Combatby Stephen Coonts
As the world moves into the next millennium, the United States finds itself at the forefront of this new age, policing not only its own shores but the rest of the world as well. And spearheading this overwatch are the men and women of America's armed forces, the "troops on the wall," who will go anywhere, anytime, and do whatever it takes to protect not only our… See more details below
As the world moves into the next millennium, the United States finds itself at the forefront of this new age, policing not only its own shores but the rest of the world as well. And spearheading this overwatch are the men and women of America's armed forces, the "troops on the wall," who will go anywhere, anytime, and do whatever it takes to protect not only our nation but the rest of the free world.
Now, for the first time, Combat brings the best military-fiction authors together to reveal how war will be fought in the twenty-first century. From the down and dirty "ground-pounders" of the U.S. Armored Cavalry to the new frontiers of warfare, including outer space and the Internet, ten authors whose novels define the military-fiction genre have written all-new short stories about the men and women willing to put their lives on the line for freedom:
Larry Bond takes us into the wild frontier of space warfare, where American soldiers fight a dangerous zero-gee battle with a tenacious enemy that threatens every free nation on Earth.
Dale Brown lets us inside a world that few people see, that of a military promotion board, and shows us how the fate of an EB-52 Megafortress pilot's career can depend on a man he's never met, even as the pilot takes on the newest threat to American forces in the Persian Gulf--a Russian stealth bomber.
James Cobb finds a lone U.S. Armored Cavalry scout unit that is the only military force standing between a defenseless African nation and an aggressive Algerian recon division.
Stephen Coonts tells of the unlikely partnership between an ex-Marine sniper and a female military pilot who team up to kill the terrorists who murdered her parents. But, out in the Libyan desert, all is not as it seems, and these two must use their skills just to stay alive.
Harold W. Coyle reports in from the front lines of the information war, where cyberpunks are recruited by the U.S. Army to combat the growing swarm of hackers and their shadowy masters who orchestrate their brand of online terrorism around the world.
David Hagberg brings us another Kirk McGarvey adventure, in which the C.I.A. director becomes entangled in the rising tensions between China and Taiwan. When a revolutionary leader is rescued from a Chinese prison, the Chinese government pushes the United States to the brink of war, and McGarvey has to make a choice with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Dean Ing reveals a scenario that could have been torn right from today's headlines. In Oakland, a private investigator teams up with a bounty hunter and F.B.I. agent to find a missing marine engineer. What they uncover is the shadow of terrorism looming over America and a conspiracy that threatens thousands of innocent lives.
Ralph Peters takes us to the war-torn Balkan states, where a U.S. Army observer sent to keep an eye on the civil war is taken on a guided tour of the country at gunpoint. Captured by the very people he is there to monitor, he learns just how far people will go for their idea of freedom.
R.J. Pineiro takes us to the far reaches of space, where a lone terrorist holds the world hostage from a nuclear missle-equipped platform. To stop him, a pilot agrees to a suicidal flight into the path of an orbital laser with enough power to incinerate her space shuttle.
Barrett Tillman takes us to the skies with a group of retired fighter jocks brought back for one last mission--battling enemy jets over the skies of sunny California.
"American troops go to hell and back to save the free world. Push comes to shove, then Fire away! and CARRUMPH!"
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AL-JIHADBY STEPHEN COONTSOneJulie Giraud was crazy as hell. I knew that for an absolute fact, so I was contemplating what a real damned fool I was to get mixed up in her crazy scheme when I drove the Humvee and trailer into the belly of the V-22 Osprey and tied them down.I quickly checked the stuff in the Humvee's trailer, made sure it was secure, then walked out of the Osprey and across the dark concrete ramp. Lights shining down from the peak of the hangar reflected in puddles of rainwater. The rain had stopped just at dusk, an hour or so ago.I was the only human in sight amid the tiltrotor Ospreys parked on that vast mat. They looked like medium-sized transports except that they had an engine on each wingtip, and the engines were pointed straight up. Atop each engine was a thirty-eight-foot, three-bladed rotor. The engines were mounted on swivels that allowed them to be tilted from the vertical to the horizontal, giving the Ospreys the ability to take off and land like helicopters and then fly along in winged flight like the turboprop transports they really were.I stopped by the door into the hangar and looked around again, just to make sure, then I opened the door and went inside.The corridor was lit, but empty. My footsteps made a dull noise on the tile floor. I took the second right, into a ready room.The duty officer was standing by the desk strapping a belt and holsterto her waist. She was wearing a flight suit and black flying boots. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun. She glanced at me. "Ready?""Where are all the security guards?""Watching a training film. They thought it was unusual to send everyone, but I insisted.""I sure as hell hope they don't get suspicious."She picked up her flight bag, took a last look around, and glanced at her watch. Then she grinned at me. "Let's go get 'em."That was Julie Giraud, and as I have said, she was crazy as hell.Me, I was just greedy. Three million dollars was a lot of kale, enough to keep me in beer and pretzels for the next hundred and ninety years. I followed this ding-a-ling bloodthirsty female along the hallway and through the puddles on the ramp to the waiting Osprey. Julie didn't run--she strode purposefully. If she was nervous or having second thoughts about committing the four dozen felonies we had planned for the next ten minutes, she sure didn't show it.The worst thing I had ever done up to that point in my years on this planet was cheat a little on my income tax--no more than average, though--and here I was about to become a co-conspirator in enough crimes to keep a grand jury busy for a year. I felt like a condemned man on his way to the gallows, but the thought of all those smackers kept me marching along behind ol' crazy Julie.We boarded the plane through the cargo door, and I closed it behind us.Julie took three or four minutes to check our cargo, leaving nothing to chance. I watched her with grudging respect--crazy or not, she looked like a pro to me, and at my age I damn well didn't want to go tilting at windmills with an amateur.When she finished her inspection, she led the way forward to the cockpit. She got into the left seat, her hands flew over the buttons and levers, arranging everything to her satisfaction. As I strapped myself into the right seat, she cranked the left engine. The RPMs came up nicely. The right engine was next.As the radios warmed up, she quickly ran through the checklist, scanned gauges, and set up computer displays. I wasn't a pilot; everything I knew about the V-22 tiltrotor Osprey came from Julie, who wasn't given to long-winded explanations. If was almost as if every word she said cost her money.While she did her pilot thing, I sat there looking out the windows, nervous as a cat on crack, trying to spot the platoon of FBI agents who were probably closing in to arrest us right that very minute. I didn't seeanyone, of course: The parking mat of the air force base was as deserted as a nudist colony in January.About that time Julie snapped on the aircraft's exterior lights, which made weird reflections on the other aircraft parked nearby, and the landing lights, powerful spotlights that shone on the concrete in front of us.She called Ground Control on the radio. They gave her a clearance to a base in southern Germany, which she copied and read back flawlessly.We weren't going to southern Germany, I knew, even if the air traffic controllers didn't. Julie released the brakes, and almost as if by magic, the Osprey began moving, taxiing along the concrete. She turned to pick up a taxiway, moving slowly, sedately, while she set up the computer displays on the instrument panel in front of her. There were two multifunction displays in front of me too, and she leaned across to punch up the displays she wanted. I just watched. All this time we were rolling slowly along the endless taxiways lined with blue lights, across at least one runway, taxiing, taxiing ... A rabbit ran across in front of us, through the beam of the taxi light.Finally Julie stopped and spoke to the tower, which cleared us for takeoff."Are you ready?" she asked me curtly."For prison, hell or what?"She ignored that comment, which just slipped out. I was sitting there wondering how well I was going to adjust to institutional life.She taxied onto the runway, lined up the plane, then advanced the power lever with her left hand. I could hear the engines winding up, feel the power of the giant rotors tearing at the air, trying to lift this twenty-eight-ton beast from the earth's grasp.The Osprey rolled forward on the runway, slowly at first, and when it was going a little faster than a man could run, lifted majestically into the air.The crime was consummated.We had just stolen a forty-million-dollar V-22 Osprey, snatched it right out of Uncle Sugar's rather loose grasp, not to mention a half-million dollars' worth of other miscellaneous military equipment that was carefully stowed in the back of the plane.Now for the getaway.In seconds Julie began tilting the engines down to transition to forward flight. The concrete runway slid under us, faster and faster as the Osprey accelerated. She snapped up the wheels, used the stick to raise the nose of the plane. The airspeed indicator read over 140 knots as theend of the runway disappeared into the darkness below and the night swallowed us.
Two weeks before that evening, Julie Giraud drove into my filling station in Van Nuys. I didn't know her then, of course. I was sitting in the office reading the morning paper. I glanced out, saw her pull up to the pump in a new white sedan. She got out of the car and used a credit card at the pump, so I went back to the paper.I had only owned that gasoline station for about a week, but I had already figured out why the previous owner sold it so cheap: The mechanic was a doper and the guy running the register was a thief. I was contemplating various ways of solving those two problems when the woman with the white sedan finished pumping her gas and came walking toward the office.She was a bit over medium height, maybe thirty years old, a hard-body wearing a nice outfit that must have set her back a few bills. She looked vaguely familiar, but this close to Hollywood, you often see people you think you ought to know.She came straight over to where I had the little chair tilted back against the wall and asked, "Charlie Dean?""Yeah.""I'm Julie Giraud. Do you remember me?"It took me a few seconds. I put the paper down and got up from the chair."It's been a lot of years," I said."Fifteen, I think. I was just a teenager.""Colonel Giraud's eldest daughter. I remember. Do you have a sister a year or two younger?""Rachael. She's a dental tech, married with two kids.""I sorta lost track of your father, I guess. How is he?""Dead.""Well, I'm sorry."I couldn't think of anything else to say. Her dad had been my commanding officer at the antiterrorism school, but that was years ago. I went on to other assignments, and finally retired five years ago with thirty years in. I hadn't seen or thought of the Girauds in years."I remember Dad remarking several times that you were the best Marine in the corps."That comment got the attention of the guy behind the register. His name was Candy. He had a few tattoos on his arms and a half dozen rings dangling from various portions of his facial anatomy. He looked at me now with renewed interest.I tried to concentrate on Julie Giraud. She was actually a good-looking woman, with her father's square chin and good cheekbones. She wasn't wearing makeup: She didn't need any."I remember him telling us that you were a sniper in Vietnam, and the best Marine in the corps."Candy's eyebrows went up toward his hairline when he heard that."I'm flattered that you remember me, Ms. Giraud, but I'm a small-business owner now. I left the Marines five years ago." I gestured widely. "This grand establishment belongs to me and the hundreds of thousands of stockholders in BankAmerica. All of us thank you for stopping by today and giving us your business."She nodded, turned toward the door, then hesitated. "I wonder if we might have lunch together, Mr. Dean."Why not? "Okay. Across the street at the Burger King, in about an hour?" That was agreeable with her. She got in her car and drove away.Amazing how people from the past pop back into your life when you least expect it.I tilted the chair back, lifted my paper and sat there wondering what in hell Julie Giraud could possibly want to talk about with me. Candy went back to his copy of Rolling Stone. In a few minutes two people came in and paid cash for their gas. With the paper hiding my face, I could look into a mirror I had mounted on the ceiling and watch Candy handle the money. I put the mirror up there three days ago but if he noticed, he had forgotten it by now.As the second customer left, Candy pocketed something. I didn't know if he shortchanged the customer or just helped himself to a bill from the till. The tally and the tape hadn't been jibing and Candy had a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it-old-man attitude.He closed the till and glanced at me with a look that could only be amusement.I folded the paper, put it down, got out of the chair and went over to the counter."So you was in the Marines, huh?""Yeah."He grinned confidently. "Wouldn't have figured that."I reached, grabbed a ring dangling from his eyebrow and ripped it out.Candy screamed. Blood flowed from the eyebrow. He recoiled against the register with a look of horror on his face."The money, kid. Put it on the counter."He glanced at the blood on his hand, then pressed his hand against his eyebrow trying to staunch the flow. "You bastard! I don't know what you--"Reaching across the counter, I got a handful of hair with my left hand and the ring in his nose with my right. "You want to lose all these, one by one?"He dug in his pocket, pulled out a wadded bill and threw it on the counter."You're fired, kid. Get off the property and never come back."He came around the counter, trying to stay away from me, one hand on his bleeding eyebrow. He stopped in the door. "I'll get you for this, you son of a bitch.""You think that through, kid. Better men than you have died trying. If you just gotta do it, though, you know where to find me."He scurried over to his twenty-five-year-old junker Pontiac. He ground and ground with the starter. Just when I thought he would have to give up, the motor belched a cloud of blue smoke.I got on the phone to a friend of mine, also a retired Marine. His name was Bill Wiley, and he worked full time as a police dispatcher. He agreed to come over that evening to help me out for a few hours at the station.It seemed to me that I might as well solve all my problems in one day, so I went into the garage to see the mechanic, a long-haired Mexican named Juan."I think you've got an expensive habit, Juan. To pay for it you've been charging customers for work you didn't do, new parts you didn't install, then splitting the money with Candy. He hit the road. You can work honest from now on or leave, your choice.""You can't prove shit."He was that kind of guy, stupid as dirt. "I don't have to prove anything," I told him. "You're fired."He didn't argue; he just went. I finished fixing the flat he had been working on, waited on customers until noon, then locked the place up and walked across the street to the Burger King.
Of course I was curious. It seemed doubtful that Julie Giraud wanted to spend an hour of her life reminiscing about the good old days at Quantico with a retired enlisted man who once served under her father, certainly not one twenty-five years older than she was.So what did she want?"You are not an easy man to find, Mr. Dean."I shrugged. I'm not trying to lose myself in the madding crowd, but I'm not advertising either."My parents died twelve years ago," she said, her eyes on my face."Both of them?" I hadn't heard. "Sorry to hear that," I said."They were on an Air France flight to Paris that blew up over Niger. A bomb.""Twelve years ago.""Dad had been retired for just a year. He and Mom were traveling, seeing the world, falling in love with each other all over again. They were on their way to Paris from South America when the plane blew up, killing everyone aboard."I lost my appetite for hamburger. I put it down and sipped some coffee.She continued, telling me her life story. She spent a few more years in high school, went to the Air Force Academy, was stationed in Europe flying V-22 Ospreys, was back in the States just now on leave.When she wound down, I asked, as gently as I could, why she looked me up.She opened her purse, took out a newspaper clipping, offered it to me. "Last year a French court tried the men who killed my parents. They are Libyans. Moammar Gadhafi refused to extradite them from Libya, so the French tried them in absentia, convicted them, sentenced them to life in prison."I remembered reading about the trial. The clipping merely refreshed my memory. One hundred forty people died when that Air France flight exploded; the debris was scattered over fifty square miles of desert."Six men, and they are still in Libya." Julie gestured at the newspaper clipping, which was lying beside my food tray. "One of the men is Gadhafi's brother-in-law, another is a key figure in Libyan intelligence, two are in the Libyan diplomatic service." She gripped the little table between us and leaned forward. "They blew up that airliner on Gadhafi's order to express the dictator's displeasure with French foreign policy at the time. It was raw political terrorism, Mr. Dean, by a nation without the guts or wit to wage war. They just murder civilians."I folded the clipping, then handed it back."Ms. Giraud, I'm sorry that your parents are dead. I'm sorry about all those people who died on that airliner. I'm sorry the men who murdered them are beyond the reach of the law. I'm sorry the French government hasn't got the guts or wit to clean out the vermin in Tripoli. But what has this got to do with me?""I want you to help me kill those men," she whispered, her voice as hard as a bayonet blade.TwoI grew up in a little town in southwestern Missouri. Dad was a welder and Mom waited tables in a diner, and both of them had trouble with the bottle. The afternoon of the day I graduated from high school I joined the Marines to get the hell out.Sure, I killed my share of gomers in Vietnam. By then I thought life was a fairly good idea and wanted more of it. If I had to zap gomers to keep getting older, that was all right by me. It helped that I had a natural talent with a rifle. I was a medium-smart, whang-leather kid who never complained and did what I was told, so I eventually ended up in Recon. It took me a while to fit in; once I did, I was in no hurry to leave. Recon was the place where the Marine Corps kept its really tough men. The way I figured it, those guys were my life insurance.That's the way it worked out. The guys in Recon kept each other alive. And we killed gomers.All that was long ago and far away from Julie Giraud. She was the daughter of a Marine colonel, sure, a grad of the Air Force Academy, and she looked like she ran five miles or so every day, but none of that made her tough. Sitting across the table looking at her, I couldn't figure out if she was a fighter or a get-even, courthouse-stairs back-shooter. A lot of people like the abstract idea of revenge, of getting even, but they aren't willing to suffer much for the privilege. Sitting in Burger King watching Julie Giraud, listening to her tell me how she wanted to killthe men who had killed her parents, I tried to decide just how much steel was in her backbone.Her dad had been a career officer with his share of Vietnam chest cabbage. When they were young a lot of the gung ho officers thought they were bulletproof and let it all hang out. When they eventually realized they were as mortal as everyone else and started sending sergeants to lead the patrols, they already had enough medals to decorate a Panamanian dictator. Whether Julie Giraud's dad was like that, I never knew.A really tough man knows he is mortal, knows the dangers involved to the tenth decimal place, and goes ahead anyway. He is careful, committed, and absolutely ruthless.After she dropped the bomb at lunch, I thought about these things for a while. Up to that point I had no idea why she had gone to the trouble of looking me up; the thought that she might want my help getting even with somebody never once zipped across the synapses. I took my time thinking things over before I said, "What's the rest of it?""It's a little complicated.""Maybe you'd better lay it out.""Outside, in my car.""No. Outside on the sidewalk."We threw the remnants of our lunch in the trash and went outside.Julie Giraud looked me in the eye and explained, "These men are instruments of the Libyan government--""I got that point earlier.""--seventeen days from now, on the twenty-third of this month, they are going to meet with members of three Middle East terrorist organizations and a representative of Saddam Hussein's government. They hope to develop a joint plan that Saddam will finance to attack targets throughout western Europe and the Middle East.""Did you get a press release on this or what?""I have a friend, a fellow Air Force Academy graduate, who is now with the CIA.""He just casually tells you this stuff?""She. She told me about the conference. And there is nothing casual about it. She knows what these people have cost me.""Say you win the lottery and off a few of these guys, what's she gonna tell the internal investigators when they come around?"Julie Giraud shook her head. "We're covered, believe me.""I don't, but you're the one trying to make a sale, not me."She nodded, then continued: "Seventeen days from now the delegatesto this little conference will fly to an airstrip near an old fortress in the Sahara. The fortress is near an oasis on an old caravan route in the middle of nowhere. Originally built by the ancient Egyptians, the fortress was used by Carthaginians and Romans to guard that caravan route. The Foreign Legion did extensive restoration and kept a small garrison there for years. During World War II the Germans and British even had a little firefight there."I grunted. She was intense, committed. Fanatics scare me, and she was giving me those vibes now."The fortress is on top of a rock ridge," she explained. "The Arabs call it the Camel.""Never heard of it," I retorted. Of course there was no reason that I should have heard of the place--I was grasping at straws. I didn't like anything about this tale.She was holding her purse loosely by the strap, so I grabbed it out of her hand. Her eyes narrowed; she thought about slapping me--actually shifted her weight to do it--then decided against it.There was a small, round, poured-concrete picnic table there beside the Burger King for mothers to sit at while watching their kids play on the gym equipment, so I sat down and dug her wallet out of the purse. It contained a couple hundred in bills, a Colorado driver's license--she was twenty-eight years old--a military ID, three bank credit cards, an expired AAA membership, car insurance from USAA, a Sears credit card, and an ATM card in a paper envelope with her secret PIN number written on the envelope in ink.Also in the wallet was a small, bound address book containing handwritten names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses. I flipped through the book, studying the names, then returned it to the wallet.Her purse contained the usual feminine hygiene and cosmetic items. At the bottom were four old dry cleaning receipts from the laundry on the German base where she was stationed and a small collection of loose keys. One safety pin, two buttons, a tiny rusty screwdriver, a pair of sunglasses with a cracked lens, five German coins and two U.S. quarters. One of the receipts was eight months old.I put all this stuff back in her purse and passed it across the table."Okay," I said. "For the sake of argument, let's assume you're telling the truth--that there really is a terrorists' conference scheduled at an old pile of Foreign Legion masonry in the middle of the goddamn Sahara seventeen days from now. What do you propose to do about it?""I propose to steal a V-22 Osprey," Julie Giraud said evenly, "fly there, plant enough C-4 to blow that old fort to kingdom come, thenwait for the terrorists to arrive. When they are all sitting in there plotting who they are going to murder next, I'm going to push the button and send the whole lot of them straight to hell. Just like they did to my parents and everyone else on that French DC-10.""You and who else?"The breeze was playing with her hair. "You and me," she said. "The two of us."I tried to keep a straight face. Across the street at my filling station people were standing beside their cars, waiting impatiently for me to get back and open up. That was paying business and I was sitting here listening to this shit. The thought that the CIA or FBI might be recording this conversation also crossed my mind."You're a nice kid, Julie. Thanks for dropping by. I'm sorry about your folks, but there is nothing on earth anyone can do for them. It's time to lay them to rest. Fly high, meet a nice guy, fall in love, have some kids, give them the best that you have in you: Your parents would have wanted that for you. The fact is they're gone and you can't bring them back."She brushed the hair back from her eyes. "If you'll help me, Mr. Dean, I'll pay you three million dollars."I didn't know what to say. Three million dollars rated serious consideration, but I couldn't tell if she had what it takes to make it work."I'll think about it," I said, and got up. "Tomorrow, we'll have lunch again right here."She showed some class then. "Okay," she said, and nodded once. She didn't argue or try to make the sale right then, and I appreciated that.
My buddy, Gunnery Sergeant Bill Wiley, left the filling station at ten that night; I had to stay until closing time at 2 A.M. About midnight an older four-door Chrysler cruised slowly past on the street, for the second or third time, and I realized the people inside were casing the joint.Ten minutes later, when the pumps were vacant and I was the only person in the store, the Chrysler drove in fast and stopped in front of the door. My ex-cash register man, Candy, boiled out of the passenger seat with a gun in his hand, a 9-mm automatic. He and the guy from the backseat came charging through the door waving their guns at me."Hands up, Charlie Dean, you silly son of a bitch. We want all the money, and if you ain't real goddamn careful I'm gonna blow your fucking brains out."The guy from the backseat posted himself by the door and kept glancing up and down the street to see who was driving by. The driver of the car stayed outside.Candy strutted over to me and stuck his gun in my face. He had a butterfly bandage on his eyebrow. He was about to say something really nasty, I think, when I grabbed his gun with my left hand and hit him with all I had square in the mouth with my right. He went down like he had been sledgehammered. I leaped toward the other one and hit him in the head with the gun butt, and he went down too. Squatting, I grabbed his gun while I checked the driver outside.The driver was standing frozen beside the car, staring through the plate-glass window at me like I was Godzilla. I already had the safety off on Candy's automatic, so I swung it into the middle of this dude's chest and pulled the trigger.Click.Oh boy!As I got the other pistol up, the third man dived behind the wheel and slammed the Chrysler into gear. That pistol also clicked uselessly. The Chrysler left in a squall of rubber and exhaust smoke.I checked the pistols one at a time. Both empty.Candy's eyes were trying to focus, so I bent down and asked him, "How come you desperate characters came in here with empty pistols?"He spit blood and a couple teeth as he thought about it. His lips were swelling. He was going to look like holy hell for a few days. Finally one eye focused. "Didn't want to shoot you," he mumbled, barely understandable. "Just scare you.""Umm.""The guns belong to my dad. He didn't have any bullets around.""Did the driver of the car know the guns were empty?"Candy nodded, spit some more blood.I'll admit, I felt kind of sorry for Candy. He screwed up the courage to go after a pint or two of revenge, but the best he could do for backup help was a coward who ran from empty pistols.I put the guns in the trash can under the register and got each of them a bottled water from the cooler. They were slowly coming around when a police cruiser with lights flashing pulled up between the pumps and the office and the officer jumped out. He came striding in with his hand on the butt of his pistol."Someone called in on their cell phone, reported a robbery in progress here."I kept my hands in plain sight where he could see them. "No robbery, officer. My name's Dean; I own this filling station.""What happened to these two?" Spittle and blood were smeared on one front of Candy's shirt, and his friend had a dilly of a shiner."They had a little argument," I explained, "slugged each other. This fellow here, Candy, works for me."Candy and his friend looked at me kind of funny, but they went along with it. After writing down everyone's names and addresses from their driver's licenses while I expanded on my fairy tale, the officer left.Candy and his friend were on their feet by then. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dean," Candy said."Tell you what, kid. You want to play it straight, no stealing and no shortchanging people, you come back to work in the morning.""You mean that?""Yeah." I dug his father's guns from the trash arid handed them to him. "You better take these home and put them back where they belong."His face was red and he was having trouble talking. "I'll be here," he managed.He pocketed the pistols, nodded, then he and his friend went across the street to Burger King to call someone to come get them.I was shaking so bad I had to sit down. Talk about luck! If the pistols had been loaded I would have killed that fool kid driving the car, and I didn't even know if he had a gun. That could have cost me life in the pen. Over what?I sat there in the office thinking about life and death and Julie Giraud.
At lunch the next day Julie Giraud was intense, yet cool as she talked of killing people, slaughtering them like steers. I'd seen my share of people with that look. She was just flat crazy.The fact that she was a nut seemed to explain a lot, somehow. If she had been sane I would have turned her down flat. It's been my experience through the years that sane people who go traipsing off to kill other people usually get killed themselves. The people who do best at combat don't have a death grip on life, if you know what I mean. They are crazy enough to take the biggest risk of all and not freak out when the shooting starts. Julie Giraud looked like she had her share of that kind of insanity."Do I have my information correct? Were you a sniper in Vietnam, Mr. Dean?""That was a war," I said, trying to find the words to explain, taking my time. "I was in Recon. We did ambushes and assassinations. I had a talent with a rifle. Other men had other talents. What you're suggesting isn't war, Ms. Giraud.""Do you still have what it takes?"She was goading me and we both knew it. I shrugged.She wouldn't let it alone. "Could you still kill a man at five hundred yards with a rifle? Shoot him down in cold blood?""You want me to shoot somebody today so you can see if I'm qualified for the job?""I'm willing to pay three million dollars, Mr. Dean, to the man with the balls to help me kill the men who murdered my parents. I'm offering you the job. I'll pay half up front into a Swiss bank account, half after we kill the men who killed my parents.""What if you don't make it? What if they kill you?""I'll leave a wire transfer order with my banker."I snorted. At times I got the impression she thought this was some kind of extreme sports expedition, like jumping from a helicopter to ski down a mountain. And yet ... she had that fire in her eyes."Where in hell did a captain in the air farce get three million dollars?""I inherited half my parents' estate and invested it in software and internet stocks; and the stocks went up like a rocket shot to Mars, as everyone north of Antarctica well knows. Now I'm going to spend the money on something I want very badly. That's the American way, isn't it?""Like ribbed condoms and apple pie," I agreed, then leaned forward to look into her eyes. "If we kill these men," I explained, "the world will never be the same for you. When you look in the mirror the face that stares back won't be the same one you've been looking at all these years--it'll be uglier. Your parents will still be dead and you'll be older in ways that years can't measure. That's the god's truth, kid. Your parents are going to be dead regardless. Keep your money, find a good guy, and have a nice life."She sneered. "You're a philosopher?""I've been there, lady. I'm trying to figure out if I want to go back.""Three million dollars, Mr. Dean. How long will it take for your gasoline station to make three million dollars profit?"I owned three gas stations, all mortgaged to the hilt, but I wasn't going to tell her that. I sat in the corner of Burger King working on a Diet Coke while I thought about the kid I had damn near killed the night before."What about afterward?" I asked. "Tell me how you and I are going to continue to reside on this planet with the CIA and FBI and Middle Eastern terrorists all looking to carve on our ass."She knew a man, she said, who could provide passports."Fake passports? Bullshit! Get real.""Genuine passports. He's a U.S. consular official in Munich.""What are you paying him?""He wants to help.""Dying to go to prison, is he?""I've slept with him for the past eighteen months.""You got a nice ass, but ... Unless this guy is a real toad, he can get laid any night of the week. Women today think if they don't use it, they'll wear it out pissing through it.""You have difficulty expressing yourself in polite company, don't you, Charlie Dean? Okay, cards on the table: I'm fucking him and paying him a million dollars."I sat there thinking it over."If you have the money you can buy anything," she said."I hope you aren't foolish enough to believe that.""Someone always wants money. All you have to do is find that someone. You're a case in point.""How much would it cost to kill an ex-Marine who became a liability and nuisance?""A lot less than I'm paying you," she shot back. She didn't smile.After a bit she started talking again, telling me how we were going to kill the bad guys. I didn't think much of her plan--blow up a stone fortress?--but I sat there listening while I mulled things over. Three million was not small change.Finally I decided that Julie's conscience was her problem and the three million would look pretty good in my bank account. The Libyans--well, I really didn't give a damn about them one way or the other. They would squash me like a bug if they thought I was any threat at all, so what the hell. They had blown up airliners, they could take their chances with the devil.ThreeWe were inside a rain cloud. Water ran off the windscreen in continuous streams: The dim glow of the red cockpit lights made the streams look like pale red rivers. Beyond the wet windscreen, however, the night was coal black.I had never seen such absolute darkness.Julie Giraud had the Osprey on autopilot; she was bent over fiddling with the terrain-avoidance radar while auto flew the plane.I sure as hell wasn't going to be much help. I sat there watching her, wondering if I had made a sucker's deal. Three million was a lot of money if you lived to spend it. If you died earning it, it was nowhere near enough.After a bit she turned off the radios and some other electronic gear, then used the autopilot to drop the nose into a descent. The multifunction displays in front of us--there were four plus a radar screen--displayed engine data, our flight plan, a moving map, and one that appeared to be a tactical display of the locations of the radars that were looking at us. I certainly didn't understand much of it, and Julie Giraud was as loquacious as a store dummy."We'll drop off their radar screens now," she muttered finally in way of explanation. As if to emphasize our departure into the outlaw world, she snapped off the plane's exterior lights.As the altimeter unwound I must have looked a little nervous, and I guess I was. I rode two helicopters into the ground in Vietnam andone in Afghanistan, all shot down, so in the years since I had tried to avoid anything with rotors. Jets didn't bother me much, but rotor whop made my skin crawl.Down we went until we were flying through the valleys of the Bavarian Alps below the hilltops. Julie sat there twiddling the autopilot as we flew along, keeping us between the hills with the radar.She looked cool as a tall beer in July. "How come you aren't a little nervous?" I asked."This is the easy part," she replied.That shut me up.We were doing about 270 knots, so it took a little while to thread our way across Switzerland and northern Italy to the ocean. Somewhere over Italy we flew out of the rain. I breathed a sigh of relief when we left the valleys behind and dropped to a hundred feet over the ocean. Julie turned the plane for Africa."How do you know fighters aren't looking for us in this goop?" I asked.She pointed toward one of the multifunction displays. "That's a threat indicator. We'll see anyone who uses a radar."After a while I got bored, even at a hundred feet, so I got unstrapped and went aft to check the Humvee, trailer and cargo.All secure.I opened my duffel bag, got out a pistol belt. The gun, an old 1911 Colt .45 automatic, was loaded, but I checked it anyway, reholstered it, got the belt arranged around my middle so it rode comfortable with the pistol on my right side and my Ka-Bar knife on the left. I also had another knife in one boot and a hideout pistol in the other, just in case.I put a magazine in the M-16 but didn't chamber a round. I had disassembled the weapon the night before, cleaned it thoroughly, and oiled it lightly.The last weapon in the bag was a Model 70 in .308. It was my personal rifle, one I had built up myself years ago. With a synthetic stock, a Canjar adjustable trigger, and a heavy barrel custom-made for me by a Colorado gunsmith, it would put five shots into a half-inch circle at a hundred yards with factory match-grade ammunition. I had the 3x9 adjustable scope zeroed for two hundred. Trigger pull was exactly eighteen ounces.I repacked the rifles, then sat in the driver's seat of the Humvee and poured myself a cup of coffee from the thermos.
We flew to Europe on different airlines and arrived in Zurich just hours apart. The following day I opened a bank account at a gleaming pile ofmarble in the heart of the financial district. As I watched, Julie called her banker in Virginia and had $1.5 million in cold hard cash transferred into the account. Three hours after she made the transfer I went to my bank and checked: The money was really there and it was all mine.Amazing.We met for dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few blocks off the main drag that I remembered from years before, when I was sight-seeing while on leave during a tour in Germany."The money's there," I told her when we were seated. "I confess, I didn't think it would be."She got a little huffy. "I'd lie to you?""It's been known to happen. Though for the life of me, I couldn't see why you would."She opened her purse, handed me an unsealed envelope. Inside was a passport. I got up and went to the men's room, where I inspected it. It certainly looked like a genuine U.S. passport, on the right paper and printed with dots and displaying my shaved, honest phiz. The name on the thing was Robert Arnold. I put it in my jacket pocket and rejoined her at the table.She handed me a letter and an addressed envelope. The letter was to her banker, typed, instructing him to transfer another $1.5 million to my account a week after we were scheduled to hit the Camel. The envelope was addressed to him and even had a Swiss stamp on it. I checked the numbers on my account at the Swiss bank. Everything jibed.She had a pen in her hand by that time. After she had signed the letter, I sealed it in the envelope, then folded the envelope and tucked it in my pocket beside the passport."Okay, lady. I'm bought and paid for."We made our plans over dinner. She drank one glass of wine, and I had a beer, then we both switched to mineral water. I told her I wanted my own pistol and rifles, a request she didn't blink at. She agreed to fly into Dover Air Force Base on one of the regularly scheduled cargo runs, then take my duffel bag containing the weapons back to Germany with her."What if someone wants to run the bag through a metal detector, or German customs wants to inspect it?""My risk.""I guess there are a few advantages to being a well-scrubbed, cleancut American girl.""You can get away with a lot if you shave your legs.""I'll keep that in mind."
That was ten days ago. Now we were on our way. Tomorrow we were going to case the old fort and come up with a plan for doing in the assembled bad guys.Sitting in the driver's seat of the Humvee sipping coffee and listening to the drone of the turboprops carrying us across the Mediterranean, I got the old combat feeling again.Yeah, this was really it.Only this time I was going to get paid for it.I finished the coffee, went back to the cockpit, and offered Julie a cup. She was intent on the computer screens."Problems?" I asked."I'm picking up early warning radar, but I think I'm too low for the Libyans to see me. There's a fighter aloft too. I doubt if he can pick us out of ground return."All that was outside my field of expertise. On this portion of the trip, I was merely a passenger.I saw the land appear on the radar presentation, watched it march down the scope toward us, as if we were stationary and the world was turning under us. It was a nice illusion. As we crossed the beach, I checked my watch. We were only a minute off our planned arrival time, which seemed to me to be a tribute to Julie's piloting skills.The ride got bumpy over the desert. Even at night the thermals kept the air boiling. Julie Giraud took the plane off autopilot, hand-flew it. Trusting the autopilot in rough air so close to the ground was foolhardy.I got out the chart, used a little red spotlight mounted on the ceiling of the cockpit to study the lines and notes as we bounced along in turbulence.We had an hour and twenty minutes to go. Fuel to get out of the desert would have been a problem, so we had brought five hundred gallons in a portable tank in the cargo compartment. Tomorrow night we would use a hand pump to transfer that fuel into the plane's tanks, enough to get us out of Africa when the time came.I sat back and watched her fly, trying not to think about the tasks and dangers ahead. At some point it doesn't pay to worry about hazards you can't do anything about. When you've taken all the precautions you can, then it's time to think about something else.The landing site we had picked was seven miles from the Camel, at the base of what appeared on the chart to be a cliff. The elevation lines seemed to indicate a cliff of sixty or seventy feet in height."How do you know that is a cliff?" I had asked Julie when she first showed the chart to me. In reply she pulled out two satellite photos. They had obviously been taken at different times of day, perhaps indifferent seasons or years, but they were obviously of the same piece of terrain. I compared them to the chart.There was a cliff all right, and apparently room to tuck the Osprey in against it, pretty much out of sight."You want me to try to guess where you got these satellite photos?""My friend in the CIA.""And nobody is going to ask her any questions?""Nope. She's cool and she's clean.""I don't buy it.""She doesn't have access to this stuff. She's stealing it. They'll only talk to people with access.""Must be a bunch of stupes in the IG's office there, huh."She wouldn't say any more.We destroyed the photos, of course, before we left the apartment she had rented for me. Still, the thought of Julie's classmate in the CIA who could sell us down the river to save her own hide gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as we motored through the darkness over the desert.Julie had our destination dialed into the navigation computer, so the magic box was depicting our track and time to go. I sat there watching the miles and minutes tick down.With five miles to go, Julie began slowing the Osprey. And she flipped on the landing lights. Beams of light seared the darkness and revealed the yellow rock and sand and dirt of the deep desert.She began tilting the engines toward the vertical, which slowed us further and allowed the giant rotors to begin carrying a portion of our weight.When the last mile ticked off the computer and we crossed the cliff line, the Osprey was down to fifty knots. Julie brought the V-22 into a hover and used the landing lights to explore our hiding place. Some small boulders, not too many, and the terrain under the cliff was relatively flat.After a careful circuit and inspection, Julie set the Osprey down, shut down the engines.The silence was startling as we took off our helmets.Now she shut down the aircraft battery and all the cockpit lights went off."We're here," she said with a sigh of relief."You really intend to go through with this, don't you?""Don't tell me you still have doubts, Charlie Dean.""Okay. I won't."She snapped on a flashlight and led the way back through the cargobay. She opened the rear door and we stepped out onto the godforsaken soil of the Sahara. We used a flashlight to inspect our position."I could get it a little closer to the cliff, but I doubt if it's worth the effort.""Let's get to work," I said. I was tired of sitting.First she went back to the cockpit and tilted the engines down to the cruise position. The plane would be easier to camouflage with the engines down. We would rotate the engines back to the vertical position when the time came to leave.Next we unloaded the Humvee and trailer, then the cargo we had tied down in piles on the floor of the plane. I carried the water jugs out myself, taking care to place them where they wouldn't fall over.The last thing we removed from the plane was the camouflage netting. We unrolled it, then began draping it over the airplane. We both had to get up on top of the plane to get the net over the tail and engine nacelles. Obviously we couldn't cover the blade of each rotor that stuck straight up, so we cut holes in the net for them.It took us almost two hours of intense effort to get the net completely rigged. We treated ourselves to a drink of water."We sure can't get out of here in a hurry," I remarked."I swore on the altar of God I would kill the men who killed my parents. We aren't going anywhere until we do it.""Yeah."I finished my drink, then unhooked the trailer from the Humvee and dug out my night-vision goggles. I uncased my Model 70 and chambered a round, put on the safety, then got into the driver's seat and laid it across my lap."We can't plant explosives until tomorrow night," she said."I know that. But I want a look at that place now. You coming?"She got her night-vision goggles and climbed into the passenger seat. I took the time to fire up the GPS and key in our destination, then started the Humvee and plugged in my night-vision goggles. It was like someone turned on the light. I could see the cliff and the plane and the stones as if the sun were shining on an overcast day.I put the Humvee in gear and rolled.FourThe Camel sat on a granite ridge that humped up out of the desert floor. On the eastern side of the ridge, in the low place scooped out by the wind, there was an oasis, a small pond of muddy water, a few palm trees, and a cluster of mud huts. According to Julie's CIA sister, a few dozen nomads lived here seasonally. Standing on the hood of the Humvee, which was parked on a gentle rise a mile east of the oasis, I could just see the tops of the palms and a few of the huts. No heat source flared up when I switched to infrared.The old fort was a shattered hulk upon the skyline, brooding and massive. The structure itself wasn't large, but perched there on that granite promontory it was a presence.I slowly did a 360-degree turn, sweeping the desert.Nothing moved. I saw only rock and hard-packed earth, here and there a scraggly desert plant. The wind had long ago swept away the sand.Finally I got down off the hood of the Humvee. Julie was standing there with her arms crossed looking cold, although the temperature was at least sixty."I want you to drive this thing back into that draw, and just sit and wait. I'm going to walk over there and eyeball it up.""When are you coming back?""Couple hours after dawn, probably. I want to make sure there are no people there, and I want to see it in the daylight.""Can't we just wait until tonight to check it out?""I'm not going to spend a day not knowing what in hell is over the hill. I didn't get to be this old by taking foolish risks. Drive down there and wait for me."She got in the Humvee and did as I asked.I adjusted my night-vision goggles, tucked the Model 70 under my arm and started hiking.
I had decided on South Africa. After this was over, I was going to try South Africa. I figured it would be middling difficult for the Arabs to root me out there. I had never been to South Africa, but from everything I had seen and heard the country sounded like it might have a future now that they had made a start at solving the racial problem. South Africa. My image of the place had a bit of a Wild West flavor that appealed to my sporting instincts.Not that I really have any sporting instincts. Those all got squeezed out of me in Vietnam. I'd rather shoot the bastards in the back than in the front: It's safer.The CIA and FBI? They could find me anywhere, if they wanted to. The theft of a V-22 wasn't likely to escape their notice, but I didn't think the violent death of some terrorists would inspire those folks to put in a lot of overtime. I figured a fellow who stayed out of sight would soon be out of mind too.With three million dollars in my jeans, staying out of sight would be a pleasure.That's the way I had it figured, anyhow. As I walked across the desert hardpan toward the huts by the mudhole, I confess, I was thinking again about South Africa, which made me angry.Concentrate, I told myself. Stay focused. Stay alive.I was glad the desert here was free of sand. I was leaving no tracks in the hard-packed earth and stone of the desert floor that I could see or feel with my fingers, which relieved me somewhat.I took my time approaching the huts from downwind. No dogs that I could see, no vehicles, no sign of people. The place looked deserted.And was. Not a soul around. I checked all five of the huts, looked in the sheds. Not even a goat or puppy.There were marks of livestock by the water hole. Only six inches of water, I estimated, at the deepest part. At the widest place the pond was perhaps thirty feet across, about the size of an Iowa farm pond but with less water.The cliff loomed above the back of the water hole. Sure enough, I found a trail. I started climbing.The top of the ridge was about three hundred feet above the surroundingterrain. I huffed and puffed a bit getting up there. On top there was a bit of a breeze blowing, a warm, dry desert breeze that felt delicious at that hour of the night.I found a vantage point and examined the fort through the night-vision goggles, looked all around in every direction. To the west I could see the paved strip of the airport reflecting the starlight, so it appeared faintly luminescent. It too was empty. No people, no planes, no vehicles, no movement, just stone and great empty places.I took off the goggles and turned them off to save the battery, then waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The stars were so close in that clear dry air it seemed as if I could reach up and touch them. To the east the sky was lightening up.As the dawn slowly chased away the night, I worked my way toward the fort, which was about a third of a mile from where the trail topped the ridge. Fortunately there were head-high clumps of desert brush tucked into the nooks and crannies of the granite, so I tried to stay under cover as much as possible. By the time the sun poked its head over the earth's rim I was standing under the wall of the fort.I listened.All I could hear was the whisper of the wind.I found a road and a gate, which wasn't locked. After all, how many people are running around out here in this wasteland?Taking my time, I sneaked in. I had the rifle off my shoulder and leveled, with my thumb on the safety and my finger on the trigger.A Land Rover was parked in the courtyard. It had a couple five-gallon cans strapped to the back of it and was caked with dirt and dust. The tires were relatively new, sporting plenty of tread.When I was satisfied no one was in the courtyard, I stepped over to the Land Rover. The keys were in the ignition.I slipped into a doorway and stood there listening.Back when I was young, I was small and wiry and stupid enough to crawl through Viet Cong tunnels looking for bad guys. I had nightmares about that experience for years.Somewhere in this pile of rock was at least one person, perhaps more. But where?The old fort was quiet as a tomb. Just when I thought there was nothing to hear, I heard something ... a scratching ...I examined the courtyard again. There, on a second-story window ledge, a bird.It flew.I hung the rifle over my shoulder on its sling and got out my knife. With the knife in my right hand, cutting edge up, I began exploring.The old fort had some modern sleeping quarters, cooking facilities, and meeting rooms. There were electric lights plugged into wall sockets. In one of the lower rooms I found a gasoline-powered generator. Forty gallons of gasoline in plastic five-gallon cans sat in the next room.In a tower on the top floor, in a room with a magnificent view through glass windows, sat a first-class, state-of-the-art shortwave radio. I had seen the antenna as I walked toward the fort: It was on the roof above this room. I was examining the radio, wondering if I should try to disable it, when I heard a nearby door slam.Scurrying to the door of the room, I stood frozen, listening with my ear close to the wall.The other person in the fort was making no attempt to be quiet, which made me feel better. He obviously thought he was very much alone. And it was just one person, close, right down the hallway.Try as I might, I could only hear the one person, a man, opening and closing drawers, scooting something--a chair probably--across a stone floor, now slamming another door shut.Even as I watched he came out of one of the doors and walked away from me to the stairs I had used coming up. Good thing I didn't open the door to look into his room!I got a glimpse of him crossing the courtyard, going toward the gasoline generator.Unwilling to move, I stood there until I heard the generator start. The hum of the gasoline engine settled into a steady drone. A lightbulb above the table upon which the radio sat illuminated.I trotted down the hallway to the room the man had come out of. I eased the door open and glanced in. Empty.The next room was also a bedroom, also empty, so I went in and closed the door.I was standing back from the window, watching, fifteen minutes later when the man walked out of a doorway to the courtyard almost directly opposite the room I was in, got into the Land Rover, and started it.He drove out through the open gate trailing a wispy plume of dust. I went to another window, an outside one, and waited. In a moment I got a glimpse of the Land Rover on the road to the airport.In the courtyard against one wall stood a water tank on legs, with plastic lines leading away to the kitchen area. I opened the fill cap and looked in. I estimated the tank contained fifty gallons of water. Apparently people using this facility brought water with them, poured it into this tank, then used it sparingly.I stood in the courtyard looking at the water tank, cursing under my breath. The best way to kill these people would be to poison theirwater with some kind of delayed-action poison that would take twenty-four hours to work, so everyone would have an opportunity to ingest some. Julie Giraud could have fucked a chemist and got us some poison. I should have thought of the water tank.Too late now.Damn!Before I had a chance to cuss very much, I heard a jet. The engine noise was rapidly getting louder. I dived for cover.Seconds later a jet airplane went right over the fort, less than a hundred feet above the radio antenna.Staying low, I scurried up the staircase to the top of the ramparts and took a look. A small passenger jet was circling to land at the airport.I double-timed down the staircase and hotfooted it out the gate and along the trail leading to the path down to the oasis, keeping my eye on the sky in case another jet should appear.It took me about half an hour to get back to the oasis, and another fifteen minutes to reach the place where Julie was waiting in the Humvee. Of course I didn't just charge right up to the Humvee. Still well out of sight of the vehicle, I stopped, lay down, and caught my breath.When I quit blowing, I circled the area where the Humvee should have been, came at it from the east. At first I didn't see her. I could see the vehicle, but she wasn't in sight.I settled down to wait.Another jet went over, apparently slowing to land on the other side of the ridge.A half hour passed, then another. The temperature was rising quickly, the sun climbing the sky.Finally, Julie moved.She was lying at the base of a bush a hundred feet from the vehicle and she had an M-16 in her hands.Okay.Julie Giraud was a competent pilot and acted like she had all her shit in one sock when we were planning this mission, but I wanted to see how she handled herself on the ground. If we made a mistake in Europe, we might wind up in prison. A mistake here would cost us our lives.I crawled forward on my stomach, taking my time, just sifting along.It took me fifteen minutes to crawl up behind her. Finally I reached out with the barrel of the Model 70, touched her foot. She spun around as if she had been stung.I grinned at her."You bastard," Julie Giraud said."Don't you forget it, lady."FiveBlowing up the fort was an impractical idea and always had been. When Julie Giraud first mentioned destroying the fort with the bad guys inside, back in Van Nuys, I had let her talk. I didn't think she had any idea how much explosives would be necessary to demolish a large stone structure, and she didn't. When I finally asked her how much C-4 she thought it would take, she looked at me blankly.We had brought a hundred pounds of the stuff, all we could transport efficiently.I used the binoculars to follow the third plane through the sky until it disappeared behind the ridge. It was some kind of small, twin-engined bizjet."How come these folks are early?" I asked her."I don't know.""Your CIA friend didn't tip you off about the time switch?""No."The fact these people were arriving a day early bothered me and I considered it from every angle.Life is full of glitches and unexpected twists--who ever has a day that goes as planned? To succeed at anything you must be adaptable and flexible, and smart enough to know when backing off is the right thing to do.I wondered just how smart I was. Should we back off?I drove the Humvee toward the cliff where we had the Ospreyparked. The land rolled, with here and there gulleys cut by the runoff from rare desert storms. These gulleys had steep sides, loose sand bottoms, and were choked with desert plants. Low places had brush and cacti, but mainly the terrain was dirt with occasional rock outcroppings. One got the impression that at some time in the geologic past the dirt had blown in, covering a stark, highly eroded landscape. I tried to keep off the exposed places as much as possible and drove very slowly to keep from raising dust.Every so often I stopped the vehicle, got out and listened for airplanes. Two more jets went over that I heard. That meant there were at least five jets at that desert strip, maybe more.Julie sat silently, saying nothing as we drove along. When I killed the engine and got out to listen, she stayed in her seat.I stopped the Humvee in a brushy draw about a mile from the Osprey, reached for the Model 70, then snagged a canteen and hung it over my shoulder."May I come with you?" she asked."Sure."We stopped when we got to a low rise where we could see the V-22 and the area around it. I looked everything over with binoculars, then settled down at the base of a green bush that resembled grease-wood, trying to get what shade there was. The temperature must have been ninety by that time."Aren't we going down to the plane?""It's safer here."Julie picked another bush and crawled under.I was silently complimenting her on her ability to accept direction without question or explanation when she said, "You don't take many chances, do you?""I try not to.""So you're just going to kill these people, then get on with the rest of your life?"I took a good look at her face. "If you're going to chicken out," I said, "do it now, so I don't have to lie here sweating the program for the whole damned day.""I'm not going to chicken out. I just wondered if you were.""You said these people were terrorists, had blown up airliners. That still true?""Absolutely.""Then I won't lose any sleep over them." I shifted around, got comfortable, kept the rifle just under my hands.She met my eyes, and apparently decided this point needed a littlemore exploring. "I'm killing them because they killed my parents. You're killing them for money."I sighed, tossed her the binoculars."Every few minutes, glass the area around the plane, then up on the ridge," I told her. "Take your time, look at everything in your field of view, look for movement. Any kind of movement. And don't let the sun glint off the binoculars.""How are we going to do it?" she asked as she stared through the glasses."Blowing the fort was a pipe dream, as you well know."She didn't reply, just scanned with the binoculars."The best way to do it is to blow up the planes with the people on them."A grin crossed her face, then disappeared.I rolled over, arranged the rifle just so, and settled down for a nap. I was so tired.
The sun had moved a good bit by the time I awakened. The air was stifling, with no detectable breeze. Julie was stretched out asleep, the binoculars in front of her. I used the barrel of the rifle to hook the strap and lift them, bring them over to me without making noise.The land was empty, dead. Not a single creature stirred, not even a bird. The magnified images I could see through the binoculars shimmered in the heat.Finally I put the thing down, sipped at the water in my canteen.South Africa. Soon. Maybe I'd become a diamond prospector. There was a whole lot of interesting real estate in South Africa, or so I'd heard, and I intended to see it. Get a jeep and some camping gear and head out.Julie's crack about killing for money rankled, of course. The fact was that these people were terrorists, predators who preyed on the weak and defenseless. They had blown up an airliner. Take money for killing them? Yep. And glad to get it, too.
Julie had awakened and moved off into the brush out of sight to relieve herself when I spotted a man on top of the cliff, a few hundred yards to the right of the Osprey. I picked him up as I swept the top of the cliff with the binoculars.I turned the focus wheel, tried to sharpen the dancing image. Too much heat.It was a man, all right. Standing there with a rifle on a sling over his shoulder, surveying the desert with binoculars. Instinctively I backedup a trifle, ensured the binoculars were in shade so there would be no sun reflections off the glass or frame. And I glanced at the airplane.It should be out of sight of the man due to the way the cliff outcropped between his position and the plane. I hoped. In any event he wasn't looking at it.I gritted my teeth, studied his image, tried by sheer strength of will to make it steadier in the glass. The distance between us was about six hundred yards, I estimated.I put down the binoculars and slowly brought up the Model 70. I had a variable power scope on it which I habitually kept cranked to maximum magnification. The figure of the man leaped at me through the glass.I put the crosshairs on his chest, studied him. Even through the shimmering air I could see the cloth he wore on his head and the headband that held it in place. He was wearing light-colored trousers and a shirt. And he was holding binoculars pointed precisely at me.I heard a rustle behind me."Freeze, Julie," I said, loud enough that she would plainly hear me.She stopped.I kept the scope on him, flicked off the safety. I had automatically assumed a shooting position when I raised the rifle. Now I wiggled my left elbow into the hard earth, settled the rifle in tighter against my shoulder.He just stood there, looking right at us.I only saw him because he was silhouetted on the skyline. In the shade under this brush we should be invisible to him. Should be.Now he was scanning the horizon again. Since I had been watching he had not once looked down at the foot of the cliff upon which he was standing.He was probably a city soldier, I decided. Hadn't been trained to look close first, before he scanned terrain farther away.After another long moment he turned away, began walking slowly along the top of the cliff to my right, away from the Osprey. I kept the crosshairs of the scope on him until he was completely out of sight. Only then did I put the safety back on and lower the rifle."You can come in now," I said.She crawled back under her bush."Did you see him?" I asked."Yes. Did he see the airplane?""I'm certain he didn't.""How did he miss it?""It was just a little out of sight, I think. Even if he could have seen it, he never really looked in the right direction.""We were lucky," she said.I grunted. It was too hot to discuss philosophy. I lay there under my bush wondering just how crazy ol' Julie Giraud really was."If he had seen the plane, Charlie Dean, would you have shot him?"What a question!"You're damned right," I muttered, more than a little disgusted. "If he had seen the plane, I would have shot him and piled you into the cockpit and made you get us the hell out of here before all the Indians in the world showed up to help with the pleasant chore of lifting our hair. These guys are playing for keeps, lady. You and me had better be on the same sheet of music or we will be well and truly fucked."Every muscle in her face tensed. "We're not leaving," she snarled, "until those sons of bitches are dead. All of them. Every last one."She was over the edge.A wave of cold fear swept over me. It was bad enough being on the edge of a shooting situation; now my backup was around the bend. If she went down or freaked out, how in the hell was I going to get off this rock pile?"I've been trying to decide," she continued, "if you really have the balls for this, Charlie Dean, or if you're going to turn tail on me when crunch time comes and run like a rabbit. You're old: You look old, you sound old. Maybe you had the balls years ago, maybe you don't anymore."From the leg pocket of her flight suit she pulled a small automatic, a .380 from the looks of it. She held it where I could see it, pointed it more or less in my direction. "Grow yourself another set of balls, Charlie Dean. Nobody is running out."I tossed her the binoculars. "Call me if they come back," I said. I put the rifle beside me and lay down.Sure, I thought about what a dumb ass I was. Three million bucks!--I was going to have to earn every damned dollar.Hoo boy.Okay, I'll admit it: I knew she was crazy that first day in Van Nuys.I made a conscious effort to relax. The earth was warm, the air was hot, and I was exhausted. I was asleep in nothing flat.
The sun was about to set when I awoke. My binoculars were on the sand beside me and Julie Giraud was nowhere in sight. I used the scope on the rifle to examine the Osprey and the cliff behind it.I spotted her in seconds, moving around under the plane. No one else visible.While we had a little light, I went back for the Humvee. I crawled up on it, taking my time, ensuring that no one was there waiting for me.When we left it that morning we had piled some dead brush on the hood and top of the vehicle, so I pulled that off before I climbed in.Taking it slow so I wouldn't raise dust, I drove the mile or so to the Osprey. I got there just as the last rays of the sun vanished.I backed up to the trailer and we attached it to the Humvee."Want to tell me your plan, Charlie Dean?" she asked. "Or do you have one?"As I repacked the contents of the trailer I told her how I wanted to do it. Amazingly, she agreed readily.She was certainly hard to figure. One minute I thought she was a real person, complete with a conscience and the intellectual realization that even the enemy were human beings, then the next second she was a female Rambo, ready to gut them all, one by one.She helped me make up C-4 bombs, rig the detonators and radio controls. I did the first one, she watched intently, then she did one on her own. I checked it, and she got everything right."Don't take any unnecessary chances tonight," I said. "I want you alive and well when this is over so you can fly me out of here."She merely nodded. It was impossible to guess what she might have been thinking.I wasn't about to tell her that I had flown helicopters in Vietnam. I was never a rated pilot, but I was young and curious, so the pilots often let me practice under their supervision. I had watched her with the Osprey and thought that I could probably fly it if absolutely necessary. The key would be to use the checklist and take plenty of time. If I could get it started, I thought I could fly it out. There were parachutes in the thing, so I would not need to land it.I didn't say any of this to her, of course.We had a packet of radio receivers and detonators--I counted them--enough for six bombs. If I set them all on the same frequency I could blow up six planes with one push of the button. If I could get the bombs aboard six planes without being discovered.What if there were more than six planes? Well, I had some pyrotechnic fuses, which seemed impractical to use on an airplane, and some chemical fuses. In the cargo bay of the Osprey I examined the chemical fuses by flashlight. Eight hours seemed to be the maximum setting. The problem was that I didn't know when the bad guys planned to leave.As I was meditating on fuses and bombs, I went outside and walked around the Osprey. There was a turreted three-barreled fifty-caliber machine gun in the nose of the thing. Air Force Ospreys didn't carry stingerslike this, but this one belonged to the Marine Corps, or did until twenty-four hours ago.I opened the service bay. Gleaming brass in the feed trays reflected the dim evening light.Julie was standing right behind me. "I stole this one because it had the gun," she remarked. "Less range than the Air Force birds, but the gun sold me.""Maximum firepower is always a good choice.""What are you thinking?" she asked.We discussed contingencies as we wired up the transfer pump in the bladder fuel tank we had chained down in the cargo bay. We used the aircraft's battery to power the pump, so all we had to do was watch as three thousand pounds of jet fuel was transferred into the aircraft's tanks.My plan had bombs, bullets, and a small river of blood--we hoped--just the kind of tale that appealed to Julie Giraud. She even allowed herself a tight smile.Me? I had a cold knot in the pit of my stomach and I was sweating.SixWe finished loading the Humvee and the trailer attached to it before sunset and ate MREs in the twilight. As soon as it was dark, we donned our night-vision goggles and drove toward the oasis. I stopped often to get up on the vehicle's hood, the best vantage point around, and take a squint in all directions.I parked the vehicle at the foot of the trail. "If I'm not back in an hour and a half, they've caught me," I told Julie Giraud. I smeared my face with grease to cut the white shine, checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, then did my neck and the back of my hands."If they catch you," she said, "I won't pay you the rest of the money.""Women are too maudlin to be good soldiers," I told her. "You've got to stop this cloying sentimentality. Save the tears for the twenty-five-year reunion."When I was as invisible as I was going to get, I hoisted a rucksack that I had packed that evening, put the M-16 over my shoulder, and started up the trail.Every now and then I switched the goggles from ambient light to infrared and looked for telltale heat sources. I spotted some small mammal, too small to be human. I continued up the ridge, wondering how any critters managed to make a living in this godforsaken desert.The temperature had dropped significantly from the high during the afternoon. I estimated the air was still at eighty degrees, but it wouldsoon go below seventy. Even the earth was cooling, although not as quickly as the air.I topped the ridge slowly, on the alert for security patrols. Before we committed ourselves to a course of action, we had to know how many security people were prowling around.No one in sight now.I got off to one side of the trail, just in case, and walked toward the old fortress, the Camel. Tonight light shone from several of the structure's windows, light visible for many miles in that clean desert air.I was still at least five hundred yards from the walls when I first heard the hum of the generator, barely audible at that distance. The noise gradually increased as I approached the structure. When I was about fifty yards from the wall, I circled the fort to a vantage point where I could see the main gate, the gate where I entered on my last visit. It was standing open. A guard with an assault rifle sat on a stool near the gate; he was quite clear in the goggles. He was sitting under an overhang of the wall at a place where he could watch the road that led off the ridge, the road to the oasis and the airfield. He was not wearing any night-vision aid, just sitting in the darkness under the wall.The drone of the gasoline generator meant that he could hear nothing. Of course, it handicapped me as well.I continued around the structure, crossing the road at a spot out of sight of the man at the gate. Taking my time, slipping through the sparse brush as carefully as possible, I inspected every foot of the wall. The main gate was the only entrance I noticed on my first visit, yet I wanted to be sure.A man strolled on top of the wall on the side opposite the main gate; the instant I saw him I dropped motionless to the ground. Seconds passed as he continued to walk, then finally he reversed his course. When he disappeared from view I scurried over to a rock outcrop and crouched under it, with my body out of sight from the wall.If he had an infrared scope or any kind of ambient light collector, he could have seen me lying on the open ground.I crouched there waiting for something to happen. If they came streaming out of the main gate, they could trap me on the point of this ridge, hunt me down at their leisure.As I waited I discovered that the M-16 was already in my hands. I had removed it from my shoulder automatically, without thinking.Several minutes passed as I waited, listening to the hypnotic drone of the generator, waiting for something to happen. Anything.Finally a head became visible on top of the wall. The sentry again, still strolling aimlessly. He leaned against the wall for a while, then disappeared.Now I hurried along, completed my circumnavigation of the fort.I saw only the two men, one on the gate and the man who had been walking the walls. Although I had seen the man on the wall twice, I was convinced it was the same person. And I was certain there was only one entrance to the fort, the main gate.I had to go through that gate so I was going to have to take out the guard. I was going to have to do it soon, then hope I could get in and out before his absence from his post was noticed or someone came to relieve him. Taking chances like that wasn't the best way to live to spend that three million dollars, that's for sure, but we didn't have the time or resources to minimize the risk. I was going to have to have some luck here or we had no chance to pull off this thing.This whole goddamn expedition was half-baked, I reflected, and certainly no credit to me. Man, why didn't I think of poisoning their water supply when we were brainstorming in Germany?In my favor was the fact that these people didn't seem very worried about their safety or anything else. A generator snoring away, only two guards? An open gate?I worked my way to the wall, then turned and crept toward the guard. The generator hid the sounds I made as I crept along. He was facing the road.I got about ten feet from him and froze. He was facing away from me at a slight angle, but if I tried to get closer, he was going to pick me up in his peripheral vision. I sensed it, so I froze.He changed his position on the stool, played with the rifle on his knees, looked at the myriad of stars that hung just over our heads. Finally he stood and stretched. For an instant he turned away from me. I covered the distance in two bounds, wrapped my arm around his mouth, and jammed my knife into his back up to the hilt.The knife went between his ribs right into his heart. Two convulsive tremors, then he was dead.I carried him and his rifle off into the darkness. He weighed maybe one-eighty, as near as I could tell.One of the outcroppings that formed the edge of the top of the ridge would keep him hidden from anyone but a determined searcher. After I stashed the body, I hurried back to the gate. I took off my night-vision goggles, waited for my eyes to adjust. I took off my rifle, leaned it against the wall out of sight.As I waited I saw the man on the ramparts walking his rounds. He was in no hurry, obviously bored. I got a radio-controlled bomb from the rucksack, checked the frequency, and turned on the receiver.The Land Rover was in the courtyard. When the man on the wallwas out of sight, I slipped over to it and lay down. I pulled out the snap wire and snapped it around one of the suspension arms. The antenna of the bomb I let dangle.This little job took less than thirty seconds. Then I scurried across the courtyard into the shelter of the staircase.The conferees were probably in the living area; I sure as hell hoped they were. My edge was that the people here were not on alert. And why should they be? This fort was buried in the most desolate spot on the planet, hundreds of miles from anyplace.Still, my life was on the line, so I moved as cautiously as I could, trying very hard to make no noise at all, pausing to listen carefully before I rounded any corner. My progress was glacial. It took me almost five minutes to climb the stairs and inch down the corridor to the radio room.The hum of the generator was muted the farther away from it I moved, but it was the faint background noise that covered any minor noise I was making. And any minor noise anyone else was making. That reality had me sweating.The door to the radio room was ajar, the room dark.Knocking out the generator figured to be the easiest way to disable the radio, unless they had a battery to use as backup. I was betting they did.After listening for almost a minute outside the door, I eased it open gently, my fighting knife in my hand.The only light came through the interior window from the floods in the courtyard. The room was empty of people!I went in fast, laid my knife on the table, got a bomb out of the rucksack. This one was rigged with a chemical fuse, so I broke the chemicals, shook the thing to start the reaction, then put the package--explosive, detonator, fuse and all--directly behind the radio. As I turned I was struck in the face by a runaway Freightliner.Only partially conscious, I found myself falling. A rough hand gripped me fiercely, then another truck slammed into my face. If I hadn't turned my head to protect myself, that blow would have put me completely out.As it was, I couldn't stay upright. My legs turned to jelly and I went to the floor, which was cold and hard."What a pleasant surprise," my assailant said in highly accented English, then kicked me in the side. His boot almost broke my left arm, which was fortunate, because if he had managed to get a clean shot at my ribs he would have caved in a lung.I wasn't feeling very lucky just then. My arm felt like it was in four pieces and my side was on fire. I fought for air.I couldn't take much more of this. If I didn't do something pretty damned quick he was going to kick me to death.Curling into a fetal position, I used my right hand to draw my hideout knife from my left boot. I had barely got it out when he kicked me in the kidney.At first I thought the guy had rammed a knife into my back--the pain was that intense. I was fast running out of time.I rolled over toward him, just in time to meet his foot coming in again. I slashed with the knife, which had a razor-sharp two-sided blade about three inches long. I felt it bite into something.He stepped back then, bent down to feel his calf. I got my feet under me and rose into a crouch."A knife, is it? You think you can save yourself with that?"While he was talking he lashed out again with a leg. It was a kick designed to distract me, tempt me to go for his leg again with the knife.I didn't, so when he spun around and sent another of those ironfisted artillery shots toward my head, I was ready. I went under the incoming punch and slashed his stomach with the knife.I cut him bad.Now he grunted in pain, sagged toward the radio table.I gathered myself, got out of his way, got into a crouch so I could defend myself.He was holding his stomach with both hands. In the dim light I could see blood. I had really gotten him."Shouldn't have played with you," he said, and reached for the pistol in the holster on his belt.Too late. I was too close. With one mighty swing of my arm I slashed his throat. Blood spewed out, a look of surprise registered on his face, then he collapsed.Blood continued to pump from his neck.I had to wipe the sweat from my eyes.Jesus! My hands were shaking, trembling.Never again, God! I promise. Never again!I stowed the little knife back in my boot, retrieved the rucksack and my fighting knife from the table.Outside in the corridor I carefully pulled the door to the radio room shut, made sure it latched.Down the stairs, across the courtyard, through the gate. Safe in the darkness outside, I retrieved my M-16 and puked up my MREs.Yeah, I'm a real tough guy. Shit!Then I trotted for the trail to the oasis. It wasn't much of a trot. My side, back, and arm were on fire, and my face was still numb. The best I could manage was a hell-bent staggering gait.As I ran the numbness in my side and back wore off. I wheezedlike an old horse and savored the pain, which was proof positive I was still alive.Julie Giraud was standing beside the Humvee chewing her fingernails. I took my time looking over the area, made sure she was really alone, then walked the last hundred feet."Hey," I said.My voice made her jump. She glanced at my face, then stared. "What happened?"I eased myself into the driver's seat."A guy was waiting for me.""What?""He spoke to me in English.""Well ...""Didn't even try a phrase in Arabic. Just spoke to me in English.""You're bleeding under your right eye, I think. With all that grease it's hard to tell.""Pay attention to what I'm telling you. He spoke to me in English. He knew I understood it. Doesn't that worry you?""What about the radio?""He knew I was coming. Someone told him. He was waiting for me.""You're just guessing.""He almost killed me.""He didn't.""If they knew we were coming, we're dead."Before I could draw another breath, she had a pistol pointed at me. She placed the muzzle against the side of my head."I'll tell you one more time, Charlie Dean, one more time. These people are baby-killers, murderers of women and kids and old people. They have been tried in a court of law and found guilty. We are going to kill them so they can never kill again."Crazy! She was crazy as hell!Her voice was low, every word distinctly pronounced: "I don't care what they know or who told them what. We are going to kill these men. You will help me do it or I will kill you. Have I made it plain enough? Do you understand?""Did the court sentence these people to die?" I asked."I sentenced them! Me! Julie Giraud. And I am going to carry it out. Death. For every one of them."SevenThe satellite photos showed a wash just off the east end of the runway. We worked our way along it, then crawled to a spot that allowed us to look the length of it.The runway was narrow, no more than fifty feet wide. The planes were parked on a mat about halfway down. The wind was out of the west, as it usually was at night. To take off, the planes would have to taxi individually to the east end of the runway, this end, turn around, then take off to the west."If they don't discover that the guards are missing, search the place, find the bombs and disable them, we've got a chance," I said. "Just a chance.""You're a pessimist.""You got that right.""How many guards do you think are around the planes?""I don't know. All of the pilots could be there; there could easily be a dozen people down there.""So we just sneak over, see what's what?""That's about the size of it.""For three million dollars I thought I was getting someone who knew how to pull this off.""And I thought the person hiring me was sane. We both made a bad deal. You want to fly the Osprey back to Germany and tell them you're sorry you borrowed it?""They didn't kill your parents.""I guarantee you, before this is over you're going to be elbow-deep in blood, lady. And your parents will still be dead.""You said that before.""It's still true."I was tempted to give the bitch a rifle and send her down the runway to do her damnedest, but I didn't.I took the goddamn M-16, adjusted the night-vision goggles, and went myself. My left side hurt like hell, from my shoulder to my hip. I flexed my arm repeatedly, trying to work the pain out.The planes were readily visible with the goggles. I kept to the waist-high brush on the side of the runway toward the planes, which were parked in a row. It wasn't until I got about halfway there that I could count them. Six planes.The idea was to get the terrorists into the planes, then destroy the planes in the air. The last thing we wanted was the terrorists and the guards out here in this desert running around looking for us. With dozens of them and only two of us, there was only one way for that tale to end.No, we needed to get them into the planes. I didn't have enough radio-controlled detonators to put on all the planes, so I thought if I could disable some of the planes and put bombs on the rest, we would have a chance. But first we had to eliminate the guards.If the flight crews were bivouacked near the planes, this was going to get really dicey.I took my time, went slowly from bush to bush, looking at everything. When I used infrared, I could see a heat source to the south of the planes that had to be an open fire. No people, though.I was crouched near the main wheel of the plane on the end of the mat when I saw my first guard. He was relieving himself against the nearest airplane's nosewheel.When he finished he zipped up and resumed his stroll along the mat.I went behind the plane and made my way toward the fire.They had built the thing in a fifty-five-gallon drum. Two people stood with their backs to the fire, warming up. I could have used a stretch by that fire myself: The temperature was below sixty degrees by that time and going lower.No tents. No one in sleeping bags that I could see.Three of them.I settled down to wait. Before we made a move, I had to be certain of the number of people that were here and where they were. If I missed one I wouldn't live to spend a dollar of Julie Giraud's blood money.Lying there in the darkness, I tried to figure it all out. Didn't get anywhere. Why that guy addressed me in English I had no idea. He was certainly no Englishman; nor was he a native of any English-speaking country.Julie Giraud wanted these sons of the desert dead and in hell--of that I was absolutely convinced. She wasn't a good enough actress to fake it. The money she had paid me was real enough, the V-22 Osprey was real, the guns were real, the bombs were real, we were so deep in the desert we could never drive or hike out. Never.She was my ticket out. If she went down, I was going to have to try to fly the Osprey myself. If the plane was damaged, we were going to die here.Simple as that.Right then I wished to hell I was back in Van Nuys in the filling station watching Candy make change. I was too damned old for this shit and I knew it.I had been lying in the dirt for about an hour when the guy walking the line came to the fire and one of the loafers there went into the darkness to replace him. The two at the fire then crawled into sleeping bags.I waited another half hour, using the goggles to keep track of the sentry.The sentry was first. I was crouched in the bushes when he came over less than six feet from me, dropped his trousers and squatted.I left him there with his pants around his ankles and went over to the sleeping bags. Both the sleeping men died without making a sound.Killing them wasn't heroic or glorious or anything like that. I felt dirty, coated with the kind of slime that would never wash off. The fact that they would have killed me just as quickly if they had had the chance didn't make it any easier. They killed for political reasons, I killed for money: We were the same kind of animal.I walked back down the runway to where Julie Giraud waited.I got into the Humvee without saying anything and started the motor."How many were there?" she asked."Three," I said.
We placed radio-controlled bombs in three of the airplanes. We taped a bomb securely in the nosewheel well of each of them, then dangled the antennas outside, so they would hang out the door even if the wheel were retracted.When we were finished with that we stood for a moment in the darkness discussing things. The fort was over a mile away and I prayed the generator was still running, making fine background music. Juliecrawled under the first plane and looked it over. First she fired shots into the nose tires, which began hissing. Then she fired a bullet into the bottom of each wing tank. Fuel ran out and soaked into the dirt.There was little danger in this, as Julie well knew. The tanks would not explode unless something very hot went into a mixture of fuel vapor and oxygen: She was putting a bullet into liquid. The biggest danger was that the low-powered pistol bullets would fail to penetrate the metal skin of the wing and the fuel tank. In fact, she fired six shots into the tanks of the second plane before she was satisfied with the amount of fuel running out on the ground.When she had flattened the nose tires of all of the unbooby-trapped planes and punched bullet holes in the tanks, she walked over to the Humvee, reeking of jet fuel."Let's go," she said grimly.As we drove away I glanced at her. She was smiling.For the first time, I began to seriously worry that she would intentionally leave me in the desert.I comforted myself with the fact that she didn't really care about the money she was going to owe me. She could justify the deaths of these men, but if she killed me, she was no better than they.I hoped she saw it that way too.
She let me out of the Humvee on the road about a quarter of a mile below the fort. From where I stood the road rose steadily and curved through three switchbacks until it reached the main gate.With my Model 70 in hand, I left the road and began climbing the hill straight toward the main gate. The night was about over. Even as I climbed I thought I could see the sky beginning to lighten up in the east.The generator was off. No light or sound came from the massive old fort, which was now a dark presence that blotted out the stars above me.Were they in bed?The gate was still open, with no one in sight on top of the wall or in the courtyard. That was a minor miracle or an invitation to a fool--me. If they had discovered King Kong's body they were going to be waiting.I stood there in the darkness listening to the silence, trying to convince myself these guys were all in their beds sound asleep, that the miracle was real.No guts, no glory, I told myself, sucked it up, and slipped through the gate. I sifted my way past the Land Rover and began climbing the stairs.I didn't go up those stairs slow as sap in a maple tree this time. I zipped up the steps, knife in one hand and pistol in the other. Maybe I just didn't care. If they killed me, maybe that would be a blessing.The corridor on top was empty, and the door to the radio shack was still closed. I eased it open and peeked in. King Kong was still lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor, just the way I had left him.I pulled the door shut, then tiptoed along the corridor toward an alcove overlooking the courtyard.I heard a noise and crouched in the darkness.Someone snoring.The sound was coming from an open door on my left. At least two men.I eased past the door, moving as quietly as I could, until I reached the alcove.Nothing stirred in the quiet moment before dawn.From the rucksack hanging from my shoulder I removed three hand grenades, placed them on the floor near my feet.And I waited.EightDawn took its own sweet time arriving. I was sore, stiff, hungry, and I loathed myself. I was also so exhausted that I was having trouble thinking clearly. What was there about Julie that scared me?It wasn't that she might kill me or leave me stranded in the desert surrounded by corpses. She didn't strike me as the kind to double-cross anyone: If I was wrong about that I was dead and that was that. There was something else, something that didn't fit, but tired as I was, I couldn't put my finger on it.She stole the V-22, hired me to help her ...Well, we would make it or we wouldn't.I sat with my rifle on my lap, finger on the trigger, leaned back against the wall, closed my eyes just for a moment. I was so tired ...I awakened with a jerk. Somewhere in the fort a door closed with a minor bang.The day was here, the sun was shining straight in through the openings in the wall.Someone was moving around. Another door slammed.I looked at my watch. The bombs should have gone off twenty minutes ago. I had been asleep over an hour.I slowly rose from the floor on which I had been sitting, so stiff and sore I could hardly move. I picked up the grenades and pocketed them. Moving as carefully and quietly as I could, I got up on the railing, put my leg up to climb onto the roof.The rifle slipped off my shoulder. I grabbed for the strap and was so sore I damn near dropped it.The courtyard was thirty feet below. I teetered on the railing, the rifle hanging by a strap from my right forearm, the rucksack dangling, every muscle I owned screaming in protest.Then I was safely up, pulling all that damn gear along with me.Taking my time, I spread out the gear, got out the grenades, and placed them where I could easily reach them.I took a long drink from my canteen, then screwed the lid back on and put it away.The radio that controlled the bombs was not large. I set the frequency very carefully, turned the thing on, and let the capacitor charge. When the green light came on, I gingerly set the radio aside.Three minutes later, a muffled bang from the bomb behind the shortwave radio slapped the air.I lay down on the roof and gripped the rifle.Running feet.Shouts. Shouts in Arabic.It didn't take them long to zero in on the radio room. I heard running feet, several men, pounding along the corridor.They didn't spend much time in there looking at the remains of King Kong or the shortwave. More shouts rang through the building.Julie Giraud and I had argued about what would happen next. I predicted that these guys would panic, would soon decide that the logical, best course of action was a fast plane ride back to civilization. I suspected they were bureaucrats at heart, string-pullers. Julie thought they might be warriors, that their first instinct would be to fight. We would soon see who was right.I could hear the voices bubbling out of the courtyard, then what sounded like orders given in a clean, calm voice. That would never do. I pulled the pin from a grenade, then threw it at the wall on the other side of the courtyard.The grenade struck the wall, made a noise that attracted the attention of the people below, then exploded just before it hit the ground.A scream. Moans.I tossed a second grenade, enjoyed the explosion, then hustled along the rooftop. I lay down beside a chimney in a place that allowed me to watch the rest of the roof and the area just beyond the main gate.From here I could also see the planes parked on the airfield, gleaming brightly in the morning sun.Someone stuck his head over the edge of the roof. He was gone too quick for me to get around, but I figured he would pop up again witha weapon of some kind, so I got the Model 70 pointed and flicked off the safety. Sure enough, fifteen seconds later the head popped back up and I squeezed off a shot. His body hit the pavement thirty feet below with a heavy plop.The Land Rover could not carry them all, of course. Still, I thought this crowd would go for it as if it were a lifeboat on the Titanic. I was not surprised to hear the engine start even though I had tossed two grenades into the courtyard where the vehicle was parked: The Rover was essentially impervious to shrapnel damage, and should run for a bit, at least, as long as the radiator remained intact.Angry shouts reached me. Apparently the Rover driver refused to wait for a full load.I kept my head down, waited until I heard the Rover clear the gate and start down the road. Then I pushed the button on the radio control.The explosion was quite satisfying. In about half a minute a column of smoke from the wreckage could be seen from where I lay.I stayed put. I was in a good defensive position, what happened next was up to the crowd below.The sun climbed higher in the sky and on the roof of that old fort, the temperature soared. I was sweating pretty good by then, was exhausted and hungry ... Finally I had had enough. I crawled over to one of the cooking chimneys and stood up.They were going down the road in knots of threes and fours. With the binoculars I counted them. Twenty-eight.There was no way to know if that was all of them.Crouching, I made my way to the courtyard side, where I could look down in, and listen.No sound but the wind, which was out of the west at about fifteen knots, a typical desert day this time of year.After a couple minutes of this, I inched my head over the edge for a look. Three bodies lay sprawled in the courtyard.I had a fifty-foot rope in the rucksack. I tied one end around a chimney and tossed it over the wall on the side away from the main gate. Then I clambered over.Safely on the ground, I kept close to the wall, out of sight of the openings above me. On the north side the edge of the ridge was close, about forty yards. I got opposite that point, gripped my rifle with both hands, and ran for it.No shots.Safely under the ledge, I sat down, caught my breath, and had a drink of water.If there was anyone still in the fort waiting to ambush me, he could wait until doomsday for all I cared.I moved downslope and around the ridge about a hundred yards to a place where I could see the runway and the airplanes and the road.The figures were still distinct in my binoculars, walking briskly.What would they do when they got to the airplanes? They would find the bodies of three men who died violently and three sabotaged airplanes. Three of the airplanes would appear to be intact.The possibility that the intact airplanes were sabotaged would of course occur to them. I argued that they would not get in those planes, but would hunker down and wait until some of their friends came looking for them. Of course, the only food and water they had would be in the planes or what they had carried from the fort, but they could comfortably sit tight for a couple of days.We couldn't. If the Libyan military found us, the Osprey would be MiG-meat and we would be doomed.A thorough, careful preflight of the bizjets would turn up the bombs, of course. We needed to panic these people, not give them the time to search the jets or find holes to crawl into.Panic was Julie's job.She had grinned when I told her how she would have to do it.I used the binoculars to check the progress of the walking men. They were about a mile away now, approaching the mat where the airplanes were parked. The laggards were hurrying to catch up with the leaders. Apparently no one wanted to take the chance that he might be left behind.Great outfit, that.The head of the column had just reached the jets when I heard the Osprey. It was behind me, coming down the ridge.In seconds it shot over the fort, which was to my left, and dived toward the runway.Julie was a fine pilot, and the Osprey was an extraordinary machine. She kept the engines horizontal and made a high-speed pass over the bizjets, clearing the tail of the middle one by about fifty feet. I watched the whole show through my binoculars.She gave the terrorists a good look at the U.S. Marine Corps markings on the plane.The Osprey went out about a mile and began the transition to rotor-borne flight. I watched it slow, watched the engines tilt up, then watched it drop to just a few feet above the desert.Julie kept the plane moving forward just fast enough to stay out ofthe tremendous dust cloud that the rotors kicked up, a speed of about twenty knots, I estimated.She came slowly down the runway. Through the binoculars I saw the muzzle flashes as she squeezed off a burst from the flex Fifty. I knew she planned to shoot at one of the disabled jets, see if she could set it afire. The fuel tanks would still contain fuel vapor and oxygen, so a high-powered bullet in the right place should find something to ignite.Swinging the binoculars to the planes, I was pleasantly surprised to see one erupt in flame.Yep.The Osprey accelerated. Julie rotated the engines down and climbed away.The terrorists didn't know how many enemies they faced. Nor how many Ospreys were about. They were lightly armed and not equipped for a desert firefight, so they had limited options. Apparently that was the way they figured it too, because in less than a minute the first jet taxied out. Another came right behind it. The third was a few seconds late, but it taxied onto the runway before the first reached the end and turned around.The first plane had to wait for the other two. There was just room on the narrow strip for each of them to turn, but there was no pullout, no way for one plane to get out of the way of the other two. The first two had to wait until the last plane to leave the mat turned around in front of them.Finally all three had turned and were sitting one behind the other, pointing west into the wind. The first plane rolled. Ten seconds later the second followed. The third waited maybe fifteen seconds, then it began rolling.The first plane broke ground as Julie Giraud came screaming in from the east at a hundred feet above the ground. The Osprey looked to be flying almost flat out, which Julie said was about 270 knots.She overtook the jets just as the third one broke ground.She had moved a bit in front of it, still ripping along, when the second and third plane exploded. Looking through the binoculars, it looked as if the nose came off each plane. The damaged fuselages tilted down and smashed into the ground, making surprisingly little dust when they hit.The first plane, a Lear I think, seemed undamaged.The bomb must have failed to explode.The pilot of the bizjet had his wheels retracted now, was accelerating with the nose down. But not fast enough. Julie Giraud was overtaking nicely.Through the binoculars I saw the telltale wisp of smoke from the nose of the Osprey. She was using the gun.The Lear continued to accelerate, now began to widen the distance between it and the trailing Osprey."It's going to get away," I whispered. The words were just out of my mouth when the thing caught fire.Trailing black smoke, the Lear did a slow roll over onto its back. The nose came down. The roll continued, but before the pilot could level the wings the plane smeared itself across the earth in a gout of fire and smoke.NineJulie Giraud landed the Osprey on the runway near the sabotaged planes. When I walked up she was sitting in the shade under the left wing with an M-16 across her lap.She had undoubtedly searched the area before I arrived, made sure no one had missed the plane rides to hell. Fire had spread to the other sabotaged airplanes, and now all three were burning. Black smoke tailed away on the desert wind."So how does it feel?" I asked as I settled onto the ground beside her."Damn good, thank you very much."The heat was building, a fierce dry heat that sucked the moisture right out of you. I got out my canteen and drained the thing."How do you feel?" she asked after a bit, just to be polite."Exhausted and dirty.""I could use a bath too.""The dirty I feel ain't gonna wash off.""That's too bad.""I'm breaking your heart." I got to my feet. "Let's get this thing back to the cliff and covered with camouflage netting. Then we can sleep."She nodded, got up, led the way into the machine.
We were spreading the net over the top of the plane when we heard a jet."Getting company," I said.Julie was standing on top of the Osprey. Now she shaded her eyes, looked north, tried to spot the plane that we heard.She saw it first, another bizjet. That was a relief to me--a fighter might have spotted the Osprey and strafed it."Help me get the net off it," she demanded, and began tossing armloads of net onto the ground."Are you tired of living?""Anyone coming to visit that crowd of baby-killers is a terrorist himself.""So you're going to kill them?""If I can. Now drag that net out of my way!"I gathered a double armful and picked it up. Julie climbed down, almost dived through the door into the machine. It took me a couple minutes to drag the net clear, and took Julie about that long to get the engines started and the plane ready to fly.The instant I gave a thumb-up, she applied power and lifted off.I hid my face so I wouldn't get dirt in my eyes.Away she went in a cloud of dirt.She shot the plane down. The pilot landed, then tried to take off when he saw the Osprey and the burned-out jets. Julie Giraud used the flex Fifty on him and turned the jet into a fireball a hundred yards off the end of the runway.When she landed I got busy with the net, spreading it out."You are the craziest goddamn broad I ever met," I told her. "You are no better than these terrorists. You're just like them.""Bullshit," she said contemptuously."You don't know who the hell you just killed. For all you know you may have killed a planeload of oil-company geologists.""Whoever it was was in the wrong place at the wrong time.""Just like your parents.""Somebody has to take on the predators," she shouted at me. "They feed on us. If we don't fight back, they'll eat us all."I let her have the last word. I was sick of her and sick of me and wished to Christ I had never left Van Nuys.
I got a little sleep that afternoon in the shade under a wing, but I had too much on my mind to do more than doze. Darkness finally came and we took the net off the plane for the last time. We left the net, the Humvee, the trailer, everything. I put all the stuff we didn't need over and around the trailer as tightly as I could, then put a chemical fuse in the last of the C-4 in the trailer and set it to blow in six hours.When we lifted off, I didn't even bother to look at the Camel, the old fortress. I never wanted to see any of this again.She flew west on autopilot, a few hundred feet above the desert floor. There were mountain ranges ahead of us. She used the night-vision goggles to spot them and climbed when the terrain forced her to. I dozed beside her in the copilot's seat.Hours later she shook me awake. Out the window ahead I could see the lights of Tangier.She had the plane on autopilot, flying toward the city. We went aft, put on coveralls, helped each other don backpacks and parachutes, then she waddled forward to check how the plane was flying.The idea was to fly over the city from east to west, jump over the western edge of the city and let the plane fly on, out to sea. When the fuel in the plane was exhausted it would go into the ocean, probably break up and sink.Meanwhile we would be on our way via commercial airliner. I had my American passports in my backpack--my real one and Robert Arnold's--and a plane ticket to South Africa. I hadn't asked Julie where she was going when we hit the ground because I didn't want to know. By that point I hoped to God I never set eyes on her again.She lowered the tailgate, and I walked out on it. She was looking out one of the windows. She held up a hand, signaling me to get ready. I could just glimpse lights.Now she came over to stand beside me. "Fifteen seconds," she shouted and looked at her watch. I looked at mine too.I must have relaxed for just a second, because the next thing I knew she pushed me and I was going out, reaching for her. She was inches beyond my grasp.Then I was out of the plane and falling through the darkness.
Needless to say, I never saw Julie Giraud again. I landed on a rocky slope, a sheep pasture I think, on the edge of town and gathered up the parachute. She was nowhere in sight.I took off my helmet, listened for airplane noise ... nothing.Just a distant jet, maybe an airliner leaving the commercial airport.I buried the chute and helmet and coveralls in a hole I dug with a folding shovel. I tossed the shovel into the hole and filled it with my hands, tromped it down with my new civilian shoes, then set off downhill with a flashlight. Didn't see a soul.The next morning I walked into town and got a room at a decent hotel. I had a hot bath and went to bed and slept the clock around,almost twenty-four hours. When I awoke I went to the airport and caught a flight to Capetown.
Capetown is a pretty city in a spectacular setting, on the ocean with Table Mountain behind it. I had plenty of cash and I established an account with a local bank, then had money wired in from Switzerland. There was three million in the Swiss account before my first transfer, so Julie Giraud made good on her promise. As I instinctively knew she would.I lived in a hotel the first week, then found a little place that a widow rented to me.I watched the paper pretty close, expecting to see a story about the massacre in the Libyan desert. The Libyans were bound to find the wreckage of those jets sooner or later, and the bodies, and the news would leak out.But it didn't.The newspapers never mentioned it.Finally I got to walking down to the city library and reading the papers from Europe and the United States.Nothing. Nada.Like it never happened.A month went by, a peaceful, quiet month. No one paid any attention to me, I had a mountain of money in the local bank and in Switzerland, and neither radio, television, nor newspapers ever mentioned all those dead people in the desert.Finally I called my retired Marine pal Bill Wiley in Van Nuys, the police dispatcher. "Hey, Bill, this is Charlie Dean.""Hey Charlie. When you coming home, guy?""I don't know. How's Candy doing with the stations?""They're making more money than they ever did with you running them. He's got rid of the facial iron and works twelve hours a day.""No shit!""So where are you?""Let's skip that for a bit. I want you to do me a favor. Tomorrow at work how about running me on the crime computer, see if I'm wanted for anything."He whistled. "What the hell you been up to, Charlie?""Will you do that? I'll call you tomorrow night.""Give me your birth date and social security number."I gave it to him, then said good-bye.
I was on pins and needles for the next twenty-four hours. When I called again, Bill said, "You ain't in the big computer, Charlie. What the hell you been up to?""I'll tell you all about it sometime.""So when you coming home?""One of these days. I'm still vacationing as hard as I can.""Kiss her once for me," Bill Wiley said.
At the Capetown library I got into old copies of the International Herald Tribune, published in Paris. I finally found what I was looking for on microfiche: a complete list of the passengers who died twelve years ago on the Air France flight that blew up over Niger. Colonel Giraud and his wife were not on the list.Well, the light finally began to dawn.I got one of the librarians to help me get on the Internet. What I was interested in were lists of U.S. Air Force Academy graduates, say from five to ten years ago.I read the names until I thought my eyeballs were going to fall out. No Julie Giraud.I'd been had. Julie was either a CIA or French agent. French, I suspected, and the Americans agreed to let her steal a plane.As I sat and thought about it, I realized that I didn't ever meet old Colonel Giraud's kids. Not to the best of my recollection. Maybe he had a couple of daughters, maybe he didn't, but damned if I could remember.What had she said? That the colonel said I was the best Marine in the corps?Stupid ol' Charlie Dean. I ate that shit with a spoon. The best Marine in the corps! So I helped her "steal" a plane and kill a bunch of convicted terrorists that Libya would never extradite.If we were caught I would have sworn under torture, until my very last breath, that no government was involved, that the people planning this escapade were a U.S. Air Force deserter and an ex-Marine she hired.I loafed around Capetown for a few more days, paid my bills, thanked the widow lady, gave her a cock-and-bull story about my sick kids in America, and took a plane to New York. At JFK I got on another plane to Los Angeles.When the taxi dropped me at my apartment, I stopped by the super's office and paid the rent. The battery in my car had enough juice to start the motor on the very first crank.I almost didn't recognize Candy. He had even gotten a haircut and wore clean jeans. "Hey, Mr. Dean," Candy said after we had been chatting a while. "Thanks for giving me another chance. You've taught me a lot.""We all make mistakes," I told him. If only he knew how true that was.
STEPHEN COONTS is the author of eight New York Times best-selling novels, the first of which was the classic flying tale Flight of the Intruder, which spent over six months on the New York Times best-seller list. He graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in political science, and immediately was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy, where he began flight training in Pensacola, Florida, training on the A-6 Intruder aircraft. After two combat cruises in Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and one tour as assistant catapult and arresting gear officer aboard USS Nimitz, he left active duty in 1977 to pursue a law degree, which he received from the University of Colorado. His novels have been published around the world and have been translated into more than a dozen different languages. He was honored by the U.S. Navy Institute with its Author of the Year award in 1986. His latest novel is Hong Kong. He and his wife, Deborah, reside in Clarksville, Maryland.Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Coonts
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I could not put this book down, thank goodness for insomnia. I am new to the combat reading and found the book a great eye opener for future books of future and past wars. If you are new to combat novels this is a great book to get started with to get a feeling for each of the writers styles and how each author pulls you in and holds on to you.
I'm not much of a military buff, but I love the flying in all of Mr. Coonts' books. This book moved well and was excellently descriptive of the machinations of the military complex as it faces new challenges in the 21st century. The flying descriptions were very realistic.
I can't say more than 5 stars. This book contains almost everyone I love to read and then was introduced to ones that I've never even thought of but becoming a fast favorite. I loved the twist and turns from Coonts. Any red blooded, apple pie eating American can fight for a cause like killing big bad terrorist. Even though they were kinda tricked into it. The one from D. Brown... Can't get enough of the men and women from Dreamland, and it's great to have both Gen. Elliot and Gen. Ormack for another round. Muck and Wendy were great as usual. It's nice to see great characters develop in time but I do miss the dead characters that give their lives for freedom and for their crew. James Cobb, awesome. Can't say enough of the fast pace, highly mobile, agile, and extremely hostile Armored Cavalry. Only one wish of vanity, where or what happened to Capt. Amanda Garrett. Would have love to have read about her and her next adventures into stealth hover crafts. Larry Bond, well he just takes you into a new frontier. Just like Vortex and Phoenix, great material. As for the rest, Coyle, Hagbert, Ing, Peters, Pineiro, Tillman, I'm still working on it. But I just wanted to pass along a in progress report on this great compliation. Just GREAT.
Ten stories, ten authors, over a thousand pages. A couple of stories I read straight through because they were so gripping . I was impressed with the diversity of storylines and perspectives of the authors. Most of the authors were new to me and I plan to read more of their books...Bob Hammer