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Fly by Night
By Ward Larsen
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2011 Ward Larsen
All rights reserved.
Eight months later
Jammer Davis was running hard. So were the other twenty-nine players on the pitch.
The deluge that had begun at halftime had slackened to a cold drizzle, but plots of standing water held fast on the rutted pitch. Not that anyone cared — this was, after all, the championship game of the Virginia Rugby Union Fall Classic. Over-30 Division.
Deep into the second half, the score was tied at twenty. Both sides chased the oblong white ball as it careened haphazardly over a mud-strewn field. Grass ripped out by the roots and players went sprawling into ankle-deep muck, all amid a muffled chorus of grunts and slapping skin.
The moment of truth came out of nowhere. It often did. A squat back from Davis' side scooped up the ball and, in the instant before he was flattened, slung a lateral to a teammate. The receiver was immediately corralled, but not before off-loading a long square pass that Davis caught in dead stride. He was the biggest man on his team, a prop forward with the traditional number eight on his back. And Davis was quick for his size. He beat the first tackler with a stiff arm. The second got hold of his thick legs, but couldn't hold on. Free of that challenge, Davis made a hard diagonal cut that left two defenders grasping air. When he picked up his eyes, he saw open field. Lots of it.
He had a head of steam now, legs pumping and arms churning. His left ankle hurt like hell. With twenty yards to go for the try, Davis had one man to beat. It was the biggest guy on the other team, an off-duty cop who had to go six-six and was as big in the shoulders as Davis. He was the cop you wanted to see walk through the door when there was a bar fight to be broken up. Not the prop forward you wanted to beat at the goal line with the game in the balance.
The guy took a good angle and made the cutoff, set his feet square, and waited. Davis had plenty of room. He could go left or right. The big cop knew it and waited for the move. Ten yards from victory, Davis stuttered a half step and saw what he wanted. The cop lightened on his feet for an instant, ready to react to Davis' change of direction. There wasn't one. In that critical moment, Jammer Davis dropped his shoulder and went full steam ahead.
Half a lifetime ago, in an even more miserable plot of mud, a drill instructor had taught Marine recruit Frank Davis an important lesson — size meant little without balance. Now that lesson was replayed. The impact lifted the cop off his feet and propelled him over the goal line. He landed flat on his back. Davis fell right beside him, bounced once on the ball, and came to rest in a heap.
"God dammit, Jammer!" The cop rolled up to a sitting position and put an exploratory finger in his mouth. It came out bloody. "That's the same tooth I had fixed last month. My wife's gonna be pissed."
"You cops have good insurance," Davis said. "And besides, your wife is a dentist. That's money in your pocket, Tom."
The cop spit out a mouthful of blood, then smiled big enough for Davis to see not one, but two misaligned teeth.
The referee blew the final whistle and muted cheers came from the sidelines. The teams began to mingle like two colonies of insects, one red with black stripes, the other royal blue on white. There wasn't much in the way of either celebration or agony. Just tired handshakes with hands on hips, a few predictions on how things would or wouldn't be different next year. Everyone gravitated to the sidelines where energy drinks in plastic bottles were snapped open. Damp towels stained with mud, sweat, and blood got draped over shoulders.
The captain of the opposing team came over. He was limping and holding a hand to his back in a way that would put dollar signs in a chiropractor's eyes. He handed Davis a beer, and said, "I guess the first round's on us, Jammer."
"Thanks, Mike." Davis took the bottle and tipped it back for a long draw. When the bottle came down, he froze.
It was a strange thing, trouble. Strange how you knew it was coming. Davis had always wondered if there really was a sixth sense, some aura or electrical impulse that shot out bolts of bad vibes. Or maybe it was based on smell, a hormonal aerosol that rode on the wind. But then, he'd never been good at biology or chemistry. All Jammer Davis knew was that his old boss, Larry Green, was standing on the far side of the field staring at him.
And he wasn't here to watch bad rugby.
Green met him halfway, his brisk runner's stride countering Davis' limping gate — his ankle still hurt like hell. They merged at the far sideline.
"You look like a kid who just came in off the playground," Green said. "Well, times four, maybe."
Green looked like he always did. He wore dark pants and a sober gray sweater under an unbuttoned raincoat. Green was small and compact, with a lean, angular face. The haircut was strict regulation, high and tight, unlike Davis' own ragged mess. He'd been needing a trim for weeks, which somehow made him oddly uncomfortable in front of his old commander. Davis had worked for Green twice, first in the Air Force, and later with the National Transportation Safety Board. Their transition to civilian life had been concurrent, Green retiring from a two-star pentagon billet to take a high-level job at the NTSB. He was the kind of guy who always rose to the top. The cream. Davis had retired as a major with a résumé that was a lot shakier. More curdled.
"Did you catch the match?" Davis asked.
"A little at the end. You looked pretty good out there. Not that I would know. Rugby was never my sport — don't have the size."
"You'd be surprised. Some of those little guys can hit hard."
"Thanks, but I'll stick to my marathons." He pointed to Davis' ankle, and said, "That's going to be sore tomorrow. You know, Jammer, there are certain sports you can play forever. Golf, tennis, swimming. Rugby's not one of them."
"I'll give it up one day."
"Yeah. I've got a friend who says that all the time. He's an alcoholic."
Davis said nothing.
"So how is Jen?" Green asked. "Is that semester in Norway working out?"
Davis' eyes narrowed. He hadn't seen Larry in months, and couldn't remember if he'd mentioned the exchange program. "I talked to her yesterday. She's doing great. When she comes back in two months I'm sure she'll be all European. You know, converting prices to euros, putting bars through her handwritten zeds."
Green said, "I'm surprised you let her go, Jammer. You've always been a little heavy-handed with Jen. Especially since Diane died."
Davis' wife had been killed in a car crash, the kind of tragedy that strikes out of the blue. The kind of tragedy that only strikes other people. A friend of a friend, a distant relative. When it happened to Jammer Davis and his daughter it was like a hurricane, and ever since he'd made it his job to act as Jen's foundation, to hold things together. It didn't help that she was at that maddening age when kids start to separate anyway, start loosening their genetic tethers.
"She was getting restless," Davis said. "That's how teenagers are supposed to be, or so everyone tells me. I thought it was time to give her a little freedom."
"Norway is a long way from home."
"I know. But she's with Nordo and his family."
Davis saw instant understanding in Green's expression. Nordo was Sven Nordstrom, a Norwegian F-16 pilot who'd done an exchange tour with the squadron back when Larry was in charge. Nordo was a great guy with a terrific family, and he was the only reason Davis had let his teenage daughter fly off to Scandinavia for three months.
"So what's this all about, Larry?"
"That's what I like about you, Jammer. You think like I run — no wasted effort."
They began strolling the sideline.
"I've got a job for you," Green said.
"The kind where I fly an airplane or the kind where I pick up the pieces?"
"Sudan? Africa?" Davis shook his head. "Don't airplanes ever crash in Tahiti?"
"Not lately. But if it happens, I'll take care of that one myself."
Davis still had his beer. He took a long pull.
"You know, that's not a good way to hydrate," Green admonished.
"Honestly, it looks pretty darn good. But how about I buy you a cup of coffee instead?"
"That's not a good way to hydrate either."
Green waited impassively.
Davis sighed. "All right, coffee it is."CHAPTER 2
They found a coffeehouse two blocks south. It was a toney place, the very air inside seemingly brewed in rich aromas taken from exotic mountains — Sumatra or Colombia or Java — and flown halfway around the world. There was furniture the color of well-steeped tea on dark wood floors. The coffee was four bucks for a venti, which was Italian for big. Even at that price they had to stand in line, so Davis figured it had to be good stuff. He watched the lady in front of them pay eight bucks for what looked like a milkshake. When it was their turn he ordered a large coffee, plain and black. Green got a bottle of water along with the tab.
Davis was still wearing cleats with his warm-up gear, so when he followed Green across the room to a table his steps clacked over the hardwood floor. The shoes made him an inch taller than he already was, and the bulky clothing made him wider. He was limping on a sore ankle, and his wet hair was matted with sweat and grass, and probably traces of blood. In what had to be some sort of statement on contemporary society, nobody gave him a second look.
Green led to a pair of wide chairs in one corner that were covered in a supple, leathery material. Dark and smooth. Just like the coffee. Davis settled in and took a long sip from his cup. It really was good.
Green began his pitch. "What do you know about unmanned aerial vehicles, Jammer?"
"UAVs? They've become big business. As an ex-fighter pilot it breaks my heart, but the reality is that thirty years from now the Air Force won't have pilots flying tactical missions. It'll all be drones."
"I fear you may be right, that's where things are going. And I'm sure you know it's not just the military flying them. The CIA operates a big fleet. Intelligence, surveillance, even strike missions. Most of the airframes they use are common to Air Force versions, but the CIA has also undertaken a handful of black projects. One of the most recent is a vehicle known as Blackstar."
"Never heard of it," Davis said.
"That's good, because it's classified. They've been operating a handful of these airframes for about a year, based out of airfields in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan."
"Okay. Good for them. Why are we talking about it?"
Green looked around the room. Davis noticed that the seats Green had chosen were as far as possible from the rest of the quietly chattering patrons. It broke a lot of rules to talk about classified information in a public place, and Larry Green was typically a by-the-book guy. But with a little discretion and a dash of common sense — it happened every day.
"I got a call from Darlene Graham yesterday."
This got Davis' attention. Darlene Graham was the director of national intelligence, a sharp woman who'd taken over a post that had been little more than symbolic for many years, and turned it into a powerful overseer of the old-school intelligence agencies. And while the NTSB didn't typically overlap with the D.C. intelligence community, a year earlier Davis had blurred the lines between the two when a crash investigation he'd been working on had blossomed into a full-blown global crisis. Working with Graham and the CIA, Davis had averted a disaster. Since then, he'd been on leave of absence to concentrate on his daughter.
Green continued, "The CIA had a Blackstar go Magellan on them last winter, just wandered off and started exploring after the uplinks and data feed stopped. Eventually, they lost it."
"Serves them right for not having a pilot on board."
Davis asked, "Could it have been shot down?"
"Doubtful. The operators would have seen something. A fighter in the area, radar activity from a surface-to-air missile site. And it was flying too high to be hit by small arms fire. Since Blackstar is a brand-new design, the odds are it was just a technical glitch."
"But what does that have to do with us?" Davis asked. "We've never been in the UAV business. Those are exclusively military toys, including collecting the smithereens when one hits the dirt. If the CIA needs help investigating this crash, they should talk to the Air Force."
"It's not that simple. Blackstar was operating in the Horn of Africa, right on the border of Somalia and Ethiopia. After contact was lost, there was an intense search. Every imaging device we have scoured the area, but couldn't find a thing. In the end, the CIA decided it must have gone ballistic, ended up in the Red Sea or maybe the Indian Ocean."
"That sounds a little hopeful."
"You and I see it that way. We investigate stuff like this. But the CIA is just getting their feet wet when it comes to aircraft. They decided to write the whole thing off — that is, until last week."
"What? Did some fisherman pull up a piece of Blackstar in his net?"
"Worse. The CIA got an intel report that an advanced UAV of some kind was squirreled away in a hangar at the new airport outside Khartoum."
"But you said it went down east of there, in Somalia."
"Khartoum isn't that far away from the crash box. Certainly plausible. And when you consider the number of places you could stash aircraft wreckage in that part of the world — well, you get the idea."
"What was the source of this information?"
"Darlene Graham would only tell me that it was a reliable human source."
"Reliable," Davis repeated.
"So is this a government-owned hangar?" Davis asked.
"That's the funny thing. It's owned by a private party, an outfit called FBN Aviation."
"What do they do?"
"On paper they fly cargo, but in reality it looks like your standard shell company. It was set up in the Bahamas by a law firm that does that kind of work exclusively — Franklin, Banks, and Noble."
"FBN," Davis said.
Green nodded. "The company directors are three lawyers who probably couldn't tell a DC-3 from a salad shooter."
"DC-3s? People still fly those?"
"Apparently this company does. They work about a half dozen airplanes around Africa and the Middle East."
Davis had seen companies like it before. The corporate office in a place with loose regulatory oversight, the operations end set up in a dark corner of the world. From a distance, FBN Aviation would look a lot like UPS, a company designed to move air cargo. But up close it would look very different. There would be legitimate shipments, but mixed in you'd find arms and drugs and diamonds. You'd find recordkeeping that looked like it was done in a mirror.
Green said, "The guy in charge is named Rafiq Khoury. He's some kind of cleric. Other than that, we don't know much about him."
"A cleric needs a cargo airline?"
"I didn't like the sound of that either."
Davis heaved a sigh. "Okay. So Darlene Graham lost one of her toys. And it might be sitting in a hangar owned by some kind of arms merchant. That doesn't explain why a cheapskate like you just bought me a cup of coffee. You said you had work for me, Larry, a crash. Are we talking about something besides this drone?"
"We are," Green said. "A DC-3 went down two weeks ago off the coast of Sudan, in the Red Sea. The exact location is a little fuzzy, but the crash site is clearly inside their territorial waters. Sudan has jurisdiction."
"Let me guess — FBN Aviation."
"Doesn't Sudan have people who can run an investigation?"
"There's a Sudanese Civil Aviation Authority, and on paper they have a guy in charge of flight safety. But he's just somebody's cousin, no formal training. Remember, we're talking about a country where over seventy percent of the national budget goes to the military."
"But if Sudan needed outside help, we'd be the last ones they'd ask. We were bombing them back in the nineties."
Excerpted from Fly by Night by Ward Larsen. Copyright © 2011 Ward Larsen. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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