Authors: David E. Meadows
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Joint Task Force: America
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Copyright ©2004byDavid E. Meadows
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Electronic edition: June, 2005
Berkley titles by David E. Meadows
THE SIXTH FLEET
THE SIXTH FLEET: SEAWOLF
THE SIXTH FLEET: TOMCAT
THE SIXTH FLEET: COBRA
JOINT TASK FORCE: LIBERIA
JOINT TASK FORCE: AMERICA
To my wife and best friend, FelicityACKNOWLEDGMENTS
It is impossible to thank everyone who provided technical advice and support for this and other novels. My thanks for those who visitedwww.sixthfleet.comand provided comments. I do read each e-mail personally, and my goal is to respond to each of them.
I have had so much encouragement that I know I’m going to miss some, so I both want to thank you and apologize up front if I inadvertently missed you. Many were kind enough to encourage, provide technical guidance, or many times just answer questions unique to their professional skills and qualifications: My mother, Wynella Meadows, Aunt Adele Burnham, Aunt Louise “Ease” Cole, Ms. Sharon Renike, Mr. Art Horn, LCOL David Nelson USMC, CDR Roger Herbert (who I served with in London), LCDR Nancy Mendonca, COL Bridgett Larew (Air Force nurse), CDR-ret Nancy Shank (a Navy nurse who insisted my book needed a Navy nurse in it), CDR Scott Fish (helicopter warrior), Mr. Ed Brumit, CPT Ray Zindell (HOOAH Armor), Douglas & Susan Rowe, Mike & Linda Boswell, Ms. Cheryl Sheppard, COL-ret Larry Huffman, Adam & Ann Marie Rowe, Ronnie & Charlene Hall, Tommy & Pat Ferrell, Mr. Bobby Burnham, Ms. Joan Cox, Ms. Helen Meadows, Ms. Shirley Borders, LTCOL Scott Herkert, Ms. Darlene Callahan, Ms. Betty Cort-Anderson, COL Marjorie Davis, Mr. Joe Rakosky, CAPT-ret Kathy DiMaggio, Rear Admiral Ken Deutsch, CAPT Todd Zecchin, the international member of the Combined Communications Electronics Board, my fellow J6’ers on the Joint Staff, and the great wealth of knowledge from members of the VQ alumni,ICAF alumni, and the Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association. My thanks to all of you.
My thanks to Mr. Tom Colgan for his editorial support and to his able right-hand person, Ms. Samantha Mandor.
While I have named a few for their technical advice, rest assured that any and all technical errors or mistakes in this novel are strickly those of the author, who many times wander in his own world.
David E. MeadowsCHAPTER 1
TUCKER RALEIGH OPENED HIS EYES. HE NEVER SHOULDhave jumped. A dry stick protruding from dank humus soil poked his cheek. Tucker rolled his head to the right, away from the stick, and waited several seconds for the daze to clear. On the other hand, maybe it was just the dark of night causing his vision to blur.
What was he doing amid the overgrown bushes and grasses? Above him, the edge of a balcony deflected light from inside the house, casting a shadow over where he lay. The wet spring smell of an afternoon shower rose from the moist ground. Wispy bits of fog created a six-inch-high quilt across the backyard.
“I’m telling ya I got him!” a voice shouted above him.
“He must have jumped.”
“He didn’t jump, Goddamn it! I shot him. He’s in here somewhere.”
The voices jumbled, but Tucker grabbed bits and pieces of the conversation. After about the third sentence he realized one of the accents wasn’t American. Theperson was speaking English, but the accent wasn’t British, Australian, or American. The sound of moving crates and boxes being shoved about obscured the voices for a moment. A long grinding scrape of a piece of furniture being dragged across the wood floor told him they were still searching inside the house.
Tucker moved his left hand cautiously to his head, feeling a wet stickiness—blood, seeping down from the top of his skull through his crew cut. He touched his cheek where the stick had been, but didn’t feel any cut or blood there. His shoulder hurt. Must have been the jump.It isn’t the jump that kills you,his jump instructor at Fort Benning had told him,it’s the sudden landing. Tucker blinked his eyes several times, willing his way to full consciousness, past the pain and the spinning in his head. He wiped the blood away a couple of times when it threatened to cloud his vision.
This was his house—his new house. Well, nearly new.
Someone stuck his head over the balcony, scanning the darkness. The faint light from the living room cast the intruder’s shadow across the overgrown backyard. But, why? It wasn’t as if he knew anyone here. This was his first night in the house. Surely, they must have him confused with someone else. He shut his eyes for a moment, recalling the initial attempt to break in through the front door. The door had violently burst opened with the steel security chain abruptly stopping the door six inches later.
“I tell ya, he went over the balcony.”
“Well, get down there and find him, lad. Don’t let him get away. Son-of-a-bitch. . . . I’ve got to do everything, don’t I?”
He detected venom in the voice. He had heard that accent before. Maybe Scottish?
“Keep ya voice down. Ya want the neighbors up and about?” the one with the accent asked, the r’s rolling with a heavy brogue.
Tucker rolled onto his side. Never stay in one place long. Keep moving—evade, make the enemy find you—keep them guessing. He had to shift his position—get away from here. Visions of the second Korean War flashed across his thoughts—two weeks hiding in the hills, fighting his way back to his own lines.
“Here, I found a flashlight, Sean.” The voice was directly overhead on the balcony.
The balcony wouldn’t hide him long, and if they came this far to kill him, they weren’t going to let the job go undone just because he had disappeared. Eventually they would have to come down to search the yard. Dots of light flashed across his vision as Tucker stood up. Pain racked his left shoulder. Blood clouded his left eye. He reached up and wiped it away with the back of his right hand, leaving soil and dead bits of vegetation sticking to the side of his face.Damn, at least the right half seems okay,he thought. Tucker fell back against one of the four stanchions reinforcing the balcony and shut his eyes briefly, taking deep, quiet breaths. He definitely had that number-six Excedrin headache.
A beam of light shot out from above, sweeping the ground. It weaved outward from the balcony, back and forth across the overgrown backyard, toward the edge of a wood that separated the house from the Monocacy River. Urbana, Maryland, was supposed to be a quiet rural area. If this was how Frederick County welcomed its newcomers, he hated to think what his welcome party would have been like in Baltimore or Washington.
“We’re going down there and find him.”
“Not me. That’s bullshit! We promised to bring you here and help you. But, by God, he’s trained for this night shit. We ain’t no more than hunters, and if you weren’t . . .”
“Em,” the one called Sean interrupted. “Casey, me lad, you’re going to get your arse down there. We all are. If he gets away, the bloody raghead ain’t going to be too happy is he? And, you won’t be getting your money.”
Were they talking about him? And who in the hell is the raghead?Raghead—a derogatory term for Arabs.It wasn’t a term he used. He had been in combat against theJihadists, and regardless of how demonized they were, they were still motivated fighters. Even if he had had a desire to use the term, the U.S. military forbade it. The few times when he had heard a member of his team use any such derogatory terms such as this, Tucker had straightened the user out immediately.
“Yeah, so you say, Sean. But, money ain’t gonna be much good if we ain’t alive to spend it.”
But they were right about one thing. This was his world. His head turned, taking in the playing field in front of him. He was trained for this—what was the word? Yeah—night shit. He had escaped and evaded hostile forces before—Afghanistan, Indonesia, Yemen. He’d just never expected to have to do it in the United States. Why should this be any different?Why? Real simple. Because conducting an attack-and-evade mission needed a mind-set—you needed preparation.He had never done a mission that hadn’t been planned days in advance.But you can’t have it easy all the time, Tucker,he told himself. He braced his right hand against the wall of the house and pushed himself upright. If he remained undetected until he reached the woods at the back, the pendulum would swing even more in his direction. The white T-shirt tugged his shoulder where blood matted it to the cement wall. A sharp pain whipped through him, sending a cascade of new stars racing around his night vision. He bit his lip and pulled away, simultaneously reaching up and touching his left shoulder.Damn, he had taken a bullet!He touched his head lightly, then looked at his hand. No wonder he had that headache. The grazing wound on his head was caused by either a bullet or when he’d fallen—jumped—over the banister. This made three times he’d been shot during his Navy career. He twisted and bit his lip, and a couple of contortions later managed to pull the shirt up and over his head. White showed too easily in the dark. The dark tan earned in Indonesia made it easier to blend with the shadows of the moonless night. With his right hand, he pressed the shirt against hisstomach, holding it there as he wadded it up. Then he tossed the shirt behind a nearby bush.
Tucker opened and closed his left hand, making a tight fist each time. When he rotated his shoulder, the pain nearly caused him to pass out. Something was scraping against his shoulder blade. That something, he knew, was the bullet. He tried one more rotation, taking it slower this time, and felt it grate against the bone. The idea flicked through his thoughts that he would need a statement to get past metal detectors. Blood was thick on his hand, and he was still bleeding. How much blood does a person have in him? Tucker purposely slowed his breathing, his eyelids dropping until nearly closed. SEAL training taught more than killing. It taught how to grab pain, shove it into a closet within the mind, and lock the door. Ride over it. Survive—that was the key to winning. Once you’ve gone through Hell Week in Coronado, most combat looks amateurish. He locked the pain away, knowing even as he did it that the son-of-a-bitch would keep fighting to escape. The throbbing pounded, reminding him it was still there.
He shut his eyes briefly, as his memory of events before regaining consciousness under the balcony returned. He had been inside the house. When the door had crashed in, he had just set a fresh beer on the mantle above the fireplace.He needed to have someone come in and clean the chimney.Like most career military officers, the routine for the evening had already been mapped. He had unpacked the television, had promised himself he was going to soak a few suds—maybe even the whole six-pack—then lay on the couch with his leg over the back of it and watch a late movie before calling it a night.Someone said they had soft porn on the cable channels after midnight. There’s nothing like watching naked women and drinking beer to give a warrior a good night’s sleep.
He had turned as the door flew inward, mesmerized for a fraction of a second as the security chain stopped it from opening fully. The half face of a man had glared through the partially open door at him. He remembered thick redhair. The head disappeared and a hand holding a gun appeared, firing immediately. Tucker didn’t recall being shot. The gun had jerked with small puffs of smoke coming from the barrel. No sound—silencer.What happened next was a vague memory. He recalled bouncing off the bricks of the fireplace before scrambling through the French windows and over the balcony. A civilian with no training would have taken refuge behind the furniture. A good fight needed space. The sound of wood splintering reached him as he disappeared over the railing. Then darkness had descended.
Okay, preliminary data review over.Tucker glanced up at the base of the balcony. Three sets of footsteps moved cautiously toward the stairs leading down and into the backyard. To his left, a string of scraggy bushes, planted by some long-ago occupant, gave him cover as he eased from the temporary shelter beneath the balcony. Almost squatting, Tucker inched along the bushes, gaining distance foot by foot from the balcony.
Light filtered from the opened glass doors on the balcony. He could barely make out silhouettes of the attackers. They were arguing, the heavy accent garbling any comprehension. The longer they argued and debated, the more space he put between them. He glanced in the direction of the Monocacy River. If he reached the thin line of trees and woods hiding the view of the river from the house, then the night would truly be his. He was good. And he knew it. You didn’t go on the number of missions he had been on without one or two things happening; either you became better at your profession or they brought you home in a body bag. Tucker picked up the pace, using the moment to his advantage, his eyes adjusting to the moonless night. Light wisps of fog whirled around his ankles. Afternoon rain had soaked the sun-dried vegetation beneath his sneakers, softening the noise as he increased the distance from the house.
He had been lucky the security chain stopped them for a few seconds. Otherwise, he never would have made it onto and off the balcony. The mess of moving into hisnew home provided some distraction to the attackers. Stacks of moving boxes had, unknowingly, hidden his jump, causing the gunmen to search cautiously through the sparsely lit room, afraid he was hiding among the clutter. He must have been unconscious only a few seconds.
A low murmur reached his ears. He eased up between the bushes, between two branches, blending with the hedgerow. He didn’t see them, but he heard the sound of shoes hurrying down the steps as the men left the house and entered the backyard. This Sean character must have won the argument. Tucker was glad he had put off cutting the grass and successfully fought the military urge to tidy up the unkempt condition of the yard. It was hard. The yard cried for his sense of order to do something with it. He hated disorder, but most in his line of work did. He slowly dropped lower, behind the bush, and crept left. Several steps later, Tucker stopped, crouching behind a rosebush. Thick thorns weaved in an undisciplined spread through the hedge growing alongside it.
His eyes narrowed. His peripheral vision was improving, giving him better acuity in the shadowy world of the night. The throbbing of the pain echoed in the background. He quickly drew away from it, knowing that if he allowed, the pain would sweep over him.
Initial fear gave way to professional training. His muscles tensed, contracting. Fear had also given way to anger.Who in the hell were they to burst into his house?He bit his lower lip. They have no idea who in the hell they’re messing with. The mental image of a full auditorium cheering him on passed quickly through his thoughts. Tucker studied the terrain, searching for a better tactical position.
Movement caught his attention. The silhouettes of the attackers passed across the faint light spilling over the balcony, highlighting their line-abreast movement toward the tree line in back. When he’d first seen the house two months before, he had found pleasure in the haphazard way the dispossessed owners had planted various scrubs,flowers, and bushes. It offered him a chance to arrange the garden the way he wanted. Vacant for over a year, it had been repossessed by the VA four months ago. He’d purchased the house, knowing there would be work not normally associated with buying a new one. He’d just never assumed it would include getting shot.
The closest assailant was about forty feet away and slowly drawing nearer. The way the man’s head kept going quickly back and forth gave Tucker the impression that this one was a little nervous—a little scared—and soon he would be a little dead. It was time to turn the tables.
“I tink you need to be careful,” the man farther away said, the heavy brogue riding softly on the warm night air.
Irish. That was an Irish accent.What in the hell was an Irishman doing in the middle of agricultural Maryland at two in the morning? Shooting him. That’s what in the hell he was doing. What a stupid question!
The assailant nearest Tucker turned his head and waved in acknowledgment, revealing a pistol in his hand. Tucker also saw in the faint light the fat outline of an extension on the barrel of the gun. Silencer. These were no “Bubba and Earl” small-time crooks. If they had been, they would have just rushed in, held him at gunpoint, and robbed him. For some unexplained reason, this bunch wanted him dead. Why? He had no idea. Maybe some irate husband, but he had always made it a point never to mess with married women—at least to the best of his knowledge. The military had tightsex rules,as he called them: never mess with married women; never mess with those you work with; and never mess with enlisted ones. Other than that, the rest were fair game as long as you were single and of legal age.
He would figure out later why they wished him dead—if any survived. The metamorphosis from being hunted to being the hunter took less than five minutes from the time Tucker regained consciousness. He had done the transformation before in a lot less time, but that had been insituations where he was expecting to roll with the blows of combat. Crouching, he sidestepped quickly, paralleling the row, narrowing the distance between him and the closest assailant, careful to make as little noise as possible. The pain slammed against the locked door in his brain, reminding him it was still there. Tucker took in the man’s profile. Tall—only a little shorter than him. A paunch hung over the belt line. Probably not a professional, Tucker decided. Maybe this Sean was the only professional and the other two were locals recruited for the night. They wouldn’t be expecting him—unarmed—to turn the tables. His eyes never left the silhouettes of the men, even as he focused on the one approaching his lair.
The pain in his shoulder rose briefly, fighting to escape its confinement. He pushed it down, but the brief interlude was excruciating. Prior wounds had taught him that he needed to stop the bleeding soon. All the mental commands in the world would not help if you bled to death. He could do little about it now. All he could do was hope that it stopped on its own, or that he finished them before the loss of blood finished him. The woods would give him a couple hundred feet of wild in which to maneuver, hide, or attack. Watching how the three operated, he realized two were little match for him outside the house. He gritted his teeth, his eyes narrowed, and he took brief pleasure in the feeling of vengeance that surfaced. Confidence was something he never lacked, and vengeance was something that had to be taken.
He wished he had a weapon. Damn, even a knife would be nice. His mouth tightened. His eyes alternated between trying to see where he was stepping through the thin blanket of fog and keeping track of his pursuers. Any weapon and he would make short work of these intruders. They were overconfident, making too much noise. He glanced over the heads of the three men, toward the next house. He was amazed the nearby neighbors’ houses were still dark. They were less than a hundred yards from his. Neighbors he had never met.After tonight,he thought,they may never want to meet me.
The last bush in the row ended with about twenty feet of open space to the edge of the pine forest. He stumbled, twisting his ankle and falling to one knee, landing on the sharp edge of a rock, causing a grunt to escape.Dumb!He rolled away, unintentionally onto the wounded shoulder, drawing a short whimper before he clinched his mouth shut.
“Over here!” the man nearest him shouted.
“Shut up, ya fool. You want to have the coppers here?”
The sound of crashing feet accompanied the nearest assailant as the man ran toward him. Instead of jumping up and running toward the tree line, Tucker scrambled on all fours backward, putting distance from where he’d fallen. Across the yard, the other two approached more cautiously. He heard one of those two trying to catch the one hurrying toward Tucker. Who attacked him—the Three Stooges? Of course, what was he? One of the Marx brothers?Stupid, stupid, stupid,he thought. If this had been an exercise, the referee would have ruled him dead.
“Be careful, Ian,” the one farther away warned.
The man’s left foot stepped within a few inches of Tucker’s right hand. Without thinking, he grabbed the ankle and jerked backward. The clumsy assailant cried out once as he fell. The two following stopped instead of hurrying forward. It both surprised and elated Tucker. It also confirmed that they were amateurs at this game.
“Ian?” the middle one called softly.
Navy SEALs were more than trained killers. They were also trained to conduct quick “look-and-see” reconnaissance missions, penetrating the enemy territory, identifying the targets, and returning without being seen. Covert operations was a Navy SEAL’s forte. Most were capable of associating voices to individuals. This allowed them to map their targets in the day and recognize them in the night. Tucker had Ian, and that would be Casey calling. Which meant the remaining attacker, the one farthest from him, was the leader, Sean.The Irishman!
All of this flicked through his thoughts in the second it took for Tucker to let go of the man’s ankle and leapforward onto the assailant’s back. A deep whimper escaped the body beneath him. Tucker wrapped his right arm around the neck, blocking the air passage with the crook of his elbow, shutting off the man’s attempt to shout, and to breathe. The man kicked out with his left leg, trying to dislodge Tucker. Tucker felt the sinewy muscles beneath the shirt. Whatever this man did in “real life” it involved labor.
On the other side of the bushes, the other two called to Ian again.
“Ian, you got him?” That was Casey.
Oh, yes! Ian’s got me alright.Tucker tightened his hold, pulling the neck back.
“They’re fighting, Casey. Go help him.”
Fifty to sixty feet away. They weren’t hurrying, which suited Tucker fine.
“Do I look like a fucking idiot? You go help him.”
Even as he tightened the choke hold on the thrashing man beneath him, he knew he had to hurry before they worked up the courage to approach. He still had no weapon but his hands, unless he could find Ian’s. This must be the first time these guys had worked together. From his experience, teams were like professional sports. You knew the capabilities and skills of your teammates—little verbal communication was necessary. He shoved the struggling man’s head down, then quickly jerked it to the side. A small voice within his thoughts sarcastically asked,Well, they shot you, didn’t they?He was rewarded with the sharp crack of the vertebrae that a moment before had joined the neck to the spinal cord. The pain from his shoulder erupted. It was out of the closet and running. The man went rigid for a second, and then his entire body trembled for several more before relaxing suddenly onto the ground. “Say, goodbye, Ian,” Tucker whispered through the pain into the dead man’s ear.
He rolled off. Taking deep breaths, Tucker brought the pain back under control, slamming the door shut again. Then he leaned forward and ran his right hand along the arms of the dead man, to the hands, searching for thepistol. Nothing. It must have fallen. The sound of running feet reached him. He pushed himself up, his left hand dragging across the pistol.Thank God for small things.He reached over and gripped the weapon in his right hand. Then, at a crouch, Tucker raced toward the tree line.Once in there, they were his. One down, two to go. If they’re having a potato famine in Ireland, there are going to be three less mouths to feed shortly.All he needed was the right position.
He ran at a half-crouch, a “stop and go” pace to avoid drawing attention. Rapid movement attracted attention. Even knowing that, it took all his willpower and training to wait in the shadows and watch the silhouettes of the two searchers for the right moment to move. The two men had stopped near the edge of the hedgerow. They were facing away from him. He used the moment to close the tree line.
Nearly a minute after he had killed the first of the assailants, he melded into the pine trees. He glanced behind him. The silhouettes of the two remaining searchers showed them bent over, combing the area in front of them, looking for him or their friend or both. The outline of two pistols with the familiar fat-barrel of the silencer screwed onto the end could be easily discerned.
“Let’s get out of here,” said the one called Casey, turning back toward the house.
That was an American accent, Tucker realized. The words came in a quick, chopped accent, but it was American.
“No,” the leader, Sean, answered, reaching out and jerking the man back by the arm. “We finish tis. Our lives don’t mean anything . . .”
“An hour ago I would have agreed with you,” the man replied, jerking his arm free. “You go do it. You’re not married—Ian and I are.”
He watched the argument, half hoping they wouldn’t leave. He waited, squatting on his haunches behind a tree a few feet into the woods. The watery smell of the nearby river and fresh wet soil aroma rising from thepine-strewn forest floor filled the faint breeze. The buzz of mosquitoes circled his head.
His sense of the game had changed in the past few minutes. He wanted to take out the remaining two. He had been in Frederick County for five days—four of them at the Holiday Inn near the Francis Scott Key Mall. His one visit to the American Legion had resulted in two beers, one cigar, no conversation, and the discovery that food service closed early. The only people he had talked to who could say they may remember him were the ones at the reception desk at the Holiday Inn. Maybe a five-dollar tip to the young lady behind the bar at the Legion might cause her to recall who he was.
He sensed someone behind him. He turned slowly, reducing movement as he searched the surrounding shadows. His eyes swept the terrain for that telltale bit of gray or black out of context with the natural landscape—anything that didn’t quite fit. This was his forte, and he knew he did it well. His head swiveled slowly, his eyes doing the moving, using his peripheral vision, the key for seeing in the night. All he needed was a small movement, a sound, and if another one were out here, he would have him located and assessed. But nothing moved.
He suspected it was Sean shoving the other man toward the forest. The two men inched closer. A small flashlight—one he had purchased earlier in the day from a locally owned hardware store in Frederick—swept the ground in front. It had been just outside the gate at Fort Detrick. The presence of the U.S. Army’s biological complex at what had once been a World War I air base had played a large role in his decision to buy a house in the small suburb of Urbana. It gave him weekend access to the exchange, where he could cash a check, and the commissary, where he could buy groceries. Moreover, his one major vice was playing the horses, and Urbana had a nearby offtrack betting place that had a bar and a restaurant. What more could a man ask for?
He rose slightly off his haunches and shifted quietly to the right. His head buzzed and he felt faint. Tucker hadto end this soon. He carefully took several steps to the left, away from where the men were about to enter the woods. He wanted a clear line of fire. Tucker lifted the pistol. Glancing down at the weapon, he hefted it a couple of times. It was a small pistol, probably a .38 caliber. Nothing fancy, but it would kill you. He leaned forward, bringing his head around the tree. The light from the balcony caught his attention, and he eased himself back behind the tree, letting the shadow of the pine hide him. He would have to be careful of the light. By now, their night vision was functioning at the same level as his. The other side of the coin of fighting in the night was knowing how to use that vision. Tucker was confident he could use the trees and slight undergrowth to mask his presence. If he was right and they were a bunch of first-time assassins—funny word to think of—then they were in for the shock of their lives. Whether they lived to tell was an unanswered question.
Ten yards farther, he stepped into a saucer-like depression hidden by loose pine needles. It nearly caused him to fall. He used his right hand to ease himself into the depression. In the dark, he completely disappeared from sight. He brought the pistol up in his right hand. He forced his left arm up, using the palm of the left hand to cup the right. Here he watched the two men enter the woods without them ever realizing they were walking into an ambush. That one must be Casey, Tucker figured, watching the man in the shadows whose head was twisting back and forth rapidly and whose gun was swinging from side to side.
The two men slowly opened the distance from each other. He knew the spread was unintentional. Little things continued to highlight their amateurism. Sure, they may have hunted their entire lives, but unlike him, their prey had probably been deer, wild boar, or turkey. His had been the two-legged kind. He was damn good at it, and he was no fucking turkey.
The soft sound of the sluggish Monocacy River intruded as the two men neared its bank.
“Quit that before you shoot me,” the one named Sean said.
“. . . got to be here someplace, or maybe he’s gone back into the house while we’ve been here?” the nervous one complained softly.
“Oh, shut up. Don’t be a coward. I told you I shot him. He’s out here and he’s wounded. He can’t be far.”
Behind the two, undiscovered, lay the body of Ian. They seemed less interested in what had happened to Ian, than they were in finding Tucker. Why was he so important that three men, at least one of them Irish, would try to kill him?Robbery?If he was going to rob someone and that someone escaped, he would be hightailing it for the nearest county line rather than trying to track him down on unfamiliar territory. Maybe they expected him to run or be so scared that he curled up in a fetal position, shut his eyes tight, and waited for them to find him. They were stupid. Of course, they had two weapons to his one, but it doesn’t take a genius to pull a trigger. Plus, they couldn’t know he was armed now. Then he recalled the comment the scared one said about him knowing how to operate in the night. No, they knew who he was, but why were they after him?
He took several deep breaths. Reaching around his waist, he ran his hand down the edge of his back. Around the waistline of his jeans, blood had soaked through to the point where the wetness slurped against his skin. He needed to wrap this up soon. Otherwise, he was going to lose consciousness because he was losing too much blood.
Tucker licked his lips. His head swam. He blinked several times to clear his vision, which seemed to swim in and out of focus. He shut his left eye and aimed over the top of the short barrel at the one called Sean. Sean led the two by a couple of steps. Tucker squeezed his finger slowly on the trigger, shifting the barrel slightly so it aligned itself with the front of the man. He pulled the trigger. The first shot hit the one called Sean in the stomach, causing him to arch forward. The second caught himin the chest. Tucker shifted the pistol to the second man. The one called Casey began firing wildly in the direction from where the two shots had come. Tucker fired. The first bullet missed the man, but the second caught him in the chest just as he turned to run, causing the man to collapse in mid step. The pistol fell from the man’s hand, landing silently on the pine-carpeted forest floor. Tucker fired again. The third bullet caught the man in the head, causing it to jerk backward as he fell. The body hit the ground.
Tucker waited. The danger was past. The two were dead. If not, they would be soon. He looked toward the house. The balcony light shined outward, faintly outlining a peaceful backyard for anyone looking this way. He shut his eyes. He’d rest for a few moments and then force his way to the house and call for help. His breath came in rapid, short gasps. He’d be alright. He just needed a short breather to catch his breath and recapture enough strength to make it to the house and the telephone. Tucker faded into unconsciousness. He heard a slight moan from one of the two men he had shot, and then, as his consciousness evaporated, the sound of running footsteps approaching reached his ears. For a fraction of a second, a surge of panic nearly fought through the swirling fall into the darkness, but the loss of blood and the strength used to fight the killers were too much. Tucker passed out just as hands turned him over.CHAPTER 2
THE GRINDING GEARS OF THE HEAVY TRUCK FORCED THEdockhands to shout instructions and questions. As it inched closer to where the tramp freighter was tied up to the cement pier, the Africans sidestepped gingerly out of its way, shielding their night vision from the glare of the yellow headlights. Several times, the brakes squealed—metal on metal—as the driver stopped. He would then tap on his horn a couple of times, whereupon Jihadist supervisors would shove Africans toward the truck, shouting at them to shift or move waiting boxes and loose gear out of its path. Then, with a smile, the thin reed of a driver would rev the straining engine up again, the gears grinding more metal from the thin teeth, and the truck would inch forward again.
Mixing with the smell of the unburned oil spewing dark thick exhaust from the truck was the fetid odor of human waste floating in the waters of this hidden African inlet. The pipe leading from the Ivory Coast port city of Abidjan worked its way through the jungle and rain forestof this West African country to pump unprocessed waste into the waters south of it. Tide and current carried most of the waste out to sea, but spin-off currents and high tide kept a large portion of the waste trapped inside this inlet of deep water. Floating on top of the languid water, the waste baked in the sun, soaked in salt water, and eventually drifted down to join the decades-old waste blanketing the inlet bottom. No fish lived in the inlet. They had either died or escaped years before.
The noise of the pier bothered Abu Alhaul. It bothered his bodyguards also. Standing in the shadows of the dilapidated warehouse, he watched the dockhands load the old freighter, occasionally glancing toward the truck working its way closer to the ship. Silently he wondered what they would do if the truck broke down before it reached the freighter. He reached up and stroked his dark beard, the thin white streak running along the right side hidden in the shadows of the darkness.
“I think we should return to the house,” Abdo said, briefly touching Abu Alhaul on the arm. “You must eat something, my brother. You haven’t eaten all day, and it isn’t as if you have the weight I do to compensate.” Abdo patted his huge stomach and chuckled softly. He licked his lips, his eyes darting to the dark African jungle that reached the edges of the inlet. “It isn’t safe here.”
“If it isn’t safe here, Abdo, then it isn’t safe at that hovel you call a house. It’s night. The Ivorians will be sleeping off their drunkenness, and the French will be staggering from bar to bar. The earliest anyone would come to investigate the noise will be morning. By then, you and I will be far away, and the ship will have departed.”
The grinding of the driver shifting gears drowned Abdo’s reply. Abu Alhaul dismissed his brother with a wave and stepped away from the warehouse, directly into the faint light of the single bulb burning over double doors that lead into the empty building. Missing glass from windows on each side of the rusted doors told how African dockworkers passed idle time. One of the doors hungprecariously from one huge rusty iron hinge, the bottom one missing, either broken off or stolen. Waist-high grass grew along both sides of the disabled door.
Abu Alhaul reached up and straightened his black headdress. African dockhands moved back and forth across the front of the truck, breaking up the yellow glow of the headlights. The workers, moving crates and boxes by hand, slid like a parting sea to allow the truck to creep closer to the freighter, never in danger of being run over unless they fell and refused to get up, able to wait the few minutes it would take the truck to run over them. Several patted the rusted fenders as they walked across its path to grab another box from the pier, lift it onto their broad shoulders, and with head down, walk toward the gangway leading onto the freighter.
“What if it breaks down?” Abdo asked. “We’d never be able to push the truck closer.”
Abu Alhaul, whose Arabic name translated to “Father of Fear,” replied, “No, we would have to shift the freighter backward.”
“Not right now we couldn’t. The truck needs to make another fifty meters. The water is too shallow to move the ship back. We would have to wait for high tide, and high tide”—he pulled the sleeve back on his robe and looked at his watch—“is three hours away.”
“Three hours from now, Abdo, the freighter must be underway. It must be out of here and fifteen miles out to sea when the sun rises. That will take it over the horizon and out of sight.”
The squeal of brakes reminded Abu Alhaul of the Egyptian teacher he and Abdo had had when they were growing up. A teacher who enjoyed trailing his fingernails down an old chalkboard, creating a chill-raising screech that caused his students to wiggle in agony as they covered their ears. He could still hear the old man’s laughter. Abu Alhaul also recalled the glazed eyes in what remained of the old man’s head after Abdo and he had smashed it in with bricks. It had taught him the value of terror. Of doing something so dramatic that those awareof it capitulated to his leadership. He had watched, mesmerized, as the fear in the eyes of the old man had faded into the gaze of death. Then he had slowly sawed his knife through the man’s neck, realizing as the blood pumped from the arteries running along the sides of the neck that the man wasn’t quite dead. When he held the head up for Abdo to see, there was no doubt the teacher was dead, but even so, Abu Alhaul had looked down at the stump of the neck to make sure the blood had quit pumping.
The teacher had been a Coptic Christian; one of many in Egypt, but with this death—Abu Alhaul’s first—there was one less. In the life of a Jihadist, every death was important to remember and appreciate in the furtherance of teaching to the world obedience of Allah’s will. He softly mumbled “Allah Akbar” a couple of times. Someday the world would bend to his will for his will, was Allah’s will.
“It will make it,” he said softly as he turned to watch the truck.
“Uh,” Abdo grunted. “Let’s hope Allah is beneath the bonnet of that truck.”
Abu Alhaul glanced at his larger and younger brother. “Abdo, you blaspheme Allah’s name?”
“Oh, I would never do that, my brother. You and he are close friends. Since you two are so close, I have decided that I’m here to serve you.” He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and clasped his hands behind his back. “Allah just happens to be nearby.”
Abu Alhaul leaned closer to his brother. “Abdo, you must learn to be more respectful. While I understand your sarcasm and how little the will of Allah means to you, others who follow me would not.”
Abdo nodded and looked down. “They follow you; not me. I follow you, not Allah.” He glanced over at his shorter brother. “Someday, my brother, you will need someone who will risk his life to save yours.” Abdo pulled a white cloth from a side pocket and blew his nose. “Besides, where you go, I go. If you weren’t here, I would not be.” When Abu Alhaul failed to answer, Abdo liftedhis headdress and ran the cloth through his thick black hair, the long strands falling over his ears and down the back of his neck. “You know, my brother. Right now, as we stand here fighting the heat and mosquitoes so big they could carry you away to feast on you later, the cafés and restaurants of Cairo are bustling with activity. The cool breeze of the Nile would be winding through the city streets, bringing a welcomed relief from the day’s heat. We could be sitting, enjoying a small figan of coffee or tea, watching the tourists parade across—”
“In the new world, those tourists will stay in their own country, serving us,” Abu Alhaul interrupted, his voice hard and firm.
Abdo nodded, waited a couple of seconds, and added, “Of course, they will, but right now they are promenading through the heart of Cairo, and with them they bring a light of enthusiasm; a light of humor; a light of life. And, the women bring a light of legs.” He chuckled.
Abu Alhaul turned suddenly, slapped his brother, and snapped, “That is enough!”
Abdo’s eyes moistened. He rubbed the growing red spot on his bare left cheek. Sometimes, even he failed to understand the man who had risen to replace Sheik Osama.
After the rebuke, the two men stood silent, watching the constant parade of Africans carrying the boxes up the narrow gangway, stepping down onto the deck, and then being directed various ways by the four Jihadists standing at the top. Like ants preparing a nest for the winter, the lines continued to move. Abu Alhaul couldn’t understand the words the Africans were exchanging, but the laughter and gaiety told him of their expectation of good wages for this job. The Africans were used to smuggling, so the idea of loading a rust-bucket freighter in the middle of the night was not new to them.
One of Abu Alhaul’s men held a clipboard, checking off an inventory list as the Africans paraded past him at the foot of the gangway. Two other Jihadists stood on the pier, each holding an AK-47. A short, squat man wearinga straw hat and dressed in a western suit moved among boxes stacked a few feet from the foot of the gangway. Periodically he would stop one of the Africans and make the man stack the box being carried with the others. Each time he did it, the man with the clipboard scowled and looked toward the warehouse.
Abu Alhaul knew the man was searching for him, but in the shadows of the building as long as he remained motionless, his silhouette blended into the shadows behind the unshaded light bulb that lit up the four men assigned to guard him.
Forty minutes later, the truck squealed to a halt, its flat bed parallel to the stern of the freighter. Two of the Jihadist supervisors pushed and cajoled the Africans onto the bed to untie a canvas tarp covering the contents. The rear tires were nearly flat from the weight of whatever was tied down on the bed.
Two Africans untied two lines running from the highest point of the tarp to the top of the cab of the truck. The line running from the bottom of the tarp to the edge of the bed untied easily, but the heavy weight beneath the tarp and the shifting of the truck had pulled the fourth line so tight that several of the dockworkers pushed and pulled and argued as they tried to untie it. Finally, tired of the wait, one of the Arab supervisors angrily pushed his way through the growing crowd gathering to provide advice to the Africans on the truck bed above them. The Arab pulled the light robe up between his knees, reached up, grabbed a handhold on a stanchion sticking out from the truck, and pulled himself up. He pushed the Africans aside, knocking one of them off the bed and into the arms of the small crowd below. Cocking his head back arrogantly, the thin reed of a man whipped out a long knife and in one smooth motion sliced through the hemp line.
“Pull it away!” he shouted, jumping down.
Abu Alhaul smiled. He had made the right decision to entrust this mission to Tamursheki. This worshipper was worth more here in the spread of Allah’s word than wasting his time in some western university trying to becomea doctor. Those with the greatest ambition are easily the quickest to change directions when success and glory are promised. Tamursheki was such a man, Abu Alhaul thought, as he watched him move back toward the end of the gangway and pick up his clipboard again. Every movement needs an educated cadre who can do the little things such as Tamursheki did. It was indeed unfortunate that even such a disciple as Tamursheki couldn’t know everything about this mission. Such a disciple would be missed. In war, casualties happened, and sometimes those casualties had to be planned in battle. A master must be capable of sacrificing his own forces when it will help win the war.
The dockhands grabbed the sides of the dark tarp and pulled it, hand-over-hand, off the back of the truck, revealing the bottom half of a square container. The tarp caught on the forward edge of the huge thing beneath it. Grunting for a moment, the dockworkers jerked hard, ripping it free, cutting through the canvas like a knife. When the tarp cleared the truck bed, falling into a huge bundle beside the rear left wheels, a huge dark gray van sat exposed on the bed. Abu Alhaul’s eyes narrowed as he searched along the front side of the van until finally he saw the faint outline of a small door.
Several Africans rolled the tarp flat, then took the ends of it, folding it up and over several times before throwing their bodies on top of it. A couple others hurriedly wound rope around the tarp, tied it off, and jumped out of the way of the two who had folded the tarp. The two grabbed the ends and carried it across the dock. Abu Alhaul watched with suspicion. Suspicion was a key to survival when you attempted to meld into the local populace and you knew others wanted to see your head on the end of a stake. The two Africans swung the tarp three times, letting it go on the third. The heavy tarp fell, landing about two inches from their feet, causing the two men to jump back involuntarily. How stupid they were, but just as he needed people like Tamursheki with some sense of intelligence, he also needed those who were stupid likethese dockworkers who were already counting the money they thought to make tonight.
The two Africans laughed at themselves, with one pointing at the tarp and saying something in the local dialect. Abu Alhaul knew they intended to return later for it. Tarps such as this made excellent roofs for the thatch huts where many of them lived. It was too bad that none could return, but Allah demanded a lot in his service, and the life of a non-Muslim was as insignificant as a sheep. Without thinking about it, Abu Alhaul ground the ball of his right foot onto the pier.As a sheep.
The sound of heavy machinery filled the air, riding over the noise of the dockworkers and the grinding gears of the truck. A huge crane started creeping along the tracks running the length of the pier. Several minutes passed before it stopped, the arm with the heavy crane positioned over the bed of the truck. The strain of the machinery ceased as the crane stopped moving. The grinding noise from the gears of the truck had stopped, and the driver had turned the engine off.
“You, you, and you!” shouted the supervisor. “Get up here and help with this.”
Three African dockhands leapt aboard the bed of the truck. One of them stopped long enough to run his hand along the flush edges of the small door leading inside the van.
Abu Alhaul saw the man, but considering the future of the dockhands, singling out the action would accomplish little other than to slow up an already slow evolution, so he kept his tongue. He wondered briefly who the man worked for? CIA? French? African nationalist?
Oh, yes, African nationalist, no doubt. This Mumar Kabir, who had at one time had been his number-one African leader, was building a rabble army north of Liberia and northwest of here. What did the African think they could accomplish? If it weren’t for the Arabs helping the Africans, nothing would ever evolve in this dark continent.
Two of the Jihadists pulled themselves onto the top of the van. One motioned the crane operator to lower thehook, and when it was at head level, he placed the chains, handed to him by the other Jihadist, one at a time onto the huge iron hook. Then the two jumped down.
The people on the bed of the truck leaped down. The Africans shifted farther away from the truck as the crane took a strain on the weight. The screaming of the straining engine of the crane preceded the lifting of the van until it was several inches from the bed. Then the noise seemed to steady as the van rose higher.
The truck driver started the engine and eased the truck from beneath the heavy weight, knowing that if the crane lost purchase on the cargo, the drop would destroy his truck. Ownership of a commercial vehicle in the Ivory Coast was more important than protecting whatever it was they paid him to deliver. A television set. That was what he was going to buy with this money. All he wanted was the remainder of what was owed him and he was going to get the hell out of here; for whatever they were doing, he didn’t want to know. The less known is better sometimes.
The flaking red hull of the freighter highlighted the dark van swaying minutely beside it. Abu Alhaul traced the slow pace of the van rising alongside the freighter. To his left, the Africans had resumed carrying the stuff from the pier onto the freighter. He looked at the top of the ladder and saw only two of his men. It meant one of the two missing would be at the stern of the ship, supervising the loading of the van. He was one of the Jihadist warriors. But where was the other one? Then he spotted him. The man in the western suit stepping off the bottom of the ladder had been hidden behind several large dockworkers as they worked their way up the narrow gangway. The man met Abu Alhaul’s gaze and headed toward him. Abu Alhaul took a further step into the shadows. Ignoring the approaching man, he turned his attention to the van that had now reached a level above the safety lines along the edge of the deck.
The van wobbled about two feet above the height of the safety lines. Complaining gears matched with lessstrain on the engines, twisted the dangling cargo inch by inch across the edge of the deck. The engine pitch increased as the crane eased forward on its huge wheels, giving the arm better reach over the ship as the van inched forward. Beneath the van, a slight rise on the deck marked the helicopter landing pad. A yellow cross with a circle near the center of the ‘X’ highlighted the target for an approaching pilot.
As his engineer had explained to Abu Alhaul, this was the only place topside that had the reinforced deck to support the weight of the van. The crane started lowering the heavy van toward the deck several feet below it.
The sudden sound of snapping chains startled Abu Alhaul, causing him to cringe instinctively. Dockworkers dropped their loads as they ran. The chains spun through the buckles, smoke rising from the friction as the steel chain links whipped across the hook. The van tilted forward. The chain shot out, whipping across a supervisor standing to the right of the cargo. In the fraction of a second that the chain caught him, it snapped his spinal cord, bending the man’s head backward to touch the heels of his feet even as it continued a deadly swath through the dust rising as the cargo unceremoniously crashed to the deck.
The stern of the freighter dropped nearly a foot in its draft before the water pushed it back up over two feet. The water of the inlet rushed between the ship and dock. The lines running from the bullocks to the ship groaned as they narrowed from the strain of the wave shoving the freighter away from the pier. The gangway fell, twisting to the side and tossing a couple of the Africans into the water between the ship and the dock. If any of the lines snapped, each would be like a razor whipping through the butter of human flesh. The deadly chain on the stern collapsed onto the deck, part of it still attached to the crane.
The mooring lines held, jerking the freighter back to the dock where it bounced off the line of old tires mounted in a line just below the edge of the dock, serving as bumper guards. A cry between the ship and the dockcut short. Abu Alhaul gave little thought to the two Africans flattened between the ship and the pier, their bodies already crushed and floating toward the bottom of the lifeless inlet. After all, they were just Africans.
Two of his men raced to the stern. Supervisors ashore screamed and berated the Africans until they emerged from hiding to hoist the loads they’d dropped and resumed the time-consuming work of loading the vessel. Abu Alhaul watched, emotionless. There was little that could be done, if it was Allah’s will.
“I hope the seals are unbroken,” Abdo said softly to his brother.
Abu Alhaul shrugged. “It matters little, if they are.”
“I think you may be wrong, my brother. If they are broken then people—spies—could determine what is inside the van.”
“The world will know soon enough what is inside it.”
“But surprises are better received when unexpected.”
“Abdo, you worry so much. You must trust Allah as I do.”
“It’s not Allah that bothers me, Abu; it is his followers—”
“—of which we are.”
Not all of the Africans continued loading the freighters. Some cautiously approached the stern of the ship, trying to see what had happened on the ship. Two Jihadists unpacked detection gear and were quickly waving the long wands around the van, sweeping the corners and the seals, looking for signs that a break in the container had occurred.
Abu Alhaul seemed to be the only one calm as time continued to pass and it began to look as if they would fail to meet his timetable. He looked left at two of his guards. He nodded at the one with the long mustache and watched as the young man handed his AK-47 to his comrade. The man reached down and pulled a small package from a backpack leaning against a stack of wooden cargo pads. Glancing both ways, the man, crouching, ran to the truck. The driver had slid across the seat to the open dooron the passenger side to watch the activity on the stern. The man slid onto his back and pulled himself under the truck. A few minutes later, he reemerged, looking toward his comrade, who had the automatic gun trained toward the truck. The comrade jerked his head, indicating the coast was clear. The man pulled himself completely out from under the truck, and with only a brief glance to assure himself the driver wasn’t in the seat above him, he ran back to his friend. Breathing heavily, he took his AK47. Then he looked at Abu Alhaul and, with a wide grin, nodded. When Abu Alhaul nodded in return, the man briefly touched his chin as a sign of respect and resumed his guard duties.
On board the freighter, the taller man handed his clipboard to a nearby Jihadist, and with the man wielding the wand, hoisted himself onto the roof of the van. He said something to the man with the detection gear. Taking the wand back, the younger man, bent at the waist, shuffled around the top of the dark van, sweeping the roof.
“Watch the edge, Tamursheki!” someone shouted.
Tamursheki never took his eyes off the man working the gear. He raised his hand motioning the comment aside.
Finished, the man stood, shrugged his shoulders, and said something to Tamursheki. Tamursheki looked over to where Abu Alhaul stood. He jumped from the top of the heavy cargo and grabbed a bullhorn from a nearby supervisor.
“Everything is okay, Alshiek!” Tamursheki shouted. “Amir has swept the . . . cargo.” The man on top waved the detection wand in the air.
“Well, there wouldn’t be, would there?” mumbled Abdo. When he saw the sharp look from Abu Alhaul, he offered, “After all, it’s thick steel with lead shielding surrounding every square inch of the inside. Of course, if we had built it here instead of miles away, we wouldn’t have had to transport it and this wouldn’t have wasted as much time loading.”
“The van is important.”
A cough drew Abu Alhaul’s attention. The man in thewestern suit had been standing silently beside him throughout the incident. Abu Alhaul looked down at the man, his expression never changing. It was the Palestinian.
“Abu Alhaul,” the short, stout man said, pushing the brim of a white fedora off his forehead. “My apologies for interrupting your thoughts, but I wanted to apprise you of where we stand.”
“Continue, Doctor Ibrahim.”
“Food and water is onboard. Captain Alrajool asked that I relay that to you. The medical supplies needed—for the health of the martyrs—are also on board.”
Abu Alhaul reached out and touched the shorter, squared-bodied man on the shoulder, forcing himself not to jerk his hand away from touching the western garment. “Doctor, you’re very important for the success of this mission. This is not a mission that will be accomplished in a week or two weeks, but it’s one that will carry the jewels of obedience to the infidels. Those chosen to martyr themselves in this Holy cause must behealthyso they arrive at the right place at the right time. My friends in Somalia tell me you are the best, but then I have to ask myself, if you are the best then why do they send you. Could it be that maybe they have no further use for you? Can I count on their words of your ability to keep them clean and clear of focus?”
Dr. Ibrahim’s eyes narrowed and he stopped himself before he said something that may cost him his life. Changing the subject, he pointed at the van. “Is this necessary, my leader? I thought I was the secret of the mission. Is this real? Is this something like a backup in the event I am unsuccessful?”
Abu Alhaul allowed himself a laugh. “Of course, it is necessary, Doctor. Every great plan has its details. Great plans are better carried out when the enemy realizes that he failed to watch the other hand of the magician. By then”—Abu Alhaul snapped his fingers—“the trick is over, the crowd is both surprised and perplexed in their amusement. You, my dear friend, are the magician. Thevan is the hand the Great Satan will watch.”
The sound of the chains being secured to the van and rehooked to the crane drowned out the doctor’s words, but Abu Alhaul nodded anyway. What did it matter in the scheme of obedience where the lesson was learned as long as those learning it recognized their decadence? But if America was as decadent and soft as Osama predicted, then why were they still fighting years later and still chasing the remnants of Al Qaeda around the world? He sighed.
The breeze changed slightly, blowing across the inlet, lifting the fetid smell higher into the air to whiff across the freighter, the pier, to flow across where Abu Alhaul stood.
“Whew!” said Abdo. “How do they stand living here? The smell, the dirt, the filth.”
“They need to understand Allah’s obedience before they can appreciate the depth of depravity in which they live.”
“Depravity? I would call it more a lack of hygiene. I bet if you gave them a bar of soap each, half of them would think it was something to eat.”
“And the other half?”
“Wouldknowit was something to eat.”
The crane strained as it lifted the van slightly. On board the ship, about twenty men shoved and twisted the van until the supervisor shouted for them to stand back. Then the crane lowered the van into the corrected position on the helicopter deck.
“I have several more crates to load with my medical supplies, then we’ll be finished,” Dr. Ibrahim added.
Abu Alhaul watched the van. If it was damaged or lost, the mission could be endangered. He nodded at Ibrahim. As long as the doctor did what he was supposed to do, they would succeed with a greater measure of success than having the van explode inside the American harbor.
“I talked with Captain Alrajool, Abu,” Dr. Ibrahim continued, ignoring the inattention of the man in front of him. He wondered briefly what these Arabs saw in thisman. “He is in engineering, checking the steam pressure. He says that as soon as the remainder of the supplies, including the zodiac rafts, are on board, and they finish securing the van, the ship would sail.”
“Looks as if we have it loaded, my brother. I see that Tamursheki has taken charge again. You have a loyal servant in him.”
“And, I don’t in you, Abdo?”
Dr. Ibrahim sighed. “If there is nothing else, I’m going to return to the ship and make sure that the things I need to do my part have been properly loaded.” He looked past Abu Alhaul to Abdo. If you wanted something done, never go to the number one person, always go to the number two. Then, things get done. “Abdo, would you relay to my bosses that everything is going according to the agreement and plan.” He looked at Abu Alhaul, then back to Abdo. “That is, I trust everything is going according to your wishes?” He asked, peering over the top of his wire-rim glasses.
A few minutes later, the Palestinian was climbing back up the restored gangway to the ship.
“I am but Allah’s servant,” Abu Alhaul mumbled, just loud enough for Abdo to hear.
“A servant such as you, Abdo.”
“A servant, no. A loving brother who would sacrifice his life for his older, misguided brother, yes.”
Abu Alhaul faced the freighter again. “You didn’t always think I was misguided.”
“I didn’t always think I was going to have to follow you to places where humidity and heat create red patches to cover my body. Where fresh water is something unusual, but hot water is a normal occurrence. Where even the plants are dangerous. Where the snakes that are not poisonous can swallow you whole. No, my brother. Love is one thing, but being comfortable and happy would definitely improve my love for you.”
Abu Alhaul shook his head. “You know, little brother, I fail to understand your attempts to distract me from mymission. If Allah wanted us to remain in Egypt, living off the sweat of others, and giving lip service to him, he would have shown me the way.”
Abdo reached over and touched his brother on the shoulder. “Ramsi—”
Abu Alhaul jerked his shoulder out from under his brother’s hand. “The name is Abu Alhaul. Ramsi is dead. He died years ago.”
“Say what you will,” Abdo said irritably. “You are Ramsi to me and will always be the younger brother who I carried from the house when it burned. You’ll be the younger brother who I protected from bullies in our village. And who was it who pulled you away when you decided to die defiantly by standing in front of an American tank as it roared down the street? Ramsi, it was, and Ramsi it will always be.” Abdo turned and walked away, heading toward the stern of the freighter. “What is wrong with a name of a Pharaoh?” Abdo muttered to himself.
On board the ship, Tamursheki jumped from atop the van to the deck. Shouting orders to the Africans and his fellow voyagers, the man watched closely as they quickly fell to the task of securing the heavy van to the ship. Both line and chain ran from the deck to the bolts on top of the van.
Abu Alhaul nodded, satisfied with Tamursheki. This Yemeni would need to maintain a strong hold on the martyrs accompanying him—taking the war to the country that had destroyed so much of the organization he had inherited.
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE GANGWAY, DR. IBRAHIM PULLEDan African out of line and motioned him to put the two metal boxes he was carrying to the side. He reached up and pushed his white fedora back, revealing several sweat-soaked strands of hair plastered across the bald pate in a vain attempt to hide the baldness. He ran a handkerchief across his forehead, wondering how he came to behere. Was what Abu Alhaul said correct? Did the Iraqi underground want to get rid of him?
He squatted beside the two boxes, running his hands over the seals to see if they were intact. He licked his lower lip and felt a fresh wave of perspiration break out across his forehead. He wondered why. He had nothing to fear except those he was about to sail with. Satisfied the boxes were okay, he remained squatting, glancing back and forth along the pier, looking for what, he wasn’t sure. Ibrahim pulled a dirty handkerchief from the back pocket of his white trousers and wiped the sweat from his brow. He never should have trusted Tamursheki to have them carried aboard. The Arab was as useless as the other fanatic martyrs signed up for this one-way trip. Of course, most, if any, didn’t realize this was a one-way trip. Few knew it was, except for him and the Captain. All they had to do was deliver the van to operatives ashore. He had two options, he thought, reaching up and patting the papers in his right suit-coat pocket.
If it weren’t for the money—and the knowledge that he wouldn’t live long enough to make it to the exit of the port—he’d give this enterprise up. Plus, being a member of the Iraqi underground didn’t mean being Arab. If they knew he was Jewish, he wouldn’t live another second. He patted the keys jammed into his pants pocket. If anyone looked closely at his keys, they would discover a small Star of David hidden within one of the key-chain ornaments.
He patted the boxes as he stood. He needed the medicine in these boxes, otherwise he couldn’t guarantee the degree of health that Abu Alhaul wanted for this bunch of human weapons. Without these containers, how could he fulfill his part of the bargain with this bunch of “let’s die for Allah” fools?
Ibrahim had given strict instructions to this weasel Tamursheki to have these boxes carried directly to the medical facility on board the ship. Instead, if he hadn’t seen them being carried by this African, they could have been stored anywhere on the ship, and it would have taken along time to find them. Time was the critical element. If you managed the time right, then everything else fell into step. The loud voice of Tamursheki drew Ibrahim’s attention to the stern. He gave a few seconds’ thought to marching down there and shouting his anger at him. He sighed, reached down, grabbed the handles of the two boxes, and turned toward the gangway. This Tamursheki was mercurial. Ibrahim was unsure whether Tamursheki would leap down to the pier and cut his throat, ignore him, or offer a groveling apology if he marched down in righteous anger and shouted abuse at him. Ibrahim hadn’t lived to be this age without being able to control his emotions.
Pushing his way into the line of Africans loading the ship, Dr. Ibrahim soon passed up the gangway and disappeared into the ship.
Abdo waddled back toward Abu Alhaul, his head down.
“It is loaded, Abu. We can go and watch the departure from the hillside.”
Abu Alhaul shook his head. “Soon, my brother.”
It took another thirty minutes to complete the loading of the old, rusting freighter. In that time, the man Abu Alhaul had chosen to lead this attack, Tamursheki, finished overseeing the anchoring of the heavy van to the stern. Abu Alhaul and Abdo watched from the shadows as Tamursheki mustered his fellow martyrs on the stern. They were unable to hear what the young twenty-five-year-old told the other young men, but Abu Alhaul knew it would be something about how they were working in Allah’s name; that killing infidels increased Allah’s might and joy; and, if he was there, he would remind them of the seventy virgins waiting for them in paradise.
“It’s all Assassin, isn’t it?” Abdo said
Abu Alhaul looked at him and smiled. “And where did that thought come from? Has some insight suddenly exploded within that fat brain of yours?” Abu Alhaul said, his voice betraying amusement.
Abdo grimaced. “Fat I may be, but I prefer to think of it as added padding to keep the bullets out of the vital spots.”
“If fat can do that, Abdo, then you will be invincible. Now tell me what you mean by referring to Al Ahsan.”
He pointed to the group of Jihadists gathered on the stern of the ship. “You know what I mean; you’re doing it. What we do today is really a descendant movement of Al Ahsan.”
“Al Ahsan was a great man.”
Abdo chuckled. “He was a wise man who knew how to manipulate the emotions and the desires of young men.”
The smile left Abu Alhaul’s face. “Brother, you mock me.”
Abdo shook his head. “I would never mock you. I admire and love you. You know that. No one loves you more than your own brother. And this fat may someday protect you from death.”
Abu Alhaul turned away and continued his observation of the activity visible on the ship and the pier. Africans were crawling aboard the flatbed truck at the urging of their supervisors. A few were twitching their shoulders, loosening the tight muscles from the heavy carrying. The tone of the conversation, the friendly slaps and hits being exchanged, the joking banter of workmen finished for the day and happy at the thoughts of going home, made the scene almost surreal.
“During the Christian crusades of their eleventh century,” Abdo recited softly, “there arose a great prophet in the land now known as Iran. And this prophet, known as Al Ahsan, gathered around him other mullahs of Allah and discussed how they could rid the Holy Lands of these defilers. And it was decided that to instill fear into their hearts would hasten their departure. And what weapon do we—people of the desert—have to throw against the infidels? And the only weapon they could find were the children. Al Ahsan, acting on the word of Allah, sent his followers into the barren cities of Persia and Iraq, andthere they spread the word of Al Ahsan about an unbelievable paradise that awaited those who died in the name of their religion. A paradise oasis where those who died in Allah’s name lived for eternity in a spacious home surrounded by fruit trees and flowing waters.”
The engine died on the truck. The grinding sound of the starter caused Abu Alhaul to believe the truck had broken down, but then it caught. The driver revved up the engine. A backfire caused the Jihadists to crouch instinctively. A blast of dark, oily exhaust shot out from the tailpipe, and the wind blew it back across the Africans crowded into the bed, bringing forth shouts of displeasure.
“And when Al Ahsan and his followers believed they had found a willing disciple, they would drug him—”
“I prefer the version where he falls into a deep sleep.”
“—and while he was asleep they would take him to a hidden place, so when he awoke, he found himself in a great mansion in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fruit trees and running waters. And, dashing through the house and among the garden were young girls—”
“—virgins with whom the young man would have his way. And, after a few days—”
“—two days, they would dru—put him to sleep again and spirit him back to whence he came.”
“That’s better. We drug no one.”
Abdo cocked his head at his brother, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “No drug?”
“No drugs. Never, ever.”
“Words and a willingness to believe; to echo words that mean nothing when you peel them back like an onion, but they bring tears to the eyes of those who bathe in them.”
Abu Alhaul waved his hand impatiently. “Go ahead and finish, Abdo. I enjoy the story and it passes time.”
The truck shifted into gear. The driver’s head appeared out of the window, his left arm draped outside the door as he looked behind him. The engine noise rose in tempoas the driver pushed on the pedal and the gears ground as metal teeth tore against each other. The truck backed up, inching out of the narrow confines of the pier, past the stern of the ship toward an alley between the warehouses, where it could turn around.
“And, when the disciples awoke and told Al Ahsan and his closest followers what had happened, they convinced him that he had been blessed by Allah and shown what paradise would be like when he died.”
The headlights of the truck played across the freighter as it backed into the alley. The familiar sound of grinding gears announced the shift from reverse to first.
“Convinced that he must die in the service of Allah, the leaders gave the young man a knife and whispered instructions on what he must do to re-enter the gates of paradise. Then, they patted him on the butt and laughed as they sent him off—”
“Abdo!” Abu Alhaul scolded.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he said with a downward motion of his hand. “I will try to stay to the original story.”
“That would be something I would like to hear.”
Abu Alhaul nodded at the man who had crawled under the truck earlier. The man handed the AK-47 to the man beside him, reaching into the knapsack to pull out a remote control device, along with a couple of hand grenades. Glancing again at Abu Alhaul, who lowered his eyes in acknowledgment, the man ran down the pier toward the truck that had now reached the gate leading off the jungle pier and into the bush.
“And the young man would sneak into the camps of the Christian infidels and cut the throat of a single person sleeping among the others. Lying on his stomach, he would then saw the head off the body and place the head on the chest of the dead Christian before sneaking off into the night again.”
At the gate, the taillights of the truck passed through the open chain-link fence. The man stopped, jumped behind a couple of large crates stacked on top of each other.He leaned around the edge, pointed the remote control at the truck, and pressed the button.
“Eventually, he would be caught and killed.”
The explosion split open the night darkness and rode over the sounds of the ship and the jungle. From beneath the warehouse, other members of Abu Alhaul’s guard strolled toward the dead, dying, and wounded. The man who had blown up the truck pointed to the hillside outside the gate, pulled the pin on the grenade, and threw it over the fence. The explosion stopped some of the screaming. The men walked among the Africans. Those still alive they shot. Some near the fetid waters of the inlet they rolled into the bay.
“And the Christians called these silent killers of the night Assassins, which means followers of Al Ahsan. When they realized the nature of the killings and what those doing it believed, and to whom they swore undying loyalty, the Christians sought out Al Ahsan and destroyed his palace and him. And, to send a message to others who may follow, they killed his wives and his children so that his seed would not pass into posterity.”
“That’s the part of the story I don’t care for.”
Abdo nodded. “It is the part I don’t like either, but a part that I do not worry about occurring in this day and age. The Americans would never do what is needed to stop those who willingly give their lives for their religion.”
The shooting stopped. His bodyguards returned from their duties. No way could he allow the Africans to talk as soon as they reached home or one of those hovels converted to serve alcohol. It was in their best interests to have no witness left behind who could tell the Americans what was coming.
On the stern of the ship, the Jihadists clapped in appreciation to the executioners as they hoisted their weapons and spread out along the dock beside the ship.
“Single up all lines,” came the shout from the bridge. Leaning out from the edge of the bridge wing, a thin dark man, wearing a dingy Greek Navy cap with dirtyembroidered gold leaves on its brim, held a bullhorn to his lips. On board the ship, two men stood at each of the eight lines holding the ship to the pier. On the pier, the bodyguards lifted the top line off the bollards and dropped it. The seamen, hand over hand, rapidly pulled the lines aboard the ship.
The Captain rushed from one end of the long bridge wing to the other, watching his seamen build a stack of lines behind each portal where a mooring line threaded its way to the pier, until finally the end of each flew onto the deck and joined the neatly curled stacks.
Satisfied, he raised the bullhorn. “Cast off lines one, two, three, four, six!”
Four minutes later, the ship was tied to the pier only by the stern line. Abu Alhaul watched, but failed to understand why the Captain kept one line taut.
On board the ship, the Captain leaned into the bridge.
“Helmsman, right full rudder, three revolutions ahead.”
The helmsman swung the wheel to the right, watching it spin, hand over hand, the maneuver most mariner work required. He kept the wheel spinning until, “Right full rudder, Captain.” He glanced at the annunciator. “Engine room shows ahead three revolutions.”
The Captain ran to the front of the bridge wing and watched the bow as it slowly swung out, away from the pier. Then the ship inched forward. He glanced behind him at the remaining seventh line; it was slack as the stern swung in toward the pier. About six feet separated the ship from the pier. Raising the bullhorn, he shouted, “Take in seven!”
Ashore, the bodyguards shoved the huge line off the bollard. Aboard the ship, the seamen hurriedly pulled the line on board.
The Captain stuck his head into the bridge. “Ahead, twelve revolutions. Rudder amidships. Navigator, give me data.”
“Recommend course two-eight-five, three knots.”
“Helmsman, steer course two-eight-five, three knots.”
ABU ALHAUL AND ABDO WATCHED THE SHIP UNTIL ITcleared the harbor entrance.
Abdo cleared his throat. “My brother, the Irish have asked again for their money.”
Abu Alhaul shook his head. “We have given them over a hundred thousand British pounds and they failed their mission. What do they—”
“They think that they acted in good faith to extract your revenge from this American. The fact that they failed to do it is lost in their sense of mission.”
Abu Alhaul stared at Abdo for a few seconds, then pointed toward the freighter. “That ship will take care of what they failed to do. I find it disgusting that we must work with infidels to do what we should do ourselves. They were your idea, Abdo—my brother—you take care of the Irish. I do not care to work with them again. Their battle with their British masters is theirs; not ours.”
Abdo bit his lower lip, then replied. “Don’t you think you are allowing personal vengeance to cloud our war of faith?”
Abu Alhaul remained silent, staring at the fading ship. Minutes passed with only the noise of the nearby jungle filling the air before Abu Alhaul finally turned and started walking away, remarking to Abdo, who joined him, “It’s time to go. The French will be here soon. The explosion will have been reported.”
With bodyguards leading the way, the group walked through the vacant warehouse to the SUVs on the other side. Thirty minutes later the pier and harbor were quiet.
Beneath the dock, the African pulled himself up until his head was just enough above the dock so he could see. He waited several minutes before crawling out and onto the dock. Another couple of minutes passed before he jumped up, and at a crouching run dived for cover behind a stack of rusting metal. Fifteen minutes he waited before he worked his way to the warehouse and followed in the direction Abu Alhaul had disappeared. At the far end ofthe warehouse, he squatted, running his hand along the tire marks on the ground. Then, apparently satisfied, he looked in the direction the SUVs had disappeared. He thought about going back to check on the other Africans, but to do so would leave signs of his presence. There had been a moment, when the ship was getting underway, when he’d thought the bow was going to jar the pilings where he had wedged himself. He rubbed his thighs. He was going to be one sore puppy tomorrow, but tonight he must report what he had seen. The lean African turned in the opposite direction from where Abu Alhaul and his group had disappeared. Moments later he turned off the road and onto a faint animal trail leading into the jungle.CHAPTER 3
“TUCKER, COME IN!” REAR ADMIRAL DUNCAN JAMESsaid, a broad smile etched across his face. The muscular fifty-three-year-old head of Navy SEALs briskly walked around his Pentagon desk, firmly taking Tucker’s hand and shaking it. “Here, have a seat and tell me how you’re doing.” Duncan pointed to one of the maroon leather chairs facing his desk.
“I’m doing fine, Admiral,” Tucker replied, waiting a fraction of a second to sit, allowing Admiral James to sit first. Junior personnel never sit before the senior officer does. Neither do they sit first when civilian ladies are present.
The door opened and Yeoman Chief Gonzales briskly entered the room. Balanced between her hands was a small aluminum tray with a silver-plated coffeepot between two small cups and saucers.
“Thanks, Chief,” Admiral James said as she set the tray down on the coffee table in front of the two men. James smiled. Tucker’s eyes glanced for a moment at the nice well-rounded legs of the Chief. “Nice, eh?” he said toTucker, pointing at the coffee, and smiling at the slight embarrassment he caused the Commander.
“If you need anything else, sir, I’ll be at my desk,” she said, her voice a husky Chicano accent.
Without waiting for a reply, she turned sharply on her heels, closing the door quietly as she left the room. A faint odor of perfume whiffed behind her.
Admiral James waited a second for her to clear the outer door. “I’ll get us some real mugs for this coffee, Tucker,” he said, in a conspiratorial tone as if the two of them were breaking one of the Chief’s rules of the house.
It made Tucker think of his two brothers and the nighttime raids on Mom’s cookie jar when they were lads. The Admiral rose quickly to cross the room to the cabinet where a host of official coffee mugs rested in a line. Mugs given to him from various commands and organizations over the course of his thirty-three years of service. “I’ve always thought that real men never drink coffee from a cup that causes your pinkie to stick out when you pick it up. I like a cup that fights back at you.”
Tucker stood, waiting for the Admiral to return. “Some of the coffee I’ve had at sea would meet the Admiral’s expectation.”
“Sit down, Tucker,” James said when he turned around. “It isn’t as if we have a bunch of rank-conscious, tradition-loving, rear-echelon mother lovers here,” he continued as he walked back, waving the officer down. James set the mugs on the coffee table.
Tucker reached for the pot, but Admiral James beat him. “Now tell me,” he said as he poured, “how are you—really?Those wounds healed?”
Tucker took his cup and nodded. “Still a little tight, but thanks to you giving me the time off to get my physical strength and stamina back, along with that Navy Lieutenant Commander who says she’s a physical therapist—but I think her real job is an interrogator for the CIA.”
“So, you’re ready to go back to the front lines?”
“I think I am ninety-eight percent ready to go, sir. Ofcourse, sir, if you listen to my physical therapist, I am about one step away from the grave.”
Duncan laughed. “Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. Nurse Bradley, right?”
“That’s the one.”
James shook his head, laughing. “She would have been at home during the Inquisition. When I came back from the North African campaign, from rescuing a bunch of American hostages”—he reached down and rubbed both knees—“these knees had given up the ghost. They went in, scraped some of the debris off them, then the doctors at Bethesda handed me over to her. They were as cheerful as sadists at a funeral. I know she may be your age, but she had no sympathy with an old man like me at fifty-two.”
“She definitely believes in making you hurt.”
“If it isn’t hurting, she used to say, it isn’t healing. I always told her that if hurting meant it was healing then I had two of the best knees in the military.”
Tucker smiled. A memory flashed through his thoughts of the young, thin Navy nurse. They had become more than patient-doctor after about a month together.
“I am firmly convinced,” James said, leaning forward and in a soft voice, “that the Air Force intentionally seeks out the best-looking women in America, and it’s the Navy that puts them in uniform.”
“She was definitely that,” Tucker added. He recalled the forced march Samantha Bradley—call me Sam—took him on his second day out of surgery. Three miles up the Potomac and back—badgering him along the way about a lowly Navy nurse outpacing a hard, war-tempered Navy SEAL. It was only through tenacity and force of will that he had completed the walk. It was only through double doses of whatever the military was using for bad joints at the time that he had successfully forced himself out of bed the next morning.
Duncan chuckled. “I see from your face you agree with me. Sam Bradley forced me on a six-mile round-trip exercise my first week out of surgery, telling me how happyshe was to know that a Navy nurse was able to outpace an old, has-been Navy SEAL.” He paused. “I thought at the time, if I caught up with her, I’d throw her in the Potomac.”
“The thought crossed my mind also, Admiral. I had a similar experience with her.” Three weeks together and he had asked her out. Nice dinner, with wine, candles, and a horrible piano player with two left hands. He had been pleasantly surprised at her feminine side. Nothing pretentious, he dropped her off at her apartment in Crystal City; a quick buss on the cheek and the next morning she was twice as horrible. Next time, he had decided, more wine, less talk.
“How far you running now?”
“I jogged with a bunch of the Joint Staff J3 SEALs yesterday. We did a fifteen-mile run along the Potomac, across the Memorial Bridge, through Washington, D.C., toured all the monuments, ran through a nude ‘no minks’ demonstration, and returned over the Fourteenth Street Bridge.”
“And, I suspect you felt wonderful,” Duncan James remarked, thinking of his gone-to-hell knees and how they would feel if he did a fifteen-mile run.
“I felt like hell, sir. My lungs ached. My legs ached. I think even the hair on my head ached. But, when I finished, it was a great feeling. It was as if the exertion burned out the poison in my body. Not to mention that first beer tasted so damn good.”
“I know what you mean, Tucker. The best reward for completing a hard physical workout is that first beer.” He paused and then, with a sigh, continued. “Tucker, down to business. The reason I asked you here today is to personally provide you a debrief on the events at your home in Urbana, Maryland, three months ago—May. My contacts at Naval Security Group Command tell me you’re asking questions and trying to determine why these three men attacked you.” James leaned over and pulled a thick binder off his desk. He opened it, took a sheet of paper from it, and laid the binder on the coffee table.
Tucker recognized the sheet as a blue blazer. A one-page tickler of bullets that gave just enough information for an uninformed reader to comprehend what the subject was about; why it was important; and what courses of actions were being recommended.
Tucker set his coffee on the table and clasped his hands together. He did want to know what happened. He had spent nearly three weeks in Bethesda—one in intensive care—as they dug out the bullet and repaired the damage to his body. It had taken another six weeks of physical therapy to allow him to reach a point where he was able to return to the heavy physical regime demanded of a United States Navy SEAL. The vision of Sam broke into his thoughts as he recalled his first run after several platonic dates with her. They were standing on the paved trail that ran along the Potomac near the Pentagon North parking lot. The run was going to be a short one. Two miles up and two miles back. He finished stretching and turned to start, her alongside him to the left. Suddenly, she had leaned against him, pressing her small breasts against his arm.
“If you catch me,” she whispered softly, “you can have me.” Then, she had pushed him away, causing him to trip, while she took off at a dead-heat down the path. It had taken him several seconds to give chase, but he never caught her. It took a week to catch her. He smiled. She had been true to her word, and now he couldn’t quit thinking of that lithe, smooth body—
Admiral James saw the smile and smiled himself. “You didn’t think you could try to find out what was being kept from you without it being noticed, did you?”
Tucker quit smiling. What did the Admiral mean? “Sorry, Admiral, my mind wandered for a moment.” His thoughts came back to that event in May. Every door he beat on since leaving Bethesda Naval Medical Facility had slammed shut in his face. Every question asked was met with feigned ignorance even as he knew they were lying.
“Yes, sir,” he said, his voice slightly irate. “I want to know why I had an Irishman and a couple of dumbAmerican buddies trying to kill me. And, Admiral, with all due respect, maybe someone can tell me why it seems that everyone but me knows why?”
“Don’t blame you at all, Tucker. Let’s start with the world in the twenty-first century . . .”
Tucker’s eyes narrowed. He had heard so much about Rear Admiral Duncan James, and here the man was fixing to go off on some tangent to avoid telling him the truth.
“It’s gone to shit in a handbasket. We fight an enemy who is stateless and ruthless. He crosses national borders as if they don’t exist, and when we follow him to take out those nations who harbor terrorists and provide them sanctuary, we’re the ones called terrorists. When we do find and shut down his financial backings, he moves on, depending on fake charities and business fronts to provide money to take anarchy, death, and destruction to those who refuse to believe as he does. Between you and me, nothing scares me more than a religious fanatic, regardless of what religion he or she belongs to. When you have no tolerance for how others believe and worship, then you’re dangerous to everyone around you. They’re the most dangerous of the terrorists because deep within their religion they believe that terrorism is an acceptable means to spread it.”
Tucker listened even as he picked up the coffee and sipped. The words of Duncan James caused him to recall the story of a radio interview where the woman reporter proclaimed that if we hadn’t taken God out of schools and turned our backs on Him in our lives, September 11th would never have happened. The radio show ended quickly when Admiral James pointed out that, one, it wasn’t God that did the horrors of that day—it was his followers, and, two, the Taliban had prayer in every school and forced it on everyone’s lives. Admiral James continued to talk about the importance of tolerance as Tucker feigned interest. He didn’t care why they were killing and running amok. His job was to find and kill them. Tucker didn’t see much reason to sit around philosophizing when the people he was fighting were shooting back at him. Tucker forced himself to pay attention.When flag officers spoke, you at least kept your eyes from glazing over. Rumor had it the Chief of Naval Operations hadaskedAdmiral James to avoid future interviews after several demonstrations broke out over his words. Someone had told Tucker that a mullah in Iran had declared open season on Admiral James. If so, Tucker could see why.
“Sorry about that,” Admiral James said. “I tend to digress sometimes. That digressing keeps getting me in trouble. If it wasn’t for some congressmen trying to insure that we in the military have some sort of freedom of speech, it’d be good odds I’d be gone by now. Let’s get back to you and what happened in May. You recall a mission in Yemen two years ago?”
Tucker thought for a moment. There had been so many missions. It had to be one staged out of Djibouti. “Yes, sir,” he finally replied. “I think I do. If I’m right, it would have been Operation Wipe-up. We followed a major campaign of Joint Task Force Promote Freedom. Promote Freedom was a massive hunt-and-kill operation against a reemerging Al Qaeda base in the Wild West hill country of Yemen. Lasted about three weeks. Everyone said it was a great success. Army Blackhawks dropped us to ground in the hills around a lawless tribal area of Northern Yemen. We waited a week after Promote Freedom had ceased and the bombing had stopped for those terrorists hiding to reemerge. Then we started a covert search-and-destroy against them. We had a two-prong effort with us Americans operating on the southern end of the operations zone and the British-Australian Special Forces working their way south from the northern edge of the zone. We engaged and destroyed numerous small groups of terrorists active in the area.”
“I have read the operations report, Commander. You make it seem easier than what the reports show. Your group broke into teams, and our closest allies in the north broke into teams. At one time, we must have had twenty special-operations force teams running about the countryside killing and destroying. Essentially, when youfinished, you had wiped out nearly all of the new Al Qaeda camps. The teams also stumbled on a couple of new training camps with young recruits eager to commit martyrdom to meet Allah, and the teams arranged those meetings for them. Nope, it was truthfully a great moment in special-operations history, which is one reason that as a commander you were awarded the Silver Star.”
“Thank you, sir.”
James nodded. “I can see the attack on you hasn’t destroyed any brain cells. Another geopolitical reality of the twenty-first century is these nonstate terror elements converging with rogue nations and other nonaligned terror movements to form what I call associations of the moment. Al Qaeda tried to work with Hamas in 2002 when Operation Enduring Freedom freed Afghanistan. They were going to share funds and plan joint operations. Like most terrorist cells, they don’t work well with two masters. Today—”
“Yes, sir,” Tucker interrupted, “but what does this have to do with me?”
Duncan James paused a moment, then nodded. “Tucker, you’re probably one of the best, if not the number-one terrorist killer we have on active duty. Wouldn’t want to see that as aWashington Postheadline. You work alone when required, with a squad when necessary, and have led major covert attacks deep into terrorist strongholds wherever they may be, whenever you’ve been ordered. As much as we try to keep the individual names of our Special Forces heroes a secret, our open society makes it damn right challenging. It’s hard to balance secrecy against the rights of freedom of speech and press.”
Admiral James’s words caused Tucker to think of the news article inNewsweekmagazine seven months before. The article had had a photograph of him, extolling Tucker as a secret warrior in the war against terrorism. It told of an unnamed source identifying him as the leader of the Special Forces teams in Operation Wipe-up.
“The attack against the compound where yourreconnaissance team spotted this new character—the one called Abu Alhaul—wasn’t that successful. He and his bodyguards had slipped away during the four hours it took for you and your squads to call in reinforcements. You blew the buildings in the compound, killed a lot of people—every one of the dead associated with this new Al Qaeda. Among those associates were the four wives and most of Abu Alhaul’s children.”
Tucker looked down. He remembered seeing the small bodies and the feeling of nausea sweeping over him. “Sir, I wasn’t aware of the women and children.”
“I know. And that was where the photograph that showed up inTimemagazine was taken.”
Tucker nodded. War is hell. The fog of war. Give peace a chance. No one can appreciate the dynamics of the moment when bullets are flying and time seems to stand still as the body count grows in the race to close combat. During those moments, things happen because of reaction and not because of predetermined intent. Many officers’ careers have ended for doing what they were trained to do and achieving an outcome that didn’t pass the “Washington Posttest” as Admiral James alluded.
James took a drink of coffee and shrugged. “It isn’t as if we plan on something like this happening, but when you run with terrorists, you must take your chances. What happened to his family is what will happen to others of his ilk who insist on trying to have a normal family life while planning destruction. If they want to protect their families, they would send them to where they would be out of the line of fire. They don’t, because they don’t care. In their own arrogance they believe—”
“It’s just that—”
“—in their own invincibility.” Admiral James paused for a moment, bit his lower lip, and then continued. “It happened, and with the exception of that lone photograph, no one ever associated a specific person with the mission.” James leaned forward and poured more coffee in his mug.
“British MI-5 tells us this new Al Qaeda has a loose working relationship with the New IRA. This radicalbunch of Irish terrorists need money, since we cut off most of their overt fund-raising here in the States. What didn’t stop was some of our own citizens’ fanatical loyalty to a homeland they’ve never known or visited. A fantasy Ireland constructed within their own minds.”
“Yes, sir. I do remember one of the three had a heavy brogue. It took a few minutes during our backyard dance to identify it as Irish. That threw me. I could have understood if—”
Admiral James waved his hand at Tucker. “I know, I know. If it had been Arabic then you would have probably figured out what I think you already know.” He tilted his head forward, raising his eyebrows at Tucker.
Tucker nodded, glancing down at the mug he held between his hands. “I take it this Abu Alhaul has a contract out on me.”
Duncan James laughed. “You make it sound like an organized crime syndicate, but you’re about right, Tucker. According to MI-5, the new Al Qaeda transferred two hundred thousand British pounds to a Swiss account. An account MI-5 is watching. Kind of surprised them, according to Admiral Seidman, Director of Defense Intelligence Agency. When they started backtracking the money trail, it led to Yemen, and from Yemen they followed it to this Abu Alhaul.”
Tucker Raleigh leaned forward and put his cup on the coffee table. He crossed his legs. “Guess this means they’ll be coming after me again.”
James shrugged. “Who knows? But, if they do, I am sure the price will be more than two hundred thousand pounds. As for the other two individuals with the Irish hit man, you’re right. They were Americans. Members of one of our home-grown Irish charities whose funds filtered into this radical branch of the IRA.”
A knock on the door interrupted Admiral James and drew both their attention. The door opened, and Chief Gonzales stuck her head inside the room. Her dark-rim glasses slid down to the tip of her thin Roman nose. “Admiral, Admiral Holman is here.”
James motioned to her. “Send him in.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, then cleared her throat slightly. “Captain St. Cyr is here also.”
James’s eyes narrowed. “Give the good Captain a cup of coffee and ply him with doughnuts, Chief. I need a few more minutes with Commander Raleigh and Admiral Holman before we bring in the French Captain.”
She nodded, pausing a moment before stepping outside.
She had barely disappeared before Admiral Dick Holman, Commander Amphibious Group Two, walked past her, pushing the door shut behind him.
Tucker stood as the two flag officers exchanged greetings. He took in the other two-star Rear Admiral who had joined them. Holman was a head shorter than James, with a growing paunch around the middle. When he turned slightly, Tucker saw the ribbon at the top of the six rows. Silver Star. He instinctively glanced down quickly at his own three rows, but then, he had only been in the Navy sixteen years. The top two on his were the Silver Star and Purple Heart, both awarded during Operation Wipe-up. The Purple Heart was one medal he would have preferred not to have earned.
“Dick, this is Tucker Raleigh—the SEAL I’ve told you about and the officer Admiral Seidman briefed yesterday.”
“Tucker, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Holman said, shaking the taller Navy SEAL’s hand. Hope you have recovered.”
“Yes, sir. I’m fine,” Tucker said, as the thought of Sam Bradley flickered across his mind. It took him four runs before he passed her. He smiled as he recalled the expression on her face when he shot by her the first time without a word. It was priceless. She expected him to do something when he caught up; touch her; grab her; say something wily and ribald about winning the prize. Instead, he just raced by, without a word. She had picked up the pace and caught up with him, and even with obvious attempts to get him to refer to her taunt, he pretended not to understand.
“—is the reason he is here.”
Tucker jumped slightly. “Sorry, sir. My mind wandered for a moment.”
“Whatever it was, it must have been happy thoughts,” Holman said as he walked around the back of the small tanned leather couch where Tucker sat. He reached down and patted the Navy SEAL on the shoulder as he passed. “Don’t have many happy thoughts in the Pentagon.”
“I think it’s a Department of Defense regulation. Happy thoughts are to be tossed in the trunk of the car when you arrive. You pick them up when you leave,” James added.
James cut his eyes at the young commander. “Dick Holman and I are old friends, in the event you can’t tell, Tucker. Back to business. Admiral Holman is here because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with him for the next couple to three weeks. Out in the next room is a French Navy Captain named Marc St. Cyr.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this Captain St. Cyr,” Admiral Holman said as he flopped down on the chair opposite Admiral James, who was sitting at the other end of the coffee table. “He was the aide-de-camp to Admiral Colbert, the French Admiral in charge of the French carrier battle group that I faced off Liberia.” He pulled his handkerchief out and wiped his forehead. “Whew! I hate these Washington summers.”
Holman reached forward and grabbed the silver-plated coffeepot. “Duncan, you got any real cups?”
“Well, Duncan, I would say St. Cyr is a professional Navy officer whose loyalty is to the person he is serving at the time. He speaks flawless English, and from the rough time he had between me and thatbutt holeColbert, I would say he’s politically astute. I spoke with him a few seconds before I came in here, so I guess the question I have is why in the hell is he here?”
Holman pulled one of the small coffee cups and a saucer toward him. The white Navy cups with theirdistinctive blue trace around the lip had been around for over a century. They held enough coffee to wet the palate, but—
“That’s a good question, and one that deserves a good answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer other than to say that it’s politics.”
Holman took a sip. “Then Marc St. Cyr is the right Frenchman for it.”
Tucker wondered what the short, pudgy Admiral was talking about. If he met this Frenchman during the Liberian evacuation, then why did Tucker detect a sort of distaste from the Amphibious Group Two Admiral? From what he recalled, the French had sent their two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers off the coast of Liberia to help the United States evacuate their dual-citizen American-Liberian citizens. He even recalled how the two countries expounded on how close the cooperation was; so close, in fact, that Admiral Holman had placed his Joint Task Force under the French Admiral.
“Well, he’s the one the French have sent. The British officer who will join Tucker will meet you in Norfolk. He’s arriving late. Apparently staying in London for the Chelsea Flower Show,” James continued.
“Hard to believe,” Holman replied.
“The Chelsea Flower Show is held in spring, not August.”
Holman recalled his first meeting with St. Cyr. They had arrived off Liberia about the same time the larger French carrier battle group showed up, acting like a blustery bully hell-bent on having him back down. St. Cyr had been the aide-de-camp of Admiral Colbert. Admiral Colbert had warned Holman that if he attempted to evacuate the American citizens who called themselves Liberians, the French would have to militarily oppose the operation. Seems the French government had decided Africa was their sphere of influence. If it hadn’t been for those Unmanned Fighter Aerial Vehicles, he probably wouldn’t have been able to sneak his Marines ashoreunder the eyes of Colbert. As it was, afterward, both governments decided it was best to show how they cooperated, once again proving to Holman and other senior Navy officers that the old adage of “out to sea is out of sight” was still true even in the information age.
“—the intelligence briefing.”
“Sorry, Duncan. I missed that. What did you say?”
Admiral James’s eyebrows bunched. “What is this? Is everyone asleep in this room but me?” He jumped up and looked in the mirror. “Or is it my voice? Have I reached the ripe age when utterances tend to induce sleep?”
Holman laughed. Tucker felt the blood rush to his face.
“Now, Duncan. You call a meeting for immediately after lunch in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a hundred-degree summer day, and you don’t expect a man my age to fall asleep?”
“You’re younger than me, Dick.”
“And better-looking, too, but I try not to call meetings immediately after lunch.”
“I said, we need to bring in St. Cyr, so Commander Raleigh can meet him, and then we need to walk down to Naval Intelligence for the Intelligence briefing.” He pointed at Tucker. “Tucker, one thing you need to know. The failure of the New IRA to fulfill their contract means it’s still out there. You’re right to think they’re going to come after you again. Whether they will send someone from Ireland, try to use a homegrown one here, or do it themselves isn’t known. The FBI and CIA are both working to track down leads and see what they can discover.”
“Thank you, Admiral. I also would like to thank you for having the Navy move me while I was in the hospital.”
Duncan James raised his hand. “First, I understand it was easy to move you because most of your household goods were still packed and crated. And, second, it wasn’t me that moved you but the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Millington, Tennessee. I didn’t know it, but they have a shop down there that specifically deals with moving people who they believe are in physical danger. I think their primary customers are our married sailors who have aformer spouse stalking them, or a sailor, officer, or dependent family living overseas who have unknowingly crossed a host country’s criminal element. Seems to me they move a lot of people out of Naples, Italy.”
“That’s bull, Duncan. They never move anyone out of Naples. Everyone loves being there.”
Tucker chuckled. “I recall a one-star admiral they moved out of Naples within two months of him arriving.”
Duncan James grinned, pointed at Tucker, while looking at Holman. “Here is a prime example of an officer that BUPERS would have had to move out of Naples fast—probably same day.”
“Why did they move this one-star, Tucker?” Admiral Holman asked as he patted his pocket a couple of times.
“I don’t know for sure, sir. He was on the Joint Staff when I knew him.”
“See. That’s why he made flag, Dick. He knew better than to say such a thing while in Italy—and quit patting your pocket. I know you’ve got that ever-present cigar, and you’re not allowed to smoke it here.”
Holman brought his hand down and pointed his finger good-naturedly at Admiral James. “If you’d smoke one of these fine Havanas with me every now and again, Duncan, you might have been able to save some of that hair that’s missing from your head now.”
James rubbed the top of his head. “That baldness was from making fast turns under the sheets.”
Holman nodded. “I’ve heard those fast turns were searching for your bifocals.”
“Save the stogy.” James glanced at his watch. “The Joint Staff Cigar Club is meeting in the center of the Pentagon around fifteen hundred. We’ll sneak off and see what the gossip is in the Joint Staff, and you can impress them about how you get such a great smoke from a cheap cigar.”
“I’ll have you know these cigars cost . . .”
Tucker’s mind wandered back to two days after he passed her. It was a Friday night, after a few drinks at this Irish bar in Pentagon City. She had grabbed his armand insisted he come back to her place for coffee. He did, and stayed for breakfast. He recalled with a smile how the next morning the sheets wove over and under both of them, tangling their bodies between the linen. It was as if the bed had seen a massive fight and taken mystical actions to entrap them with the sheets. Moments later, when her eyes had opened, the sheets soon lost their entrapment. He grinned and surreptitiously glanced at the clock. While these two flags were pandering to some sort of Joint Staff cigar club, he would meet Sam.
“Commander, it’s not good protocol to laugh when your superiors are duking it out.”
Tucker’s thoughts raced back to the room. “Sorry, Admiral. I don’t know what I was thinking,” he lied.
“He was probably imaging how a man with such bad knees and old age could rub his hair off making fast turns anywhere, much less under the sheets.”
Admiral James held his hand up, palm out, and laughed. “This is fun, Dick. It’s always good to have you come up,” he said seriously as he stood. “Unfortunately, we only have a couple of hours before these two officers have to join you on the helicopter back to Little Creek Naval Base.”
Two hours!Tucker’s mind reeled.Two hours!He hoped they didn’t mean today.
James reached over and flipped the intercom. “Chief, please ask Captain St. Cyr to join us.”
First impressions are always lasting impressions, Tucker’s father always told him. The Frenchman was immaculately dressed in his Navy whites with the familiar four stripes across his epaulets familiar to most every navy in the world. The face drew his attention. The French officer had his hard cover tucked under his left arm as he shook hands with Admiral James and Admiral Holman, his heels touching at a forty-five degree angle and him bowing slightly each time. The mustache—that was it. The dark mustache ran a thin line directly above the lip, with bare skin separating it between the upper lip and the nose. Shit! If he were going to have a mustache that tiny,it’d be just as easy to draw it on. Tucker had had his own experiments with a mustache years ago. The French officer had to spend time nightly to keep a mustache that thin peeked and marked.
He reached forward and shook the man’s hand as Admiral James introduced them. Tucker was pleased to discover a firm grip. His father said you could always tell the caliber of a man by the firmness of his grip.“Always give a firm grip—don’t try to break the other guy’s arm, but let him know you are glad to meet him. Don’t give him one of these dishrag shakes that make you want to run to the bathroom and wash your hands. Christ! I hate men who shake like that.”
TUCKER GLANCED AT HIS WATCH AS THEY ENTERED THEIntelligence Briefing Room. Nearly an hour. The good news was the Navy had moved him to Crystal City across Interstate 395 from the Pentagon. The bad news was the Navy had moved him to Crystal City directly across Interstate 395 from the Pentagon. Seemed whenever anyone wanted to speak to him, he had to fight his way to the Pentagon, through increased security, diverted traffic, and humongous crowds of others trying the same thing. Then it took another hour to find where he was supposed to be in this five-sided wheel of national security.
“Admirals,” the tall, thin Navy Intelligence officer greeted as he extended his hand. “I’m Captain Lawford, sirs. I will be the briefer today. The briefing room is down the passageway to your right, second door on the left.” He glanced at his watch. “Sir, Admiral Marker will be here shortly.”
“Quite all right, Captain,” Admiral James said. “We’re a little early.”
The door opened behind them and in stepped a short brunette. Her brown eyes lit up as she saw James. “Duncan, good to see you.”
“Grace Marker, late again, I see.”
She shook his hand. “Seems to me you’re early.” Sheturned to Dick Holman. “And, Dick Holman, what Christly twit convinced you to leave the sight of sea to travel inland to the Pentagon? Must be something really good.”
“Or something really bad,” Holman answered.
She turned to Tucker. “You must be Commander Raleigh,” she said, shaking his hand with both of hers.
“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
“Admiral James has told me you’ve fully recovered from your wounds and are ready to get back into the fight.”
“I feel much better.”
“You should. You couldn’t have felt much worse.”
Admiral Marker turned to Captain St. Cyr. Her smile broadened. “Captain St. Cyr, welcome to the Pentagon. I have established a traffic drop for you to exchange messages with DGSE, French Intelligence. You have several already there.”
With a slight accent, he replied, “Thank you, Admiral. You are most kind.” Shaking hands with her, he leaned forward, bowing slightly.
Admiral Marker jerked her hand back so fast she left the Frenchman’s hand extended in the air. Tucker grinned. She must have thought the Frenchman was going to kiss her hand. That would have been a story Sam would have appreciated.
“That’s good,” she said, her cheeks turning red with a slight blush. She turned to Admirals James and Holman. Grins spread from ear to ear on their faces. She waved her hand at them. “Don’t say a word, either of you.”
“Captain Lawford, the briefing ready?”
Five minutes later, a Senior Chief Intelligence Specialist stood at the front of the room, flipping through the Microsoft PowerPoint slides as Admiral Marker and Captain Lawford took turns exchanging comments on them. During this time, an Intelligence Specialist had delivered a sealed legal-sized envelope to the French Captain, who had been going through the messages inside of it.
“This is where it gets murky,” she said, nodding at theFrench Navy officer. “And Captain St. Cyr may be able to help a little.”
St. Cyr pushed the messages back into the envelope.
She motioned the Senior Chief to go to the next slide. “This is the chart of the small inlet where the unidentified ship departed four days ago. As you can see, it is south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. French Intelligence arrived on the scene within twenty-four hours of the ship’s departure. What they found were a lot of dead Africans and one barely alive. He passed a warning about loading a rusty steamship—at least that’s what he called it—and that a bunch of Arabs sailed it out to sea after they loaded it. Captain St. Cyr, does French Intelligence know anything more than what they’ve shared so far?”
The Frenchman straightened in his seat, nodding at the three Admirals before addressing his comments to Admiral James. “Admiral, I have been reviewing the recent reports from DGSE. To summarize and add what little new has been recovered, we received words of an explosion near this inlet called Inlet del Rouge, which translates to Red Inlet. It is seldom used, we thought, because the waters are heavily polluted with human waste. Nothing lives in this small body of water except bacteria. The next day was what we would call a slow day in Africa, so the duty officer decided to send a patrol to the inlet to check the story of the Africans.”
St. Cyr leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and interlocking his fingers. “The entrance to this pier was open, and the smoldering shell of a truck was discovered. All around the truck, just inside the front gate, and along the sides of a nearby hill, were over fifty Africans—all but one was dead. The patrol thought at first that the truck had blown up on its own, killing the Africans. Africans sometimes overload transportation. What they discovered as they searched for survivors were some of the dead with single bullet holes to their heads. There would be no reason to put a bullet into the heads of people who are expected to die in an explosion, only to dispose of those who should survive one.” His hands parted as he held uphis index finger for a second. “One African was alive, but he died before an ambulance could get to him, but not before the patrol managed to interrogate him.”
Tucker watched the movement of the French officer as he spoke. The motions revealed taught muscles; biceps stretched the openings of the short sleeves belying a first impression of a thin, lanky, Frenchman. As he watched, Tucker casually observed sinewy muscles creating faint ripples beneath the white uniform. This was no normal Admiral’s aide-de-camp. What was his real job, he wondered?
“Based on what the man told before he died—about a huge square van so large a man could walk inside it—the patrol passed a code word to our military control center in Abidjan. Seems the van or container or whatever we call it suffered some damage, and the ones who had killed the Africans had waved a magic wand around it to check the damage. We dispatched a complete chemical-biological warfare team along with armed escorts to the inlet.” He paused for a moment, slowly raised his hands from the table, leaving the elbows on it, and spread his fingers, palm outward, toward the listeners. “Just before sundown, one of the team decided to run a Geiger counter along the pier.” He dropped his hands back on the table. “Nothing. Not a thing. He walked the pier, checked the few remaining boxes—of which nothing but rags were found—and still no detection. Unexplainable and against regulations, the sergeant forgot to turn off the Geiger counter when he had completed his check.”
St. Cyr cocked his head to the side. “This is because the machine—how do you say it—eats up batteries,n’est pas?” Without waiting for an answer, he nodded again to Admiral James. “As he walked past the hulk of the truck, the machine clicked. Startled, the noncommissioned officer waved it around the area, and as he approached the bed of the truck, the needle went off the scale.”
“What does that mean?” Admiral Holman asked.
“It means, Dick, that whatever they loaded from thattruck on board that ship is nuclear,” Admiral Marker added.
“That is true,” St. Cyr acknowledged. “The dead African said a heavy, dark van—probably black—was transported to the pier by the truck and loaded onto the ship. He did not say whether they loaded it into the hold or whether it was too big to fit. We think it could be tied topside on one of the weather decks. I would think the helicopter deck would be the better option. The other complication is that we do not know what type of ship it is. It could be a freighter; a collier; a cruise ship; a sailing vessel—though the size of the truck indicates it would be a large ship. A large enough ship to cross the ocean.”
“You see where we’re going with this, Commander Raleigh?” Admiral James asked.
Tucker shook his head. “Sorry, sir, I really don’t.”
“This ship that Captain St. Cyr has been telling us about is somewhere out there in the Atlantic Ocean. What we don’t know is where it’s going, and we don’t know for sure that it has a nuclear weapon on board.”
“Our analysis is very accurate,” St. Cyr objected.
“Most likely it would be a dirty bomb,” Admiral Marker interjected.
“That may be, Grace, but if that dirty bomb explodes in the Potomac, out there”—James pointed north—“near the Pentagon, it would contaminate everything within five to six miles.”
“But Duncan, we don’t know the size of it yet.”
“Grace, prepare for the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.”
“We know it’s loaded other supplies, but we’re assuming it’s the normal complement of food, water, and medicine for the voyage.”
“Since we’re unsure where the ship is headed, we have identified three possible destinations, using your concept ofworst case,Duncan,” Admiral Marker said, drawing out the last words. “We believe the ship is heading to the east coast or gulf coast of the United States. British Intelligence believes the ship may be heading towardBritain. The link between the Jihadists and the New IRA convinces them that since the New IRA did them a favor by going after you, Commander Raleigh, that the Jihadists owe a return favor. This theory complements the warnings to the British government that their unwavering support of America’s war on terrorism would be punished someday, and this day has been identified.” She nodded at St. Cyr. “The French, on the other hand, have ruled out Italy and any other country inside the Mediterranean Sea, because the choke points at Gibraltar and the Suez Canal are too guarded for a rogue vessel to successfully transit. Not to say one couldn’t get through, but it would be very hard at this level of heightened security. Conversely, the French coast along the Atlantic and Channel are vulnerable.”
“That is true, Admiral,” Captain St. Cyr interrupted, holding up a message in his hand. “But, as of a few hours ago, DGSE believes the target will be Rotterdam.”
“Rotterdam?” Tucker asked.
St. Cyr turned and looked Tucker directly in the eyes. “Yes, Rotterdam. Few people know that most of Europe’s sea trade uses containers; ergo, container ships are the primary means by which commerce enters Europe. The superlarge container ships that travel the seas have only three seaports in Europe in which they can safely dock. Rotterdam, Netherlands; Algeciras, Spain; and, Livorno, Italy. Algeciras is on the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar, but we can safely seal it away because Gibraltar itself stands guard over this strategic city.”
St. Cyr stopped and looked back at Admiral James, his eyes shifting as he talked between James and Holman. “Traffic into and near Rotterdam is thick. It would be quite impossible to inspect thoroughly every ship approaching this vital port. The Dutch Navy is aware and is increasing patrols. But if Rotterdam were shut down, then the economic fate of Europe would depend on how quickly another port could handle the merchant traffic or how quickly Rotterdam could return to service. Even a dirty bomb, as you call it, would effectively shut downthe only city on this side of Europe to handle our imports and exports.”
“And,” Admiral Marker said, “webelieve that this Abu Alhaul is more influenced by a desire for revenge than for tactical advantage. Therefore, the target will be an American port. And not a commercial port, but one of our military ports.”
“Why?” Dick Holman asked.
“Propaganda. Imagine the mileage this Abu Alhaul will get out of exploding a dirty bomb in Norfolk, Little Creek, Jacksonville, or even Corpus Christi or Pascagoula, Mississippi.”
“And there’s New London, Newport, Rhode Island—”
“And Boston or Philadelphia,” Tucker added.
Admiral Marker raised her eyebrows. “Why Boston?”
“USSConstitution. What better propaganda than destroying the oldest active-duty Navy ship in the world?”
Captain St. Cyr shook his head. “I disagree with you, my friend—a respectful disagreement.” He turned back to Admirals James and Holman. “The Jihadists—”
“The what?” Admiral Marker asked.
“Jihadists,” St. Cyr answered. “It is what we are calling those radical Islamists whose only call to their God is to die. Personally, I wish theywoulddie, but they want to take a lot of people with them, as if their God would be overjoyed to see them arriving at the gates of heaven with a bunch of angry souls behind them.”
“What do we call them, Grace?”
“You mean other than assholes?”
Everyone laughed. “No, we call them Jihadists, too. I just wanted to see how the French defined them versus our definition. Terms of reference are important for clarity.”
“Close enough. The term Jihadists helps to differentiate the radical ‘wanna die to be with Allah’ bunch from the bulk of Moslems.” She nodded at St. Cyr. “Go ahead, Captain.”
“The Jihadists want to make a statement, but they must show they are able to take many with them. They do not differ between civilians or military. Age, gender, and religion mean nothing to them. If they could, they would line every non-Moslem up against the wall and put a bullet into each head with as little remorse as if they were grinding out the life of a cockroach.” He ground his thumb on the top of the polished briefing table. “I believe their target will be either one of your Navy ports, one of the British Navy ports, or Rotterdam. My country’s intelligence service believes the same, but places Rotterdam as number one.”
Admiral Marker said, “We believe we can effectively seal the Yucatán Channel and monitor the traffic traveling in and out of the Gulf of Mexico. If our intelligence is correct, the target will either be Jacksonville, Florida, or the Norfolk/Little Creek areas of the Virginia Capes.”
Admiral James leaned forward and drummed his fingers on the table. “Guess I don’t understand why Washington has been ruled out. They have a proven track record of going after the same target until they have successfully eliminated or destroyed it.”
She nodded in agreement. “I would agree, except this is a forewarned attack of immense magnitude. It’s on the sea, and after Dick Holman sent their leader Abu Alhaul scrambling in Liberia, we think they will want to show their capability against the world’s hyperpower. That means taking on our Navy.”
James agreed, sighed, and looked at Tucker. “And this is where you come in, Commander.” He pointed to Captain St. Cyr. “You will be working with Captain St. Cyr and this British officer, whoever he may be, to lead an American Special Forces team when and if this nuclear-armed vessel is detected.”
Tucker leaned forward. “Yes, sir, Admiral—and, no offense to you Captain St. Cyr—but why are we integrating our teams?”
“Because our government, along with the French and the British, believe we need to reaffirm our support foreach other in this reemerging global war on terrorism, and what better way than having warriors from our three nations working together to take out this rogue vessel?”
“Yes, sir, but—”
Duncan James held up his hand. “I know you’re concerned about the work up and all that. I just sent my aide, Beau Pettigrew, to London to be our contribution to the British team, and Commander, Special Warfare Group Two, in Norfolk has dispatched a Navy SEAL from Little Creek, who is a Louisiana Cajun, to Paris to join that counterpart. We have three teams. One will be in Little Creek. Another will be in Portsmouth, England. And the French are working with the Netherlands to forward deploy the third team to one of their Navy bases near Rotterdam.”
“And that is why you are coming back with me to Little Creek, Commander.”
“Sir, I need a little time to pack my things,” Tucker said, thinking about how he was going to tell Sam he was deploying.
Admiral James stood up. Everyone else stood also. “No bother, Tucker. While you were here, a couple of my staffers swung by your place and packed your sea bag. I apologize for doing it this way, but you can appreciate the precariousness of this situation and the importance of it being kept low-key until after we have defused the bomb or whatever it is.”
Maybe he could call her?
“Plus, no telephone calls about this deployment. We will take care of your parents and will cancel any further medical appointments you have here. From now until we have found this ship and stopped it, covertness is the word. No telephone calls; no e-mails; nothing.”
“Admiral Marker, are you going to tell him or should I?” Admiral James asked.
The head of Naval Intelligence inclined her head toward James. “He’s your guy.”
“Is there something I should know, Admiral?” Tucker asked.
James put both hands on the table, spreading his fingers so the palms were lifted. He took a deep breath. “This is where I tell you how your country needs you. How we know that your service to date has been outstanding and how you have been wounded in taking the battle to the enemy. Now that you are recovering, what you really should be doing is heading home. Take that second Purple Heart, wear it around—Where are you from? Georgia?” He lifted the edge of the folder in front of him, causing Tucker to glance at it. “Yes, Newnan. Take some time off with your parents and fully recover.”
“Yes, sir. This does sound like the time to say that,” Tucker replied. “I suspect there is something here I should know, Admiral?”
“Yes, there is, Commander Raleigh.” James pushed back from the table. “We and the French have identified the one thing that could cause this terrorist leader to focus his plans on the United States.”
Tucker raised his head. He was the reason.
“You’re that reason. It is tenuous at best, but French Intelligence shows that if this Abu Alhaul discovers where you are, he may divert whatever plans are underway to take you out. In other words—”
“I’m bait,” Tucker finished. He shivered slightly, unnoticed by the others around the table. An entire terror organization willing to—
“We think they’re right in their assessment, even though they still place Rotterdam as their number-one priority. If this man is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire another terror organization for personal revenge, he would not hesitate to use his own.”
“I understand, Admiral.”
James shook his head. “I know we’ve subjected you to our frivolous banter this afternoon, but this is very serious. It’s something that we’ve faced overseas; not here at home. This is where I ask you if you want to continue. If you decide to back out, no one will think the worse of you, Tucker. We’ll ask BUPERS to move you again, and with a little tweaking, you’ll disappear into the mass ofthe Navy; into the heartland of America to become anonymous until this passes.”
He couldn’t do that. For a fraction of a second, the idea appealed to him. “I can’t do it, Admiral,” he said, his voice harsh. No way anyone was going to chase him in his own country. He was no beardless ensign right out of college. He’d been in combat. He’d killed and been wounded. He’d chased and been chased. He’d also learned that the idea of the fight is always more frightening than the actual combat. If this Abu Alhaul wanted to come after him because he—Tucker Raleigh—had caused the death of the terrorist’s family, then so be it. The asshole had better come well armed, because Tucker wasn’t going to lay down and be executed like they’d done to so many others so many times.
James, along with the others, seemed taken aback. Then it quickly dawned on Tucker that they misunderstood his words.
Tucker’s eyes widened and he held up both hands, palms out. “I mean I can’t disappear and allow others to take my place. If we can stop whatever this man intends to do, and using me as bait brings him and his minions into the open, then I am prepared to do my duty.”
Duncan James visibly relaxed. The two-star Admiral smiled. “Good, but I want you to know, Tucker, that you could be in Georgia by tomorrow and relaxing down there, hidden away from all this. While we are imposing strict operational security on this operation by restricting personal telephone calls and e-mail messages, Navy Intelligence is going to allow a slight slip in security—as if they never do—and ensure that word gets out as to you being located in Little Creek, Virginia. Then we’ll watch and see if Abu Alhaul takes the bait. Of course, you can still take off to Georgia.”
Tucker’s grin caused his cheeks to rise slightly. “Sir, obviously you haven’t been to Georgia in August,” he said, bringing laughter to everyone but St. Cyr.
James pointed at Holman. “Admiral Holman is going to lead the at-sea search under the direction ofCommander, U.S. Second Fleet. It means he’ll be putting his amphibious ships out to sea along the east coast to hunt for this rogue vessel. Your job is to get the team ready and be prepared to act on little notice. Though Captain St. Cyr is senior, the fact that this is a U.S. action means you’ll lead. The British will lead theirs and the French have control of the one protecting Rotterdam.”
Admiral James walked over to Tucker and St. Cyr, shook both their hands. “A lot is riding on how we handle this. Tonight, the president will raise the alert code to red. That will bring lots of questions from the press that will have to be pared. Good luck, gentlemen. I leave you now with Admiral Holman.”
Duncan James looked at Dick Holman. “Good luck, Dick.”
Holman nodded. “Thanks, Duncan,” he said, reaching out and shaking his friend’s hand. “I’ll need it.” Holman unconsciously patted his left pocket.
Admiral James laughed. He looked at his watch. “Come on, let’s head to ground zero and see if those shipmates from J6 are still there. You can smoke that damn thing before flying back. Otherwise, the way you keep patting that pocket, you’re going to knock off what few medals you have or wear a hole in your shirt.”CHAPTER 4
“OK, BOSS,” LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE FORRESTER ANNOUNCEDas he leaned through the curtain leading to the cockpit of the Navy maritime reconnaissance P-3C aircraft. “We’ve a surface contact twenty-five miles ahead on a northeasterly course.” The venerable P-3C maritime reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft was a four-engine turbo-prop.
Lieutenant Maureen “Gotta-be” Early shifted in her seat, tugging the seat belt to the right so she could look over her shoulder at the young man. “Alright, Win, tell the crew to strap in.” When she faced forward again, she lifted one buttock for a moment and then the other. “This sitting is causing all the blood to settle in my butt,” she remarked.
“Then, you must have a whole lotta—”
“Don’t go there, Lieutenant,” she interrupted good-naturedly.
“You know, Gotta-Be, all this up and down, flying around, buzzing holes in the sky may bother your butt, but it is upsetting my stomach,” her copilot Scott Kelly said as he took another bite out of his tuna sandwich. Afew bits of bread stuck to the side of his mouth. As he spoke, a piece of tuna fell onto his lap.
“Yeah, I see how much it’s upsetting that cast-iron stomach.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Winfield Forrester acknowledged, his head disappearing back into the long fuselage of the four-engine propeller-driven plane. The curtain dropped back into place, separating the cooler cockpit from the heat of the multiple bays of electronics behind them.
Kelly held the sandwich away from his face, twisted it a couple of times, and through a mouthful of food, said, “You know, maybe keeping the stomach full of food helps keep it calm.” He patted his stomach.
“Then you must have the calmest stomach in the squadron,” Senior Chief Michael Leary said, leaning forward from the flight engineer seat located above, between, and behind the two pilots.
“That’s why a young single bloke such as myself must forever keep watching his waistline and his health.” He gave them both an exaggerated smile, revealing near-perfect teeth.
Maureen could learn to hate such perfection. She ran her tongue between the gums and teeth. Why should a man have those pearls after she spent her entire teenage years wearing braces?
“Hey! I heard that,” Lieutenant Maureen Early said as she patted her own tummy. “Just because some can eat continuously and still lose weight doesn’t necessarily mean you’re normal.”
“Well, the way you eat, Lieutenant Kelly, you’ll soon have that waistline out where you can watch it better,” Senior Chief Leary added.
“Funny, Senior Chief,” Kelly drawled, as he dug into the brown paper bag lying on its side on the floor of the flight deck. He pulled out another sandwich. “Here, Maureen, have this one. It’s anchovy with peanut butter,” he lied, pushing his second tuna sandwich toward her.
She waved him away. “Gee, thanks. You want to see me throw up or something?”
“The something would be preferable, ma’am,” the Senior Chief interjected. “We do have that new ensign back there,” he continued, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “Probably, if you offer it to her, she’d heave.”
The voice of the Navigator over the intercom interrupted their banter. “All hands, set condition five. I say again, set condition five.”
“Can we change the subject? The fine art of causing others to vomit isn’t something that appeals to my well-tuned sense of decorum.”
“Then you would surely hate playing jacks,” the Senior Chief said.
“Or, worse, three jacks.”
Kelly shook his head. “You don’t want to know. Trust me. It isn’t something sociably acceptable at most tea parties.”
“I don’t understand.”
The Senior Chief laughed. “It’s a Chief Petty Officer thing, ma’am.” Jacks was an air-reconnaissance term for announcing when someone had passed or was passing gas. A rating of “three jacks” was an especially bad one, or a “good one,” depending on your field of reference.
“Okay, if you two aren’t going to tell me, then you both may go to that eternal place of damnation. Besides, whatever this three-jacks game is, if a man can do it, a woman can do it better.”
“Ma’am, I have no doubt that women are probably better at three jacks than men,” Senior Chief Leary replied, his face contorting as he fought back the laughter. “Many times I can recall losing to a female aircrewman in the middle of a flight.”
Maureen nodded sharply. “I know I can beat you both. I played jacks when I was growing up—”
“Bet you were popular,” Lieutenant Kelly said.
“—and if Chief Petty Officers can sit around playing three jacks, then I could probably play with the entire set of ten and beat your butt with one hand tied behind me.”
Senior Chief Leary roared. “I can’t help it! I can’t helpit!” Tears rolled down his eyes. He pulled a handkerchief out of a knee pocket on his flight suit and began wiping his eyes. “Ma’am, I feel with the proper training, you could be a number-one jacks player. Here, Lieutenant Kelly, let her have your tuna sandwich.”
Kelly spit part of his sandwich out, coughing to clear a half-swallowed mouthful. “I can’t believe it,” he stuttered, laughing through his choking.
Senior Chief Leary reached over and slapped the copilot’s back. “Watch it there, Lieutenant. Choking has been known to cause an inadvertent three-jacks event.”
“Okay, there’s something here I don’t understand, and chances are, when I do, I will be forced to wreak feminine vengeance upon you both.”
Maureen tugged the green sleeves of her flight suit and glanced at her watch. “We’ll give them a couple of minutes and then start our descent. Senior Chief, you and the eating machine keep a lookout for that contact. We’ll loop down, fly around her a couple of times, and then return to altitude to continue our mission.”
“Yes, ma’am, will do,” Senior Chief Leary replied. He reached up, slipped a notch on the seat belt to give him more freedom to move; then he leaned forward, sliding the brown paper bag back out of reach of their copilot.
“Ah, Senior Chief, why in the hell did you do that?”
“Because, Mr. Kelly, at one hundred feet altitude, we need to keep both hands on the wheel. One of the first lessons my ol’ pappy from Alabama taught me.”
“Tell me, Senior Chief, if a man and woman get married in Alabama and move to Washington, D.C., are they still brother and sister?”
“Scott,” Maureen said, “leave the Senior Chief alone before he reaches forward with one of those massive black arms and snaps your neck like a twig.”
“Senior Chief, you wouldn’t do that, would you?
“Sir, I have never disobeyed a direct order. Especially from someone who most likely can beat a Chief Petty Officer in a rousing game of jacks.”
Lieutenant Junior Grade Forrester’s head appearedbetween the curtains. “Condition five is set, ma’am.”
“Win, have we notified home plate?”
“Yes, ma’am. Communications were rough since we are about fifteen hundred miles east of Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. I also went ahead and relayed the contact through the USSSpruance,who is patrolling along the eastern end of the Caribbean Sea near the Lesser Antilles islands. Told her we were descending for a pass against a probable merchant contact that was a true course of zero-two-zero, speed twelve knots. They roger’ed up. We are to contact them once we regain altitude.”
“We still have satellite contact?” Maureen Early asked.
“Yes, ma’am. The Cryptologic Technician Operator, or CTO, has contact, but once we descend to nearer sea level, the shaking and jerking of the aircraft will cause the antenna connection to be sporadic.”
“You mean we’ll lose contact until we ascend again.”
Forrester shook his head. “Depends on the turbulence.”
“I’ve heard that communicator mumbo jumbo before,” Kelly interjected.
“Spruancesays they’ve issued a weather alert. That storm west of us is turning toward our area. Home plate is weak, but I did get that they want us to turn toward home after this pass.”
“That’s great news. Only a ten-hour mission instead of a twelve-hour one where we drift back on fumes. Might actually have fuel in the tanks when we land this time,” Kelly said.
“You got the contact report ready to go?” Lieutenant Early asked.
“Sure do. It’s sitting on my screen. All I have to do is fill in the blanks, hit the transmit button, and the CTO will shoot the information to the satellite, where it will ricochet back to Navy Intelligence, where—”
“—it will be lost forever,” Kelly said, taking a bite of his sandwich.
“Thanks, Win,” Maureen said.
“Ain’t technology wonderful?” the Senior Chief asked with a hint of sarcasm.
“Have we told Commander Joint Task Force America our intentions?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Forrester replied. “I talked with their Operations after talking with home plate. The Task Force is off the coast of Norfolk, but we have better communications with them four thousand miles away than we do with Roosevelt Roads. They’ve given us contact number zero-five-six for this pass.”
“We haven’t identified fifty-six contacts this mission,” Kelly interjected.
“No, sir. We haven’t, but there were four other P-3Cs out here on this spread-fan search.”
“And which, pray tell, part of the fan are we?”
“I would say we are the bottom part of it, Lieutenant. We’re due east of the American Virgin Islands. The four P-3Cs north of us have already started their return to Roosevelt Roads.”
“Lucky devils,” the Senior Chief added.
The aircraft hit an air pocket, dropped several feet before its wings caught the air again. The Senior Chief reached out and caught Kelly’s sack as it popped into the air in front of him. Forrester put his hand up, pushing down from the overhead.
“Wow, rough one,” Kelly said.
“Okay, fellows,” Early said. She glanced over her shoulders at Winfield Forrester. “Win, bring me a copy of the message you relayed to JTF America?”
“Sure, skipper. I can tell you what it said, though. It said we were descending to do an identification pass of an unidentified vessel—a vessel traveling on a northeasterly course of zero-one-zero, speed twelve knots. Also gave them the geographical coordinates of the contact along with our own position, course, speed, and altitude.”
“That’s good, Win, but I’d still like to see the report.” She lifted up the metal-covered notebook wedged into a bulkhead pocket beside her chair. “I’ve found if I keep copies of what we send off the plane, then when I write our after-action report, I’ll have all the data at myfingertips instead of having to chase down everyone on the flight to get the data together.”
“Give him hell, Commander,” Kelly said, referring to Early’s title of mission commander. The copilot turned his head so the younger officer could see the exaggerated smile. He wiggled his eyebrows up and down several times. “No telling what he’s been putting in those reports.”
Winfield Forrester held up his right hand, and with his left hand wrapped around his index finger, he said, “You read code, Lieutenant.”
“You two stop that,” Early said. “Win, get me the message, okay?”
“Back in a jiff,” he replied.
“Okay, team, let’s go down for a look-see.” Lieutenant Maureen Early reached forward and pulled the throttles back. The sound of the four engines reducing power vibrated through the aircraft. She pushed forward on the yoke, and the nose of the huge propeller-driven aircraft dipped as she headed toward sea level. It would take about five minutes for them to reach the low approach altitude. Then they would have to locate the vessel unless they gained visual contact on the way down. The way the cloud cover was thickening, Maureen knew there was a good chance they’d have to do a few circles to find it. Radar worked good on surface targets while flying at altitude, but the closer you flew to the sea surface, the more ground scatter affected the returns. But it sure beat boring holes in the sky.
Whiffs of dark clouds fluttered by the aircraft as they passed the ten- to twelve-thousand-foot ceiling where rain clouds formed and floated. Winfield Forrester’s head reappeared between the curtains. He stuck his head inside the cockpit and handed a sheet of paper to Lieutenant Maureen Early. She took it, glancing back and forth between it and the front window as she watched the approaching ocean that filled her field of view. Passing the message to her left hand, she folded it with her fingers and pushed the message under the metal flap of the notebook.
“Passing nine thousand, skipper,” Senior Chief Leary said to the mission commander.
“I’ve got a visual on the contact,” Kelly said a few minutes later as they passed four thousand feet. “It’s at our two o’clock.”
Lieutenant Maureen Early eased the aircraft into a slight right turn, attempting to shift the target to their twelve o’clock position directly off their nose.
“Right there,” Kelly said.
She straightened the wheel, steadying the aircraft in its descent.
“Still hazy, but looks like a one-two merchant,” he said, using the Navy lookout description for a vessel possessing a raised deck at the bow and amidships followed by a flush deck to the stern.
“Look for some sort of huge black or gray van anchored to its stern deck,” Early said.
Kelly lifted a set of binoculars from the small shelf to his right. He scanned the ship in the distance. After a minute, he lowered the binoculars and shook his head. “I can’t see anything topside that matches that description. Could be they put it belowdecks. Maybe in one of those cargo holds. May be the clouds that are rolling in.”
“Passing one thousand.”
“Thanks, Senior Chief. Tell me cherubs, now.” Most tactical aircraft reported their altitude in “angels” with each angel equaling one thousand feet. When an aircraft passed beneath the one-thousand-foot altitude, hundreds of feet were passed using the term “cherub.” Reconnaissance and transport aircraft followed the commercial practice of reporting altitude above one thousand feet by referring to the first three digits of the altitude. They had passed through the cloud layer at altitude one-zero-zero—ten thousand feet.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, rolling his eyes.
“Well, it’s kind of hard for him to give it to you in thousands anymore.”
“Lieutenant Kelly, let’s be serious for a few minutes so we can make this pass, get the data we need for ourreport, and get back up where we can continue our dynamic discussions.”
Kelly brushed his hands together, knocking off the crumbs, before grabbing the yoke tightly.
The aircraft banked right again, putting the contact onto the left side of the P-3C. “Let’s bring the aircraft down to cherubs one before we fly by the contact.”
“I doubt if we’re going to surprise them,” Senior Chief Leary said. “Unless they have no air-search radar.”
“Why would they have air-search radar, Senior Chief? We’ve been flying all morning by these commercial ships. Commercial ships have little use for air-search radar. The first time they’re going to know we’re in the area is when we whip by their starboard side, wiggling our wings and displaying the huge American emblem on our port side.”
For the next three minutes, conversation was limited to gauge checks as they eased down to one hundred feet. At one hundred feet, an air pocket, a sneeze, could send the aircraft into the drink, ruining everyone’s day. The Senior Chief, in a low, steady voice, kept a running monologue of altitude as they continued their descent. When the P- 3C reached a one-hundred-feet altitude, the two pilots, pulling back on the yoke together, leveled the Orion aircraft. Atmosphere is thicker closer to the ground. The sea-level atmosphere buffeted the P-3C as it fought its way through the clear air.
In the rear of the aircraft, the remaining, twenty-one crew members were buckled into seats, survival vests strapped tightly around chests and waists. A crash at this altitude meant a short, “tight butt cheeks” stay-afloat time.
Lieutenant Maureen Early pushed the internal-communications-system button on her control. “Listen up, troops, we’re going to make an identification pass down the starboard side of the contact, cross her pointy end, and then come down the port side. Then, we’ll decide whether we need to do another loop. If we do, we’ll cut across her stern. Now, I know how much everyone loves to look out those small windows, but unless you need to be out of your seats, then stay in them until I set condition three.”
“Dropping pass sixty feet, ma’am,” Senior Chief said.
“Ease up on the throttle and bring the nose up.”
The specially modified P-3C slowed its descent. The strain of pulling out of the descent vibrated the aircraft. The rough weather moving into the vicinity added to the turbulence, jerking the aircraft violently for the few seconds it took to level out. A rough vibration settled on the aircraft as it bore through the thicker lower-atmosphere level. Early glanced out the small side window. The contact was stern on, about fifteen miles east. A spreading wake showed it heading on a northeasterly course. Probably toward the Mediterranean, or Portugal, or even the English Channel. It could be heading anywhere in that direction from this far away. Even with binoculars, the shaking and vibrating of the aircraft would stop her from focusing on it. She recalled the contact report LTJG Forrester had sent before they descended. The course of the ship had been accurately reported, she decided.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Maureen turned the yoke to the left, bringing the aircraft around and aligning it with the ship’s starboard side. She estimated they were ten thousand yards; five miles from the contact. A few minutes later, the aircraft commenced a pass down the starboard side of the vessel. Besides the windows in the cockpit, three windows marked viewing portals along both sides of the aircraft. Along the port side the window directly behind the pilot was occupied by the CTO communicator who controlled the satellite communications between the aircraft and various intelligence agencies. Farther back, near an electronic warfare laboratory, a window allowed the mission evaluator and communications evaluator a viewing portal they could use, if they bent over and braced themselves against the bulkhead. Then, in the tail section of the aircraft, was the last of the windows located beside a small table where the crew ate their packed lunches. The main hatch had a small porthole window in it, but it was useless for surveillance. This main hatch separated the windows along the port side of the P-3C and the “feeding area,” as thecrew called the small kitchen. This hatch was where they entered and departed the aircraft. It was also where they would bail out or ditch the plane, if necessary. No one ever expected to bail out or ditch, but at the beginning of every flight, they executed the drills for each event. If you had to leave an aircraft before it landed, then your training had to kick in, ride through the shock and fear of the event, to help the aircrewmen survive. You couldn’t trust your brain to figure it out in the short time available, so you trained and trained and trained, and hoped you never had to use it. A successful flight was one where you left the aircraft the same way you entered it. Alternatively, as Senior Chief Leary was fond of saying,“A successful career is where the number of takeoffs equals the number of landings.”
Early pushed the intercom button. “You got the data you need, Win?”
“Doing fine, ma’am.”
“I didn’t ask how you were, Win! I asked if you had the information you needed to update the contact report.”
A moment of silence passed. “It’s a one-two hulled freighter, Lieutenant. Rusting red sides with even rustier white superstructure amidships.” A one-two hull was a commercial vessel with a forward structure on the bow rising notably above the main deck. The superstructure near the center of the hull, usually where the bridge and living accommodations existed, counted as the second structure rising above the main deck. If the hull design had been identified as a one-three, then it would have rising structures at the bow and stern with nothing amidships.
“That’s really nice, Lieutenant Junior Grade—never to become Lieutenant at this rate—Forrester. How about the important data?”
Lieutenant Early turned to her copilot. “Let’s take us across her bow.”
“There is something on the stern, Lieutenant. Could be that van we’re looking for? It’s covered with a tarp. Wemight be able to get a view beneath the covering, if you can bring us down another notch or two.”
“Notch or two?” Kelly mouthed.
Senior Chief Leary rolled his eyes. “What would my mama say?” he asked to no one in particular.
“Okay, Win,” Early replied over the internal communication system. “We’re going to cross the pointy end of the ship; you get the name of this bucket of bolts so we have something for those pulling our strings from shore.”
“We’ve got the name, but there seems to be some disagreement back here. The white letters on the stern identify her as theRinko Steel. We looked her up on Lloyds’ and it identifies theRinko Steelas a Liberian-registered dry-cargo ship with a traveling crane.Rinko Steelis also a one-three hull construction. ThisRinko Steelis a one-two hull with no visible crane structure.
“Sounds like abingoto me,” she replied.
“Bingo? We heading back?” Kelly asked. Bingo was the aviation term for an aircraft with just enough fuel to head back home or to an alternate airfield.
“Not that bingo,” she replied, looking at him and seeing the mischievous smile.
“It could be, ma’am, but Master Chief Fremont seems to think it could be just another vessel with the same name. Plus, he did the scan analysis of the stern and saw no indications of a name change.”
Changing the name of a boat by painting over its original or sand blasting it off was a common practice for pirates and drug smugglers who wanted to hide the true identity of a ship—a ship for which the authorities may be on the lookout.
“So, we think if we can get a sneak-peep under the tarp we can see if it has this gray or black van we’re looking for.”
Lieutenant Early turned to her copilot and flight engineer. “Let’s go down the port side, so our crew can make their minds up.”
She turned the yoke to the left, pushing her feet againstthe pedals. The sharp sound of the hydraulics answering her motions was followed by a dip of the left wing. Early pushed forward on the yoke, taking the aircraft lower. She hoped this provided those cryppies in the back what they wanted. “Cryppies” was a slang term used by fellow Navy officers to refer to any of the small number of cryptologic officers and technicians who made up the Naval Security Group, a small nondescript command with a legacy of covert operations. If something bad was happening, or if the Navy wanted to know what the enemy was thinking, it was the skilled, silent teams of cryptologic warriors they sent forward. On board the P-3C, their keen analytical skills combined with technology made them a formidable asset on the front lines of surveillance.
Lieutenant Early turned and peered at the front of the merchant vessel less than two hundred yards from the aircraft. Several sailors on the bow of the ship wearing white sleeveless T-shirts waved. On the rusting white bridge of the vessel a couple of men, one wearing what she thought of as a captain’s hat, trained binoculars on them. She half-raised her hand to wave back, but thought better of it.
Turning the yoke to the right, she leveled the aircraft for about thirty seconds and then put it into another left-hand turn to take them along the port side of the merchant.
“Damn! I’ve got a thirdRinko Steelhere. Naval Intelligence database listsRinko Steelas a Greek-owned ship under Panamanian register,” said Lieutenant Junior Grade Forrester over the ICS. “But, she’s flying the Liberian flag.”
“Sounds to me as if she got up on a bad day,” Lieutenant Kelly broadcast back.
“Sounds to me as if sheain’twhat she is dressed up to be,” Forrester replied.
“I’ve met some women like that in Naples,” Senior Chief Leary volunteered.
“Okay, Win,” Lieutenant Early said. “Take those photographs and let’s get that contact message off the plane.”
“We’ll have to ascend to re-establish radio communications. This storm is kicking the butt out of our comms.”
“Just think,” Kelly added. “Here we are flying several hundred thousands of parts screwed together for our safety, built by the lowest bidder—”
The P-3C hit a small air pocket, dropping about twenty feet, sending the loose items around the cockpit off the shelves and onto the flight deck.
“Holyshit!With loose things such as that—could cause systems not to function properly when needed. I’m sure somewhere at Naval Air Systems Command there’s a program manager who can explain why this is expected.”
“When we gain altitude, we can transmit them. Meanwhile, ma’am, I have the communicators storing the contact reports into their ’waiting-to-be-sent’ files for release.”
“At least our search-and-rescue frequencies work,” Senior Chief Leary said, replying to Kelly’s observation.
“That’s because they’re commercial and not government issued.”
“Okay, gents,” Early said, “less bad-mouthing our fellow aviators in Washington and more attention to the controls and readings. We’re at seventy-five feet, Senior Chief, so there’s not much room for error. Keep an eye on our gauges.”
Out the side of her window, the bridge of the ship passed directly to her left. Two men standing on the bridge wing watched the aircraft through binoculars. One of them stepped into the bridge. Within seconds, the object of interest on the stern of the ship replaced the bridge. A gray-black canvas tarp tied down by eight lines stretched tight over the object hid it from view.
“What do you think it is?” Kelly asked, leaning over so he could see out of the port window also.
Early shook her head. “Don’t know. Could be anything.” She pressed the TALK button on the ICS. “Win, you got enough data so we can gain some altitude and get off this jerky roller coaster ride?”
A gust of wind must have blown across the deck, for the edge of the tarp facing the aircraft raised slightly.
“Wheels!” shouted Kelly. “Whatever is beneath it has wheels. Look! They’re untying the covering,” he announced, pointing across Early.
She leaned back away from his arm. “How about grabbing the yoke and helping me fly this thing instead of acting like a kid on a sightseeing trip.”
She peered out the window, having to look over her left shoulder as the aircraft continued its bow-to-stern passage along the port side of the merchant. Several sailors on theRinko Steelworked furiously on the lines holding the tarp. Suddenly, the tarp flew off, giving Early a glimpse of black. She was too far past the stern forward to get a good view.
“We got it!” Win shouted through the ICS. “Ma’am, can you turn right and make another pass along the port side?”
In front of the cockpit, the wake of the ship showed the vessel turning to starboard. She shrugged. What was it going to do? Put on full throttle and outrun the P-3C? Even though the huge reconnaissance aircraft was slow by aviation standards, it was still faster than any ship.
“Let’s put her into a right turn, Scott, and make another pass down her port side.”
“Ma’am, this low altitude is eating up flight time,” Senior Chief Leary announced.
“That’s great news,” added Kelly. “Means we can bingo to Roosevelt Roads sooner than we thought.”
“Only a few more minutes, Senior Chief, and we’ll go up a few hundred feet. Besides, we need to re-establish radio contact withSpruanceand Joint Task Force America so we can update the contact report.”
The aircraft leveled off and approached the turning merchant vessel from the rear. The wake revealed that the Captain had put the ship into a hard right-hand turn. Whatever the ship had, they didn’t want the aircraft to know.
The ICS inside her helmet crackled for a second before LTJG Forrester’s voice replaced it. “Lieutenant Early, Win here. We got the updated contact report off.Spruancerogers up receipt, but we lost contact before JTF America responded.”
“Good work, Win.”
“We’re working a third update to tell them what’s under the canvas.”
As the nose of the P-3C reached level with the stern of the ship, a dark car slid over the railing and hit the sea. Early and the other two in the cockpit watched it sink. As it turned on its end, heading downward, she was able to see the tan interior of the automobile. Looked like leather to her. A sea of bubbles rose around it as it disappeared beneath the surface.
“Now, why in the hell would anyone throw away a perfectly good Mercedes?” Kelly asked, staring at the spot in the ocean where the car had sank. The churning of the merchant’s propellers tore up the sea behind the commercial ship as its stern crossed over the bubbles where the car had disappeared.
“Looks as if we’ve caught us a car smuggler,” Forrester said over the ICS.
“Yes, Ma’am. Ever wonder what happens to all those stolen cars in America? Well, they’re shipped out of the country where they were stolen and resold overseas in some third-world country where documentation can be rubber-stamped with a slip of a dollar or two. My-oh-my, the Coast Guard is going to love this one.”
“Okay, Win. Sounds like a nice interlude to an otherwise boring flight. You got enough so I can climb?”
“I do on this one, but the lab operator has a Marconi radar bearing two-seven-zero relative from our position. If we have it at this altitude, then the contact can’t be more than twenty or twenty-five west of us. If we go up, we could lose the contact. The passive contact on the surface-search radar is weak, but surface-search radars bend to the earth’s surface. If we go up, the lab operator may lose contact.”
“Win, quit beating around the bush. What do you want?”
“Can we stay at this altitude and approach the contact? This way, we can maintain electronic contact and it’ll guide up right onto the commercial vessel using the Marconi. Plus, it means we can probably sneak up on the son-of-a-bitch.”
“Two things, Win,” Maureen Early replied over the ICS. “One, yes we will maintain this altitude—”
“Ma’am,” the Senior Chief said, his hand over the mike so it didn’t carry into the ICS. “That is gonna eat up more of our flight time.”
She nodded to the Senior Chief’s comment and finished her sentence, “—and, two, watch your language. You want to be a bad influence on the young men and women who look up to you?” She smiled, exchanging winks with her copilot.
“Ah, Lieutenant, most of these men and women are older than me. Besides, it was the Senior Chief who taught me that phrase.”
Early and Kelly glanced back at Senior Chief Leary, who placed his palm on his chest, fingers spread, and mouthed the French word,Moi,while shaking his head.
“Alright, you two,” Early said, “let’s bring it around left and steady up on—”
“Win,” she said into the ICS. “Relative bearing is alright for visual lookouts, but what about a true course so we can turn this little piece of America?”
A few seconds passed and the Navigator’s voice joined the ICS. “Pilot, navigator; recommend course two-five-zero to target.”
Kelly pushed his mike down from in front of his lips. “Does Stan ever quit working?” he asked.
“Stan’s the man,” Early added, shaking her head. She turned the yoke, pushed the pedals down, turning the huge aircraft left. “I think he was born with a work defect. Put him in a room by himself with a sheet of paper and a pencil, and in twenty-four hours he will have developed a watch schedule. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen him in the Officers’ Club for Friday-afternoon Captain’s Call.”
She eased the yoke back, steadying the aircraft on course two-five-zero. The altimeter read one hundred feet, so sometime in the past thirty minutes they had ascended twenty-five feet. The shaking was still present, but seemed less intense. The turn west put the wind at their tail, and speed increased a few knots without her giving it additional throttle.
Fifteen minutes passed with the cockpit crew checking and double-checking the gauges. Early even had time to quiz her copilot on proper procedures for ditching one of these flying rocks. Every routine flight required the pilot in charge to conduct crew training, plus, as the senior pilot, she was also responsible for the professional development of her flight crew. Though she did wonder just what a Lieutenant could teach the Senior Chief that the old man didn’t already know as a flight engineer. A quick erotic thought flashed through her mind, making her blush. “No way,” she said.
“No way what?” Kelly asked.
She grinned. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
“Don’t you hate it when she has these silent arguments that she settles this way?”
The Senior Chief leaned between the two pilots and pointed left about ten degrees off their heading. “I’ve got distant smoke,” he said.
Early and Kelly looked. After several seconds, a faint but discernible white smoke rising from a funnel or funnels broke the horizon.
The Senior Chief used to be a Boatswain Mate before changing his rating to aviation technician. There weren’t many AT’s who were flight engineers, and he knew it. Of course, there weren’t many sailors who recalled or knew how to report visual lookouts at sea. Distant smoke always was the first indicator of a ship in your vicinity. The horizon was approximately fifteen nautical miles from a surface position. It was a little higher at one hundred feet altitude. Distant smoke was a ship-lookout term to report a contact just over the horizon. The next to appear weremasts, and when you saw them from sea level, you knew the two of you had fifteen nautical miles of separation. Then came the funnels and superstructure, followed shortly by the complete distant view. Another critical thing he’d learned as a young seaman during his deck plate life aboard the DestroyerStriblingDD-64 was that when you saw a contact growing bigger and it remained on a contact bearing, then you were going to collide with it. “Constant bearing, decreasing range,” or “CBDR,” was the term to describe this relative phenomenon.
Early turned the aircraft slightly, bringing the nose to bear on the visual contact. “Win, we’ve a visual on the merchant contact.” She looked at the compass on the flight console. “We’re steady on course two-four-zero.”
“I hold us on two-four-two, ma’am,” Forrester added.
“Thanks, make that two-four-two.”
“I bet he folds his underwear after he washes them,” Kelly offered.
“And why wouldn’t he?” Early asked, perplexed at the comment. Her eyes remained fixed on the contact on the horizon. Visual contact at this range was tenuous. If she broke eye contact for more than a second, she could lose it for several minutes.
“He’s single!” Kelly said as if that explained everything.
Twenty minutes later, the complete ship was visible.
“Win, this is Maureen; we’ll do the same as before. Make a starboard pass, turn across its bow, and then pass down along its port side. You pass this contact toSpruancefor further transmission?”
“Nope. We got that one transmission off, then lost contact. We’ll keep trying, but we haven’t had radio contact since we issued that contact update on the car smuggler. But I have everything on a file. Once we regain communications, we’ll transmit the second update telling them it’s a car smuggler, then we can sit back and watch the Coasties go eat them some crooks.”
TAMURSHEKI PUSHED DR. IBRAHIM, CAUSING HIM TOstumble against the table. “Everyone is ready for when we reach America,” he snarled. “Abu Alhaul insisted that you make sure we are healthy for the land of heretics. I have men leaning over the rails, throwing their food into the ocean. They are dying instead, and when they come here for help, you give them some trash about motion, old man. If they are sick now, they will be sick later.”
Dr. Ibrahim pushed himself upright off the table where he had caught himself. He straightened his bifocals. He shook himself as if straightening his clothes, and with tight lips, the square-bodied Palestinian leaned forward, his face only inches from the lean, angry Tamursheki. “Let’s get one thing straight, young man. I’m the doctor.” He poked himself in the chest to emphasize his words. “I’m the only one on this death trap who knows what has to be done.”
Tamursheki turned his head and spit in disgust. “And I am the one who is in charge.” He turned, walked across the small wardroom compartment, and flopped down on a tattered sofa that was bracketed to a spotted bulkhead where paint from long ago had flaked off. “I am going to send them down again. You give them medicine or a shot or whatever to make them feel better.”
Captain Aswad Abu Alrajool leaned back in his chair and laughed. “You are both fools,” he said, looking at Ibrahim. When he turned his gaze toward Tamursheki, the laughter stopped. “But I’m sure you both believe very strongly in what you do,” he said, licking lips that moments ago were moist with humor.
“I would be careful, Captain,” Tamursheki said, his voice threatening.
“Yeah,” Ibrahim added, looking at the Jihadist leader. “I would be careful, too, Captain, for this man—this youngster who is still wet behind the ears—may decide you don’t know your job either.”
Tamursheki leaned forward and put both hands on his knees. “As Allah wills, so shall I do.”
Ibrahim laughed. “You don’t scare me, Tamursheki.You need me, and even when you have finished your mission, I am the only one who can ensure theotheris completed.” Ibrahim walked around the end of the table, behind the Captain, to the other side, putting the table between him and the fanatic. If Allah, God, or Yahweh, or whatever anyone calls their God, really existed, he wouldn’t allow assholes like Tamursheki to be a member of his flock.”
“We will reach the coast of America within the next few days.”
Captain Alrajool shrugged. “That is true, but we don’t know our final destination yet. Abu Alhaul told me to expect final instructions when we near the coast.”
“Blessed be his name,” said the Jihadist.
Ibrahim angrily shoved papers and charts across the table, some falling onto the carpeted deck. “And that is why, my angry friend, I cannot complete my medical duties. How do I know when to check the medical health of your men when your leader hasn’t even told you the destination of this weapon? There will be shots to give to protect you from the diseases of America. Do you want your men or even you to catch AIDS? You’ve seen what it has done to Africa.”
“There is no cure for this disease,” Tamursheki said arrogantly.
“Abu Alhaul believes I can help protect you from this disease and anything else that may stop you from completing your mission, which is . . . ?”
Tamursheki’s eyes narrowed for a moment before his face relaxed. He leaned forward, placing both hands flat on the table, leaning across toward Ibrahim. “We are to activate the device on the ship and then work our way to various American cities to await other missions. That is why you are along. We may be there years before we are called to do our duty.”
“Glad you know what you’re supposed to do,” Captain Alrajool said. “What I need is a port where I can transfer this van. You want to activate it! I want to get it off my ship before it blows. Just remember that Abu Alhaulwants a seventy-two-hour setting on it. Less than that, and my beloved freighter could be dust.”
Thinking of the large ticking van strapped to the stern deck, Tamursheki nodded. “It matters little where the destination is. What matters is that we martyrs are in good health and prepared to cross into paradise.”
Captain Alrajool grinned. “You want paradise, then you have to go to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I went there once to see the rockets lift off from Cape Canaveral. My friend and I visited many of the dance places to discover that the women—no, young girls—dance completely nude. Without any clothes. They would change your dollars into single dollar bills—”
“That is enough, Captain,” Tamursheki warned. “Your words are obscene to the word of Allah.”
Ibrahim turned to the forward-most porthole in the compartment, leaned against the opening, and muttered, “That’s really great. Bars in Cocoa Beach, Florida, are an obscenity to a prophet who married a five-year old girl.” He turned back around, his finger pointing at the Jihadist. He started to say something, stopped, shook his head, and sighed. Where do they find these young men and women who want nothing more than to grow into young adulthood so they can rush off to kill themselves in some sort of macabre religious fever? Seventy virgins? Who do they think are going to get the seventy virgins? Martyrs or Marines?
“Something bothering you, Doctor?”
He ran his tongue across his upper lip, his thoughts on a bottle of whiskey, third drawer down, in his desk in the clinic, hidden under a bunch of papers. With this bunch, he wasn’t so much worried they’d drink than they’d destroy it.
“I said, Doctor,” Tamursheki said firmly. “Is there something bothering you?”
Ibrahim shook his head.
“Good. Then what do we do?”
“You asking me?”
“Of course, Doctor. You’re the one who must see tothe welfare of my warriors. Regardless of where Abu Alhaul orders us to go, the men must be in the very best of health to accomplish their mission. Today, most are shaving their body hair.”
“That’s a thought I can do without,” the Captain added.
“They are preparing themselves for the final battle.”
Ibrahim pulled out a chair, swung it around, and straddled it. His chin level with the back top, he leaned forward. “What I will do is start the shots today. It will take a few days for the medicine to work.”
“What does this medicine do?” Tamursheki asked.
“Didn’t Abu Alhaul tell you?”
Tamursheki shook his head. “No, he said that you would ensure we were in the best of health to take the battle to those who have offended Allah. He said the days at sea would take its toll on his warriors, and that is why you are here. But, in the ten days we have been at sea, you have yet to see one of my men.”
Ibrahim shook his head. “Not true. I have been seeing Fakhiri nearly every day.”
“Now, there’s a man with a stomach for the sea,” Captain Alrajool added sarcastically. “He has seen more of the side of the ship than anyone else on board.”
“He hasn’t been the only one, as our dear friend Said Tamursheki has pointed out. The truth is, he is the only one who has come to see me.” Ibrahim looked over his glasses at Tamursheki. “Instead of telling me how I have failed to take care of your martyrs, tell them to come see me when they’re feeling bad. For Fakhiri, I gave him pills to control the nausea. He’s getting where he can keep some soup down.”
“Maybe you’re right, Doctor,” Tamursheki admitted. “He was rotund and cheerful in the ways of the Koran when we started. Today, he looks as if he hasn’t eaten in months. He is growing gaunt and irritable.”
“He is growing thinner, which is a good thing for a man his age. If you can’t keep the fat off now while young, imagine how it will be when you reach my age and discover that you and your fat have grown quite fondof each other. He will get over it when we reach our destination and he puts his feet back on solid earth.”
Tamursheki disappeared below the edge of the table, kneeling on the discolored carpet to pick up the papers Ibrahim had brushed onto the deck. “We must go over the plan again.”
Both men groaned.
“I think we know it by heart by now,” Alrajool objected.
“Let’s do it another time.”
Tamursheki pulled a bulging folder to him and untied the black cord keeping the opening closed. He pulled out a bunch of tickets. “I will send Fakhiri with the first group. His heaving and vomiting is causing concern with the others. They believe it is a sign of failure—a sign of weakness. Give him the medicine to protect us in America.”
Alrajool laughed. “It’s a sign of weakness—a weak stomach for the rocking and rolling, up and down, sideways to sideways, that a ship at sea endures minute by minute, hour by hour, continuously through the day; through the voyage. Even tied to a pier tides reach out to keep the movement going, as if to remind those who go to sea that the seas are the masters of the world. Complicating this normal rhythm at sea is the fact that a weather warning has been issued for this part of the Atlantic. Right now, we are running in front of a tropical storm that will give birth to a hurricane.”
Tamursheki ignored the Captain’s comment as he shuffled through the papers. Ibrahim recognized the bundle as the various airline, train, and bus tickets purchased in Mobile, Alabama, by one of Abu Alhaul’s operatives. Federal Express had delivered the tickets to Tamursheki, and he had brought them to the ship. He figured since the tickets were to various destinations within the United States, once the men were ashore they would split up and head to wherever their ticket took them. He was glad that he had the highest honor for this job. Once the last martyr departed the ship, Tamursheki would set the timer on thedevice. He would ride with the ship into the harbor, and while they offloaded the device, he would disappear into the vast wilderness of America with his ticket.
“There,” Tamursheki said, holding aloft four tickets. “Badr will lead the first group ashore and to the nearest city, where they will disperse to their assigned cities and locations. Fakhiri will go with him. His departure will relieve some of the tension from the others. Hisham, who has relatives in Chicago and has prayed to Allah to be in the first group; and, Jabir, the cook who has been told to take a job with one of America’s fast-food places so he can be in place when the order to martyr himself comes.”
Ibrahim stood up, glancing over at Captain Alrajool. “You need to find out where our final destination is going to be. Once this fool and the others are off the ship, then we have our own job to do, and that doesn’t include killing ourselves for some—”
He saw Tamursheki’s head whip around and realized he might be pushing the envelope. “—thing we haven’t been told to do.” He stared at Tamursheki, who with an unwavering stare narrowed his eyes at Ibrahim. For that fraction of a moment, Ibrahim saw the fate this man desired for him. For Tamursheki, the fanatic, death was an honor to share with others. Ibrahim had little doubt the man would consider killing him before the terrorist left the ship. He nearly grinned when he thought to himself that this lean, angry religious nutter had to receive the same medicine as the others. Abu Alhaul wouldn’t be happy if Tamursheki did anything to him while the ship remained in transit. Come to think of it, Ibrahim wouldn’t be happy either.
The door to the compartment burst open. Qasim, the huge Iraqi Shiite bodyguard and enforcer, blocked the doorway. “My friend,” Qasim said, his deep bass voice filling the wardroom. He held the door open with one massive hand on the doorknob while the other held down the edges of his beard. “There is an aircraft approaching.”
“Quick, get the men out of sight and off the deck!”
“Yes, Said. I have already ordered it done.”
Tamursheki pushed against Qasim’s chest. The Shiite stepped back into the passageway, opening just enough space in the hatchway for Tamursheki to run out.
“Come on!” Tamursheki shouted at Qasim as he sped toward the ladder at the end of the passageway.
Qasim followed. Captain Alrajool was only a few steps behind them. Tamursheki took the ladder two rungs at a time, heading up to the bridge. Alrajool’s anxiety grew as Qasim blocked the ladder with his slower pace. The hatch leading to the bridge swung shut behind Tamursheki as Qasim reached the top.
Captain Alrajool pushed past the huge Shiite to rush to the starboard bridge wing just as the gigantic P-3C reconnaissance aircraft filled his vision. Tamursheki stood to his right, watching the American aircraft pass down the side of the ship. From the cockpit, he saw the pilot’s head turned toward him. The sun visor on the helmet was down, blocking the pilot’s face. Tamursheki’s eyes traveled along the white fuselage to the two small windows near the exit door located about ten feet from the edge of the wing. The flash of a camera from the forward window drew his attention. Filling it was what appeared to be a giant lens.
He shut his eyes and lowered his head.They’ve found us.So much planning. He turned to Qasim, who stood just inside the door to the bridge wing. “Run! Get the missile!” he shouted, motioning frantically at the man.
The aircraft passed the bow of the ship and continued on its current course.It must turn around,Tamursheki prayed.It must turn around.
“Come to course zero-zero-zero!” Captain Alrajool said, poking his head inside the bridge. “Keep your speed twelve knots.”
As if hearing Tamursheki’s command, two Jihadists emerged out of the starboard side of the forecastle, onto the deck immediately below the bridge wing. He shouted, “Get up here! Now!”
The two men scrambled up the outside ladder leadingto the signal bridge above the bridge wing. Ahead of the ship, the P-3C turned left, crossing the bow of the merchant vessel five miles ahead of it. The American aircraft steadied upon a return course that would carry it down the port side. By the time the two men reached the signal bridge, the American aircraft was approaching the ship on the port side, off its bow.
Tamursheki ran from the starboard bridge wing to the port bridge wing, pushing a crewman, who was standing in the hatchway watching the approaching aircraft, out of the way. He stopped his forward rush with both hands grabbing the top link of the safety chain running along the port walkway. The roar of the four turbo engines flew across the ship, riding the wind blowing from that direction. He shouted instructions to the two warriors above him, and then realized they couldn’t hear him. He climbed the ladder leading up to the open signal bridge and ran to where they squatted beneath a canvas awning.
“What are you doing?” he screamed.
“We are waiting for your orders!”
“I told you,shoot it down!”
They looked at each other curiously, turned their eyes up at Tamursheki, and nodded. He reached down and grabbed the nearest man to him—Boulas, the Yemeni camel herder. Why did incompetents surround him? Why did he have to make every decision? Did it take even a man with a little bit of schooling to make a decision to shoot down the infidel?
Qasim appeared at the top of the ladder. “It is turning again, Ya Affendi.”
Tamursheki, still holding Boulas by the top of the white aba, turned and looked at Qasim.
Qasim made a circling motion with his right index finger. “It is coming back. Coming back down the right side,” he explained in his deep voice.
Tamursheki pushed Boulas. “Quick. You and Dabir, get over there!” He pushed the man toward the starboard side of the signal bridge, forcing him from beneath thesmall canvas erected to protect the signal bridge from the hot sun.
Boulas grabbed Dabir, and the two men ran to the safety lines along the edge of the signal bridge. Tamursheki was directly behind them. He looked aft and saw the nose of the aircraft growing in size as the American aircraft approached for another pass. Near him, Dabir knelt on one knee. A mast jutting out from the deck masked him from the eyes of the pilots. Tamursheki reached out and pulled Boulas back slightly, positioning the Jihadist behind the mast.
Boulas looked at Dabir who nodded. “Yes, we are ready. God willing.”
“Shoot it down when you have a clear shot.”
They nodded. He noticed both were grinning. It is nice to enjoy one’s work.
Qasim bumped into him as the big man joined them on the signal bridge. Tamursheki turned and shoved him away. Stupid giant!
The ship turned slightly to port as Captain Alrajool changed direction again.What is he thinking?Tamursheki thought. It wasn’t as if they were going to lose the aircraft. It was there. Eventually other American aircraft would rush to join it. He may be unable to stop the others, but he would take at least one American aircraft with them.
Dabir stood and stepped closer to the deck edge of the signal bridge, turning so he could aim the missile launcher at the aircraft.
The engines of the aircraft suddenly increased in power, and as Tamursheki watched, it turned right, away from the ship, its tilt so sharp that it appeared to be standing on its wing.They’ve seen the missile.
The blast of the missile singed the right side of his face as it blasted out of its canister. A white contrail twisted behind the missile as it headed toward the aircraft. The aircraft righted itself. It was heading down, closer to the sea. The missile looked as if it was going to fly past thetail before it sharply corrected its flight path toward the aircraft. It must have locked on one of the right engines because it tried to fly through the tail of the aircraft toward it. A huge explosion rocked across the ship.
Boulas and Dabir started a round of “Allah Akbar” cheers. Dabir dropped the useless canister. The two men hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks before turning back to watch the wounded aircraft fight to stay in the sky. A huge gaping hole was visible beneath the tail of the aircraft.
A dark plume of smoke trailed from the hole, along with boxes and debris from inside the fuselage of the aircraft. A couple of bodies tumbled into the sea. The P-3C pulled left, bringing itself parallel with the course of the freighter. “Shoot it again,” he ordered.
The two men looked at him. “Affendi, that is the only one we have.”
“We have more,” he said.
“Yes, but they’re below. By the time we get them, the aircraft will either have crashed or flown away.”
Everything; he must think of everything. Incompetent—the lot of them.
The aircraft was losing altitude. It could not be more than fifty feet from an ocean where increasing winds whipped the waves higher. It wouldn’t recover, he told himself. It was too low. Suddenly, flames shot out of the hole, engulfing the tail section of the aircraft. The engine noise began to sputter and cough.
Five miles ahead of the merchant vessel, the engines quit. They watched, mesmerized as the aircraft slammed onto the surface of the ocean and bounced back into the air. The tail dropped next, dragging for a few seconds before pulling the fuselage into the water. The cockpit was the last portion of the aircraft to hit the ocean surface. Spray rose around the aircraft, blocking the view for several seconds. When it cleared, the aircraft rocked on top, sinking. Smoke curled around the tail section.
Tamursheki ran across the signal bridge, down theladder, to the bridge. “Quick, head toward the aircraft,” he ordered Captain Alrajool.
The Captain’s bushy eyebrows bunched. “Why would I want to do that? They are soldiers. They will have guns and they will endanger my ship.”
“They are not soldiers. They are pilots. And pilots won’t have anything more than pistols.” He stepped onto the starboard bridge wing, looking forward at the P-3C, assuring himself the aircraft was still afloat. A bright orange package tumbled out of the escape hatch over the left wing, quickly blossoming into a huge life raft. People scurried out of the hatch, sliding down the wing into the water near the life raft. Tamursheki saw the bow of the ship shift as it lined up with the aircraft. Those who had crawled into the life raft were helping others into it.
A blast of wind caught him in the face as the ship changed direction, causing him to shut his eyes. He thought he saw another life raft on the other side, but the waves blocked his view when he opened his eyes again. He grabbed a pair of nearby binoculars but couldn’t see a second life raft, although with the seas rolling up onto themselves and breaking, a raft on the other side of the slowly sinking aircraft could be hidden. He tossed the binoculars back onto the nearby shelf, drawing an objection from the Captain about not breaking his glasses. They will make good hostages when the Americans show up.
“I’m not sure if we want to do this,” Alrajool said, stepping out onto the bridge wing with Tamursheki.
“Did you hear me ask what you thought? No, you didn’t. Your job is to do what I tell you to do. Not make suggestions, recommendations, or decisions. I will tell you what to do, when to do it, and most times how to do it,” he said, never realizing that his minutes-before thought of being surrounded with independent thinkers who could make the right decisions conflicted with his actions. Arrogance is a vice always clouded with illusions. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Alrajool answered with a sigh. He would be glad when this bunch was ashore. His biggerchallenge was dumping the weapon on the stern into the waters off shore. He stepped back into the bridge and ordered another slight course change to correct for the actions of the wind against the freighter. The life raft ahead was being pushed away from the aircraft. On this course and at this speed, when they reached the crash area, the ship would be between the aircraft and the raft, putting the raft on the lee side of the ship.
Tamursheki nodded in agreement as he saw the bow of the merchant vessel line up with the orange life raft. It would take a few minutes to get there. He rushed into the bridge just as Qasim stepped inside from the port bridge wing. “Qasim, tell the men to get their weapons. We’re going to have some Americans for entertainment.”
“Yes, Affendi,” he said respectfully. Qasim opened the interior door leading down the ladder to the main deck.
“Qasim, tell them they’re not to kill them. I want them alive. If you have to kill one to make an example, make sure it is one of the leaders, but not the senior leader. Okay?”
“I understand,” he said. The big man turned and hurried down the ladder.
Captain Alrajool listened stoically to the exchange, wondering how any of them would be able to tell who was the leader and who wasn’t. Tamursheki’s age exceeded the man’s experience. He steeled himself for the carnage he knew these disciplines of Abu Alhaul were about to commit. Though he heard Tamursheki indicate they were going to bring them on board, he doubted the Americans would come willingly. He looked around the graying horizon as clouds continued to grow overhead and wondered how soon it would be before American aircraft filled the skies. Alrajool watched Tamursheki out of the corner of his eye as the terrorist leader ran from the starboard bridge wing to the port side of the bridge. The bridge wing on the port side was through a hatch that opened onto an open walkway running below the signal bridge. Alrajool ran his hand across his forehead. He should have brought his entire crew instead of the ten menhe had with him. If he had his crew, he might overpower the Jihadists, kill them, dump their bodies in the sea, and flee south. Take refuge along the West African coast until they changed the appearance of the ship again. He glanced to the right as the aircraft approached off the bow of the ship and watched dispassionately as the nose disappeared beneath the ocean. For a brief moment, he thought he saw another life raft ride the top of a wave about a mile away, but then it disappeared. The shouts of the Jihadists and the sound of gunfire caused him to forget it. Tamursheki stuck his head back inside the bridge, and at the terrorist leader’s command, Alrajool ordered all to stop.
The helmsman reached over and shut the hatch.
Tamursheki had no way of knowing that the aircraft had failed to report the presence of the terrorist merchant vessel and that the last message from the reconnaissance aircraft to Joint Task Force America was the report of the contact heading northeast toward Europe or the Mediterranean. Tamursheki looked down at the compass in front of the helmsman. Two-nine-zero.
The ship rocked as the waves coming from the west crashed against the side of the hull. He ordered a couple of revolutions on the shaft to keep the bow on course.CHAPTER 5
“TUCKER, CAPTAIN ST. CYR, COME IN,” REAR ADMIRALHolman said, motioning the two men into the room. “Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves, you, too.”
The three warriors represented the Special Forces of their respective countries. Tucker Raleigh had the sleeves of his camouflage uniform rolled up. The dark oak leaves of a Navy Commander pinned on his collars seemed out of place with the gold-plated parachute wings over his left pocket. The name RALEIGH was embroidered over the buttoned right pocket. Silver oak leaves identified the rank of Commander, but on combat utilities, the oak leaves were embroidered in black.
Marc St. Cyr, French Navy Commandos Marine—the term used for the French equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALs—a head shorter than Tucker, followed directly behind the Navy Commander. St. Cyr’s blue shoulder boards conflicted with the darker green camouflage uniform he wore. Where Tucker’s utilities were clean and pressed, the Frenchman had permanent sharp creases along the front and back of the trouser legs. The sharp creases pulled tight from where the trouser legs had beenwrapped toward the inside of the leg, then trapped by the sides of tightly tied combat boots. The spit shine of the black combat boots gleamed from the overhead florescent light. The creases on both the front and back of the trousers stopped a couple of inches north of the crotch. Two creases on the shirt rode upward directly above where the creases on the trousers faded into the waistline and continued onward to the shoulder, where they disappeared under the shoulder boards of five gold stripes. When St. Cyr turned slightly, the creases reappeared on the back of the shirt to complement the military preciseness of the creases on the back of the trousers. Three sharp creases ran down the back of the shirt.
“Thank you, sir,” St. Cyr said with a nod. He held his dark beret in his left hand. A set of parachute wings decorated the spot over his left breast pocket.
Tucker and St. Cyr moved aside to allow their British counterpart to join them. Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves had been waiting for them at Commander, Special Warfare Group Two, in Little Creek, Virginia, when the two men had returned with Rear Admiral Holman. The short, squat Brit with his aristocratic accent had been participating in a field exercise with SEAL Team Six, the highly secret SEAL Team the U.S. government kept hidden away at a secret location for hostage rescue.
Tucker had been surprised to discover a Royal Air Force officer as the third member of their allied Special Forces group. He wondered briefly if his counterparts in France and England had had the same shock when a Navy SEAL had appeared as the U.S. member of this strange coalition. Politics were wonderful. One moment we’re ready to go to war with another nation, and the next we treat each other as if we are long-lost siblings suddenly returning home. He glanced at Marc St. Cyr to discover the man looking back. France! Here was a country that had a love-hate relationship with the United States. One moment they could be the loyalest ally, and then you go to sleep to wake up the next morning to discover them tossing rat poison in your breakfast. Going to war withFrance was like fishing with your mother-in-law. When they’re not complaining and pointing out your faults, they’re taking credit.
Tibbles-Seagraves saluted the Admiral as he emerged from behind the taller Tucker and St. Cyr who stood in front of him. His dark blue Special Air Service uniform—the famed SAS—deeply contrasted with the two sets of cammies to his left. “Good afternoon, Admiral,” he said, raising his right hand in an open-palm salute. The man’s eyebrows rose as he spoke, rising on an otherwise expressionless face. Slight jowls below each cheek twitched as his lips moved. The slight pouches beneath the Englishman’s eyes made Tucker think of what his mother always said about them being an indication of heart disease. An old wives’ tale, but one he had heard from others during his life and long after she had passed away. The image of the British bulldog came to mind as he assessed this new arrival.
“How was your experience with SEAL Team Six, Wing Commander?” Holman asked.
Tibbles-Seagraves answered, going over the challenges and the professional satisfaction of working with America’s best. The SAS officer spoke with a nasal tone common to the higher classes of British society. It made Tucker think of a superior addressing a subordinate, instead of a Wing Commander addressing an Admiral.How in the hell did the British manage to do that so well?he thought.
“Thanks, Jonathan,” Holman said, turning back to his taller Chief of Staff, Captain Leonard Upmann.
Tucker caught a slight wince from the British officer. He glanced away as he smiled. First-name basis wasn’t in the British military manual.
“Leo, why don’t you bring these gentlemen up to speed on events?”
“Yes, sir,” the African-American Navy Captain said. He turned his gaze toward the three men standing at parade rest in front of him.
“Why don’t you relax?” Holman said, motioning at thethree men. “You gentlemen, relax. This isn’t an inspection,” he said, interrupting his Chief of Staff. “Sorry, Leo, continue.”
“Of course, sir,” the man answered, bobbing his head slightly.
Tucker had read the Chief of Staff’s biography before they had checked on board the Commander, Amphibious Group Two flagship, the USSBoxer. It never hurt to always do a little intelligence gathering when you were going into unknown territory, even when that territory was your own Navy. Bald on top with a light gray perimeter of military-trimmed hair. The deep bass voice rode easily through the compartment. Tucker had learned that the Captain had been Admiral Holman’s Chief of Staff for nearly two years, which meant the man was up for orders. The last year was always the lame-duck year in any tour. He glanced at Holman, wondering what level of confidence the Admiral had for a man who had made headlines becoming one of the first active-duty officers to accept a Liberian passport as a sign of dual citizenship. It was legal. Congress had passed it on par with the laws authorizing American Jews dual citizenship in Israel. Tucker had mixed feelings about the idea of an American military person having dual citizenship, but he reconciled his feelings within the apathy familiar to military members who recognize an issue is outside of their control or authority.
“As you three probably know, one of our reconnaissance airplanes staging out of Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, made contact earlier today with a merchant ship. It descended to make a visual identification pass and it hasn’t been heard from since. That was six hours ago. About an hour ago”—he glanced down at a sheet of paper in his hand—“a commercial airliner landed in Johannesburg and reported picking up a distress signal around the same time Recce Flight 62 disappeared. By then, we already had a search-and-rescue operation launched on the fact that they only had fuel for two hours when they disappeared.”
Upmann moved to the small table in the center of theAdmiral’s stateroom, put spread fingers on top of a chart, and twisted it so it faced him. “Come here,” he said, motioning the three men forward. Admiral Holman moved to the top of the table, looking at the chart from the top.
“Right around here is where we figure the aircraft went down. Center of this area is where we commenced our search effort.”
“Thank you, Captain Upmann,” St. Cyr said when the Chief of Staff paused to take a breath. “But, what does this have to do with our mission? We are here for the possibility of the terrorists moving a weapon of mass destruction into the area.” Each “r” trilled off the Frenchman’s tongue like a bubbling brook.
Tucker noticed Admiral Holman’s eyes narrow as he stared at the Frenchman. Something had happened between the two men during Holman’s Joint Task Force Liberia, where the Commander, U.S. Amphibious Group Two, had had to avoid French resistance to an American noncombat evacuation operation. But it hadn’t been noncombat. The Admiral had had to fight his way to the trapped Americans and rescue them. Today, those same Americans now governed the country with democratic elections scheduled sometime early the next year.
“Hold on, my fine French friend,” Upmann said, holding his hand up, palm out.
Tucker caught a slight flash of anger cross the Frenchman’s face, quickly hidden behind a forced smile and the nod he gave Captain Upmann. Looking back at Upmann, he saw no recognition that the Chief of Staff understood—or, if he did, cared—the slight he’d given the French teammate. But he also recalled the sense of humor the French had when they would laugh at someone for their faux pas. Where had it been? Oh, yes, Marseilles, 2006, during a port call. He and a fellow male friend had been reconnoitering the dockside bars, soaking in the French social life along the waterfront. He had turned to his friend when they stepped into one of the rougher establishments and said, “Shut the door.” The establishment had gone quiet when they entered. When he said, “Shutthe door,” they had erupted into laughter, ordering them drinks and singing drunken sailor songs until the wee hours, asking numerous times for them to say, “Shut the door.” Shut-the-door became more slurred as the night wore on.
It was only later, near the end of the night—or had it been the beginning of the day—Tucker had discovered that “shut the door” sounded like the Frenchje t’adore,meaning “I love you.” The French sailors had found it amusing for American sailors to keep saying ‘I love you’ to each other.
“. . . the contact reported before we lost contact with them.”
Tucker felt foolish. He should be paying attention instead of recalling liberty ports and fun times ashore.
“What do you think, Commander?” Upmann asked Tucker.
He didn’t know what he thought. Like a mouse in a trap. “I’m not sure what you mean, Captain?”
“I mean if the contact reported was last on a northeasterly course . . .”
“It means the rogue ship is heading toward England, Europe, or will attempt to go through the Strait of Gibraltar,” Tibbles-Seagraves offered, avoiding eye contact with Tucker.
Marc St. Cyr shook his head, his dark hair remaining immaculately in place. “No, I disagree,” he said in a rising curt voice. “I do not think they will go through the Strait of Gibraltar.”
“Why?” Admiral Holman asked.
“Because, Le Admiral, if they’re going to go into the Mediterranean, there are easier and better hidden ways to get there than sail from western Africa through the Strait of Gibraltar. They could have sailed from Libya or Algeria. They could have trucked it across the continent via Turkey and Greece. No, I do not think they will go to the Mediterranean. What I think is that they are heading toward Rotterdam.”
“You may be right,” Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves said. “But I would have to quantify the destination as Rotterdam. While Rotterdam is a damn fine choice to disrupt the European economy, sailing up the Thames and blowing up this superbomb in the middle of London would be along the lines of this terrorist organization. It would not only be an attack on both an economic mainstay of the global economy but against the Western world.”
“France is not the Western world?”
“It could be one of many choices,” Admiral Holman said. He looked at the aggrieved St. Cyr. “The good thing is France, Great Britain, and America are in agreement that the rogue ship is heading toward Europe and away from America. That means we’re shifting from the original operational plan of dispersing our fleet along the East Coast to defend the homeland to one of defending our European allies.”
“That means we’re going to pursue them?” Tucker asked.
“Yes, in a way, Commander. We’re going to pursue them, but you aren’t, which is the real reason you’re up here.”
Admiral Holman moved away from the table and over to the green couch braced against the forward bulkhead. He sat on the edge of an arm of the couch and casually crossed his legs. Tucker expected the Admiral to slide off onto the deck at any second. “You three with the other members of your allied Special Forces are going to be off-loaded. We are sending you back ashore to Little Creek,” Admiral Holman said. “Between the ship heading northeast and the approaching storm, our shores should be safe long enough to hop across the Atlantic and take out this latest threat.”
“But, sir, if you run into this ship . . .”
“Commander Raleigh, if we do, then the French- or British-led teams will be responsible for taking it out. You’re going to be detached to Special Boat Unit Twenty under Commodore West. That’s in the event we’re wrongand/or the rogue ship survives being sunk by the storm and is detected off the East Coast.”
Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves covered his mouth with his fist and coughed, drawing their attention. “Sir, with all due respect, having three teams will increase the flexibility of the operations, and, evenif I do say so myself—if they run into more opposition than they can handle, we would be a welcomed asset; I am sure you agree, sir.”
“You’re correct, Wing Commander. Having three teams would be best, but the agreement between Washington, London, and Paris is we divide this operation into three distinct lines of authority. Right now, Paris will assume command until it is sure the rogue vessel is not headed toward France or the European mainland. . . .”
Eyes shifted toward Captain St. Cyr, whose head tilted up slightly, chin stiffened, as if slowly coming to attention; the man’s eyes focused on Admiral Holman.
“In the event the vessel’s ultimate target is Great Britain, command will shift to Northwood, north of London, for their prosecution.”
St. Cyr’s chin lowered as everyone looked at Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves, who nodded sharply, never breaking his concentration on Admiral Holman.
“Sir?” Tucker Raleigh asked, raising his hand.
Holman held up his hand. “We can’t take a chance they may change course and head toward the United States from a different direction. That being said, our agreement also says we will keep our teams within their own areas of responsibilities. The USSBoxerhas two other SEAL teams on board that can be thrown into the fray if they need them. Plus we have Cobra attack helicopters that can blow the hell out of the ship if it looks as if the Special Forces team can’t capture it.”
The three Special Forces men exchanged looks.
“I guess, sir, if we know where it is then why don’t we just launch some F-18 Hornets and blow it out of the water?”
“Because, Commander Raleigh, we need to know justwhat that weapon is they loaded on this freighter. What does it do? Is it nuclear, as the French suspect? We think so. Both we and the British agree with their assessment. Do you know what this does to the war on terrorism if those spreading anarchy and death around the globe have nuclear weapons?” Holman held up one finger. “They only have to have one. They’re like mines. You only have to throw one into the water to make the entire fleet start mine-hunting just to make sure there’s only one. No, we can’t take a chance on the ship reaching land, but at the same time, we need to know what the weapon is. Therefore, we will attempt to capture it at sea.”
“Yes, sir. Then that makes it even more important we be involved in this operation.”
Holman nodded, glancing at Captain Upmann for a moment before turning to face Tucker.
“You know, Tucker, if it was up to me, I would; but you, Captain St. Cyr, and Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves have to return to Little Creek.” Holman sighed and held up his hand. “Gentlemen, that is the end of the argument. I know how you feel. I’d feel the same way if someone told me to turn around and head back to port when I know the enemy is ahead of me.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Tucker acknowledged.
Holman reached over and pulled a chart of the eastern United States toward him. The outline of the coast identified various navigational landmarks while small black figures dotted the waters, identifying the rolling depths.
“Come closer, gentlemen,” Holman said.
Upmann reached over and pulled another chart in front of the Admiral. This one encompassed the Caribbean Sea and part of the central Atlantic. “Thanks, Leo.”
“We are here,” Holman said, placing his finger on the waters southeast of Virginia Beach, “on the farther end of the Virginia Capes operating area, VACAPES, as Surface Warriors like Captain Upmann call it, about one hundred nautical miles off shore, along with twelve other amphibious ships spread out in a line along this one-hundred-mile line.” He leaned back and put his hands on his hips,reaching up for a moment to pat his left shirt pocket. “Each ship is separated by thirty miles as we patrol our sector. Nothing can get through that can’t be visually seen for nearly seven hundred miles in the area that Amphibious Group Two has been assigned to patrol. Now, I’m going to regroup my command, under the orders of Commander Second Fleet, and head east. That means the Coast Guard will replace us, only they will be operating at about twenty to thirty miles off the coast and only have six ships they can deploy.”
“Will this be leaving our coast uncovered, sir?” Tucker asked.
Holman shook his head. “It will reduce the coverage because the other ships of Second Fleet are returning to port, not only because Intelligence believes the rogue vessel is headed toward Europe but because of the approaching storm. If this ship should change course, we expect they’re going to run smack dab into the U.S. Navy steaming right at them.”
Tucker watched as the creases along the Admiral’s forehead deepened. Holman looked up from the charts at Tucker. “Commander, you may have a point. The one thing I have learned over the years is to always expect the unexpected and you’ll never be disappointed.”
“We have our carrier theCharles de Gaullecoming out of the Mediterranean,” St. Cyr volunteered. “It has its full complement on board.”
“That you do, Captain,” Holman answered. He reached over, shuffled the papers on the table, found what he was looking for, and held up a message. “This is the operational plan for bottling up those assholes. My good friend, and yours, Captain St. Cyr, Admiral Colbert has operational command from the middle of the Atlantic east to Europe and every spot of water starting one hundred miles south of England. Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves, your country has the OPCON of our three fleets north of those boundaries.” He tossed the message back onto the charts blanketing the table. “The Royal Navy’s new nuclear aircraft carrier, the HMSChurchill,has broken offsea trials in the north sea and is leading its battle group toward the English Channel. The British report their carrier battle group will be through the Channel and in position at the edge of their area of responsibility by late tomorrow night.”
A brief knock on the stateroom door drew their attention. The operations officer, Captain Buford Green, entered. Buford’s heavy Southern accent belied the Rhodes scholar brain behind it. Many first-timers in meetings with Captain Green came to regret their miscalculations after a session with this Georgia bulldog.
“Buford, glad you could make it,” Upmann said.
“Admiral, sorry for my lateness,” he said, drawling out the last word. “But we have an update on the search for Reconnaissance Flight 62.”
Everyone turned toward the Commander, Amphibious Group Two, operations officer. “The four P-3 Charlies operating north of Recce Flight 62 landed safely at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. After refueling, they took off in a fan search toward the area where Recce Flight 62 last reported their position.” He looked down at his shoes. “So far, Admiral, no joy. They have been ordered to return. Sun sets in about an hour down there, plus wind speed is picking up and rain is increasing in intensity. Our weather-guessers say the storm will either hit Puerto Rico or skirt by it to the north. Either way, they have put themselves in a position where they are right.”
“Is there any way to keep them out there, Buford, for a short time after sunset? You can see lights on the water for miles in the dark.”
Captain Green unfolded a slip of paper he had been holding. “I’ll check and see, sir. I think they want to ensure they don’t lose a second aircraft so soon after Recce Flight 62. A couple of other things, Admiral. Commander, Second Fleet, continues to be Joint Task Force America, but because the Atlantic Fleet is being ordered further out to sea to pursue this rogue vessel further east, they have taken the coastal operations away from us, sir.”
“So, we are no longer running the Atlantic coast operations?”
Green shook his head. “No, sir. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have shifted responsibility to Northern Command for the defense of the coast. I suspect the Navy four-star at Northern Command will have the pleasure of working with the Coast Guard.”
Holman nodded. “I can understand the shift of responsibilities. It’ll be hard for us to execute two operations at the same time, and Northern Command is officially tasked with Homeland Defense. So, tell me, Buford, what is the search-and-rescue plan for tomorrow?”
“That’s the second shoe, Admiral. Second Fleet has asked Admiral Pfeiffer at Roosevelt Roads to assume SAR responsibilities.”
Holman nodded. “Good decision. Makes sense,” he said, glancing down at the charts. “Would have been nice if I had had a chance to comment, but one thing we learned from September eleventh; you can’t fight a war by committee. Someone has to make decisions, make them fast, and hope they’re close enough to be right. As I always say—”
“ ‘Give me an eighty percent solution and I’ll go to war with that,’ ” Captain Upmann finished.
“Leo, remind me to transfer you when I return,” Holman said good-naturedly.
“So, what other good things do you have to tell me, Buford?” Holman asked.
Green opened the brown folder and handed the Admiral a sheet of paper.
Tucker recognized the paper as that used by the intelligence and meteorology departments. Downloaded satellite images were photocopied on this slick imaging paper, and when the machine printed it out, it left the unused side of the sheet with a shiny, slick gleam as if a fine coat of oil had been brushed across it.
Holman looked at the image on the paper. Tucker caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. St. Cyr moved forward toward the coffeepot sitting on a tableacross the room. Tucker looked over at Tibbles-Seagraves. The British SAS operative’s eyes had narrowed, focused on his French counterpart. The spread of the SAS man’s feet was not lost on Tucker. Did Tibbles-Seagraves really believe the French Special Forces partner was dangerous? The posture of the shorter Brit told Tucker the man was ready to make a move if something happened. Of course, the French had a long history of being the English foe. It should concern him, but no one would try something here—aboard a U.S. Navy amphibious aircraft carrier.
He turned his head in time to catch St. Cyr peering over the Admiral’s shoulder. Intelligence collection! He should have known. The French were notorious about their intelligence collecting even against supposed allies. They had a different slant on it in comparison to the Americans and English, whose intelligence and military ties were so close that many times it was transparent to where the intelligence information originated or whose military forces you were working with.
Holman handed the paper back to Green. “And what does this mean, Buford? Maybe we should have our weather-guessers up here?”
“Yes, sir, Admiral. They’re scheduled to brief you following this meeting. What it means is a tropical depression in the middle of the Atlantic has shifted course to a more northwesterly heading. And unless we want to go through the bulk of the storm, we’re going to have to change our course to a more northerly heading for a couple of days.”
Holman looked up and saw St. Cyr pouring coffee. His head twisted around to look at Tucker and the British SAS trooper. Tucker saw the expression turn to amusement as the Admiral looked back at St. Cyr. “Coffee good, Captain St. Cyr?”
The Frenchman took a sip. “It will do, Admiral.”
“Good.” He turned to Tucker. “Tucker, you three prepare for transfer. One of the Mark V’s will be closing our position within the next couple of hours. You should havea nice ride in these developing seas on the Special Operations Craft. Captain Green will take care of arranging a helo with the Air Boss to take you across to the small boy.”
The ship rolled slightly to starboard and then righted itself. “Buford, looks as if the storm has already reached us.” For a ship the size of the USSBoxerto be affected by the seas, the waves had to be higher than normal or picking up strength.
“Just the fringe of it, Admiral. It’ll pick up in the next twenty-four hours, and if we still have the pleasure of being around this area in the next three days, we’ll get to see what an eye of a tropical storm, just shy of a full hurricane, looks like.”
“Captain St. Cyr, Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves, and Commander Raleigh, it has been a pleasure to serve with you,” Holman said, dismissing them. “I think you’re going to have a rough ride back to Little Creek in that eighty-two-foot patrol craft. Hope none of you are prone to sea sickness.”
After shaking the Admiral’s hand, the three Special Forces men left the compartment. Minutes later they were in the stateroom where the ship’s executive officer had assigned them bunks. Normally, a person of Captain St. Cyr’s rank would have had a one-man stateroom, but unknown to the three men, Admiral Holman had dropped a hint that for security reasons it would be nice if the three shared the same six-by-eight-foot room. The French were known to march to their own interests, and Holman’s experience off Liberia did little to resolve his intense distrust.
THE BOATSWAIN MATE FIRST CLASS MANNING THEhelm of the Mark V Special Operations Craft took a hand off one of the long sticks controlling the waterjets, reached up, and pushed in the controls to the wipers. The spray of the rough seas slammed against the windows, shattering into millions of droplets to rain back down withthe next spray. The sprays arrived in such quick succession that it seemed as if a fire hose was aimed at the windows, diffusing one moment and blocking the sailor’s vision the next.
“Watch your course, Jenson!” the young Lieutenant standing to the helmsman’s right said, his right hand above his head holding tight to a handhold like those in subway cars.
Without taking his eyes from the window, the Boatswain Mate replied, “I’m sure, skipper, we be going west.”
“West? What course west?”
“Don’t know, ’xactly. Right now, I just wanna keep us heading west, sir.”
The Lieutenant waved his left hand at the window. “Make it so, Jenson.”
Tucker shook his head and pulled back into the small area behind the bridge. St. Cyr had his eyes shut, pretending to sleep. Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves’s eyelids widened with each crashing wave, reminding Tucker of a deer caught in the headlights. Obviously, this British SAS had not been around the Royal Navy’s Special Operations boats. But to the older man’s credit, he hadn’t been seasick.
Tucker Raleigh leaned back and glanced out of the small window behind him. Clouds were closing fast from the east, and they still had another twenty-five to thirty nautical miles to travel to reach the safety of the Virginia coast. The amphibious battle group under Admiral Holman had disappeared nearly an hour before, the faint wake showing their change of course before the growing ocean turbulence erased the watery trail of the ships.
Tucker forced himself up, grabbing the line strung from the front of the compartment where they waited to the rear near the hatch leading to the outside. He leaned down and stared at the ocean behind them. The Mark V was a fantastic craft. Two 2285-horsepower enginespropelled the craft, using two specially configured waterjets. The Mark V could approach land so close that many times SEAL teams practically stepped ashore. The challenge for the small crafts, which operated in pairs, was to leave the shelter of shore and tackle the wild side of the ocean. Something they were doing now. Normally they’d be hitting forty to fifty knots across a normal sea state of two. He pressed his face to the small glass panel in the door and looked both right and left. A wave hit the side of the craft, causing him to nearly lose his balance. Probably a sea state five, he guessed. But, no way he was going to voice that opinion. The young Lieutenant up front with the Boatswain Mate was a Surface Warfare type. If he said sea state five and was right, they’d agree with him and exchange glances as if asking each other,why is he telling us something we already know?If he was wrong, they’d exchange the same glance as if telling each other,See! Navy SEALs! Don’t know a damn thing about sailing a ship.That was true, but he knew lots about single-handedly sinking them.
He made his way back to the row of cushioned seats built along the side of the craft. The Mark V had a permanent crew of five and could carry sixteen passengers. They had more than enough room for the two SEAL teams that had been assigned to him and his two allied friends. However, Green told him, the Admiral was keeping the SEALs on board. Just because he couldn’t use the three of them because of politics didn’t mean they couldn’t use the remainder of the team. So now the three of them rode the rough seas back to Little Creek to twiddle their fingers, make noises of allied cooperation, and when this crisis was over, tell each other how much they had enjoyed working with each other.
The craft tilted to port. Tucker twisted in the middle of the roll and allowed the momentum to seat him beside St. Cyr. He bumped the man, causing the Frenchman’s eyes to open for a moment before they started to fade shut again.
“Sorry,” Tucker shouted over the noise of the engines and the seas.
St. Cyr shrugged, his eyes opening. He leaned toward Tucker and nodded across the small compartment at Tibbles-Seagraves. “I think our English friend is finding the ride a little too exciting for his taste.”
“I think it’s a little too exciting for mine.”
St. Cyr grinned. “I know what you mean. Most of my time in boats of this size has not been in the middle of an ocean inching toward shore.” He nodded toward the bridge area. “Do you think they can increase their speed?”
Tucker looked toward the bridge for a moment, heard the Boatswain Mate shout something that sounded like “west,” and then turned back to St. Cyr. “I think they’re having to keep it at this speed because of the sea state.”
“Bien sur,”St. Cyr said, leaning back against the thin bulkhead and shutting his eyes. “I would do the same thing, I think. Just I would do it faster.”
“We should be through this within the next three to four hours.”
The Frenchman nodded without opening his eyes. “I believe you. I just hope this small craft holds together, because I hate to swim to shore from this far out.”
“It would be a long swim.”
“I’m more concerned how it will cause my skin to wrinkle,” St. Cyr replied, winking. “Then how will your American women be able to truly appreciate a well-groomed French warrior, if I look like a prune?”
Tucker laughed. He glanced at Tibbles-Seagraves, who forced a faint smile in reply. He doubted the Englishman wanted to take a chance on talking. “Air Force,” he said without thinking.
“Oui.And British, too.”CHAPTER 6
CAPTAIN ABU ALRAJOOL LEANED AGAINST THE FORWARDbulkhead of the small bridge. Taking the washcloth from the ledge beneath the windows, he reached up and wiped away the fog from the window. The shielded forward light on the bow did little to cut through the night. Its primary purpose was to warn other ships of the freighter’s presence. He grasped the line running overhead as the ship rolled to starboard. The inclinometer read fifteen degrees.Not bad that time, he thought. The rain beat down on the large windows across the top half of the forward bulkhead. Eight wipers beat out of sync, fighting a losing battle to clear the torrent of water coming from the sky and the sea, pounding the ship.
“This is terrible,” Tamursheki said from the darkness near the hatch leading off the bridge. “Maybe we should head in a different direction?”
Alrajool laughed. “This is nothing, my friend.” He tossed the washcloth on the ledge, turned around, and brushed his hands against each other. “I have been through worse and so has this ship that you keep calling a tramp.” He pointed toward the hatch leading to thestarboard bridge wing. “What makes you nervous is that the clouds have blocked out any light a normal clear night would gain from the stars and the moon. Mix that with a slight sea . . .” He turned to the helmsman. “Ramos, what would you say the sea state is? Four? Five?”
The dark-skinned Filipino, one of the remnants of Abu Suwayf, licked his lips. His eyebrows scrunched as if he was thinking. After nearly a half-minute, he said, “I think, sea state six, boss.”
“Tell our leader, here, why you think it is sea state six, Ramos.”
Nearly a minute passed before the small, thin Filipino former-terrorist answered. He lifted his hand and pointed to the anemometer. “First, true wind is thirty-seven knots, coming from our stern. Second, the waves breaking across our bow, which is twenty-five feet above the water. Third, slight roles—ten to fifteen degrees; and the pitch, she is acceptable.”
“Pitch is when the bow and the stern move up and down but not at the same time. If we reach the point where the whole ship is moving up and down, we call that a heave, and if you’ve a weak stomach, you’ll discover another reason it’s called heave.”
“I don’t understand a word that you say, old man,” Tamursheki said defensively. “Your job is to drive the ship and get us to our destination. I have met you sailors before. Always talking in a strange language, as if the language of the streets is not good enough for those on the sea.”
“For a man about to die, you possess a strong sense of arrogance.”
“Do not toy with me.”
Alrajool shrugged, walked over to the radar repeater on the port side of the ship, presenting his back to the terrorist leader.
Tamursheki watched the ship’s captain bend over and put his face against the rubber face guard that surrounded and masked the radar video repeater. He had noexperience with the sea, having grown up in the deserts of Arabia. His sea had been the shifting sands of the desert, and his ship had been the camel in his youth. The bow of the ship rose, a fresh wave of rain hit against the bridge windows. The sudden intensity of the water caught and held Tamursheki’s attention. He wiggled his fingers slightly, letting blood flow through them. He hadn’t realized how tightly he had been holding the metal bar protruding from the starboard bulkhead. He should go below. But he had been below, and the rocking and rolling of the ship made him nervous, which was why he had come to the bridge.
The hatch behind Tamursheki opened and another one of Alrajool’s sailors entered. It amazed him to watch these men walk the decks without holding on to anything as the ship tossed and rolled from side to side. He had bounced off the bulkheads just walking from the galley to the bridge. The sailor turned, his legs bent slightly to compensate for the ship’s movement, and pushed the locking bar down on the watertight hatch.
Alrajool looked up from the radar repeater. “Nothing out here but us and land smear to our southwest. Navigator, where do you have us?”
The Navigator, a slight man of Asian descent sitting on a metal stool behind Alrajool, reached over and flipped on a red light mounted directly over the table in front of him. He reached up and pressed a button to activate the Global Positioning Satellite System. “Ummmmm,” the man mumbled.
“I need more than a guttural noise, Hung.”
“I am taking a fix now, Captain,” he said, using a compass to make a light pencil mark on the chart. “I have us . . . right here.” He tapped the chart with the penciled end of the compass.
Alrajool turned around to the chart table. “Hung, we have to talk about your navigation terms. ‘Right here’? What kind of talk is that?”
The man shrugged, picked up his tiny Turkish coffee cup, and tossed the thick, hot mixture down his throat. “Right here,” he said again, his voice neither hostile norpleasant. The Navigator revealed no emotion. It told Tamursheki the man cared neither whether he pleased Alrajool or made him angry. He had met men such as him everywhere he had fought. Men who had reached a point where even survival meant little to them. They surfed along the surface of fate, willing to follow whatever paths others chose.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Alrajool looked toward the dark silhouette of Tamursheki. “We are north of the American Virgin Islands; about two hundred miles.” The captain turned to the sailor who was standing quietly beside the radar repeater. He held out his hand. “What do you have, Latif?”
The man handed Alrajool a sheet of paper.
Tamursheki caught the motion of the Captain’s head as the old man looked up from the paper toward him. If he or any of his men knew how to drive this ship, he would throw the old man over the side to let the sharks feast on him. During daylight, of course, because he wanted to see the fear on the old man’s face.
Alrajool reached forward and patted the sailor on the shoulder. Tamursheki strained to hear what the Captain whispered to the young man. He reached out to stop the sailor as he passed, but Alrajool spoke, distracting Tamursheki’s attention for that fraction of a second needed for the sailor to disappear through the hatch.
“Here,” Alrajool said, approaching Tamursheki. “You have your destination. Seems your boss, Abu Alhaul, has his own ideas of where we should go.”
Tamursheki reached forward and jerked the paper from Alrajool.
“God grant me peace from children who never grow up,” Alrajool muttered.
Tamursheki held tight to the bulkhead rung, afraid the erratic movement of the ship would toss him to the deck if he let go.
“There’s no light here. Why don’t you move to forward, where there are some red lights and you can read it,” Alrajool offered acidly.
Tamursheki knew the man wanted to see him fall. This man, whose neck he could easily break, was trying to humiliate him in front of the seamen. He could do this. If this old man could do it, he could. Tamursheki eased his grip for a fraction of a second. The ship abruptly rolled to port, as if knowing the precise moment Tamursheki released his hold. He fell into the bulkhead, his hand eagerly grabbing the bulkhead rung again. He tightened his grip, ignoring the smile barely visible in the shadows across the Captain’s face. The day would come when he wouldn’t need this man, nor his crew. When that day arrived, he would make sure the man knew who put the bullet into his head, or knew who the man was who sawed the knife slowly across and through his neck as if working through a tough side of beef. He would enjoy the death of this man, even if Abu Alhaul trusted him to carry the word of Allah, but who Tamursheki knew lusted only after the American dollar. His lips curled. He handed the paper back. “You’ve read it. You tell me where we are to go.”
He saw the shrug of the shoulders. Alrajool turned away from Tamursheki, moving near a red light mounted over the Captain’s chair on the starboard side of the bridge. The Captain had little respect for him. This he knew. Alrajool turned so he faced Tamursheki, the red light directly on the paper in front of him. A flash of lightning lit the bridge, revealing a grin stretched from one side of Alrajool’s face to the other. The Captain’s eyes burned into his, but Tamursheki refused to look away. To look away would be to lose face to this man who would never know the pleasures of paradise.
These men of the sea thought themselves above those who had never crossed it. They thought themselves above the Allah of all men.
“You’re right. I have read it, but you have the orders to execute. I can only tell you where we are going, and I can tell you how we are going to get there. But you must be assured that how and where I take you is where you are supposed to go.” He handed the paper back toTamursheki. “I’m not going to tell you what it says only to have you later say you never read the message. What do you take me for? A fool? I have dealt with others of your ilk and I know the games played to keep the advantage.”
He jerked the message away. “Don’t play with me, old man. It matters little to me if you die now or . . .” He stopped abruptly, but the words were already said.
“Or, what? Later? Don’t try it, Tamursheki. I have more than the ear of Abu Alhaul. Here,” he said, handing Tamursheki a red-shaded flashlight. “Even you can’t read in the dark, my friend.”
Tamursheki took the flashlight and pushed his arm through the metal handhold, using the crook of his elbow to hold him against the bulkhead. With the flashlight rigged for the night, Tamursheki read the short paragraph in English. When he looked up, Alrajool reached over and took the flashlight.
“I hate to lose these,” Alrajool sneered, waving the flashlight at Tamursheki.
“He says we aren’t going to Savannah nor New Orleans. We are going to . . .”
“I know. I didn’t understand why either of those two were more important, would yield more damage, but”—Alrajool shrugged—“my orders are to drop off some of you along the way, and once at the destination, disembark the cargo. I’m sure you look forward to becoming a martyr, and the more I get to know you, young man, the more I, too, look forward to providing the opportunity for you to achieve your just rewards.”
Tamursheki shifted, freeing his elbow and grasping the handhold again. The bow of the ship rose and fell. A wave broke across the bow, sending water breaking over the main deck and splattering against the bridge windows. “We will have teams to let off along the coast.”
Alrajool nodded. “That’s true, and I’ll get you within range. After that, it is up to you. But I will only promise to disembark a team if we can do it without much danger to my ship.” He turned and worked his way to the bank of windows along the front of the bridge. His knees bent,adjusting to the tilt of the ship as it pitched and rolled with the sea. A gust of wind whipped along the sides of the ship, drawing a long shrill as it hit the slight divides between the hatches and the outer skin of the ship. The weather was behind them. Its wind pushed against the stern of the freighter, driving it ahead of the slow-moving storm. “I won’t jeopardize the ship any more than I have to, Tamursheki. There are other missions and only so many ships available.”
The ship steadied for a moment. Tamursheki released his hold and fell more than walked toward the hatch leading off the bridge. A minute later, he was through the hatch and using his hands along the bulkhead to balance. He stumbled aft and down, seeking a place where the movements of the ship lessened.
Alrajool watched the terrorist from the open hatch for a few moments before shutting the watertight door and pulling the handle down to seal it. Several flashes of lightning lit up turbulent seas around the freighter. He looked around at the crewmembers on the bridge, who exchanged glances with each other. Then one laughed. Soon all of them were holding their stomachs, laughing at the “terrible” terrorist who could barely stand from his fear of the sea.
TWO DECKS BELOW, TAMURSHEKI OPENED THE DOORleading to Dr. Ibrahim’s clinic. Most of his men were there. Some sat cross-legged on the deck. Two lay on top of thin cotton blankets thrown on the deck, an arm across their eyes. The compartment smelled of vomit and tobacco. Four stood together at the far end of the large compartment that made up this makeshift clinic, talking and smoking.
Two stainless-steel medical tables were bolted to the deck in the center of the compartment. Jabir lay on one of the tables. The huge giant Qasim moaned softly from the other. Between the two tables lay Fakhiri, curled in afetal position, spittle running from between his lips onto a towel stained yellow from vomit.
Ibrahim looked up as Tamursheki entered. “I see you found us,” he said.
Tamursheki ignored the comment as he took mental muster of those here. The movement of the ship was less belowdecks. Of course, on the other hand, they were below the waterline. . . . He quickly changed thoughts. To drown before he sacrificed himself for Allah would be a great crime.
“I said,I see you have found us.”
Tamursheki’s eyes narrowed, his thick eyebrows bunching into an angry V. “Yes, I have been on the bridge with the Captain.”
Tamursheki watched as the doctor lifted a hypodermic needle from the aluminum supply table beside the patients. Ibrahim pulled a small bottle from the metal chests, pushed the needle into it before lifting it to eye level to watch the liquid flow into it. He glanced over at Tamursheki. “You want one of these?” he asked, nodding toward the hypodermic needle.
“They stop the nausea,” volunteered Hisam. He rubbed his ample stomach. “I am beginning to feel better already. Maybe some food . . .” His face turned gray. He grabbed a towel and heaved several strings of yellow bile into it.
“Give it a little time, my friend,” Dr. Ibrahim said. He removed the full hypodermic and set the vial back into the gray metal container from where he had taken it.
Ibrahim looked from Hisam, who slowly slid down the bulkhead to squat with his back against it, to a cabinet on his right.
“I was throwing up and believed that my time to go to paradise was tonight,” Hisam said weakly.
“It is amazing what this stuff will do with the proper administration,” Dr. Ibrahim added with a wide grin.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was going to give this tomorrow, but the men were complaining of nausea, so I have given them themiracle drug purchased by Abu Alhaul and provided by my company.”
“How long will it last?”
“Long enough. I can’t say it will stop the nausea, but it will eventually take their minds off the rolling and tossing of the ship. What matters is they will be able to do their jobs when we arrive.”
He plunged the hypodermic into Qasim’s arm. Tamursheki saw the biceps contract as the needle traveled over an inch before the base of the hypodermic stopped it. A groan escaped. Ibrahim pulled the needle out and patted the huge man on the shoulder. “There, there, my gentle giant. That should do you. Just lay there and let the shot take effect,” Ibrahim said with a chuckle. “Nausea will no longer be your worry in a few days,” he said quietly to himself.
Ibrahim laid the needle on the cabinet shelf. “You’re next, Tamursheki. Roll up that sleeve,” he said, pointing at the leader of the terrorists.
Tamursheki saw the men staring at him. They wanted to see if he was going to take the shot. He straightened. The ship slowly rolled a few degrees to port, stayed there for a few moments, and then returned level for a couple of seconds before the opposite roll began. He waddled across the moving deck to where Dr. Ibrahim had prepared a needle. His lower pushed against his upper lip, and he stared with narrow eyes at the Palestinian as he rolled his sleeve up.
“Now you, Doctor?”
Ibrahim shrugged and turned his back to the terrorist leader, hiding the sweat that broke out on his forehead. “Don’t need it. I have spent so much time at sea that I’ve grown used to how the ocean sometimes displays its displeasure at those who sail upon it.”
“Maybe we should give this medicine to our guests?”
Ibrahim looked up, his mind alert. Did Tamursheki know what was in the shots he had just given? Something had alerted the terrorist leader, or else Abu Alhaul had entrusted the information to him.
Ibrahim lifted the cover to the metal container. “I have enough to take care of their nausea as well.”
Qasim pushed himself up to a sitting position on the table. “Doctor, I feel better already. What is that stuff?”
“It is a placebo for nausea.”
The men mumbled in appreciation, none of them knowing what placebo meant but all able to tell by the name that it was something medical.
“Well, this placebo is very good. I am hungry again,” Qasim added, rubbing his stomach.
“When are you not hungry?” Ibrahim offered, his voice tense.
“Has everyone received their shots?”
“Yes. You were the last. And you were the one most deserving.”
“Get your stuff together. We will go see our guests and take care of their nausea.” Tamursheki looked at Qasim. “Are you well enough to visit our guests?”
Qasim pushed himself off the table and stood up straight. He weaved for a moment, the deck tilting forward as the ship rode down a wave. He grinned, balancing himself with both hands on the table behind him.
“You four, come with us.”
“You should shave the back of those hands, Qasim,” Dr. Ibrahim remarked as he picked up the chest. He started after Tamursheki, stopped suddenly, and put the medicine chest down. “Wait a minute,” he said.
The leader of the Jihadists stopped halfway through the hatch. The ship rolled to starboard. He jumped back as the door slammed shut. A moment of hesitation and he would have had his fingers broken—possibly cut off. He hated these mercenaries Abu Alhaul had hired. Had they become so small that they couldn’t find the skills needed within their own organization?
“What is it?” he demanded, his voice curt and harsh.
Dr. Ibrahim grabbed a couple of aerosol cans and held them up, just as the roll of the ship changed directions. “Take these and toss them into the compartment. It’ll render them unconscious and easier for me to examine themand, if you so decide, give them a shot for their nausea like you have for your men.”
“Let them suffer,” said Qasim. “They are heretics. Worse yet, Americans. Let me slit their throats like the sheep they are.”
Tamursheki shook his head. “You will get your chance, Qasim. We will take the videos we need when I am convinced that we have no use for them.”
Qasim pulled his dagger and drew the back of it across his neck. “What use could we have for them?”
“I would use them as hostages,” Tamursheki said. “I would kill them one at a time if the Americans should discover us. No, we must care for them as we would our own,” he said, feeling no remorse in lying to a follower. Lies were okay in the eyes of Allah as long it furthered his word. “I may even allow the leaders of these Americans to live.” He looked at Ibrahim. “So they may carry the fruits of our fight for us.”
“I don’t understand.”
Tamursheki grinned. He reached up and slapped Qasim on his broad chest. “It is not for you to understand, my friend. It is for you to obey as Abu Alhaul has directed.”
LIEUTENANT MAUREEN EARLY BRACED HER BACKagainst the aft bulkhead of the compartment. She shifted her legs farther apart to help keep her body steady, bending her knees so she could push against the vessel’s movement. She had already fallen twice, and getting back up with your hands tied behind you was nearly impossible. She had had to wait until the ship rocked to the other side and then shift her body with it to roll upright. It was like doing a sideways sit-up.
“Must be some storm,” Senior Chief Leary said, his deep voice carrying through the shadows of the compartment. “How is he?”
“Hard to say,” Lieutenant Scott Kelly replied. “If we had more light than what’s getting through that small porthole on the hatch, we might be able to tell something.”
“His breathing seems fine,” Early offered, looking down at the body lying on the deck between her and Kelly.
The ship creaked as it started another roll. The deck tilted to starboard for several degrees, rested a moment, and then rolled to port.
“Win!” Early called. She moved her foot left and pushed Forrester’s leg. No response. The young mission evaluator had been unconscious since their captors had hit him upside the head the day before. The faint light shined on the caked blood that matted his hair all along the right side of the man’s head.
“Where do you think they have the others?” Scott asked.
“I think they’re in one of these compartments on this deck,” the Senior Chief said. “At least some got away.”
“Let’s hope they did. I didn’t see the life raft deploy on the other side of the aircraft.”
“Yes, ma’am, but the aircraft stayed afloat longer than I thought it would. If they got out, maybe they stayed close until we were taken and then deployed it.”
“I doubt it,” Kelly said. “They would have deployed it as soon as they hit the water just as we did. If they got away, it will have been luck, seas, and Neptune looking over them.”
“I would think they would have seen it from the height of the deck.”
“I thought they were going to shoot us when they came alongside.”
The ship creaked and rolled to starboard again. This time it took a few seconds longer to right itself. The lights flickered in the passageway outside the darkened compartment.
“I think that was what they intended,” Kelly said. “I think it was only at the last moment that they threw the rope ladder down and ordered us to climb aboard.”
“What do you think they want?” Early asked.
“Probably film us as they cut our throats,” Senior ChiefLeary said. “I knew I should have gotten a haircut before we took off.”
“Just what I need. More worry,” Early replied.
“How many did we have in the life raft? How many of us do they have?”
“Ten—maybe a few more, I didn’t get an accurate count before we were captured.”
Senior Chief Leary sat across the compartment from them. She could see his flight boots flat on the deck in the faint path of light coming through the porthole. His legs splayed out on the deck like hers, he, too, was trying to maintain balance.
“Maureen, if I haven’t told you, that was a text-book ditching you did yesterday,” Kelly offered.
“Was it yesterday? Seems a lot longer.”
“Any landing you walk away from is a good landing,” Leary said, repeating an aviation mantra.
“In this case, we swam.”
“I think you’re right. They were going to shoot us. I wish I knew what changed their minds. I don’t think it’s, as the Senior Chief offered, to film our throats being cut, though terrorists in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have been doing that. No, they have something else in mind.”
“It can’t be any worse than the thought Senior Chief Leary has provided, Maureen. Do you think we got the word out before we ditched?”
“No, sir,” Senior Chief answered. “Not a snowball’s chance in hell. We had no communications. The last message, according to Mr. Forrester, was the one giving the contact information on the ship heading north—the car smuggler. Unless someone picked up our distress signal, there’s no way they’ll know where we are. Lieutenant Jenkins would have been on the other life raft, and he is the one who would know.”
“Even if they did get it, I don’t see them being able to launch a search-and-rescue until this storm lets up.”
“Well, where we ditched may not have any storm activity. It’s been over twenty-four hours. At least that’s what I’m estimating,” Kelly said.
“We gotta get out of here,” Senior Chief Leary said.
“How? Our hands are tied. The door is probably locked, and we’ve seen them looking in every so often. And, if we do get loose, what are we going to do? Jump overboard?” Maureen Early asked, bunching her shoulders.
“Ma’am, whatever we do, we need to do it soon. Whatever they plan won’t be associated with us living. We already have our legs free.”
“Yeah, and our hands tied behind us with those plastic thingamajiggies I’ve seen riot police use,” Kelly said, pausing for moment before he added, “And, I lost feeling in mine a few hours ago.”
Maureen shifted her legs. At least the compartment was warm. The dampness between her legs caused her skin to itch. She licked her dry lips. Water would be nice, she thought. She recalled her Marine Corps Drill Instructor during Officer Candidate School in Pensacola saying something about never going into battle with a full bladder or bowel. At the time, she thought the comment was crass and gross and meant only to embarrass the women in the company.
Today, she understood the relevance of it. When the body is in danger, not only does adrenalin rocket through it to bring the senses to full bore, the body either rids itself of unnecessary waste or it seals off the sphincter to further business. The bladder, on the other hand, has no such sealing mechanism. It just lets go. Another thing Early had learned in the past twenty-four hours was that life-threatening events caused the body to use up moisture as adrenalin spun up reaction time. The others hadn’t had anything to drink either.
The smell of urine whiffed about them. The Jihadists had separated them from the enlisted aircrew. They had tied the hands of everyone with plastic handcuffs and shoved them into separate compartments. No food or water. No sanitation facilities. To the captives, they were no more than sheep, waiting for sacrifice.
“You’re right, Scott. Between the three of us that was a perfect ditch.”
“Yeah, you got that right, Lieutenant,” Senior Chief said, a hint of amusement behind the reply.
The ditching had been perfect, she told herself, allowing her head to drop onto her chest. So tired. Sleep had been in dribs and drabs of seconds complicated by the pain in the shoulders, arms, and hands and, as the storm picked up in intensity, the increasing tempo of rolls and dips of the ship.
She had kept the wheels up. Never took her focus away from the control panel or the approaching sea but recalled hearing release of CO2on the number-one engine where the missile had hit. The flight engineer would have done that without asking. She was blessed to have Senior Chief Leary as her flight engineer. A good flight engineer was worth his or her weight in gold.
Moments such as this are truly moments of truth. How her flight crew performed determined whether they lived and whether they would be rescued. Even then, that “Old Man up above” had to be involved.
The Navigator, Stan ‘the man’ Jenkins, would have hit the prerecorded distress signal while slapping his hand down on the button that would have inserted their position based on readings from four of the twenty-four Global Positioning Satellites. GPS maintain stationary orbits around the world. If a commercial or military aircraft or ship is within signal range, an onboard emergency receiver activates. Those emergency receivers give a relative heading to the transmitter, and military receivers would have printed out the coordinates. She could only hope that everyone had been doing their jobs as the ocean surface hurried to greet them. Otherwise, Recce Flight 62 would become just more grist on the History Channel mill for disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, even though they were at least one hundred miles from it. But far be it to let accuracy cloud a good story.
Something blocked the faint light coming into the compartment. A face peered through the porthole. Thishappened every few minutes. She wondered what they could see looking into the dark compartment. They could barely see each other, and they had their night vision. When they looked through the small window into the compartment there was no way they could see what their captives were doing. The face disappeared, and the faint trail of light appeared once again along the center of the compartment.
“Whoa, there,” Senior Chief Leary said as the compartment dipped and then rose again. “I think we hit a big wave with that one.”
The creak of the watertight latch drew their attention.
“Looks as if our hosts are returning.”
“Hope they brought food and water.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
The hatch opened about six inches—wide enough for a hand to reach in and toss a long can into the center of the compartment. It rolled into the faint light. A cloud of spray spewed from the nozzle, carrying a fine vapor into the air.
“Grenade!” Kelly shouted, rolling to the right.
“It’s not a grenade. Hold your breath and shut your eyes!” Early shouted, knowing it was futile. They would have to breath sometime, and when they did, whatever was filling the compartment would fill their lungs.
Minutes later the three of them collapsed on the deck.CHAPTER 7
TUCKER LEANED AGAINST THE DOOR, FIGHTING THE WINDtrying to blow it open. The wind sent a keen whistle whipping around the edges of the heavy wood door. Rain blew almost horizontally, shooting through the opening, soaking him and the black plastic sheet someone had thrown on the floor at the entrance to keep others from slipping on the wet tile. St. Cyr dashed through the door, stopping a couple of feet inside, the rain beating against the Frenchman’s back. Nonchalantly, St. Cyr pulled his wet beret off, shook his head, sending water everywhere as it flew off his thick stock of black hair. He squeezed the beret, water dripping on the floor, and then tossed the head cover onto a nearby coffee table to the left.
Tucker peered around the door, the wind and rain causing him to squint through closed eyes. Up steps, leading to two piers below, came the stocky outline of the Special Air Service Wing Commander, head tucked down with his chin against his chest. Tucker jumped back, holding the door against the wind, leaving it opened only wide enough so a person could slip through.
Tibbles-Seagraves shouted his thanks as he more doveinto the room than walked. Tucker pushed the door shut. Tibbles-Seagraves casually removed his rain slicker, picked up the Frenchman’s cap, and hung them on the coatrack to the side.
“I say, chaps! Is this the Virginia weather for lovers I’ve heard so much about?” Tibbles-Seagraves asked, running a small linen handkerchief over and through the sparse strands matted across the top of his head.
“Seen worse,” Tucker replied, struggling out of his raincoat.
The Chief Petty Officer standing behind the desk that doubled as the quarterdeck walked around the counter. “Morning, Commander,” he said, reaching out to St. Cyr and taking his rain slick from him. “I’ll put this over here with the others, sir.” The Chief turned to a young sailor who was leaning against the counter near the opened green logbook, reading a comic book. “Thompson, put that shit away and go grab the swab again. Get this water off the deck.”
“Aye aye, Chief,” the young man said, hurrying over to the closet and removing a huge mop with a handle too big for the sailor to get his hands around.
“And when you finish with that, Thompson, get your ass upstairs and see how the coffee situation is.”
“Yes, Chief,” the young man grunted as he pulled the metal tub along the floor toward the front of the building.
“Chief, where is the meeting?” Tucker Raleigh asked.
“Most of them are already up there with the Commodore, sir. I would say it’s more of a free-for-all than a meeting—what with this weather and all.”
The Chief glanced at the sailor swabbing the deck and pointed to a puddle on the other side of the door. Without missing a beat, the young man spun the mop, the cotton strands spreading out like a fan, and dropped it where the Chief pointed.
“You have a friend here, too, Commander Raleigh. A Navy nurse who came in with the response team from Bethesda a couple of days ago. She’s in the wardroom.”The Chief smiled as he walked away, chuckling as he shook his head.
“Ummmmm; must be nice, Tucker. Does each officer in your Navy have his own nurse?” St. Cyr asked, raising his eyebrows in amusement. “Of course, in France, they would bring a picnic basket”—he brought the tips of fingers to his lips and kissed them—“With a nice bottle of wine.”
“Of course,” Tucker said, convincingly. “Why else would we choose such a dangerous job if we couldn’t get decent medical support?”
“In England, we have the National Health Service . . .”
“And I am sure some of the finest-looking nurses,” St. Cyr said.
“It really depends.”
The sound of approaching heels down the hallway to the right of the quarterdeck stopped the banter.
Lieutenant Commander Samantha Bradley appeared, a smile breaking across her face. She stopped at the end of the hallway and stared at Tucker. He was surprised to see she wasn’t in uniform. Sam was wearing the revealing white blouse he had complimented with a risqué comment after a tryst in a park near the Pentagon. The fear of someone catching them had added to the moment. A pair of dark pants ended a few inches above black pumps. The overcast of the storm had forced the quarterdeck to turn on its fluorescent lights, inadvertently creating a makeshift stage for her appearance from the darker doorway. The light gave her dark hair a reddish sheen that Tucker had never noticed. It also played through the see-through blouse, revealing a low-cut bra, pushing pert breasts together, creating a small but eye-catching cleavage that enticingly appeared and disappeared between the two opened buttons on her blouse as she walked.
“Are you going to speak, Commander?” Sam asked, coming to a stop at the edge of the quarterdeck. A huge grin spread across her lips, along with a slight shade of red creeping up her neck.
He had lost himself in watching her approach. Tuckerstuttered a few times before taking a couple of steps forward to embrace the woman he had left abruptly a few days before in Washington. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” she said, leaning back in his arms to look him in the eye. “Why, Commander Raleigh, I am your physical therapist, aren’t I?” she asked, teasingly.
“I give up. We have nurses in the French military, but we would never give our junior officers a physical therapist,” St. Cyr said.
Tucker reluctantly released his embrace of Sam, his left hand trailing down her left arm as he turned to face the two men. When his hand reached her hand, she took it.
St. Cyr and Tibbles-Seagraves stood side-by-side, broad smiles across their faces. Remnants of rain continuing to trail down their cheeks, dropping onto their cammies. Tibbles-Seagraves cleared his throat.
“Sorry,” Tucker apologized. “Sam, this is Wing Commander Tibbles-Seagraves of the Royal Air Force, and this fine gentleman with the bushy mustache is Captain Marc St. Cyr of the French Navy.”
Sam shook hands and smiled at St. Cyr. “I would say, Captain, that someone has removed most of the bush from your mustache.”
The Frenchman smiled and nodded slightly. “I think your boyfriend makes fun of it.” He reached up and ran his finger along his thin mustache. “I prefer to think it is the right statement without being too gaudy. I would hate for someone to think I was British.” He nodded toward Tibbles-Seagraves, who reached up and twisted the end of his long handlebar mustache.
“I say,” Tibbles-Seagraves retorted. “We, too, would hate for someone to make that mistake.” He reached forward and shook Sam’s hand.
Tucker smiled. Sam covered her mouth; a mischievous twinkle in her eyes met his. It was good to see her, but it would have been better if she had at least let him know she was coming down. Even though the focus of the search for the terrorist ship had shifted to the Europeantheater, they were still on alert. Granted, sitting in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, drinking beer, arguing whether to watch American or European football, and periodically commenting on the wind and rain slamming against the windows wasn’t really what the general public would think of as military men on alert. These past three days had been boring. Today, they had been ordered to move their gear to the alert headquarters of Commodore West’s near the Special Boat Unit Twenty piers. He hadn’t decided whether to argue about moving here or not. He failed to see any reason for them to rough it here when they could stay in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, where there was at least television.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
“I was wondering why you are here,” he lied.
She released his hand. “Hope you’re not disappointed.”
“I am looking forward to seeing how you manage to disengage your foot from your mouth with this one, my American friend,” Tibbles-Seagraves offered.
The telephone on the quarterdeck rang, saving him.
“They’re here, sir. I’ll tell them.” The Chief hung up.
“Commander, the Commodore is in the control tower topside. He says y’all should come on up and join him.”
“Sam, I have to go.”
“Not to worry, I’m going with you,” she said. She took his arm and pulled him aside. “Sorry, gentlemen, I need to give some professional instruction to my patient.”
The other two men started up the stairs.
She kissed him on the cheek. He reached forward to take her in his arms, but she gently pushed them away. “You know, you’re cute when you’re lost for words. Bethesda needed a volunteer to augment the ready-response cell here on the waterfront, and the DiLorenzo Clinic at the Pentagon let me take it. I didn’t know you were down here until I arrived at Portsmouth Medical Center and saw that Navy medicine had transferred your digital records to SpecWarGru Two. It was that little tidbit of information that told me why you hadn’t returned my telephone calls.”
“I wanted to—”
She laughed. “Sure, you did.”
“No, honestly, I wanted to, but was ordered to board a helicopter with Admiral Holman—”
“No, it’s true,” he protested.
“Of course, it is,” she said with amusement in her voice. “I have to admit, it’s the best line I’ve heard so far.” She waited a moment, and when he didn’t say anything, she added, “Go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Well, when I got down here, Admiral Holman hustled us aboard his flagship, the USSBoxer,and we set sail. We only returned to port three days ago.”
“Telephones don’t work?”
“Wait a minute. I tried to call. I even left messages.”
She reached forward and touched him on the arm. He eased her into an embrace. “I did call, you know,” he said.
“I know. I got your messages when I checked my answering machine yesterday. I tracked you down to the BOQ late last night and they told me you had moved out. It didn’t take long to track you down. After all, you did say you missed me.”
He lifted her chin and kissed her—a kiss that lingered, warmed, and drew his body closer to hers.
A series of loud coughs caused them to break apart. The Chief Petty Officer at the quarterdeck stared at them. Near the door, the young seaman was scrubbing the deck, back and forth the swab went, as fast as the young man could move it.
“Sir, ma’am; if you don’t mind,” the Chief said, jerking his thumb at the seaman. “Young Thompson isn’t used to how officers greet each other, and I think the Commodore is waiting for you. He’s not the patient type.”
They broke apart, neither speaking to the Chief as they headed down the hallway toward the stairs.
“It’s not as if this is a top-secret Special Forces mission, is it?” She stuck her arm through the crook of Tucker’s elbows.
Tucker let out a deep breath. The building vibrated to a long roll of thunder. Behind them, a torrent of rainrattled the windows. He squeezed her hand. Everything was right with the world. He had worried his disappearance had sealed the fate of their budding relationship. Then again, others would say this relationship was moving too fast—doomed to failure and all that bullshit. Deep inside of him was the professional bachelor’s mixed fear about rushing head-on into something where he may wake up one day to discover himself walking glassy-eyed down an aisle in the church with all the exits locked. Tucker ran his free hand along the mahogany railing of the stairs as they climbed toward the control room of the old 1950s tower.
The tower had been used to control seaplanes during World War II. It lay at the edge of a sea ramp where decades ago amphibian aircraft had rolled into and out of the manmade canal that lead to the sea. What had once been a tarmac for the vintage aircraft was now a parking lot for the sailors. He glanced at Sam, watching how her hair bounced softly off her shoulder. How like a curtain it hid her eyes and with each movement revealed a glimpse of her nose; a flash of smooth cheek; and always the dampness of full lips, leading the assault on his senses. He hated to admit he was glad the rogue freighter was somewhere in the East Atlantic. He was going enjoy this deployment.
TUCKER, ST. CYR, AND TIBBLES-SEAGRAVES STOODslightly behind the Commodore, who had quickly dismissed any concerns with having a Navy nurse accompanying the men. He was a surface warfare officer assigned as the Commodore Special Boat Unit Twenty. Commodore Tony West stood about five-foot-five and had come up through the ranks as a mustang. A former Chief Petty Officer, he was fond of telling people that he had been a horrible Chief. When they had decided to clean up the ranks back in the nineties, they’d commissioned him as an ensign, figuring it didn’t take much technical know-how to be an officer. He had had a good career. Not onethat was going to catapult him into flag ranks. When you reached your fifties and you were a mustang to boot, the establishment still sat there like an anchor on top of the ladder. The ever-present “they” wanted those who wore the stars to have sufficient time left in their careers to make full Admiral—four stars. Fifty-plus-old captains just don’t meet this unwritten age criteria.
But no one ever heard West complain about it. Most envied him. In the last three tours of duty, a small cadre of loyal officers and enlisted had followed him from his command in Rota to his duty in the Pentagon, and now to his twilight tour at Special Boat Unit Twenty in Little Creek, Virginia. You could say what you wanted about the old man, but you couldn’t say it in front of this group.
“Commander,” Commodore West said, the slight tremor in voice revealing his age. “Hope all of you are having a great vacation here in the land of love, as Virginia likes to be called.”
St. Cyr nodded graciously at Tucker and mouthed the words “land of love,” drawing a smile from him.
As much as Tucker hated to admit it, he was beginning to like the Frenchman, though as a whole Americans would just as soon see them stay in France. The old European country had taken a mantle upon its shoulders to be the balancing power of America’s superpower, believing active diplomacy was an effective weapon to fight an overwhelming military strength. Even Evian water had suffered an economic setback since the debacle of 2003 when France led a coalition opposing American hegemony to dismantle rogue regimes. A few years later, when radical terrorists had hit Paris with a combined biological and chemical attack in the subway, the source had been traced to the former Iraq—the “Arsenal of Terrorism.”
Commodore West had a deep voice, but he spoke fast, running his words together, and unless you listened closely, Tucker was discovering, you missed most of what the seasoned veteran said. His attention wandered in and out, as the Commodore addressed the weather and the Special Boats tied up at the base of the tower.
Tucker wondered briefly whether if he stayed for thirty-plus years in the Navy he would become prematurely gray and going bald on top like old-timers such as West. He patted his stomach. Would he get the leadership paunch that came with it? Must be stress. Of course, could be the liberty. Liberty before the notorious Tailhook Convention in the early 1990s was something that could shorten your life. The same sort of liberty after that Tailhook Convention would shorten your career.
“This has been some storm, Commodore,” Tucker replied.
Commodore West laid his binoculars on the table in the center of the small control tower. “That’s what I just said, Commander. Weren’t you listening?” He took a step away, the binoculars falling off the ledge to dangle from the strap still wrapped around his wrist. West calmly unwrapped them and put them back in their storage area. “Don’t know why I even bother with these things. Especially with weather like it is today. Can’t even see the channel out there, and it’s only two miles away.”
West reached over and pulled a chart over. “I know this is boring for you three, being snake-eaters and everything. If I was as young as you and in your line of work, I’d want to be somewhere painful rather than twiddling one finger in your mouth and the other up your—” He looked at Sam and stopped. “Well, you know. Different subject, gentlemen and lady. First, let me say, the Admiral briefed me on the rationale for combining operations with our British and French allies.” He nodded sharply, and then looked up at St. Cyr and Tibbles-Seagraves. “Can’t say we have seen much cooperative spirit with our French allies this century, so this makes what I hope is a pleasant change, especially after the confrontation off Liberia last year.”
St. Cyr raised his finger. “Ah, Commodore, with all due respect, sir,” he said. The Commodore and he were the same rank, even if West was older than his father. He wagged his finger at the Navy Captain. “There was no confrontation. We had an unfortunate misunderstandingduring a combined exercise. I am sure Admiral Holman would agree with that statement.”
West’s lower lip arched upward, covering his upper lip. His eyes narrowed. “Of course, Captain,” he said sharply. “One thing we understand thoroughly in my United States Navy is that our government is never wrong regardless of which administration is in office. Luckily for us, the misunderstanding failed to stop our evacuation of American citizens. But, then, with allies such as France, we were doomed to success in the first place.”
Tucker saw a faint red color his French counterpart’s neck. One thing about the French—they were a nationalistic bunch that demanded respect.
“Of course, Commodore. I am sure it is as you say,” St. Cyr responded tartly. “I meant no offense.”
“Offense!” Commodore West guffawed. Then, in barely a whisper, he added, “That’s a word I doubt you know.”
This was headed downhill fast, a direction Tucker would prefer to avoid. If this continued, the Commodore would probably start working his way back in history to other instances of French and American differences, such as the Iraqi War.
“Sir, when can we expect the weather to clear, and have you heard anything from the operations around Europe?”
The old Captain sighed, rubbing the slight stubble from his early-morning shave. “Touché, Commander. You’ll go far in this Navy.” He turned to a slim Commander who had the countenance of a long-distance jogger, thought Tucker, until he noticed the half-opened pack of cigarettes half-hidden under the newspaper near the Commander. The officer pushed himself off the forward bulkhead.
“Yes, sir, Commodore.”
“John, tell them what you told me earlier.”
The man moved out of the gray shadows caused by the morning overcast to the lighted area near the table. “First,” he said, in a high, tenor-like voice, “the tropical storm is wavering between remaining a tropical storm andbeing reclassified as a hurricane.” He pulled the chart away from in front of Commodore West, flipped it around so it was right side up for Tucker and the others. He placed his finger on an area north of Bermuda and about five hundred nautical miles off the east coast of North Carolina. “The storm has slowed here. It’s being hit by a high front to the north and an equally low front from the south and east. It’s created a weather anomaly that has slowed the storm’s movement while keeping its energy from growing. Moreover, it’s keeping it from losing any of its energy, as these fronts have one giving the storm more moisture and the other maintaining the wind momentum for it. Within the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours, one of those fronts is going to give way to the other. Until that happens, the storm is going to keep its slow movement on the same heading. Which front gives way and how it moves will determine the course, speed, and whether we inherit a hurricane or not.”
“Could it blow itself out?” Sam asked from the rear.
“No, ma’am,” the Commander replied.
“I’m a ma’am, but I’m also an active-duty Navy nurse—Lieutenant Commander,” she said, making sure the meteorologist knew she was junior to him in rank.
The meteorologist nodded. “No, it won’t blow itself out immediately. What’ll happen is it will react like a blast of water trapped in a garden hose when you first open the nozzle. It’ll shoot out of the entrapment, taking everything in its path with it. I talked with the National Weather Service earlier this morning, and while it’s still classified as a tropical storm, they’re preparing to call it a hurricane if the wind picks up speed, when it catapults out of this frontal vise.”
“I guess I don’t have to ask which direction it’s headed?” Tucker asked.
“Right now it’s moving at five knots on a northwesterly course.”
“Northwest. Means it’s headed this direction?”
“Yeap,” the Commodore acknowledged. “Means it is headed this direction. Also means that we’re going tobatten down everything we can in the event it should decide to come ashore here in the Tidewater area.”
“The Commodore is correct,” the Commander agreed. “If the storm heads directly for us, it’ll most likely be the most powerful hurricane to hit Virginia since Isabel. It’s only five hundred miles away and traveling at five knots. Every ten hours it chops the distance by fifty miles.” The officer paused for a moment, shaking his head. “Lots of unknowns here. How much is the slow movement of the storm influencing the balancing act of the high and low fronts? How much speed will it pick up when the balancing act ends? And will the balancing between the high and low fronts dissipate slowly or”—he clapped his hands together—“disappear all at once? If it’s slow, then it may not reach hurricane force, but if those two fronts move apart suddenly, then I agree with the National Weather Service’s worse-case analysis that the winds could quickly go from eighty miles an hour to one hundred sixty miles an hour. And with only five hundred miles between it and the East Coast, there’s insufficient distance to give the winds time to lose strength before they slam ashore somewhere along our middle Atlantic coast.”
Tibbles-Seagraves leaned forward. “So, the storm may hit here?”
The Commander shook his head. “Could,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “But not necessarily. We won’t have a good idea where it’s heading until those fronts move. If the high-pressure front to the north shifts west and the low front to the south moves northward, then the storm could close our coast as it curves out to sea toward the North Atlantic. As I’ve said, when it comes out of the high-low pressure vise, the final direction will be determined by which pressure system shifts east first.” He pointed toward the open sea, visible about a quarter mile away, whitecaps whipping across the high waves being blown into the Hampton Roads complex of harbors, piers, and shipyards. “If it does, it will come directly across this body of water, hitting land here, blowing this building to hell and gone.”
Tucker looked to where the meteorologist pointed.
Tibbles-Seagraves’s eyes bulged.
“Here?” Tucker asked.
“John, stop teasing,” Commodore West said. “It’ll head toward Virginia as its land-crossing point. That being said, it doesn’t matter whether it shoots out of the frontal vise, as John calls it, and heads north or east; some of it will hit the Tidewater area. Right, John?”
The meteorologist nodded several times, grinning. “Yes, sir.”
Commodore West, Tucker, and Sam laughed.
Tibbles-Seagraves reached up and shook the Frenchman on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t understand, my friend. It is a bit of humor that only we who speak the international language of English could understand.”
“And, French isn’t an international language?” St. Cyr protested.
“For surrendering,” Commodore West muttered unheard beneath his breath.
“Commodore, what about the search-and-rescue mission for Recce Mission 62?” Tucker asked.
West put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Sorry. Everything is grounded along the East Coast and out of Roosevelt Roads for at least the next couple of days. I hate to say it, but if they survived the crash—and we are assuming they crashed—then they will need a lot of luck and God’s grace to survive this.” He turned to one of several televisions mounted above the front windows of the control tower and pushed the ON button. A satellite picture appeared. “This is the Atlantic. Look at this! About the only clear area for this storm are the farther areas of the Eastern Atlantic. Torrential rains are pounding the Caribbean Islands, south of it. If you watched television last night, you’ve seen the floods.” He turned back to the men. “As for the crew of Recce Flight 62, I don’t see much hope for them. The only thing we can hope is that Admiral Holman and his international partners across the ocean catch the terrorists.”
“You think they were shot down by those on the ship?” St. Cyr asked.
West shrugged. “Who knows? They report no engine problems; had made over fifty ups-and-downs identifying merchant vessels, and the one vessel they identify heading in a different direction than the others is the last one they report. If they had crashed near it and it was a friendly, we’d’ve known by now. No, whatever happened, that vessel had to have seen it or been the cause of it, which means whatever is on that vessel and whoever is manning it doesn’t want us to find it.”
Movement to his right caught Tucker’s attention as he was listening to the Commodore. Sam had moved to the ever-present coffee pot and poured herself a cup. The Chief from the quarterdeck below walked into the tower.
“Commodore, we’re ordering Domino’s Pizza. Would you like us to order some for you and the others?”
“Chief, you think they’re working?” West asked, and then continued before the Chief could respond. “If you call them and if we should be so lucky, order enough for all of us. I think we’re going to be here through the night.”
Tucker walked over to the port windows, tuning out the Commodore and Chief working out the pizza order. Looking down at the two small piers where the Mark V Special Operations Crafts were tied up, he watched, mesmerized, as the six crafts pitched and rolled with the rough seas being forced through the narrow waterway entrance to where Special Boat Unit Twenty called home. As he watched, a couple of sailors on board one of them jumped onto the pier and, with movements born of experience, loosened the lines running between the boats and the wooden piers. “Looks as if those boats are going have a rough night,” he said to no one in particular.
The others joined him.
“Just hope the sailors on board have strong stomachs,” West offered. “Can’t really take them off and can’t have them sortie out to sea like the big boys are doing and the small boys plan.”
Tucker looked at the Commodore. “The fleet is setting sail?”
West nodded. “Best thing they can do. It’s far easier for carriers, cruisers, even destroyers, frigates, and most of Admiral Holman’s amphibious ships to ride out the storm at sea than be tied up where severe winds and tides can slam them against the piers and shores. I recall a storm in Jacksonville once—years ago, probably while you were in high school—that put a frigate on the beach. The Commander of Atlantic Fleet was not amused.”
Sam walked up with a tray bearing several cups of coffee. “Here, gentleman, and don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t do windows.” She sat the tray on the table in the center of the tower. “As the lead medical person on this team, I made a fresh pot after doing a visual analysis of the older pot of coffee and determining it was growing new and unidentified bacteria, possibly as a fallout of evolution since the coffee had been there so long.”
The coffee did taste good. Tucker thought about asking the Commodore if this meant securing from the terrorist alert and allowing the three of them to return to their respective bases. He grinned slightly at the thought of how Tibbles-Seagraves had looked when the British airman had heard about the possibility of the storm crossing right up that narrow channel. Come to think, it took the Commodore’s comment to make him realize the thin Commander was making a joke. Neither the man’s voice nor facial expressions betrayed this sense of humor.