some coffee and food into them, they look like they could use it.” The demeanor of the mercenaries changed, but Brian and Private Johnson both took note of the fact that they were relieved of their guns. Brian climbed out of the Jeep, stooping over, feigning a limp, doing the best he could to hide the telltale bulge in his uniform caused by the grenade in his pocket. Leaving her men to get the two Marines settled into the cargo bay, Felecia told the General, “With me,” and led him to the cockpit. There, she pointed at a large print of a satellite photo on the navigator’s table. “These bunkers to the west are our target. There’s an underground facility, and we think one or more of the bunkers conceal a way in. There’s fifty bunkers, and my men are checking into then as fast as we can, but so far all we’ve found are standard concrete cut-and-cover structures, sixty feet deep.” General Bradson glanced at the photo, seeing that it was copied from commercial satellite photography and lacked the detail of the military data that he had access to. He’d studied the site and had guessed at the underground facility, something that Bill had confirmed. The giveaway had been what appeared to be a large farmhouse, on top of the mountains that held the bunkers. Farmhouses are not usually sited miles away from farmland, on a mountaintop, overlooking a massive and secret military base. The best guess was that it contained massive blower fans, mounted atop a ventilation shaft, plus a guardhouse. That deduction had triggered a closer look at the terrain, and an intriguing discovery had been made; older topographical data, overlaid on the satellite images to give altitude, indicated a westward slope to the alluvial plain at the base of the mountains. However, the satellite photo showed small erosive watercourses running north to south. Water prefers to run downhill, which indicated that the terrain elevation had changed. A check by satellite confirmed it; a large area had been raised by fifteen feet. The conclusion of the NSA analysts was that the Iranians had gone to great lengths to conceal rock and soil tailings left over from the excavation of a massive complex beneath the mountains. Disguising the way in as a few of the existing bunkers made perfect sense. However, the Iranians had overlooked one small detail, the discovery of which had occasioned an amused chuckle accompanied by an explanation from Bill during one of his early planning session with the General. Tapping the string of bunkers on the photo, General Bradson said, “You’ve got to rule out the regular bunkers. Look at the road; it’s dirt, and the vehicle tracks, plus the hardpan caused by frequent traffic shows up clearly.” Not getting it, Felecia said, “So what? I don’t care about fucking tire tracks­–“ “You should, because the Iranians won’t be sending much traffic to the storage bunkers. Hit the ones that show the most road activity, they’re probably the entrances you’re looking for.” The general tapped at three specific bunkers. Her eyes widening, Felecia bent over to study the photo. Two seconds later, she radioed Wilhelm. “Numbered from the south, try bunkers eight, nine, and thirty-three. Try eight and nine first, they’re closest to you. We think those may be the ones we’re looking for.” Several tense minutes later, Wilhelm replied, “Affirmative, affirmative. All hell let loose when we blasted open eight, and we took heavy fire from both eight and nine. I’ve sent teams into each; they’re in contact, meeting stiff resistance but advancing, taking some casualties. Will advise when I know more. Out.” Sartip Qassem Jaffari-Reza felt his blood turn to ice. The report from Abdullah, who could no longer be reached, and the observation of a transport aircraft on the ground, had led the Sartip to conclude that the gas leak alert was fake, or probably so, and a cover for an attack of some sort, most likely a rescue mission for the American prisoners slated for execution. The mountaintop sentry’s reports of gunfire in the bunker area put things in a very different light. The Sartip could only assume, correctly in this case, that the underground facility, guarded by twenty of his best men, was the true target. He was well aware that, should anything happen to it or the devices it held, his remaining life would be both short and unpleasant. Sending out orders via his now partially restored radio net, he sent out five two-man reconnaissance teams, and then turned his attention to preparing his main force, by his estimate three thousand strong, to advance. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he told them that they had two minutes before moving out and into combat. He knew he couldn’t get them underway faster than that, though he fervently wished otherwise. To his chief of staff, the Sartip said, “Take six companies and angle west to relieve the underground complex, get there as fast as you can, everything depends on it. I’ll take the rest of my command and hit the landing site. Leave a platoon here to act as a radio relay, and tell them to make damn sure Teheran knows we’re under attack, in case I can’t get through.” The Sartip turned and gave further orders to a young officer, “Take your company back to the base. Get heavy weapons; mortars, artillery, RPGs, anything and everything that you can bring to bear fast. Leave a platoon with the howitzers; those will reach the enemy plane from the base. Have them start firing as soon as you can, using the sentry on the mountaintop for fire direction. Make sure you overshoot and not undershoot; you know what is to the north of the target. Destroy the plane, and then we can annihilate the invaders at our leisure.” Glancing out the cockpit window into the blackness, seeing from memory rather than sight, General Bradson asked, “Did you check out these square embankments?” Felecia nodded. “One of the first things I did, right before I had the Claymore line set up. The ones lined up to the north of us have chemical warfare artillery shells. I’ve even got an idea for putting them to use.” That made it obvious. She wouldn’t be hitting the underground facility if what she was after was right outside the aircraft. “If it’s not chemical weapons you’re after, then… ” General Bradson said, taking the opening he’d been given. Shaking her head, unwilling to mention the real goal, Felecia replied, “We’re after something specific and we think it’s in the deep tunnels behind some of the cut-and-cover bunkers, but I won’t say what so don’t bother asking.” “You can’t do it. Those tunnels are immense. They have to be, based on the volume of debris the Iranians tried to disguise by making it look like part of the hillsides. Call it off and let’s get your men out of here,” General Bradson said in an adamant tone, while wondering what Felecia was really after. “I can’t, Walter. If we don’t get what we’re after… Look, we’re getting what we came for and that’s how it’s going to be,” Felecia said, in an angry tone. “You’re going to get us all killed. You know that, right?” “Same difference as if we leave without what we came for,” Felecia said cryptically. It was plain for both to see that they were running out of time. They both knew that an Iranian attack had to be imminent. Felecia explained her plan for dealing with it, and the General found himself in agreement. However, it suddenly occurred to him that her plan could be drastically improved by something literally right under their noses. Slipping into the pilot’s seat, General Bradson advanced the throttles slightly, letting the idling turbine engines spool up before saying over the noise, ““I’m going to pivot us ninety degrees so we’re pointing south.” Felecia did not reply. She watched, bracing herself against the navigation console, as the General reversed pitch in the two left engines and then advanced all four throttles. The C-130 pivoted smoothly in place, and the General powered down, leaving the engines idling. Felecia’s eyes opened wide in surprise as she realized what the General had done. Nodding appreciatively, she offered a friendly hand to help him out of the pilot’s seat, and once he was standing, she looked him in the eyes and said, “Walter, that’s brilliant. You took my plan and made it a hell of a lot better. I think we work well together.” Nodding solemnly in spite of his misgivings, General Bradson replied, “It’s our plan, Fel. Part yours, part mine, and it’s desperate as hell. I just hope it can buy us enough time.” © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  15. Chapter 28: Blood and Time “Hi,” Eric said with more than a little unease, as he took a seat across from Jansen, who would not meet his eyes. Keith, still standing by the door, said, “I’ll take a walk, back in a few.” The sound of the door closing behind Keith was replaced by an awkward, oppressive silence. After several long seconds, Jansen, still staring at the bottle of scotch in his lap, said, “Sorry… I blew it and I know it.” Eric could tell that Jansen was indeed sorry, and that was enough to mollify Eric’s own hurt feelings. Feeling a little more at ease, he replied in a quiet voice, “I’d never use you . If you don’t know anything else about me, please know that.” After a pause, Eric continued, “Keith told me why you reacted the way you did. I guess I understand… but next time, talk to me before assuming I’m an asshole, okay?” Jansen’s eyes remained focused on the bottle. “You’re right. It was just the way you said what you said. All of a sudden, it was like I was back in high school, with a broken heart. I saw him, not you. At least I think I did.” Eric sensed Jansen’s sincerity, but then came the recollection of the words themselves, ‘Eric, go fuck yourself’. The hurt that thought engendered crept into Eric’s voice as a hint of anger as he said, “But you used my name, so you were angry at me too. I get that, under the circumstances–” Jansen’s eyes shot up to meet Eric’s. “I wish I could take that back. I should have trusted you.” The earnest expression on Jansen’s face, coupled with his sad tone, caused Eric’s heart to melt a little more. “Or at least talked to me, but ya know what? Sometimes, friends fight. And that’s what we are, first and last – friends… right?” Jansen nodded, relieved that things were not as bad as he’d feared, but feeling a tinge of sadness; friendship was good and to be valued, but Eric’s use of the word seemed to preclude what might have been. Jansen’s smile faded slightly at that thought, and he said, “Thanks Eric. You’re right, and friends should trust each other too. I’ll try.” Feeling as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, Eric got up and walked around the coffee table, settling onto the couch beside Jansen. “You can start by sharing that scotch.” The first trace of a smile crept onto Jansen’s lips as he handed Eric the bottle. Eric took a long, deep swig, and then leaned back before saying, “I don’t want to lose you as a friend, no matter what. Let’s drink to that,” and handed the bottle back to Jansen. Taking one deep pull, Jansen winced from the burn before replying, “Sounds good to me. I don’t want to lose you either. I never did.” Jansen took another pull before handing the bottle back to Eric. Eric could tell that Jansen was still a bit down, though he couldn’t discern the reason. Trying to cheer him, Eric playfully nudged Jansen’s shoulder with his own. “You’re drinking good scotch, in an island resort. What’s there to be down about?” Eric asked with a smile. Feeling Eric’s bare skin rub against his own, Jansen felt there was plenty to be down about, given what he thought might have happened, had he not flown off the handle. ‘I can’t tell him that, not now, maybe not ever,’ Jansen thought, and decided that he had a good friend in Eric, and that was something to be thankful for. Forcing himself to smile, Jansen said, “Yeah, if you overlook the pesky little detail that we’re stuck on top of an erupting volcano.” Chuckling, Eric nodded and took another drink before replying, “Yeah, that’s a bit of a nuisance, I guess. Helen said we’re getting out of here in three days, so it’s not so bad.” Genuinely cheering up, Jansen arched an eyebrow. “Nuisance? That’s not exactly the term I’d have chosen,” he said with a laugh. Eric’s answering innocent shrug was met with derisive laughter, and Jansen added, “Musicians sure have an odd way with words.” Grinning, Eric shot back, “At least we’re literate, unlike strippers…” “That’s exotic dancers, you ass,” Jansen said with a grin, realizing too late that he’d fallen for Eric’s verbal maneuver. Eric grinned as he said, “I notice the illiterate part didn’t bother you.” Eric took another drink and turned thoughtful for a moment before asking, “Are you still going to teach me to strip?” Chuckling, Jansen replied, “I’ll try, but I’m thinking the music is wrong.” Jansen waited for a moment and then answered Eric’s puzzled look by adding, “I think the theme from Mission Impossible is more appropriate for this gruesome task.” Keith opened the door, to be greeted by the sounds of laughter. Smiling, relieved that Eric and Jansen seemed to be getting along again, Keith pulled up a chair and said, “I guess you two buried the hatchet?” Jansen grinned as he replied, “Yeah, and I’m just glad we didn’t bury it in my head.” Keeping his curiosity at bay, though wondering if the subject of a kiss had come up, Keith asked. “I ran into Helen. She said we’re leaving in three days, on a passing cruise ship. I’ve never been on a ship before, it sounds great.” Nodding, Eric remembered something he had to do and said, “I’ve got to get to the airport to talk to those pilots. Let’s give that a try tomorrow or the next day. I’ve got a car arranged.” Wilhelm took shelter behind a rock as he watched the ongoing assault on the two bunkers. His men had driven the Iranians back a hundred yards, more than enough to verify that the bunkers were indeed the outer ends of deep lateral tunnels bored into the mountainside. The presence of armed troops was further confirmation, though one that Wilhelm would have gladly done without. The Iranians were good, he had to concede them that; they were making him pay a price, in both blood and time, for every foot of advance: falling back by echelon, taking cover, and contesting almost every inch. Blood and time. In a cold but professional calculation, Wilhelm knew that he could afford one, but not the other. Time was critical and they were already behind schedule. That left blood. Felecia’s orders regarding which bunkers to examine had made up for some of the delay by causing them to skip bunker seven, but they had only saved a minute or so. As Wilhelm was well aware, every second counted. Wilhelm moved towards the entrance to tunnel nine, keeping low. He had to have a clear line of sight down the shaft or his radio would most likely not reach his assault force. Speaking into his radio, he issued new orders, “Assault team nine, break contact. Let ‘em follow you out. Sappers, rig the tunnel, claymores, fifty feet in.” That part was easy: pull back, let the Iranians follow, then fill the shaft with a blast of high-velocity ball bearings from claymore directional anti-personal mines. He’d have preferred to blow the shaft completely, sealing it, but he needed to keep his options open until their target was attained. The plan was both simple and ruthless; the team in tunnel eight was making better progress, so Wilhelm was closing down one prong of his attack and focusing his available force on the most successful avenue; tunnel eight. That was standard tactical thinking. What made it ruthless was his follow up orders, as the two teams joined forces in tunnel eight. “Press home the attack, charge ‘em, keep going, double-time.” If it weren’t for the fact that his men knew that their lives depended on accomplishing the mission fast, they would have likely balked at those orders. They would have had good reason: charging a well-defended position was a great way to take high casualties, and mercenaries were, as a whole, less inclined to take personal risks. They fought for money, and remaining alive was a prerequisite for getting paid. The tunnel was twenty feet in diameter with a flat, graded roadbed. The Iranian troops, each armed with the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, had taken what cover they could find. Wilhelm’s team had shot out the lights, so the Iranians had little warning when out of the dust and smoke, twenty men charged down the tunnel. A brief and brutal firefight ensured, but by weight of numbers, Wilhelm’s men cleared the tunnel of its defenders. Upon receiving confirmation, Wilhelm made a final radio call. “Horst, converge on eight. We’re in.” Knowing that Horst would, per procedure, relay the news to Felecia, Wilhelm ran forward into the tunnel to take his place with his men. Five hundred feet into the tunnel, they encountered a closed gate made of heavy steel bars. That told Wilhelm that there were probably more defenders within. Using sappers and shaped charges, hoping like hell he didn’t bring the mountain down on their heads, they blew the gate and resumed their double-time advance, shooting out the lights as the went. Their night-vision gear was infrared, which worked by detecting heat differences. In total blackness, it gave them an enormous edge on the Iranian defenders. They needed it: three times, they took casualties from lone gunmen who shot from cover. Wilhelm did a fast nose count and felt his gut clench as he realized that almost half his force was now gone, dead or badly wounded. He had his own special dread regarding the gravely wounded. Felecia’s orders had been explicit: no one could be left behind to fall into Iranian hands. Part of Wilhelm’s duty to his men would not be an easy one; he had orders to kill those who were too badly wounded to be moved and would otherwise be left behind. He was well aware that it was for the best and motivated by compassion, but it was a duty that turned his stomach more than any other. The mercenaries charged forward, fanning out as the tunnel entered a massive underground gallery. Wilhelm’s men lashed out with a fusillade of bullets, taking out every light source they could directly see. It was not quite enough; as the echoes of gunfire faded, Wilhelm found that he could still partially see without his night-vision gear, due to the indirect glow of a few remaining bulbs. There wasn’t time to hunt down and destroy them all. The dim light took away the mercenaries’ largest tactical advantage, but as if to balance the scales, lady luck smiled upon another aspect of their venture; the centrifuge galleries, where the enriched uranium was separated further to yield weapons-grade material, were to their north. The area they’d entered was a large machine shop and assembly area. Glancing around, knowing that logically his quarry should be close, Wilhelm saw a lone solid steel door, set into the west wall of the gallery. Nodding once to himself, hoping that he was right, he ordered his sappers forward. Magnified by the confined quarters, the crump of the explosives shattering the hinges of the steel door hit Wilhelm and his men like a wall. The concussion slammed into their ears, nearly deafening them. An Iranian soldier, sheltering behind a milling machine fifty feet away, took advantage of the moment to open up on the attackers. He hit three before the answering fusillade of fire ended his life. Inside, past the steel door, Wilhelm looked around at his surviving handful of uninjured men, and then at the room itself. One wall was occupied by an unintelligible mass of electronic equipment that Wilhelm had no reason to care about. His focus was on his quarry, occupying bomb racks in the back wall of the chamber. They looked, in his opinion, like elongated oil barrels. Advancing at a run, he stopped at arm’s length from one of the eight cylindrical devices, and reached out to touch its steel shell. The access hatches on four of the devices were missing, and a quick glance inside confirmed that the nuclear cores were not present. Pulling out his Geiger counter, Wilhelm waved his most technically able man to his side and pointed at the four remaining devices. “Joachim, let us see if these contain their physics packages. We were briefed that those would be stored separately. I don’t see them, but my guess is that these four may be assembled devices. Let us hope so, or we have more searching to do. Check for anti-tamper mechanisms.” Wilhelm judged that risk low, given the radioactive mess that such a charge would make inside the facility. However, he stuck to his motto: Always make sure. The crackle of the Geiger counter, which began as soon as Joachim removed the first access hatch, lent further credence to their suspicions. What they had before them were four complete uranium core nuclear devices, which used a simple gun-assembly design. Joachim, who had once been an ordinance technician, confirmed it a few moments later. They had what they had come for and to their delight, four of the devices were stored in an assembled state. Instantly, he dispatched a runner with the news. Finding the bombs in an assembled state had been a possibility Wilhelm and Felecia had discussed, though both had judged it remote. Still, there had been clear orders issued from The Scar if it should occur, so Wilhelm asked Joachim, “How hard would it be to detonate one of these?” Joachim shrugged, peering into the bomb case. “I see an electronic command circuit. It would appear that a specific code is needed to fire the main charge and propel the uranium hemispheres together. Given half an hour or so, which we do not have, I can probably bypass it. An easier way would be to detonate the main charge by other means. Given this design, there is no need for it to be symmetrical. One of our shaped charges would suffice. We are fortunate that this is not an implosion core; those are far easier to failsafe. This is essentially a gun that fires a giant bullet containing a subcritical mass at another subcritical mass at the far end, thus assembling them into a sphere of above critical mass. It is simple, so simple that a variant of this design was used for Hiroshima without ever being tested, so sure were they that it would function. The American Trinity test was plutonium, you see, and–” The adrenalin rush of combat was easing, and Wilhelm felt himself relax a little. With a laugh he interrupted to say, “Enough, Joachim, we have not the time for history lessons. All I need to know is if it will work. Rig this one.” Wilhelm sent one of his remaining men back as a runner, to lead Horst’s force in. Wilhelm had a dilemma; from the look of the unassembled nuclear devices, he thought it highly likely that, somewhere close by, were several more ‘physics packages’ – the nuclear cores containing weapons-grade uranium 235. Part of his mission was to retrieve them all. He dismissed the thought; there was no time for further searching, and they already had four intact bombs. Then, leaving Joachim and his remaining men to guard the prize, Wilhelm set out in search of their most vital remaining need; transportation. He guesstimated that the bombs weighed over a ton each, which meant that he needed some heavy forklifts or at least some sizable powered cargo carts. A truck would be better, but he had little hope of finding one inside a mountain. Horst on the other hand had touched lucky. One of his recon teams a hundred yards to the north had found a truck, complete with keys in the ignition, abandoned in apparent haste, cab door open, outside of a bunker. The only problem; it was still mostly loaded with crates. That issue was an easy one to solve; his men had disconnected the remaining tie-downs, put the truck into reverse, and floored it. They’d slammed on the brakes at fifteen miles an hour and the sudden stop, combined with a twist of the steering wheel, had been enough to send the containers scooting off the flatbed and onto the dust of the road. At Horst’s direction, they’d backed the truck into the tunnel, racing to keep up with Horst’s advancing force. The truck, interrupted once by the staccato crackle of gunfire as another Revolutionary Guard made his presence known, was able to back to within yards of the steel door at the entrance to the bomb storage chamber. As the drinking continued, Eric could tell that things were almost back to normal between Jansen and himself. The friendly banter with Jansen and Keith – who had joined in the drinking – felt good, though Eric could tell that there was still an unaccustomed distance with Jansen. Something was still bothering Jansen; of that, Eric was sure. However, with things almost back to normal, Eric decided to let sleeping dogs lie. When it came time to go, Eric stood up to leave. “Thanks, guys. I’m going to crash. See you in the morning.” Jansen stood up beside Eric, his unease returning, and said, “Thanks… We’re cool, right?” Eric nodded once and gave Jansen a reassuring smile. Eric hesitated for a moment, and then with a grin pulled Jansen in for a hug. “Yeah, count on it.” Eric held Jansen tight, and the dancer returned the heartfelt embrace. Reluctantly, not really wanting to leave, Eric pulled away and headed for the door. “G’night, guys. Catch ya tomorrow.” The first warning came from Felecia’s perimeter guards in the form of a softly spoken radio call. “Hostiles, inbound. Three two-man elements, on foot and keeping cover, coming in from the south. Range, five hundred yards. Several more, range one thousand, coming in from the north.” “Let ‘em get closer in, but open up immediately if there’s any sign they have night vision gear,” Felecia replied, and then glanced at her satellite photo. General Bradson leaned over the map and began to point, “They’re converging on us, so that tells us two things; they’ve got command and control back and they know where we are. The ones from the south will be perimeter tower guards who fled in that direction, but the ones from the north, those’ll be from the Revolutionary Guard main force. This is recon, and you can bet the main force, or a big chunk of it, will be coming in pretty close behind. They’ll also be whistling up help from their air force. Recall your men, Fel, there’s no more time.” The conversation was interrupted by the crackle of the radio as Horst reported, “We found four of what we came for. Loading now. ETA at rendezvous ten minutes. We’ve left a little surprise.” “Not soon enough; they’ll be on us by then,” General Bradson said to Felecia. Felecia told Horst, “Expect hostiles, we’ve got recons inbound, expecting main attack to follow. Get here as fast as you can. Do not enter the area north of the aircraft under any circumstances.” Horst turned and ran into the tunnel, wondering if it would be too late to matter. It was the ‘four of what we came for’ that set the General’s mind awhirl. ‘If she’s not after chemical weapons, then what? Biological? But to come all this way for just four weapons’ he thought, and then, as if touched by the icy hand of death, he knew… The General glanced back at the satellite map. There was one thing that would verify his suspicions regarding what was in the massive underground complex: High-tension power lines. Centrifuge arrays, running on magnetic bearings, would use enormous amounts of power, and that necessitated a lot of power lines. The wires themselves would be too small to see on the photo Felecia had, but the towers and clearings should be visible… The General began to let out a sigh of relief, but then he saw them; a string of transmission towers, running north from the highway towards the cluster of eight buildings. En-route, they passed within a hundred yards of the first bunker. Glancing at the eight metal buildings, it was apparent that they had no need for such vast amounts of power… ‘So that’s what they did, they ran the power lines down from a tower and into a tunnel, leaving these buildings and the remainder of the line as a decoy,’ the General thought, and in that instant, he knew that Felecia had handed him an enormous dilemma. “I hope your men are in full-body MOPP 4’s,” the General said, knowing that there was no way they could have stowed enough of the bulky protective suits on the plane. Then he explained, “One bullet in a uranium hexafluoride tank or centrifuge piping and you’ll have a lethal cloud that makes nerve gas look like a health tonic.” Felecia’s hand twitched on the butt of her pistol. “If that’s a fishing expedition, I’m not biting,” she said. General Bradson shrugged. “I saw the power lines and know about the underground facility. There’s not much else that would need a massive, secret underground complex, equipped with vast amounts of electricity. I guess their rekindled nuclear program is even further along than the experts thought. Don’t confirm it if you don’t want to, but you’re after enriched uranium. Now, I’ve got something to say that will surprise you; I’ll help you get it, willingly, if you’ll let me wreck that facility.” Felecia arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Even if it takes more time,” she asked. “Yes, even if it means we might not make it out. Leave me behind if you have to, but that facility cannot be allowed to exist. Nuclear weapons in the hands of those fanatics… We must prevent that, by any means. Let me have some satchel charges, an RPG, and let me do my country one last service. Just get my son and the other Marine to safety,” the General replied with resolve. Felecia shook her head. “No need for heroics, Walter. I’ve come too far to lose you now. Besides, I think we’ll need you to get us out of here. Don’t worry about the facility. You heard Horst mention a little surprise. That means we’ve rigged up some demolition charges,” Felecia said, technically telling the truth, “and that facility won’t be a concern, shortly.” The sweat and brute force of twenty strong men sufficed to drag and roll three of the cylindrical bombs from their racks, through the chamber, and up a ramp onto the truck, where they were secured with chains. After giving the order to move out, Horst stooped by Wilhelm’s side. “Are you sure about this?” he asked, his voice colored by sorrow. General Bradson took cover next to Felecia on the crest of the closest embankment. Using his night vision goggles, he looked past the flashes of light from the perimeter, where Felecia’s men were exchanging fire with the surviving members of the Iranian recon force. On the northern horizon, he could see the advancing main force coming in at a jog, a mile north of their perimeter. “Half an infantry battalion, from the look of it, well spread out, in company-sized units,” the General said tersely. “They’ll be on us in under five minutes.” “I’ll pull my perimeter force back and get them in position, and let the Iranians have fun with our mines,” Felecia said, hoping that the plan she and General Bradson had come up with would work “They’ll pause at the mines, but then they’ll charge. They used that tactic a lot during the Iran-Iraq war. Sometimes, the best way to get through a minefield is at a full run. I just hope they don’t have any mortars or we’re toast.” The first detonations from the mines cracked through the air and Sartip Qassem Jaffari-Reza, feeling winded from the two mile jog, came to a halt but remained standing as most of the men in his advance element dived for the ground. His orders were both instant and loud, “Up, now, and forward! They can’t have many mines. Follow me.” There were times when a commander had to lead from the front, and this, he judged, was one such time. Ignoring his aching lungs, he ran forward, pistol at the ready, and following his example due to fearing his wrath, most of his men joined up. A few more detonations, this time behind him, along with some resulting anguished screams, informed that Sartip that his force had encountered a single line of mines, now behind him. Five hundred yards ahead, the C-130’s silhouette was plainly visible and almost in range. Over his command radio, he huffed, “Open fire at the plane when you get to two hundred yards. Aim for the engines first, enemy second. Keep moving. Destroy that aircraft!” Watching her perimeter troops taking up their new positions near the plane and unlimber their RPG-7 Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers, Felecia said, “This had better work.” General Bradson didn’t need a radio, not at that range. “RPG teams, fire!” he yelled, and then clicked on his radio to tell the C-130’s pilot, “NOW!” The RPG troops, without waiting for Felecia’s confirmation, obeyed. Ten RPG-7 rounds, designed to punch holes in armored vehicles, arced skyward, their launch flames lighting up the night. The lobbed, unguided rounds had large targets: the square embankments running north from the C-130. Some slammed into the dirt, but four found their mark, descending into the centers of the squares and punching through the storage containers within. With a thunderous roar, the RPG warheads smashed open the mustard-gas canisters and shells, releasing a cloud of heavy yellow vapor into the night air. The C-130’s pilot rammed the throttles forward to eighty percent, and the plane’s turboprop engines roared to life. The propwash howled from the C-130’s engines, turning the mustard gas cloud into a whirling maelstrom of death, pushed it north and causing it to fan out. The light breeze served to push the deadly gas a little to the east, as planned. Sartip Qassem Jaffari-Reza, now at the head of his men, had seen the RPG launches and assumed for an instant that they were intended for his force but fortuitously targeted in the wrong place. That impression lasted until the flashes of the detonating grenades lit the embankments to his south and west, none more than a hundred yards away. It was then, when he heard the howl of the motionless C-130’s engines, that he knew, with perfect, emotionless clarity, that he’d lost his life. He yelled into his radio, “Gas, move north at once.” That would save some of his men, he hoped. Clicking off his radio, he called out of the men around him, “No hope for us, but we can take them,” he gestured towards the C-130 with his pistol, “to death with us. Attack!” The Sartip felt his lungs and eyes begin to burn as the first wisps of mustard gas arrived on the artificial windstorm. Dropping to the ground, ignoring the pain, he yelled, “Fire,” and raised his pistol, firing wildly in the direction of the intruding plane from three hundred yards away. The staccato chatter of some of his men joining in with their AK-47’s met the Sartip’s ears, and he silently cursed the intervening embankments, which precluded a direct line of fire to the enemy aircraft’s engines. A second volley from the reloaded RPGs arced through the night, landing on another set of embankments just as the first ragged volley of shots from the choking Iranians cracked through the night. General Bradson winced as he heard several rounds pinging into the fuselage of the C-130. The incoming fire faded out over the following seconds, as the released gas ended the life of Sartip Qassem Jaffari-Reza and almost a quarter of his command. For hundreds more, hit by lesser doses and suffering the burning, choking horror of the effects, they would soon envy their dead comrades. “That won’t hold them for long. A lot of ‘em got clear to the north. They’ll circle west, get upwind of us, and attack,” General Bradson said. “And that’s the direction my men are coming from,” Felecia said, trying in vain to come up with some other means to delay the Iranian forces. Over the radio, the General ordered the C-130’s pilot, “Turn the plane, prepare for immediate downwind takeoff to the east.” At the Revolutionary Guards base, a platoon of artillery troops was hard at work, unlimbering three M101 howitzers. Consulting his plotting table, the young officer made his calculations and then barked out deflection and elevation settings. These were duly entered, and the officer, with sweating palms, watched as his men loaded in the first of the 105 millimeter high-explosive shells. After checking his radio link with the sentry on the mountaintop who was acting as a spotter, the officer reviwed his ballistics calculations one more time. In the forward end of the C-130’s cargo bay, Brian Bradson and Private Johnston were alone; every available mercenary had been deployed outside. The two Marines had wanted to join them and help with the defense, but François would not allow them any weapons. Not taking any chances at being overheard, Brian leaned close and whispered, just loud enough to be audible over the roaring engines, “Earl, my Dad passed me a warning. I think he’s expecting trouble and from what we’ve seen, he’s right. I kept a grenade and I’ve also got this,” he said, as he pulled a piece of paper from his uniform pocket and began to unfold it. Private Johnson checked his own pocket, and finding paper in it, he nodded once and withdrew it. They were handwritten and identically worded. Remembering the penlight his father had given him in the Jeep, Brian fished it out and used it to examine both pieces of paper and then read his own, with Private Johnson following along over Brian’s shoulder. Once he was done, Brian pocketed both pieces of paper and said in a shocked voice, “So that’s how Dad plans to get us across the Straits. Holy fucking shit…” The old flatbed truck, with twenty surviving mercenaries aboard, raced up to the C-130. Horst leaped down from the cab just as Felecia approached at a run with General Bradson. Felecia glanced at the men who were leaping off the truck and said, “Drive it up the ramp, now. We’ve got a large enemy formation inbound. What’s the ETA on the rest of our force?” General Bradson paled as he heard the driver put the truck in gear. “We can’t take that kind of weight, we don’t have the fuel,” the General yelled. Felecia yelled at the driver, “Back it on, now.” Horst watched for a moment as the driver swung the truck around. Horst then gave a loud command the men on the ground, “Follow the truck up, covering fire from the bay doors.” To Felecia, he said, “We’re it. No friendlies coming. We nearly ran into the Iranian advance elements, they’re about five hundred yards behind us. We took some fire from ‘em and had to detour south. That delayed us.” He checked his watch. “We’ve got three minutes left on the surprise package.” “Wilhelm?” Felecia asked, looking again at the surviving mercenaries, already dreading the answer. Horst and Wilhelm had been with Felecia for years, and she’d come to think of them almost as sons. “No chance. Sorry. I’ll explain later, if there is a later,” Horst said, as he turned his attention to getting his men on the plane. General Bradson walked up the ramp as the truck backed up and onto the plane. He cringed as he heard the deck plates groan under the load, and as soon as the truck was in the cargo bay he yelled, “Shut it down, parking brake on, and stay on the brakes. There’s no time to tie it down.” With that done, he raced for the cockpit. As he ran past the truck’s bed, he spared a momentary glance at the metal cylinders, assuming that they were simply storage casks for the enriched uranium – he hadn’t had time to notice the access hatches and electrical plugs that would have disproved that theory. That changed nothing: he’d long since decided that he could not allow the mercenaries to deliver potential weapons of mass destruction of any sort to The Scar. “Ready,” the first of the Iranian howitzer crews reported. “Fire,” the young officer said, while covering his ears. A brilliant flash and thundering roar lit the camp as the old howitzer belched smoke and flame, sending its first thirty-three-pound shell hurtling downrange. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  16. Chapter 25: Satan's Own Thunder As the lunch ended with a palpable tension still in the air, Eric followed Jon back to his suite. Plopping down in a chair, Eric said, “I don’t want Brandon and Chase to find out, but last night, I had some tequila. I didn't do it intentionally, and I promised them I'd stay off the stuff. I thought it was whiskey until I drank it.” Settling into a chair across from his brother, Jon remembered Jansen and Keith handing Eric a shot glass. Suspecting the answer, he asked, “How did that happen? Who gave it to you?” Eric shrugged and explained. Jon listened impassively before saying, “I figured it had to be them.” Beginning to suspect what was really eating Jon, Eric asked, “You don’t like them much, do you?” Jon waited a few moments, and decided to be blunt. “No I don’t. They’re taking you for a ride, man. This club they want you to cough up the money for… I think they’re just taking advantage. How long had they known you before they hit you up for that?” Eric leaned forward as he tried to explain, “Actually it was the other way around. The club’s my idea. I proposed it to them. The place I rented for rehearsals? They opened it up for two nights. They did a great job and I like their business ideas. Keith’s majoring in business, and he’s good – real good.” Jon considered that for a moment. The fact that Eric had originated the idea took away some of his arguments, but he pressed on, “So he’s just a student and you’re going to cough up big bucks for this scheme. I still think they’re playing you, bro.” “Helen’s on board. You think she’d go for it if there wasn’t anything to it? Jon, this thing was my idea and I’m kinda proud of it. Okay, whatever, this isn’t getting us anywhere. We both know that’s not your main issue. So, level with me, what’s up?” Eric asked, feeling that Jon was holding a lot back. He was right. “We’re brothers, man. That’s supposed to mean something, ya know? It used to be just the three of us, then Brandon came along and he and Chase got together. Now they’re joined at the hip, always off doing their own thing. That left you and me. Now all I hear from you, the few times I see you anymore, is Jansen and Keith this, or Jansen and Keith that. You don’t talk to me anymore. Think about it, when was the last time you and I hung out?” Jon let out a sigh, glad to have gotten that off his chest. Eric nodded, finally discerning the piece of the puzzle that he’s been missing. He knew, now that it had been said, that he had been ignoring Jon. It was obvious that Jon was feeling lonely and left out, but Eric was also aware that there were other issues involved. “Okay, I get that and I’m sorry, but there’s a reason I’ve been reluctant to talk to you lately… and I think we both know what it is. Try telling me the biggest reason you don’t like Jansen and Keith, because that’s why.” A long, awkward silence descended while Jon thought that through. Finally he said, “It’s… damn it, just tell me, why the hell did you decide to…. I’ve seen how you look at those guys, how you talk about ‘em… I know, okay? What the fuck is it with you? Chase, I get. He only likes guys. That’s how he’s wired. But you, it ain’t the same. I know you’re into girls. There’s no way in hell you can convince me you’re not. You’re into guys too, I get that, but that gives you a fucking choice, man, so why the hell did you decide to turn gay, and why with those guys? What did they do, get you wasted and mess you around, what?” Jon’s diatribe hit Eric hard, at several levels. He sat for a moment, trying to think of how to explain, as the implication of Jon’s words crept in. A smile creeping onto his lips, Eric said, “You think I’m screwing around with ‘em, don’t you? Both of ‘em?” “It’s not exactly a secret that you like three-ways, and they’re a couple…,” Jon said, a little crossly. Shaking his head, his smile gone, Eric replied, “Whoa, back the truck up. First off, they’re brothers and they aren’t into incest. They just pretend to be a couple so they don’t get hit on or pressured into stuff, doing what they do. If I even suggested a three-way, they’d probably kill me.” Seeing the adamant look in his brother’s eyes, Jon decided that he believed Eric. That left him with another question. “Okay, whatever. So you’re not doing three-ways. You doing ‘em both separately, or just one?” Eric’s temper began to stir. He was getting sick of Jon’s tone and attitude, and raised his voice a notch and said, “Try neither of ‘em. So far, we’re just friends. Believe me or not, I don’t care, but that’s the truth.” Lowering his head a little, Jon waited for a moment before saying, “Okay, okay, sorry. I guess I just jumped to conclusions. There’s three of you, you like three-ways, so I figured…” His temper calming, Eric shrugged, “Yeah, that’s a leap. That’d be like me assuming that every time I see you with two girls, you’re after a three-way….” Eric let his voice trail off before adding, “In your case, I’d be right. And mine too in the past. Okay point taken, but no, nothing’s going on at all.” “You said ‘So far,’ when you first said that. Tell me I’m wrong here, but you like at least one of ‘em, and I don’t mean as just a friend. I saw how you looked at them at the party. I’ve never seen you look at a girl like that, not ever.” Eric chewed on his lip for a moment before replying, “I can’t answer that. It’s not that I won’t, I just can’t, because I don’t know yet. That choice you mentioned… Yeah, I get it. I’ve seen what Brandon and Chase have to face. Do I want that? Hell no. But do I want to let what society thinks control my life? Hell no to that, too. Look, I’ve never had sex with a guy. I don’t even know if I’d like it. What I do know is that lately the girls just don’t do it for me as much as they used to. I click better with guys, so maybe that’s what I need. Hell if I know, but I do know that I don’t want to shut any doors. I knew you had issues with that, and that’s why I’ve been kind of distant.” “Yeah, I do have problems with that. You’re my brother and I want you to be happy. I just don’t get why you’d want to change sides, but that’s up to you. If you think that’s what it takes to make you happy, just be sure, that’s all I’m sayin’. I’m not real thrilled about being the only straight guy in Instinct, but I’m a lot more bummed that my brother isn’t around much anymore,” Jon said, looking up to meet Eric’s eyes. “I’m here, anytime. I’ll be around more, too. As for Jansen and Keith, why don’t you come hang out with us? I think you’ll like them. You want to know what really happened last night? They took care of me after I had the tequila. We splashed around the pool for a while then went back to their place and played quarters for whiskey. I ended up passing out. The thing is, they didn’t stress out on me and I had fun.” Jon let out a short laugh. “If they can put up with you on tequila, they must be saints. Okay, I’d like to get to know them.” Smiling, Eric said, “How about now? We can all go sit around the pool and watch the volcano or something. Lots of girls by the pool, too.” Grinning at the mention of girls, Jon stood up. “Lead the way.” Eric stood facing his brother and asked, “So, are we cool?” Giving it a moment’s honest thought, Jon slowly nodded before answering honestly, “Yeah. I can’t say I fully get what you’re doing, but I never understood that freaky talent you have for reading people, either. It just is, and this’ll be the same, whatever happens.” Jon thought for a moment, and then smirked as he asked, “So, which one of ‘em is it, that’s got you considering this big change of lanes?” Laughing, knowing that the recent wall between himself and Jon was beginning to crumble, Eric turned towards the door, giving Jon the dancer’s name in a conspiratorial whisper. Blinking in mild surprise, Jon followed Eric from the suite. After a couple of hours by the pool, shooting the breeze with Eric, Jansen, and Keith, Jon felt more at ease regarding the two dancers. He still had qualms regarding Eric’s possible openness to a relationship with one of them, but he’d decided that it was Eric’s life. The looming bulk of Cumbre Vieja and its occasional ventings of ash served as a pressing reminder that life could be short. Jon had to admit, as he watched Eric and the two dancers, that Eric seemed content. Nodding once to himself, Jon’s thoughts turned to his own desires, and he returned the admiring glance of a girl sitting in the sun a few yards away. He’d heard her order a drink, and her lilting Australian accent had caught his attention. Jon ambled over to introduce himself, and Eric watched as his brother pulled up a chair beside the tan girl and ordered them each a drink. Smirking, Eric nodded in Jon’s direction and said to Jansen and Keith, “Looks like Jon’s found his date for the night.” Eric was relieved that Jon had hit it off with Jansen and Keith. That solved Eric’s most pressing problem, and his mind turned to another. “Hey, you guys feel up to a trip to the airport?” “It’s closed. There’s all kinds of ash and stuff there,” Jansen replied, wondering what Eric was up to. “I need to talk to the pilots. A friend of mine is missing. I’m worried he might be in trouble. Two of the pilots know where he is, and those pilots might be the ones with our planes. I can phone to make sure they’re there, but I need to go in person because I don’t think they’d tell me over the phone.” Keith was curious, but couldn’t resist a dig. “That means you’re driving. If your driving is anywhere near as bad as your dancing, we’re all doomed.” Eric laughed. “Shut up. No, I asked one of the hotel staff. We’d hire him to take us in his car.” Flipping open his cell phone, Eric selected the number the air-charter service had given him on his first flight to La Palma, and dialed. A minute later, a crestfallen Eric reported, “No luck. I tried a few numbers but I can’t get a call to go through anywhere. The phones must still be messed up. I’ll try again in the morning, and if that doesn’t work, we can try our luck and just go.” Watching the sun sink towards the horizon, Keith asked, “You guys mind fending for yourselves for a while? I want to go check the disco out again.” “Sure Keither, you go, and leave me the hellish job of teaching this klutz to dance,” Jansen said. Keith gritted his teeth. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Eric and Jansen alone to practice an act – he knew all too well how much physical contact that entailed. Glancing into his brother’s eyes and seeing a sly twinkle, he realized that Jansen was thinking exactly the same thing regarding the dancing. Figuring that he couldn’t plausibly change his mind now, Keith decided to make his trip to the disco a brief one. An hour later, Keith, having run out or reasons to delay, headed for the disco. “So, ready to try to learn how to dance,” Jansen asked with a grin. “Lead the way. If you’re going to teach me to strip, I’ll need to swing by my suite and grab some clothes,” Eric said, hopping up out of his lounger and flicking a thumb at his boardies, the only thing he was wearing. Shaking his head as he turned to walk towards his suite, Jansen said, “No need. You’ve got a lot to learn before we get that far. We’ll start by teaching you how to walk without falling on your ass.” “I think I can manage walking, thank you very much,” Eric said with a laugh. Once they’d entered the suite, Jansen made a beeline for the stereo and started a CD. Turning to grin at Eric, he said, “Your latest album. I figured it might help if you were at least passingly familiar with the music.” Laughing, Eric replied, “Are you going to teach me to dance, or just insult me?” “What can I say, I like mixing business with pleasure,” Jansen replied with a wicked grin as he moved the coffee table out of the way. Returning to the cleared space, he said, “Get over here and dance.” Eric gave it a game try. He stood facing the stereo, and began clicking his fingers and swinging his hips in approximate time to the music. Jansen grinned and shook his head. “Okay, now I know where to start. First, we’ve got to teach you to move.” Jansen stood by Eric’s side, and as Eric watched intently, began to move to the music. Keeping it simple, Jansen stepped from side to side, swaying his shoulders but keeping them parallel to the ground. “This is a really basic move, called a step-and-pop, very popular among boyband types. Give it a try.” It took fifteen minutes of trying, combined with a lot of laughing, but Eric mastered the step enough to keep pace with Jansen. When Jansen called a halt, Eric said, “I can’t do any boyband type stuff on stage. That would kill Instinct’s image, and Helen would kill me.” Nodding, Jansen said, “I know, I’m just teaching you a few steps, mainly so you get used to moving in time with the music. Watch how I move. The idea is to draw your audience’s eye.” Eric had to concentrate to avoid lapsing into his old finger-snapping mode, but he kept moving as he watched Jansen. Jansen took a step to the side and swiveled on his heel, turning to face Eric. Nodding gently in time with the music, his blond hair falling across his forehead, Jansen began to dance, keeping his torso oriented on Eric. Jansen touched the fingertips of his right hand to his left hip, and as he continued to dance, slowly tracing his fingers up and to the right across his bare stomach. Fascinated by the sight, Eric mumbled a little as he said, “That looks complicated, almost like rubbing your head while patting your stomach.” “I think you meant that the other way around,” Jansen said with a laugh as he raised his right hand to begin patting his head while his left hand began tracing slow circles on his stomach. “I should have known you’d be able to do that,” Eric said, as he gave it a try himself, and failed. “Keith and I spend a lot of time training, just like you do for bass playing,” Jansen replied with a grin. Coming to a halt, he asked, “This strip act you’ve got in mind. What do you want to do? And do you want to do it solo, or with one of us?” With a shrug, Eric replied, “I was thinking solo, just something really basic. I’d go on stage to make an announcement or introduction, wearing Levis and a tear-away t-shirt, and then when the music queued up, I’d dance for a two or three seconds then rip the shirt off, and have a bow tie underneath. Basically just something to go with the opening night events but not enough to put Helen on the warpath.” “Okay, so you’ll be keeping your pants on this time,” Jansen said with a chuckle, “That’s probably a good idea. Pants or shorts take a lot more skill than a shirt does. Stay put, I’ve got an idea,” Jansen said, as he darted away towards his room. Jansen returned a moment later, with two black t-shirts in hand. Tossing Eric one, he tugged the other on and then smoothed his hair. “See what you think of this,” he said, as he waited for the downbeat of the music and danced sideways for three steps. On the fourth step, he leaned to his right, hooked the fingers of his left hand under the right hem of his shirt, and in one fluid move leaned to his left as he snatched the shirt up and off, sending it sailing into the ceiling. Jansen followed through on the motion, leaping into a spin, and upon landing took an arms-out bow. “I like it. Think you can teach me that?” Eric asked. Jansen nodded, “Yeah that should be easy. Try it.” Their eyes met, holding contact for a long moment, until Jansen broke the spell by moving aside. Eric pulled on the shirt, and then tried his best to mimic Jansen’s moves. Trotting sideways, Eric failed to synchronize his moves with the music. On the fourth step, he leaned to his right, hooked the hem of his shirt, and pulled. The sight of Eric stumbling around with the shirt tangled around his head was just too much, and Jansen doubled over laughing. “I think we need to work on that a little,” he said, as Eric finally disentangled himself from the shirt. “Put it back on and I’ll break it down and walk you through it.” Standing face-to-face with Eric, Jansen ran him through the three sideways steps a few times. Deciding that he had that down well enough, Jansen said, “Okay, let’s work on getting that shirt off.” Jansen didn’t know it, but he was chewing his lip, his breath becoming a little uneven. There was so much that he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead, he lowered his eyes as he ducked aside and walked past Eric. Standing a few inches behind Eric, Jansen reached his arms around him and said, “I’ll guide you. We’ll do it slowly then work up some speed. Okay, move with me.” Jansen guided Eric, easing him into the left lean, and then placed his left hand over Eric's as Eric hooked the shirt’s hem. “Pinch it a little or you’ll lose your grip on it. That’s what happened last time.” Guiding Eric’s hand, Jansen eased Eric into a reverse lean as the shirt lifted. “When it’s clear of your head, keep your shoulders level and extend your arm by straightening your elbow. Completing the motion slowly, Eric tugged off the shirt. Chuckling, he leaned back into Jansen’s arms, liking the sensation. “Okay, let’s try that again. I think I can do this,” he said with a relaxed smile. Three hours after takeoff, Smith reported over Flight One’s encrypted radio, “General, I’ve lost number three engine. Chamber temperature started to climb and I had to shut it down. I’ve feathered the prop and adjusted trim, but my airspeed has been reduced by twenty knots and now engine two is running a little hot.” Sitting in the pilot’s seat of Flight Three, hundreds of miles away, the General replied, “You’ll be over your bail-out point inside of an hour. Set the prop synchronization switch to null in case number two goes, and double-check that the bird is trimmed for level flight before you engage the autopilot and jump.” Turning to his co-pilot, the General said, “I’m throttling back. Losing an engine will delay Flight One’s arrival over its target and we’re time-critical on that.” The General cursed the fact that one of the corners they’d had to cut, due to the need for haste and an inability to conduct operational tests, was any means of remotely monitoring Flight One’s engine status. All he could do was hope the old wreck held together long enough to complete its final mission. General Bradson turned over command to the co-pilot, and concentrated on his laptop, making certain that he was fully familiar with the custom-written program’s controls. Once he was done, he flicked on his satellite phone and dialed Bill’s number in the U.S., to let him know that Pandora was underway. One hour later, Smith and General Bradson completed their final check of the laptop computers, verifying once again that the General could control Flight One from his computer in Flight Three. General Bradson let out a sigh of relief; Bill had written and tested the flight control software he’d installed in the laptops, but there had been no chance to test it in flight or with the customized autopilot that had been installed on Flight One for the purpose. The General could only hope that the laptops would not fail. If the necessity arose, he would likely have time to reboot the one in his hands, but for the one on the soon to be unmanned Flight One, the infamous ‘blue screen of death’ could have a very literal meaning. Nearing his drop point, Smith lowered the cargo bay door and walked to the gaping edge, giving his parachute rig one final check. Glancing at a handheld GPS, he waited thirty seconds until the coordinates he’d been given had been reached, and jumped into the gulf sky. Ten minutes later, Smith was safely aboard a chartered fishing boat near the northern end of the Persian Gulf, his part in the mission over. Flight One, unmanned and with its cargo ramp down and open, turned west by northwest. Its autopilot responded smoothly to commands from General Bradson, relayed from his computer to the one in its cockpit via the satellite phone. Both laptops had onboard GPS, so the General was able to know exactly where, and at what speed and altitude, the decrepit old C-130 was flying, and adjust its course accordingly, following the filed flight plan up the Persian Gulf for Basra, Iraq. At the northwest end of the Persian Gulf, a narrow strip of territory – Iraq’s sole access to the sea – just ten miles wide, centered on the Faw Peninsula, and bounded on the north by the Shat Al Arab, separates Kuwait from Iran. Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, lies sixty miles to the northwest on the southern banks of the Shat Al Arab, which forms the border between Iraq and Iran in that region. On the north bank of the waterway, thirty miles from the Persian Gulf, is the Iranian city of Abadan. As Flight One crossed over the coast, thirty miles southwest of Abadan, General Bradson sent a command to change the transponder code that the aircraft was squawking. Flight One had three transponders in its cockpit, each preset and hooked into the aircraft’s electrical system via a single three-position power relay. The relay was controlled by the laptop computers via a cable to the one in Flight One’s cockpit, giving the General the ability to select which transponder was powered up and operational. With the press of a button on his laptop, he commanded the relay on Flight One to cut power to the transponder that was set for standard Visual Flight Rules operations and turn on the one was set to squawk 7600, the code for communications failure, most commonly used due to a failed transmitter. Four miles southwest of Abadan, still in Iraqi airspace, Flight One banked to the right, changing course by thirty degrees, descending through ten thousand feet. As it crossed the border, General Bradson initiated a series of erratic course changes, just a few degrees, mimicking an aircraft with control difficulties. Just two miles from its primary target, Flight One began a gradual, descending left-hand turn, rolling out on a course of due west. Noticing a drop in airspeed, the General, concentrating on his laptop screen, ordered Flight One’s autopilot to advance the throttles. “I think engine two is failing, I’m getting a little yaw and a drop in airspeed,” he said to Felecia as their own aircraft wound through the canyons of Iran’s Zagros Mountains, thirty miles inland from the Straits of Hormuz, heading generally north. The co-pilot of Flight Three, wearing night vision goggles, began to sweat as he maneuvered the plane, using the rough terrain to shield them from radar. “Will we abort if your bombing run fails?” Felecia asked. They’d discussed abort conditions before, but Felecia wanted to be sure that the General hadn’t changed his mind. “Yes, we’d have no choice. Without the stand-down order, we’re likely to be blown out of the sky if we approach our target. We’d also have zero chance of entering the base. If the bombing run fails, our only option is to abort the mission and head back the way we came.” Approaching Abadan, one mile from its target and descending through six thousand feet, Flight One rolled out on a course of due west. The General triggered what he euphemistically referred to as ‘the sprinkler system’. It was simple in concept; flares mounted under the left wing ignited, while just ahead of them, fed by a spare fuel pump, two aft-pointing fire hose nozzles gushed to life, spraying a thousand gallons of fuel a minute into the slipstream, directly at the flares. The fuel ignited, leaving a fiery trail through the night sky as Flight One approached the designated initial point of its bombing run. The General swore under his breath as he fought the yaw, realizing its cause ­– he’d forgotten that the fuel and flame-front would roil the airflow under the wing, costing some lift on that side. He hoped that he could hold the plane on course for just a few more seconds. Struggling, furiously tapping keys, General Bradson urged his jury-rigged wreck the remaining mile towards its target; a simple set of coordinates, gleaned with precision from a satellite photo and adjusted for time lags and ballistic trajectories. The brilliant column of blazing fuel trailed under the wing, lighting up the night sky over Abadan. Seeing the fiery trail, most observers thought it to be some kind of missile, which had been the General’s intent. Aboard Flight One, the wind ripped through the open aft cargo door as the General, on Flight Three, noted that the initial coordinate set had been reached and pushed a button on his laptop, sending the signal to activate the motors of the garage door openers. The three-quarter horsepower motors ­– running off inverters that were hooked into the C-130’s electrical system to provide the needed 110-volt AC current – whined softly: turning winch spools instead of their chain-drives. The cables attached to the spools pulled taut, and then tighter still. The cables ran to the ends of the drop rails, through a pulley, and back to the wooden pallets. The pallets began to move on the cargo rails, sliding towards the open cargo bay door. One by one, the pallets fell into the slipstream, falling away aft. They were not yet free; attached to each was a hundred feet of thin steel cable, the far end anchored in the C-130’s cargo bay. As the line snatched taught it ripped the pallets apart, scattering their cargo of mayonnaise jars across the sky. The last pallet, containing strips of tinfoil cut to varying lengths and widths – chaff to clutter radar returns ­– disgorged its contents into the air. For the mayonnaise jars, gravity took over and they arced towards the ground. Several jars, impacted by debris from the pallets or collisions with other jars, broke apart. That released the spring-loaded spoons of the grenades they had held, allowing them to fip open, igniting their internal fuses. One by one, over a span of three seconds, eleven grenades detonated in the night skies over Abadan. Their sound and flashes were taken by several observers as anti-aircraft fire, adding to the impression that an air raid was underway. The remaining jars, still nearly three thousand in number and blessed with a target over half a mile across, fell through the sky. Over half of the jars fell within their target’s bounds, each shattering upon impact with the ground, or metal pipes, or storage tanks. Many of the grenades were mangled and rendered inert by the impact, but most survived, their released spoons triggering their fuses. Amidst the tinkling glass, three seconds of silence descended. It was not to last. The result of the General’s improvised bombing run was that the massive oil refinery at Abadan now had, scattered amidst its vast, fragile, and highly flammable acres, nine hundred and thirty live, active fragmentation grenades. With the first separated from the last by a mere two seconds, the grenades detonated, sending out blasts of fire and shrapnel, the latter of which served to shred countless pipes, catalytic cracking towers, propane and gasoline storage tanks, releasing a devil’s brew of highly flammable liquids into the growing maelstrom. Like Satan’s own thunder, a series of secondary explosions that made the grenade blasts look miniscule in comparison rocked the facility, releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline from the main storage tanks and into the growing inferno. Flight Three, with the co-pilot in command, continued northward, snaking its way between the rugged peaks of the Iran’s Zagros Mountains. Looking up from his computer, General Bradson gazed out the window to his left. Looking west, down a long canyon, he saw what he was waiting for: a section of the western horizon flashed orange as a fireball three quarters of a mile wide lifted into the clear night sky above Abadan, over five hundred miles away. He couldn’t see the fireball directly due to the curvature of the earth, but the brilliant flash and orange glow was all the confirmation he needed. “Scratch one refinery,” he said, and then returned his attention to his computer. The old plane at the other end of the data link still had one last duty to perform. The first part was simple; he switched its transponder power relay one last time, which activated the transponder set to squawk 7700, the international mayday code. Continuing west, the old C-130, trailing fire across the sky, had less than a mile left to fly. In the skies over Abadan, Flight One’s wing was now fully on fire and the heat was enough to raise the temperature of the fuel tank within. The fuel, driven by rising pressure, began to split open seams, feeding the blaze. One guard, standing a lonely post at the perimeter fence of Abadan international airport, saw the C-130 coming: a gout of flames, streaking in from the direction of the massive fireball that now filled the horizon two miles to the east. He neither knew nor cared what it was, for he was sensibly intent only on diving for what cover he could find. With his computer registering that Flight One was nearing its final target, General Bradson pressed the down arrow, and held it. The old C-130 nosed over, increasing speed, its nose pointing at the ground a little further north than the General had planned, but close enough. Smashing into the earth at a thirty-degree angle just two hundred feet from the threshold of runway 14R of Abadan International Airport, the flaming C-130 burst like an over-ripe watermelon, disgorging fuel and the remaining contents of its cargo bay. The fuel, finding ample ignition sources, created a massive fireball, consuming the shattered remains of the old cargo plane, as thousands of lemons ­– its sole remaining cargo, save for the cadavers – bounced across the ground, many hundreds emerging, smoldering but intact, from the fire. The exploding oil refinery and the resulting destruction of such a vital installation raised havoc in the Iranian Air Defense command structure. War warnings went out, citing the reported missile over Abadan, and the burning pyre of what had once been Iran’s largest oil refinery offering apparent confirmation that an attack was underway. Alerts went out all across Iran, and war warnings sounded at its military instillations. This, General Bradson had intended. He’d chosen his target with care: Iran, though sitting atop a veritable sea of oil, was a net gasoline importer due to having insufficient refining capacity. Its few oil refineries were thus considered a strategic Achilles Heel, and an attack on one, especially the largest one, was a possibility that the Iranian High Command found all too plausible. They recalled all too clearly that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had attacked the same refinery to devastating effect during the Iran-Iraq war. Now it appeared that someone had done so again. One common factor during an unexpected attack: false alarms and bad information. On this common denominator, General Bradson had based his battle plan. As the air-attack alert went out, reports of imagined contacts, both on the ground and in the air began to trickle into the Tehran command center, in very much the same way all manner of outlandish reports had come into American command centers on 9-11. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, some of the most widely broadcast films of Baghdad’s anti-aircraft defenses filling the sky with fire had been taken while no attacking aircraft were present – the barrages had been triggered by nervous, edgy troops, one commencing to fire and the rest taking it as a signal of an attack and opening up as well. Such is the nature of war. The chaos was joined by confirmed reports from two area radar stations: radar interference over Abadan, beginning moments before the explosions on the ground. It was surmised, for the moment, that this was evidence of an ongoing air attack. A smattering of reports regarding anti-aircraft fire over the doomed refinery added to the impression. Two miles from Abadan, an event that General Bradson had hoped for, though he felt that his plan would work without it, occurred: an anti-aircraft battery, which had seen the apparent missile over the refinery and had heard the reports from the radar stations regarding several targets still over the refinery ­– the chaff – spotted an incoming aircraft. What they did not know was that it was an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane, on a routine military transport flight inbound for the airport. Without waiting for confirmation, they opened fire at their unwitting target, filling the sky with tracers and anti-aircraft shells. Seeing the tracers arcing into the sky, other anti-aircraft sites opened fire, adding their own fury to the skies. The military transport, taken by surprise, began to maneuver, attempting to evade the incoming tracer fire. It made no difference; one of the weapons seeking them was a radar-guided mobile anti-aircraft SAM battery, which launched two missiles ­of a type known in the West as the SA-6 Gainful. The radar-guided missiles, streaking in at over Mach 3, found the Ilyushin an easy target. One after the other, the two missiles raced in, half a second apart, detonating their one-hundred-twenty-three pound fragmentation warheads directly under the Ilyushin’s center fuel tank. The plane, already shattered, immolated its remains in its own burning fuel, and the sight of the descending fireball caused the anti-aircraft crews to let out a ragged cheer and redouble their efforts. Aboard Flight Three, General Bradson set his laptop aside, donned night-vision goggles, and said, “Pilot’s aircraft,” as he took over the task of guiding the C-130 through the dark canyons, heading north. The monotonous roar of the engines, combined with the faint smell of jet fuel and oil, pervaded the cockpit. Everything was in the green so far, but the silence of Felecia and the flight crew indicated some frayed nerves. The General decided to give them a bit of a verbal boost. With a satisfied smile, he said, “To quote Patton, ‘Nobody ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack and attack some more.’ That raid we just staged should keep the bastards busy and keep ‘em looking the wrong way, giving us the opening for our main attack. This is going to be a night they’ll never forget.” With a laugh and a nod, Felecia replied from behind the General’s seat, “Old Blood and Guts sure had a way with words. One of my favorites is, ‘The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.’” Felecia paused for a moment, taking slight solace in the bravado of words, before adding, “We’ve got a long and risky mission laid on, but we’ll get what we came for.” General Bradson nodded in agreement. Sobering slightly as he remembered that he was not amongst friends, he resisted the urge to touch his pocket. There, he’d secreted his hastily handwritten notes, which he thought of as his insurance policy. At Abadan International Airport, the flames that had engulfed the shattered remains of Flight One had already consumed the little remaining fuel and were flickering out. A squad of troops that served as airport guards were the first responders on the scene of the downed C-130, and the first thing they noticed was thousands of lemons. Twenty minutes after the refinery’s destruction, the duty commander – a Colonel, due to the late hour – in the Iranian Air Force Command center at Doshan Tapeh Air Base, near Tehran, had two very different preliminary reports in his hands. Turning to his chief of staff, he growled in Farsi, “Lemons. It was a fucking cargo plane, Sudanese registry and a flight plan filed for Basra, hauling lemons, apparently trying to make an emergency landing at Abadan. Their transponder was set to emergency. The refinery must have been hit by debris from the plane. It also appears that our defense forces managed to shoot down one of our own transports and damaged another.” Weighing the evidence in his hands, which reported on a situation carefully crafted to lead him to only one conclusion, the Colonel also had to consider the fact that if he did not stand down, and this was an accident, his superiors would use him as a scapegoat for whatever happened. If on the other hand he issued a stand-down, it would have to be confirmed by higher authority, thus absolving him of blame. Colonel made his decision: it had to be stopped. “This is no attack. Cancel the alert and issue a full stand-down order.” He had several additional good reasons to stand down at once; a sudden alert, coupled by aircraft swarming towards the boarder, could trigger a war, and Iran didn’t need one, especially not with nearly half its refining capacity turned to flaming ruin and drastic fuel shortages thus inevitable. The ongoing anti-aircraft fire had already downed one Iranian plane and damaged another. Within minutes, the General Headquarters of Armed Forces, Iran’s highest military authority, confirmed his stand-down order. The Colonel in Tehran reacted by the book, as General Bradson had hoped; he sent out a new wave of orders, declaring the attack alert a false alarm and ordering a stand-down, which included a blanket cease-fire order to all Iranian anti-aircraft units. The blanket order was a necessity dictated by their command-and-control structure; the fastest way to get the word out, bypassing the delays of contacting individual units and area commanders, was a blanket order. This method was standard procedure in many of the world’s militaries. Units could and would be returned to alert status as the slower chain of command system allowed, but for now, Iran was standing down in order to avoid igniting an accidental conflict, and also to avoid further friendly-fire incidents. General Bradson’s battle plan was working, for the moment. Further reports of enemy contact would, by rote, initially be dismissed out of hand as simple panic or over-active imaginations. The situation would not last long, but it didn’t need to; it only had to last long enough. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  17. Chapter 26: The Scorpion and the Frog The soft touch of Jansen’s hand on Eric’s bare shoulder sent a shiver down his spine. Turning to face Jansen, Eric looked him in the eyes and smiled, as the hand remained in its place. “Does that bother you?” Jansen asked in a soft voice, indicating his hand with a glance, and wondering if what he desired was possible. “I like to be touched,” Eric said, lost in Jansen’s sapphire-blue eyes. Eric took a slow step forward, closing the gap between them to nothing. The rattle of the door cause both guys to take a sudden, instinctive step back, and they both spun to face the door as Keith walked in. “Hi, what’s up?” Keith asked, looking slightly uneasy. Jansen, suspecting the reason his brother had returned from the disco so quickly, said in a slightly irritated tone, “You’re back early. I was just teaching Eric some moves. I think we’ve got something he can use.” Smiling, ignoring his brother’s tone, Keith plopped down in a chair. “Show me,” he said, pretending to be oblivious to the daggers in Jansen’s eyes. Aboard Flight Three, General Bradson, decked out in his black jump gear, stood in the cockpit door waiting anxiously for Bill’s report over the satellite phone. Bill had promised to find out, via a friend at the National Reconnaissance Office, whatever he could about Iranian alert levels. General Bradson was depending on that information in order to confirm the stand-down he desperately needed. The awaited call arrived, but Bill’s words in the General’s ear did little to lift his mood. “No luck so far General. My contact does not have the data yet. The only intel I have is that we did see an enormous thermal signature at Abadan, which indicates that you hit your initial target. I hope to have the alert level data within the hour,” Bill said with sincere regret, unaware of the battle in Somalia and believing that he’d just handed General Bradson the first major hiccup in the General’s battle plan. From the safety of his living room, Bill could only imagine the tension at the far end of the line, and was surprised to hear the General reply casually, “Don’t worry about it, Bill. You tried. We’ll handle it from here.” General Bradson didn’t let his disappointment show. He knew that the report would be too late to matter so there was no point in Bill or his contact putting themselves at further risk. Ending the call, he glanced at his GPS navigational display, and knew they’d be finding out, one way or the other, in a few minutes. Biting his lip, he decided to roll the dice and proceed with the mission. Ten minutes later, five miles from the first delivery zone, General Bradson checked his GPS again and smiled. Satisfied, he turned to Felecia and said, “So far, so good. We’ve got confirmation that they’ve issued stand-down orders.” Arching an eyebrow due to having heard nothing of the kind, Felecia asked, “How do you know that?” With a casual shrug and a nod towards one of his blinking radar detectors, the General replied, “Those SA-6 batteries we just flew near. They’re tracking us, and if it wasn’t for the stand-down orders they would have blown us out of the sky by now.” Without waiting for a reply, General Bradson walked aft. What he hadn’t said was that he’d have picked up ­– via a change in the detector’s display – any shift to the higher frequency fire-control mode. He might even have done so in time to evade a missile, maybe, but he kept his silence on that, not wanting to spoil the effect he hoped he was having on Felecia. After running Eric through the moves a few times, Eric was getting better and faster, and Jansen’s mind turned to dealing with his brother. Keith nodded approvingly. “That’s not half bad, Eric. Keep working on that and you’ll get it down.” Eric could sense the tension between Jansen and Keith and suspected that he himself was the cause, though he was unsure as to why. The sudden change in Jansen’s demeanor left no doubt that something was wrong between the two dancers, and Eric decided that he should leave them alone to talk. “I’ve got a song in mind for this; I think it’d be perfect. I’ve got it on CD – be right back.” Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Eric hustled out the door. As soon as Eric was gone, Jansen glared at Keith. “Why the hell did you come back early? Tell me the real reason.” Dropping his fake smile, Keith replied, “Calm down Janse. I was just worried that something would happen that we’d all regret. He’s been drinking, remember?” Slamming himself down into a chair, Jansen shook his head. “He had one drink when we were at the pool. He’s sober damn it, and I think you know that. You’re just worried about the club deal –” “Fine, he’s sober. Janse, if something happens now and it doesn’t work out, we lose the club deal. You’re right, that’s part of what’s bothering me. Without that, we’re screwed; it’s back to scummy clubs for us, if we’re lucky. The other part is… I’ll just say it; he’s either straight and wanting to experiment, or bi. Either way, what if he just wants a one-time thing? I know you’ve got feelings for him, so how would you deal with that? Would it tear you up like your first time did?” Calming down, Jansen replied, “Yeah, I know, I know, but I don’t think he’s like that. I don’t think he’d yank the club deal from us, and I don’t think he’d screw me over. Keith, I appreciate your concern, but this is my life. I know the club deal is yours too, I get that, but I want to see where this goes.” Nodding, Keith let out a sigh and then replied, “Okay, I’ll butt out. Just be careful, okay? So, what happened?” “Nothing… you barged in before it could. I was­–” The ringing phone interrupted Jansen, and due to being the closest he answered. After listening for a few seconds, he replied, “Sounds like a plan. I’m on my way. ” Returning the phone to its cradle, Jansen said, “That was Eric. He wanted to know if I wanted to use the dance floor where we had the stag party. I think it’s pretty obvious that he knows something’s up between you and I, and that’s why he doesn’t want to come back here.” “Okay, I get it, I fucked up. Tell him I’m sorry, will ya? That goes for you too. Sorry, Janse,” Keith said. He still had his reservations, but he knew he’d done all that he could. Jansen stood up, grabbed the black shirt Eric had been practicing with, and said, “Okay, see ya later. Wish me luck.” Jansen dashed off to meet Eric, and Keith, very much alone, listened to the silence for a while. In the cockpit of Flight Three, the former copilot was now ensconced in the left-hand seat, the pilot’s seat. That, by both custom and mission rules, made him the pilot, for the time being. The pilot continued flying the gradual s-turns designed to obscure their destination from any observers. Four miles south of the initial point for the bombing run he eased back on the throttles and turned due north, heading directly towards it. Concentrating on his instruments, he called out, “Two thousand feet AGL, speed one fifty, course zero-zero-zero, ground track is drifting east. Westerly wind confirmed. Lowering the cargo bay door.” Felecia, sitting in the navigator’s seat, watched the changing latitude and longitude readouts. She glanced once for confirmation at the slip of paper in her hand, where the General had written, 30°19'8.25"N 56°52'42.98"E A quarter of a mile before that point – the initial point of the bombing run – was reached, Felecia began to yell over the intercom, “Initial point in seven seconds…. three... two… one… NOW! Drop, Drop, Drop!” The aircraft, its engines throttled back for relative silence and in a shallow dive to maintain airspeed, was on a ground track that approached from the south and ran due north, passed half a mile west of the Revolutionary Guard’s compound. . The three men on each side of the first pallet shoved it down the drop rails and into the dark, moonless desert skies from two thousand feet above the ground. Four paratroopers, whose mission was to mark the C-130’s landing strip, counted off five seconds and jumped, directly over the eight buildings that stood on the western edge of the rows of earthen hollow squares. Their ram-air parachutes unfurled as they emerged from the plane and they steered to the east, trying to get as close as possible to the C-130’s planned landing point. After counting off five more seconds, the men in the cargo bay hurled another pallet into the darkness. Every five seconds thereafter they dropped another, six in all. When the last cleared the cargo bay, they relaxed a little; the risk of a ruptured jar releasing noxious gas into the aircraft had been very real, and they were glad to be rid of the last of the chemical jars. The Iranian base was vast, laid out in essentially a giant square two miles on a side. Approaching from the south, the first sign of the base was a row of guard towers, a quarter mile apart, running east to west along the base’s southern perimeter. The western perimeter was similarly equipped. The western perimeter was formed by a small mountain range running north to south, and along the range’s eastern flank was a winding dirt road, serving a series of deep bunkers. Near the southwesterly corner was a large area, itself roughly square, used by the Iranians as a semi-secure temporary storage area. It consisted of earthen embankments, ninety feet across. Essentially earthen levies a dozen feet high, they served to shelter a square area open to the sky within. Long straight access roads bisected the northern ends of the squares, whose purpose was to protect, both from view and air attack, munitions and equipment as it was prepared for bunker storage. There were eighty-one of these square embankments, lined up in rows, forming what was roughly a square, three quarters of a mile wide. At the northeastern corner of the base stood a cluster of large buildings that formed the compound of the Revolutionary Guard battalion tasked with the base’s defense. The first pallet had been targeted upwind of the line of guard towers on the base’s southern perimeter, using the base’s southwest corner as the initial point. The remaining five pallets had hit, one every few hundred yards, along the base’s western perimeter. This time, there were no grenades in the three thousand falling mayonnaise jars. They contained the chlorine, and within the smaller jars nested inside, ammonia and sulfuric acid. Plopping down amongst the tinkling sound of shattering glass, the chemicals mixed. The result was simple; the intermixing chemicals reacted to produce chlorine gas and chloramine gas, along with several highly volatile sulfur and nitrogen compounds. The intent was to form a noxious cloud that covered the base and also to create an obvious escape route for the Iranians in the Revolutionary Guard’s compound: north, away from the C-130’s landing zone. The gas concentration was not quite high enough to kill, but it would be more than enough to send men running and choking as the cloud drifted over the base. It also needed to be strong enough to trigger sensors in the Iranian’s chemical-detector vans, which was the primary intent. The cloud took time to drift east on the gentle wind as Flight Three, once clear of the base, continued on for three minutes before banking to the right, circling back and rolling out on a course that would take them directly over the Revolutionary Guard’s compound. Few things are as frightening as a chemical weapons attack, and several of the older men on the ground had lived through them during the Iran-Iraq war. Like their comrades, they had heard no explosions ­– there were none to hear – only this distant tinkle of shattering glass, heard by just a few. Most of the men knew some of what they guarded; chemical weapons, in an array of bunkers south and west of their base. They drew an obvious, though false, conclusion: there was a major leak. The chemical warfare detector vans, deployed on the site mainly for that purpose, sent out their wailing alarms. Several shouted warnings later, the base’s defenders, already in position due to the recent alert, turned their minds to their own survival. Only a few men had even rudimentary chemical protective gear available. The rest sought the safety of distance, and taking notice of the westerly wind, followed their training and ran north to escape what they thought was the lethal plume. This was not cowardice; it was a logical reaction to a perceived situation they could do nothing to aid. From the C-130’s cockpit, Felecia watched through infrared night-vision goggles and called out on the intercom as soon as she was sure. “Approaching the target. They’re bailing out like rats from a sinking ship, heading north. Jump point in fifteen seconds. Good luck, General, see you at the rendezvous,” she said, and then began giving them a countdown to zero. In the back of the C-130, as Felecia’s voice on the intercom counted down, General Bradson waved Wilhelm close. The General had guessed, prior to the mission, that the mercenaries were after something, though he was unsure as to specifically what. He’d played along, due to needing them. There was also the fact that they needed him to get out, though he wondered if they realized it. He needed to make certain that they did, in order to prevent the double-cross that he was expecting. Pulling a piece of paper from his pocket, he thrust it into Wilhelm’s hands and said over the howl of the engines and wind, “For Felecia’s eyes only. No exceptions.” Felecia’s voice reached zero, and the General, along with his five men, rushed aft, leaping off the cargo ramp in ragged formation. In near unison, they pulled their ripcords three seconds later. In the cockpit, Felecia turned her attention to her real mission, unaware that Wilhelm was racing forward to give her the General’s message. The one remaining Iranian sentry, safe from the noxious cloud by virtue of being on a mountaintop two miles to the west, heard the howling sirens and used his night-vision gear to scan the bunkers, looking for signs of the non-existent leak. As General Bradson had intended all along, they arrived well after the moon had set. In the near panic raised by the assumed chemical weapons leak at the base, no one noticed, under cover of darkness, the blacked-out parachutists descending from the sky over the almost-empty installation. General Bradson and his five ex-special-forces troops glided towards the building the General had selected. Landing one after the other on the flat roof, they shrugged their way out of their parachutes and jump coveralls, exposing the Iranian uniforms beneath. No one expected to be able to blend in well – none of them spoke more than a dozen words of Farsi – but from a distance, they hoped the uniforms, along with the chaos, would avoid raising suspicion. Carrying AK-47s slung over their shoulders and relying on silenced nine-millimeter pistols at combat-ready, the rescue team, with the General in the lead, advanced down the stairs. Listening for any sound, they traded caution for speed. At the foot of the roof stairs, General Bradson eased open the door, nosing through gun first, blinking against the harsh fluorescent lights, his heart sinking as his eyes scanned the rows of stainless-steel countertops for any sign of opposition. As his troops followed him in, one stated the obvious. “I think this building is the base kitchen.” General Bradson knew he’d guessed wrong regarding the base layout. Ignoring the comment, he said, “Let’s head outside. Look for any sign of a jail or guardhouse.” Exiting the kitchen, they edged cautiously out into the darkness of the largely deserted base. A few stragglers still raced north – two wore gas masks, but masks alone are of no use against blister agents such as mustard gas, a large component of the Iranian chemical arsenal. The General glanced around the compound, matching up the buildings with the satellite photos he’d memorized. He noticed light streaming out from a window of a building fifty yards away, and taking it as his best bet, indicated it and led off in that direction, hoping that he was right. The clue he’d seen was shadows on the window glass that looked to him very much like bars mounted inside. Advancing single-file at a jog, trying their best to appear as just a few troops who belonged there, the rescue team followed the General towards the guardhouse. The main door stood ajar, which the General took as a good sign, and walked inside, his nine-millimeter pistol lowered but ready at a moment’s notice. Inside, he scanned the room and called out, “Clear,” in Farsi, the signal for his team to enter. The mercenaries followed the General in, briefly illuminated by the light streaming out of the buildings open door. They were unaware that they had been seen entering by one of the few remaining Iranians on the base. “Full flaps, now!” the pilot of Flight Three called out to his copilot. Felecia, seated in the navigator’s position, kept quiet; she knew there was nothing useful she could do. The pilot, with night-vision goggles strapped to his profusely sweating head, stared out into the darkness as he continued to descend. He was certain that they had overshot, but then he saw them; two pairs of glow sticks, marking the threshold of the stretch of access road he’d be using as a runway. He banked hard to starboard, lining up on the threshold and the trail of glow sticks beyond it, which denoted a few hundred feet of centerline. What the pilot saw rushing up in the darkness terrified him; the square earthen embankments on the left side of the service road looked taller than he’d been led to believe. The service road he was landing on was graded dirt, fifty feet wide. The problem was that the C-130’s one hundred thirty two foot-wingspan meant that a perfect centerline landing would leave about forty feet of wing overhanging on each side. The wingtips only had thirteen feet of ground clearance, and the embankments to the left looked to the pilot to be higher than that. The team that had checked and marked the runway was supposed to have checked that, but the pilot hadn’t had confirmation, so he trusted his eyes rather than the team on the ground. The pilot was painfully aware that if the aircraft was damaged and unable to take off, they were all dead. Easing to the right of the centerline as far as he dared, the pilot eased back on the yoke, then cut the throttles as he entered ground effect, struggling to keep the plane level as it began to shudder from stall buffeting. The nose began to settle, and as he felt the plane drop, the pilot hauled back on the yoke. The main gear hit first, raising a thundering noise as it came into full contact with the uneven road surface. Using nose-wheel steering and brakes, the pilot held the aircraft as far to the right as he dared, and rammed the throttles forward as he reversed the pitch of the props to generate reverse thrust: standard short-field landing procedure. The massive amounts of dust kicked up by the propwash momentarily blinded the pilot, and he kept the aircraft on course by guesswork. The plane shuddered to a halt, fourteen hundred feet down the improvised runway, and Felecia gave the order; “Shut her down. Good landing.” Soaked in his own sweat, the pilot left the engines idling and replied weakly, “They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Now I believe it.” After confirming that the cargo bay door was lowering, Felecia at last was able to take the time to glance at the General’s note. Flicking on a map light, she unfolded it and began to read, Fel, I know that your real mission does not involve me or the two Marines I’m here to rescue. I won’t interfere with your mission, but don’t try interfering with mine. I’m taking no chances on a double-cross; you cannot get out of Iran alive without me. If you try to complete my plan as you know it, you will be blown out of the sky. See you at the rendezvous. Walter. Folding the paper and shoving it in her pocket, Felecia grumbled under her breath, “I know that, you ass.” Setting that thought aside, she headed aft. “Saddle up and move out,” Felecia ordered as her men formed up, “The bunkers and tunnels are just to the west. Follow the plan; six man elements, take out any opposition, blast your way into the bunkers, and the first one to find the entrance to the underground complex, report in immediately.” Felecia stooped, retrieving the four Geiger counters from their hiding place. She distributed them, two apiece, to Wilhelm and Horst, and said quietly, “I don’t expect it to be hot in there, but be sure. Use ‘em to confirm our goal, and get in and out as fast as you can. Every second counts. Report in as often as you can. Good hunting.” With that, and a wave of her arm, she sent her men off on their mission, wondering how many would not return. Felecia wished she could go along, but she knew that in some cases, a good commander gave the orders and got the hell out of the way. Her job was to guard the C-130, and stand by in case of trouble. That task entailed the thing she hated above all else: waiting. Felecia descended the cargo ramp, flipped her night-vision goggles down into place, and scanned the terrain. To one of the two five-man teams who had been tasked to remain with her, she said, “Set up a perimeter to the north, about a quarter mile out. At the first sign of an Iranian force, sing out.” Without another word, Felecia clambered up the nearest earthen embankment and lay down prone in the dust of Iran, and focused on scanning the horizon, on the lookout for any sign of the Iranian response which she knew must come. It was, she was certain, a matter of when, not if. The square earthen embankments caught her eye, and she recalled what she’d been told might be in them; chemical weapons and other munitions, in transit for the bunkers her men were currently attacking, or items it was deemed best to store in a place of unrestricted ventilation. Keying her radio, she ordered two of her men on the C-130 to head north and identify the contents of the westernmost row of square embankments, running north. Sartip (Brigadier General) Qassem Jaffari-Reza was a singularly humorless man, and the events of the previous hour had only served to further sour his already acerbic demeanor. The pell-mell evacuation of the base he commanded had left him with an organizational nightmare: He’d drilled his men often for a chemical leak, but as he now realized he should have expected; reality bore little resemblance to the drills. Thousands of men had fled the assumed poison gas leak, himself amongst them, heading for the pre-designated rally point to the north that he’d designated for a leak during a westerly wind. Less than a third of his men had taken the time to grab weapons, radios, or other needed gear. The one bright spot was that one of his two chemical detector vans had, per his procedure, joined them. It was now his first line of defense against a shift in the wind, and his first order of business was to prepare the men to move out if that occurred. Trying to mold chaos into order, he had called out for his senior officers, and though it had taken a while – too long, in his opinion – they were now making headway in organizing the men. The Sartip knew that keeping the men busy served to keep them calm, and it served his motto as well: be prepared. The Sartip glanced around, nodded once to himself as he judged the progress somewhat acceptable, and spared a moment to remove and clean his gold-rimmed glasses. As he wiped the lenses clean, he decided that getting a communications net up was now his most immediate concern and sent three men off as runners, seeking what communications gear they could find. Jansen jogged through the resort grounds, sparing an automatic glance at the looming bulk of Cumbre Vieja. He couldn’t see it in the darkness, but for Jansen, as well as almost everyone else in the resort, looking in its direction had become second nature. Strolling into the party pavilion, Jansen heard the familiar notes of Instinct’s ‘Believe’, and spotted Eric, practicing on the dance floor. Jansen had to admit it was a great spot; the party pavilion was private and they had it all to themselves. Eric paused to grin at Jansen, “I figured this song would be perfect for the club opening, so I wanted to practice with it. Everything okay with you and Keith?” A little rattled by Eric’s sudden shift to that particular subject, Jansen cocked his head shyly and said, “Yeah. Sorry about that. I’ll explain later, but everything’s fine now.” The butterflies in Jansen’s stomach prevented him from saying more, so he tossed Eric the black shirt. Jansen stood a few feet to the side as Eric ran through the routine three times, moving in better – though far from perfect – time with the music. As Eric completed the third set, Jansen grinned and clapped. Eric angled his head looking sideways at Jansen. He had no doubts how Jansen felt about him, but warred within himself over taking a very big step, one that could change his life in unexpected ways, and also, if it didn’t work out, imperil a friendship that had became a major part of his life. Eric contemplated Jansen for a moment, and one thought fought its way to the surface, conquering the others, ‘I have to know….’ With his mind settling, Eric took a step closer to Jansen. “Why don’t you show me what it should look like. I could use the inspiration,” Eric said, adding a wink as he tossed Jansen the shirt. Jansen tugged on the shirt, waited for the beat, and ran through the move with practiced ease, snatching the shirt off and tossing it in the air, his lithe muscles rippling. Eric took a step closer before saying in a quiet voice, “You make it look so easy. The way you move, it’s… mesmerizing. You know just how to turn, just what the right angles are… and a perfect body and look.” Eric reached out, the corner of his mouth curling up into a faint smile, as his placed the palm of his hand on Jansen’s chest. Feeling the warm skin and the racing heart beneath, Eric repeated Jansen’s own words from before they’d been interrupted, “Does that bother you?” The guardhouse’s main entry hall appeared deserted, but a clamor from a corridor to the left caught the General’s attention. Someone was yelling in Farsi, and aside from the angry tone, the General couldn’t understand a word. “See any keys?” he whispered to his team, barely intelligible through the gas mask. Two of the team moved off, rifling through desk drawers. To the remaining men, the General whispered, “I doubt we’ll get that lucky, but it’s worth a shot. On me.” With that command, the General led the remaining three men down the corridor. The first occupied cell they came to held an obviously frantic prisoner, who was still yelling in Farsi and clutching the bars of his cell’s door. General Bradson was about to pass by when a memory caused him to spin and face the prisoner, and he recognized a face he’d memorized from a file photo. The prisoner, seeing only the men in Iranian uniforms and gas masks, looked up with hate in his eyes. Leaning forward, General Bradson raised his gas mask to whisper, “Private Johnson, keep it quiet and we’ll have you out in a few.” Shock, then hope born of realization, filled Private Johnson’s face, and he whispered back, “There’s another of us, two cells behind you. Got some spare gas masks?” With a nod, the General unclipped a spare from under his coat, and handed it over, along with a folded Iranian uniform, “Put them on fast. The gas isn’t theirs, it’s ours, and it probably isn’t that dangerous, but cover up anyway.” The main reason for the masks was to conceal their faces, but the General was also well aware that both chlorine and chloramine could be deadly. He didn’t think the concentrations at this distance from the release point were dangerous, but saw no reason to take chances. As Private Johnson began to change, the General spun around and raced back, to a cell he had thought was empty. Staring in, his heart in his throat, he saw his son, curled up in the shadows. Brian wasn’t looking at him, but instead was staring at his own feet. As loudly as he dared, not wanting the Iranian prisoner a few yards away to hear him speak in English, the General said, “Come on, we’re getting you out of here.” Brian Bradson gazed out through the bars, still slightly delirious from sleep depravation. He blinked a few times and shook his head, not believing what he was seeing. “Dad, is that you? When did you join the Iranian Army?” he asked in a bemused, slightly slurred voice. General Bradson could tell that his son was not thinking clearly, and guessed the cause. “Brian, focus. I’m here to get you out. We’re looking for the keys right now.” He tossed his son a uniform and gas mask, and reached into his pocket for a small shaped charge, in case the search for the keys was fruitless. Brian pulled off his filthy shirt as he struggled to his feet. Fighting off the effects of sleep deprivation, he began to accept that what he was seeing was real. As fast as he could, he changed into the clean uniform, savoring the feel of clean cloth against his skin. One of the two men who had been detailed to search for the keys returned, shrugging with open hands to indicate the failure of their search. General Bradson didn’t hesitate. “Blow the doors,” he said, as he affixed the shaped charge to the cell’s lock, and one of the mercenaries did the same to Private Johnson’s cell. General didn’t pause. “Now,” he said as he lit the fuse and the mercenary followed suit. “Stay back,” he said, as he darted aside. A muffled thump and a sharp explosive snap, followed a split second later by another, heralded the destruction of the locks. General Bradson seized the cell door and pulled, jarring it free on the third attempt. Brian rushed out, a euphoric look on his face, and moved to his father. General Bradson swept his son up in his arms, appearing to all as a relieved father as he hugged his son. Even the hardened mercenaries found the scene touching, and completely missed the sudden brief expression of stunned surprise that appeared on Brian’s face as his father began to tap his fingers on his son’s back, spelling out, in Morse code, S - C - O - R – P – I – O – N General Bradson felt Brian tense slightly, but only for a moment. A subtle nod of his son’s head let him know that the message had been received. The General was relieved; he hadn’t been sure that Brian would remember the old story of the scorpion and the frog. General Bradson pulled away, straightening his arms, and placing a hand in each of his son’s shoulders. They locked eyes for a moment, and then the General gazed pointedly at the left breast pocket of Brian’s Iranian uniform. As his father turned and gave the order to move out, Brian tried to make sense of the private message. His Morse, learned as a child, was rusty enough that he was less than certain he’d understood. It was the look in his father’s eyes that had spoken more clearly, and Brian became sure that the word his father had relayed was indeed ‘scorpion’. As a child learning to read, Brian’s favorite story had been The Scorpion and The Frog. It had been in a book of fables, one of the last gifts from his mother before she died. He could still recall her reading it to him, her voice raspy and weak, during the final days of her life. One day a scorpion arrived at the bank of a river he wished to cross, but there was no bridge. He asked a frog that was sitting nearby if he would take him across the river on his back. The frog refused and said, “I will not, because you will sting me.” The scorpion replied, “It would be foolish for me to sting you because then we would both drown.” The frog saw the logic in the scorpion's words, and agreed to carry the scorpion across, but when they were halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. The stunned frog asked with his last breath, “Why did you sting me? Now we will both die!” The scorpion replied, “Because it is my nature…" Stunned by the sudden reality of what had once been but an idle dream, Jansen lost his studied composure. His breath ragged, Jansen edged closer to Eric, the blood racing through his ears, and to other places as well. Jansen paused for a moment, his excitement becoming obvious, and part of him hoped that Eric wouldn’t look down, while another part of him wished that he would. With desire, Jansen placed his hand on Eric’s bare shoulder, taking a moment to caress the warm skin and smooth muscle. Stilling his hand, locking eyes with Eric, Jansen said, “It’d bother me if you didn’t.” Eric could feel the bond of emotion between them, and with a clarity denied to most, he knew the heart of another. Jansen let his hand roam down Eric’s bare back, tracing his fingertips in lazy circles. Lost in the rush of the moment, he said in a whisper, “This is a surprise. I didn’t know you were into guys.” Grinning, leaving his hand on Jansen’s chest and letting the other come to rest on the side of his torso, Eric edged closer as he murmured with a subtle grin, “I never said I was straight. I’m bi, I guess, just never been with a guy for more than a kiss.” Old fears welled up inside Jansen, and seeking to quell them, he asked in a casual tone, “Are you sure about this? If you’ve never been with a guy before…” Jansen let his voice trail off and fought to keep the tension from showing on his face. Eric felt Jansen tense, and on a deep level could feel that something was wrong, but not what. Pulling Jansen closer, Eric said, “I just want to try, with you.–“ Pulling himself free of Eric and stumbling back, Jansen let fly a rage he’d long suppressed as he yelled, “You just want to try with me?” Storming from the dance floor, heading for the exit, Jansen left a stunned Eric is his wake as he yelled, “I’ve got a suggestion for you to try, Eric – go fuck yourself!” ************************************************* Author's note: The Iranian base described above is real. So are the coordinates. To see it in Google Earth, use this .KMZ file. To see it in Google Maps, just click here. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. "The Scorpion and the Frog", seen above, is not my own work. I merely reworded it slightly. It is believed to be one of Aesop's fables, though its provenance has not been confirmed. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  18. Chapter 24: Confrontations Felecia raced out from behind the sheltering fuselage of Flight Two with total disregard for the possibility that there were more snipers. Looking up, she swore under her breath as she spotted two bullet holes in the engine cowling. Fearing the worst, Felecia summoned the mechanic. General Bradson and The Scar arrived at a run as the mechanic opened the inspection hatch and then delivered the bad news. “Looks like at least one hit the synchronization controller. I don’t know where the other one went. I’ll need to open the access plates all the way up to be sure,” the mechanic reported. General Bradson checked his watch. The plan called for Flight Two to be airborne within twenty minutes. It could be delayed by several hours if need be, but doing so would require Flight Three to pass the point of no return before Flight Two was on the ground in Oman. Worse, every minute on the ground would expose the aircraft to further attacks. Making a snap decision, General Bradson said, “There’s no time for a full repair and I doubt we have the parts. Once it’s airborne, this aircraft can fly on three engines if it has to. It’ll be taking off empty from Oman and it can do that on three engines too. Patch it up as best you can, just get it to hold together long enough for takeoff. Do it as fast as you can. We need to get the hell out of here fast, before we get attacked again. Even if they think the planes are disabled, they won’t delay for long. I want both planes off the ground inside of twenty minutes.” Turning to Felecia and The Scar, he said, “We can advance the schedule for Flight Three a little, and reduce its cruising speed to delay entry. We just lose the confirmation from Flight Two before the point of no return.” Not happy at that bit of news, but seeing no alternative and knowing that The Scar would insist that the mission proceed no matter what, Felecia nodded her acquiescence. The rival warlord had watched the smoke and assumed that the aircraft were disabled, meaning that he did not feel the need to commit his two remaining snipers. He’d heard the rapid bursts of gunfire and taken it as a sign that his first three snipers had been killed, but that was of little concern to him so long as they had accomplished their task. Using a walkie-talkie, he signaled his main force; a hundred men in thirty vehicles. The vehicles, often referred to as ‘technicals’, were nothing more than pickup trucks mounting machine guns in the bed. A few vehicles, taking the point, also carried RPG teams. The warlord thought his force was more than capable of accomplishing the raid. They were stationed in his own territory, ten miles away. Five minutes after his command, they were on their way. Wilhelm’s plan had failed only in the fact that one plane was damaged. His intent had been only to avoid further sniper attacks, and in that, he had succeeded. At Felecia’s insistence, The Scar sent Yuri up in the Otter. The Scar planned to use the small twin-engine aircraft for his own transportation to Sudan and was thus reluctant to risk it in any way. Yuri’s report on the approximate size and composition of the approaching force was received less than ten minutes later. Felecia summed up the tactical picture succinctly. “We’re fucked if they catch us on the ground. The local warlord has his forces dispersed throughout the area. There’s no way he can concentrate in time. My men could take ‘em, even in a meeting engagement, but not before they get close enough to take out the planes.” After radioing Yuri and ordering him to land immediately, The Scar said, “That leaves little option. They will be here in about fifteen minutes at their current rate of advance. We must be gone by the time they arrive.” The mechanic, working frantically, had unbuttoned the access hatch in record time. The first bullet, he surmised, had impacted on a mounting strut and was of no real concern. The other one was another matter entirely. It was worse than he had feared; it had harmlessly nicked the synchronization controller’s case, but it had continued on to shatter the shaft connecting the engine to its starter motor. Given parts and time he could have repaired the damage, but now there was no chance. The mechanic gave his report while closing up the access hatch. General Bradson dashed into the cockpit. Speaking to the three-man flight crew and their two jumpers, he said, “It’s just the starter shaft, so you’ll be fine. You only need all four engines for this takeoff. You can do the rest of the mission on three if you have to. Start your takeoff role with three engines. Windmill the prop, and let the airflow bring it up to ignition RPM. Lean it out a bit to avoid a fuel-rich turbine flameout, and then fire it up when you hit fifty knots, and that should be enough. Close her up and taxi out as soon as I’m off. See you in Oman. We’ll be taking off right behind you.” The crew was still nervous about the risks involved, but they knew about the approaching enemy force and preferred to take their chances trying to get in the air. Five minutes later, General Bradson watched from the pilot’s seat of Flight Three as the other aircraft began its takeoff roll. Biting his lip, he kept his eyes on the crippled engine, and held his breath until he saw it spool up. The pilot of Flight Two, sweating heavily, saw the RPMs and exhaust temperature of the damaged engine rise. “Ignition,” he said, advancing the four throttles to max power as the heavily laden plane roared down the rough runway. As the plane neared rotation speed, he checked the engine one last time and pulled back on the yoke, easing the C-130 into ground effect. Violating standard procedure, 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, waiting the eternal seconds until the wallowing aircraft lumbered skyward. General Bradson waited only until the dust cleared, and then advanced the throttles, only to yank them back and slam on the brakes as The Scar’s Otter wheeled onto the runway several hundred yards ahead and began its takeoff roll. Felecia allowed her feelings to show for an instant when she said, “Looks like our fearless leader wants to bug out first.” Judging that the small aircraft had not kicked up too much dust and knowing that the far larger and heavier C-130 could handle the propwash and wingtip vortices from the smaller plane, General Bradson returned the throttles to maximum and resumed the takeoff before the Otter was off the ground. Flight Three lumbered into the sky at near maximum takeoff weight. Following the same initial course as the other two C-130’s, General Bradson turned northeast, passing over Cape Guardafui – the tip of the Horn of Africa – and soared over the blue waters of the Indian Ocean fifteen minutes later, blending into a commercial air route. Sitting on his hilltop and screaming obscenities into his radio, the enemy warlord watched with impotent rage as, one by one, his quarry receded into the sky. His two remaining snipers had been ordered in, but had not been able to get into range in time. Operation Pandora was underway. As she walked towards the main door, Helen remarked dryly to Barbra, “Jansen and Keith have no clue what they’ve unleashed.” Barbra, glancing back at Jansen and Keith as they tried to talk Eric out of the pool, nodded in agreement. “Yeah, they’re in for a rough time, poor guys.” Having had a great deal to drink, Helen was less concerned than she would have otherwise been. “I think they’ll keep him safe and prevent him from raising too much hell,” she said, and turned to leave. She walked a few paces, just enough to pass through the entryway door, and then came to a halt. “I can’t just go. I’ll circle around outside and keep an eye on them for a while. No need to make yourself miserable too, Hon, you go back to the rooms. Barbra shook her head and took Helen’s arm. “I’ll stick with you. Let’s go watch hell rising,” she said, and together Barbra and Helen circled around, until they found a darkened gazebo on a terrace with a view of the pool a hundred yards away. Concealed by the darkness, they sat down to keep watch. From the opposite side of the pool, Jansen yelled to Keith, “I think he just wants to play. Come on.” Jansen peeled off his soaked shirt and dived into the pool, launching a fierce splash attack in Eric’s direction. Eric, laughing as he ducked the barrage, returned fire as Keith watched from the pool deck, ready to intercept Eric if he made a run for it. As the water fight wore on, Keith relaxed a little and settled into a chair to wait. Eric, coming up for air after Jansen dunked him, grabbed hold of the side of the pool before saying with a grin, “Hey, how about letting me have some more tequila? I’m having a blast.” Shaking his head, Keith replied, “No way, Helen made me get rid of it.” Keith was lying, but hoped that it was in a good cause. “Okay, okay, whatever. How about some whiskey?” Eric asked, accompanied by his best puppy-dog eyes. Jansen, pulling up to the pool edge beside Eric, gave him an appraising glance, and then said to Keith, “Helen didn’t say anything about other liquors, and we’ve seen Eric drink scotch before and he was fine. How about raiding the bar?” With a laugh, and beginning to wonder if Helen’s dire warning was a gross exaggeration, Keith nodded. “Okay, I’ll play bartender. Come on.” Keith slipped behind the bar as Jansen and Eric hauled themselves out of the water and padded over, taking adjoining barstools. Eric smiled and said to Jansen, “Think he knows which end of the bottle to open?” Laughing, Keith set up three glasses, and poured them each a shot of scotch. Little time passed between downing the first and second round. With a sudden thought to get Eric to a safer location, Jansen said, “Hey, let’s liberate the bottle and take it back to our suite before the hotel staff comes in and spoils our fun.” “Sounds like a plan,” Eric readily agreed as he snatched up the bottle. Eric walked a few feet away, towards where his shirt had fallen after he’s hurled it at Helen. Jansen said, “Hey Eric, grab mine for me, will ya?” Eric nodded, and after snatching up his own shirt circled around the pool to get Jansen’s. As soon as Eric was out of earshot, Jansen whispered to Keith, “He seems fine to me. Just to be safe though, one of us should stay halfway sober when we get back. You or me?” Keith shrugged, “Me. I’ve had less to drink than you have. Yeah, I think he’s fine, and Helen was just yanking our chain a little.” Eric returned, shirts in one hand and the bottle in the other, and said, “Okay, strippers, lets go.” As one, and with a laugh, Jansen and Keith replied, “That’s exotic dancers, you ass.” With a shared laugh, the three headed for the door. Watching the three guys walk towards the suite, Helen turned to Barbra and said in stunned disbelief, “He was almost… human!” Barbra nodded numbly. “Yeah, and it’s been almost an hour, so he’s probably past the worst of it. Holy shit…” Arriving back at Jansen and Keith’s suite, Eric charged into the main room first with a cry of “Quarters!” Setting up the glasses, Jansen checked his pocket, and found a U.S. quarter. Thus armed, they began the first round. Eric, who didn’t really want to win, ended up taking the most shots. Jansen was not far behind with six shots. Bolstered by liquid courage, Jansen leaned into Eric’s bare shoulder with his own as he asked in a slightly slurred voice, “So, what’s the real deal with you and tequila? Helen made it sound like we’d just unleashed the devil, but you’re fine.” His smile fading a little, Eric replied, “I just like to have fun, and tequila makes me pretty uninhibited. Sometimes I do stupid stuff.” With a sigh, Eric added, “I promised to quit drinking tequila after something happened back in Telluride. I fucked up, big time. I was wasted and misunderstood something Brandon said. I tried to make out with him and Chase nearly killed me. We’re only barely getting past that now, so that’s why I didn’t want them to know I’d had any tequila tonight.” Jansen’s eyebrows shot up at the mention of Brandon, and the implications were not lost on him. He glanced over at his brother, but Keith returned his gaze and with a subtle shake of his head reminded Jansen that Helen had warned them not to trust anything Eric said when he’d been drinking tequila. Jansen didn’t dismiss the idea entirely, but deferred it for some future time. Eric, with his gaze still on the floor, added, “I know I really fucked up. That’s why I meant it when I promised to stay away from tequila.” Jansen gave Eric a friendly nudge with his shoulder before saying, “I didn’t mean to bring you down, man. Come on, it’s not the end of the world. We all do stuff we shouldn’t when we’re wasted. I’m sure Brandon and Chase know that, and hey, all you did tonight was have a water fight with me, and that would have been fine sober.” Cheering up, Eric threw an arm across Jansen’s bare shoulders and said, “Thanks. Not just for saying that, but for tonight. You guys didn’t freak out on me like everybody else does. I just wanted to have fun, and we did. I think I get crazier when everyone stresses out.” Eric left his arm in place, and Jansen didn’t mind, pretending not to notice. It just felt right. “How are you doing now?” Keith asked. With a one-shouldered shrug, Eric replied, “I still feel the whiskey, but not the tequila. Right now I’m just drunk, same as you guys.” Keith grinned. He’d only had a few shots, but as long as Eric was really okay, he was happy. He hoped that Eric was right. Jansen, with Eric’s arm still across his bare shoulders, chuckled as he began the next round of quarters. An hour later, after several more rounds and some drunken banter, Eric’s eyelids began to droop, and he leaned back and closed his eyes. Jansen eased back, leaning into Eric, whose arm was still across his shoulders, and made himself comfortable. “I’ll stay with him. I think he’ll be okay, he’ll probably sleep for hours,” Jansen said. Keith stood up and nodded. With a smile he said, “I’m going to crash. Just behave yourself, little brother.” With a quiet, drunken chuckle, Jansen glanced at Eric’s bare chest and replied, “I’m tempted, but yeah, I’ll behave. G’night, Keither.” “Night, Janse.” The next morning, Jon, Brandon, and Chase arrived first for breakfast. Brandon and Chase hadn’t gotten a great deal of sleep, but not for any enjoyable reason. The mutterings and rumblings of Cumbre Vieja were an ever-present reminder of their predicament, and it had been a long and tiring day. The earthquake, tsunami, and volcanic eruption hadn’t helped. They had returned to their suite, tired and having had a great deal to drink. They did manage to make love one time, but their hopes of an all-night extravaganza had, per necessity, been deferred. They all sat down, waiting for Helen and Barbra, and Jon grinned slyly as he asked in an innocent tone, “I’m just remembering what the minister said on the beach, pronouncing you guys husband and wife…” “Yeah, I have a feeling we’ll never live that down,” Chase said with a laugh. “But look at the bright side; we can always blame Eric, because he set us up to be married on an erupting volcano.” Brandon chuckled. “Blaming Eric is always a plan. Where is he, anyway? I wanted to rag on him that we’re stuck here and not on our way to France for our honeymoon.” Brandon glanced at Chase, seeing his eyes light up at the prospect. Neither of them really blamed Eric, but the opportunity to needle him was just too good to pass up. They both knew that he’d do the same to them. Jon shrugged and said in a neutral tone, “I guess he’s with those strippers again. Eric and I usually hang out a lot, especially when we’re around alcohol and girls, but he hasn’t come by my suite to see me since I’ve been here.” Chase’s head snapped around as he instantly recognized the signs of trouble. “He’s got some new friends plus a business deal, that’s all. You know how he is; he gets focused on something and he tunes out everything else.” Jon nodded once. “Yeah, I heard about the strip club… Helen mentioned it. Eric didn’t.” Deciding that the issue wasn’t going to go away, Chase said, “Just talk to Eric about it. I’m sure he just spaced it. This is Eric we’re talking about, remember? Anyway, have you gone over to see him at all?” Jon let out a disgruntled snort, then a sigh. “Yeah, last night, after I walked back with you guys, I swung by his suite. No sign of him. I went back an hour later, then an hour after that, and he still wasn’t there. I guess he was too busy doing God knows what with those damn strippers.” Finally picking up on what the real problem might be, Chase said, “As far as I know, they’re just friends. Just go talk to Eric.” Jon nodded again, and then shrugged, turning his attention to the menu. Brandon and Chase shared a glance, and began the first breakfast of their married life in an awkward silence. Eric cracked open an eye to see Jansen’s face from just inches away. Not fully remembering all that had happened, and driven by the urgent demands of his bladder, Eric slipped his arm from its place across Jansen’s shoulders and headed for the bathroom. Keith heard the noise of the door closing, so he got out of bed, pulled on his boxers, and padded out of his room as Eric emerged from the bathroom. Gazing into Eric’s bloodshot eyes, Keith asked in a whisper, “How you feeling?” “Kinda bleary. I think I’m going back to my place and crash for the rest of the morning. How about you?” Eric whispered. Smiling sleepily, Keith replied, “I’m fine. I think you and Jansen will have the hangovers today.” Nodding slowly, Eric glanced back at Jansen before remarking absently, surprising even himself with his candor, “He looks like an angel when he’s asleep… Okay, see you guys later.” Eric returned to his suite, crawled into bed, and was back asleep within minutes. Later, Keith was again awakened by the noise of the plumbing, and trundled out to find his brother making coffee, or trying to. With a chuckle, Keith said, “I’ll make it, Janse.” Jansen sat down in the living room, cradling his tender head, and asked, “Where’s Eric?” “He went back to his suite to go to bed. He’s about as bad as you are, I think.” Jansen waited a few seconds before asking, “What about what he said last night, about trying to make out with Brandon.” Keith had known that question was coming, but to hear it so soon left him little doubt what his brother was thinking. Keith handed his brother a mug of coffee, and with his own in hand sat down beside him before replying, “I know what you’re thinking. Sorry to put out that particular fire, but Helen warned us not to believe anything he says when he’s been drinking tequila. There’s also the age old question; what’s the difference between a gay guy and a straight guy?” After pausing for a few moments, Keith answered his own question. “A six pack. So even if he did, it might not mean what you think. Remember, he’s got one hell of a rep when it comes to women. According to the tabloids, he’s known for one-night stands, in threesomes and foursomes, but always with women.” Jansen sighed, but wasn’t quite willing to concede the point. “Yeah, those tabloids also say a lot about space aliens and what Elvis is up to lately, plus one of the things they said about Eric once was that he was dead, so they’re sure a reliable source, right? So maybe he’s bi, at least a little.” Giving a sigh of his own, not wanting his brother to get his hopes up and then have them crushed, Keith replied, “Maybe, but maybe he isn’t. Yeah, if you get him drunk enough maybe he’d play around with you, but then when he sobers up he might freak out. Then we’ve lost both a good friend and our club deal. Janse, just do us both a favor; make sure he’s sober if anything starts to happen. If he’s sober, there’s a good chance it’s real, but even then, make sure he’s not just looking for a one-time thing. We both know what that would do to you.” “Yeah, as if I could forget,” Jansen scowled, remembering high school, and the first guy he’d ever slept with. That relationship had seemed fine, for all of a week, until they’d had sex. Then, the other guy had made it clear that he was just looking for fun, no strings, and no repeats. It had hurt Jansen, badly enough that he’d never told anyone but Keith. Keith had that event on his mind as well, and that was why he didn’t want to see his brother hurt in the same way again. Eric crawled out of bed and took a fast shower, well aware that he was late for lunch. Racing into the restaurant, he plopped himself into a chair next to Jon and across from his mother. Eric felt better than he had when he returned to his suite that morning, but his head was still slightly tender, and his eyes were just bloodshot enough for Jon to notice. “Have fun partying last night?” Jon asked in a casual tone. Eric began to answer, until he sensed that his brother’s question was anything but offhand. Not sure what was wrong, but certain that something was, Eric chose his words with care. Not wanting to mention the tequila in front of Brandon and Chase, Eric told Jon, “I just had a few drinks with Jansen and Keith. I need to talk to you about something after lunch.” He hoped that Jon would take the hint. Brandon, who was talking to Jane, heard Eric’s words. Well aware of Jon’s feelings, and fearing that he’d say something he’d regret, Brandon jumped in before Jon could reply and said, “Hey Eric, your volcano has us stuck here. They say it’ll be three days before they can clear the ash off the runway.” Thankful for the interruption, Eric grinned as he replied, “Since when is it my volcano?” Brandon shrugged. “You booked us on it. Besides, it reminds me of you… unpredictable and volatile.” “Shove it, Brandon,” Eric said with a laugh. From the far end of the table, Jane yelled, “Eric, language!” Allowing herself a smile, relieved to feel accepted by her sons, Jane’s face clouded slightly as she asked, “Any news on that volcano? Are we really safe here?” Helen fielded the answer. “According to both the front desk and what I’ve been able to find out on my own, we’re safe. The expectation is for some more ash venting, followed by lava flows. It’s quiet at the moment, just smoking a little, but they are expecting more events like the one yesterday. We’re very close here, but the wind is pushing the ash to the north and east. I considered moving us to the north end of the island, but they’ve got ashfall. In any case, I couldn’t find any vacancies. Apparently, a lot of people live just east of the volcano and they all had the same idea. I have some feelers out, looking for a private residence that we can rent, but so far nothing, not at any price. The phone system is only sporadically usable, and seems to be getting worse. We’re also without internet service for the time being.” Trying to sound only casually interested, Eric asked, “What about our planes? Did they get out okay or are they still at the airport?” “Still there. They’re fine as long as they don’t try to move. According to what I heard, the ash is only dangerous to running engines. The pilots are staying near the airport, and they said they’ve got five inches of ash on the ground,” Helen replied. “What about leaving by boat or helicopter?” Eric asked, as he made plans to pay the pilots a visit and ask about General Bradson. Helen shrugged. “The tsunami that chased us off the beach yesterday damaged the only port on this side of the island. It also wrecked or damaged quite a few boats. They’re ferrying people who want to leave off from the north, but there’s a huge waiting list. I’ve looked into chartering a helicopter but so far no luck; the news media seem to have snapped up most of what few were available. I’m sure I can work out something, but we’re probably going to be here for a few days. If the volcano gets worse than they predict, we’ll have to drive north and take our chances on finding somewhere to stay. But for now, I think sticking it out here is our best option.” One word Helen had said was of particular concern to Jane, so she repeated it as a question, “Lava?” “Yes, but it shouldn’t bother us here. According to the front desk, it’s like water in the sense that it flows downhill. The slope above us has a slight bulge, so any flows in our direction should divert to the north or south, seeking the easiest route to the sea,” Helen replied, remembering something she’d read that morning and deciding not to broach the subject of pyroclastic flows. Eric, with no such sense of tact, jumped in to say, “Mom, last year on our first tour, we played in Naples. We got to see Mount Vesuvius in the distance. Naples lives with the volcanoes every day – there’s one even closer than Vesuvius. There’s even an island nearby, Stromboli, that’s a lot smaller than this one, and their volcano has been active almost non-stop for almost two thousand years, but there are still two villages on the island.” Recognizing Eric’s words for what they were – an attempt to downplay the risk – Jane crossed her arms before replying, “Last year, your father and I went on a Caribbean cruise. One of the stops was the island of Martinique. We took one of the shore excursions, and went to the city of Saint Pierre. Interesting place. It’s a small town now, but in 1902 it was a city of thirty thousand, the capital of the island. Then Mount Pelé erupted, and there were only two survivors from the entire city. It was wiped out in seconds by a red-hot cloud of pumice and ash, which hit at four hundred miles an hour. Would you care to guess how close Pelé is to that city? Four miles. Half what we are from the crater of this one here.” Feeling decidedly on the spot, Eric said, “But they say this is a different kind of volcano, and doesn’t erupt that way.” With her nerves getting to her – she had a deep-seated fear of fire – Jane said, “Experts aren’t always right. Many volcano experts died because they guessed wrong about Mount Saint Helens. Oh, you mentioned Naples. I went to Pompeii once, when I was younger. It was a Roman city, buried by an eruption in the first century. I’ve walked its cobblestone streets. You can still see the wheel ruts in the pavement and frescos on some of the walls. It’s so well preserved… but what sticks in my mind at the moment is what I saw in the center of town. They have an area with a covered roof, containing all manner of preserved things. When the burning ash and pumice fell, it buried things, which then rotted and left voids. When the voids were found, they filled them with plaster. Therefore, you can see what a Roman loaf of bread looked like. But there are casts of people who died writhing in agony. I still have photos of Mount Vesuvius, taken from the main square in Pompeii. It's over five miles away. So, please don’t tell me how safe we are, here on the side of an erupting volcano that some say might fall into the sea and take half the island with it. Experts can be wrong. I know I haven’t been much of a mother to you boys, but I want you all to be safe and happy. I want us all to live long enough to be a family again. I think we should leave.” “And go where?” Helen asked, slightly irked at having her authority challenged. “Off this damn island,” Jane snapped, her hands beginning to tremble. Nodding, Helen said, “I happen to agree with you. I’m working on it.” With the stress getting to her, Jane replied sharply, “Then I suggest you work faster, and get back to it immediately. Your job is to protect my boys, not sit here lunching with your girlfriend.” Jane delivered the last word levelly, as an accusation. She’d heard and seen enough to discern the relationship between Helen and Barbra, and part of her mind wondered if they were responsible for the path Chase had taken. Around the table, faces paled as the four members of Instinct braced themselves for an eruption far greater than anything a mere volcano could deliver. Before Mount Saint Helen could erupt, Eric jumped in to say, “Whoa, Mom. Look, Helen is trying to get us out of here. There’s no reason to get on her case.” “Besides,” Jon added, “Helen has been here for us. She’s been the only one who has, since you and Dad cut us off. We all consider her family. I’ll also point out that it was her efforts that got you here. You owe her an apology.” Chase nodded in agreement, but Brandon, feeling that it wasn’t wise to get involved, showed no reaction. Jane wrestled with her conflicting feelings of anger, jealousy, and fear. She was afraid, both of the volcano, and at a deeper level, of what her presence here would do to her marriage. The idea of losing her husband and being alone frightened her more than she cared to admit, even to herself. She hadn’t spoken to JT at all since before leaving Idaho, and every passing day made the phone call that she knew she must make all the more dreaded. She was still coming to terms with the fact that she had likely made a choice between her husband and her sons, and thus Helen’s role as their de facto parent was, at a deep and visceral level, felt to be a threat. It had hurt, seeing her boys treat their manager like a parent; a role she felt was her own. The pain was made sharper by the knowledge that it was her own actions that had led to it. In a moment of honesty, Jane realized that her words, motivated in part by fear, had been intended to attempt to assert her presumed authority over Helen. The fact that all she’d accomplished was the opposite, grated. Being pointedly reminded that Helen had arranged the reunion caused Jane a pang of guilt, as did the fact that all she’d succeeded in doing was align her own sons against her, yet again. Jane took a deep breath before saying in a dignified, sincere voice, “I’m sorry, Helen. Please excuse my uncalled-for outburst. I know I owe you a debt I can never repay. I’m afraid; I admit that freely. I fear for us all. Every time the mountain makes so much as a sound, I cringe inside.” Jim, sitting with Linda at an adjoining table, turned around to say, “Linda and I are worried too. We all are. We’ll do the best we can. Helen had me arrange for some vehicles, just in case we need to get out fast. I’ve got ‘em. We’re working on it, believe me.” The big biker gave Jane his best reassuring smile. He’d also achieved his primary goal: giving Helen a few moments to simmer down. Relaxing her vice-like grip on the table’s edge, Helen struggled to reign in her temper. Her logical mind forgave Jane for her outburst, but Helen’s rage still struggled for release. With a calm that she did not feel, Helen said, “Apology accepted. We’re all on edge. We're trying, believe me. Still and all, we are most likely safe here. This volcano has never, in thousands of years and dozens of eruptions produced the kind of devastation that would put us at immediate risk. Can it happen? Yes, I’m sure it can. It is just unlikely. However, I assure you I’ll get us out of here just as soon as I can.” © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  19. C James

    Unseen Eyes

    Chapter 23: Unseen Eyes A quarter of a mile offshore, under two thousand feet of water, a six-hundred yard wide slab of underwater mountainside was on the move, surging westward down the slopes of La Palma after being shaken loose by the earthquake that had heralded the eruption. The ocean, following the path of least resistance, had rushed into the void it left behind, creating a short-lived crater in the sea. As the waters rushed in, the sea level had rebounded, and a pulse of water, the genesis of a small tsunami, raced out in all directions like ripples on a pond. Most of it would dissipate harmlessly given distance, but the near shore of the island would preclude that for the eastbound segment of the wave. The only warning sign of its approach had been the sudden fall in sea levels along the coast. Small tsunamis, triggered by underwater landslides, were not an uncommon occurrence, and the steep, unstable underwater slopes of La Palma experienced one or more every few decades. Astride the shuddering beach, the minister glanced back at the retreating sea. Remembering what he’d heard about tsunamis, he yelled in thickly accented English, “Sea wave coming. Go to high ground.” That was to prove easier said than done. Racing to the foot of the steep cliff as the earthquake ended, Eric stopped at the beginning of the only path up its face and yelled, “Get to the top, fast!” Most of the guests didn’t need to be told and were already hustling up the path’s first steps. When his mother hesitated, Eric gave her a gentle push. "Go! I don't want to lose you again.” After shoving Barbra on ahead, Helen stood aside at the base of the path. Eric glanced anxiously at the sea, which had ceased dropping, and pushed Helen towards the path’s entrance. “You go first, we’ll be right behind you. You can't chew me out if you don't make it to the top!” As soon as Helen was on her way, Eric grabbed Jansen and Keith and shoved them towards the path. “Don’t argue. Get moving, we’re right behind you.” The line of wedding guests struggled upwards, their task complicated by the occasional rocks and boulders that had shaken loose from the cliff and now lay strewn on the narrow path; the guests struggled upwards as the ground tremors returned, though with far less force than before. Having waited until all their guests had entered the path, the members of Instinct followed, leaving the doomed beach behind, though not quite fast enough. A tsunami builds to its greatest heights when it encounters a long, gradually shallowing sea floor. The coast of La Palma, plunging precipitously into deep water, did not offer the slope that it needed. Roaring ashore, it swept over the place where Brandon and Chase had recited their vows, towering just four feet above the sand. However, unlike a wave that has built to a great height, it still retained much of its velocity, and surged across the beach with vicious power, slamming into the base of the cliff and reflected upwards, following the path of least resistance. Jon, who was last in the line, fell victim to its abating fury, getting drenched in a column of dirty froth. The wedding party, shaken but unhurt, gathered at the top of the path, silently staring at the massive ash column still roaring from the peak of Cumbre Vieja. The roaring noise, punctuated by an occasional mutter of thunder from the lightning that seethed in the angry, roiling Plinian column, did little to calm anyone’s nerves. Finding her voice, Helen said, “I wish that thing could have waited a few more minutes.” Still catching his breath, the minister said, “I think we can continue, with nature’s glory as our backdrop.” Turning to face Brandon and Chase, he said, “I now pronounce you joined in the bonds of holy matrimony.” Smiling in spite of the stress, Brandon and Chase did not wait for the minister’s permission, but leaned forward, to partake of their first kiss as married men. Helen relaxed slightly as her adrenalin rush began to abate. Appearing at Eric’s side, she said in a voice low enough for privacy, “Did you tell them that the volcano was erupting?” Shaking his head, Eric replied in a hopeful tone, “I never had the chance, but I’m sure they’ve figured it out, so why bother them with details?” Suppressing a chuckle, Helen resisted the urge to make Eric squirm. “You couldn’t have known that it would blow during the ceremony. It started erupting once the plans were set, so there’s little you could have done. I think everything will be okay, except for one problem: the wind is carrying all that ash east and that’ll close the airport. We’re probably stuck here for a while.” Shuddering inside, Eric said, “What about Brandon and Chase? They were supposed to leave tonight, for their honeymoon. If they have to spend their honeymoon at close quarters to an exploding volcano, they’re gonna kill me!” “Look on the bright side;” Helen said with a reassuring smile, “The volcano might get you first.” The wedding party returned to the resort as the current eruption abated, and with the volcano still on everyone’s mind, Helen decided to make the best of it. With Barbra by her side, Helen clapped for attention before saying, “We appear to be safe enough here. I’ll check to be sure, but for now, let’s go ahead with the reception. We’ve got a wedding to celebrate!” The resort’s front desk gave Helen what little information they had: Cumbre Vieja continued to vent ash, but at a far lower rate. The expectation, based on the mountain’s observed history, was that intermittent ash eruptions would continue, for days or weeks, and then the volcano would, as in the past, begin emitting lava flows. Helen was somewhat reassured, though still deeply concerned. However, there was little that she could do; the front desk had confirmed that the airport had been closed by the engine-clogging ash. Jon, still dripping from the unexpected drenching, made a detour to his suite to shower and change, while the rest of the guests headed for the reception hall, which had been decorated in a more traditional nature than it had been when it was the site of the recent stag party. Eric, though, had inserted a few of his own special touches. The wedding cake, ordered before he knew that his mother would attend, was the first. Chase had, in the past, expressed his disdain for traditional wedding cake, so Eric had made special arrangements. Instead of the traditional multi-tier white cake, Eric had ordered banana nut bread, which he knew to be a favorite of both Brandon and Chase. With Christmas a week away, he had Santa hats placed on the heads of the two plastic tuxedo-wearing gorilla figures that played the role of grooms. The cake was largely unfrosted, but not undecorated. The cake, in three layers of brown, formed a small, stepped pyramid, with bananas fixed in place by frosting all around the perimeter of each level. The half-pealed bananas had been placed with their bare tips pointing upwards and outwards. The top of the cake consisted of two enormous bananas, sticking upwards and leaning inwards, so that they touched to form an arch under which the two plastic gorillas stood. The guests, still badly rattled by the eruption and the narrow escape on the beach, found some degree of solace in the act of attending a wedding reception, which provided a veneer of normalcy to the surreal atmosphere the volcano had engendered. To everyone who had seen the stag party cake, the phallic symbolism of the wedding cake was obvious. A smattering of suppressed laughter, coupled with a few hearty laughs, greeted the cake as it was wheeled into the hall. The laughter clued in Helen, and she shot Eric a withering glare. Helen was not the only one to figure it out. Jane’s jaw dropped open as the realization hit, and her eyes instinctively sought out Eric, who was standing next to the cake, sporting his most innocent smile. Seeing his mother’s gaping mouth and shocked expression, Eric shrugged, and turned away, his cheeks taking on a reddish hue. Having scanned the impressive assortment on the food table, Jansen and Keith stood nervously at the side of the room, wondering if they would still be sitting with Helen. Jansen fought to avoid laughing as he spied the twelve-foot long sandwich that Eric had ordered, which had arrived prior to the eruption. He thought it was a little lowbrow for a celebrity wedding, but felt that it fit well with what he’d seen so far; except when it came to business, the members of Instinct didn’t seem to be caught up in the trappings of their fame. With more than a little apprehension, Jansen and Keith joined Eric and Helen at their table. It did not escape either dancer’s notice that Helen had picked a spot that afforded at least a little privacy, courtesy of being near the speakers and a little way away from the other tables. As soon as they were seated, Helen introduced herself in a dry, businesslike manner. She made a point of staring down both Jansen and Keith, each in turn, before turning to tell Eric, “Hon, go get me some of that sandwich, a slice of that obscene wedding cake, and a glass of champagne.” Eric knew what Helen was doing, but decided to ignore her subtle demand and instead, motioned for a waiter. Helen flicked a thumb towards the food table as she told Eric, “Take the hint Eric, scram. I need to talk to Jansen and Keith alone for a minute.” Helen was enjoying herself. She needed to impress upon the dancers that she was the power they needed to consider, and more importantly, fear. Ordering Eric around had filled that requirement nicely and the fact that she had a legitimate business reason to embarrass him made it so much sweeter. Knowing that Helen would get her way in the end, Eric gave a shrug, and got up. As he turned to leave, he said with a wink at Jansen and Keith, “Good luck.” As soon as Eric was out of earshot, Helen told the two dancers, “I’ll make this brief. I’m going to be keeping a very close eye on the business venture that Eric has proposed to you. If I see even so much as a hint that you are taking advantage of him in any way, I’ll make you regret the day you were born. Is that clear enough for you?” Seeing in Helen’s eyes that the threat carried even more weight than her words alone implied, Jansen and Keith each nodded once, as their faces became a few shades paler. Having delivered her first warning, Helen said, “Fine, just remember that. Now, down to business. Eric was overly generous with you two regarding the split. However, he is adamant on that, and in spite of it, the venture looks profitable for him. Therefore, I will be making only one change; Eric will have total equity ownership and final authority. It’s his money, so you’ll need to use some of your share of the profits to buy out part of his equity over time. He will never have less than a fifty-one percent interest unless he sells out entirely, in order to avoid any deadlocks. Other than that, I’ve given this venture my tentative approval. One thing to bear in mind: Eric’s reputation, and by extension that of Instinct, is paramount here. I will not countenance any scandals or bad publicity connected to Eric. You will keep everything clean and above board and if you have any doubts, come to me directly. Are we clear on that?” Again, the dancers nodded, not yet having uttered a word. Not giving them the chance, Helen said, “All contracts will be reviewed by me, in advance. Anything requiring Eric’s signature will be reviewed by me, in advance. I’ll also be checking on things as I see fit. Work with me, and you’ve been handed a golden opportunity here. Work against me or lie to me and I’ll hunt you down like dogs.” Knowing of one particular issue that Helen might not yet be aware of, and with the threats clearly in his mind, Keith said, “There’s one thing you should probably know. Jansen and I claim to be a couple, but we’re not. We’re brothers, and the whole couple thing is just to keep from getting hit on and pressured as much.” Nodding somberly and declining to show surprise – her private investigator had managed to miss that detail – Helen asked, “Is Eric aware of this?” Keith nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.” Wondering if they were straight and suspecting that if they weren’t, things could get complicated, Helen decided to dismiss that potential looming issue as mainly personal between the dancers and Eric. So far, though she wouldn’t show it, she approved of the two dancers. With a brief nod of her own, Helen softened slightly. “What sold me on the idea was emerging bands using the club as a venue. That takes the focus off the stripping, and not only is it sound from a business point of view, it also keeps everything upscale and Eric’s name in the clear. Keith, I’ve been told that you’re the business whiz, so prove it; tell me what you need to get a big buzz and a kick-start, launching the club the right way. Keith had been meaning to float the idea to Eric, but Helen was asking now. She was also the one who could make it happen, so he simply said, “Instinct plays on our opening night.” “Close enough. You’ll open mid-week, then Instinct will play there that weekend for both nights and an occasional return visit as our schedule permits. Very well, you’ll live – for now,” Helen said, with a mirthless smile that chilled the dancers to the bone. Eric’s return brought the grilling to an end. Taking her food and drink from Eric, Helen said cryptically, “They seem okay, so far. I’ve given my tentative okay, for now. Have fun, and I’ll be seeing you all later.” Helen delivered the last phrase, along with a menacing scowl, in Jansen and Keith’s direction. Eric settled into his chair as he watched Helen’s retreating back, and then turned to ask with a smile, “So how many times did she threaten you?” Letting out a relieved sigh, Keith replied, “That depends. Do you mean just death threats, and if so, does hunting us down like dogs count? And does ‘you’ll live, for now’ count as a death threat?” With a casual shrug, given for effect, Eric said, “I think she must like you guys. You aren’t even injured. I think you saw the nice version of Helen.” His eyes opening wide, Jansen said, “That’s the nice version? Jeeze... if that’s your definition of nice, why don’t you introduce us to mafia hit men or a squad of Hells Angels... that sure sounds nice to me!” Jansen’s words gave Eric an idea, and suppressing the urge to grin, he made a mental note to call Mad Mike and his chapter with an invitation as soon as they were all back in Los Angeles. Shifting the subject slightly, Eric said, “Don’t worry about Helen. She’s a little gruff sometimes, but her bite’s much worse than her bark.” Jansen coughed once as Eric’s words sunk in, and then Keith asked, “Don’t you mean that the other way around?” “I don’t think he does,” Jansen said. Deciding that he’d wound the dancers up for long enough, Eric said, “Seriously, she can be hard-nosed, especially when it comes to business, but I consider her to be family. She even took a bullet – and I mean that literally – for me once, back in Telluride. Yeah, she can be a pain and a hard-ass sometimes, but I love her.” Standing by the improvised runway, General Bradson watched as Smith, the only living person on the aircraft, taxied Flight One into position, and took off. The plane was carrying less than a full load, so Smith was able to coax the old wreck into the air one final time with comparative ease. General Bradson, watching through binoculars, breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the landing gear retract. The damaged parts had held for long enough. The Scar, standing by the General’s side, used his encrypted satellite phone to inform the fishing boat he’d hired in the Persian Gulf, “The package is on the way. Expect it on schedule.” Geography and time dictated the sortie schedule: Flight One needed to reach its target half an hour before Flight Three launched its assault. Flight One had a longer journey, coupled with a slower airspeed, so Flight Three was scheduled to take off one and a half hours later. Flight Two was slated to launch an hour before Flight Three; loaded with fuel bladders, its mission was to land in a remote area of northern Oman, not far from the Straits of Hormuz, and act as a refuel point for Flight Three during the egress. The timing was critical; General Bradson wanted confirmation that Flight Two was on the ground and ready before Flight Three passed the point of no return – the moment when their diminishing fuel would preclude the ability to abort to Sudan. From that point on, Flight Two would be their only hope of refueling. With General Bradson busy giving a final briefing to the pilots and jumpers of Flight Two, Felecia busied herself with checking and re-checking the weapons load on Flight Three, re-inspecting the Russian-made RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers and the satchel charges. General Bradson didn’t know about the latter items, which Felecia had hidden in one of the weapons storage crates. After a quick glance over her shoulder, Felecia checked on four other items. They were small, and not weapons, but were they to be discovered by General Bradson, Felecia had no doubt that he would instantly deduce the real purpose of the mission. Working quickly, Felecia checked the batteries in each device, ran a check in test mode, and returned them to their hiding place. As Felecia descended the cargo ramp, she found her employer waiting. After ushering her under the wing for some privacy, The Scar said in a hushed voice, “I want to be certain that we are completely clear on your orders. The General’s little assault on the guardhouse will keep both him and the Iranian guard force occupied for a while. Let him go ahead with it. If he survives, kill him and anyone he rescues on sight. You and your men will be paid very well indeed if you succeed in your operation, but as you have known all along, ensuring Bradson’s death is part of your job. You surely realize how he would react to our real mission, so he has to die.” Felecia nodded once, and The Scar added, “Very good. I’ll see you in Sudan. I’ll be flying there as soon as you launch. Contact me directly if you need anything, anything at all.” The Scar handed Felecia one of the two satellite phones he was sending on the mission. The Scar spared a moment to savior the delicious, exquisite irony: the man who had foiled his last operation was about to die remedying the loss he’d caused. Once Felecia had returned to her inspections, The Scar strolled casually around the perimeter of the tent cluster. The mercenary who served as his cook saw him, and slipped away for the pre-planned clandestine rendezvous, joining The Scar behind a tent. The Scar wasted no words as he handed the second satellite phone to his erstwhile cook. “Contact me if anything looks amiss.” The mercenary merely nodded and pocketed the satellite phone. He returned to his duty, already mentally counting the million-dollar bonus The Scar had promised him, in return for acting as The Scar’s own operative during the mission. The part-time cook, who went by the name of Billy, had no qualms about reporting on Felecia, or if need be killing her. Money was money, after all. In the hills to the east, the unseen eyes of a rival warlord had watched with almost palpable desire as the final items were loaded aboard the three aircraft. The warlord, a blood enemy of the one The Scar had co-opted, didn’t know what was in the aircraft, but he knew one thing; if it was worth flying, it must have value. He cursed the fact that one plane had already escaped in the time it had taken him to assemble his forces. Deciding that he had to act immediately or not at all, he gave orders to his three snipers, sending them forward on their mission. They needed to get within five hundred yards of the aircraft, but given the small perimeter that he could see, he assumed that would not be difficult. His expectation was that his snipers could disable the aircrafts’ engines, and then he could summon his main force and attack without fear of his quarry escaping. The enemy warlord was not the only one to make that assumption. Hunkered down in a ditch a half mile from the aircraft, Wilhelm studied the small cluster of hills intently. They were the obvious vantage point for an observer, as well as sitting astride the obvious approach route, and Wilhelm had deployed his sentries accordingly, preferring to let the enemy walk into an ambush on ground of Wilhelm’s own choosing. Wilhelm had seen a glint of reflected sunlight, and now he could see two poorly camouflaged men crawling downhill through the wadis. He could guess that they were snipers: the ploy was an obvious one. After sending two of his sentries forward to ambush the snipers, Wilhelm radioed Felecia and said, “Hostiles inbound. Snipers, intending to disable, from the look of it. I’ll take them out, but then whatever force they’ve got will likely hit us, dead-on. Time to make some smoke.” Wilhelm shut off the radio and smiled, feeling his chest swell with pride. He, and not General Bradson, had come up with the plan for dealing with this contingency. He’d done it on the fly, a week before, when Felecia had briefed Horst and himself on the real mission, and the expected situation in Somalia. It had pleased him beyond measure that Felecia had approved it instantly, and that General Bradson had enthusiastically endorsed it. Though still in his twenties, Wilhelm had been fighting as a mercenary in Africa for half a decade. He knew how the locals fought. The plan itself was simple; protect the aircraft and make it appear that they were disabled. To that end, he needed silent kills of the snipers, in order to let the enemy believe they had accomplished their mission. Fifteen minutes later, his two sentries signaled, a few moments apart, with two clicks each from their radios. With that confirmation, Wilhelm raised his own rifle and began firing single shots, a few seconds apart, toward the aircraft, but aiming a hundred yards high. All he needed was the sound, for the observers he was certain were still in the hills. Acting per the plan, Felecia ordered the two aircraft to start their engines, as if preparing to leave. They both pivoted clockwise, interposing their fuselages between the distant hills and their port wings. As soon as they had done so, a two-man team triggered smoke flares under the port wings, and soon billowing clouds of white smoke, carried by the propwash, raced out across the desert. Crossing her fingers that the ploy would work, Felecia ordered the aircraft to shut down. The third sniper, unaware of the fate that had befallen his comrades, watched through his scope. From his vantage point, he’d seen the teams run under the wings, though he’d not yet guessed that he was seeing a deception. Unsure as to whether or not the aircraft could still take off, and wanting to avoid the wrath of his commander, he took careful aim at the outer starboard engine of Flight Two, and fired. Wilhelm heard the thundering crack of the shot, estimating it as coming a hundred yards to his left. Discarding all caution, he leaped to his feet and ran at full speed towards the sound of the gunfire, as the sniper took a second shot. Focused on his target, the sniper didn’t notice Wilhelm’s approach. The sniper prepared for a third shot, slamming the bolt of his rifle forward to chamber the round. Wilhelm saw the movement, and raised his own rifle from a hundred feet away. Flicking the selector to semi-automatic, Wilhelm fired, pulling the trigger of the AK-47 as fast as he could. The first of Wilhelm’s shots slapped into the dirt a foot from the sniper’s head, causing the sniper to flinch. Hearing the sound of the first gunshot as the second of Wilhelm’s rounds slammed into the ground by his side, the sniper rolled to his left, swinging his rife around. He never made it; Wilhelm’s third shot ripped through the sniper’s torso at a shallow angle, straight through his heart. He was dead before his rifle hit the ground. Wilhelm saw the sniper drop the rifle, and gave himself a moment to aim before pumping three more rounds into the sniper’s corpse. Wilhelm advanced at a trot, rifle at the ready, to within thirty feet of the sniper. To be sure – he’d learned long ago to always be sure – he put a round through the man’s head. The bartender, whose home was closer to the volcano thus causing him concern, had left early. With him went Helen’s warning about tequila. Seeing a way they could help, Jansen and Keith headed for the bar in order to serve a last round of drinks, and seized the opportunity to put their own plan in motion. Remembering something that Eric had asked when he’d first met them, and having no way of knowing what it was they were about to unleash, they slipped behind the bar. Neither Jansen nor Keith thought it particularly odd that conspicuous by its absence from the large selection of wines and spirits was anything made from the Agave cactus. Here again, the fickle hand of fate intervened. Not knowing that the bar would be fully stocked, Jansen had stopped by the resort’s convenience store before the wedding and procured a small gift for Eric. Pulling it from his pocket, he opened the little bottle of Jose Cuervo and openly filled a few shot glasses atop the bar. No one noticed that seemingly routine activity, and the bottle was returned to its hiding place. Grinning, Jansen and Keith began serving drinks, reserving the tequila-filled shot glasses as their treat for Eric. As the party wound down, Eric strode across the room to see Brandon and Chase, intending to share the final drink of their party with them. Carrying the drink tray, Jansen intercepted Eric and said, “I wanted to return the favor from the other night. Take a shot.” Thinking that Jansen was referring to the scotch – which he was – Eric assumed that the shot glasses contained whiskey. Snatching one up, he said, “Thanks, man. Here’s to you guys,” and downed the double shot in a single gulp. Feeling the familiar burn and taste, Eric said in a quiet, stunned tone, “Tequila...” Misreading Eric’s expression, Jansen grinned and nodded, “I remembered what you said when we first met you; you wanted to be sure we could pour shots of tequila. They didn’t have any behind the bar, so I got you a bottle of Jose Cuervo.” Eric, not yet under the influence of the tequila though he knew it was coming, ushered Jansen and Keith aside, taking them a dozen paces away from the nearest guest. There he said, “Guys, I know you were doing me a favor and had no way of knowing, but I have to make this quick: tequila makes me go a little nuts and if anyone finds out I’ve had any they’ll be pissed at me, bigtime. Keep an eye on me; get me out of here soon – sooner if I start to act crazy. But whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.” It was Eric’s tone that conveyed the urgency of his request to Jansen and Keith. Not yet understanding what they’d done, they nodded in agreement. Before they could ask any questions, Brandon and Chase sought out Eric. Chase reached out, pulling Eric into a bear hug. “Thanks bro, for everything.” Taking care to try to conceal his breath, Eric ignored the familiar feel of the tequila as it began to course through his veins. “Glad to do it. I had a blast setting this up; you guys should get hitched more often,” Eric said. Brandon laughed before saying, “This was great, man. Thanks.” Brandon reached out and shook Eric’s hand, and then pulled him into a hug. Holding Eric tight, Brandon chuckled and said, “Don’t stress on the volcano. We knew it was active before we got here. We just wanted to make you sweat a little. Not your fault it blew during the wedding.” Eric couldn’t help it, he laughed. “Damn, you guys got me good on that one.” Chase thought that Eric was taking the news far too well, but thanks to the alcohol and thoughts of his wedding night, he dismissed the notion. Watching Jon, Brandon, and Chase head off, and now feeling the rising tide of the tequila, Eric’s thoughts turned to fun and he spun around, intending to head for the pool, only to almost run over Helen. “Hi,” Eric said, forgetting to shield his breath. Helen’s eyes flew open as she caught the familiar, acrid scent of tequila, and her face darkened as she said an angry tone, “Eric, you promised–” Jansen realized what was happening and cut Helen off to say, “It’s not his fault.” Jansen glanced at Eric, who had resumed his dash for the pool. “He thought it was whiskey. I gave it to him; I didn’t know that there was a problem. Will he be okay?” A resounding splash echoed from the pool as Eric cannonballed in, fully clothed. Reigning in her anger, Helen asked Jansen abruptly, “Exactly how much has he had, and when?” Paling slightly, Keith handled the reply, “One double shot, a couple of minutes ago. Once he realized what it was, he asked us to keep an eye on him and get him out of here. He said it makes him a little crazy.” Helen shuddered slightly as Eric’s soaked shirt, hurled from the pool, hit the side of her head with a splat. Having had a considerable amount to drink herself, she was in no mood to deal with Eric. Assuming that one double shot would wear off soon enough, and also wanting to give Jansen and Keith a taste of what Eric could be like, she rolled her eyes skyward as she said, “God, forgive them, for they know not what they have done.” Lowering her gaze, she glared at Jansen and Keith before adding, “But they are about to find out. I have a rule: whomsoever tequilas the Eric gets to deal with the results. Welcome to Hell, and may God have mercy on your souls.” Jansen and Keith shared a look of concern, bordering on panic, before Keith asked in an urgent tone, “Will he be okay? What should we do?” “Pray,” Helen said with a cold smile, before taking pity on the two dancers and adding, “Just keep him out of trouble. Do not, under any circumstances, let him out of your sight. Keep him away from tequila at all costs and he should be back to his normal annoying self within an hour or two. If I were you, I’d consider tying him up and tossing him in the volcano, but it’s your call. Oh, one other thing; don’t trust anything he says. Good luck, you’ll need it.” Helen watched with a mix of concern and amusement as Jansen and Keith darted over to the pool and became instantly drenched by a fusillade of water from a maniacally laughing Eric. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  20. C James

    Surprises

    Chapter 21: Surprises Picking up the phone, Eric dialed the front desk and then slammed the receiver back into its cradle. “It’s busy,” he said, “Let’s head over to the front desk and see what’s going on.” Driven by the fear that the volcano could ruin everything, Eric dashed out the door, racing across the resort towards the main building. Jansen and Keith snatched up some shorts, yanked them on, and ran to follow. Eric jogged into the foyer, and instantly saw the staff occupied with the ringing phones, deluged by a flood of calls from worried guests. Spying an office door as Jansen and Keith raced up to join him, Eric led the way to see the concierge. Entering the man’s office, they found him calmly shuffling papers, outwardly unconcerned. Eric began to ask, in a hurried stream of words, about the volcano. The concierge raised a hand, and with a reassuring smile, said, “There is nothing to worry about, Señor Carlisle. That was merely our mountain, Cumbre Vieja. It is quite docile, I assure you. It began to awaken a few weeks ago, as it does every few decades, and sent up a little ash. This morning was just a minor earthquake and a bit of what the scientists call venting. If it does it again, relax and enjoy the spectacle. There is nothing to worry about.” Seeing that no actual answers would be forthcoming, Eric spun on his heels and marched right back out the door without a word, leaving Jansen and Keith to bring up the rear. Eric hadn’t missed the fact that the concierge had intentionally tried to sooth him. “Damn it, I think he’s just bullshitting us,” Eric said with a touch of anger, “He even said, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ twice. So, maybe it’s bad, I don’t know, but I do need to find out. Brandon and Chase won’t be happy if they’re getting married next to an erupting volcano.” “How are you going to find out? About the volcano, I mean,” Jansen asked. “There’s this great invention called the Internet. Maybe you’ve heard of it?” Keith said, unable to resist a dig at his brother in spite of the tension. His eyes brightening, Eric changed direction, heading for his own suite. “I’ve got a laptop in my room, already set up. You think there’s news on the volcano?” Following Eric out the door, Keith replied, “I’d guess there is, somewhere. A search might turn it up, if we pick the right words.” Eric raced into his suite with Jansen and Keith in tow. Eric used the name ‘Cumbre Vieja’ as a search term, resulting in just a few references. With a sigh, Eric said, “All I can find is a few mentions of earthquake swarms and ash venting. One site says the volcano may be entering an eruptive phase, the first it’s had since the 70’s.” Reading over Eric’s shoulder, Jansen said, “According to the Island’s official site, there’ve been a few minor ash ventings and harmonic tremors. They’re saying it’s safe, and might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Cumbre Vieja erupting. They also mention repeatedly that Kilauea on the big island of Hawaii has been erupting continuously for over twenty years.” Keith nodded. “They may be just trying to put a good spin on it to avoid killing the tourist trade. It’s probably okay, and the volcano is west of us so we shouldn’t even get any ash unless the wind shifts.” Eric stared at the screen. “I’m not too worried about danger from the volcano. I’m more worried about Brandon, Chase, and Helen killing me when they find out.” “If it doesn’t erupt while they’re here, maybe they won’t find out,” Jansen posited in a hopeful tone. Glancing again at the screen, at another item that had caught his attention, Jansen said, “Maybe they won’t much mind. It says on my news feed that they had a six-point earthquake east of Los Angeles. There was some serious damage near the epicenter and the whole city got a good shaking. It also says there’s a theoretical chance that this might trigger a massive quake within a few days. Brandon and Chase might be glad to get out of town.” Nodding, wondering just how serious things were back in California, Eric said, “As long as the volcano thing doesn’t pop off before the wedding, we’ll be okay. They’re heading off on a honeymoon for a week after that. I don’t suppose strippers know how to hide a volcano?” Eric asked, relaxing a little. “The term, sir, is exotic dancers, and I’m afraid our skill set leans toward uncovering things, rather than covering things up,” Keith said, hoping that the volcano would behave itself while they were there. With that thought in mind, he asked, “How far are we from Cumbre Vieja anyway?” Sighing, Eric replied, “About two miles from the summit. We’re actually on the flank of the volcano here.” As the pastel sunset over the Atlantic faded, Brandon, Chase, and Jon landed on La Palma, piling into a cab to head for the resort. In the dimming light, they were able to see a little of the scenery, and Chase said, “This place looks pretty good. Eric really came through for us.” Jon nodded. “Yeah, but given the earthquake risk we left behind, anywhere would look good right about now, volcano or no volcano.” Chase nodded once. “So, any bets on how long Eric waits to tell us that the volcano is active?” Brandon shrugged. “Unless we let on that we know, my guess is he won’t until he has to.” Jon began to grin at the idea. “Yeah, we won’t let on that we know. The thing is supposed to be pretty safe, like Kilauea in Hawaii, but I’ll bet Eric’s stressing on it.” Chase arched an eyebrow. “He’s got to know that we know. They were frantically cleaning up the ash at the airport when we arrived.” Jon grinned, giving Brandon and Chase a wink. “Eric might not know that. Just play dumb and let’s see how far he takes this. He’d do it to us, right?” “True, that.” Chase replied. Arriving at the resort, they were met by a grinning Eric, who had dressed for the occasion, wearing an atrociously loud, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and a massively oversized straw hat. Given his outrageous getup, the fact that he was wearing sunglasses at night did not seem odd at all. “Hey, have a good flight?” Eric asked as he came forward to greet his brothers and Brandon. Chase nodded, breaking into a grin. “Yeah, bro, and this place looks really cool. You’re our official travel agent from now on. So, when’s the party?” Eric shrugged. “Tomorrow night. That way you’ve got the next day to recover before your wedding. That’s all set too.” “I hope there’s lots of girls here,” Jon asked in a hopeful tone. “Yeah, loads of ‘em, at the disco and around the pools,” Eric replied, as the bellhop gathered the baggage and led them all into the resort. Eric had arranged a suite for Brandon and Chase, and another for Jon, in the same small cluster of buildings as Jim and Linda. He’d done so with the express intent of keeping them away from Keith and Jansen. Eric orchestrated the events of the following day with care, hoping that Cumbre Vieja would not make its presence felt. To prevent any stray words from reaching Brandon or Chase’s ears, Eric made sure to request, accompanied by a hefty tip, the staff’s silence on all volcanic matters. He also made arrangements with the resort for Jansen to play the role of lifeguard while Keith assumed the job of assistant bartender. Then, he suggested a trip to that particular pool to his band mates. To his relief, they thought it was a great idea. Eric’s sole remaining fear was that one of the other guests would mention the volcano, but, after casting a wary eye at its now-quiet summit, Eric decided to hope for the best. Lounging around the pool with Brandon, Chase and Jon, Eric pretended to be oblivious to Jansen and Keith. He ordered a round of drinks, which Keith delivered. Eric fought the urge to smile: Brandon and Chase had seen Jansen and Keith working at the resort, which would make the dancer’s presence at the party far less suspicious. After wrapping up a day of exploring the resort, it was time for the bachelor party. Eric led the way to the reception hall where the party was being held, and ushered Jim, Linda, and his band mates inside. Eric stood back while beaming proudly as Brandon and Chase looked around at the enclosure. It was lit mainly by flickering tiki torches and the guests of honor were clearly impressed. Behind the bar, Keith stood alongside the real bartender, ready to take an order. Jansen hovered nearby, dressed like Keith in black tuxedo pants and a white, button-down shirt. The Instinct crewmembers arrived, and Jansen began seating people at their tables, taking orders for drinks and snacks. At one long table, near the dance floor, he seated the members of Instinct, with Brandon and Chase being given seats at the head of the table. Chase, knowing Eric all too well, arched an eyebrow and asked, “This is way too sedate for you. What gives?” Shrugging apologetically, Eric replied, “You guys insisted on a joint party and nothing wild, so what could I do?” Chase didn’t believe him for a second. Dinner was served, and afterwards, Eric unveiled his first surprise: the cake. As it was wheeled in, he waited for Brandon and Chase to look. Brandon saw it first: a large, flat cake, dark in color, with a few decorative designs applied in colored cream. He paid them little notice, his gaze transfixed to the items on the cake itself. Two large coconuts, side by side, and where they met, a large banana angled towards the sky. The suggestive display was made anatomically complete by a nest of palm fibers at the base of the banana. “It’s a fruitcake,” Eric said with an evil grin. Chase stared at the cake, especially the tip of the banana, which had been carved to resemble a swollen glans. “I knew you’d come up with something,” Chase said with a chuckle and an approving nod. “You should have seen the baker’s face when I ordered it,” Eric replied, as he handed Brandon and Chase a large silver knife. With the cake sliced, Eric waited patiently while another round of drinks was served. Taking note of a few suspicious glances from his band mates, Eric handed his scotch and water to Brandon. “Try it if you want. It’s just whiskey. I’ve kept off tequila, I swear.” Brandon handed the drink back untouched. “Thanks, Eric, for that, and for doing all this.” Wearing an innocent smile, which her eyes belied, Linda asked Eric, “I was wondering what kind of decoration you ordered for the wedding cake?” With an evil chuckle, Eric turned, and said in a voice low enough that Brandon and Chase couldn’t hear, “You’ll see.” Half an hour later, lubricated by the open bar, the guests were beginning to make use of the dance floor. Jim and Linda made a game try, playing their role in Eric’s plan, and Eric even managed to coax Brandon and Chase onto the floor. Jansen strolled over to Linda and Jim, asking with a formal bow, “Would the lady care to dance?” “Be my guest, I’ve got two left feet,” Jim replied per the script, and sat back to watch the fun. Jansen danced two sets with Linda, along with Brandon and Chase. On cue, Keith joined in, dancing with both Linda and Jansen. Jon, sitting with Eric at the table, was the first to catch on. “Since when do resort staff join in at a party?” he asked, mainly to make Eric squirm. “Keep that to yourself,” Eric replied, hoping that Brandon and Chase wouldn’t figure it out too. Fortunately, they were oblivious: half-drunk, and doing their best to try to dance. Not able to resist the temptation of further needling his brother, Jon said, “What’s the deal about the volcano on the island? I overheard one of the guests say it was erupting.” Feeling his stomach clench, Eric said, “I’m sure it’s nothing. Please don’t bother Brandon and Chase about that, okay?” Jon nodded, having no intention whatsoever of telling Eric that Brandon and Chase were already aware of the volcano’s activity. Jansen loaded a custom-made CD into the sound system, and after waiting to make sure it was playing, made his way over to Keith’s side. With a subtle nod from Keith indicating that it was time, Linda took her first try at acting and said loudly, “Okay, I’ve gotta rest for a while, so why don’t you guys dance?” Laughing, treating it as a joke, Jansen and Keith began to dance, side-by-side, in a disco version of a line dance. Linda laughed, clapping to cheer them on, and several of the crew joined in. Playing their role to perfection, Jansen and Keith began to ham it up, appearing in every way like two straight guys who thought dancing together was nothing short of hilarious. A circle of clapping, laughing guests formed along the dance floor’s perimeter, egging Jansen and Keith on. Brandon and Chase joined the circle, laughing, as the two dancers became ever more outrageous, switching between disco, waltz, and tango, in spite of the unchanging music. Judging that the timing was right, Keith made a show of flicking the top two buttons of his shirt open, and Jansen, on his next pass, laughed and snapped open the next button down on Keith’s shirt. The two dancers, still in character, played it up, launching into a game of outrageous one-upmanship that soon had both of their shirts open to the waist. Waiting until the sudden mid-piece change in songs from the CD which marked the actual beginning of the sound-track for their act, they turned to dance with each other, suddenly dropping all pretenses of humor and comedy, and Keith reached out with a smooth and practiced move, pulling Jansen’s shirt off in one fluid motion. Confused as to what they were seeing, the guests clapping died down. Seizing the moment, Jansen and Keith spun to stand side by side, and moving as one they grabbed the waistband of their slacks and pulled, opening the tear-away seams, and then throwing the pants in the air and turning to dance again, all pretense gone, in matching flame-print boardshorts. The murmur of cheers spread around the room, as the guests, including the guests of honor, realized that what had gone before was a very skillful act by two highly practiced dancers. Stripping down to blue speedos as their first act came to a close, Jansen and Keith dragged Brandon and Chase back onto the floor for a dance, Jansen taking Chase, and Keith dancing with Brandon. To Eric’s relief and thrill, he could see that Brandon and Chase were loving every minute of it. While Jansen and Keith danced with Brandon and Chase, Jon made a trip to the bar, and on his way back stopped to chat for a moment with some of the crew. He made a request, and with a grin and a wink at the puzzled crew members, returned to his seat beside Eric. Doing as he’d been asked, one of the crew members Jon had spoken with walked up to Eric and said, “Great party. Hey, want to join our betting pool? We’re taking wagers as to whether the volcano will erupt before the wedding.” Stressing over the offer and what it threatened, Eric didn’t notice at first that the crew member, a lighting tech, had walked up to him and asked out of the blue, while ignoring Jon. Eric was about to reply when he saw the crewmember’s quick glance in Jon’s direction, and his brother’s evidently feigned disinterest in the situation. Eric didn’t know the tech well enough to read him, but that wasn’t the case with Jon. Sensing that Jon was up to something, it only took Eric a moment to figure out what. Nodding at the tech, Eric said, “Yeah, put me down for five bucks for after the wedding.” The confused tech nodded and returned to his table, wondering what was going on. Fixing Jon in his gaze, Eric said, “I know you had something to do with that. Come on, please don’t let Brandon and Chase find out. They’d kill me.” Jon smiled, and nodded, hoping that Eric wouldn’t figure out that they already knew. Eric didn’t get the chance to study Jon any further. Bandon and Chase returned to the table and as they sat down, Chase said, “I should have known you’d get strippers. Great set-up. I had no idea until they started getting serious. Hot as hell, too.” Brandon laughed, and then added, “Not just hot, but they know how to dance. Thanks Eric, they are the perfect choice.” Jansen and Keith began dragging Brandon and Chase back onto the dance floor, and they eagerly went. So far, the party had gone as planned, and to Eric’s relief and thrill, he could see that Brandon and Chase were enjoying the party he’d planned for them. Jansen and Keith performed their second routine half an hour later, and even though almost half the audience consisted of straight males, received a solid round of applause for their skill and precision. Later that night, though it had not been planned, the two dancers staged a third routine, one that Eric had not yet seen, based on ballroom dance moves intermixed with some stylized gymnastics. Eric, sitting at a table with Brandon, Chase, and Jon, watched the routine intently, never taking his eyes off the two hot, sweaty, contorting bodies. Jon, who had no interest in the dancers’ performance, glanced around the room in boredom, until his gaze fell on Eric. Seeing the rapt attention his brother was paying to the dancers, Jon’s mood darkened slightly, and he downed the remainder of his drink in one gulp, before setting off in search of another. Closing their act, Jansen and Keith took a bow, and then spent the rest of the evening mingling with the guests, paying special attention to Brandon and Chase, coaxing them once again onto the dance floor. An hour later, with the dancing done, Eric stormed to the center of the dance floor and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Pool Party!” Ripping off his shirt, he ran for the pool, flipping into a roll off the lip, hitting the water with a resounding cannonball splash. Jansen and Keith followed him in, diving in perfect unison, graceful and sleek. Within a few seconds, Jon, Brandon, and Chase, along with a few of the crew, joined in, and the party rolled on. A few hours, much alcohol, and three water-fights later, seeing that people were beginning to leave, Eric signaled Keith with a wink. The two dancers, in tight wet speedos, began handing out party favors and noisemakers. Eric scrambled out of the pool, grabbing a noisemaker to announce, “Three cheers for Brandon and Chase!” and sounded them off, by blowing his noisemaker for all his was worth, and the cacophonous din of noisemakers and cheers filled the sultry pre-dawn night air. Jansen and Keith headed for the bar in order to serve a last round of drinks as the party wound down and the guests began to leave. Eric strode across the room, heading over to see Brandon and Chase, intending to share the final drink of their party with them. Jansen, carrying the drink tray, followed along behind. Brandon and Chase, weaving slightly, sought out Eric. Chase reached out, pulling Eric into a bear hug. “Thanks bro, for a night we’ll never forget.” Turning to look at Jansen, Chase said, “You guys are hot and that was one hell of a show.” With his eyes still on Jansen, Chase said to Eric, “Great choice, man.” Grinning, Eric said, “I just wanted to make this night right for you guys.” Brandon, holding onto a table for support, slurring badly, laughed before saying, “This was great, thanks.” Brandon reached out and shook Eric’s hand, and then pulled him into a hug. By that gesture, Eric knew that the ghosts of what he’d done in Telluride were finally going to their graves. Jon, only slightly less drunk, walked up to say, “I’ll get these two back to their suite. Great party, Eric. Even if the strippers were the wrong gender for you or me, they still put on a good show. That first act was a riot.” Eric nodded once, and then gave Jansen a nod before saying to his band mates, “One last drink, just the four of us.” Jansen handed them each a shot of whiskey, and then Eric said, “To Brandon and Chase,” and the four members of Instinct raised their glasses and downed their shots. Feeling a little sad that the party was over, and also due to Jon’s choice of words, Eric watched Jon, Brandon, and Chase stumble off. He allowed himself a little sigh of relief; the party had been a success, and now all that remained was the wedding and the reception. He hoped that they would go as smoothly. After three days of hard training, General Bradson gave the mercenaries a day off. He was pleased with their progress; they were working smoothly together and seemed to have a decent grasp of the tactics needed. He’d devoted most of his time to drilling the five men he’d be leading on the assault on the guardhouse, and he’d ended up learning more than they had: all five were ex-special-forces and hadn’t lost much of their edge. While the mercenaries rested, the General went to his appointment with The Scar. Entering the house, he was ushered into a chair by Yuri, who then took a seat by his boss’s side. Smiling, The Scar said, “General, one of the three C-130’s is en-route to us. I’ve made arrangements for it to land at this island’s airfield, and I’ve made sure that the local authorities will not interfere. This aircraft will take us to our rendezvous point in Somalia. The rest of the equipment you specified will be joining us there.” The General nodded appreciatively. He’d already been told all this by Felecia, so he wondered what The Scar was leading up to. The Scar did not keep the General waiting. “I have satellite Internet here, and you may now use it, with Yuri’s supervision. I also have three men and another C-130 waiting for your airfreight shipment to arrive in Malta, and they will fly it to Somalia. At this point, I need to know what sort of weapons are in that shipment.” Smiling, the General replied, “No weapons or other contraband. Just some computers and other electronic gear, plus some garage door openers and rectifier-based 110-volt power converters. The weaponry I’ll need is all on the list; I hope there was no trouble in obtaining it?” With a self-assured smirk, The Scar replied, “None at all. Some of my people took delivery yesterday of the final third of the five thousand hand grenades, and they will be bringing them to us in Somalia. The rest of your list is already there, under guard. Now, there is one other matter. As I’m sure you can appreciate, I am in a dangerous business and must be mindful of security. I take nothing for granted and trust no one. For that reason alone, I am still breathing. Therefore, Yuri and I examined your belongings upon your arrival and took note of your encrypted files. I am assuming from their file size that these are satellite imagery?” Unsurprised, General Bradson replied, “In part, yes. I also have a frequency list of Iranian air-search radars, and also the frequencies used by their fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile sites. As you surely noticed, the radar detectors I brought along have been modified to detect those frequency bands.” “I would like to see the data,” The Scar asked. The General was well aware that, though phrased as a request, The Scar would insist if need be. He’d expected as much, and for that reason the satellite images had been downgraded in resolution in order to obscure the satellite’s true abilities. “The password is scorpion, with a dollar sign after the ‘p’.” The General had no doubt that a copy had been made. Yuri tapped the password into The Scar’s computer, and moments later reported that the file had been opened. The Scar leaned over to look, and having never seen an actual recon satellite photo before, was quite impressed with even the degraded image. The Scar asked a few more questions concerning the details of the mission, though he never took his eyes off the satellite image, and then, with a nod, he said, “We’ll leave for Somalia in seventy-two hours and launch the mission, weather permitting, forty-eight hours later, assuming we don’t encounter any difficulties in the final preparations.” The next morning, as he settled into a chair in Keith and Jansen’s suite, Eric beamed. “Guys, last night was abso-fucking-fantastic. It went perfect, better than I’d hoped. You guys, man – you rocked!” “Glad they liked it,” Keith said, smiling with pride. “So, what’s next? You in any hurry to get back home?” Keith glanced at Jansen, and seeing the pleading in his brother’s eyes, said, “We need to hit the pavement and find new jobs when we get back, but we’re okay for a few days.” Nodding and smiling, Eric said, “Good, because otherwise I’d have had to kidnap you. Anyway, there’s something I’ve wanted to talk you about: that two-night gig at the Oak Leaf. I want to know why you thought you could draw that much of a crowd so easily. You did, but I want to know why you thought you could.” Unaccustomed to Eric asking business questions, Keith looked askance at him for a moment before replying, “Basically, because it was different to the bump-and-grind crap like you saw us do at our old club. The other part was opening it to under-twenty-ones; that hooked a college crowd, because many of ‘em can’t get into clubs that serve alcohol.” Eric nodded. “As you knew it would. Okay, tell me why there aren’t any clubs like that?” Wondering where Eric was heading, Keith replied, “It costs a shitload of money to set up a club. To get a loan, they have to have a promising business plan, and lenders don’t like anything other than the tried-and-true. That’s one part of it, another is that most clubs get the majority of their profits from drink sales. Our angle was to offer something different, both in the act and the setting.” “Okay, so, why can’t there be a club with two separate halves; one side has alcohol, the other is just soft drinks for a younger crowd. Run shows for both, classy acts like yours, shirtless bartenders, and bring in a few live bands, mainly hot emerging groups with some buzz, for themed events. Have some nights where the focus is on female dancers, targeted at a different crowd.” Jansen, who usually stayed out of business conversations, was the first to realize what was going on. “You’re not just shooting the breeze, you’ve thought this through,” he said. “Yeah, I have,” Eric replied, deciding to lay his cards on the table. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since those two nights at the Oak Leaf. I phoned Helen a couple of days ago and had a long talk with her. She’s a hard-ass when it comes to business and even she thinks this could work… I can get bands, good bands, easy. I also saw the way people react to your show. They like it for the same reasons I do; it’s classy, it’s hot, and it’s different. I know you guys don’t want to go back to cheesy strip club acts, and I had a blast at Oak Leaf. I also think there’s real money to be made here. So, I’m offering you guys a deal; I supply the money and connections, including a real club that’s large enough. You supply the know-how, your own routines, and managing the dancers and the club. I get half the profit. We’ll hash out the details later if you’re interested. Think it over; what have you got to lose?” Eric stood up, and said with a shrug, “Look, we can stay friends no matter what you guys decide, but I think you’d be out of your fucking minds to turn this down.” With a cheerful wave and a smile at the stunned and silent dancers, Eric let himself out. Jansen and Keith stared at the closed door after Eric’s departure. Keith was the first to give voice to his thoughts. “Holy… Fucking… Shit…” he said, his eyes still riveted to the door. “That about sums it up,” Jansen said numbly. “Why would he make us an offer like that? That’s beyond generous… I’d have offered us ten percent, not half, if I was in his shoes,” Keith said, trying to make sense of the news. Jansen nodded, and then shook his head. “Yeah, but how well would that work? He wants us motivated. We’d be developing new routines for us and other dancers, selecting and managing other dancers and the club, everything. Besides, tell me this; do you think he’d get a good return on his money out of half the profits?” Keith sat silently for a moment, thinking it through. “Yeah, a mix like that, good routines, themed nights, and a suitable building in a good location, mixed in with some gorilla and viral marketing campaigns, yeah, I’d say he’d be making a healthy return on his investment a year after launch.” Jansen began to smile. “So it makes sense – from a business point of view.” “Yeah, it kinda shocked me, seeing him turn all businesslike. But when friends do business, that’s about the only way to make it work out,” Keith said. “I think he knows that,” Jansen chuckled. “So… got any reservations, oh business guru?” After staring at the ceiling for a moment, Keith replied, “There’s no real risk to us, and it’s not like we’d be quitting safe jobs. This is what we’ve always wanted; a stake in a club and a chance to make it work.” “I think he knows that, too,” Jansen said. Keith took a deep breath. Picking up the phone’s receiver and looking at Jansen, paused. After receiving a nod from his brother, Keith dialed. Eric answered on the first ring, and Keith said, “You’re right, we’d be fucking nuts to say no.” Keith listened for a second, and then returned the handset to its cradle, and stood up. “He said he’d be right over,” Keith said, as he headed for the door. Keith opened the door and Eric strolled in, tossing himself into a chair with a thud. Waiting until Keith took a seat, Eric stared at the two dancers, before asking, deadpan, “Well? What’s the answer?” Keith exchanged a confused glance with his brother before asking, “Didn’t we just say yes?” Eric shook his head, “No, you said you’d be fucking nuts to say no, and given that you’re both fucking nuts anyway…” Keith and Jansen laughed, and the tension in the room eased. “Okay, wiseguy, the answer is YES!” Turning serious, Keith added, “You do know that it could take up to a year from opening to build up a buzz and get the word out, right? We’d be looking at six months minimum of running a negative cash flow while we developed the business.” Eric nodded. Helen had already pointed that out to him, as her first of many objections. She’d been even more pessimistic, stating flatly that the success of the business hinged on getting the word out. Wondering if Jansen and Keith would like his remedy to the problem as much as Helen had – though in Helen’s case she’d yelled at him for a while first, before conceding that it was a workable plan – Eric said, “I get that, but I think there’s a solution. All we need is a lot of press coverage. I want to call the club Carlisle’s and be very public about my ownership of it. I also want to be billed as one of the acts for the opening weekend.” Going on stage as a stripper was something Eric had not mentioned to Helen, but he saw no reason to complicate the discussion with that little detail. “Yeah, having you publicly involved would give us the kind of buzz and name recognition that celeb-owned restaurants gets. I can only see one problem with part of it…” Keith let his voice trail off, trying to think how to phrase the issue. Jansen was more comfortable with Eric, so he just said it outright, “If you go on stage, you’ll be a total disaster. You can’t dance and you can’t strip.” Nodding, Eric said with a smile, “I know. You guys are going to have to teach me.” “We’re not miracle workers,” Jansen remarked dryly, before grinning and adding, “But we can probably teach you enough to get by for a really short routine and that’s all you’d need.” Relaxing a little, Keith added with a chuckle, “Yeah, I think teaching an elephant to tap-dance would be easier. We’ll see what we can do with you, but even without you on stage, your name and connections would get us off the ground fast. We’d need a good location; the Oak Leaf is way too small and it’s in the wrong place.” Eric grinned at the dig. “Yeah, I figured it was too small, but I’ve got no clue on location. Got an area in mind?” That one was easy. “Yeah, the Newport Beach area, it’s got the right kind of crowd and its close enough to some major campuses,” Keith replied. “Work up an idea of what we need and I’ll phone an agent so we can start looking when we get back,” Eric said, looking forward to the venture. Changing the subject, he said, “The wedding and reception are tomorrow. Brandon and Chase want you to come and so do I.” Jansen arched an eyebrow in surprise. “You want us to strip at a wedding reception?” he asked in disbelief. Laughing, Eric replied, “No man, we want you there as guests, not entertainment.” Walking down the Learjet’s steps after landing in Idaho, Helen saw a tall, thin woman standing on the tarmac a few feet away, buffeted by the gusting wind, cradling a gift-wrapped box with one hand and holding a small suitcase with the other. As Helen approached, the woman set down the case and extended her hand, her face a mask of reserved dignity though undercut by unease. “Hello, Helen,” Jane Carlshitski said. “Pleased to see you again,” Helen said, picking up the case and ushering her guest aboard. It was by no means an accident that Jane’s seat was next to Helen’s. As the plane climbed out and banked to the east, Helen began to engage Jane in an outwardly innocuous conversation. By the time they were over the Atlantic, Jane had relaxed enough to confide, “JT has always been a stubborn, opinionated, hard-nosed man. I regret going along with him, but it was so easy to believe that if we stood our ground, Chase would see the error of his ways. Then Jon and Eric took Chase’s side and I’d lost all three of my sons. JT was all I had left. I still don’t approve of what Chase is doing, but it is his life… and I want to see my sons again.” Nodding sympathetically, though still harboring a tinge of dislike for the woman who had hurt Chase, Eric, and Jon so deeply, Helen realized that Jane’s presence beside her, in likely defiance of JT, was a profound statement in and of itself. “I hope that Mr. Carlshitski wasn’t too upset regarding you going to the wedding?” Helen asked. With a casual shrug, Jane replied, “It wasn’t an issue as I haven’t told him yet. He kept the invitation from me so I felt no compunction to tell him of my trip. Perhaps he’ll notice when I don’t come home tonight.” Jane’s calm, dignified smile hid her inner turmoil, though not well enough to fool Helen. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  21. Chapter 22: Prelude to Ragnarök It was an inauspicious beginning, but it was a beginning nonetheless. The roar of the C-130’s four engines diminished as the pilot throttled back, beginning their final descent through the dark skies to the improvised base in Somalia. The improvised base consisted of just a stretch of dirt road, some fuel bladders, and a collection of tents, all under the watchful eyes and protection of a local warlord with whom The Scar had cut a deal. In what even he considered a stunning display of unoriginality, The Scar had christened the site First Base. General Bradson, sitting in the navigator’s station, watched as the pilot, using light-amplification goggles, guided the lumbering C-130 Hercules onto the rough strip, aided only by the feeble illumination of a few glow-sticks that had been used to mark the thresholds and centerline. General Bradson wasn’t overly worried; the Hercules – one of the most widely used cargo aircraft on the planet – had been designed for short takeoffs and landings on rough, improvised runways. It wasn’t easy to break one but he knew it could be done. With that unpleasant thought in mind, he held his breath as the pilot flared the aircraft. In a jump seat with a view down the length of the cargo bay, Felecia focused on her men, visually reassuring herself that each and every one of her fifty-three charges were buckled in. She felt the plane tremble and drop, and then heard the thunder of the wheels as they met the road’s uneven surface. The plane lurched sickeningly to the side, swerving slightly, and the fuselage began to shake in accompaniment to the rising howl from the engines as the pilot inverted the propellers’ pitch and applied full throttle, using the resulting reverse thrust in addition to the brakes to slow the aircraft down. After what seemed like far too long to all those aboard, the plane slowed to a near stop. Using right brakes and forward thrust on the port engines and reverse thrust on the starboard, the pilot pivoted the plane in place and then taxied back a few hundred yards, pulling off the road and coming to a halt next to a rag-tag assortment of tents. Felecia listened as the engines spooled down, and then headed aft to the cargo ramp. As the ramp lowered, she told Horst, “I don’t expect any trouble, but take your platoon and secure a perimeter, at least until we know for sure what the situation is.” Two by two, Horst’s platoon descended the ramp. Watching from the top of the ramp, Felecia told Wilhelm, “Stay alert at all times. We’re supposedly among friendlies, but there are no guarantees in this business.” Wilhelm hid a smile, knowing full well that Felecia only stated the glaringly obvious when she was under stress. It was one of the things he’d learned about her in the years they had been working together. Yuri and The Scar remained in their jump seats, waiting until the last of the mercenaries had deplaned. General Bradson, walking aft from the cockpit, stopped to ask, “Anything I should be aware of – regarding the locals?” The Scar glanced out through the open cargo door before saying, “I’ve dealt with this warlord in the past. It is not he that concerns me, it is his rivals. They could launch an attack or raid at any time. That is the way of things here, and by dawn we will have three aircraft on the ground. That will spark their interest. If we can keep on schedule, we should be on our way before they can assemble a force sufficient to cause us difficulty.” Over the next hour, two more C-130s landed, taxiing to positions next to the first. One, a B model, was obviously old. Well past its design life and poorly maintained, its engine nacelles stained with streaks of black oil. It had been scheduled for scrapping before The Scar had acquired it for the mission. The rest of the aircraft was equally decrepit. The other C-130 landed roughly and rolled out much further; it was heavily laden with cargo, having begun its journey that day in Malta with the General’s package, and then stopping in Sudan to load up the rest of the items that The Scar had gathered in his warehouse facility and base, which he had nicknamed ‘Home Plate’. It had been a frantic week. The delivery from General Bradson’s friend Bill had been delayed for twenty-four hours due to a scheduling mix-up, and the intel dump had contained less information than the General had hoped. The Scar had hit a few snags acquiring the various munitions and equipment, but the last of it had finally arrived just hours before departure at the dusty airport in Sudan. The result of the third C-130’s rough landing under such heavy load was revealed by flashlight in a hasty inspection; the main hydraulic shock absorber of the portside main landing gear had blown its seals, rendering it useless. Worse, the gear hinge pins had bent, almost to the point of breaking. After seeing the damage for themselves, the General and The Scar walked away to talk in private. “Can you complete the mission with two aircraft?” The Scar asked. “No,” General Bradson replied, “I need all three, unless you can find us somewhere in Oman or the Emirates to refuel.” Sighing, The Scar said, “I’ll tell Yuri to check our contacts, but I judge the chances of success slim. The same is true for our efforts to acquire replacement parts and get them here in time to install them. Will the aircraft suffice as is?” Shaking his head, the General replied, “No chance. With the pins bent like that, it’s likely to fail during landing with a heavy load, especially on rough ground.” In a desire for simplicity, the General had dubbed the three C-130’s Flights One, Two, and Three. “Flight One is the old clunker; it won’t be landing anywhere but it’s not airworthy so we can’t swap it for the damaged Flight Two, which is slated to fly into Oman carrying fuel for our return leg, and that’ll be a rough-field landing at max load. Flight Three is the aircraft we’ll be taking into Iran, and that’s got to handle up to four landings: one or two in Iran, then once to refuel in Oman, and again in Sudan. Flight One’s engines and wing box are too far gone to use it to one-way the fuel into Oman, so that option won’t work. All we can do is delay the mission until the parts arrive.” “That may prove problematic. Our host’s rival warlords will surely note the aircraft here, and assume that whatever they are carrying has value. They will come, and their first act will be to disable the aircraft to prevent them from taking off. In the past, they have done so via sniper fire with armor-piercing rounds, targeted at the engines. We cannot keep them far enough away to prevent that. We run a risk as is, but if we delay, it will be greatly magnified,” The Scar said, trying to think of an alternative. General Bradson, staring at the decrepit Flight One, began to smile. “I think I have our solution. We can swap the parts from Flights One and Two. The bent pins will be good enough to get Flight One off the ground and it won’t matter much if the gear won’t retract. The shock absorber is mainly needed for landing, so Flight One won’t need it. That will solve our issue with Flight Two. Can any of your men handle that kind of work?” Breathing a sigh of relief, The Scar replied, “Yes, one of my pilots used to be an aircraft mechanic. I’ll have him start at once.” Helen still had one remaining issue; no one on La Palma was expecting Jane. Helen had no doubt that the Carlisle brothers, after the initial shock wore off, would welcome her, but Helen knew she couldn’t let them meet her unprepared. With that in mind, Helen seated Jane on one of the two mini-buses chartered to take the wedding guests to the resort, and herself and Barbra on the other. Taking her seat, Helen reached for her cell phone and called Jon. As soon as the shock wore off, Jon replied in an uneven voice, “Let me and Eric meet with her alone when you get here. I want to be sure, damn sure, that she’s not going to hurt Chase on his wedding day. Helen… thank you. If this works, it’s the best present Chase, or any of us, could ever get.” The first order of business was to keep Brandon and Chase away from the arriving guests, whom they had planned to greet at the main entrance. Jon handled that by sending word that the plane had been delayed by half an hour, and then went to see Eric. Eric and Jon were standing by the main entrance, butterflies in their stomachs, when the mini-vans arrived. Ignoring the other guests, most of whom were now aware of the situation, the two watched and waited. Jane, her face impassive, stepped out of the van and stood staring at them from just five feet away, though a gulf more palpable than the physical loomed between them. Biting his lip, washed in a flood of conflicting emotions, Eric took a step forward. There had been so many things he’d wanted to say, but what he managed was enough. “Hi, Mom...” Her lips quivering, tears welling up in her eyes, Jane stepped forward to meet Eric, her words failing her. Driven by instinct, she opened her arms to her sons. Without conscious thought, Eric and Jon embraced their mother, and she pulled them into a hug. No words were said; none needed to be, for several long and poignant moments. Watching from a discreet distance, Helen felt the tears welling up in her own eyes. Blinking them back as she turned away, she headed into the foyer with Barbra. “It’s so good to see you again,” Jane murmured, her voice shaking as she hugged her sons tight, her chest heaving from emotions so long suppressed, and the filling of a void so oft denied. Remembering that they had an urgent matter to attend, Jon eased out of the hug, picked up his mother’s valise, and said, “Let’s get you checked in.” The one thing that clouded his joy was the fact that his mother had not mentioned Chase. While the designated mechanic worked on the aircraft, General Bradson supervised the final preparation of the most critical cargo. The chlorine, in the form of Sodium hypochlorite, came first. Frantic activity surrounded the chlorine tanks, as Horst’s platoon, decked out in minimal protective gear, decanted the caustic substance into three thousand mayonnaise jars, filling each to the halfway mark. Next, two smaller glass jars, one containing anhydrous ammonia and the other sulfuric acid, were sealed with wax and placed within each of the larger chlorine-containing mayonnaise jars. Each large jar was then placed into specially constructed wooden pallets. The pallets were divided into layers, with each level containing a cardboard honeycomb – the original packing material for the jars, to prevent breakage – one loose-fitting cell for each jar. One hundred mayonnaise jars comprised each of the five layers in a pallet. After the final layer of jars had been added, the pallet was closed up and then loaded aboard Flight Three, as work began on the next pallet. At a safe distance, Wilhelm and a dozen of his men handled the more delicate task of removing the pins from hand grenades and placing one in each of the two thousand remaining mayonnaise jars. The glass walls of the jars prevented the grenade’s spoons from flipping up and engaging the igniter, which necessitated the caution; one dropped grenade or jar could have been catastrophic. One by one, the grenade-bearing jars were loaded into wooden pallets identical to those used for the chemical-containing jars. Six pallets were loaded into the newly lubricated cargo drop-rails of Flight One. Further forward, twenty-nine standard wooden crates, containing just over three tons of fresh South African lemons, were stacked and then secured to the fuselage tie-downs of the old, barely airworthy plane that would be Flight One. Bill’s package had contained an eclectic assortment of items, including four standard garage door openers and two laptop computers. The garage door openers ­– powered by rectifiers hooked into the plane’s main electrical system ­– had already been installed in the cargo bay of the old aircraft that comprised Flight One. A GPS-equipped laptop had been mounted in its cockpit, hardwired into both a satellite phone and the aircraft’s autopilot, which had been upgraded for the purpose the week before. The loading of Flight Two was a simpler matter. Its only cargo was an assortment of old fuel bladders, loaded from the slightly questionable vintage of the warlord’s own stock. Flight Two would have only two passengers; trained spotters from Wilhelm’s platoon. Their job would be to jump at the pre-selected landing area in Oman to inspect and then light the fuel-laden C-130’s landing area. Flight Three was the insertion and extraction aircraft, containing additional gear and munitions for its mission, including what appeared to be four fat organ pipes, tapered at each end, mounted on the fuselage, under the wing, pointing aft and slightly downward. Those were the JATO packs: rockets used for takeoff with a heavy load from a very short field. In the rear of its cargo bay and secured to the drop rails were ten pallets, each containing five-hundred mayonnaise jars. By torchlight and guesswork, working through the night and on into the next day, the planes were readied for the mission, with the work in Flight One’s cockpit being the most demanding. The work took two days, and General Bradson, taking a brief break, checked his e-mail via satellite phone, to find the expected encrypted e-mail from Bill, containing his final intelligence and weather update. One item caused him to raise an eyebrow, as it explained very much indeed. General Bradson mulled the development over, deciding that there was nothing he could do except proceed, though he did decide to arrange a little insurance. There was still one major issue remaining; the dead bodies needed for Flight One had not yet appeared. Growing concerned, General Bradson went to The Scar’s tent. Interrupting his dinner, The General asked, “Any news on the morgue delivery? I must have those cadavers.” With a casual one-shouldered shrug, The Scar relied, “The warlord said he would have them here by now. If he does not, I’ll tell him to kill a couple of his men for the purpose. I’ll make sure they use knives so as not to leave any bullet holes. He will do so if he wants to be paid, which indeed he does.” Shaking his head, General Bradson stood his ground. “No. I won’t be a party to slaughtering innocent men.” Amused at what he considered a foolhardy display of scruples, The Scar asked, “That’s a rather interesting sentiment General, considering that your mission will surely result in many deaths, particularly at Abadan and at your primary target. You’re also planning on violating numerous other rules generally regarded as applying to combat.” “That’s part of war, even if it is unconventional. It cannot be helped, and that target must be taken all the way out, both to make our mission possible, and to prevent the conflict from spreading. Executing innocent men however is another matter entirely.” Retuning his gaze to his dinner, suppressing a chuckle, The Scar sighed, “Very well, General. We’ll put this conversation on hold until we see whether or not the cadavers appear.” Smiling, enjoying the riposte enough to make him incautious with his words, The Scar added, “War, General? I was not aware of a declared war.” Growing aware that he was being toyed with, General Bradson replied, “Iran has committed numerous acts of war against America. They founded, and support, the terror group Hezbollah and others. Via their proxies, they have slaughtered Americans during the Lebanon Marine Barracks attack, Kohbar towers, and in other cases too. They have also now kidnapped and are holding for ransom United States Marines, doing so without admitting they have them and thereby implying a threat to their lives, a threat I believe they intend to carry out shortly. If my government hadn’t lost its spine, I wouldn’t have to do this on my own hook. So yes, this is war and by virtue of necessity, I’m aiming to give Iran a dose of its own medicine. Surely you can appreciate the irony of that?” The General was well aware of The Scar’s abiding love of irony. “Touché, General. Yes, I do see the irony there. Please believe me; I have no objection to your planned actions and I aim to do everything possible to ensure the success of your mission.” Fifteen minutes later, the issue of the bodies was rendered moot; an old truck wheeled into the compound, carrying three cadavers that were immediately loaded into the hold of Flight One. One more night of frantic work ensued, with the final details attended to not long before dawn. An exhausted General Bradson made his final inspections, then checked the weather one last time, and crossed off the final items on his list. Operation Pandora was ready to go. They slept, or tried to, through the long, dusty day, and as the sun lowered towards the western horizon, it was time. The fact that the planes were getting ready to leave was not missed by the observers hiding in the nearby hills. The Scar often used his two C-130 Hs for transporting merchandise, and had detailed his cadre of pilots to join the mission. Only two were fully rated in the C-130, while the third, a man by the claimed name of Smith, was in the process of being trained by the other two pilots. The two rated men, along with their crews, took the controls of Flights Two and Three, while Smith, who had never flown as pilot in command of anything larger than a single-engine light plane, took command of the old and decrepit Flight One. General Bradson accompanied him to the jury-rigged cockpit, and alone, they went over the controls. Satisfied that Smith could take off and follow a course, the General said with a wink, “You’ll do fine. Landing is the hard part and you won’t be doing that.” Leaving their mother’s suite, Jon walked a few paces before asking Eric, “Can you tell if she’s on the level? I want to believe her, but…” Jon had long since grown accustomed to deferring to Eric when it came to dealing with people, due to Eric’s innate knack for reading them. Taking a deep breath, consulting his heart, Eric replied softly, “Yeah, she is. I can feel it. She’s got her reservations but she won’t hurt Chase, and she asked to see him. She’s nervous about how he’ll react. Let’s go get him.” “What about Brandon?” Jon asked, already guessing the answer. “No, not yet. Chase first, then we’ll introduce Brandon later,” Eric replied, knowing that seeing the couple together would be harder for his mother and thus a greater risk that she’d react badly. Arriving at Brandon and Chase’s suite, Jon knocked as Eric whispered, “This may not be easy, those two are joined at the hip.” Chase opened the door. Eric reached out, grabbed him by the arm, and yanked him into the hallway. Ignoring Chase’s startled expression, Eric told Jon, “Take him there, I’ll tell Brandon what’s up.” Chase dug in his heels and said, “Not until you tell me–” Both seeing and feeling that Chase’s stubborn streak was in full bloom, Eric said flatly, “Mom’s here. She wants to see you but trust me, it’s best if you see her alone first. I’ll bring Brandon in a few.” “Mom?” Chase asked, his jaw dropping open. “Yeah, she’s here. Helen brought her,” Jon said as he tugged Chase along. Brandon heard it all, and stared at Eric as he entered the suite. “Are you serious?” Nodding, Eric replied, “Yeah, she’s here, in room seventeen. I thought it’d be best if she saw Chase first, before meeting you,” Eric said, concerned that Brandon wouldn’t understand, though feeling that he would. Brandon did. Pointing at the still-open door, he said, “I’ll wait by the phone, but you should be there too. Go.” Knowing that Brandon was right, Eric dashed off at a run. Chase froze outside the door to his mother’s suite. Understanding, but seeing need for a little humor, Eric said, “Try knocking, it’s how you get someone to answer a door.” The tension easing a little, Chase smiled nervously and tapped on the door. They stared at each other, mother and son, Chase not knowing what to say or do, and Jane finding herself unable to put into words the many things she wanted and needed to say. After a long silence, she pulled Chase into a hug, and gasped between sobs, “I’ve missed you so much, I’ve missed you all so much.” The chasm, though narrowing, remained. Sitting together, the three brothers and their mother chatted, carefully dancing around so many issues. Finally, taking a deep breath, Jane said, “Enough damn tip-toeing. Chase, I want to go to your wedding, if you’ll have me. I’m sorry for the past, I really am. I won’t lie to you; I don’t approve of what you’re doing or the life you’ve chosen, but it’s your life, I see that now, and I support your right to make decisions that I don’t agree with. I’ll never mention my objections again. We were wrong, your father and I, to do what we did. I fooled myself into thinking that it was for your own good… and I ended up hurting you all, and myself as well. Enough of that, I want to meet this Brandon Wolfe who’s taken my baby’s heart.” Taking his mother’s hand, Chase made no attempt to hide his tears. “Mom, of course I want you at my wedding.” Grinning with relief, Eric leaned over the end of the sofa, snatched up the phone and dialed. As soon as Brandon answered, Eric smiled manically, saying, “Get your ass over here,” and then he hung up the phone. Rolling her eyes, Jane found herself repeating a line, spoken so often by her through the years. “Eric, language!” she huffed, and then smiled, her first genuine smile in a very long time. An hour later, feeling that all was well with the world, the four members of Instinct strolled back towards their respective accommodations, and Eric glanced up to see a lone, distinctive cloud catching the last rays of the setting sun, high above the volcano. Knowing what it was – the remains of another ash venting – and hoping that his brothers and Brandon wouldn’t, Eric quickened his pace. Once he was alone, Eric made his way to Helen and Barbra’s suite. Taking a seat on their couch, he said, “Helen, thanks doesn’t cut it. Having our mother back, I... I just never thought it would happen. I don’t know how you did it, but–” Helen cut Eric off to say, “I played a small role, but it was General Bradson who went out to Idaho and paid your parents a visit, trying to get them to change their minds. He told me it didn’t go well, but that there was more hope with your mother. So, I sent out a wedding invitation and followed up.” Seeing the opening and driven by his curiosity, Eric said, “You know where General Bradson is, don’t you.” Shaking her head, Helen decided to tell Eric what very little she knew, which was little more than he did. “I don’t know where he is. All I do know is that he’s trying to rescue his son. I haven’t heard from him since he flew out with you, and I have no way of contacting him.” “I’d like to see if he’s okay, or if he needs anything. At least thank him for what he did… Isn’t there some way to get a message to him?” Eric asked. “Sorry Hon,” Helen replied, shaking her had sadly, “If there is, I don’t know it. I don’t even know when we can expect to hear from him again.” Eric could tell that Helen was telling the truth, so he didn’t press. Instead, he kept his current plans to visit the airport to himself and said, “I talked to Jansen and Keith. They’re all fired up to try the club idea.” Helen let out an irritated snort. “I’ll bet they are. It’s a great deal, for them. As I said before, you should have offered them a smaller cut.” Eric opened his mouth to object, but Helen cut him off. “Can it, Eric. You can give me all the reasoning you want, but I know you. You consider them friends so you’re offering far too much. However, your underlying concept appears sound and you should do well personally in spite of your offer, so this venture still has my reluctant, tentative approval. Most of your assets are in long-term investments so there would be withdrawal penalties to consider, but you have more than ample funds for a venture of this size – I estimate three million, to do it right – in your liquid accounts. That said, I want to meet Jansen and Keith. I also want to look over any paperwork you sign, in advance. Linking your name to a strip club is… risky, but it should be financially worthwhile, judging by what you have outlined. The concept is good, but now you need to work on the details. If, and only if, it looks profitable and sound, you’ll have my support.” Eric readily agreed. Most of his financial assets required both his signature and Helen’s to access, and that would remain the case until his twenty-fifth birthday. The same stipulation applied to his brothers and Brandon; it was Helen’s way of ensuring that they didn’t squander their money, a fate all too common in their business. Smiling, he said, “Thanks, and thanks for what you did to bring our mother around and get her to come. I want you to know something though; she’s our mother, but I really do think of you as our mom.” Eric’s words made Helen feel warm inside. She knew that he was buttering her up, but she also knew that he meant it. However, a little matter had come to her attention, and she simply could not deny herself the pleasure, so she said in her sweetest voice – the one Eric knew to fear, “Eric, sweetie, do Brandon and Chase know that the volcano we’re all sitting on has been erupting?” Eric’s sharp intake of breath let her know that she’d scored, and that Eric was still unaware that his bandmates knew about the volcano. “I didn’t know it was erupting when I picked this place. I only found out a couple of days ago and by then it was already too late to change everything,” Eric blurted. Rolling her eyes, deciding that he’d squirmed long enough, Helen said, “Trust you to book us on an active volcano… However, according to the man at the front desk, it’s a well-behaved one usually, so we’ll just have to hope it doesn’t get too restless prior to the wedding.” Unable to resist one last little dig, Helen’s smile became evil as she said in her sweetest voice, “I’ll let you tell Brandon and Chase.” “Just what I needed,” Eric complained, deciding to tell them when the time was right, though having no idea when that might be. On the morning of the wedding, Eric hovered near the mini-buses, greeting each guest in turn. The dress code had been dictated by Brandon and Chase: casual. It had to be, given what they planned. Jansen and Keith arrived, looking a little ill at ease, wearing matching shorts and button-down short-sleeve shirts. Brandon and Chase greeted them warmly, dispelling the dancer’s feelings of being out of place at the wedding. Spotting Eric, they walked over to stand by him. “Hey Eric, looks like everything’s going great. Thanks for the invite.” Shaking his head, Eric replied, “That’s from Brandon and Chase, too. I told ‘em how you guys had helped me with the arrangements.” Casting a nervous eye towards Cumbre Vieja’s looming bulk, Eric said, “I haven’t told Brandon and Chase about the volcano yet. I just hope it keeps quiet a little longer.” Changing subjects as he spied a new arrival heading for the bus, Eric waited until she was near and said, “Mom, this is Jansen and Keith, two good friends of mine. Guys, this is my mother, Jane Carlshitski.” Eric’s mother greeted the two dancers warmly, and then boarded the bus. Keith raised an amused eyebrow in Eric’s direction. “So, your real last name is Carlshitski, is it?” Envisioning the endless ribbing that Keith’s comment threatened, Eric said, “I legally changed it to Carlisle.” Deciding to turn the tables, Eric did his best impression of Helen’s sweet smile. “Oh, by the way, you’re sitting with Helen and me at the reception. She wants to meet you both and grill you about the business.” The truthful comment had its desired effect, and the two dancers paled slightly. “Is she really as bad as you say?” Jansen asked. Eric smiled innocently, and said in a reassuring tone, “No, she’s worse, but don’t worry about it. There’s a good chance she didn’t mean literally grill you, like over a fire…” The steady drumbeat of surf echoing off the cliffs tried but failed to drown out the minister’s sonorous, accented voice. Brandon and Chase, standing knee-deep in the shore breakers, stood apart but holding hands as the minister performed the service. A gentle tang of salt, wafted on the breeze, filled the air. The sun, dancing across the sparkling waters, bathed the scene in a golden glow. Brandon and Chase, facing one another, speaking as one, recited the vows they’d penned. “Long ago the thought of you and I was but a dream. Dreams, it is said, oft die the hardest deaths of all, though because of you, I dared to dream. Together, we have breathed life unto our dreams, and together, we shall make them endure. All that I am and all that I shall be, I offer to you in eternal love. I will cherish and comfort you, hold you close, prize you above all others, and remain faithful to you all the days of our lives. For all that I now am, I pledge to share with you, in good times and in bad. For whatever lies ahead, be it joy or tribulation, we will face together. First, last, and always, we will look unto each other and see a friend. For all the days to come, I take my place by your side as your husband, henceforth and forever.” Jon stood by Brandon’s side, and Eric stood by Chase’s, pride in his heart. The assembled guests stood in an uneven line on the beach, well back from the lapping, frothy waves. The minister began to speak, as a flock of sea birds, as if on cue, thundered into the air from their perch on an offshore rock. “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you…” The perfect moment lasted for a heartbeat more, as the cause of the birds’ distress became apparent, and the earth itself began to roar. Feeling the first waves of the ground shock, Brandon and Chase glanced around, following the minister’s spellbound, pallid gaze upwards and inland, to the roiling, angry column of fire and ash, shot through with flickers of lightning, that rose above the trembling cliffs from the main crater of Cumbre Vieja, less than two miles away. Stuttering, feeling a sense of fear and dread, the minister resumed his service, reciting out of long habit and in haste. “I now pronounce you Husband and Wife…,” he said, his voice trembling, as he began to wade ashore. From deep within the earth, a rising column of magma surged upwards, and the volcano, returning fully to life, shook off the fettering chains that had bound it during its decades-long sleep. Transfixed by the sight of the erupting volcano, everyone on the beach was facing the wrong way to notice the hasty, almost noiseless retreat of the sea. And the earth, awakened, continued to dance…. © 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  22. C James

    Revelations

    Chapter 19: Revelations The smell… it was the smell that reminded him, even more so than the pain, that he was far from home. Pungent, a mix of stale concrete, sweat, and the stale, lingering odors of spices, suffused with dust. An echoing sound of boots on concrete, growing ever louder, intruded rudely into Brian Bradson’s clouded mind. Deprived of more than a few meager snatches of sleep, he was barely able to focus, but he knew what mattered: they were coming for him, again. Like so many times before, the senior guard led the way, unlocking the cell, and then grabbing Brian by the arm and hauling him to his feet. A fist slamming into his gut caused his abused ribs to scream their misery, and Brian doubled over, trying as best he could to protect his head as the three guards began working him over. They no longer asked questions, and the lack of purpose made it all somehow just that much worse, though Brian could spare no immediate thoughts for that. He could only focus on the pain and trying to ward off the worst of the blows. The three guards took special care to inflict the worst of their wrath on Brian. He thought he knew why; during the ambush, he’d killed three Iranians for certain and perhaps two more, and so Brian assumed that was why he was being singled out for the harshest treatment. In a way, he was okay with that; it meant the guards were not as brutal to Private Earl Johnson, his fellow prisoner. Their predicament had been evident from the start. The ambush at the oil rig, executed by troops disguised as platform workers, had obviously been carefully planned and had taken Brian’s squad by surprise. The captured men were separated immediately, and Brian had seen no sign of the others, except for Private Johnson. The clang of the cell door slamming shut signaled that, for now, the beating was over. Brian, curled up on the cold cement floor, his left eye swelling shut and the all too familiar coppery taste of his own blood invading his mouth, knew one other thing: five days ago, the infrequent and inadequate food had ceased coming entirely, and more ominously, the guards no longer avoided hitting him in the face. Now, they no longer cared if he showed outwards signs of abuse. Indeed, they reveled in it with sadistic gusto. From those facts, there was but one obvious conclusion that Brian could draw: they had no intention of letting him live. In that, he was correct. Shocked back to temporary lucidity by a deluge of dirty, ice-cold water, Brian shivered, wishing above all else that he could sleep. If he tried, he knew he’d get hit with more cold water if the guards were in a good mood, and water punctuated by a zap from a cattle prod or worse when they were not, which was most of the time. The shock of the frigid water abated, replaced by the dull throb of a thousand gnawing aches, and so began Brian Bradson’s twenty-first birthday. Wilhelm slipped away from the roaring fire, trying his best to be inconspicuous in his departure. General Bradson watched out of the corner of his eye, suspecting what Wilhelm was up to. Interposing a building between himself and the General, Wilhelm ducked into the tree line and circled around to meet what he thought would be Felecia’s most likely line of approach. A hundred yards from where he thought they’d be, the point team announced their presence by pegging Wilhelm in the chest with five rounds of paint. Rubbing his stinging skin, Wilhelm growled in the direction the shots had come from, “Okay, I’m dead, now which way is Felecia? This is urgent.” After a quick meeting with Felecia, where he delivered the news, Wilhelm followed as she stormed towards the compound. Felecia’s fury knew no bounds. Trembling with rage, she glared at the cracking fire and then at General Bradson. The fact that he, along with several of her men, was roasting hot dogs over the flaming remnants of the flagpole did nothing to improve her disposition. “You fucking smart ass, I suppose you think this means you’ve won?” she snarled. With a relaxed and confident smile, General Bradson said, “No.” He let Felecia puzzle over that for a few seconds while he spun his hot dog on its stick, and then added, in a more forceful tone. “It means we did win, because we beat you and your force, again.” “You beat nothing,” she said, and spat on the ground. “It’s just another sneaky fucking trick. You haven’t even attempted any form of combat.” “And that, dear lady, is the point,” the General said, assuming the tone of a superior officer addressing a junior who had just made an error. “The goal of any mission is to achieve the objective as quickly and easily as possible. I did so. Your operational style is to go force-on-force. For the mission ahead of us, that’s a damn good way to get us all killed. We have to be creative and use the dynamics and structure of the tactical situation to our own ends and execute an asymmetrical operation. That’s what I’m trying to teach you, if you have the wit to learn it.” Fighting to control her killing rage, Felecia hissed, “With me, now!” and stalked away from the campfire. Taking his time, General Bradson set down his hot dog, stood up, and followed. As soon as they were out of the troops’ earshot, Felecia spun around, and nose to nose with General Bradson said in a whisper dripping with venom, “You will not, ever, talk that way to me in front of my men. Do I make myself clear?” Not budging an inch, General Bradson replied, “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out. You’ve said worse of me, by far and for no good reason, and those men have got to trust me and my planning. I said what I did to make a point. If I’d really wanted to undercut your authority, I’d have mentioned the reason behind the deployment pattern Wilhelm used on the hill today, setting us up to lose. Speaking of which, you’ve got some damn nerve accusing me of being sneaky while you’re trying to rig the exercise.” Stomach churning, Felecia turned away. Staring into the trees, she said in a calm tone, “What I do, I do for good reason. As for you, your antics would be worthless on the mission. We’re going to war, not to a fucking game.” General Bradson took the opening Felecia had just unwittingly given him. “You want a real tactical exercise? I’m all for it. Let’s have a realistic scenario, no pennants, and no games. Designate a man and have him play the role of your prisoner. I’ll choose men from Wilhelm’s platoon under my sole command; you take the rest plus Horst’s platoon. Horst and Wilhelm’s platoons were a little understrength to start with, but even after I make my picks, your force will outnumber mine by more than five to one.” Betting that Felecia’s pride would compel her to accept the challenge, General Bradson outlined the concept further. “My goal is to free the prisoner, get him out of here, break him clear of any pursuit, and do so within forty-eight hours. Yours is to stop me. We’ll use your paintball gear, but other than that, no rules, no tricks, and no limits. I’ll win in a way that not even you can argue with, because I’ll win to your satisfaction, via combat. And one other thing: when I win, that settles the issue of whether I go in on the ground or not. No more bullshit from you. Then we’ll spend the next few days preparing for the mission my way.” Still feeling the cold fury of her wounded pride, Felecia forced her voice to remain calm. “Given the timeframe, you’ll have tactical surprise,” Felecia countered. “Same as we should have in Iran. So don’t make it easy for me, because they sure won’t. Be creative,” the General said, intentionally injecting a hint of smugness in his tone. Felecia, rankled by the implication that General Bradson evidently didn’t think her capable of stopping him, said, “The prisoner will be in one of the barracks, but you won’t know which one, and he’s to be considered injured, incapable of walking without assistance.” “Done,” the General replied. “Tomorrow morning at dawn the clock starts, and you have twenty-four hours, not forty-eight.” Felecia said. She didn’t see any possible way for the General to accomplish his goal, though she’d learned the hard way that he probably could. However, she was angry enough that she no longer cared if the General won himself a place on the ground mission. ‘It’s his fucking funeral,’ was the thought foremost in her mind. General Bradson picked his men with care. He’d paid attention during the prior exercises, and had seen which men displayed the talents he knew he’d need. Armed with the paintball gear and carrying field packs and rations, he led his small troop – which had been designated ‘Blue Team’ – into the trees, heading north and then bending east, detailing two of his men to keep an eye out for any sign of pursuit. Two miles from the compound, he selected a small clearing and gathered his men around. “Felecia and her Red Team will expect us to attack at night, so we’re going to hit them in broad daylight, about twenty minutes from now, hopefully before she has all her deployments made. You’re all ex-special forces of one kind or another, and you’ll need every bit of skill that you possess. It won’t be easy, but together we’re going to win this thing.” The General outlined his plan and issued his tasking orders. Standing, he said, “Time to gather some shrubbery, and then let’s go get our man.” Twenty minutes later, approaching the compound’s perimeter in five two-man elements, Blue Team crept through the foliage – some of which they’d donned with the aid of some fishing line from their field-packs, for additional concealment. They moved by inches, freezing in place to listen and look, before moving again. Knowing his own limitations, the General let his partner lead their element and direct him via hand signals. General Bradson could not match the silent skill of his troops, and had decided to use that fact to his advantage. He had in essence detailed unto himself the role of bait. Following the signaled commands, General Bradson inched forward, becoming aware of a slight rustle a few dozen feet ahead and to his left. He was unsure of the source of the noise; it could have been anything, though his guess was otherwise. Pretending to ignore it, he inched onwards, drawing the attention of the hidden Red Team sentry. The sentry was amused, and waited as his target inched into his kill zone, focusing on the approaching man, anticipating the easy ‘kill’. Easing up off the ground, he crawled forward another foot, raising his weapon at a snail’s pace in order to avoid alerting his target via movement. Lining up for a torso shot, he noticed a cold sensation across the front of his throat. Freezing in place, he glanced down to see the tip of a combat knife, which was held across his windpipe. A whispered, “You’re a silent kill. Stay put and keep your mouth shut for one hour,” let the sentry know that, for him, the exercise was over. Gingerly, mindful of the very real blade at his throat, the sentry nodded once, signaling his compliance, and the General’s man sheathed his knife and crept away, in search of his next target. Two more sentries met similar fates, falling victim to other two-man elements of Blue Team, and the General achieved his first objective; gathering his force – save for a two-man team he’d sent to circle the compound – in the cover of the tree line, just fifty feet from the first of the barracks. Old, decrepit buildings, raised a foot off the ground, their crawlspaces choked by a skirt of weeds, the three barracks stood in a row, a few yards apart, facing the compound with their backs to the tree line. They had their main doors on the south side, and a back door to the north. Several off-duty soldiers stood about, armed and ready, making no effort at concealment. The General, peering through the brush, spied four more, busily stringing fishing line, threaded through the brush, to cans full of rocks; a simple but effective alarm. General Bradson regarded the effort with approval; Felecia was indeed being creative, not that it would matter. Checking his watch, seeing that it was time, the General commanded his men with a silent motion of his hand. Proceeding according to the General’s plan, three two-man Blue Team elements crept into their positions in the trees, facing the three bunkhouses and moving as close as they dared. Partly concealed by their gathered clumps of grass, leaves, and weeds, they watched Red Team’s soldiers, moving forward an inch at a time whenever the Red Team soldier’s eyes were elsewhere. Still in the tall grass, ranging from twenty to thirty feet from their respective targets, the three Blue Team elements had gone as far as they could. To go further would risk discovery, due to the lack of cover. They froze in place, weapons at the ready, and waited. The lone two-man team that the General had dispatched to circle the camp and approach from the opposite – southern – direction waited until it was exactly the specified time. From their concealed positions in the brush, they each lined up a shot on the nearest of the unconcealed Red Team soldiers. Squeezing off aimed shots, which announced themselves with a hiss and a thump, both men tagged a target in the torso ­for their first ‘kills’ of the day. Shifting fire, they dispatched four more Red Team soldier before the remainder dived for cover, several shouting out to sound the alarm. Edging through the brush to shift their position – now thirty feet apart– the Blue Team unit fired again, achieving one more kill, before backing away a few feet into the brush, dodging the poorly aimed, chaotic return fire. The commotion raised by the diversionary attack had its desired effect, drawing the attention of Felecia’s remaining posted troops as they took cover and looked towards the attack. Moving with both haste and care, the three two-man Blue Team elements behind the barracks scurried forward, darting through the skirting weeds to take cover under their respective targets: the three barracks buildings. Once there, they did what they’d come to do: they listened. One of the two Blue Team men to the south, having melted back into the bush and who so far had eluded the countering fire, drew a bead on the wall of the first barracks. Raising his gun to compensate for the distance, he lobbed two rapid shots that spattered and burst against the side of the building. Shifting fire, he repeated the process on the other two barracks. Inside Barracks Three, alongside the ‘prisoner’, Felecia, Horst by her side, covered the closed and locked main door with her gun. Other men guarded the rear door. Hearing the impacts, she said to Horst, “That’s one gun, to the south. The bastard’s trying a diversion.” She knew that the General must have disposed of her sentries, rendering her tactically blind and giving him the initiative, and that made taking his force out of play a priority, making her next order sensible and nearly automatic. “He’ll be coming from the north. Take him out.” Under Barracks Three, the General’s two men heard what they sought: the distinctive sound of a female voice coming through the floorboards. One man scrambled to the edge of the building and with one fast movement, waved his gun in the air before retreating further under the building. Seeing the signal, General Bradson held up three fingers to the man still in the tree line to the north of the barracks. The lone Blue Force man opened fire on barracks three, the sound of his shots smacking into the old wood a pre-arranged signal designating the primary target. General Bradson had correctly assumed that Felecia and her commanders would be with the ‘prisoner’, and had used the fact that she was the only female in the force in order to determine the prisoner’s location. Now, all he had to do was defeat a much larger force in order to free his prize. Felecia’s deployments had been sensible and practical. Due to not knowing when the General would attack, she could not keep all of her force in concealment or on combat alert, and had organized them into three shifts, two being on alert at all times. Therefore, she’d retained most of her men in the barracks with a smaller force stationed outside, at a lower alert state. Horst charged out the barracks door, dropping and rolling, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Reaction force, with me! They’re to the north; sweep the tree line, prosecute all contacts to a kill!” Barracks one and two emptied quickly, the men storming out, racing around the buildings to join Horst’s pell-mell charge. It was not as sloppy as it seemed; given their advantage in numbers and the tactical objective, they could afford to lose a few men in order to dispatch the attacking force. Playing hare to their hounds, the Blue Team man in the tree line to their north retreated noisily, pausing only to snap off a few covering shots. Snatching a few rocks from his pockets, he slung them one after another, side-hand, into the undergrowth, where their sounds created the impression of more retreating men. Every few yards, he chucked a few more rocks. Thinking that he was pursuing eight or nine men instead of one, Horst led the designated reaction force, which consisted of himself and his platoon, northward away from the compound. The man they were pursuing eventually took cover, thinking to let them pass and surprise them from behind, but bad luck reared its head, and one of the pursuing men of Red Team blundered right into him. After a brief, outnumbered scuffle, Blue Team had its first ‘fatality’ of the day. Although he’d been ‘killed’, the Blue Team man’s mission had been a success; Red Team’s reaction force was a mile north of the barracks, under the impression that Blue Team was lurking in the trees around them. Suspecting a possible ambush, Horst ordered his men to advance with caution, inching their way through the thick tropical undergrowth. The General’s plan to take much of Red Team temporarily out of play had succeeded. With his men to the south still taking pot shots and keeping the remaining outside guards occupied, General Bradson ran a quick estimate, determining, based on a rough head count, that Felecia could only have six or seven men remaining with her inside Barracks Three. A dozen or so more remained ‘alive’ outside, having taken cover from the harassing fire of the Blue Team ‘snipers’ to their south. In doing so, they’d, as expected, presented their backs to the row of barracks and the three Blue Team elements underneath. Firing his own gun for the first time, General Bradson scored his first kill of the day, clipping and then hitting the closest of the Red Team men. Most of the remaining Red Team men in the compound were quickly dispatched, via shots to their exposed backs, by the General’s men sheltered under the bunkhouses. The lone survivor scurried for cover, shielding himself from the new threat axis, only to be taken out by an aimed shot from one of the two men in the southern diversion force. With the compound cleared, the only immediate danger came from the Red Team men taking shots from the windows of Barracks Three. Felecia, still blissfully unaware of the Blue Team forces under the barracks – the sound of their firing had appeared to come from elsewhere, due to echoing off the neighboring buildings – glanced out a window, to see her men in the compound lounging around where they’d fallen, per the rules, and thus ‘dead’. Beginning to suspect that she’d fallen into a well-laid trap by sending her reaction force north, Felecia issued a recall order to Horst over the walkie-talkie, and then said to both Horst and the men in her barracks, in a quiet but deadly voice, “He’ll hit us now, he has to.” Her warning came almost in time. With the compound cleared and the reaction force out of the fight for the moment, General Bradson initiated phase three of his plan. Advancing, darting from cover to cover, he closed the gap between himself and Barracks Three, drawing the attention of its watching defenders. While the General kept the defender’s heads down by firing a few rounds at the windows, which served to draw attention in his direction, the two men from the southern diversion force charged up, peppering the southern windows, as the three two-man elements all converged, as yet unnoticed, under the steps leading to the main door. Given the position his attacking force was in and the tactical situation, General Bradson felt confident of victory even if he himself played no further active roll. However, he wanted to win big and do so with bravado, so he went through with his plan, charging forward, darting to the side, angling towards the building and out of the fields of fire from the windows. He felt the punch of a paintball round against his left shoulder, rendering him ‘disabled’ and unable to use that limb. He didn’t need it. Charging up the rear stairs, he kicked in the back door and stormed in, firing wildly at the Red Team men inside, who focused on the intruder. Three rounds thunked into the General’s chest, and abiding by the rules, he dropped his gun and sat down as the barrack’s front door shattered, falling inward as the General’s remaining eight men charged in from the other side of the barracks. Most of the surviving Red Team men, caught looking the wrong way due to the sudden shift in threat axis, proved easy marks for the invading Blue Team. The first thing the General noticed was Felecia, with a blotch of white paint from his own gun dripping from her face shield. Already ‘dead’, she wiped the paint away and saw the similarly ‘dead’ General Bradson. Then, her spirits sank as she observed that every Red Team man in the building was down, and five surviving Blue team members were already helping the hobbling ‘prisoner’ out the door, unopposed. General Bradson broke the ensuing silence to say, “Horst and his force are out of position to the north and won’t get here in time. My guys will break south and then take a random heading, detaching a few men to set ambushes. There’s no chance of effective pursuit. Game over, you lose.” Glancing at Wilhelm, ‘dead’ by her side, she could see in his eyes that the General was right; they were beaten. Feeling the bitter taste of defeat in every fiber of her being, Felecia replied with calm detachment, “Fine, you win. You’re going in with us, just like you wanted. Now, what’s your strategic concept for the mission?” “In air combat, it’s called getting inside the other guy’s decision loop. That’s how I defeated you and that’s how we’ll win in Iran. Let’s go for a walk and I’ll give you the details,” General Bradson replied, a little smugly, doing so as a test. Felecia noticed the smugness but let it pass. As far as she was concerned, he’d earned the right. After two hours on the phone, Eric greeted the end of the conference call with a smile; it had gone well, and a little faster than he’d expected. Pushing the remains of his dinner aside – he’d eaten during the call, to Helen’s consternation – Eric checked the clock and saw that it was only a little past nine. Getting up to stretch, he walked across the room and pulled his boardshorts on over his speedos before heading for the resort’s main building and the shop he’d noticed. Arriving in the small store, he browsed the liquor section and although tempted, limited his purchase to a bottle of good scotch, hoping that Jansen and Keith would like it. Purchase in hand, Eric walked out via a different route, and as he neared the end of the building, he heard the deep bass thump of the disco. Deciding to stop and have a look, he entered, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the flashing lights emanating from the dance floor. There, a dozen or so guests danced in couples, and Eric glancing around the room with casual interest before he noticed one familiar blond-headed face in a booth, holding hands with a guy he didn’t recognize. Backpedaling, hoping that he hadn’t been seen – he wanted to have some fun first – Eric ducked out of sight and made his way out of the disco. He strolled out into the night air, heading for Jansen and Keith’s suite. Eric heard the TV inside and tapped on the door. Jansen, in white shorts, opened the door with a smile, and Eric could feel the unease as he was invited in. He didn’t mind one bit; he was well aware of the cause and intended to make the most if it. Jansen ushered Eric to the couch, where Eric placed the scotch on the table. With a grin, though choosing his words with care, Eric said in an offhand way, “I figured you guys might like to celebrate with me. You saved my ass today. I totally blew it with the wedding.” His voice a little uncertain, Jansen got up to get some glasses off the counter and said, “I like scotch, thanks. Keither was tired so he went to bed early, and he’s a grouch if anyone wakes him up.” Glancing wordlessly at the two open bedroom doors – though the beds were not visible from that angle – and then at the loud war movie Jansen had been watching on DVD, Eric said, “Okay, just you and me then,” as Jansen sat down beside him. Eric poured a healthy shot into both glasses, and added some ice water to both. Eric watched as Jansen tasted his, smiled approvingly, and took a drink. Eric knocked back his own glass, and poured another round. Sitting back, glass in hand, Eric casually scratched at his bare pec as he asked, “So what did you think of the idea I had, of you guys sucking face at the party?” Eric watched Jansen’s bare chest tense slightly and listened to the expected unease in Jansen’s voice as he said, “Uh, we don’t do stuff like that on stage.” With a casual one-shouldered shrug, Eric took a drink before replying in an offhand tone, “Yeah, I guess in a club it might be kinda strange, but it’s a small, private party, and it’s not like you guys don’t kiss all the time anyway, right?” “I’ll have to talk it over with Keither,” Jansen hedged, trying to stall, and then took a very big drink before pouring himself another, stronger one. Eric watched the movie for a few minutes, feeling the warm glow of the scotch. He could feel Jansen’s unease, and didn’t miss the occasional furtive glance at the door. Smiling to himself, Eric asked, “So what did you guys do tonight?” Relaxing a little – the scotch helped – Jansen replied, “We had dinner, and then walked around until we found the disco. Keither likes to dance. This is a really great place, it has fucking everything…” “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Nice disco too. I stopped by on my way here to have a look,” Eric said while pretending to pay attention to the movie, listening instead for the sharp intake of breath he knew he’d be hearing. He wasn’t disappointed. Jansen remained silent for a few seconds as he poured himself another drink. “Pretty cool place, huh?” he finally said. Watching Jansen out of the corner of his eye, Eric waited until Jansen was taking a drink before saying in an offhand way, “Yeah, your brother looks like he’s having a good time with his date.” Jansen choked in shock, coughing into his drink, spraying whisky and water over both himself and Eric. Standing on the porch of his house, The Scar smiled. He had greatly enjoyed watching the tactical drill and Felecia’s third consecutive defeat. Turning to walk back into his house, he breathed a sigh of relief before closing the door and saying to Yuri, “That makes it certain: General Bradson has the ability to win, including in a real combat situation. This means we’re a go for Iran and our objective.” Nodding, Yuri asked, “What about the money for the additional gear the General has requested? Shall I ask him for a further payment?” The Scar shook his head. “No. If your estimate of his net worth is correct, he would have difficulty raising the money and his efforts to do so could serve to draw unwanted interest, so I have told him that I will cover the difference, for now, and will expect payment once the mission has concluded. That might make him suspicious, but better that than drawing any outside attention our way.” “What of the Iranians, sir? What if they release his son?” Yuri asked. “There is little danger of that. They are rather fond of the high-speed magnetic bearings I have been providing. I threw in ten units on the last shipment, in return for their agreement that they keep his execution secret if they kill him, and not release him for a few weeks even if they struck a deal with Washington. They were eager enough for the extra bearings that they did not trouble themselves to even ask for the reason behind my request.” “Ah, I thought it coincidental that Bradson’s son was one of the two they kept. I should have known you’d set it up to prevent his release,” Yuri said in an admiring tone. Chuckling, The Scar replied, “I thought so at the time but as it turns out, the Americans won’t agree to the Iranians’ absurd terms. Hence, the Iranians will likely execute the two prisoners. Therefore, I find myself in the unenviable position of having paid the Iranians to do something they would have done anyway. An irony indeed, but one I do not appreciate. I expect the Iranians may wait a week or two in order to make certain that any hope of a deal is dead. It will not matter if they kill them, for they will do so in secret and so long as the General does not find out, it should not affect our plans. The General, after all, will be conveniently deceased by the point in the mission where that would prove relevant,” The Scar said with a smile. Pleased that The Scar was confiding in him, Yuri decided to ask one question that had been on his mind. “Did you arrange for the son to be held near our target? That was brilliant.” Laughing, The Scar replied, “No Yuri, that was true irony and the benevolence of Lady Fate. I can claim no credit there. The Iranians needed to keep the prisoners in a secret yet heavily defended location. Therefore, it apparently made sense to them to utilize their most secure and well-guarded facility. They were, in a way, prudent to do so; the Americans were able to find out the location, as evidenced by the fact that our General knows where his son is being held.” Then, preening a little, The Scar added, “This is a case of making one’s own luck. Had I not developed a source for the bearings and thus put myself in a position to deal with the Iranians again and develop some useful contacts within their regime, we would not have the information that we now possess. I would also have not been in a position to point out to them that one of their prisoners was the son of a former and very famous general, something they had not the wit to notice for themselves. Fortune favors the bold, Yuri, indeed it does.” With a TV set turned to a cable news channel blaring in the background, Brandon and Chase finished packing in their Los Angeles suite, making ready for their trip. They could barely contain their excitement; their big day was nearly upon them, and the act of packing brought a sense of imminent reality to their long-held dreams. Meeting Chase’s eyes, Brandon smiled and angled his head towards the bedroom. Within moments, they had left a trail of clothes leading to the bed, their attention on each other and not the television, on which a reporter had just begun mentioning a reawakened volcano on La Palma. Rolling into bed with laughter, passion, and joy, sparing but a glance at the nighttime city skyline from their forty-story vantage point, Brandon and Chase reached out for one another, but Mother Nature had a few surprises in store. Just east of Los Angeles, miles below the earth, the incremental increases in tectonic pressure, built up over centuries, at last reached the limit that the rock could withstand. It began in a small way, as such things do; an area of rock no larger than a football field broke, sheering along the old fracture zone as if cleaved by the Devil’s own knife. That, however, was but the first step, as the rock fracture spread in both directions along the fault line with lightning speed. Within a second, an eleven-mile long rupture of the northern San Jacinto fault, east of Riverside, was underway, releasing pent up energy equivalent to a six-kiloton nuclear weapon and generating seismic ground shocks that spread out like ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond. The quake, registering at just over six on the Richter scale, spent the majority of its fury on the areas within four miles of the rupture. Dozens of buildings, both large and small, collapsed, while others failed partially. Thousands more were severely damaged, many beyond hope of repair. The hard-hit area was plunged into darkness and chaos before the ground had even stopped moving. Amongst the damage were many broken gas lines, vastly complicating the rescuer’s task, as they sought out the living and counted the dead. It took the gas company over two hours to shut off all supplies in the region and depressurize the lines, but during that time, explosions rocked the beleaguered area. All through the long night, fires resulting from gas leaks and other sources raged unabated, overwhelming the resources of the fire department. By the early hours of the morning, reinforcements from nearby cities would turn the tide, but the coming dawn would reveal that hell incarnate had come briefly to earth. For Brandon and Chase, locked in a passionate embrace, the earth truly began to move, though in what was, for them, an unaccustomed manner. The first component of the ground shock, slammed into the base of their hotel, causing it to sway. Brandon felt it first, and glanced around, becoming aware of the sickening sense of movement, combined with the growing sound of the protesting building united with the noise of countless small falling objects. “Earthquake,” he said in a stunned tone, and pulled Chase into a tight embrace as the building lurched again. Twenty seconds later, spared serious damage thanks to being over fifty miles from the quake’s epicenter, the hotel settled into an eerie calm. Pulling on some shorts, Brandon and Chase dashed from their suite to see if Jon was okay. Helen, vacationing in the Poconos with Barbra, would not hear of the disaster for several hours thanks to the time difference and millions of agitated callers swamping the local telephone network. It was not until the following afternoon that a geologist reviewing the quake’s initial data in the U.S. Geological Survey office noticed the possible far greater danger that the quake may have unleashed. The geologist, a short, bespectacled man to whom geology was not just a job but his life, knew that the San Jacinto fault was a minor danger when compared to its much larger neighbor, the San Andreas. The San Andreas fault is the largest in California, running from the Gulf of California northward, paralleling the coast for over six hundred miles before submerging itself in the sea north of San Francisco. It is known to create massive quakes. The 1906 quake that had resulted in the destruction of San Francisco was caused by the San Andreas. The southern segment of the San Andreas fault, often referred to as the Mojave segment, begins near the Gulf of California and runs northwest, paralleling the San Bernardino Mountains before angling westward through San Gorgonio Pass, also known as Banning Pass. From there, it bends northwestward again, tracing a route along the southern base of the San Bernardino Mountains, before leaving the Los Angles Basin via the Cajon Pass. That segment of the San Andreas had not slipped for centuries, and it was widely believed that the angling of the fault as it exited San Gorgonio Pass and intersected at a shallow angle with the San Jacinto fault provided what might be described as a giant chock, locking the southern San Andreas fault in place. This ‘locking’ merely allowed the inexorable stress caused by the northward motion of the Pacific Plate – the San Andreas is the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates – to grow, decade by decade, century by century. What most concerned the geologist was not the quake on the San Jacinto itself, but some minor subsequent shocks emanating from deep beneath the Crafton Hills fault zone, located at the thick end of the wedge of land between the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults. Looking at more printouts, his palms beginning to sweat, the geologist saw what he feared; a series of small, deep quakes along the Banning fault line, coupled with sensor data showing that the area between the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults had shifted over five feet to the southeast during the quake. That fit all too well with the theoretical model he'd developed. The scenario that the geologist thought he could see unfolding was at once both simple and complex. In its simplest form, the ‘chock’ that had held the San Andreas motionless was no longer locked in place; the San Jacinto quake appeared to have had relieved the pressure that had held it in position for so long, and the smaller quakes indicated that the San Andreas, freed of its constraints, was about to move. The San Jacinto quake had been just over a magnitude six on the Richter scale, releasing energy equivalent to one million tons of TNT, or a single one-megaton nuclear warhead. The southern segment of the San Andreas fault was in another category entirely: it had the potential to cause a quake of magnitude nine on the Richter scale, the equivalent of over thirty-two billion tons of TNT, or thirty-two thousand one-megaton bombs. All those facts raced through the geologist’s frantic mind, his hands beginning to tremble as the icy breath of fear traced its way down his spine. He reached for the phone to begin spreading the unwelcome news. It might take months, or weeks, or merely hours, but of one thing he was now nearly certain; the fuse was lit, and the entire Los Angeles area was staring right down the barrel of The Big One…. © 2008 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  23. C James

    Explanations

    Chapter 20: Explanations Gasping for breath, Jansen stared at Eric’s now-grinning face and sputtered, “Y-you know?” Throwing his head back and laughing, Eric said, “Well, duh, of course I know! I was suspicious the first time I was at your apartment. Keith said ‘my bed’ instead of ‘our bed’ plus there were a few other clues that made me think you guys had separate rooms. Then there’s the fact that you guys look a lot alike, said you first met two years ago but later you said you grew up together and went to high school together, and Keith gets nervous whenever you’re talking about the past. Those were some damn big hints. What topped it off was that you guys act like me and Chase or me and Jon, and you don’t act like Brandon and Chase. Oh, take a wild guess why I got you guys a two-bedroom suite; it’s because I knew.” Feeling a rush of emotions: confusion, relief, and embarrassment, Jansen mumbled, “Thanks… So, you aren’t pissed?” Shaking his head and smiling, Eric replied, “Nah, I’ve been having too much fun needling you guys about it… you know, the whole thing about kissing? I knew you’d never do it. I gotta admit though, I don’t totally get why you two pretended to be a couple, other than maybe to keep from being hit on? What’s the real story?” Finally feeling that he had the upper hand, Jansen crossed his arms “We’ve all got secrets, like you said at the pool. Now I know what you were digging at, you jerk, but two can play that game. Tell me how you finagled a beach closing in under a fucking minute,” Jansen said with an easy smile and mirthful eyes. “Okay, you got a deal, but on one condition; don’t tell Keith what I know about you guys. Let me get a few digs in first,” Eric said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Jansen said with a laugh. “So spill it, what’s the deal with the beach and why the secrecy?” With an evil grin, Eric replied, “The secrecy is easy; that was just to bug you guys. As for how I did it… It’s something I’ve seen Helen do before. She calls up the local cops when she needs a favor like a street closing when we’re making an appearance, and offers some money for their police charity or whatever they want. They’re usually happy to do it, ‘cause it’s legal. So, I told the concierge to make the local authorities an offer, a few grand for the cause of their choice, in return for closing that beach for a couple of hours on the morning of the wedding. I checked when I got back to my room; it’s a done deal. Now, your turn; spill it, Mr. Stripper.” “The term, sir, is exotic dancer,” Jansen said in his familiar mock huff, before continuing in a normal tone. “It’s pretty simple. We’re two hot guys who take their clothes off for money. Most guys in our biz get propositioned all the time, often pressured, and some sell themselves. That means some guys and some women expect us all to do sexual favors for money. Keith and I didn’t want to deal with the non-stop shit, so we decided to pretend to be a couple. I keep my mouth shut when there’s business to discuss and I use an alias for my last name so nobody’s the wiser. It’s worked great for us. We were feeling bad about not telling you but we’d lied and didn’t want to admit it. I’m glad you figured it out, even if you did sit here and make me squirm, you ass,” Jansen said with a grin and a shake of his head. Looking Eric in the eye he added, “So what’s your story? Why does a famous rock star like hanging out with a couple of gay strippers?” “Exotic dancers,” Eric said, continuing the running riff before taking another drink. “Okay, I like you guys and you’re fun to be around. Being famous has good points and bad, and one of the bad ones is I don’t get out much. It’s worse for Brandon because he’s the singer, but I get recognized a lot and I’ve always got paparazzi breathing down my neck. It’s easier here but I still have to be real careful back in the ‘States. My brothers, Brandon, and Helen are there for me, but they’re basically my family. Aside from you guys I’ve got one friend, Jim, the biker you guys met who’s here on his honeymoon…” Eric let his voice trail off, unsure of how to put what he meant into words. Jansen picked up on one of the underlying reasons and gave it voice, “In a nutshell, you’re lonely. I get that, and how. I guess it’s similar for Keither and me; we pretend to be a couple, and due to what we do, it’s hard sometimes. People want to be our friends for the wrong reasons.” Jansen reached out with on open hand, “We’re here for you, like you’ve been here for us. Just don’t disappear after we get back home, okay?” Taking Jansen’s proffered hand, Eric smiled, feeling at ease. “Thanks. Same goes for me.” Reluctantly releasing Eric’s hand, Jansen settled back into his seat and took another drink before saying, “So, was Keither really on a date? We went to the disco, which is more his thing than mine, so when he started talking to the bellhop, I took off.” With a shrug, Eric replied, “He was sitting in a booth, and the other guy’s back was to me. Keith was smiling, leaning forward, and they looked like they were on a date to me, but maybe not.” “I’d like it if he found someone. Craig, the gymnast who pulled a no-show at the club, is Keith’s ex. They’d been kind of on the rocks for a while before that, but Keith won’t even speak to him anymore,” Jansen said. With a wistful glance in Jansen’s direction, Eric asked, “So what about you? Are you dating anyone?” Jansen shook his head. “Not lately. I was dating one of the guys on the water polo team, but he transferred to a college on the east coast, so we broke it off a couple of months ago. What about you?” After a sigh, which Jansen did not fail to notice, Eric said, “Just groupies, mainly when we’re touring. I’ve never really dated anyone, just one-nighters.” Intrigued, Jansen smiled wryly. Gathering his courage, buoyed by the alcohol and trusting wishful thinking more than reason, Jansen tried to find a way to peruse that angle of the conversation, but the rattle of the door interrupted him, and Keith strolled into the suite. “Hey, Janse, how’s–” Keith stopped in his tracks when he saw Eric. “Hi, Eric,” he said, in a slightly strained tone of voice, before catching himself and adding in a normal tone, “What are you guys up to?” Slurring his words, pretending to be far drunker than he was, Jansen leaned forward, tapped unsteadily at the scotch, and said, “We’re drinking.” Rolling his eyes, hiding his concerns, Keith chuckled and sat down in a recliner before asking, “How much have you guys had?” Taking his cue from Jansen, Eric slurred his words as he said, “This is the second bottle…” Sitting back and laughing, Keith said, “You guys are definitely wasted. So, what have you been doing, besides drinking?” Still slurring, Jansen said, “Not much. We… we talked about you a lot.” Eric struggled to portray an outward air of obliviousness, but it wasn’t easy. Keith’s sudden pallor filled Eric with a need to double over laughing, which he barely managed to suppress. Fixing Keith with a drunken scowl, Eric said, with a hint of venom, “You are scum.” Keith’s sudden intake of breath was almost too much for Eric to take. Staring at Jansen, Keith asked in a shaken tone, “What did you tell him, Janse?” Reaching for the bottle and intentionally missing, Jansen pretended to struggle to pour himself another drink. “He stopped by. You weren’t here. We had some drinks. He asked where you were. I told him you were at the disco. He saw you there, you and your date.” Jansen said, doing his best to slur his words and act as though he was close to passing out. Jansen leaned forward, looking downcast, and Eric placed a protective, comforting arm across his bare shoulders before glaring darkly at Keith. “You fucking scum!” Eric growled, giving Jansen a one armed hug and maintaining his best impression of a drunken scowl at Keith. “Janse,” Keith whispered in an agitated voice, thinking that he had few options and all of them bad. “Tell him the truth, all of it!” Shaking his head sadly, leaning into Eric’s shoulder, Jansen said in a small, sad, badly slurred voice, “Keith screws around behind my back all the time, and if I say anything, he beats me.” The lingering smell of scotch in the room lent an air of credibility to Jansen and Eric’s routine, and that, combined with Keith’s sudden stress, was enough to sucker him in. “Janse!” Keith hissed, shocked and with no clue how his brother, no matter how drunk, could think saying that was a good idea. Eric felt Jansen begin to tremble, and knew that the dancer was about to lose it. Knowing that he had, at best, one line left before laughter gave them both away, Eric patted Jansen on the back and then returned his arm to its place on the dancer’s shoulders. Looking towards Jansen, Eric said, “Don’t worry, Jansen. He’ll never have a chance to do it again. I told the resort to call the cops, remember? They should be here any second…” Leaping to his feet in panic, envisioning himself rotting in a foreign jail even after his brother sobered up and tried to recant, Keith yelled, “Jansen, fucking tell him the truth for Christ’s sake!” “It’s not nice to yell at your brother,” Eric said in a deadpan, unslurred tone, as Jansen’s trembling became uncontrollable, and Jansen, joined by Eric, began rolling with riotous laughter. General Bradson and Felecia set off alone, hiking to the summit of Aardvark Hill. En route, the General said in a hushed tone, “First, some ground rules. Secrecy is paramount, so what I’m about to tell you stays between us. I realize that you’ll need to tell Horst and Wilhelm, and also your employer, but no one else, not until we’re airborne.” Felecia gave an irritated grunt. “You’re teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, General. I’m well aware of the need for operational security and need-to-know.” Arriving on the summit of Aardvark Hill, the General outlined his plans, using the time-honored method of drawing diagrams in the dirt. “In the center, here, are rows of square revetments, ninety feet across, consisting of embankments built up on three sides for protection against air attack. They mainly hold cargo containers and military vehicles. They are connected by long, wide, straight dirt roads, adequate for a short-field landing by a lightly laden C-130. Just to the west, here, are eight long double-story buildings in two rows. We think that’s where they keep maintenance and earthmoving gear, for this,” the General drew a meandering line to the west of the buildings, “which is a very wide dirt road, running along the foot of the mountains. There are fifty cut-and-cover munitions storage bunkers, sixty feet wide and covered with five yards of dirt and rock. Most are one hundred and twenty feet long, spaced out along this road on the west side, but a few extend into tunnels bored deep into the mountain. These facilities will likely be largely unmanned and of little concern to us. They are, however, the bunker farm that the Revolutionary Guard base is there to protect. The base is here, three quarters of a mile northeast of the eight buildings. That’s their main force, battalion strength, estimated at one thousand effective troops minimum, and that’s also where we believe my son and his squadmate are being held.” “We?” Felecia asked, raising an eyebrow. General Bradson nodded. “I have a few contacts back home who give me access to some intelligence data, and I’ll be getting some updates prior to the mission.” Felecia, wondering just what else The Scar had neglected to tell her, changed the subject by staring at the familiar outlines in the dirt and asking, “Just how do you propose to defeat a battalion?” “We don’t, because we can’t. We don’t go force-on-force. What we do is get inside their decision loop and fake ‘em out. First, we clear out that base by making them think their chemical weapons are leaking a lethal cloud. That’s what I need the chlorine, sulfur, and ammonia for. Once their monitoring equipment detects it, they’ll move fast, considering that they don’t have protective gear and will be under stand-down orders. The guardhouse where we think our prisoners are being held has a flat roof, so I’ll parachute in with five hand-picked men and land on the roof. In the dark and confusion, with blacked out gear, we should be unseen. Then we sweep downstairs, take out any stragglers, and free our people. The egress is the tricky part; we’ll be in Iranian uniform, so we’ll steal a vehicle and head south as fast as we can, to the rendezvous point between the square bunkers east of the eight buildings. You and one platoon, serving as our reserve force, will drop into the rendezvous point, secure and light a strip for the C-130, bring it in, and then deploy to the north edge of the revetments area, about one mile north of the landing zone to give us some defense in depth, and wait for us there. If the Iranians think there’s a chemical weapons leak, no way will they follow us into the bunker farm area. At least, that’s the plan.” General Bradson then added more details, including exactly how he planned, in addition to flying low, to deal with radar while getting the force in and out of Iran, and how he intended to cause the stand-down order upon which the plan depended. The one key detail that he left out was how to escape once they reached the coast during the egress, but in the rush of details, and in part due to her lack of knowledge regarding aerial combat, Felecia didn’t ask. Fifteen minutes later, nodding slowly, Felecia gave an exasperated sigh. “That’s fucking insane, General. Yeah, I think it’ll probably work, but it’s got to be the most screwball battle plan ever.” Nodding in agreement, General Bradson replied, “That it is, that it is, and that’s precisely why it’ll work” Shaking her head, Felecia replied, “I’m making one alternation. We’re taking my entire force, not just the five men you want and one platoon. The additional men will stay on the C-130 and they’ll be a supplemental reserve.” General Bradson nodded once. He’d wondered how Felecia would phrase her insistence that her entire force go in. “Lemons. Fucking lemons… I can’t wait to see Horst and Wilhelm’s faces when I tell them that part,” Felecia muttered, shaking her head but smiling. With a casual shrug, General Bradson replied, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” For the first time, he heard Felecia laugh. He liked the sound. With their summit meeting over, they returned to camp. Felecia issued orders that, commencing at sunrise the following day, battle drills designed by the General would begin. While Felecia addressed her troops, General Bradson went to see The Scar, and laid out his full equipment and logistical needs. He also let The Scar and Yuri in on most of the details of his battle plan, leaving out only one critical part, exactly as he had with Felecia. Once the General had left, Yuri and The Scar sat quietly for a few moments. Yuri was the first to break the silence. “Lemons,” he muttered. The Scar nodded once. “When he first uttered the word, I had wrongly assumed that he desired them for their chemical properties, but never could I have envisioned his actual intent. It is almost madness. However, his plan is just insane enough to work. I had expected him to ask for many items, but never did I imagine that they would include… three tons of lemons.” Six miles below the island of La Palma, a string of three magma chambers underlay Cumbre Vieja and its rift system. Magma chambers exist under all active volcanoes; they are a reservoir of molten rock, often incorporating vast amounts of dissolved gasses under enormous pressure. Reduced to its basics, the cause of a volcanic eruption is pressure. Magma – molten rock – from deep within the earth rises due to being lighter than the cooler and thus denser surrounding rock, entering the magma chamber, and thus increasing the pressure. The magma then seeks avenues of escape, and begins forcing its way upward, through conduits – often referred to as volcanic pipes – towards the surface. The dissolved gasses are the main driving force of any eruption. As the magma gets closer to the surface, the pressure caused by the weight of overlying rock decreases. As the pressure lessens, the gasses begin to form bubbles and expand, very much like what occurs when a bottle of soda is opened for the first time; the pressure decreases and bubbles form. If the pressure is released suddenly, the bubbles carry great quantities of liquid along with them, as seen in the popping of a bottle of champagne, or the violent eruption of a volcano. As the rock is forced apart to make way for the rising magma, it causes many small earthquakes, of a type known as harmonic tremors. These are a precursor of volcanic activity, for they are the signature of magma forcing its way upwards. Under Cumbre Vieja, three cubic miles of magma, weighing billions of tons, was on the move. The harmonic tremors had begun two weeks before, and they had been detected. Cumbre Vieja’s prior eruptive history was largely benign: mainly lava flows and not the far more dangerous explosive eruptions. As a frequently active and well-behaved volcano, its re-awakening drew little notice in professional circles; there are, on average, twenty volcanoes erupting at any given time, with an average of fifty to sixty different volcanoes erupting each year, and that only counts the ones on land. Therefore, Cumbre Vieja’s reawakening, which occurred on average once or twice a century, was a minor event, especially to the press, which as it so often did, had become myopically fixated on the latest big story; the San Jacinto quake and the theoretical danger of an imminent major quake on the San Andreas. What minor attention Cumbre Vieja did draw was due to the notoriety of La Palma as the world’s most-publicized potential lateral collapse. The lateral collapse was indeed imminent, but only on a geologic timescale; it might not occur for centuries or millennia. Triggering a lateral collapse was believed to require an ongoing eruption combined with a sizable earthquake. At Mount Saint Helens, it had required a massive instability caused by an enormous bulge on the north flank, combined with a magnitude five point five earthquake. Weighing these factors, the general consensus amongst geologists was that, during any given eruption of Cumbre Vieja, the chances of a catastrophic lateral collapse were very small. However, they were also well aware that, given the notoriety, coupled with a general public nervousness caused in large part by the press hysteria regarding the situation in Los Angeles, the chances for panic far outweighed the actual risk. With that in mind, every effort was expended in order to keep the eruption coverage low-key. This was mainly accomplished by feeding the press reassurances coupled with voluminous dry, academic analyses of the miniscule risk of a lateral collapse and tsunami. With their attention focused on California, the press almost completely ignored La Palma. Being highly desirous to avoid deterring tourists, The Canary Islands board of tourism was also quite active, putting the best spin it could on the situation and billing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a grand spectacle of nature in perfect safety. Inside Cumbre Vieja, the magma crept ever upwards, shoving aside miles of rock. As the pressure from the rock above decreased with the lessening depth, the topmost portion of the rising column of magma released some of its pent-up gasses, which forced their own way upwards, via fissures in the volcanic pipe, to the craters above. There, it was released in occasional bursts, carrying with it ash left over from prior eruptions. This was but a precursor of what both the geologists believed and the board of tourism hoped would be a relatively benign and unremarkable eruptive cycle. Only time would tell if their predictions were correct. They would not have long to wait. Realizing at last that he’d been pranked, Keith snatched up the bottle of scotch and took a long swig. “Let me guess, you already told him and you guys aren’t as drunk as you were acting,” Keith said to his brother, feeling relieved that Eric seemed to be taking the uncovered lie very well indeed. Jansen, still entangled with Eric, got himself under control just enough to gasp, between bouts of laughter, “Actually, he told me. He got me good too; almost as good as we got you.” “Assholes,” Keith mumbled, breaking into a chagrinned smile. Jansen filled Keith in on the clues Eric had noticed, along with seeing Keith in the disco. Eric, with his arm still draped across Jansen, asked, “So how did the date go?” Shaking his head, Keith replied with a sigh, “It wasn’t a date. I was just talking to the bellhop. Maybe it would have been a date, except there’s no way in hell I’d get involved with someone who lives on the opposite side of the freaking planet. We just talked for a while.” Eyeing Jansen and Eric, who were still sharing the occasional snicker, Keith looked at the ceiling and said, “Damn, now Janse has a partner in crime. That’s all I need.” Smiling wickedly, Eric said to Keith, “I’ll be your partner in crime, too. We’ll get Jansen next time.” “Hey, you got me once tonight already,” Jansen said, laughing again. “Tomorrow is another day,” Eric said, and drank again. The three guys soon found the bottom of the bottle of scotch, and Eric, feeling both buzzed and sleepy, returned to his suite. As soon as Eric had gone, Keith said, “You guys scared the crap out of me. Remember, if he doesn’t pay us for this gig, we are well and truly fucked.” Jansen nodded. “He’ll pay us for the gig, I know he will. I think we’ve made a new friend, a good one. He wouldn’t be funning around with us if he didn’t like us. Look at all he’s done so far, including cleaning work at the club for the opening. He didn’t do that for shits and giggles, he did it because he’s a friend. I’ll tell you something else about Eric; he’s lonely. He’s got his band and stuff, but he thinks of them as family. He’s having a blast with us, I know he is, and I know he’ll be around after the gig is done.” “I hope so,” Keith said, deciding that he needed to add a dose of reality, “But he lives in a very different world from us. You’ve seen that. If he wants to go somewhere, he just charters a jet and goes. Do you have any freaking idea what that costs? It must be astronomical. Same with this resort. I glanced at the price list in the lobby; this suite is four hundred a night. Eric reminds me of a guy I knew in high school: rich, not stuck up about it, but defensive due to people who keep trying to play him. He has to be like that, it’s the only way he can be, given who he is. What this means is be extra careful. If you need to borrow twenty bucks, ask anyone but Eric. I like him too, and there’s also the fact that he could be damn good for us professionally by just lifting the phone and putting a good word in the right ear. That kind of stuff, we can ask, because it won’t cost Eric anything, but if we aren’t careful, we’ll drive him away. All I’m sayin’ is, we just need to be a little more cautious when it comes to financial stuff when Eric’s involved. And hell, I’ll go ahead and say it…. I know you, Janse. You like him, and I don’t mean as just a new buddy. You’re setting yourself up for one hell of a fall if you don’t snap out of it.” Jansen cringed a little at the last remark. “I’m fine, Keith. Yeah, he’s hot, and yeah, he’s fun, but I won’t fall for him, not that way.” Unconvinced, Keith decided to leave that topic largely alone until later, but said, “Falling for a straight guy is stupid. I know because I did it with my friend Max in high school – remember? Just guard your heart, little brother, that’s all I’m saying. Anyway, enough on that… I’m gonna crash.” The next morning, after checking in with the concierge and finding everything going according to plan, Eric swung by to see Jim and Linda. He’d been giving them plenty of space, due to them being on their honeymoon. Linda, who had been mulling over Eric’s prior focus on the party, asked, “Ok, dude, what about the wedding? Are plans for that going okay?” “Yeah, it’s all handled. We’ve got a beach, a minister, the license arranged, all of it,” Eric said with a self-satisfied smile. He was beginning to realize just how big a task he’d taken on, and to his own surprise, he felt he was doing well, with a little help from his friends. After a few minutes of friendly banter with Jim and Linda, Eric went in search of Jansen and Keith. Strolling across the pool deck, Eric enjoyed the hot sun on his bare chest and he reflected on how much the two dancers had come to mean to him. He now knew them well enough to be able to read them, and he didn’t have to guess; he knew they felt the same way about him. Tapping on their door, Eric waited until Keith opened it. For just a moment, Eric stood in place, staring at Keith. Long blond hair, smooth swimmer’s build, a long defined torso and a golden tan glistening from suntan oil, Keith looked every bit the surfer he was, and the only incongruity at the moment was the small, tight, black g-string he was wearing. Misreading Eric’s look, Keith glanced down his almost-naked body as he said, “We were just catching some sun on the patio. Can’t have much of a tanline in our business.” Eric strolled in, and followed Keith out to the patio to find Jansen, likewise in a g-string, oiled up and laying on a deck chair. Keith slid back into his own chair, and Eric took a moment to notice, not for the first time, how much alike the two brothers looked. It wasn’t a surprise – Eric had as much in common with Chase – but he had to admit, it made for one hell of a look when they were on stage together. Tugging on the drawstring of his boardshorts, Eric loosened them, snapped them open, and then kicked off his shorts – he’d worn his favorite white Speedo underneath, in anticipation of some sun. Eric slathered on some suntan oil from a bottle on the patio table as Keith grinned wickedly and chided him, “That has got to be the all-around clumsiest shorts removal I’ve ever seen. No grace, no style, and certainly no panache. I’ll give it a one out of ten. You’ve really got to work on that.” Before Eric could reply to the humorous dig, Jansen added, “I dunno, Keith. That was at least sort of functional. I can remember seeing one worse attempt, and that was at the first night we opened the Oak Leaf. That bartender guy in the black leather shorts. Now that was clumsy, not to mention agonizing to watch. I think he needed an instruction manual for those shorts, because Velcro was just too complicated for him. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t trip and fall on his ass.” With a shrug, Keith replied, “Maybe, but falling on his ass might have actually been an improvement, come to think of it. At least that involves a little movement.” Shaking his head while settling into a lounger, Eric chuckled and replied, “Jeeze, you guys are ganging up on me and ripping my stripping skills.” “What skills?” Jansen asked in an innocent voice. Shifting to his mock formal tone, he told Eric, “In your case, sir, the term is assuredly not exotic dancer.” Raising his middle finger in the general direction of the two dancers, Eric laughed. “Tell ya what; at my next concert, you guys come onstage, play bass guitar, and see how you do in my world!” Laughing aloud at the mental image Eric’s words evoked, Keith hopped up and headed into the suite. Neither he nor his brother had ever touched, let alone played, a bass guitar. Returning with three cans of cold soda, Keith tossed one to Eric and then another to his brother as he said, “Yeah, that would be a disaster. Okay, I’ll admit it; getting up on stage like you did, with no preparation or training – that took guts.” “Or an utter absence of brains,” Jansen quipped. Keith sat down and then stretched out on his stomach before saying, “Yeah, but give the devil his due; he did save our asses that day.” “So now I’m the devil, am I?” Eric asked in mock irritation. Casting his eyes on Keith’s upturned bare cheeks, Eric grinned wickedly and added, “They’re such fine asses, somebody had to save ‘em.” Enjoying the mutual teasing, Jansen changed tack, “So, Mr. Rock Star, are things going okay with the concierge who we, and not you, thought to contact?” Cracking open his soda, Eric took a drink. “Yeah, actually, he’s doing one hell of a job,” Eric said as he set his soda can on the glass table by his side, causing the loose glass panel to clatter slightly. “Jon, Brandon, and Chase will be landing tonight. I think we’re all set, everything is going totally perfect,” Eric said, as the clatter from the table grew louder, joined by the creaking sound emanating from the structural beams in the suite. A cacophony of small noises, mostly the squeaks and groans of movement, and the clatter of vibrating objects, rose in both pitch and volume, as earth’s fury began to stir. The noises grew, and Keith felt a vibration through his lounger. “What the fuck,” he asked, as he rolled over and sat up. “Quake,” Eric said as he sat up and looked around. Eric had been through a few earthquakes, and thought, ‘this one’s not so bad.’ Jansen, due to the angle at which he was sitting, was the first to see the rising column of gas and ash two miles away. Sitting up, raising an arm to point upwards and inland, he said, “I don’t think it’s an earthquake…” Roaring skyward, the plume of ash grew, as the earthquake, which had barely reached four on the Richter scale, ended. Eric, Jansen, and Keith watched the rising plume of volcanic ash, almost forgetting the mild earthquake. Jumping to their feet, they looked inland, up the steep mountain slopes, as the eruption ceased and plume slowed its growth, the top bending eastward with the prevailing winds. It had been a minor eruption, consisting of ash and gas, highly typical of a volcano beginning to emerge from a period of inactivity. Filled with a creeping sensation of dread, Eric said, “I think that’s the volcano.” “Volcano?” Jansen and Keith asked at the same time, turning to stare at Eric. Nodding, Eric walked into the suite, heading for the phone. “There’s a volcano inland from here, but it’s not supposed to be erupting...” “I guess nobody told the volcano that,” Jansen said, as he and Keith rushed to follow Eric. © 2008 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  24. Chapter 17: The Show Must Go On Letting himself into the club, Keith found the main room empty. “Hey, Janse, you here?” he yelled as he relocked the door. “Yeah, back room,” came the reply. Trotting towards the back room, Keith said, “Fucking Craig’s pulling a no-show and I’m sick of being left hanging and the rest of his shit, so I d–” Keith stopped cold as he entered the room and spotted Eric standing near the sink, wearing nothing but white briefs and toweling off his hair. Keith looked to his side, to see Jansen, stripped down to his boxers, rinsing off with a sopping-wet towel from the sink. “Eric stopped by and he’s been helping with the setup,” Jansen said, hurrying to finish his improvised wash. “We got all sweaty so we’re doin’ this to save time. So, what about a replacement for Craig? Know any other gymnasts?” “None! Can you think of anyone? I’ve been calling everyone I know, not just the good-looking ones. Right now, anyone would do, they just have to serve soft drinks,” Keith said, surprised that Eric had pitched in to help on the dirty end of the business. Eric finished toweling his hair and used his fingers as a comb to push it back into place, a few wet strands still curling across his blue eyes. With a nod of greeting to Keith, Eric stretched out his arms, puffed out his bare, tan and defined chest, and said, “What about me? Would I do?” With a chuckle and a shake of his head, Keith replied, “You’re certainly hot enough, but you’d be recognized within seconds.” “Nope,” Eric said, as he spun around and left the room, leaving a perplexed Jansen and Keith behind. They shared a puzzled look, and Jansen shrugged. They didn’t have long to wonder. Eric re-appeared in the doorway a few moments’ later, having retrieved his black tank top from where he’d dropped it. With a theatrical swoop of his arm, Eric shook out the black shirt, and then slid it over his head, stopping just above his mouth, and tying it tightly behind his head. “I’ll need eyeholes, but will this do?” Eric asked. “You’ll look like a pirate, but that’ll work,” Keith said with a relieved chuckle. “You sure you want to do this?” Pulling the shirt off his head, Eric replied with a grin, “Hell yeah, I’m not shy. This sounds like fun, but all I’ve got with me are jeans and I’ve been working in those. Got anything you can lend me?” Jansen jumped in to say, “Yeah, no problem, hold on,” as he snatched up his gym bag and plopped it on the counter next to the sink, then began rummaging around inside. Finding what he sought, he grabbed it with one hand and spun around to face Eric and Keith, and with one smooth motion tossed the pair of black leather shorts to Eric. “They’re tear-aways, but they’ll be fine, you’d have to pull really hard to open the side-seams. Try ‘em on.” Eric stooped over to pull on the shorts, and Keith turned to lock eyes with Jansen, giving him a look that said clearly, in spite of the absence of words, ‘Are you insane? That guy is our employer.’ Pulling the thigh-length shorts up with difficulty, Eric got them into place, and said, “Damn, these are tight. Do they look okay?” Seeing that Eric was okay with the idea, Keith abandoned his reservations and said, “Yeah, they look damn hot actually. Black leather shorts, black pirate’s mask, great combo and it suits you. What about shoes?” Looking down at his bare feet, Eric shrugged. “I’ve got white runners, not a good match. I’ll be behind a bar, right? I’ll just go barefoot.” Eric turned his attention to his shirt. Using a shard of jagged metal protruding from where he’d smashed the lock off the fuse box, Eric carefully cut two slits for eyeholes. Then he pulled the tied shirt over his head, knot to the back, and positioned the bottom edge just below the bridge of his nose. The shirt stretched, opening the oversized eyeholes enough for Eric to see out of, and he took a theatrical bow and said, “I think I’m ready. Now, what’s left to do?” Keith scratched his head, gave Eric an approving, lingering glance, and said, “I’ve got the sodas, cups, and ice in my car, right out the back door. The other two dancers should be here inside an hour, and then all we need to do is rehearse, start the music, and we’re set to go.” Keith was less than pleased with the improvised mask; it looked a mess, but having no better ideas, he decided that it would have to do. Crossing his arms on his bare chest, Eric asked, hoping that he was wrong, “Please tell me you guys set the sound system up?” Nodding, Keith replied, “Yeah, I did that a few days ago. It was playing when you got here the other day, remember?” Eric chuckled. “Yeah, good point. It’s just that you guys did forget about the air conditioning...” Keith’s expression shifted rapidly, from confused, to concerned, and finally to mild panic. Jansen turned towards Keith and said, “Eric took care of it. He bashed the thing open.” Breathing a sigh of relief, Keith pulled a folder from his bag, opened it, and handed Eric a sheaf of paperwork. “Here’s the insurance stuff. You’re fully covered.” Keith walked to the back door and began to unlock it, saying, “Janse, give me a hand with the sodas and stuff.” Jansen tugged on his Levis and turned to follow as Keith swung the door open. “I’ll help. I don’t need to worry about attracting any attention now I’ve got this mask on,” Eric said, as he tagged along. Jansen looked back at Eric, ran his eyes pointedly over the bassist’s body, and then quipped, “Yeah, skin-tight leather shorts and wearing a mask. Nothing noticeable there, right?” Keith opened up his well-worn hatchback as Eric replied with a laugh, “I’m safe from the kind of attention I don’t want. Any other kind suits me just fine.” The three guys made fast work of bringing in the supplies. A series of Styrofoam coolers were set up to hold the ice and soda bottles, and the disposable plastic cups were stacked under the bar top. “Ready to rehearse?” Keith asked Jansen once they were done. “Yeah, you want to change first or should I?” Jansen asked. Keith turned, tugging his shirt off over his head as he headed for the back room, “I’ll go. You keep Eric company and answer the door.” Watching Keith leave, Eric asked Jansen, “What kind of crowd are we expecting tonight?” “According to Keither, about eighty percent college-age girls and twenty percent guys. If that’s anything like the mix I’ve seen at similar parties we’ve worked at, about half the guys will be straight; dragged along by their friends or girlfriends. The other half will be gay or bi. I’ll warn you now, those girls can be vicious.” Eric began to laugh, but noticed Jansen’s serious expression, and Jansen added, “I’m not kidding. I worked a sorority party once, and they tore my g-string off and grabbed my dick. Gay guys are tame compared to sorority chicks.” Keith strolled out of the back room, wearing khaki shorts, flip-flops, sunglasses, and a white polo shirt. Jansen headed back to get changed as Keith told Eric, “We worked up a few variants on the act we showed you before. We’re doing two routines tonight, but this rehearsal will be just a simple warm up.” “Sounds good to me. Can’t wait to see ‘em,” Eric said. Feeling a little awkward, Keith cleared his throat and fidgeted for a moment before saying, “Thanks for pitching in tonight, and today as well. You probably saved our asses. I know you didn’t have to do that, and I just wanted to say thanks.” Eric knew exactly what Keith had left tactfully unsaid; that he was surprised that a celebrity would help with work, especially unskilled stuff like cleaning counters. Deciding to meet the issue head-on, Eric said, “Just because I’m in a band doesn’t mean I’m stuck up. I like to help out, and you guys are fun to be around. Hell, I’m probably going to have more fun than you tonight,” Eric puffed out his chest a little and patted his hands against the sides of his shorts, “This is kinda different, but in a good way. No way I’d miss this.” Smiling with relief and no longer feeling uneasy around Eric, Keith heard Jansen’s footsteps and turned around, heading for the stage, pausing only to say over his shoulder in a low, sincere voice, “Thanks, man.” “Anytime,” Eric replied honestly. Eric slipped behind the bar and poured himself a soda, and Jansen, dressed near identically to Keith, fired up the sounds system, kicked up the bass, and the deep, driving beat of the music began. With the lingering scent of sausage and eggs still hanging in the dawn air, Felecia hauled Wilhelm aside for a private chat. “I thought I told you to make sure he failed yesterday!” she said, still angry with herself. “I had no chance. He had the pennant hidden and then ran it up the flagpole. What could I do?” Wilhelm replied. Felecia let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Today you’ll have a chance. Focus your defensive deployments on the south side of the hill. I need to win this.” Wilhelm hid his reservations. Felecia was asking him to throw the exercise, and to do so in a way that some of his men would likely recognize for what it was. However, his first loyalty was to Felecia, and orders were orders, so he said, “Consider it done.” Once again, Felecia handed out the ‘weaponry’ for the day, but she kept an eagle eye on General Bradson. The General took custody of the ammo can, and made an ostentatious point of checking to be sure it contained the flag. Felecia checked her watch and then told General Bradson, loud enough for all to hear, “The exercise begins now. Horst’s platoon and I will stay within the confines of the compound for thirty minutes, and then we’re coming for you.” General Bradson tapped the ammo can with his fingers, and then gave Felecia a pleasant smile. “Just so we’re clear on the rules; your objective is to capture this flag and run it up the flagpole here in the compound before sunset. Mine is to stop you,” The General said. Thinking that she’d detected the General’s plan, Felecia replied with a decidedly smug smile, “Yes, but you can’t hide the flag. It must be in plain view in the center of your defensive position, and cannot be moved except by whoever captures it. Are we clear?” “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” General Bradson replied pleasantly, as he turned on his heel to join up with Wilhelm for the march to the hilltop. Five minutes from the compound and about halfway to the hill, the General glanced at the oddly quiet Wilhelm, who was leading the way, taking no protective measures. There wasn’t a need for any due to the rules confining the opposing force to the compound for thirty minutes, but it was still a breach of standard combat procedure: you always deployed for the unexpected. Arriving at the summit of Aardvark Hill, Wilhelm, without consulting General Bradson, deployed his men on a circular array of foxholes around the hill’s military crest, with a few more men on the south side. Eyeing the terrain, General Bradson could see that the southern approach was the least likely threat axis, confirming the General’s suspicions with regard to Wilhelm. Keeping those thoughts to himself, he asked, “Taking a guess, I’d say you’re expecting the attack to come from the least obvious approach.” Wilhelm nodded, paying more attention to his troops than to the General. “Well, Wilhelm, I have a different idea in mind. She’s expecting us to be here but I’d prefer to use the element of surprise.” Giving the General his undivided attention due to the unexpected words, Wilhelm said, “The rules are clear. We are in the defensive role. The flag cannot be moved by us.” Breaking into a confident grin, General Bradson replied, “I know. We’ll leave it here and head north to clear their likely line of approach, then circle back, putting ourselves astride their most likely return route to the compound, just outside it. An ambush gives us the element of surprise, which is worth more than a prepared position in this case. They have to get that flag up the flagpole to win, right?” Knowing that Felecia would not be pleased, but seeing no way out, Wilhelm gave the order, “Okay, men, you heard the General. Patrol formation, two men on point, let’s move out.” In order to obfuscate his actual plan, General Bradson waited until they were on the move and asked Wilhelm, “Under the operative rules, how do we achieve a silent kill if need be?” “That would be a knife kill, as the rules do not anticipate silenced firearms, Herr General. The attacker has to touch his target with a knife in a vital area, at which point the target is considered dead and can be told to stay in place and be silent, just like a corpse.” Twenty minutes later, Wilhelm brought his platoon to a halt, three hundred yards to the north of the compound. “Where do you have in mind for the ambush?” he asked the General. “Send two men to reconnoiter the compound. I want to be sure that Felecia hasn’t left anyone behind,” General Bradson replied cryptically. Ten minutes later, the soft snap of a breaking twig heralded the return of the recon team. The two men immediately reported to Wilhelm in a whisper, “All clear, no sign of enemy forces.” Again, Wilhelm asked the General, “Where do you want the ambush? We may not have a lot of time.” Grinning, knowing that he’d won again, General Bradson replied, “We’re heading for the compound, double-time.” Keith and Jansen, having finished their routine, jumped down from the stage, wearing nothing more than red Speedos and eager grins as they closed in on Eric’s chair. “So, was that okay,” Keith asked, though Eric’s smile had told him that much already. “Love it,” Eric replied, nodding his head as he envisioned that act at Brandon and Chase’s party. “Wait until you see the full routine in our opening act tonight. That’s the one we’re thinking of for the party, but it’ll be your choice.” The muffled chirp of Keith’s cell phone caused him to make a mad dash to the back room. Fishing the phone from his bag, he flipped it open. He listened impassively for a few seconds, and then tried to interrupt twice. Leaning back against the counter, the words he was hearing brought his high hopes crashing down. Finally, with a sigh of despair, he said, “Yeah, I understand. Half an hour to opening... this fucking sucks!” Keith snapped his phone closed, and closed his hand around it, squeezing tightly. Slowly, dreading the task, he returned to the main room to share the bad news. Eric and Jansen knew at a glance that something had gone badly wrong, but before they could ask, Keith sat down on a barstool and laid his head in his arms, before saying, “We’re screwed. That was our other dancers. They were on their way and tried to call in sick to G-Strings. George told ‘em that if they weren’t there in fifteen minutes, they were fired.” Eric, not knowing much about the business, asked, “Can’t you guys do more routines?” “Yeah, but that won’t work too well. The customers aren’t coming to see just two guys. We can do it, but it’ll cut down on the take. Unhappy customers tonight will kill tomorrow’s crowd. For me and Jansen, that’s not the worst of it.” Keith took a long, slow breath, and then added softly, “We’re unemployed. That was the other message; George found out about this gig and fired us. I don’t know how, doesn’t matter, but we are well and truly fucked.” Jansen sat down next to Keith, and the two dancers sat in miserable silence for a few moments. Eric thought he could see a partial solution and asked, “You guys were getting less than half of what I was paying G-Strings for the party, right?” Nodding, his head still resting on his arms, Keith replied, “Even that’s gone. You’ve got a contract with George. That doesn’t include us, not anymore. I guess George will find you somebody else, but he’ll hold you to the contract, count on it.” Eric began to smile. “Wrong. That contract he had me sign specified you guys. If he can’t provide, then the contract’s void. If he tries to get nasty I’ll introduce him to some lawyers he’ll never forget.” Spotting the phone in Keith’s hand, Eric said, “If you’ve got G-Strings’ office number on speed dial, give me your phone and I’ll fix this. First, I gotta ask; do you want your jobs back? I can use the contract to push George into re-hiring you guys.” Jansen and Keith shared a look, and Keith answered for them both. “Not much point, not past your party anyway. Once you’re out of the picture, he’ll either fire us or make us quit.” Keith handed Eric the phone and said, “It’s number three.” Eric dialed, and when the receptionist picked up, gave her his name, and demanded to speak to George Tankardsly. He got his wish within seconds. Not giving the man a chance to speak, Eric said in a firm voice, “Look, I just heard that you fired Jansen and Keith. They were scheduled for my party in less than two weeks.” Eric paused to listen for a few seconds, and then interrupted to say, “No, not interested.” Again, he paused to listen, his mouth twitching up into a smile as he prepared to lower the boom. “No, I said I’m not interested in any other dancers and I suggest that you read the contract you had me sign; it specifies Jansen and Keith. That means you’re in breach and the contract is void because you can’t meet the terms. You’ll refund my deposit within twenty-four hours, and if you want to argue, call my lawyers,” Eric said, and then ended the call and handed the cell back to Keith. “That’s that. Now, you guys need work and I’ve still got a party that needs you. I’ll pay you the full amount I was going to pay George, so you’ll get his cut as well as your own. It’s all the same from my end except I like it better this way, so don’t bother arguing. You in?” Neither Keith nor Jansen had to think twice. The offer was extremely generous, and the money would tide them over for a few months while they found work at another club. They nodded in unison, their faces brightening, and Keith said, “We’re in. Thanks Eric, you saved our asses again. Okay, we have a show to do tonight. Let’s see if we can pull this off without crashing and burning too bad.” Keith glanced at the clock and said, “The flyer guy who’s acting as doorkeeper and admissions-taker will be here any minute. We need a cover story for you. He goes to our college... so how about... you’re a swimmer we went to high school with, but your old man’s a stuck up prude so you’re wearing a mask to keep from being seen working with exotic dancers and recognized by anyone you might know.” Eric found the story a little too complex, but felt it would do. Thinking of his father, he also had to admit that it was a true enough description of the man. Eric smiled and nodded, just as a knock sounded from the door. Keith unlocked the door, and let in a guy who Keith introduced as Charley. Eric gave Charley a friendly nod while Keith gave the cover story. Charley seemed nice enough as far as Eric could tell; a big, average-looking guy who wore a non-stop grin. They didn’t have much time, so Jansen and Keith dashed off to get dressed, while Charlie took his post by the door. Eric settled in behind the bar, adjusted his eyeholes, and made sure he had everything ready. Charlie peered out through the window and called out, “We’re five minutes from opening time, but there’s a crowd out there. Can we start letting them in?” Jansen and Keith, who had just finished dressing and were still on the stage, jumped down. Jansen ran for the light controls, flicking them on, while Keith queued up the sound system and started it playing. As the deep, driving beat of the music filled the club, he took a deep breath and said, “Open up, let’s get ‘em in.” Charlie collected the money, forty dollars a head. Eric worked frantically, aided for a while by Jansen and Keith, to serve up the sodas. Within fifteen minutes the club was packed. Jansen and Keith made their way backstage, and as the next song began, they took the stage and began to dance, still fully clothed, to the wild cheers of the mostly-female crowd. Eric, meanwhile, was reveling in the attention, taking care to keep his chest puffed out and his muscles tensed, as he worked behind the bar. Girl after girl tried to ask who he was under the mask, or try to talk him into taking it off. With humor and not a little flirting, Eric fended off the advances and kept serving up soft drinks, as the crowd turned its attention to Jansen and Keith. A roar of applause, accompanied by a few shrill screams of approval, shook the building as Jansen and Keith did a close pass, pulling each other’s shirts off in one fluid move. The night went approximately as Keith had expected; the club becoming a hangout, entertainment included, for the college girls. Jansen and Keith’s next act, starting out with surfboards and boardshorts, was one Eric recognized from their audition. He was delighted to see that they’d improved it, though they still stripped down to the same gaudy gold g-strings. Eric correctly guessed that due to needing more routines for the night, they’d utilized some from their old job. That, in Eric’s opinion, meant they were saving the best – the new routines – for last. The crowd’s cheers diminished with each passing set, and only the fact that each act was better than the last saved the night from being a disaster. Doing four routines an hour, the strain was beginning to show on Jansen and Keith, causing Eric to wonder if they could last until closing time, still over an hour away. The take at the door had been good, matching Keith’s most optimistic estimate. Looking out, scanning the crowd from the stage, Keith could tell... The tips were drying up, and the crowd was getting restless. They were getting tired of seeing the same two guys over and over, but there was nothing he could do about that, so he focused on his dancing, and worked the stage edge, letting the more adventurous of the guests run their hands over his legs and torso, though fewer and fewer were slipping banknotes into his Speedos. Backstage after the routine, Jansen pulled a small clump of banknotes from the front of his tight swimsuit, and then gathered up a few more from his hips. “Damn, Keith, they’re down to mostly one-dollar bills.” With a sigh, counting his own notes, Keith replied, “Yeah, and if this keeps up they’ll be sticking pennies in our crotches before the night is over. Not much we can do about it though, just keep ‘em as happy as we can, otherwise tomorrow night it’ll be a ghost town in here.” A soft murmur from the crowd made its way backstage, and Jansen discerned a few cheers. Sticking his head out into the main room, he looked for moment and called back to Keith, “Eric’s keeping ‘em happy. He’s standing on top of the bar, doing a jig. They’re eating it up.” Keith walked to Jansen’s side and looked, seeing that was indeed doing what could pass for a dance on the bar. He also heard a few shouts of “Take it off!” His practiced eye also caught sight of several girls with twenty-dollar bills in hand, waving them in Eric’s direction. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking,” Jansen asked with a knowing smile. Keith shrugged. “Yeah, and if it was anybody else, I’d be out there telling him to go for it, but Eric doesn’t need the money, and he’s already drawing lots of attention. If anybody figures out who he is, he’s in trouble.” “Yeah, but he jumped at the chance to work here tonight, and I can tell he’s having a blast. I think he’d want to do it. Just let it be his choice, don’t ask him to, just tell him he can if he wants,” Jansen said. With another shrug, Keith replied, “You’ve got a point. If he wants to, why not? Okay, you go out there and mingle with the guests a little. I’ll pull Eric aside for a chat. Let’s go.” The two dancers walked onto the stage, flexing a little in their black Speedos, and then jumped down. Jansen headed for the center of the room, smiling and reaching out to touch hands with the guests who were crowding around. Keith made his way to the bar, and eased in behind it. Eric, who was back to serving sodas, noticed his arrival and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” Grinning, Keith leaned forward to say in a quiet voice, just loud enough for Eric to hear, “I saw you up on the bar. The crowd was eating it up. If you want to have a try on stage, go for it.” Eric arched an eyebrow, interested in the idea, but reality intruded and he replied, “Sounds fun, but I don’t know how. I can dance a little, sorta, but you saw me up on the bar; that’s the best I can do. I also don’t know how to strip.” Grinning, Keith replied, “Look, you don’t have to be good. They’re getting tired of me and Jansen, so a fresh act, even an amateur one, would be a big deal for them. I’ll announce you as a first-timer. All you’d need to do would be dance around the stage for a minute, rip the shorts off, dance for a minute or so more, then either quit or work the stage edge, but skip the stage edge unless you’re comfortable being pawed all over, and I do mean all over. They’ll want to stick money in your briefs, sometimes right down the front.” Eric thought it over for a second. He liked the idea of giving it a try, but he was concerned that he’d screw it up. Reluctantly deciding against it, Eric opened his mouth, intending to say no. “Yeah, I’ll give it a shot,” Eric said, to his own surprise. Keith bounded up onto the stage, microphone in hand, to say, “Hey, I’ve got a surprise for you. As you can probably tell, we were left shorthanded here tonight, thanks to some last-minute no-shows. The guy in the black mask and black leather shorts is a friend of ours and he offered to fill in behind the bar. He’s never done that before, and he’s done great. How about a round of applause for our bartender…” A loud roar of cheers, accompanied by a few wolf-whistles, ensued. “He wears the mask for a reason: a stuck up family. So, he has to remain unknown. Now here’s the big surprise: He’s been hearing some of you calling out for him to strip, something else he’s never done before. However, he hates to disappoint, so tonight, he’s agreed to give it a try. Please welcome The Mystery Stripper!” Eager for fresh meat, and especially meat as hot as Eric, the crowd began to cheer, not quite as loudly as Keith had hoped, but more than loud enough. Jansen edged forward, approaching the stage as Eric hurdled the bar, and to the cheers of his female – and some male – admirers, charged toward the stage. Keith stood aside as Eric leaped up and took center stage. Smiling, and then grinning, Eric began his somewhat awkward attempt at dancing, clicking his fingers and moving his body to the music. A few catcalls, and the occasional cry of ‘take it off!’ come from the audience, though most had begun clapping along with the music, as Keith had known they would. They were trying to show support for a first-timer, and that was just the kind of audience interaction that Keith knew they needed. Less than a minute into his dancing, Eric noticed that the crowd’s enthusiasm was ebbing fast. It was then that he had two simultaneous revelations; the first was that he needed to rip his shorts off and bring the act to a close, and the second was that he hadn’t thought to ask how, exactly, the shorts came off. Taking a guess, Eric hooked his thumbs in his waistband, and pulled. The staccato rip of Velcro competed with the music for a second, and Eric tugged on the leather shorts again, trying to rip them free. The only problem was that he’d only opened the sides most, but not all, of the way down. Growing uneasy, he stopped dancing and gave the shorts another hard pull, ripping them free. Holding the shorts in one of his outstretched hands, Eric stood motionless in front of the audience, without a clue as to what to do next. The applause was decent, but Keith knew that Eric was blowing it by just standing there. Trotting onto the stage, he began to dance, and took his place at Eric’s side. Eric took the hint, tossed the shorts backstage, and in only his white briefs and mask, did his best to dance a little, facing the audience. Keith took a step forward, towards the stage edge, and glanced back meaningfully at Eric, telling him without words that if he wanted to work the stage edge, he needed to get started. Due to his career, Eric could read an audience even better than Keith could, in some ways. He could tell that the crowd was less than impressed with him, and couldn’t blame them; he’d been clumsy and wouldn’t even take his mask off. He glanced ahead, and he could see several eager girls waving banknotes, but he was out of his depth and knew it. The final deciding factor was the flash of a few cameras – used in violation of the posted rules, which the lack of manpower precluded enforcing – from the audience. Eric figured that if anyone recognized him, he’d have far less trouble if there weren’t any shots of him having money stuffed in his crotch. After a few seconds, Eric trotted to the side of the stage, jumped down, and returned to his post behind the bar. The applause made him feel good, though he was well aware that he’d been a disaster as a stripper. Keith, grinning broadly, yelled to the audience, “Let’s have another round of applause for The Mystery Stripper! That was his first time, folks, and let me tell you, doing what he did, without any training or rehearsals, took guts...” “Or insanity,” Eric added with a yell and a laugh from behind the bar as he poured a new round of sodas. With the mood in the club much improved, Jansen and Keith raced backstage to get dressed for their final routine of the night. The final routine was greeted a little tepidly by the audience, but better than their prior routine. Charlie began clearing the room not long after the final act, and Jansen and Keith joined him by the door to press the flesh one last time with the guests. Once the room was cleared, Charlie handed the evening’s take to Keith, who peeled off two hundred dollars and handed it back. Charlie nodded, pocketing the money as he said, “I’ll be back tomorrow – same time, right?” After receiving an answer in the affirmative, Charlie hurried away, leaving Jansen, Eric, and Keith alone. Keith locked the door, and then dumped the money on the counter and began counting. “Fifteen hundred and twenty,” he said when he was done. “That’ll cover the insurance plus all expenses, with a little extra. That makes tomorrow pure profit.” Keith peeled off another two hundred, and shoved it in Eric’s direction. “That’s for your work tonight, nothing to do with what we owe you for using the club, which you’ll get tomorrow.” Eric shoved it back. “Keep it. Look at it from my point of view; if I wasn’t here, what would I be doing on a Friday night? I’d be hanging around at the hotel with my brothers and Brandon, like every other night. I almost never get to go out and do stuff, and I had a blast tonight.” Keith nodded, and asked, “What about tomorrow? I can probably get somebody to work the bar if I phone around enough. I’m also going to try to round up two more dancers. Tonight went okay, but not great. Thanks for helping out, it could have been a disaster without you.” Eric smiled, feeling at ease with the two dancers. “I’ve got an early studio call in the morning, then some PR stuff in the afternoon, but I can be back behind the bar by opening time. I had fun, so count me in. I better hit the road; I’ve got to be up in about seven hours.” Eric jogged to the back room to retrieve his clothes, and was still pulling them on when he returned to the main room, tugging his jacket over his bare torso. He set the improvised mask aside and smoothed back his hair, and then, heading for the door, he turned to say, “See you guys tomorrow,” before slipping his helmet on. Eric stuck his head out the front door and quickly closed it again. “There’s about twenty people out there waiting, all girls,” he said. “Back door, fast,” Keith said to Eric and Jansen. “I’ll give ‘em a diversion here. Wait thirty seconds and make a dash for your bike.” Wearing nothing but a gold thong, and hoping that no cops were around, Keith stepped out front, offering to sign autographs for the people rushing to crowd around him. Jansen stood by the back door and listened until he heard the sound of Eric’s motorcycle starting. After locking the door, he returned to the front door, in time to help Keith force the door closed, blocking the press of the eager fans. Returning to the bar, Keith fished out a notepad and began taking an inventory of the sodas. With a shrug, he said, “We’ll need to top up a little, plus get ice, but other than that, we’re okay on supplies. I’ll make some calls in the morning and see if I can round up one or two more dancers. Eric’s hot, and great with the customers while behind the bar, but on stage, not so good, even if he’s willing.” Jansen chuckled. “Not so good is putting it mildly, but... having him here was additional eye candy for the guests, plus having him on stage took the focus off of us long enough to keep the crowd happy. They were burned out on us, I could tell.” “Yeah, they were, and yeah, Eric’s no dancer.” Keith paused for a few moments’ thoughtful silence before saying, “I still feel weird around him sometimes. He likes to be treated like a regular guy, but he’s rich and famous. I don’t know where his limits are. People probably try and take advantage of him a lot, so he’s probably real defensive on money issues. He’s a cool guy though, and he saved our asses in several ways tonight, even without the party gig. I’ll miss him after the gig is over.” “Yeah, me too,” Jansen replied, more than a little sadly. Half a mile from Aardvark hill and its unguarded pennant, Felecia squinted through her field glasses as her mood continued to darken. “No sign of ‘em, nothing. I think they’re staying low in their foxholes, maybe trying to sucker us in. Well, that won’t work. Send a two-man team to the south slope; they’ll be our diversion. Have them start lobbing shots in exactly thirty minutes. The rest of us are going up the north slope. We’ll break cover and charge as soon as we’re detected. We’ll catch ‘em off balance and looking the wrong way. I’ve got the bastard this time.” Moving silently, making use of every scrap of cover, Felecia led her force into position, meticulously making ready to assault the utterly deserted hill. © 2008 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  25. Chapter 18: Errors of Omission The second night at the club proved somewhat better than the first. Keith had succeeded into rounding up two part-time strippers, which helped avoid the burnout problem with the audience they’d had the night before. Eric had repeated his performance behind the bar, donning the mask and leather shorts again, but he limited himself to a dance on top of the bar, well aware that he’d made a hash of it onstage the night before. It irked him a little: a challenge he hadn’t yet mastered. After closing, Keith paid off Charlie and the two strippers, who were eager to be on their way. As soon as they’d gone, Keith locked up and again counted the money on the counter. “Fourteen hundred and eighty,” he said, relieved that the take hadn’t been lower, though fully aware that it was not what it could have been. “That puts us about two grand ahead, including our tips. Eric, are you okay with half, like we talked about?” With a one-shouldered shrug, Eric replied, “Nope. Look, I know you guys didn’t make what you’d hoped, and you lost your jobs too. I rented this place for rehearsal space, so as far as I was concerned that money was gone. What you two did this weekend let me see the routines, so from my end, everything’s good. There’s also the fact that I’ve had fun. I don’t get out much, so this was a real change of pace for me. Anyway, the way I see it, you guys owe me about a hundred bucks for the additional electric bill, and that’s it.” Eric reached out and grabbed a stack of banknotes, peeling off six twenties for himself before handing the depleted pile back and adding, “The extra twenty bucks is just to piss y’all off after I said a hundred.” Jansen laughed, and Keith began to object, though Eric’s expression, combined with the dancer’s own financial mess, deterred him. Instead, as one, Jansen and Keith replied, “Thanks.” With that settled, Eric asked, “I wrap at the studio on Tuesday night, so any problem with a Wednesday morning departure?” Jansen and Keith, with visions of exotic islands in their heads, shared a grin. “Sounds great! No problem here.” Perplexed, having no idea what the General could be up to, Wilhelm gave the order to return to the compound, double-time. As the platoon moved out, he said to the General, “There’s too much open ground in the compound, it’s not defensible.” General Bradson didn’t answer. Moving to the head of the column, General Bradson led the platoon into the compound, heading straight for the flagpole. He noticed Yuri, standing off to one side, watching with puzzled interest. Reaching the twenty-foot pole, General Bradson turned to face the platoon. In a booming voice, he declared, “How about we make those guys go running again today? Help me get this flagpole down and broken up for firewood!” Wilhelm watched in stunned silence as the men of his platoon surged forward, some cheering as they attacked the flagpole, but all clearly enthusiastic. It wasn’t the fact that the General had won again that most impressed Wilhelm; it was the fact that the General had so smoothly gained the support of the men… Wilhelm’s men. Wilhelm held command, but the General, it was plain for all to see, was the leader. That realization was a bitter one for Wilhelm, and the thought of Felecia’s likely reaction to a second loss did nothing to cheer his mood. The old wooden spar surrendered to the troop’s assault with a groan and then a snap, toppling to slam into the dust. Eager hands picked up the broken wood and without waiting for direction from the General, they slammed it down against a rock, splintering it and breaking it in half. More effort was required before the flagpole was rendered into pieces, none longer than two feet, and stacked in the remains of the morning’s campfire. The campfire’s glowing embers ignited the dry, splintered wood and within minutes, a roaring blaze engulfed the remains of the flagpole. Smiling at the General’s ingenuity, Yuri turned to walk up the steps of The Scar’s house. Helen leaned back in her plush leather chair, surveying the glaringly neat surface of her oversized desk. The day’s mail had been delivered, and once again, nothing from one particular RSVP. With a snort of irritation, Helen decided that there was no point in delaying the inevitable. The choice of which one to speak to was easy enough, but reaching her, less so. Taking a chance, Helen picked up her phone and dialed the one number she had. A woman’s voice answered on the third ring, and Helen allowed herself to hope as she said, “Hello, Mrs. Carlshitski. My name is Helen, and I’m your sons’ manager. Can we talk for a moment?” “Is anything wrong?” Jane Carlshitski asked, with a hint of concern. Choosing her words with care, Helen replied, “Everyone is okay, that’s not the reason for this call. Are you free to speak?” “I’m not busy, but if you’re referring to other matters, JT is out, and I’ll speak to whom I damn please in any case, so yes.” Taking a deep breath, Helen said, “This concerns the wedding. I need an answer regarding the RSVP I sent. I do hope that one or both of you can attend.” “What wedding?” came the sudden reply. “I’ve received nothing.” Thinking that there may yet be hope, Helen replied, “I sent it via registered mail, so the invitation was received. The wedding, Ma’am, is that of your son, Chase Carlisle, and Brandon Wolfe.” After a long silence, Jane said in a pained voice, “I’ve read that they’re getting married. I’m… not entirely comfortable with the idea. I didn’t think that JT or I would be welcome there, in light of… what happened in the past.” Daring to smile for the first time during the call, Helen replied, “You were sent an invitation. You would be very welcome.” In a firmer, more businesslike tone, Jane asked, “Helen, if you are able to, I should like to know the day and time the invitation was delivered. I was unaware of it until your call, and I think we both know what likely happened. As for the wedding, if you are sure no one would object, I would very much like to see my sons again, so I would like to attend. I have my own car, so JT can’t stop me from going. When and where will it be?” “I’ll find out the approximate delivery time and let you know. However, you can’t drive to the wedding, Ma’am. It’s in the Canary Islands, this Thursday.” Helen heard a disappointed sigh from the other end of the line and added quickly, “I can pick you up Wednesday morning at whichever airport is convenient for you. You don’t need to worry about accommodations or transportation arrangements; they’re all taken care of.” There was no hesitation in the reply. With a voice firm with resolve, Jane said, “Payette Municipal Airport would be ideal for me, and they can take a business jet, which I assume you’ll be using. Just tell me when and I shall be there.” Smiling with relief, Helen said, “Ten o’clock, Wednesday morning.” Another pregnant silence followed, and then Jane said, in a less-certain tone, “If you call back and speak with JT, please don’t mention that I’m going, or aware of the invitation.” “I won’t call at all, Ma’am, and I look forward to meeting you.” As the resort’s bellhop led the way with the luggage, Eric watched Jansen and Keith while they stared at the resort, acting like little kids at Christmas. Their joy was infectious, and Eric felt it vicariously, seeing the resort anew through their eyes. Reaching the first suite, the bellhop opened the door and all three guys followed him in. Jansen and Keith looked around, seeing the lavish Spanish-style living room with terra-cotta floors, which opened, onto a private, walled patio, and then checking out the two well-appointed bedrooms. The bellhop said, “Gentlemen, please call if you need anything at all.” Turning to face Eric, he said, “Mr. Carlisle, you have the single suite across the terrace, the same one you had before.” The bellhop hurried out, waiting for Eric to follow. Eric glanced at Jansen and Keith to say, “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” and then turned to leave before the dancers saw his knowing smile. The bellhop closed the door as soon as Eric was through, leaving Jansen and Keith alone in their suite. They were excited enough that they felt no hint of jetlag. Keith settled gingerly into the plush couch, his head still awhirl from the events of the day. He and Jansen had never seen a private jet close up before, let alone ridden on one, and that had been but the first event of the day. They were as much strangers to Eric’s world as he was to theirs, and they’d felt it, in full force. Eric had been friendly and happy during the flight, but both Jansen and Keith had seen him in his element and it had re-enforced to them the fact that Eric, though he might play the role of a friend, was part of a very different world, a world with rules they did not know. Jansen sank into a recliner, his eyes still roaming the suite’s living room, and Keith hated to bring him down, but there was a matter that could not wait. “The bellhop said Eric had a single suite. That means one bedroom. So how come we’ve got a double?” Keith said, arching an eyebrow meaningfully in Jansen’s direction. It took a second, but Jansen realized what Keith had meant. “Maybe Eric didn’t want to book two guys into a one-bedroom?” Shaking his head, Keith replied, “I doubt that’s why. He’s hosting a gay stag party and a gay wedding, so I don’t think putting us in a one-bedroom would worry him that way.” “Got me… Maybe we should just ask him?” Jansen suggested. Shaking his head earnestly, Keith replied, “No, that might open up subjects we don’t want to discuss. Hell, maybe it’s just a booking mix-up. All I know is, I was expecting something more like a motel room and this place is like a dream. This is going to be paradise, man.” Jansen got up out of his chair, and said as he headed towards his suitcase, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get out there and see this place. Did you see those pools?” Jansen fished out a pair of shorts, and headed for a bedroom to change, lugging the case along behind him. Answering the door a couple of minutes later, Keith stood back as Eric walked in, decked out in flame-print boardies and sunglasses. Jansen, who felt more comfortable around Eric, did stare for a moment, nodded approvingly, and said, “You look like you’re ready to hit the pools or beach. Us too. Want to show us around? Don’t forget the party venue; we’d love to see it.” Grinning, Eric said, “Yeah, sounds like a plan. This place is great; you guys will love it. Pools all over, swim-up bars, weight rooms, a disco, you name it, it has it.” Eric spent the rest of the afternoon showing Jansen and Keith around, all three guys enjoying the sun and warm breezes. Keith, with Jansen in tow and Eric watching, checked out the party venue, taking almost an hour, making sure everything was just right. His verdict was the one Eric had hoped for. “You’re right, this is perfect. A kick-ass location. Can we rehearse here a couple of times, to get the feel of the place?” Keith asked. “Yeah, no problem, just have me notify the front desk first. There’s a dinner scheduled for later in the week, but aside from that, it’s all ours. I even had a couple of ideas to throw at you guys,” Eric said, struggling to keep a straight face as he wondered how they’d handle the suggestions he had in mind. Keith nodded, taking a last walk around the dance floor. “Great. Okay, any way we can help with the stuff you need to do?” Eric shook his head. “Nah, I’ve got it pretty much handled. I figure this is mainly vacation time.” That night, after finishing dinner, Eric spied Linda and Jim, sitting in a cozy booth. Turning to face Jansen and Keith, he said, “I want to introduce you guys to some other friends of mine. Follow me.” Arriving at their booth, Eric handled the introduction. “Jansen, Keith, this is Jim, who handles some of our security, and his wife Linda. They’re here on their honeymoon.” The big biker, dressed in a very loud Hawaiian shirt, grinned. “Pleased to meet you guys. I hope Eric isn’t driving you crazy?” Jim said with a laugh. “Always,” Jansen replied with a smirk, “He’ll soon have us as crazy as he is.” Linda pointedly stared at Jansen and Keith before saying, “I know who you guys are. Very nice. Good choice, Eric. This is one act I’m really looking forward to seeing.” The waiter chose that moment to arrive, carrying two flaming game hens. As soon as the waiter had departed, Eric said, “We’ll let you guys eat in peace, I just wanted to introduce you. Now, I’ve got to go kick Jansen and Keith’s asses in the video arcade.” As soon as Eric and the dancers were gone, Jim said, “Is it just me, or is Eric steering clear of us since we’ve been here? He never sticks around long.” Linda chuckled. “Yes, he is, and it’s because we’re on our honeymoon. I think it’s very sweet of him. He doesn’t like to show it, but he’s got a big heart.” “That he does, that he does.” The next day, their first full day on La Palma, began with a late breakfast. Eric took his reluctant leave of the dancers and headed off to make the remainder of his phone calls. The first call Eric made was to Helen, who answered with a groggy, “Hello?” and then proceeded to explain to Eric, at full volume, that late morning in La Palma is four AM in Los Angeles. Cringing a little from that oversight, Eric listened as Helen outlined the travel arrangements she’d made: The stag party guests: Brandon, Chase, and Jon, along with a dozen of the more open-minded members of Instinct’s crew, would be flying out via a chartered Gulfstream the day before the party. The wedding-only guests, which included Helen, Barbra, and a few older members of Instinct’s official family, would fly out on a Learjet, both from the same agency that Eric had used: Consolidated Jet Charters. Eric breathed a sigh of relief when he learned that the wedding guests, along with Helen and Barbra, would be arriving the day after the party, thus relieving him of the need to keep Helen away from it. Helen had very carefully not told Eric that the Learjet would be making a detour to Idaho. She had been so intent on phrasing that evasion carefully that she forgot, until the call had ended, to ask Eric how the plans for the wedding were shaping up. She made a mental note to do so the next time they spoke. Eric, on the other hand, was intrigued by the choice of aircraft, or more precisely, their source. He knew that one of those flights, perhaps both, would likely be piloted or co-piloted by a member of the same crew who had taken General Bradson to his destination. After the call to Helen, Eric stopped by to see Jim and Linda, and listened while they told him excitedly about their scuba-diving adventures. Heartened that they were enjoying their honeymoon, Eric returned to his suite to make one last round of calls for the party. By early afternoon, he was done, and sat back, basking in the realization that he now had several free days to spend relaxing, along with some friends to enjoy it with, in a place where, with a few precautions, he was unlikely to be recognized. Pure freedom awaited, and Eric decided that a walk on the beach was in order. With that in mind, Eric began rummaging through his luggage in search of his favorite swimsuit. A few minutes later, Eric, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and white speedos, set out in search of Jansen and Keith. He knocked on their door, which Keith opened, giving Eric a view of Jansen on the phone. Eric strolled in, and Jansen stared for a moment, only to replace the phone in its cradle and say, “I just left you part of a message. We wanted to go rehearse…” “Well, I’m here,” Eric said with a lopsided grin. “You guys feel like checking out the beach after rehearsal?” Keith looked at Eric’s brief, low-cut swimsuit, and cocked his head sideways, a bemused smile on his face as he needled, “You’re going to the beach dressed like that?” In so doing, Keith surprised himself a little; it was the first time he’d treated Eric like a friend, without the tempering reserve of deference to an employer. Eric laughed. “This isn’t California. Most of the tourists here are European, and a lot of Europeans wear speedos. So, why not take advantage of it? And since when do strippers worry about showing too much skin in public?” Crossing his arms, Keith answered in an over-done tone of mock pomp and indignation, “The term, sir, is exotic dancers. We are, perchance, perhaps not incomparable paragons of modesty ourselves, and merely felt, for your own protection, that we must forewarn you to the potentially temerarious potentialities of so displaying your pulchritudinous self on a public shoreline. I daresay that, as your loyal vassals, it becomes exigent upon Jansen and myself to share your hazard in full.” Eric looked at Keith for a few moments, before turning to Jansen and asking with a chuckle, “What did he eat for breakfast, a dictionary?” With a shrug, Jansen flicked a thumb in Keith’s direction and answered, “Mister Show-off over there is painfully proud of his vocabulary, though he usually picks weird times to display it. When we were growing up, he’d do that to me all the time. I had to expand my vocabulary to know what the ass was saying. Allow me to translate from Keithese into English; he just said you’re damn hot, going to the beach like that is reckless, and therefore he’s volunteering us to dress the same way, so you won’t make too much of a spectacle of your hot self. Safety in numbers, and all that.” Eager to stop Jansen from talking, Keith jumped in to say with a wink, “Actually, Jansen and I need to work on our tans for the party, so we might as well join in your exhibitionist ways on the beach.” Crossing his arms in mock disgust, Eric grumbled, “I can’t believe I’ve just been called an exhibitionist, by a stripper!” Speaking as one, Keith and Jansen replied in the same pompous tone, “The term, sir, is exotic dancer!” As Jansen and Keith cracked up, Eric controlled his own laughter enough to say, “Potato, puh-ta-to, whatever! Get your dancing asses dressed, or undressed, and let’s get going, sun’s a wasting.” “We’ll be stripping down to speedos at the rehearsal, we’ll just leave ‘em on. Let’s go show you one of our routines for the party first, I think you’ll like it,” Keith said with a hint of pride. Twenty minutes later, Eric sat watching from a table near the dance floor, enjoying the show as Jansen and Keith finished up their act. It was to be the second act for the party, and included some hot gymnastics moves. Stripped down to their matching light blue speedos, Jansen and Keith took a bow, and then joined Eric at the table where Keith asked apprehensively, “So, what do you think?” Eric had kept his expression blank on purpose, and then broke into a broad grin as he began to clap. “I love it. Perfect for the second act,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll show you the first act, the one where one of us starts out dancing with Linda, and then we dance with each other.” Keith said, having picked up on the fact that Eric had kept a blank expression in order to tease him. Eric grinned and slid his sunglasses on, “Okay, sounds good. Now let’s hit the beach.” Eric led the way out of the building, turning left to walk on a concrete path towards the ocean. The route wound between several sprawling pools constructed to look like tropical lagoons, and Eric looked forward to feeling the sand between his toes. After passing between the last of the pools, Eric slowed as he found himself staring at a low wrought-iron railing which barred their path. It wasn’t the railing that surprised him; it was the view of the ocean beyond. Eric jogged to the railing, with Jansen and Keith at his side. Gripping it and looking down at the sea below, Eric felt an icy pang of worry. Looking down, feeling a touch of vertigo, Jansen gripped the railing and asked, “Didn’t you say there was a beach, and that’s where Brandon and Chase are getting married?” Swallowing once, still peering down the ragged face of the hundred-foot vertical drop at the surf-lashed rocks below, Eric replied, “Yeah. The website for this place said it was right on the ocean. I thought that meant it had a beach, not a cliff!” Keith nodded dourly, seeing that they did indeed have a problem. “I don’t think Brandon and Chase would want to get married on a cliff… so maybe we’d better find a beach.” Nodding, Eric spun around and headed towards the resort’s main office. “I’ll ask; there must be one around here somewhere. The problem is I need a private beach; otherwise, the press might show up and ruin everything. Shit, Brandon and Chase are going to fucking kill me… if Helen doesn’t beat them to it.” Jogging to keep up with Eric, Jansen said, “Maybe you should ask the minister if he knows of one?” Eric slammed to a halt and spun around. “Minister? I haven’t booked one yet. I was going to do that later. The wedding is on a weekday, so I figured it would be easy finding one.” Suppressing the urge to roll his eyes, Keith replied, “Not for a gay wedding, dude. Lots of ministers won’t do those.” Eric began pacing in a circle. “Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” he said, irritating some nearby guests in the process. “I was so busy planning the party, I pretty much blew off some of the wedding stuff. I figured a minister would be easy.” After chewing on his lip for a moment, Keith asked, “Okay, start at the beginning. What do you have done for the wedding?” “Helen has the flights arranged, so that’s covered. I’ve reserved rooms here, so that’s covered too,” Eric replied in a depressed tone of voice. Eric’s crestfallen expression tugged at Jansen’s heartstrings. Eric, he was coming to realize, was like a fish out of water in some ways, and also headstrong: he’d clearly focused on the party to the exclusion of all else. With no hesitation, Jansen decided to help. “Okay, we have a problem, but we’ll deal with it,” he said, and cast a pair of pleading eyes in Keith’s direction. Nodding, Keith said, “We need to take care of three big things: the marriage license, the wedding location, and the minister. I’m the business major, so I’ll handle finding out about the license. That should be easy. The minister and location will be harder.” Wrinkling his brow as a sudden thought crossed his mind, Keith asked, “Wouldn’t a big, fancy place like this have a concierge service?” Eric slapped himself lightly on the forehead. “Helen always takes care of all the detail work when we’re traveling, so I’ve never really dealt with any of that kind of stuff before.” Keith chuckled as he threw a friendly arm over Eric’s shoulders, “Strippers to the rescue. Me and Janse have worked a few private parties at hotels, so we’ve seen the way the high-end places handle all the details.” Echoing Keith’s earlier tone of facetious indignation, Eric said, “The term, sir, is exotic dancers, and don’t you forget it!” Shifting back to his normal voice, Eric added, “Let’s go find the concierge and see what they can do.” The formally attired desk manager didn’t bat an eye when the three nearly naked guys walked in, and simply did as asked, phoning for the concierge. The concierge, a tall, rail-thin man in thick spectacles, hurried to the foyer, and within minutes was hurriedly scribbling notes. Once Eric had stopped talking, the concierge successfully fought the urge to roll his eyes at the lack of preparation. The concierge, being meticulous by nature, believed in planning everything down to the smallest detail. That was, after all, what he did. Reviewing his notes and then pausing to think for a few seconds, the concierge broke the tense silence to say, “I’ll get on it right away, Señor Carlisle. This is not the first same-gender wedding that I have handled. I have a minister in mind. The license can be obtained by taking the couple to the courthouse in Las Indias, a village about a mile inland from here, any weekday afternoon; I shall arrange it. The resort can handle the reception, including catering. The only difficulty that I foresee is finding a private beach. There are very few beaches of any kind on La Palma and to my knowledge, all are public. I would suggest that you hold the wedding here at the resort, or perhaps in the minister’s church.” Letting out a sigh of despair, Eric sank down in this chair. “Brandon and Chase want to be married on a beach. I’ve got to find one.” Nodding, the concierge shrugged and raised his hands, palms upward, “I am sorry, Señor Carlisle. The geography is against us. La Palma is a very steep island; the steepest in the world. Most of the coastline consists of steep cliffs, which plunge into deep water. For example, I do know of a beach less than a mile to the north of us, called Playa Zamora. It is tiny, a black sand beach set into a cove. It is however accessible to the public via a pathway down the cliff. There are some similar small beaches further north, but some are reachable only by sea, and many of those are at the base of thousand-foot cliffs. One difficulty with those, other than access, is that the cliffs consist of loose tuff in many places and are prone to rock falls.” Becoming a little more animated as he perceived a ray of hope, Eric asked, “This… Playa Zamora, it’s a mile from here and it’s perfect except for being open to the public, right?” The concierge nodded, and Eric, beginning to smile as he realized that his problem was probably solved, said with a smile, “We’d like to see it.” The concierge shoved his glasses further back on his nose and blinked in surprise. He was surprised that Eric would be willing to hold a celebrity wedding in a public locale, but he’d heard of stranger things, and he knew better than to argue with a guest. Picking up his phone, he spoke in rapid fire Spanish before hanging up and saying, “The resort’s car and driver are at your disposal. The driver speaks no English, but I have told him where you wish to go. He is waiting at the main entrance, immediately past the front desk, anytime that you are ready.” Standing, Eric said to Jansen and Keith, “Let’s go have a look at the beach.” With Jansen and Keith flanking him, Eric strolled through the large, multi-story foyer, and through the main doors, heading directly for the open door of the resort’s black Mercedes, held open by the driver. Eric slid into the back seat, followed by Jansen and Keith, who in spite of their profession felt a little under-dressed to be going for a drive. Jansen and Keith shared a glance, and then looked at Eric. Seeing his nonchalant expression, they again locked eyes and shrugged, assuming that he knew what he was doing. Without a word, the driver pulled away, navigating the resort’s long, palm-flanked driveway and then turned left on a paved road. Looking out the window, Jansen noticed that the road was lined with thick stands of banana trees – though not technically trees at all – something he’d never seen before arriving on the island. It was just one new thing amongst many, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. The driver took a branch to the left, which soon turned into a graded gravel road. Just under a mile later, he turned left again, and bounced along a rutted dirt trail for a hundred feet, following the curve of a stand of banana trees, before bringing the car to a halt parallel to the edge of a cliff to the left. Without a word, but with a cheerful wave of his cap, the driver opened the right-hand rear door and ushered his passengers out, pointing past the front of the car. The three boys, treading carefully to avoid the few pieces of lava rock which occasionally protruded through the dirt, walked north for a dozen feet. There, they found a narrow pathway which zigzagged down the nearly vertical cliff. Stopping to have a look, Eric began to smile, “This looks perfect. It’s close to the resort and a beautiful spot. Let’s go check out the beach.” Following Eric down the paved pathway, which was bounded by a low stone wall on the downhill side, Keith had to agree: it looked like a spectacular setting, perfect, except for what looked to be about a dozen tourists clustered under gaudy beach umbrellas. Reaching the bottom, Eric broke into a run, racing across the coarse black sand. Reaching the surf line, he bounded into the cool sea and turned to face the shore. It was then that he began to grin: he knew he’d found the place. Eric waited patiently for the few seconds it took for Jansen and Keith to catch up, and as they reached the waterline, Eric kicked a small spray of seawater in their direction and raised his hands over his head in celebration. “Guys, this is the place. It’s perfect!” Chuckling, brushing off the few drops of water, Keith turned his head towards the tourists thirty feet away and asked, “What about this being public?” Aiming a wink at Jansen and Keith, Eric chuckled and said, “I may not be too good at handling some kinds of stuff, but this I can take care of. Trust me.” For a few minutes, Eric, Jansen, and Keith chased each other through the surf, running the length of the beach, splashing and yelling. Upon returning to the resort, Eric suppressed a grin as he came to a halt outside the concierge’s office and told Jansen and Keith in a serious tone, “I’ll be right out.” Leaving a puzzled pair of dancers outside, Eric ducked into the office and spoke with the concierge for under a minute. He then emerged, smiling confidently, and announced as casually as he could muster, “All taken care of. I’ve had the beach closed to the public for the wedding and the local police will be enforcing the order.” As Eric had expected, Keith and Jansen’s jaws dropped in unison. Shaking his head slightly, Keith asked, “How the hell did you manage that?” “I’ll never tell. A rock star’s gotta have some secrets.” Eric replied with a wicked grin as he breezed past the two dancers, “Race ya to the pool bar!” Jansen and Keith watched Eric dash away, and as they turned to follow, Keith said, “Maybe whatever he did has something to do with money, but damned if I can figure out what. He’s having us on, I know he is. He thinks it’ll drive us nuts if he doesn’t tell us how he pulled that off.” Passing through the door onto the pool deck, Jansen replied with a grunt, “Yeah, and he’s right…” After a few drinks with the guys at the sunken bar, where Eric once again resisted the siren song of tequila, Eric took a call on the hotel phone. Once the call ended, he sighed and shrugged. “No more alcohol for me today. That was my manager; I’ve got a conference call in two hours, with the sound engineer for our next album. It’s business, I’ve gotta do it. These things usually last for hours, so you guys are on your own tonight. Maybe you can go have a romantic dinner under the moonlight,” Eric said, hiding a grin. “Uh, yeah, okay, but that sucks for you. Bummer,” Jansen said, while receiving a warning glance from Keith. Shifting the subject, Jansen said, “Come on, tell us how you pulled off closing the beach.” “We’ve all got our secrets,” Eric replied with a sly grin, before doing a back flip off the submerged barstool and swimming away. Shaking his head in frustration, Jansen told Keith, “Now I’ve gotta know,” and took off after Eric. For the next two hours, Eric lounged in the sun with the two dancers, mainly chatting about the wedding and party plans. Just before he had to leave, Eric remarked in an offhand way, “Hey, I was thinking about that first act you guys will be doing. After you guys get each other’s shirts off, pull into a kiss, a really hot, long, and deep kiss. What’da’ya think?” After a few second’s silence, Keith answered, “Yeah, that’s a possibility.” Letting the subject drop, Eric bid them good night, and headed for his room to make the conference call. Watching him go, relaxing in the rays of the setting sun, Jansen lowered his voice to a whisper to tell Keith, “I feel bad lying to him.” “Me too,” Keith replied with a nod. “But we’ve gone this far, so we better stick it out. Maybe he’ll forget that idea.” Watching the sunset a few minutes later, Keith said, “There’s a disco somewhere in the resort. Want to check it out after diner?” With an unenthusiastic shrug, Jansen replied, “Might as well.” Entering the small office, Yuri took a seat as The Scar asked, “I heard cheering outside. What is the General up to?” Barely restraining his laughter, Yuri replied, “He has turned our flagpole into firewood and has it burning merrily.” The Scar looked up, remaining silent for a moment before nodding approvingly. “Very clever of him. Felecia can’t run up her flag on a nonexistent flagpole, so he’s won, yet again, by using Felecia’s own rules against her. I do hope she appreciates the delicious irony. This also proves that I am right about him; he’s as able a tactician as I’ve heard, even in ground combat which is not his area of expertise, nor where we need him. He thinks laterally, coming up with innovative, unconventional solutions on the fly. This is why we need him, Yuri. He will serve us well in our quest, so long as he is kept in the dark.” © 2008 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. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. 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 for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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