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Superhawks: Strike Force Charlie
The Seven Dead Khamenis
Somewhere in the Pacific
Diego Suarez had been lost at sea for three days.
He had little memory of his fishing boat sinking. One moment the ocean was calm; the next, a strange darkness had enveloped everything. The huge wave had come out of nowhere, blotting out the sky. He'd been belowdecks when it happened, making himself a cup of coffee. The tsunami hit with such ferocity, the trawler disintegrated around him. Pieces of wood, pieces of metal and glass, pieces of fish from their recent catch, flying in all directions. Then came the mighty crash of water. And then, nothing ... .
When Diego woke up, the sun was reflecting off the ocean so brilliantly, it hurt his eyes. He was sure he'd died and gone to heaven. No one could have survived that catastrophe. But then he thought, People do not feel pain in heaven.
That's when he realized he was still alive.
But how? He'd been washed overboard when the wave hit. In the confusion that followed, he'd somehow climbed on top of a large wooden box. It looked like nothing less than a water logged coffin. He'd hung on to it so tightly that even when he was unconscious his fingernails dug deep into the soft pine. Where had the strange box come from? He had no idea. Certainly nothing like it had been aboard his cramped fishing boat. But it didn't matter. He was alive ... .
But he was also alone. The rest of the crew was long gone; he could see no wreckage from the boat. And because these fishing grounds were so far off the charts, he was nowhere near any shipping lanes, big or small. Diego knew the only soul he would meet out here would be just as lost as he.
Three days passed. The sun was brutal and the nights cold. His hunger and thirst grew mightily. But then, at the end of the third day, salvation! It came just as the sun was setting. Off in the distance Diego spotted not one ship but two. Both gleaming in the fading light. Both stopped dead in the water.
One ship was a freighter, old and rusty. Two very strange items were lashed to its deck: a pair of large vehicles, gray, silver, and white, partially hidden under tarpaulins. They weren't trucks. They were a bit too sleek for that. Both had lots of windows and chrome.
They were buses. Greyhound buses. Diego knew this because as a boy he'd journeyed from his hometown in Mexico to Los Angeles and his fondest memory of the trip was riding on the bright shiny Greyhound bus. But why did this ship have two of them on its deck? In the middle of the Pacific?
Even stranger was the vessel tied up next to the freighter. It had huge fins, a stout conning tower, and antennae bristling all over. It was not a surface ship at all. It was a submarine, riding not unlike a huge black whale just above the waves.
Diego began paddling madly, laughing and crying at the same time. He could see sailors in smart black uniforms on the submarine lifting boxes up to people on the freighter's deck. They were working very quickly. Diego could even hear shouting from one vessel to the other, a disagreement on how best to move the boxes from the sub to the steamer.
He was just 50 feet away when one of the men on the submarine spotted him. Diego actually saw the look of bewilderment on this man's face. The last thing he'd expected to find out here was a man floating on a big pine box. The sailor waved to Diego tentatively, checking to see if he was alive or not. Diego wildly waved back.
Now everyone on both vessels saw him—but no one waswaving anymore. The transfer of boxes stopped. All attention became focused on Diego's approaching raft. He heard more shouting, more anger, on the wind. People on the freighter began scrambling about, but no one was making a move toward the ship's rescue boat. Instead, they were using searchlights to zero in on Diego.
And that's when he saw the guns.
Incredibly, the men on the freighter's deck started shooting at him. Rifles, pistols, even shotguns. Diego couldn't believe it. Why were these men doing this? Why didn't they want to rescue him? It didn't make any sense.
Bullets began ripping into the water all around him. Diego could hear them sizzle as they went by. He wet himself, he was so scared, so confused. The sailors in black uniforms were moving in great haste now, climbing down inside the conning tower. A whistle blew, three times. Then the submarine slowly began to sink into the choppy water, this even as the men on the freighter continued their fusillade.
Diego didn't want to drown out here or die of thirst or starvation or madness. But he didn't want to be shot to death, either. So he did the only thing he could do.
He stopped paddling.
And eventually, the men stopped shooting at him. Diego heard a great roar as the freighter's engines were engaged again and a telltale churning of water erupted from its stern. The ship lurched forward and began moving eastward, away from the setting sun.
Leaving Diego and his floating coffin behind.
Port of Los Angeles Two nights later
Georgie Mann hated this part of LA.
The mechanical loading docks. The rotting wooden piers. The jumble of railroad tracks. Dirty harbor water running around and underneath it all. The Port of Los Angeles. It sounded exotic. It was anything but.
As for coming down here at night—forget about it. Venturing around some of these docks after dark was more dangerous than driving the freeways. Crackheads, Latino gangs, drunken longshoremen could be lurking about anywhere. Yet this was where Mann found himself. Stumbling around the old fishing wharves, tripping over the Alimeda tracks, hopelessly lost, looking for a phantom.
He'd been at it for more than two hours; it was now close to midnight. A thick mist had begun to fall. Everything became cold and dank. The bare orange glow of halogen lights perched high overhead only added to the creepy noir. Mann could hear voices arguing, radios blaring foreign music, the baleful moan of a foghorn. And was that gunfire off in the distance? He shivered once.
This was no place for a sportswriter.
It was stupid, the reason he was down here. An amateur soccer team from Indonesia was touring the United States this summer. They'd arranged for pickup games across the country, their goal being to improve relations with the United States through the common love of soccer. True, soccer was big in LA. But Mann hated this kind of touchy-feely bullshit. He didn't even know where the fuck Indonesia was. Yet because his boss didn't have the beans to come down to the docks himself at night, he'd told Mann to do it. His assignment: hook up with this team of foreigners, interview them, then follow them to a couple "local" games, in quotes because the nearest one was almost a hundred miles away.
At 42, Mann was way too old for this. He'd been breaking his ass as assistant sports reporter for the tiny LA Weekly Sun for nearly 10 years now. He hated his job. He hated his boss. Hated every high school soccer practice he'd ever covered, every dikey coach he'd ever interviewed, every snotty pampered kid he'd been forced to write about. But he had to make his rent and keep gas in his car, and there was nothing else he really knew how to do. So here he was.
The name of the ship he was looking for was the Sea Conqueror, or at least that was its name when it left Manila, 11 days before. According to his boss, the ship was not apassenger liner; it was more of a cargo vessel. And no, he didn't have a pier number or even a guess where the Sea Conqueror might tie up at the huge, spread-up port facility.
But don't worry, the boss had told him. How hard could it be to find an entire ship?
By the stroke of twelve, Mann had reached a line of warehouses close to the southern edge of the port. Across a narrow, putrid inlet, two immense loading cranes hovered over everything like frozen mechanical monsters. The rows of warehouses seemed to go on forever. Staying in the shadows, Mann set out between two of the buildings, walking down an alleyway so dark and dreary, even the bravest mugger wouldn't dare venture into it.
Reaching the end of the alley, Mann found himself looking at yet another dilapidated docking area. They could have used some halogen lighting down here. There was a single street lamp, fading and blue, struggling to illuminate just a small part of the pier. The rest was absolutely black. Mann pulled up the collar of his jacket. Seagulls cried off in the distance. A ship was tied up to the dock. A cargo vessel no doubt, but it looked like something from World War II, it seemed that old. It was so rusty, in fact, Mann couldn't read the name on its hull. He crept forward a few feet, shaking off another chill. He was not a muscular person; roly-poly was a better description. And suddenly he felt very exposed.
I wish I was a smaller target, he thought grimly.
Three more steps forward and finally Mann was able to make out the letters on the ship's hull. This was indeed the Sea Conqueror. What's more, there was evidence of a recent arrival. A worn and rickety gangplank was still in place. Steam was still hissing out of the ship's stacks. And there were definitely voices coming out of the fog surrounding the pier. Mann couldn't believe it. He'd actually found the damned thing!
He allowed himself a small moment of triumph, a big mistake, as suddenly there came a great crashing sound off to his right, an explosion of combustion, followed by themerciless grinding of gears. Mann turned to see a Greyhound bus heading right for him.
Strange what things go through one's mind when one is about to be run over. Snapshots of the last few seconds of life. This was a very clean bus about to kill him, Mann thought queerly. Clean and brand spanking new. And the sign above the front windshield read: HELLO SOCCER TEAM, USA. The words seemed out of order. But it was the look on the driver's face that burned its way onto Mann's retinas. It was a grimace of absolute fear, not so much that Mann had suddenly stepped in his way but that he was driving such a huge vehicle in the first place.
Luckily, Mann was just able to get his head around the notion that a Greyhound bus traveling at high speed down these rotting wharves was about to flatten him if he didn't act quickly. So he jumped. Longer, higher, and faster than he ever had before. The bus went by him a second later, nipping the heel of his sneaker and dislodging it from his foot. Mann hit the ground hard, just avoiding what could have been a fatal dose of exhaust fumes pouring out of the rear of the bus. Even in midair, he'd seen a wall of dark faces staring out the dirty windows at him. Again, a strange thought: not one of them looked like a soccer player to him.
He picked himself up, his knees scratched and bloody. His knapsack, containing his cell phone and his notebook, had flown some twenty-five feet away from him. His sneaker had gone just about the same distance in the other direction.
Dazed and confused, he stumbled off to retrieve the sneaker first. He found it lodged between two railroad ties. He bent to pick it up. That's when he saw a second Greyhound bearing down on him.
Well, he was a pro at this now. He dived with the grace of an Olympian, landing back in the alley just before this bus, just as new, just as shiny, went by in a whoosh of night and fog. He hit hard again but was quick enough to turn around and see more very unlikely faces staring out of the dark bus windows at him. Older faces. Astonished faces. Strangely, angry faces, too.
Mann pushed himself to his feet, caught his breath, then stuck his head out of the alley just long enough to see the second bus leaving, as had the first, through a nearby side gate.
Only then did something dawn on him: HELLO SOCCER TEAM, USA? The people on those buses—were they the ones he was down here to meet? They had to be. He grew so mad so quickly, he thought every vein in his head was going to pop. Here he was, trying to do these assholes a favor by writing about their shitty little team, and they nearly killed him!
He collapsed to the ground, injuring his butt on a stray piece of rail.
I've got to get another job, he thought, shaking his head. This sports stuff is getting too dangerous.
Mojave Desert The next day
There was no shade in Shade Hill. No trees, no awnings, nothing to deflect the brutal heat of the day. The small town, 95 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was hot 24/7/365. Its residents, all 82 of them, usually stayed indoors during late morning and early afternoon; the combined whine of all those air conditioners could sometimes be heard a mile away. In fact, the only thing worse than the heat in Shade Hill was the duststorms.
It was now almost 11:30 A.M., beginning the hottest part of the day. The temperature was expected to top 104 degrees by noon, with no clouds and no wind.
Not the best weather for soccer.
The only playing field in Shade Hill was on the east end of town, next to the tiny Apache Regional High School. Built as a football field, neglect and the unrelenting heat had so hardened the surface, playing football on it was almost as crazy as playing, well ... soccer. The field was more dirt than grass, and what grass there was had long ago turned brown. There were two sets of bleachers, one on each side of the field. They were made of aluminum, another poor choicefor the desert climate. In the past, people had fried turkey eggs on the metal seats to snack on during games.
There were about two dozen people sitting in the bleachers at the moment, a real crowd for Shade Hill. Most were parents of the eleven teenagers currently doing wind sprints up and down the field, torture by another word. The boys constituted the Apache School District Class C soccer team. This was their last day of school before the summer break. Many had already started working jobs as cattle feeders and wranglers. None of them wanted to be out here.
It was all their coach's fault. About two months ago, he'd accepted an invitation from a foreign soccer team to arrange this late-season match. The foreigners were barnstorming their way across the United States, playing local teams and spreading the good word about their native country of Malaysia. Or was it Indonesia? In any case, this was supposed to be a big deal for Shade Hill. The townspeople had been gabbing about it for weeks.
Jim Cook was Shade Hill's sheriff. His brother, Clancy, was the high school soccer coach. Jim was sitting in the top row of the white-hot bleachers now, looking down onto the blazing field. Things were not going well. The game was supposed to have started at 10:30. The opposing team was nearly an hour late. The Apache players were almost dead from their wind sprints, and the crowd, such as it was, had started growing restless. Cook wiped the sweat from his brow. He was beginning to think the foreigners weren't going to show up at all.
The original invitation from the barnstorming team had come by fax—and all along Cook had suspected it was actually sent by someone in town as a joke. The locals were always pulling Clancy's leg; such things served as entertainment in the sun-baked town. Plus Jim knew his brother hadn't heard from the opposing team since that one and only message two months before. He chuckled to himself now. If this was a gag, it would go down in Shade Hill history as one of the best ever. And his brother, Clancy? He would be remembered as the town's biggest goat.
But then a surprise. An engine noise, coming from the west. The top of the bleachers had the best view in town of Route 14A, the only way to get in and out of Shade Hill. Cook stood on the back bench and looked out on the highway. He was the first to see what was causing the commotion.
It was a bus. A Greyhound bus, new and sparkling—and approaching the town at approximately a hundred miles an hour. It was traveling so fast, while weaving all over the road, Cook thought it was a runaway, with a dead driver at the wheel. Yet it entered the town seconds later and, remarkably, slowed down, a little anyway, to make the turn at Elsie's Chicken Shack and onto Arrow Drive, at the end of which sat Apache Stadium.
Cook relaxed a bit; the bus was under control at least. But why was it here? There had not been a Greyhound bus—or any other kind of bus—through Shade Hill in decades. If anyone wanted to travel far out of town, he would have to get himself over to Sand Lizard Creek, 12 miles away. Trailways went through there once a week.
It wasn't until the bus screeched to a stop and a gang of very well dressed soccer players bounded off of it that Cook realized this was the visiting team. The foreigners. It hadn't been a gag after all.
Activity on the scorched field came to a halt as the dozen or so dark-skinned men streamed onto the playing surface. A smattering of applause came up from the small crowd. The newcomers began kicking soccer balls around, this in between having hushed conversations with one another in some indefinable language. Their uniforms looked brand-new and were vivid blue and red. Their sneakers were bright, bright white. Cook took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow a second time. He was as surprised as anybody.
So there would be a game here today ... .
The match began with very little ceremony.
Eli Port, the town banker, served as the lone official. He was almost as big as Sheriff Cook; Eli's referee's stripedshirt gave no illusion of a thinner physique. He would not be running up and down the field today. As was his practice, when doing the work of several men, he stood at center field and watched the play as best he could by using a tiny pair of binoculars.
It didn't make much difference, though. What followed hardly could have been called a game. Spiffy as they were, the visitors seemed lacking even the basic skills needed to play soccer. They couldn't kick, couldn't carry the ball with their feet, couldn't hit it with their heads. Indeed, more than once they went to great lengths moving the ball toward their own goal. It was only the laughter from the stands that turned the visitors around and heading in the right direction. No passing, no defense, no strategy at all on the part of the foreigners. They were simply terrible.
It lasted for less than a half hour. The heat was so overwhelming, Eli finally called the match. Apache wound up winning by a very un-soccerlike score of 220.
The players on both teams were relieved to hear the final whistle. The Apache schoolkids quickly shook hands with their hapless opponents, then headed for the rear door of the nearby school gym. There was a shower room there. They would dive into it, en masse, still wearing their sweaty clothes.
The visitors meanwhile simply turned as one and hurried back onto the bus. Sheriff Cook saw his brother chase after them; a postmatch handshake between coaches would have been the proper thing to do. But the foreign coaches jumped onto the bus, practically closing the big silver door in Clancy's face. Cook saw his brother begin to pull madly on his chin whiskers, a sure sign that he was very, very confused.
Cook wiped his brow a third time. The brand-new bus. The gaudy uniforms. The atrocious play. The whole thing was one of the strangest things he'd ever seen.
Where are those guys from again? he wondered.
It wasn't much cooler aboard the bus. The men inside were used to the heat, but running up and down the hard, hot field for 30 minutes had taken its toll. There was no conversationamong them now as they slumped into the cloth seats and began whispering prayers. Outside the dark-tinted windows they could see the small crowd of spectators drift past the bus. Some looked confused. Others were pointing and laughing.
The plan was to stay here, parked in Shade Hill, for the afternoon, moving to a KOA truck stop/campground 60 miles to the east as soon as darkness fell. It was a risk, but the people on the bus, including its very inexperienced driver, were in dire need of rest. No one onboard had slept in the past 48 hours. It was very important then that they all get as much sleep as possible in these next few hours, parked in plain view, on the edge of Shade Hill. There was no way of knowing when they'd get an opportunity like this again.
The group of men (they were not boys) finally settled down, some closing the shades on their scenic-outlook windows. Those who didn't were mildly shocked to see a huge cloud of dust heading in the direction of the town. One minute, everything was clear, deep blue, and hot. The next, a tidal wave of sand swept over them, turning day to dusk. The bus began rocking; the wind became fierce and noisy. But those onboard actually welcomed the dirty blizzard. The more cover they had, the better.
That's why it was such a surprise when they heard a loud pounding at the bus door. Nervous glances went all around. One of the men who'd impersonated a coach signaled for everyone to remain calm. Then he nodded to the driver, possibly the most anxious person on the bus. The driver pushed a handle forward and the door opened with a hydraulic swish.
Standing on the bottom step, sunburned, sweaty, and covered with a thin layer of dust, was Georgie Mann, assistant sports reporter for the LA Weekly Sun.
"You guys got a few minutes?" he yelled up to no one in particular, waving his very puny press badge. "I gotta do a story on you!"
A moment of awkward silence came and went. Finally, the "coach" beckoned Mann aboard.
Mann happily climbed up the steps and collapsed into the first empty passenger seat. He saw at least two dozen darkeyes staring back at him. It was nearly pitch-black aboard the bus, and not just because of the shuttered windows and the ongoing sandstorm. This was not a typical Greyhound bus, at least not inside. There were actually two compartments onboard. The partition was located about halfway down the-aisle. A small door, closed and padlocked, led to the second, unseen section.
Strange, Mann thought.
The coach stood across the aisle opposite Mann's seat, a clipboard pressed tightly against his chest.
"I speak just a little English," he told Mann nervously. "And we don't have much time."
"That's OK," Mann replied. "This will be real down and dirty ... ."
Mann took out his cell phone and dialed his number back in LA. His home computer accepted the call, making the connection with an annoying chorus of blips and bleeps. Using his phone's keypad, Mann opened a new audio file in his computer, then entered a command for the PC to start recording the phone call. This done, he entered another command, which would allow him to transmit one image from his photophone every five seconds to be put into his PC's JPEG file. Words and pictures, just like that. This was the lazy man's way of reporting sports, and Mann had become very good at it. His hosts had no idea what he was doing, though. For some reason, they thought he was calling his mother.
For the next five minutes Mann asked questions from a prepared list, using his phone like a long-distance microphone. Where was the team from? What did they hope to accomplish during their tour of the United States? What international soccer stars did they hold in high esteem?
The coach's answers were murky at best, each one either too short or too evasive or just plain dumb. The team was from "the South Asian Pacific." They hoped to bring "peace and understanding" to anyone they met in the United States. They didn't know or care about any international soccer stars. They knew very little about the World Soccer League.They'd never heard of Pele or Ubu. They had no opinion on the movie Bend It like Beckham.
"How about your schedule?" Mann finally asked in exasperation. "Can you at least tell me how many places you're playing?"
The coach shook his head no, pointing to his ears as if he didn't understand. Yet the clipboard he was holding had the word "Schedule" written right across it.
Mann already knew the story was a stinker. This coach was a moron, and the only pictures Mann got so far were of the gloomy, weird cut-off interior of the bus. But no story, no paycheck. Maybe he could fill up some page space with a simple map showing where the foreign team would be visiting during its tour.
So Mann gently took the clipboard from the coach. Flipping it around, he showed the man the word "Schedule" on it, saying, "This ... this is what I need." Indeed, the schedule was a map, with arrows pointing to the various places Mann assumed the team was expected to play. There were no dates, though, just the names of some cities and towns, numbered I through 9, and located mostly in the American South and Midwest. He snapped a bunch of phone-photos of it, hoping by now he'd transmitted enough data back to his home computer to scrape some kind of column together.
He handed the clipboard back to the coach. All Mann wanted now was to get off the bus, get back into his car, and drive like hell so he could be in LA before dark.
But he had one more question. He'd almost been mowed down not once but twice the night before, back on the docks.
"Where's your other bus?" he asked.
Now a real jolt of tension went through the compartment. Those players pretending to be dozing sat straight up in their seats and began looking anxiously this way and that. A stern nod from the coach settled them down. He turned back to Mann and smiled.
"Well, I guess you've uncovered our little secret," he said in his best English of the day.
"What do you mean?" Mann asked him.
The coach stood up and with a hand gesture motioned Mann toward the padlocked room divider.
"We've got a real scoop for you," the coach said. "Some very interesting stuff."
Tired and clueless, Mann cued up his photophone and walked toward the rear of the bus. One of the players undid the padlock and pushed the door open.
Mann walked in—but suddenly stopped. This second compartment looked nothing like the first. It was well lit and, he noticed, heavily soundproofed. On the floor were boxes and boxes of cell phones. And camping supplies, like tents and Coleman lanterns.
But most astonishing, the walls were lined with ... weapons, including some kind of missiles. Fifteen of them at least. Are those Stingers? he thought.
Mann could only utter one word: "Wow!" The pistol was against the back of his head a second later. The trigger was pulled twice.
He was dead before he hit the floor.
Copyright © 2004 by Mack Maloney.
Posted April 24, 2010
No text was provided for this review.