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Now that we’ve closed the book on Serenity: Full Circle by publishing its final two chapters last week, please use the Comments feature here on the blog if you would like to give the author some feedback.  Good feedback tells the author where he or she could have done it better and, without that, it is always more difficult to hone the craft.

For those of you who have written, you know that it’s a labor of love — something that comes from your spirit and demands nothing short of being set on the page — to become finally free.

It will keep you up at night if you have wandered too far from its course and — likewise — it will give you immense joy when you know you’ve hit it right-on for the character or story line.

It’s when you see, hear and feel the characters and their emotions that you know that you are simply the scribe in the process.  It’s the characters who really tell their story — through you.

Until we meet again … shalom!

 

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 28 and 29

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The Turkey Shoot

By midnight the next night, a Blackhawk helicopter containing Jon and Bob landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Markel, a Guided Missile Frigate.  Cliff and Dara remained at Osan. The ship was located ten miles off the coast of the South Korean peninsula just southeast of Seoul, in the Yellow Sea.  The plan was to cruise 250 miles around the west coast of North Korea, to a location 50 miles off the coast, and 85 miles to the west-southwest of Pyongyang.  This would be the jumping off point for the mission.  Right after the helicopter departed, the two drones with Marc and Akil at the controls, landed.

During the transit overnight, the team got some much-needed shuteye.  At the mission briefing the next day, Jon pulled out all the stops. He had full, detailed satellite photos of the parade area including the position of the review seating area.  During the meeting, a live satellite feed of Pyongyang came up on the big screen. Jon pointed out a small soccer stadium almost straight in-line with the review seating.  The soccer field had stadium stands with a large parapet roof elevated over 100 feet. The field was 1.86 miles (2,990 meters) from the target position.  The brother in-law of the contact on the ground, was the manager of the field and also the secondary contact.  The information that Jon had was that the field was in disrepair and had not been used for six or eight months. The entire civilian work force had been diverted from civil work, commandeered to prepare for the Fat Boy’s coronation of sorts.  Nobody actually knows what the parade is for, but that the Fat Boy wants it.

As they studied the maps, the flight route revealed itself.  The Korea Bay is a natural inlet where the Taedong River spills into the Yellow Sea at Namp`o.  With the exceptions of a few twists and turns, it leads directly to and through Pyongyang.  The river gorge is a natural fly way for migratory birds. The flight in at nighttime was a given.  Flying at an altitude that would allow them to both see the river below, but high enough to avoid both the vision and ears of the civilian population, would be an optimum situation.  The one real advantage was that the drones, being tubular, had a radar reflection of a flock of birds at most and had absolutely no heat signal at all.  Arriving at the city, finding the stadium at night, would not be too difficult using the night vision capabilities of the integrated helmet.

At midnight, they all met on the Hilo flight deck. Bob had outfitted the drones with extra battery packs. The weight factors were negligible considering the hybrid design.  This would add a life line to the mission’s success potential.  Bob was on the ship’s intercom talking to an Ensign in the conning tower.  The conversation was about the latest weather observations.  Jon could tell by the expression on Bob’s face, something was up.  When he was finished with his conversation, he moved the mic away from his mouth, and said, “Jon, we have a marine layer moving in up the river, it’s a 500-foot ceiling now, but it going to drop even further. If we go now, they’re going to get their feet wet before they get to Pyongyang.”  Jon, turning back to Marc and Akil said, “Guys, you heard him; it your decision.”  Just then, Bob cut in saying, “There’s one other way to go about this.  If I program the flight computer, it can take them over the mountains. The highest peek out there is only 400 to 500 foot, tops.  That’s only in one place, the rest is sub-100 foot.  Akil, looking a Marc, said, “I’m game.” Marc just smiled.  Bob was already plugging in his lap top to one of the drone’s data link ports.  Before 0100 hours, they were strapped in and ready to lift off.  As they disappeared into the fog, Jon chimed in on their frequency saying, “I want to see both of you back here this time tomorrow; no excuses.”

After ten minutes of flight, it was almost difficult to stay awake.  The vibration of the craft combined with the drone of the electric motors and no visual stimulation created a surrealistic experience.  The only activity that had any meaning was the heads-up display in the helmets.  The satellite down link was feeding a topographical map to the helmet display, based on their GPS location. Marc was thinking to himself, it was one thing to have an automobile’s computer direct you in traffic, but quite a different matter to have it fly you through pea soup.

The air speed read out was indicating sixty mph, evidently the Bluetooth contact avoidance units were doing their job, he hadn’t seen Akil since lift off.  There was no problem with anyone picking up the radio com between them, it was a modified Bluetooth channel with a max range of 200 feet. Just the same they kept the talk to a minimum.  One hour and fifteen minutes into the mission, the lights of the capitol began illuminating the sky directly ahead of them.

As they approached, they gained altitude but remained under the threshold that the migratory bird flocks maneuvered within.  Now over the actual city, the clouds were broken and visual gaps were prevalent.  The city was not bright like most others, it was easy to see that electricity used fuel, and fuel was a strained commodity in the north.  This, luckily, was one more thing to take advantage of.

The arrival time was set at 0230 hours to meet the contact.  They were to land on the roof of the grandstand, within an area, surrounded by a parapet.  The contact had a portable Bluetooth transceiver with a pinging beacon at equal range.  They were to both descend as quickly as possible, in tandem; the less noise and time, the better.  The Korean contact’s name was Han-bin.  He was the overseer of the stadium grounds and was chosen to be there for their arrival.  Using a flashlight with a green shroud over the lens, he was to flash it skyward three times in quick secession, as an all clear signal, after keying the Bluetooth radio beacon.  The infrared night vision goggles built in to the helmets were extremely effective.  They could both clearly see that the contact was alone, and that no other heat signals were present anywhere in the vicinity.  They dropped down from 150 feet above the roof very rapidly flaring out just before making contact with the roof, then hitting the kill switches as quick as possible once touchdown was achieved.  The silence was almost deafening, minus the constant droning.  This, along with the feeling that they had just experienced a two-hour full body massage, resulted in Akil was finding it a bit difficult to walk with a regular gait.

Once out of their equipment, the man approached them cautiously, not saying a word.  Marc, reaching out his hand in a gesture to shake hands, was instead greeted with a shallow bow, and a smile.  After a minute, it was obvious the man could not speak a word of English.  Marc repeated Han-bin’s name several times, before he began to acknowledge it with a head gesture and moving his hand to his chest, indicating that it was him.  Marc then said the name of the primary contact, Myung-hoon.  The man, pointing to his watch, held up his hand displaying four fingers.  Marc was hoping that he was referring to four a.m. rather than p.m., as the parade was to take place at 10:00 a.m. the next morning.  They would know soon enough; it was now slightly after 0300 hundred hours.  Han scampered away, then returned carrying a large bundled tarp, nearly half his size.  They helped him unfurl it, then covered both drones.  Ten meters away from the parked drones was, what appeared to be a utility shack.  Following Han’s lead, they moved their equipment to the shed.

Marc, using his rifle scope at the edge of the parapet, braced it and focused in on the parade square.  The area was immense, wide open and only two buildings were remotely in the flight path to the viewing area.  He had seen pictures of prior events in the square, but the sheer enormity was lost in translation.  As he tweaked the adjustments on the scope, the primary viewing box revealed itself.  Even at this hour, two guards stood next to the large double door opening up onto the viewing veranda.  He could now see, at best, an upper torso would be the only exposed targets available.

A few minutes later, he heard footsteps approaching across the rooftop.  Looking up, a vague image of two men began to resolve out of the darkness.  Akil, now sitting with his back to the parapet, got to his feet quickly, placing his hand on his side arm.  Sound from the two men talking was muffled, but it was obvious, Korean was the spoken language.  As their vision began to clear, it was evident that one of the two men was Han-bin.  As they walked up, Han pointing to the other man said, “Myung-hoon; Myung-hoon.”

Marc, not knowing for sure how to greet the man, nodded his head with a gesture of a bow, saying, “Myung-hoon.”  To his complete surprise, the man answered in near perfect English, remarking, “Mr. Bracken, your deeds precede you.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Then, looking a Akil, he said, “And, you, sir, are?” Akil answered, stating his name proudly.  Myung looking at the rifle, now propped up on the parapet wall said, “Marc?  May I call you ‘Marc?’  Just how accurate are you with this amazing rifle? I will be sitting on that balcony when the event unfolds.  It’s a very long distance.  Well, you understand, do you not?”  Marc’s response was, “Just don’t stand closer than three feet from the Fat Boy.”  Myung’s North Korean indoctrination showed, as he raised his hand to cover his mouth, shielding his amusement at Marc’s comment.  Now Marc was a bit torn between saying anything about Major General Kwan, his primary target.  He asked Myung’s opinion of Kwan.  His reply was quick, with a look of distain, saying, “He is egotistic and ruthless, without measure.”  He also added that he would be standing next to Fat Boy, on his left. This solved Marc’s quandary in an instant.  At this point, he went on to tell him of the plan to eliminate the both of them.  Myung asked why Kwan was also a target.  Marc’s reply was, that he owed a very good friend a debt that needed repayment.  Myung did not understand, but did not inquire further.

The questions that Marc had for Myung were many and varied.  Things, such as how long the event may last, and what angle the sun would be in the sky as the parade went on.  He knew that the sound of the rifle would not be heard over the crowd.  However, he was not so sure about the surrounding area.  Myung assured him that the extremely few people that were not either in the parade, or at the proceedings, would think it was just part of the usual fireworks that are common at day, around the event.

It was nearing 0500 hours when Myung and Han departed for the parade site.  Both Marc and Akil tried to cat nap under the tarp covering the drones.  By 0830 hours, the noise from the parade area was beginning to filter out to their position.  A massive crowd was already present and hundreds of vehicles scurried around.  According to Myung, the parade itself would be a three-phase event. First would come the men’s military marching units, then the female units.  Second, would be the civilian groups. Then, the third and last, would be the wheeled weapons, tanks and rocket launchers and truck loads of soldiers, saluting.  This would be the prime time for the take down.  Most of the antiquated track vehicles do not have rubberized pads to protect the roadways, as European and U.S. units do, so the noise would be at the threshold level.  Nightfall was around 1900 hours.  They would wait until at least an hour or so after that, before taking to the air.

The loudspeakers were now blaring propaganda rhetoric at a level that could cause bleeding eardrums.  Both Marc and Akil were busy, constructing a shooting blind, after moving the drones close to the parapet’s edge.  They used the large canvas to bridge the drones.  This created a covered area large enough for both to have a shooters position with overhead visual protection.  Akil collected foliage debris, which was prevalent on the roof from the surrounding trees.  He spread it over the canvas, making it to appear as though it had been there for some time.  After completing this and moving back under the blind, the parade had begun.

The scopes were doing their job; they could easily make out the Fat Boy, and Marc’s indelible memory of Kwan, rendered him identifiable in an instant.  Jon had asked for Marc to be the one to target the Fat Boy, but he and Akil had changed that decision.  Marc had a mandated duty to perform, and some things such as this, were not negotiable.

As they watched and waited, some of the things that were being displayed got Marc’s creative juices flowing.  Like the mere fact that this self-proclaimed, child-king, was driven by sheer ego.  If a world power really wanted to take him to his knees, all that was needed was to wait for a day, like today.  One Cruise Missile, with a limited 5 Kilo-ton yield could take out seventy-five percent or more of the DPRK’s military and 99% of the ruling party, including the Fat Boy.  All this exposure for his child-like ego.

They rehearsed the firing sequence several times.  Akil would fire first, with a one second delay, then Marc.  During the first segment of the parade, the Fat Boy gave a speech that continued for over an hour, delayed by cheers several times. By the time the marching units had finished, Marc had revised his earlier estimate, maybe all the army was here for the parade.

The sun had now moved overhead and was shading the review area where the politicians were standing.  Between their position and the target, Marc could see no less than six flags of varying size and color.  Once again, taking advantage of one’s environment is a given.   He could tell that, at most, he had a constant three to five mile-per-hour breeze, left to right.  He entered the information into the handheld firing computer, then corrected his scope with two clicks of left deflection. The air temperature was stable at 81o.  The elevation was equilateral, however Marc adjusted the scope one negative click.  This was to compensate for the rising heat signature, generated by twenty-five thousand-plus participating parade civilians, standing beneath the last 500 meters of the bullets’ flightpath.

The tracked armaments were now rolling by, in front of the review area.  They both settled into their firing positions and began to synchronize, using a down count starting at five, called out by Marc. As he said the number “two,” Akil stopped the count; there was movement on the veranda’s right side, adjacent to the primary.  The man moved next to Fat Boy, saying something into his ear.  He then moved off, and exited the viewing platform into the building.  Akil spoke, saying, “Re-set.”  Marc started the count again. “Five, four, three, two, at one!”  Akil fired, with Marc following suit one second later.

Akil, drawing from all the reserves that were at hand, held the scope’s laser on the Fat Boy’s center of mass. A millisecond later, the wall behind him turned a bright crimson red.  The upper torso of the Fat Boy that had been in view, quite simply disappeared.  Before Akil or Marc could react, the second bullet arrived at its destination.  It was slightly high, but just as effective, as Kwan’s head exploded, like a ripe watermelon.  They both withdrew their rifles and dropped down, settling in for the interim.  Marc looking over at Akil, with glistening eyes said, “Don’t ever let them tell ya that revenge isn’t worth it.”

At first, there was a strange silence, as the crowd was trying to grasp what had happened.  Then, the silence was overtaken by the wailing and jeers, as they began to comprehend what had just happened.  Over the next hour, the sky filled with aircraft.  The streets began to repopulate, surprisingly not with so much military, as with the civilian population.  Everything near the square, appeared to be in total chaos; the perfect order of the prior assembly, now seemingly devoid. Closer to the river, across which the bullets traveled, they could see high-rise buildings being searched; they were more than a mile away from their position.  It would appear that they could not fathom the reality, that the shots had originated from such a distance.  It was clear now, no one had reported seeing anything in their vicinity.

Back on the U.S.S. Markel, Jon and Bob were already hearing news reports of a major event coming out of the country but, as yet, nothing with respect to Fat Boy.  Jon received an encrypted message from the Company requesting information as the disposition of the mission team.  He had no reply, as yet; they were due back on the ship around 2200 hours.  Ten minutes later, a message from Cliff with Dara’s fingerprints all over it, came in.  It seemed that South Korea was on full alert.  All along the northern border, small weapons fire was being reported.  As yet, nothing seemed like an organized event.  The entire D.M.Z. along the entire 38th parallel, was lit up with search lights and troop movements.  Jon, using an encrypted satellite communications system, told them what he knew, which was effectively nothing.  He had expected this to ruffle some feathers, just how many was the question. Over the next few hours nothing seemed to change, the news was strangely quiet, considering what he was hoping, had happened.

In Pyongyang, the sun had set thirty minutes earlier; both men had been busy checking out the batteries’ charge status and preparing their individual drones.  Before lifting off, they checked and re-checked all equipment, making sure everything was accounted for, right down to the spent rifle casings.  Nothing was to be left to chance.  Now, with the western horizon totally dark, they suited up and moved quickly through their preflight check list, and then strapped in.  They opted for full flight control until they were fully clear of the city.  After one last visual of the air space around them, Marc lifted off, followed by Akil.  As they circled around slowly gaining altitude, as to emulate a flock of birds rising, Marc could see a lot of activity on the streets.  Once they had reached two-hundred and sixty feet, they leveled off and tracked toward the river.  Everything seemed to be going well at this point.  Reaching the river, they turned to the south and maintained speed at a migratory altitude.

The lights of the city now behind them, they both toggled the autopilot switch, then took a collective deep breath.  If all went well, they would see the coastline below them in approximately thirty minutes.  The night was devoid of the low clouds and mist they had experienced the night before.  Marc was now looking down at the Taedong river, when small red flashing light appeared on the heads-up display. At first, he had to concentrate to comprehend why it was there.  The light signaled that an over-write was being entered into the auto-flight path mechanism.  They had been briefed on the possibility.  Bob had been monitoring the telemetries from the ship, and when they had switched to auto-flight, he made the decision to modify the flight plan.  They could both now feel the drones banking to the west away from the river over the foothills.  Both had studied the topography in the area and knew the turn would hasten the return trip.  Fifteen minutes later, they could see the coastline, almost directly below them.

As they moved past it, their attention was quickly drawn to tracer bullets passing by in close proximity. The gun fire was from no less than three different positions along the beach.  They both switched to manual control and angulated the drones to full-forward momentum pushing them to the absolute limits of the craft’s capability.  A minute later the gun-fire had ceased; neither had taken any hits. After five more minutes, they returned to auto-flight control.  In ten minutes, they would be over international waters and both would breathe easier.

As things settled down, the view was reminiscent of the deck at Serenity on a balmy night.  The thoughts brought back the memories of when he and Eyan were the team.  The door to then was now, only half-shut; the last man standing was now in Marc’s sights.

It had been almost twenty minutes since passing over the coastline, both he and Akil were ready to get some rest, it had been 48 hours on a cat nap at this point.  According to the heads-up, the E.T.A. was ten minutes out.  Marc flipped the switch on the Bluetooth com and said, “Hey, buddy, I’m buyin.’  Does a cold one sound good?”  But, before Akil could answer, Marc’s drone violently dipped and shuddered, as an air-to-air missile, streaked by, nearly touching his leg.  They both switched back to manual control again and started evasive maneuvers.  Akil was able to catch sight of the perpetrator as he veered to the right, banking hard.  It was an attack helicopter, overtaking them at twice their airspeed.  As it passed, the turbulence was horrific.

Akil pulled out his G17, but was severely limited as he was flying with his right hand and typically used that hand to shoot with.  As the chopper was turning around, Akil keyed the com-link, and said, “Switch to auto-flight, at least we can shoot back.” Marc keyed his receiver twice, in response. What he didn’t say was how he regretted Dara’s advice.  Firing a Glock 380 at an attack gunship, even an old one like this, is like pissing up wind – it’s not very satisfying. As soon as the chopper had leveled off, both he and Akil, started firing as fast as they could.  With the aid of their infrared helmet display they could actually see the bullets sparking as they ricocheted off the craft.  They were both in the process of returning to manual flight, when the gunship exploded into a ball of flame. Luckily, they were not in close proximity to the blast, but could hear various pieces of the aircraft hurtling by.  They both put the drones into a maximum climb rate to avoid any other possible debris.  As the fireball subsided, they could the ship’s lights about two miles, directly ahead of them.  They were cleared for touch down five minutes later.

During the debriefing, both sides of the table had a myriad of questions.  The first from Marc was, “What’s the official line on shooting down a North Korean gunship?”  The ship’s Captain, sitting across the table, remarked, “Simple. While in international waters, during a regular patrol of the north China Sea, an unidentified military aircraft approaching at night, was deemed a threat after firing a missile and numerous automatic weapons at or near the U.S.S. Markel. The aircraft was neutralized in response to the imminent threat.”  The missile that nearly grazed Marc’s leg had continued on toward the ship.  The ship’s auto defensive systems had activated the Phalanx, CIWS, (Close In Weapons System) destroying the missile.  The second question from Akil was, “What was the fall-out from the events in Pyongyang?”  The answer was more than interesting.  The wire services were reporting that Major General Yeon Kwan had been responsible for the briefcase bomb that had killed the Fat Boy, and he had been executed, immediately, on the spot, by the senior military personnel present at the event.  The country was now in an official state of mourning.  Akil said, “The people really just accepted that, after what they saw?”  Jon’s answer was, “Akil, they never question the official governmental statement; you don’t do that in the North.”  Akil continued on, “It also seems like people in the western world weren’t the only people happy to see this asshole disappear.” Jon said, “We received a brief encrypted message from Myung-hoon. All it said was, “All is good, thank you.” All around the table, people were smiling, but none more than Marc.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Now, There Were Two

Twenty-four hours later, the ship had returned to just off the coast, where they had started.  A helicopter landed on the flight deck exchanging Cliff, for Jon, Akil, and Marc.  Back at Osan, Dara was more than relieved to see the duo safe and sound, as they disembarked from the chopper.  As she walked up to them, she high-fived both, before asking, “Did ya get ’em?” The reply was, “We got ’em both,” from Marc, as he gave her a hug.

Around the dinner table that evening, Marc asked, “Jon, what do we have on this white guy you’re helping us with?”  Jon was more than surprised, saying, “Whoa, I haven’t filed my report on this mission, yet.”  Marc’s reply was, “You’d best get on it, cause we’re in the air tomorrow and your ass is ours until we get this guy.”  He said it with a slight smile, but Jon knew he wasn’t kidding.

Before noon, they were aboard the G150 taxiing for takeoff to Madrid, Spain. They had been in contact with Aston Stiles at Martin’s Villa De Martini.  He had, with Martin’s connections, managed to collect more information on the data that was at the crux of the assault on the facility in Sweden.  From the conversation, the primary factor that he was able to glean was there was no overt connection between Viktor Karlsson, and the primary perpetrator behind it all.

Arriving in Madrid, Stiles had sent a car to pick them up at the airport. They were now at Villa De Martini; it was almost like home to Marc and Dara, and for Akil, in a lesser fashion.  Jon, on the other hand, was most certainly not used to the opulence.  They were all given rooms by the pool. Dara and Marc had their old casa right on the back side the main pool.  Akil and Jon had one on each side of theirs.  Jon was not as exhausted as the rest, which worked out fine.  There was plenty of paperwork, then there was the matter of tracking down Viktor Karlsson and honoring the commitment that had been promised by the Company early on in the alliance.  Some down time was in order, but by the next afternoon the prerequisite of sleep had been fulfilled. Marc and Dara had spent their time wisely and had renewed a relational vow – much needed by both.

They were all hanging out around the pool at three in the afternoon the next day, while Martin was at a conference on global warming he would return the following day. Stiles, now joining them from the main villa for a reunion of sorts, began by asking if the shakeup in North Korea had their fingerprints on it.  He was half-joking, until he noticed their surprise.  His reaction was a casual, “No shit?”  He had worked with the team in the past but was still taken a bit off guard at this realization.  He was formally introduced to Jon, and the conversation continued.  The information Stiles brought to the table, helped them understand the reason for the Sweden raid.  He laid it out in the order in which Martin’s contact had offered it.  Antwan Lagos who had perished at the hands of the Serenity team aboard the ship Orion’s Cradle almost a year and a half prior, was replaced in the hierarchy by Viktor Karlsson, upon his demise.  Now the missing piece was who is at the top of the food chain.

Once Martin was able to ascertain what had been taken in the data theft, the footprints led back to his Die-Hex corporate branch, and the security coding of the NCC-5.  This special coding was a breakthrough in security management; it was placed all around the globe to protect financial institutions, as well as major corporate intellectual properties and museums.  The NCC-5 can protect data from electronic theft and physical theft when set up on vault doors or entry ways.  But, in this case at Martin’s data center, it was defeated by the fact that they took the physical container of the data from behind the armed security personnel, circumventing its base structure.

The information in the data block that had been taken, was partial, at best.  Martin had said to Stiles, “It would take a flat-out genius to retrieve it, and then make use of it.”  Stiles continued on by saying that Martin, using his pull with Europol, has all the European countries using facial recognition at borders, large civil events and all centers of transportation searching for Karlsson.  Nothing has surfaced as yet, but with this type of surveillance, something was bound to show up – hopefully sooner, rather than later.  Marc, hesitant to say anything about Jon’s employer, was shocked as Jon threw his cards on the table, adding that his connections at the Company had reported sightings of the man twice in the last 48 hours.  The first, in the small lakeside community of Nora, to the west of Stockholm, Sweden.  Then, late last night, an unsubstantiated report, in a suburb of Helsinki, Finland.

The majority of the effort to locate Karlsson was now centered in and around Helsinki.  At this point, the Company seemed to be holding up its side of the bargain that Marc and Jon had struck, prior to the Korean event.

It was now five in the afternoon.  Stiles had the villa chef and his crew move out to the pool area cooking facility.  The conversation was flowing freely, in general; the group, as a whole, needed some down time while they waited for news of Karlsson.  Stiles opened the wine cellar and was now playing bartender in the sunken bar next to the pool.  As the night set in, everyone was truly relaxing and even Jon’s lighter side became evident.  He was, as they discovered, intuitively amusing.  His comedic timing was impeccable as he recounted some of his lighter, prior escapades with the Agency.  After an amazing meal, they were all deep in conversation when Stiles’ phone rang.  He answered, and then the talking stopped.  Martin was on the line.  Stiles listened for a short while, and then said, “We’ll pick you up in Barcelona.  I’ll text you with an ETA as soon as we’re on our way.”  As soon as he put the phone down, he looked up, saying, “We have multiple confirmed sightings in Helsinki.”  After a short meeting of the minds, they decided to regroup in two hours and head out to the airport; Stiles flying Martin’s G-280, and the Serenity group in the G150.  After leaving Barcelona Martin and Stiles were to meet up with the group in Helsinki.

The eastern sky was showing a slight glimmer of the new day, as Marc reached up, toggling the landing gear switch.  Dara and Jon began to awaken in the aft cabin, as the gear doors opened, and the wheels extended.  Twenty minutes later, all four were walking across the tarmac to the private air terminal.  They were finishing their breakfast in the terminal, when Stiles, Martin and his second-seat pilot, walked in.  Martin’s security team from Stockholm had arrived just after midnight.  As the group exited the facility, the four-man security team was there to greet them with two large SUVs for transportation.  The most recent reports had Karlsson at a location in the northwest quadrant of the city.  As they drove to the area, the senior security member was briefing the team.  Street video cameras had recorded him at a drugstore and also a housing complex nearby.

Dara and Akil volunteered to watch the drugstore, while Marc and Jon began surveillance at the last-reported sighting within the housing complex.  Martin and Stiles, along with two of the security team members, were parked in the area and were constantly monitoring Europol’s com link.  The other two members of the security team were walking the area, searching for Karlsson on foot.  By late afternoon, everyone was growing both anxious and tired.  This was a recipe for disaster if things were to get ugly.  A plan was set to break off the surveillance at 10:00 p.m., providing nothing had developed by then.  The important thing that was drilled into everyone involved, was that Karlsson was needed alive.

Just before 8:00 p.m., everyone’s coms came alive; one of the security detail members had spotted Karlsson walking toward the drugstore.  As he turned the corner and was walking up the street, Jon and Marc arrived in the area.  They assumed he was returning to the drugstore, however, he stopped short and entered an Italian restaurant.  He took a seat in the back of the room, facing the door.  Jon said, “He’s no beginner – someone has trained him.  His pistol is on the table to his right side, under the newspaper, and he didn’t sit back there because he likes the kitchen noise.”

Marc, in talking to Martin, asked him to have his security detail stay in the vehicles, unless called upon.  After some gruff mumblings, the detail complied.  Marc didn’t want anybody getting gun-happy.  Marc and Akil, now paired up, walked past the restaurant and up the street, paying no attention to Karlsson.  Jon and Dara, working as a couple, were prepared now to approach from the opposing direction.  One of the SUVs was parked across the street with a view of the interior of the restaurant and had the ability to keep tabs on Karlsson.  Now they waited.

Forty minutes had passed, when the com units crackled to life.  Stiles said, “He’s on the move, approaching the cashier.”  Whichever way he turned outside the restaurant, they were prepared.  It was almost nine in the evening, when he stepped out of the building and turned back in the direction from which he had come.  Jon and Dara were approaching from the frontal position; Marc and Akil portraying two over-indulged drinking partners, talking loudly, walking behind him in an effort to draw was much attention away from the obvious frontal take-down.  Just as he approached Dara and Jon, Marc yelled out his name.  Karlsson spun around, raising his hand with a gun already in it.  But, before he could fire it, Jon, using a telescopic steel baton, and summoning all the power he could muster, swung it around, smashing it against Karlsson’s right arm, causing him to drop the firearm.  Dara, using a move from her Europol days, kicked his upper thigh just above the back of the knee, causing him to drop to his knees.  She stepped forward, placing a head-lock around his neck, as Jon secured the firearm.  He struggled for a short while before passing out from lack of oxygen.  Before Dara released him, Marc was standing at her side, pulling his hands back behind his back, and placing handcuffs on him.  Two of the security detail quickly moved him to the back of the SUV and secured him to the rear seat mount bolted to the floor as he regained consciousness.

Thirty minutes later, they were entering one of Martin’s warehouses near the West Harbour, Munkkisaari docks.  Marc asked Martin to release his security detail, and then suggested that perhaps he and Stiles would be better off at some other location for a while.  Both men understood the innuendo and took leave of the situation.

They were now sequestered in a small office in the corner of a rather large warehouse. Victor Karlsson was strapped to an old-style, oak office chair.  There was no one in the facility as it was off-season for shell fish.  Akil and Dara had been babysitting the man, while Marc and Jon had acquired some tools from the machine shop.  Upon returning to the office, Marc sat down directly in front of Karlsson and with a glaring look, said, “Viktor!  That smarmy smile of yours!  Where has it gone?  You remember, that look you had on your face as the chopper lifted off from the Die/Hex data facility outside of Stockholm.  You do remember, don’t you?”  Viktor’s response was gruff, curt and loud. “What do you want from me?”  Marc and Viktor’s dialogue carried on:

“Everything, Viktor!  Who were you working for?”

“I work for myself.”

“Viktor, I don’t think for one second that you even know what that NCC-5 code can do – or better yet – how to modify it.”

“We are all professionals here.  What do you want?  I can pay you more than that company will pay you.  How much?”

“Viktor, you have one chance to not end up like your buddy, Kwan.  Tell us who’s behind this, or you will die – very slowly.”

Marc reached out to Jon, as he handed Marc a battery-powered Senco finish nailer.  He turned toward Viktor and fired one three-inch nail into his right kneecap, pinning his leg to the oak chair.  This elicited a pro-active, visceral response.  Marc’s reply was, “Viktor, I’m not liking what I’m not hearing.”  As he pointed the nail gun just over his right shoulder imbedding another nail, halfway through the top of the oak chair.  Once more, he drew Viktor’s attention to the question at hand.  Marc, becoming annoyed at Viktor’s reluctance to talk, stepped over next to him, placing the nail gun in his crotch, saying, “We both know you’re not going to make it through alive, so if you tell me what I want to know, I’ll make it quick and painless, so what do ya say?”   Viktor, looking down at his now blood-soaked knee, looked up and said, “All I know is that they call him ‘The Facilitator.’  He lives on Sahajӓrvi Lake on an island outside of the city, about twenty-five kilometers to the northwest.  Nobody knows his real name.  He pays in gold coin; nobody asks questions!”

Marc and Jon stepped outside the door for a brief conversation while Dara and Akil did the babysitting.  Marc asked Jon if he could arrange for the Company to take out the garbage, referring to Viktor.  Jon, asking if he was truly done with him, said, “Will he be permanently attached to the chair when he’s finished?”  Marc replied, “I’ve gotten all I want from him; do what you want with him or ask Martin – he may want second dibs.  But keep him handy for a while, just in case he’s feeding us a bunch of bullshit.”

Jon stayed behind, as the others went to meet up with Stiles and Martin at his Helsinki office in midtown.  It was late in the evening as the conversation got underway.  Martin volunteered his helicopter to do a fly-over the lake in the morning.  He then arranged hotel facilities for the entire group next door to his offices.  His usual penthouse at the hotel was available year round, as he spent a reasonable amount of time there in season.

Around 8:00 a.m., they were all having breakfast in a private meeting room at the hotel.  The first order of business was the surveillance flight over the lake.  Martin had, at the pilot’s suggestion, arranged to have several HD video cameras mounted on the chopper overnight.  The flight was set to leave within the hour from the Hilo pad atop the office complex.  Stiles was to pilot the excursion with Akil, Dara and Marc along for observation and camera operation.  Dara was slated to ride in the co-pilot’s seat; she would also operate the video cameras.  Both Akil and Marc would take still shots of anything of interest.

Ten minutes off the flight pad, away from the city, the sky was beginning to clear somewhat.  Approaching the lake, still off in the distance, they readied themselves for the overflight.  Both Marc and Akil put on chest harnesses and connected themselves to eye-bolts, before opening the side doors and positioning themselves to photograph the compound.  Dara checked the video feed from the video cameras on the connected tablet.  Stiles trimmed the craft, slowing the air speed down to fifty knots.  The plan was to make a pass south to north at 800 feet, and then wait ten or fifteen minutes, and cross from west to east at 400 feet; hopefully, not drawing too much attention to the events.

The still-cameras were Nikon 810 FX/DSLRs with 150/300 mm lenses at 36 MP; very good equipment with more than enough capability for the job at hand.  As the area was largely covered with tall trees and some undergrowth, it was evident on the initial pass, that the perimeter had been cleared and a rather tall fence encircled the entire lake and island.  A long bridge, perhaps fifty meters in length, was the only connection the island mansion had to the shore.  Akil set his camera to auto-drive shooting – five frames per second.  Marc tried to shoot only things that overtly caught his attention.  After the pass-over, Dara, looking over the review on the tablet, said, “We have at least five security personnel; one on the island where the bridge attaches, the other two on the land side, also guarding the bridge entrance.  Then, about two hundred meters to the north, at the main entrance, there looks to be two more, by the steel gate.  This guy takes his security seriously; he has an S-type curve in front of the gate.  So much for getting in that way.”  Marc was busy shuttering back through his pictures, searching for other avenues of approach.

Stiles made a very wide and elongated turn to the west, making sure the sound of the chopper blades were well beyond the hearing range of the compound.  Everybody else prepared for the final pass at the lower altitude, as he turned back in that direction.  Stiles dropped down, almost on the deck just above the trees, for the approach.  This would muffle the approaching chopper’s sounds until they were almost over the island.  As soon as he had a visual on the lake, he pulled up to the predesignated 400 feet altitude, and once again slowed his air speed.  On this occasion, Marc and Akil shot pictures of the lake’s shoreline and surrounding perimeter fence and roads.

They had returned to the office high-rise landing pad before the clock struck twelve noon.  Within the hour, they were all back in the meeting room going over the video and stills from the excursion.  A short while later, Jon arrived, having handed Viktor over to his cohorts.  Their attention was quickly diverted from the screen to Jon, when he said, “The guys in cybercrime at the Company call it ‘Sheridan’s Island.’”  Marc’s reply was, “And what else does the Company know?”  Jon answered, “Cybercrime has been tracking this guy for years.  They’ve never been able to connect him to anything directly, or even connect his real name, which is ‘Matt Sheridan,’ with the covert name ‘The Facilitator.’  This all sort of fell out when I ran a check on the pseudo name.”  He placed his computer on the desk and fired it up.  After a more than brief sign-in, he spun it around on the table, saying, “Meet Mr. Matt Sheridan,” as the computer flickered, and a picture flashed on the screen of the man.  Jon went on to say, “It seems that we, unknowingly, stopped a plan in progress that was intended to disrupt the global financial world.  The North Koreans were the sponsors of the plot; Martin’s NCC-5 code was the key; the brain was this guy, Sheridan.  In the last twenty-five years, this guy has been associated, but never really linked to, so many international crimes it would make your head spin.  But now, for some real news, the satellite surveillance over the last 18 months show a pattern, we think.  Every time the atmosphere cooperates and we have a clear sky over the lake, this guy takes a walk around the island between eight in the morning and noon, almost every day, without fail.”  You could almost hear a collective sigh around the room as the realization began to sink in.  Martin now knew what all the turmoil in his life was all about, from his granddaughter’s abduction, to the data facility incursion.  The Serenity group now had what they needed to fulfill the destiny set forth with Eyan’s death.

Marc, now turning his attention back to the videos, started searching for a point of ingress to the property.  There was a highway to the south of the perimeter about a tenth of a mile away, that could be utilized.  He cranked up a computer and returned to the Google Earth program.  Zeroing in on the area in question, be began to memorize the shape of the perimeter fence and the lake.  As he progressed, he hadn’t noticed that Akil and Dara had joined in, behind him.  They knew how Marc approached problems and had adopted his method, over time.  Stiles was on the phone having the equipment the team had brought from Madrid, delivered to the office location.  Before dinner, a plan had been devised to infiltrate the compound by the next morning, providing the weather was agreeable.  They would arrive pre-dawn and breach the perimeter, then set up an outpost and wait for dawn.  After Stiles had the equipment delivered, he was going through it, checking off the items he knew they would need.  Marc walked up behind him and said, “I don’t think we’ll need this much gear for the three of us.”  Looking back over his shoulder, Stiles said, “Four of us.  He was my friend, too, Marc.  Remember, I was at the data center that day.  I helped carry his coffin to the plane and flew it back to Serenity.  Four of us, Marc.”  The meeting broke up, but only after all involved had committed Matt Sheridan’s picture to memory.

They all had an early dinner and tried to catch a few hours of sleep, most to no avail.  All were still in their rooms at midnight, when wake-up calls rang in their rooms – as if anybody needed it.  By 1:00 a.m., they were in the SUVs and on the road to the lake compound.  Shortly before 2:00 a.m., the vehicles rolled to a stop, as the drivers killed the headlights.  The road was extremely rural; the only sound was an occasional owl or nighthawk.  They were all to enter the area together, but had very different agendas.  Marc, ultimately, was to make his way to the edge of the lake.  Dara was his back door, thirty meters to his rear as a backup.  Both Stiles and Akil would filter out in opposing directions, watching for any surprises.  As had been the plan, all were using night vision equipment and the usual voice-activated com system.

Marc had noted that the distance across the lake to the island was less than 150 meters.  He had chosen to use a Timberwolf .338 for the task.  It was relatively light-weight and extremely accurate when teamed with match-grade ammunition.

As they set out, Marc was the first to reach the clearing where the eight-foot tall perimeter fence was located.  The fence itself was not too impressive when under closer examination, it revealed its secrets.  It had integrated into it a system of horizontal wires that, if cut, would certainly set off a warning.  At the top was the obligatory razor wire.  Stiles dropped his pack and retrieved a breaching mat that he quickly threw over the razor wire, and then threw a knotted rope over the top.  Reaching carefully through the chain links, he grabbed the other end, tying it off to the fence bottom.  Five minutes later, they were all over the fence and into the tree line.  Once into the trees, they knew that the lake was less than fifty meters away, directly ahead.  They split up; Stiles and Akil moving off; Dara following Marc a bit further, before settling in to wait.

Marc, with his night-vision goggles, moved in total darkness, but slowly, being very diligent.  Everyone was carrying side arms with sound suppressors; the three back-ups also had suppressors on the automatic rifles.  When Marc reached the lake, the position was not what he was hoping for.  He moved to his right, about ten meters, before finding the spot he wanted.  He keyed his com unit and alerted the others to the lateral movement.  If a hasty retreat was necessary, it would be no fun getting shot by your own back-up.  Marc settled in at his chosen spot and began to wait until morning.

As daybreak approached, he used his binoculars to scan the shoreline of the island.  In some areas of the irregular shoreline, he could see a beaten pathway, perhaps the one Sheridan would use.  The sun was now topping the trees, its rays beginning to dance on the far end of the lake’s water.  He looked at his watch – it was just after 8:00 a.m.

Stiles had noticed a pathway through the trees that looked as though it was regularly traveled.  Noting this, he set up a position to be able to see both directions, not knowing which way it would be traversed.  He passed this info on to the rest of the team, mainly alerting Akil.  Dara had chosen her spot carefully, behind a fallen tree, with her back toward Marc’s position.

Akil was well-covered in deep brush, when he heard voices back toward the clearing.  He moved in that direction swiftly to the tree line, but quietly.  Reaching the clearing, he saw two guards walking along the fence 25 meters short of where they had breached the fence, moving in that direction.  Neither of the men, deeply in conversation, had noticed the fence-breaching equipment.  Without a thought, he took aim and fired twice, neither of the men having time to react.  He got on his com as quickly as possible, telling the others that all was clear.  Both Dara and Stiles had heard the gunfire, but Marc had not.  The forest was thick and was a natural sound barrier.  Marc started to key his com to say something, when he noticed movement on the island.  He raised his binoculars and watched.  It was Sheridan.  He traded the glasses for his rifle’s scope, and began to track the man around the island’s edge – watching him, as he walked along without a care.  At a rocky outcropping, he stopped and reached down, picking up a stone, then skipping it across the water, until it sank.  Sheridan paused for just a moment; Marc’s finger trembled slightly as he squeezed the trigger.  Sheridan stood frozen, for what seemed like an eternity, then fell to his knees and then falling forward, face down.  Marc got to his feet, picking up the still-smoking spent cartridge, putting it in his pocket for safekeeping.  As he turned to leave, he stopped, looking back at the now-lifeless body.  He said to himself, “Mr. Sheridan – meet my friend, Eyan.  I’m sure he’ll have some choice words for you.”

[The End]

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 26 and 27

I hope you have been enjoying my husband’s new book Serenity: Full Circle. Here are the next two Chapters!

CHAPTER TWENTY- SEVEN

Into The Black Hole

Late evening, two days later, both aircraft were on approach to Osan Air Base, South Korea.  Marc was at the controls of the G150 after just receiving clearance from the tower and given approach headings.  Dara was along for the ride on this mission.  She had drawn the short straw, and was to be the communications liaison in the Company’s facility at the air base.

After touchdown, Jon rounded up the group and ushered them off to a trademark large, black SUV.  After darting between several hangers and small buildings, they arrived at a medium-sized hanger.  As they pulled in, the doors rolled to a close behind them.  The hanger was obviously not what it appeared to be!  As they exited the vehicle, a large double door swung open, two men (sans jackets), wearing shoulder holsters, greeted Jon by his Company name.

The team, now consisting of five, including Cliff and Bob, followed the others into a massive, dark control room.  It was ablaze with multiple ten-feet tall video displays.  One was dedicated to the entire Korean peninsula; others appeared to be live-streaming from multiple aircraft, assumedly drones.  The entire room was manned by only five people, including the two that had answered the door.

It was a totally self-sustained facility; the upper two floors contained the galley, bed and bath for all operatives working within the building.  A large planning room was on the main floor next to the control room.  Jon gave the group a quick tour, ending at the galley, so they could all have a bite to eat.

Afterwards they all gathered around the meeting table in the planning room.  Cliff took the lead, giving the team a synopsis of the hybrid drone and some of its capabilities.  The unit was large enough to have a payload in excess of three hundred pounds.  The real impressive features were its speed, vertical takeoff and landing abilities.  One of the extra features was onboard flight control.  Cliff inserted a flash drive and launched a top-secret video, shot in the Nevada desert.  Each unit was about eight feet across and in the center was a sling seat with support straps and a flexible joy stick capable of right or left mounting.  Attached next to the seat was a light weight helmet equipped with a heads-up display.  It also had infrared night vision and radio capabilities, both long-range and Bluetooth-limited range.

At the table, Marc and Akil were putting things together.  Jon spoke up saying, “The two drones will be delivered and assembled by tomorrow morning.  We start the flight training in the afternoon.  For the time being, here’s manuals we’ve thrown together.  Bob and Cliff will work with each of you, one-on-one.  They have been on this project since its inception; no one knows more than they do about how these things work.  They’re the only ones to ever fly in them, so I suggest you listen up.”

Bob took the lead saying, “OK, we can do ninety percent of the flying from this control room.  When it’s time to land, considering it will be nighttime, no moon and, more than likely, total cloud cover at this time of year, you’re going to be at the controls.  These units are fully autonomous drones and can fly themselves home, even without Cliff or I.  All it takes is flipping one switch, then sitting back and enjoying the ride or stepping back, watching it disappear in the distance.  Now, I know you’re both pilots, but these things are downright touchy – more so when the ground effect comes into play.  We should be able to train you in a day, maybe two.”  After an hour of Q&A, they adjourned to their sleeping quarters and hit the manual until late in the evening.

Dara and Jon started going over the general logistics of the mission and listing equipment that might be needed.  The list was short and light for obvious reasons.  Based on the earlier meetings, two of the first pieces of equipment were M107 (LRSR) – Long Range Sniper Rifles – with Leupoid 4.5 x 14 variable power scopes.  Dara, then got on the Sat phone and called Akil’s uncle, Ricardo Ruiz, requesting an overnight shipment of 500 rounds of match grade Nammo, Raufoss, MK211 ball ammunition.  This ammunition, more precisely shell casings, could not be traced back to U.S. as they were manufactured in a Norwegian / Finnish military complex.  This ball-type ammo is considered to be the most accurate long-range 50-caliber round available.  After placing the order with Ricardo, she stopped by the galley for a hot cup of green tea, before joining Marc upstairs.

The sun was still only a promise of the new day, when the team gathered their chairs around the large conference table in the main meeting room.  Cliff and Bob started their rundown on the reading material from the previous night with both Marc and Akil.  The modified joystick the controller used to fly the drone, was the crux of the night’s reading material.  They moved the training session to an area on top of the hangar where the drones were parked.  They were somewhat larger than either Marc or Akil had envisioned.  For fear of top secret drones being seen, the flight training had to be done between one and four a.m. at night. Considering the mission insertion would take place during nighttime hours, this would work out fine.

After the meeting, Marc and Akil, unpacked the new M107’s and began to neuter them, removing all markings, both letters and numbers.  The procedure also included refining the trigger mechanisms and then removing the mechanical sights and also mounting the Leupoid scopes.  They would only take two magazines for each weapon.  Each had the potential for ten rounds, however the optimum load was known to be eight.  Superstition runs deep with competitive shooters, not to rule out when your life is on the line.  By noon, Marc, Akil and Jon headed to a make shift range for some live fire.  Jon had pulled some strings, arranging for a special shooting range to be set up alongside the main landing strip taxiway.  From the brace position to the target was 2,750 meters, 1.7 miles.  As the competitive ammunition had not arrived as yet, they began with XM1022 military grade munitions.  The Leupoid scope had the latest computer circuitry with flash memory for the latest metro weather updates.  It also could compensate for earth rotational effects and local magnetic variations.  They would take turns firing, each time tweaking the handheld computerized information.  The microcomputer that was connected via Bluetooth to the M107’s scope was constantly compensating the ultra-human factors.

For Marc, to close on the target, was a matter of five rounds.  Akil was an accomplished marksman, but did not have the training that Eyan had.  It was necessary for Marc to spend some time coaching him.  Akil, as in the past, was a fast study; he knew that Marc was one of the best at this.  He listened and learned well.  Over the next hour, he began pulling his grouping tightly together.  At this range, that meant a four-foot circle.  But this was not good enough; he needed more time.  Perhaps the match grade ammunition would help, Marc thought.  Sometimes, minor adjustments make a big difference.  After three and a half hours at the range, it was time to pack it in.  A 50-caliber round has a way of quickly beating up one’s shoulder.

Just as they arrived back at the hangar, a delivery truck was pulling away.  Dara was standing at the entrance way checking over the order.  Ricardo, as usual, was dependable and efficient; the order had been doubled, just in case.  Dara had already conferred with both Cliff and Bob about the mission necessities and its load demands. Now it was time to scrutinize the equipment and weigh in the men themselves.

After this was completed, it was early evening.  Jon had slipped out for several hours before reappearing just before dinner.  As they sat around the table, the conversation turned to that of the firing range.  Jon asked how much time Marc thought it would take for Akil to come up to par.  After a short pause, Marc replied, “Two, or maybe three, weeks!” Instantly he felt Akil’s foot kicking his leg under the table.  It was Akil’s way of returning the comedic gesture.  Then Marc said, “Most likely by tomorrow afternoon.”

Jon, with a grin, said, “Two bits says he does it first shot and every shot he takes tomorrow.”  This was something that neither of them expected him to say – he was a man of few words and not prone to levity.  Marc said, “I’ll take that bet.”  Before anything else was said, he slid a fully loaded M107 magazine across the table, stopping just in front of Akil.  Looking it over, his first inclination was, OK, what’s this?  Then he noticed the weight of the Mag; as he looked closer, he noticed markings on the rounds he had never seen before. This was unusual, considering the fact he had been an arms dealer his entire adult life.   He snapped two bullets out of the Mag, handing one to Marc.  The look on Marc’s face was telling the same story.  They both looked across the table at Jon, who now sat with a full smile on his face.  He said, “Have either of you ever heard of a government agency called DARPA?”  Marc said, “Yeah, back when Eyan and I worked for the Secret Service.  It was some kind of think tank for developing military toys.”  This information was a bit left of Akil’s knowledge base.  Jon interjected, “OK, DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and you’re right – they make all kinds of special toys – like that bullet your holding.  By the way, I wouldn’t drop it.  It’s worth about $15,500 a round.” Marc replied, “Impressive price; what does it do?”  “Well, it’s called an EXACTO round – Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance.  Inside that 50 cal. is a microcomputer that controls steering fins that allows it to adjust trajectory in flight, keeping it on target even if the flight path is altered by wind or uncontrolled variables, like the target moving.  It works using optical sensors in the nose of the bullet to track the target and altering the pop-out fins’ angles to change directions.  Do you think these might help the mission?”  Marc asked.  “What time are we going to the range?  I’ll let you know ten minutes later.”

In May, the sun rises early in Korea, and one must rise even earlier when work is to be done.  The sky was just beginning to turn orange in the east when they arrived at the make-shift range about a mile from the hangar. It was just the three of them and they were all anxious to try out the munitions.  By the time they had traversed the distance to setup targets, then returned to the firing position, the day was bright. Knowing that most likely the firing position on the mission would from an elevated location, they chose to fire from a table.  This would eliminate the ground effect imposed upon the bullet as it exited the rifle’s barrel.  Virtually everything affects the flight of a projectile that is meant to travel such distances.  Late the prior evening, they had retrofitted the M107’s with new barrels, sans the lands and grooves, to facilitate the bullet’s requirements. They exchanged the standard scopes for laser scopes, as they were required to designate the targets for the new munitions.

Marc started off the shooting match, firing his first round about five feet to the right of the intended target.  As soon as he fired, he adjusted the laser scope on to the stationary target; this would be the reverse of an actual event where the target would have moved.  The bullet impacted on target, near center mass.  Both Akil and Jon were observing with field glasses.  The reaction was unanimous –grins all around.  Now it was Akil’s turn.  He repeated Marc’s footsteps, aiming away from the target, firing and then re-designating.  Once again, less than two seconds later, the bullet arrived center mass.  Marc turned to Jon standing to the far side of Akil, flipping him a quarter with his thumb and index finger, saying, “A bet’s a bet.” At this point they were all smiling.  After firing two more rounds each, Marc said, “I don’t see the need to play around with these any longer, not at $15,000 a pop; what say we pack it in?”  Jon’s reply, “Sure, as soon as I try one for myself.”  Jon was no sniper; however, he was no stranger to firearms either. Marc gave him a quick tutorial and then he fired his round with the same results.  After shooting, he said, “The word ‘sniper’ may disappear from the books with this type of ammo,” referring to the military tech manuals.

After dinner, at a meeting, Cliff and Bob were the center of attention.  Bob told them that at 01:00 hours, the first flying lessons with full gear (including firearms) was scheduled on the roof.  As the hour approached, Marc was in the quarters Dara and he shared.  He was laying out his gear on the bed when Dara came up from the control room.  She flopped into a chair, displaying her exhaustion.  Marc took one look at her, shaking his head, saying, “I know, we all feel the same; it’ll be over soon.  Jon said he thought the parade for this turkey is supposed to be in the next four or five days.  I hope we can learn to fly these buckets of bolts in time to get there.”  Dara, looking at the items Marc had laid out, said, “You should forget the 17,” referring to the Glock.  “Take the 43; it’s half the weight, so you can carry twice the ammo.”  Marc nodded in agreement with her train of thought.  Dara was, when it came business, a person of cold logic.  The next thought to come forth had even more depth. “When you were at the range, did you and Akil ever fire at the same time, what happens if both of the projectiles optic sensors home in on the same laser paint?  That would be extremely awkward.”  Now, Marc began to realize just how tired they all had become. Something so basic, but horribly impactive, and everyone but Dara had glossed right over the possibility.

Both Marc and Akil had spent in excess of ten hours of time on the makeshift simulator flying the drone with the joy stick.  Now it was time to apply that to the real deal.  Just after midnight, they all assembled on the upper deck where the drones were now moored.  They had been fully double-checked and then flight tested by Bob the previous night.  They started the evening out with a re-briefing.  Then, one at a time, they began by powering up and learning to hover at three to four meters above the deck.  The power cells were a hybrid lithium paste, infused with polymorphic gel.  Neither of them really understood how it worked, but they were told the batteries had the ability to regenerate to one hundred percent within eight to ten hours, without the need of external interaction.  The units were able to sustain full powered flight for just over three hours at maximum load capacity.  By the time both men had achieved a reasonable core competence at hovering, more than two hours had elapsed.  It was now approaching a twenty-hour day for all involved.  The decision to knock off for the day was welcome.

Marc had voiced his concerns to Jon about the lack of rest and Dara’s point about the ammunition.  The next morning’s schedule was pushed back several hours.  With lunch behind them, the crew headed off to the firing range.  After firing the first set of rounds, it was more than obvious that a problem was at hand.  As Dara had thought, both bullets had homed in on the same laser, several times.  As they worked on an answer to the problem, it became clear, if the two targets were closer than six to eight feet from each other, the risk of duality existed.  They needed to find an answer, and quick.  By late afternoon, reality had set in.  Marc would need to revert to conventional munitions.  This would also necessitate changing out the barrel of the weapon and also added weight, which was at a premium.  A decision was made for Akil to use the EXACTO munitions and Marc would use the conventional type.  That evening Marc re-fitted his rifle with the standard barrel and scope before going up for the night’s flight training.

Cliff regurgitated the flight protocols again before the flight.  Both Marc and Akil suited up and loaded all the gear aboard, then proceeded to lift off.  After they were airborne, using the headset communications, Marc remarked, “OK, Akil, let’s see what these things can do.”  An immediate response from Cliff came blasting over the system saying, “This is only a basic flight, proceed around the hangar’s perimeter and land back here.” To which, no reply was returned.

Marc keyed his mic three times indicating to Akil to go up two radio frequencies channels.  This was one of the basic operational practices that the Serenity Group had adopted for live-fire field use.  Akil checked back in as soon as he was up on the channel.  Marc began, saying, “How does yours feel? This one handles like a Convair 240 in a cross-wind.  Akil just said, “Copy that.”  After thirty minutes, both were getting more adept at the quirkiness of the drones.  As they approached the hangar, they returned to the base frequency and announced their impending landing.  After landing and shut down, Cliff was in Marc’s face immediately, starting to say something that he could regret.  Marc raised his hands, palms out, saying, “Cliff, whose life is on the line here?  No disrespect, but you fly a desk; we deal with this kind of shit on a regular basis. We don’t have the time nor the inclination to always play by the rules.  Get it?”  Cliff with a stern look, said, “Got it.”  Jon was standing on the far side of the landing platform watching the confrontation with a subliminal smile.  This was one the things he liked and respected about Marc and his whole group; they were all business.

As they made their way down the stairs, Marc was saying to Jon, “We need an hour in the morning to hit the range.  I need to zero in the scope and barrel I replaced, and check the match ammo Ricardo sent us.”  “OK, do you think we can be ready to move this show out to the ship by tomorrow night?” Marc, stopping on the stairs, said, “We’re as ready as it gets, Jon.”

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 24 and 25

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Retribution In Progress

After reassessing the events of the day and making arrangements for Eyan’s transport back to Serenity with Stiles, Dara volunteered to accompany them back and stay with Ara for a period of time.  She instinctively knew that Marc needed her to do this.

Marc and Akil went through a mutual debriefing, deciphering the puzzling event as it had played out.  They were searching for the single clue that would unlock the secrets of the ill-fated event.  Marc was the only one to see the man with the scar, yet he knew without doubt, he was the one commanding the assault.

As the next day unfolded, some of the answers began to float to the surface.  Martin had used his vast resources, both monetarily and politically, to dig deep into the events that had unfolded at the compound.  Based on his ties with the Swedish Parliament, he was able to retrieve several bits of restricted information about the helicopter and its point of origin.  It was noted in the official log that the aircraft had been transported on board a cargo ship.  The helicopter had been picked up on radar ascending from the vessel while still in international waters.  The ship, after entering Swedish territorial waters, was boarded by the Swedish Coast Guard for a routine inspection.  The senior officer had entered into the log that the ship’s Captain had said the Helicopter was of Chinese manufacture. After the satellite pictures had been fully inspected, it was determined that the aircraft was most likely a Harbin, series Z-9.    The Coast Guard had logged the ship into the record book as the Suri tuuli, of Finish registry.

Using a Die/Hex Corp. aircraft, Martin, Marc and Akil returned to Stockholm late that afternoon. On the flight, Martin said, “Anything I can do to aid in this, simply ask. I won’t rest until we’ve brought these people down.”   Marc had seen Martin in this mind-set once before when his granddaughter had been kidnapped.  He was a man of many faces, but in this frame of mind he could only be described as angry, which was also a mirror reflection of Marc.

The next morning, at precisely 10:10 am, Martin received a call from Swedish authorities saying they had located the Harbin helicopter. It had been abandoned ten miles south of Stockholm in a rural area just outside of the suburb of Huddinge. The local police and Europol were both processing the aircraft for forensic information.  That afternoon, another call was received; this time the information was more pertinent.  They had lifted several sets of fingerprints from the craft and had matched two sets to an international watch list issued by Interpol.  The two overtly had no ties, but both had reputations as black op’s guns-for-hire.  Martin brought pressure to bear on several international agencies, using his network of ties throughout the European Union.  Europol was the first to bring information to the table.  Using facial recognition software, Jene Mallette, had been spotted and taken into custody at Oslo’s International airport.  He was being held on an International warrant with a non-release clause at the airport’s detention center.  Using Martin’s corporate aircraft, Marc and Akil were on route in less than an hour.

Slightly over two hours later, they touched down in Oslo.  To no great surprise, they were met by officials from both Sweden and Europol.  After being escorted to a security office, the agent in charge simply pushed a document across his desk and said, “A signature is all I need and the suspect will be released into your custody.”  Once again, Martin’s influence, obviously. After getting back in touch with Martin, Marc was informed that Stiles was no more than thirty minutes out from arriving at Oslo.  The corporate aircraft was sent to retrieve Martin.  They were to meet back at Die/Hex headquarters in Madrid.

In flight, Marc, using a Sat phone placed a call Dara on Serenity. After a brief conversation, he turned the phone over to Akil to talk to Ara, his sister.  Marc could tell by the expressions upon his face that she was extremely distraught.  Marc also knew if it were not for the task at hand, he would also wear that burden, as he temporarily pushed that thought back into the recesses of his own mind.

After Stiles arrival, the aircraft was refueled and made ready for the return flight.  They were now approaching cruising altitude for the four-hour flight to Madrid’s Barajas Airport.  Martin, as usual, had called ahead and made arraignments for Jene Mallette’s transport via a Die/Hex’s security detail to the corporate security headquarters.  Once they entered the complex, they proceeded through no less than three in-house checkpoints before arriving at their destination.  Jene Mallette was secured within a 12-foot x 12-foot cubicle.  The only furnishings within were two chairs and a small table.  His hands were clasped in short chain manacles anchored to the top of the table which, in turn, was anchored to the floor.  His ankles were strapped to the front legs of the chair that he was seated in.  As they entered the room, Mallette, raising his head, glared at them and then said with a strong French accent he said, in English, “Do not waste your time with me, I will tell you nothing!”  Akil, with a pursed smile, said, “Now, why would you say that?”  Mallette, still glaring said, “There is nothing that Europol or any of your agencies can do to force me to say anything.”  “Ah,” said Akil, “But we are not Europol, or even one of their agencies. So, you see, you will tell us what we want to know.  But then, perhaps you would choose the other alternative, being one who does not exist.”  Mallette’s glare that had been frozen upon his face suddenly began to fade as his right eye began to twitch.  Marc sat down across the table, his eyes never losing direct contact with Mallette’s.

Akil raised his right leg up and placed his foot on the table.  He pulled his pant leg up, exposing a ten-inch knife in an ankle sheath.  As he was extracting it from the sheath, the man, laughing out loud said, “This is supposed to scare me?” Akil effortlessly flipped the knife from his right hand to his left, and then in one swift motion plunged it through the back of Mallette’s right hand as it rested upon the table.  Mallette, staring at the knife now wedging his hand to the table, reached his left hand toward the knife but the manacle stopped his hand just short from reaching it.  Akil now placed his other foot on the table, exposing a second knife. “Maybe it doesn’t scare you but, if I were you, I would think twice before I said another word.” Without missing a beat, Mallette looked up at Akil and said, “I will kill you one day—somehow, someway, but I will do it.”

Marc stood up from his chair and took a white handkerchief from his pocket and placed it on the table. He then walked slowly around the table until he was now standing directly behind Mallette.  He reached out his right hand to Akil, gesturing for the knife.  When Akil handed it to him, he reached out with his left hand grabbing a hand full of Mallette’s hair and then jerked his head back to the left, exposing the right side of his head.  He placed the knife blade against Mallette’s ear and began a sawing motion.  Blood began to flow down Mallette’s neck as he began to squirm, but Marc tightened his grip on Mallette’s hair and then jerked the knife with his right hand severing Mallette’s ear.  Marc, still holding the knife, using his thumb to secure the ear to the blade released Mallette’s hair and walked back around the table throwing the bloody ear on the white handkerchief. He looked up at Mallette and said, “Like the man said, you will talk to us or I’ll cover that hanky with a plethora of your non-lethal body parts. Now do we have an understanding?”

Before any other parts were severed, an understanding was reached.  Mallette, as it turned out, was an avid conversationalist.  Over the next few hours, they discovered that the money behind the organized assault seemingly originated in, of all places, but not a surprise, North Korea.  The man with the scar down the left side of his face was said to be a high-ranking officer in The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea military regime.  After some serious digging on both the internet and political contacts, it was discovered that his name and title was Major General Yeon Kwan.  He was well-placed in the upper tier politico within the North Korean ruling party.

Once the information trail had been exhausted, Mallette was transported and released to the French authorities.  They happily took custody, no questions asked.  They had more than a few questions of their own with regard to several of his former wives’ disappearances.

As for the others involved in the fray, they seemed to have dissolved into the woodwork like ghosts.  The only real lead was Major General Yeon Kwan.  In the next two days, all that could be gleaned about Mr. Scarface was starting to show a pattern.  Among other duties, the one that stuck out was the fact he was the head of all Foreign Councils and Ambassadors for the D.P.R.K.  This required him to travel extensively beyond the natural borders of North Korea.

The one thing that was chewing on Marc’s insides was who was the Caucasian man with the smarmy smile getting on the chopper?  He was sure the man was in charge – he knew it – but what was the connection?  The things that they learned from the Frenchman were helpful.  However, like most independent black op’s units, virtually every participant used one-word code names for everyone’s protection.  The less real information each had about the other, the more secure everyone was.

Early the next morning, Marc, Akil and Stiles boarded Martin’s G280 bound for Serenity. The prior five days had been gut-wrenching to say the least.  All four, inclusive of Arnesto Garcia, rotated through the pilot and second seats during the return flight.  Three refueling stops and 24 hours later, Akil was shutting the engines down on the tarmac at Serenity.

Marc and Eyan had decided long ago when they first went into business together that if something were to happen to either of them, everything that each owned was passed to the other – both assets and/or debt.

Marc found a perfect spot not far from the house on a rise that looked out upon the south Pacific. After discussing his plan with Mike and Pete they constructed a burial site that would both endure and reflect Eyan’s love of the Pacific Ocean.

Ara had taken the news of Eyan’s demise better than the others had thought she might.  After only two days, she resumed her self-appointed duties of computer researcher for the team.  Her dedication was now threefold, considering the subject of her search – Major General Yeon Kwan.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY- FIVE

Time To Act

The information that Ara was able to secure thus far was very scant.  North Korea’s utter disdain for other countries built upon democratic freedoms had stunted their evolution both economically and culturally.  The internet was rare to the majority of the people, so very little information is available on the World Wide Web.  Ara decided to dig deep into the black cyber world of T.O.R. – The Onion Router.  Vast amounts of information are contained in this sub level of what is often referred to as the Black Hole.  As she probed deeper, she found several links leading her to many underground arms trading sites.  After combing through several, she centered in on what seemed to be the central Asian market. She culled through six different sites searching for requests for major military items such as aircraft engines for fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.   Then she came across one searching for specific rocket engine parts for SS 17 Spanker series Russian rockets.

The North Korean military had purchased obsolete Russian I.C.B.M.’s in the mid 1990’s.  Now it seemed they were searching for the parts necessary to get the I.C.B.M. back in serviceable condition.  North Korea had been the only buyer of the SS 17’s, and Russia would not be searching for parts for their own missiles on the internet.  Ara had found an inlet to the inner core of the secretive People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

After a team discussion, they decided to lay a trap and hopefully find a way to get to Major General Kwan himself. Very few people, even among the higher ranking generals, were allowed to travel outside the confines of the self-described People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.  A black market arms sale could perhaps draw Major General Kwan himself from behind this curtain of hypocrisy.  He was, after all, the Senior Council Director of Ambassadors and was charged with the responsibility of their positions.  After a fair amount of research by Ara, it was brought to light that Kwan traveled outside the country more than any other person within the hierarchy.

The team sat at the table going over the information that Ara had acquired.  Marc said, “There are countries that have diplomatic relations with North Korea.  I think we should pick one that does, and then find one adjacent that doesn’t – but is virtually next door – to set up the sting.  That way, there’s no possibility of things becoming politically sticky.”  Ara sat thumbing through a stack of papers until she came upon a listing of countries that had diplomatic ties with the North.  As she pulled it from the stack, she said, “More countries than I thought have ties with them,” as she reached across the table handing it to her brother seated next to Marc. As the meeting progressed late into the afternoon they began to realize that the information they had was simply not enough to put a plan into action.

Marc decided to take a break, walking out onto the exercise deck and then around to the point looking out to the vast expanse of blue.  Eyan’s death had torn a hole in the very fabric of Marc’s being.  Far deeper than even he had thought.  As he stood there, he began to dissect the turn of events that had led to the tragic event.  Before any reasoning had availed itself, the door opened wide, and Dara called to him saying, “You have a call from Elena Brinson,” handing the Sat phone to him.

After a ten-minute conversation, Marc returned to the Control room joining the others once again.  Everybody could tell by his demeanor that something was up. He started by saying, “Elena’s tech group was able to retrieve some footage from one of the compound video cams on the outer fence.  They were able to get a clear shot of the end of the building that was blown out for the escape route to the chopper.  In the video, several of the men’s faces were visible.  She pushed the footage to Martin; he’s doing his usual behind-the-scenes thing.  She expects him to call us with whatever he has later today.

After they had taken a break and eaten a late lunch, the phone once again came to life; Marc answered. Martin was concise and very much to the point. It seems that his Europol connections had put a name to two of the perps. The first was found floating face down in a ditch just outside Stockholm and had been laying in the morgue since the day after the event; the COD was a single shot to the back of the head. He was a non-player with a rap sheet to match.  The second drew the attention of Marc instantly with a Swedish surname of Viktor Karlsson.  It was the smarmy-smiling Caucasian that Marc remembered.

After the call, the team resumed the strategy meeting. Marc was finding it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. The Swede kept knocking on his psyche.  Akil, noticing the distraction, turned to Marc and said, “Let’s take this in the order we set out.  Once we take out Kwan, we move on to Karlsson.  I don’t think any of us will sleep well until we put both of these guys six feet under.  Time is on our side.  We know who they are; they don’t have a clue we’re coming after them.”  Akil’s assessment brought some clarity to the table as they all began brainstorming.  The more they looked at the potential sting operation, the more they all realized that it was grandiose. Something simple with precision was more their style.

The next morning as they sat down to breakfast, Marc mentioned that something had come to mind about a way to move forward with the task at hand.  It was clear that information was the key to success, so he was going to call Jon Meeks at the Company and call in a debt from the South American fiasco. He thought surely they would have some type of information that could be of use to them.  Marc, with Dara’s help, found a piece of paper that Jon had given him in Scottsdale after her injury. Marc had a smile when Jon had handed it to him at the time. It simply said, “Get Out Of Jail Free,” with his contact number on it. He was hoping it would still hold true.

Marc dialed the number and, after several rings, a woman answered saying, “How may I direct your call?” Marc said, “I’m trying to contact Jon Meeks. Is he available?” He could hear the woman typing on a computer, and then she said, “Mr. Meeks will need to return your call,” and got Marc’s contact info.  The call terminated.

The returned call was almost immediate.  It began blinking as he placed it on the table.  Marc answered it saying, “Serenity Group, Marc speaking.”  There was a pause then connection sound on the line. Jon came on and said, “Well, didn’t think I would hear from you for a long time.  What’s up?” Marc cryptically said, “We need to talk,” and gave Jon a Sat phone encryption frequency, “You know where I’m located.  What time is it there?” Jon answered, “2:35.” Marc replied, “Use the first three digits of my time for the key code.  I’ll be waiting for your call.” He hit the disconnect button.

About an hour had passed, when the Sat Phone came to life once more.  Marc answered, to hearing an encryption sign on, which was a series of squawks and squeaks. He validated the encryption and Jon came on the line saying, “OK. What’s up?” Over the next thirty minutes, Marc recounted the Die-Hex, Sweden incident with the disastrous outcome.  He brought him up to speed on the events of the last few days, including the info on both Gen. Yeon Kwan and Viktor Karlsson. Jon had not heard of Karlsson but, as he put it, had volumes on Kwan.  He also said that the Kwan files were extremely hot.  Marc was quite blunt in his remarks of the two. He flat out said the file may be closed soon.  Jon was now understanding the gravity of the conversation and said, “Marc, you do realize that if your group moves up into this echelon, you’re no longer a fly on the wall, you’re the three-hundred-pound gorilla in the room?  There’s no way you’re going to just walk away after this is done.”  Marc’s reply was, “Can you help or not?” After a brief deep silence Jon said, “I’ve got to talk to some people,” meaning higher ups.; “I’ll call back in the morning, or as soon as I can.” The line went dead.

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 21, 22 and 23

CHAPTER TWENTY- ONE

Serenity Awaits

One week later:

As the G150 leaped skyward leaving out of Scottsdale, the team took a collective deep breath.  The flight time was just under six hours to Hawaii.  Over the past several days, Dara had substantially improved and was subsequently released.  She was now able to move about on her own, but gingerly.  After the debriefing with Jon Meeks, the team had unanimously decided to let “The Company” take care of the loose ends.  The Serenity Group, as a whole, preferred that the spotlight shine elsewhere.  This type of notoriety is something that is best avoided.

It was mid-afternoon as they touched down in Honolulu.  Marc could tell that Dara was totally exhausted dealing with her first full day out of the hospital.  After talking it over with the others, they decided to lay-over for a day.  This would also allow some time for required maintenance on the aircraft.  They checked into the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort.  Marc and Eyan had stayed there earlier, on a prior visit.  The stop over bled over into three days, as they all recharged their life forces and the unscheduled maintenance on the G150 had required more time to move into the system, than first thought.

On the last day of the stopover, Marc and Akil had stopped by the hotel bar for a quick beer. It was late in the afternoon; Dara was up in the room showering for dinner and Eyan was still at the pool relaxing.  They were at the end of the bar when Marc saw a familiar face; it was Kai; the barmaid he had met on his last stay at the hotel.  They had spent a day reminiscing and touring their shared adolescent haunts.  As he watched her working, he noticed that she was now wearing a wedding ring; he smiled, and then spoke up saying, “Kai, the pure soul.”  Kai turned and saw Marc. She said, “Once an island boy – always an island boy,” as she moved around the end of the bar toward him and Akil.  She walked up behind them, placing her hand on Marc’s back, saying, “I had a feeling that I would see you again someday.”   Marc introduced Akil.  As the conversation continued, he asked about the ring on her finger.  Kai began to laugh and told them, “It’s the oldest barmaid trick in the book.  It keeps the barflies off my back and leaves the picking and choosing to me.”  She asked about Eyan and how things were going in the dive business.  All the while, Marc was noticing Akil’s unwavering interest as he watched Kai.  Marc’s phone began to chime.  He pulled it out of his pocket and apologetically stepped away to answer it.  Akil, taking the opportunity, pursued the conversation with Kai.

The phone call was Dara, checking on what the game plan was for the evening.  Marc said that he would call back as soon as he talked to Eyan.  He called Eyan’s cell; it rang several times before he answered. After a short conversation, Eyan said that he was sunburned, tired and room service was his idea for dinner.  Marc returned to the bar and immediately noticed the chemistry building between the two.  He asked Kai what her shift was for the day.  As far as he knew, she only worked nights.  She said it was a vacation schedule and that she had switched with a friend for the day tending bar and was due to finish in about 30 minutes at 5:00 pm.  Akil broke into the conversation and said, “Marc, I’ve asked Kai to join us for dinner, if that’s OK with you and the others.”  Marc’s told him that Eyan had passed on dinner, but he and Dara would enjoy it.

Later, as they headed back up to the room, Marc asked Akil what he thought of Kai.  He smiled, saying, “You really have to ask?”  Marc just grinned, saying nothing.  At 8:00 pm, they met back downstairs in the main lobby.  Marc remembered that Kai as an employee was not welcome in the hotel when not on shift.  He asked her if she knew a good place to dine. She thought for a moment and then replied, “Yeah, I know a place.  It’s not touristy, but the foods great and the booze is poured deep.”  “My kind of place,” Marc said, as he approached the main desk, then asking the concierge for car service.

The place was as quaint as your uncle’s house, called “Hiroshy’s.”  Kai was right – the food was scrumptious, the drinks were liberal and the three-piece band was simply fun.  As the night progressed, Akil and Kai became a bit distant and totally absorbed in each other.  That was fine with Marc and Dara.  They were enjoying some fun down time of their own, as they slow-danced to some island music.  When they arrived back at the hotel, they said goodnight as Akil and Kai risked a night cap at the hotel bar.

The G150 was scheduled out of maintenance before noon and they were to fly to the Island, landing before dark for obvious reasons – like no landing strip lights.  Marc was on the phone talking to Mike Schell on Serenity at the breakfast table in the restaurant when Akil pulled up a chair, joining the group.  Akil was in a jovial mood, which was out of context for him in the morning hours.  Eyan, obviously oblivious to the events of the previous night, was surprised at Akil’s demeanor.  When Marc finished his call, Akil announced that they would have a guest aboard the flight to Serenity.  Now Eyan was totally confused, looking over at Marc with a smile.  Marc said, “Well, let me guess. Is the person about five-foot three, dark hair, Polynesian descent, and extremely curvy?”  Dara was starting to laugh as Eyan’s curiosity blossomed.  Marc, unable to continue said, “Its Kai, Eyan – she went to dinner with us last night while you were in ‘never-never land.’”  Eyan started to smile, saying, “Sounds like it was a party to me.”

When they departed the hotel, Akil handed the driver a paper with the address to Kai’s house.  When the driver looked at the address, he smiled and said, “OK, do we have clearance at the gate?”  This piqued the interest of nearly everyone.  Marc, however, had remembered what Kai had shared with him when they had first met.  When they arrived at the address, the driver pulled up to the gated entrance covered with lush vegetation and said to the attendant, “Here to pick up Miss Kamaka.”  Marc smiled as he noted the reaction of the others, surprised by both the apparent wealth, and also the grandeur of the plantation.  Kai was not what she seemed to be.   The others would soon find out that the Kamaka name was one of the most prominent and respected on the island.  They had, for over ten generations, been associated with not only the culture and royalty, but more importantly, the politics of the now island state.

Later that afternoon, as the aircraft approached Serenity, Akil was directing Kai’s attention out the cockpit window toward the Island.  He was pointing out the cove and also the main house that was now a prominent fixture protruding above the trees upon the cliff.  Then he announced to the others that they were circling around on approach.  As he reduced power to the engines, he got on the radio and made contact with the ship, making sure that the runway was clear of debris and allowing them to sound the ship’s air horn to alert the workers. Kai exchanged seats with Marc who returned to the co-pilot’s seat for the landing.  Now, lined up on final approach, both Akil and Marc were surprised as several strobe beacons now marking the sides and beginning of the runway, switched on.  As they came closer, they also noticed the runway was now much more visually pronounced.  Mike and the crew had made a strong headway during their absence.

The tires on the craft chirped out in unison as Akil, almost imperceptibly, touched down.  They taxied up to the end of the tarmac and shut down the aircraft.  As they were deplaning, Mike and Ara walked up from the direction of the cove and dock area.  Eyan, the first to step down, smiled brightly as he spotted Ara. Mike, as bold as ever, said, “I sure am glad to see ya all back in one piece.”  Marc, walking up, said, “That makes two of us, Mike,” as he glanced back over his shoulder at Dara, gingerly stepping down from the plane.  His basic instincts were to assist her but he knew Dara would not accept such favoritism; she would carry her own weight, just as the men would. As they stood there, Mike said, “Who’s the new addition?” as he noticed Kai and Akil walking off toward the cove.  Marc responded saying, “An old friend of mine, and a new friend of Akil’s” Mike just laughed and shook his head as he said, “Ain’t that a hoot?”

The next day, as a group, they were treated to a tour of the facility.  Mike was obviously proud, as he pointed out what had been achieved during the team’s absence.

The lower hanger and subfloors of the structure were finished along with the elevator system that stretched up the hill and through it, to the second floor of the main house.  The first floor was nearly completed and the second floor was fully piped and plumbed; it was now awaiting the roof and glass panel walls.  The hanger was filled to capacity with building materials that needed to remain dry, as they were now entering the rainy season.  When asked about the runway surfacing, Mike smiled and said, “Well since you asked, it was a stroke of luck.  Bud, one of the workers, had used a combination of sack cement and crushed rock on an obscure island to build footings and floor slabs for temporary buildings.  Well, he returned some twenty years later to the island, and he said that everything was gone with the exception of the floors and footings that they had improvised.  So, when we started excavating the elevator shaft and all the footings for the house, we started using the rock, crushing it – sort of experimenting – and tried it out. At first it didn’t appear to work.  It was too coarse, so we started to mix some beach sand in and it just worked out. It probably wouldn’t hold up to heavy aircraft, but for our purposes, it should do the trick for a long time.  All we had to do was excavate a little more of the hill for more rock back over near the cove and dredge some sand up near the docks to make it work out.  Removing the rock worked out better than we figured because it gave us some level ground to place the communication tower on.  I also moved the power generator right beyond the tower so you’ll never hear it when it kicks in, recharging the solar batteries.  The solar panels need help now and then, ya know.”  Marc was more than pleased, and then he asked, “How much will this set us back, Mike?”  “Well, the runway or the low voltage solar system?” he asked. Marc said, “All of it, Mike.” His answer was simple, “My calculations say the savings in the first 18 months on fuel for generators should handle it all. And the life cycle of the generating equipment should quadruple, or more.” Mike finished up, saying, “Marc, I would have cleared it with you guys first, but you all seemed up to your bellybuttons in snakes at the time, so I made an executive decision and pushed on.”  Marc, realizing he had given Mike the wrong impression said, “I think you did fine, Mike.  I just needed to know if we needed to transfer additional funds to the construction account.” Mike, with a smile on his face said, “I’m glad you’re OK with it, because me and the boys are having a ball playing with these machines again.  Most of us had thought these days were in our rearview mirror, ya know?”  Marc was more than moved by Mike’s sincerity, saying, “Mike, just keep doing what you’re all doing.  I can’t believe what you’ve accomplished in such a short time.”

Over the next several weeks, as the work continued, the bottom floor of the main house became habitable.  They now had a fully functioning kitchen and bathrooms with full showers.  Everyone was ecstatic with this accomplishment, along with the laundry facility.  The roof was now complete on the second floor and the men were rapidly completing the second level interior.  The six of them were now sleeping in the structure albeit still using sleeping bags on cots, and the workmen were happy to have the extra space aboard the ship.

During the next week, a supply ship returned that contained the furniture and final touches for the residents.  It was a welcome sight!  The hanger was now harboring the Gulfstream after being depleted of its stored supplies. The storage rooms were being stocked with dry goods, as was the walk-in freezer, with each routine supply ship.  The armory and a double lane shooting range were already in full use, just upstairs from the hanger.  The upstairs of the main house had two more bedrooms, each with its own bath, and one large room that doubled as a meeting and planning center for operations.  It was soon to be filled with current state-of-the-art electronic gear.  This was to encompass everything from radio communications to Doppler radar and, of course, satellite links for tracking current events throughout the globe and Sat Phone for direct communications.

Over the next two months, Akil and Kai had become inseparable. They had asked Mike to schedule them for a return trip to the main island on the next supply transit. As soon as Marc caught wind of the request, he waited until he and Akil were alone and said, “Akil, is everything OK?  I don’t want to pry, but Mike said you and Kai asked to go back to the main island and . . .” Akil broke in saying, “Marc, everything’s fine.  As a matter of fact, it’s perfect!  I’ve asked Kai to marry me, and she’s accepted. Now we need to see her parents and take care of the necessities.  We want to do this as quietly as possible, but she needs to talk to her father first.”  Marc, with a smile as large as life, said, “Akil, take the Gulfstream!  No one here is checked out on it anyway, so you may as well.  We’re not going to use it.  Akil, once more surprised at Marc’s generosity and friendship, said, “Thanks Marc.  I’m not sure exactly how long we’ll be gone, but we will be in touch as soon as I know.  We plan on staying here, if that’s possible?”  Marc replied, “Our deal stands and you know that we all care for Kai a great deal. The two of you are welcome as long as you wish.” Akil asked that he not say anything to the others, saying that he would like to announce it together.

That night after dinner, Akil disappeared for a moment, and then returned with two bottles of champagne, and quietly walked back into the room.  They were all seated in the large living room area on the first floor.  He placed the bottles on the counter of the wet bar, and then located the fluted glasses that were stored in the service bar. The others were busy talking and no one took notice of his activities.  He very quietly removed the cork from one of the bottles and poured the flutes to the brim.  He picked up the tray with the glasses and walked over to the group and began handing them out.  After completing his task, he walked over to Kai and asked her to stand up.  He said, “Kai and I would like to share some news with you all.  I have asked her to marry me and she has accepted.”  Holding his glass up and out, he turned to Kai and said, “Here’s to a great beginning and a beautiful woman.” It would prove to be one of the happier celebrations over the next year.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Time To Catch Up

Four days later Marc’s Sat phone rang twice before he could answer it. He said, “Marc speaking,” as he always answered.  Hearing Akil’s voice, he said, “Everything’s going well I trust?” Akil replied, “All’s well, my friend.  We have managed to convince Kai’s father that a large formal wedding is not what we want, and have set the event for a week from Friday. I’ll be returning day after tomorrow and we can all fly back on the following Wednesday, if that works out for everybody.”

Over the next few weeks, things were hectic to say the least. The wedding was short, sweet and tasteful. Akil and Kai, after dropping off Marc and Eyan in Atlanta for their flight certification on the Gulfstream, continued on to down to Rio for a short honeymoon, attending Brazil’s Carnival. The construction work was beginning to wind down on Serenity.  Mike, with each trip back to Hawaii, ferried some of the workers back home; it was a bittersweet voyage for all of them.

For Marc and Eyan, the twelve-day certification period seemed like a blur. One of Eyan’s comments was, “This type of intellectual cramming was a hell of lot easier when I was in my twenties.” To which Marc replied, “Agreed, but we made it,” with a slight smile upon his face.  It was after two in the afternoon as the taxi turned into PDK regional airport just northeast of Atlanta. They were a few minutes early, but both were anxious to get back to Serenity. The cabbie dropped them at the executive terminal. It was not a large airport, but better than fighting the traffic in and around Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International, both on the ground and in the air. They had been there only minutes when Eyan spotted the G150 touching down, rolling out, and then turning toward the terminal.  Within the hour, the craft had been refueled and a flight plan filed for Los Angeles and on to Honolulu.

After arriving in Honolulu, Akil and Kai returned to her family’s estate.  They had made arraignments to return to Serenity with Mike on the next returning supply shipment.  Kai needed to collect a few belongings and there was some legal paper work that needed attending to.  The others were to continue on to Serenity.  They had taken turns at the controls on the return trip.  Eyan had the first leg from

Georgia to California, then Marc on to Honolulu.  After an overnight layover, they were now approaching the Island. As Marc turned on approach for his first landing on the Island, he jokingly said, “For some reason I don’t remember this island being so small.” Eyan, with a large grin replied, “Looks the same size to me.”

One thing this runway did not offer was an aborted landing.  Once committed you either stopped safely, or the alternative would not be pretty.  Marc was now very happy to have the marker lights. The G150 was a fine craft and Marc’s landing, although not as perfect as Akil’s, was smooth and without event.

Over the next few days, everyone began settling in to the primary residence which was now complete.  There was one exception, some of the electronics   items needed in the Meeting and Planning room were still being installed.  Everyone now just referred to this room as “Op’s.”  Marc and Eyan were discussing the necessities of the everyday operations of the Island’s infrastructure.  Originally the concept was for just the two of them to live there but now with the addition of the others, that vision had dramatically changed. They were now coming to the realization that flying in the needed supplies would be far too costly and restrictive.  After some brainstorming they had decided to talk to Mike.  Mike was preparing for another trip back to Honolulu when they approached him at the dock.  As usual, Mike was two steps ahead of them and had contemplated the situation as it had slowly arisen.  He knew what it would take to make the day-to-day living on the Island bearable and had formulated a proposal.  When all was said and done, he had laid down a plan for him and one other to remain on the payroll, along with Eve’s Revenge, as the re-supply ship in residence.  After both Marc and Eyan’s approval of his plan, he boarded the ship with the last three workmen and cast off the lines as he sounded the air horn.  Thirty minutes later, as the four remaining souls on Serenity stood on the balcony of the newly completed fortress; they watched Eve’s Revenge disappear at sea over the horizon.  No one said anything, but they all could sense an unusual calm that had descended upon the Island; it was now truly Serenity.

During the following week, Dara and Ara had helped with all the small things that make an ultra-modern house become a home.  Despite the overtly cold concrete and glass, it had taken on a comfortable demeanor. Two days later, around ten in the morning, the air horn on the Eve’s Revenge sounded as it entered the lagoon.  Everyone headed toward the dock to greet the ship and wanted to welcome Akil and Kai and, of course, Mike, back to the Island. Marc was also a bit curious as to which of the workers Mike had chosen to assist the group.  They were standing ready to receive the mooring ropes as Peter Johnson (everyone called him “Pete”) stepped from the side cabin doorway of the ship’s main deck.  He picked up the throw ropes, tossing them to Marc to pull the main mooring ropes ashore. Moments later, Eve’s Revenge was securely moored.  Both Akil and Kai were now standing on the fantail handing both supplies and luggage ashore.

Later that afternoon, the entire group was gathered on the main floor of the house.  The large louvered glass panels were fully open allowing the cool trade winds to circulate throughout. Marc raised his glass high saying, “I would like to welcome both Pete and Mike as permanent members of the Serenity Group. I must say, that I find it hard believe what Mike and the other men have achieved in such a short time, and also, here’s to the Group itself.” As they all raised their glasses, everyone could sense the growing bond that was developing amongst the team.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY- THREE

Darken Skies

Over the next several weeks, they all settled into a routine of daily events. Both Kai and Ara had taken on the responsibilities of most of the food preparation although everyone kicked in now and then. Mike assumed the responsibility of weather reporting for both air and sea conditions and scheduling the supply transfers for all depletable goods.  The response team of Marc, Eyan, Akil and Dara all divided their time between the Op’s room and a stringent daily workout routine.  Dara was now fully healed and was once again working on her tan.  One evening, she asked Marc if he thought a small tattoo of a rose would look nice covering her bullet wound.  His answer was, “Whatever the lady wants, is fine with me.”  Marc was becoming a husband, by osmosis, and didn’t even know it.

The rainy season was now winding down.  The days were filled with bright sunshine and an occasional brief thunder squall.  One day, Akil and Kai were in Op’s, monitoring the communications equipment, when the familiar buzzing of the Sat phone caught their attention.  Akil answered saying, “Serenity Group, Akil speaking.”  He heard a man’s voice say, “Akil, this is Martin Colby, I need to talk with Marc.  Is he around?”  Akil, said, “Martin, give me a few minutes to round him up and I’ll have him on the line.” Muting the handset, he asked Kai to find him and bring him back to Op’s.  Akil returned to the phone conversation, reassuring Martin that he would be available soon. As Marc arrived, Akil handed him the receiver.  Marc said, “Martin, it’s Marc.  What’s up?”  Martin said, “We’ve got a situation developing by the minute, Marc, and I need your whole team here ASAP.  I talked to Stiles, in San Francisco five hours ago.  I had him depart to Serenity.  He should be in your area shortly.  Can the team be ready by the time he arrives?” “What equipment will we need?” Marc asked.  Martin replied, “I’m not sure at this time, so just get here and will find what you need locally.”

At five-thirty in the afternoon, the radio in Op’s come to life; it was Stiles, asking for permission to land. At this time of year, the sun was near the western horizon as he turned on approach.  Marc keyed the radio and said, “The winds out of the east at eight to ten knots, steady, and I’m switching on the marker lights now, over.”  This was Stiles’ second landing on Serenity, but his first flying the G280.  He came back on the radio, “I’ve got the markers in sight, they’re a big help in the low light, thanks.”  Marc said, “Thank Mike, he’s the one that came up with them.”  Stiles’ reply was, “Thanks, I will.  See ya in a few minutes.”

Marc walked over to the elevator and dropped down to the tarmac level and emerged from the hanger just in time to help guide Stiles as he rolled up upon the apron of the tarmac in front of the hangar.  The G280 had a somewhat wider wingspan than the G150 and was a tight fit on the tarmac.  Stiles and Arnesto Garcia, the co-pilot, powered down the aircraft and then popped the door open and stepped down the stairs.  Everyone had already brought down their luggage needed for the trip and immediately began to stow it on the aircraft.  Mike emerged from the hanger with the electric tug and turned the craft around on the tarmac facing the runway as Pete rolled out the fuel hose and began the refueling process.  Akil and Eyan used the remaining time saying their goodbyes to Kai and Ara, and then climbed aboard the aircraft.  Both Stiles and the co-pilot were more than a bit tired, so Marc and Akil assumed the flight seats for the first leg of the trip. Four fuel stops and eighteen and a half hours later, they were on approach to Aeropuerto Barajas, Madrid.

After landing, the team and Stiles made their way to Villa De Martini to meet up with Martin.  When they arrived, Miguel Sandoval was at the main entrance to greet them.  He took them directly to Martin’s location within the villa.  As they walked into the room, Martin was at his desk talking on the phone.  Stiles asked Miguel to have some food and drinks brought to the room as they had not eaten in many hours.  An instant later, Martin finished his call, and spun around in his chair and, without so much as a hello, said, “That was Elena Brinson, and she’s my C.O.O. at Die/Hex research and development center just outside Stockholm.  Just before I called you, we experienced a hacking breach in our server bank at that location.  It’s our Intellectual Properties Development Division.  It’s a non-descript, stand-alone facility, somewhat isolated.  Before we could gear up security to respond properly, the main gate and primary entrance were breached by a highly trained assault group.  They now have control of the facility and all of the centralized data stored exclusively at that location.  Elena and I have been trying to evaluate from the security video just how many perpetrators were dealing with.  So far, it appears that there are a minimum of eight, but we can’t be sure because five of the site security cams were offline due to their hacking.”  Dara asked, “Martin, how many people work at that site?” He said, “It’s a think tank, only six were on site when the attack took place, plus two security guards.  One was at the gate, he didn’t survive and one at the main door.  We don’t know about him but it’s likely he met the same fate.  One of our security commanders found the gatemen a short while after the building was taken and called it in.  They have taken the guards’ radios and have been in touch with the security commander but, as yet, have not disclosed what they want. They did say that if anyone approaches the facility, they will kill the captives and blow up the structure.  That’s all the information we have.  I have requested the building site plans be delivered here; they should arrive here within the next hour.”

Akil stepped away and took out his cell phone and dialed his uncle.  When Ricardo answered, Akil told him they had a situation arise and would need a wide variety of support weaponry.  As usual, Ricardo’s response was, “Whatever you need of course, Akil. Shall I tell your mother you are here?”  Akil said, “No, not until this works itself out.  I’ll be back in touch as soon as we know what’s required.” He ended the call saying, “Thank you, Uncle.”

As he rejoined the group’s conversation, the door opened and one of the house attendants rolled in a serving cart covered with a variety food and drink.  The team had plenty of ground to cover, but the food was most welcome.  By the time they had ravaged the cart, Miguel walked into the room carrying the site plans that Martin had requested. As they began to look over the blueprints, it was becoming blatantly obvious – the building had been well designed.  It seemed that the only shortcoming of its design was the very method that the captors had utilized to take it – a direct frontal assault.

As they worked their way methodically through the pages of the plan, they came upon one designated “M-1,” diagraming the mechanical engineering of the structure.  At first observation, it seemed a dead end.  After further study, Akil found that two subterranean, fresh air ventilation corridors had been incorporated into the building’s design as an afterthought.  He tripped upon these after finding addendum sheet “M-2A” at the very back of the blueprints in the as built site plan updates.

Each of the corridors was about fifty yards in length; one to the north of the primary building and one to the east.  The tunnel to the north surfaced at the entrance gate road at the front of the building.  The tunnel to the east surfaced at the side of the property close to the exterior fence.  From photographs of the area, this entry point afforded the best avenue of approach.  Marc and the others had not noticed that Dara had stepped away and was now sitting down at a computer terminal.  She was using Google Earth to survey the complex from a bird’s-eye prospective.  As she zoomed in on it, the group began to gather around her in hopes of gleaning as much information about the topography as possible.  One of the primary things they noted was that landscapers had deliberately planted vegetation to conceal the vent openings; this would help serve as cover as they made their approach.

The addendum sheet stated that the internal dimensions of the ventilation corridors were thirty inches wide by twenty-four inches tall. At the end of each tunnel was a concrete riser extending two foot above ground with a steel grate at right angle to prevent both animals and or any potential ground water from entering the facility.

After a quick trip to Ricardo’s facility for collecting the necessary assault weaponry, they continued on to the airport for departure.  Stockholm was about 1,600 miles by air to the north-northeast of Madrid, just less than 4 hours’ flight time for the G280.  The aircraft sat down just after dark, and then they all proceeded to the primary headquarters for Die/Hex Corp. in Stockholm, meeting up with Elena Brinson for an update on the situation.  As Marc had expected, she was a no-bullshit, highly competent individual. Marc had come to expect this of all Martin’s personnel based upon the team’s prior dealings.  It was a short briefing, as nothing new had arisen prior to their departure from Madrid.  Elena had taken the lead and had arranged for transportation to the facility.  She also had her top security personnel set up a command post just beyond the sight and sound of the beleaguered compound’s entrance.

Martin had briefed Elena on the plan of attack by phone.  Hence, she had had the on-site security personnel remove the steel grate shielding the approach tunnel, in preparation for the event.  All this was covertly carried out to ensure that the surprise was, indeed, a surprise.  The group was now consisting of five, as usual. Stiles now joined the ranks, as with any dealings with Martin.  He had proven his worth more than once and was always welcomed by the team as a group.  Having now arrived at the makeshift command center, they were introduced to Stan Stenberg, head of the security group for the Swedish division of Die/Hex Corp.  Dara had met Stan previously when she had taken the head Security position for Martin, after the abduction of his granddaughter.  Stan more than a bit surprised at her re-emergence with the team, said to the group, “We are at your disposal, simply ask!” Looking in Dara’s direction, he added, “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Dara.” She, in return, looked directly at him and said, “It’s good to see you, too, Stan.”  All said with a pleasant smile, that Marc couldn’t help but take note of.

Stan began to bring the group up to speed on what had transpired over the past several hours, saying, “We have had only electronic communications up to this point and have not detected any visual physical movement within the facility.  They have been using the computer e-mail from an office within the compound, based on the IP address of the transmission.  It’s located here,” pointing to a second floor office on a blueprint schematic.  The office had a private external staircase down to the parking lot.  The steel-framed door had an electronic keypad and a biometric fingerprint scanner as the entrance system, no external doorknob.  Using an incased spring, it opened outwardly only, as a security measure.  There would be no quiet method to breach this entrance.

Stan had positioned his best marksman to surveil this potential exit point.  It was the only exit outside the main entrance.  The center of the structure had a forty-by-forty-foot atrium used for breaks and as a luncheon area; it was clearly depicted on the prints.  Marc was thinking, if he had designed this building for security purposes, he would have done the same. It was a concrete fortress.

Within the hour, they had donned the proper gear and taken up a position for the assault.  Stan’s armed security group consisted of himself and four other personnel. One was covering the main entrance to the facility; one was on guard watching the second level door and staircase. The other two took up positions at the entrance to ventilation shafts; one being where the team would enter the facility, and the remaining man was at the second shaft’s exit point.  All the potential exits were now under surveillance.  Stan would remain at the makeshift command center so that he could keep offsite management up to date.  He knew that communications with the team once they had entered the facility would only be possible via land line telephone or computer terminal. Their com system would not reach out of the structure due to the built-in electromagnetic shielding.  This was necessary for the onsite electronic security system.

The team slowly entered the shaft one by one.  It took fifteen minutes for them to traverse the fifty yards, and then slowly approach the end of the tunnel.  Marc, at the lead, stopped about ten feet short of the end.  He keyed his com unit three times in succession as predetermined signal for all to stop and remain quiet.  He waited ten to twenty seconds listening for any signs of life near the rectangular tunnel’s exit.  He heard nothing.  He keyed the com once more and, with a whisper, said, “I’m going in – stay put ‘til I call.”  He slithered on until he reached the metal grate shielding the entrance to the basement’s mechanical room. He stopped once more and peered into the room and, once again, listened; he could hear nothing but the mechanical drone of the air handler within the room.  He could see that the shaft emerged some distance from the floor.  He had brought a flat-edged screwdriver as a prying tool.  He was now using it to remove the fitted grate from the opening.   As the metal grate popped off, it made a grinding noise. Marc slipped the grate down the wall until it rested on the floor.  He reached into the room, grasping a large overhead plumbing pipe.   After testing it, he pulled himself out of the shaft and dropped to the floor.  After a quick surveillance of the room, he signaled the others to enter.  He tried to contact Stan to let him know of their progress so that the others on the outside would be ready when the confrontation turned offensive. However, the structures built-in safeguard preventing radio transmissions beyond the perimeter made this impossible.

As they had planned, once they exited the basement level, Stiles and Dara would move to the front stairs, and then begin to clear the upper level rooms toward the rear of the building.  Marc, Akil and Eyan would spread out on the lower level and move towards the rear stairs, covering the retreat of anyone be flushed out by Stiles and Dara from the upper level.

They moved to the top of the stairs from the basement until they reached the door. Akil was now in the lead.  At the door, Akil began to survey it for any type of rigging that may cause harm, he saw nothing. He slowly depressed the handle until the latch clicked and the door released from its mooring.  The door opened inward toward the landing at the top of the stairs.

He did a head bob, looking out, and then back, as quickly as possible.  Once again, he saw no one.  The door emerged into the main lobby at the entrance to the building.  Akil looked over at Marc; he instinctively knew what he had in mind.  Marc turned his back to him and they both did a side-step into the open lobby. They still saw nothing moving.  Just then, the com system came alive, it was a garbled transmission– someone outside saying, “Blank-blank- movement blank-blank- front- blank- the building.”  Marc heard two shots, as one of the two hit his tactical flashlight, protruding from his vest.  He realized the movement they were seeing was them and said, “Check fire!  It’s us!  We’re in the front lobby!”  Realizing the cat was now out of the bag, he turned to the doorway and ushered everyone out of the basement and into the lobby to take cover.  The second level staircase was directly across from the basement door. Both Dara and Stiles dashed directly toward them.  Akil found refuge behind the reception desk, as Eyan was back-to-back with him.

It was once again quiet and Marc was thinking – where the hell are these guys?  He heard a clicking metallic sound and then a noise that sounded like something rolling on a tile floor. He saw both Stiles and Dara dive back off the staircase in unison, as he caught a vision of the hand grenade as it rolled across the midlevel landing of the staircase above them, and exploded sending shrapnel throughout the room. Both Eyan and Marc felt some shards from the explosion, but nothing compelling enough to interrupt their task at hand.  Neither Dara nor Stiles were hit, being much closer – but lower – than the landing.   Akil was the only one with a line of sight to see the upper level landing of the staircase.  He saw a rifle barrel protruding from around the corner.  He raised his rifle horizontally and fired several rounds at the corner, but the concrete construction of the facility was unrelenting. The would-be assailant had retreated.  As of now, all of the resistance had emanated from the upper level.  Akil, looking over at Marc, motioned that he was going to the upper level with Stiles and Dara.  Marc signed off on the change of plan with a nod of his head.

As the trio now started back up the stairs, Marc and Eyan began clearing the various offices off the main lobby.  Eyan moved to the sliding glass doors and looked out into the center atrium of the building; no one there, either. They both turned toward the open office area, down the hallway in the direction of the rear of building.  They began an offensive advancement, one covering the other, as they leap frogged down the hall.

The others, now at the top of the stairs, were moving in a similar fashion.  They were clearing each office as quickly as caution would allow.  Akil was in the lead, followed by Dara with Stiles close behind, being ever-vigilant of their back door.  They moved in the opposite direction of the lower level team.  On the second level, the Director’s office occupied the floor space over the lower main lobby.  They had chosen to clear the short end of the building first, aware that the only communications had emanated from the Director’s computer from within that office.  Akil reached the door first; he stopped and moved to the left of it, waiting for the others to move into a secure position, before attempting to breach the entry.  Dara took up position on the opposite side of the door.  Stiles, still covering the rear, took cover next to the director’s assistant’s desk.  This door was the first that they had encountered that was fully closed.  Akil reached down and tested the door handle; it was locked.

He reached into his TAC pouch and extracted an OD Green package.  The pack contained some double-stranded det-cord, four walnut-sized packets of a plastic explosive, and an electronic variable twist timer. After he had affixed it to the door with the primary explosives placed in proximity to the three hinges and handle, he signaled the others to take precautions and set the timer for ten seconds and moved away briskly.  When the charge detonated, the door fell inward toward the hinged side.  He and Dara, in tactical alignment, entered the room as quickly as possible, trying not to lose the advantage of the sudden concussion of the blast.  As they entered, there were two hostiles in clear vision.  Both were still reeling from the blast and were located in Dara’s area of response.  She clearly had the advantage of both men; however, they both moved in a defensive posture.  Dara responded in kind and neutralized the potential threats.

As the smoke and adrenalin cleared the room, they scanned it for additional threats.  Stiles had taken up position just inside the imploded doorway – always vigilant of a rear assault.  Akil moved over next to one of the lifeless bodies and, upon closer inspection, he said, “Dara, look at this.”  She turned around and knelt down next to him, after a brief examination she said, in amazement, “Korean military!” The man was wearing an officer’s uniform of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea.  Just then, Akil, on the far side of the room, opened what appeared to be a closet door.  It was an executive bathroom filled with all the hostages bound and gagged.  Each had been shot in the back of their head execution style.

On the first floor, Marc and Eyan were now clearing an open office area used for data collection which occupied almost half of the remaining lower floor plan.  At the far end of the room was a wall that spanned the entire width of the building with two solid doors, one on either side.  The doors had keypad entries announcing limited access to the majority of workers.  As they moved through the room nothing appeared askew, but Eyan, approaching the back wall, noticed a wall-mounted video camera that was moving.  It was tracking Marc’s movements among the varied cubicles.  Eyan keyed his com and said, “Heads up!  I’m going to take out a camera watching you.” Marc reached up touching his earpiece com button, depressing it twice, signifying his acknowledgement.  During this pause, Eyan spotted three other cameras within the room.  He was wondering why the hell they had made such a rookie mistake, not seeing the cameras.  He fired two rounds destroying the first camera moving on to the second, requiring only one.  Marc dispatched the third unit and then, in turn, Eyan nullified the last.  Silence once again took command of the room as both men were now expecting a swift and certain retaliation.

The team upstairs heard the gunfire and responded.  Akil said, “We’re on the last few offices up here.  Do you need backup?”  As Marc reached up to key his com unit, a loud and very large explosion rocked the entire structure; this did not go unnoticed considering the concrete construction of the building.  Before Marc could respond to Akil, both key padded doors swung open wide and small arms fire flooded the room.

Outside, Stan’s command radio came to life. The sentry posted to watch the Directors exit from the second level began the chatter saying, “The explosion was at the very back of the building.  I can see a chopper approaching very fast and low on the horizon, over!”  Stan now faced a real dilemma, he needed to warn the team inside but the built-in security shell preventing both cellular and radio transmissions from within the building also prevented incoming signals.  This left but one alternative.  Stan, on the security radio, dispatched everyone outside on the ground toward the rear of the structure to try and prevent what he now thought was an aerial extraction of the perpetrators.  Stan then turned toward the entrance, grabbing his assault weapon, and moved off at a dead run.  Once within the entrance, he could hear gunfire down the hall in the direction of the open office.  He was briefly distracted by the second level team now descending the staircase to his left.  He yelled out, “We have at least one chopper inbound.”  He turned to his right and began to sprint down the hallway.  The others slowed by their tactical gear, following five or so yards behind.  Dara, trailing Akil and abreast of Stiles keyed her com and blurted out, “Guys!  Heads up!  We have more hostiles inbound on a chopper.  They may be on the ground by now.”

Marc, hearing Dara’s transmission replied, “Copy.” Both he and Eyan were more than a little busy themselves.  They were pinned down, Marc on one side of the room and Eyan on the other.  The opposing weapons fire was nothing short of overwhelming.  The only advantage they had was the cubicles affording visual security but not much physical protection.  They had both retreated back several cubicles, now only an occasional bullet penetrated the padded frames.  When Stan burst into the room, the gunfire rapidly increased.  As he scrambled to find cover, he raised his weapon as high as possible and began firing toward the doors.  One of the doors was directly in front of him and the other was diagonally across the room.  He paused for only a fraction of a second searching for desperately needed cover.  It was a fatal mistake.  In an instant, three rounds of automatic fire ripped diagonally across his torso.  He immediately folded over and fell to the floor.  Akil nearest to him, saw what had happened and stopped short of entering the room, signaling the others to take cover.

The security team outside, now only four strong, were taking machinegun fire from several men on the ground and the Chinese-made assault helicopter that had just flared out and touched down, sent a maelstrom of pebbles and debris flying in all directions.  The security detail was no match for the overwhelming firepower and the well-trained Asian fighters.

Inside, the exchange of gunfire was now equalized by the addition of the three team members.  They all began to lay down tactical arms fire, and then began moving toward the end wall.  This was aided by the fact that there was a center isle through the cubicles.  Once they were able to make it to there, it presented a safe avenue of approach to the front wall.  The team, now at the wall, split into two groups, each moving out from the center to the chosen direction.  Now that the gunfire had ceased, they could hear the chopper’s cavitating blades emanating from the doorways.  Marc keyed his com and with an almost breathless tone, said, “Time to move!  Now!”  Each team scrambled toward and through their assigned doorway at that instant.  They stormed the adjoining room but, to their surprise, it was vacant. They all quickly, but cautiously, moved toward a large gap that the blast had opened.  Marc and Eyan were the first to make it through the opening.  As soon as they broke into the daylight they were greeted by a wall of arms fire just before the chopper began to lift off.  Marc dropped down behind a small mound of rubble from the blast.  He saw the next-to-the-last man stepping up from the skid on the craft, turn and look back, he was Caucasian. Marc looked him directly in the eye.  He had a smarmy grin upon his face; it reminded him of “W,” a former President he disliked intensely.  The last soldier now boarding the craft turned around, as he sat down on the edge of the chopper flooring.  He had a long, discolored, white scar down the left side of his face that gave him a permanent frown.  He was also of Asian descent.  He began to fire his weapon back in the direction of the blast area, just as the side machine gunner ran dry of ammunition.   Marc and Eyan were the only two to clear the building through the gaping blast hole.  The others were pinned in by the intensity of the arms fire.  Marc raised up to fire his weapon but the soldier was intent on killing anything he could.  Marc, taking note of the present danger, dropped back down rolling over on his back against the rubble.  Doing this positioned him to look back toward Eyan.  He saw Eyan standing fully erect and, raising his weapon, Marc realizing that he was horribly exposed, yelled out, “Get down!!”  But then, as if time had ceased, Marc saw two bullets strike him, one in the center of his chest; Marc knew he was wearing a vest.  The second round hit almost centered on his forehead.  There was a second of disbelief, but then Marc could see a blank stare deep within his blue eyes.  They were now devoid of their natural brightness.  In a heartbeat, he knew Eyan was gone.  In reflex anger, Marc stood up and began firing at the chopper as it lifted off, his weapon exhausting the remaining ammunition.  The aircraft quickly disappeared over the tops of the surrounding forest as an eerie silence fell over the compound.  Marc had turned about and was now kneeling beside Eyan.  He reached down with his hand and closed his now lifeless eyes as the others began to emerge from the building.  Akil was first, then Dara; Stiles was close behind.  Each one grasped the full impact of the event as Marc stood up turning toward the horizon where the chopper had vanished.  No one said a word.

 

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 19 and 20

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Rocky Point

The airport at Rocky Point was truly marginal for the G150 and there was no tower control.  Akil did a low fly over, dropping the gear, formally announcing the arrival before starting his approach.  Akil was now proving to be as gifted a pilot, as he was a tactician.  The wheels touched down a mere 50 feet past the end markers of the runway and then rolled out and stopped 150 feet short of end of the strip.  Marc found this to be a bit disconcerting in a three and a half million-dollar aircraft.

The small terminal was in the process of shuttering its doors as they arrived.  The one and only worker spoke enough English for them to converse.  Marc asked if any taxis were available.  The man said the one driver had gone home for dinner, before going to work his evening shift at the Strand.  It was an area along the beach where most of the tourist hotels were located.  Then, seeing only an older VW bus parked out front, he asked the man if he would take them all to a hotel for twenty dollars, cash.  The man smiled and said, “Yes, but he could drive faster for twenty-five dollars.”  Marc, smiling, replied, “Sí, Señor, twenty-five is fair, but there is no need to drive fast.”  On the way, Marc asked him if he thought they may have trouble finding a room.”  The man said, “No, Señor.  The hotels, they are mostly empty.  We have many problems, Señor.  The drug cartels, most of the Americano’s, they stay away.  I will take you to the finest hotel in all of Puerto Peñasco, the famous Las Polomas.  My cousin, Jose, is the night manager; he will take care of all your needs, Señor.”

When they arrived at the hotel, everyone was pleasantly surprised it was as nice as any hotel they had utilized, even in Buenos Aires.  The man said that he would summon Jose and return shortly.  They had just finished unloading their baggage when the man and his taller, well-dressed cousin, appeared at the entrance to the lobby.  As they walked toward the vehicle, the cousin handed the man some paper currency.  He quickly stuffed it into his pocket saying, “Gracias.”

The taller, better-dressed man took the lead as they approached the van.  His hand was extended as he walked up, welcoming all to his place of business.  He said his name was Jose Garcia and that he was the Assistant Manager of the hotel.  As he directed them toward the entry, two bellmen came scurrying out to pick up their baggage.  Akil quickly grabbed the two bags, containing the arms and equipment, allowing the men to retrieve the rest.  At check in, Marc asked for three adjoining rooms with an ocean view, feeling confident that they would be available.  Jose said, looking down at the register said, “Mr. Bracken, if you would prefer, I have the Presidential Suite with four bedrooms available at a reduced cost, if you so desire.”  Marc glanced at everyone and then said, “That would be fine; we’ll take it.”

Later that evening, after they’d settled in and had dinner, a discussion arose on how to go about finding Carlos “El Jefe” Duarte.  They were going to need to trust someone, but whom?  None of them had any connections in the area.  Then Eyan made a “command decision,” he picked up the room phone and dialed room service.  When they answered, he ordered two bottles of the finest single-malt Scotch and tub of ice, stuffed with Coronas and a bowl of sliced limes on the side.  He said, “Who knows?  It might lubricate our creative senses,” he said, with a large smile on his face.  No one argued the point.  By midnight, the only thing left was a few ice cubes and a bowl of water.  Eyan was right about one thing – during the evening, he had jotted down a fleeting thought about the conundrum they faced.

The next morning, not so early, one-by-one, they emerged from their various bedrooms. Marc and Dara were the first to see the light of day, and then Akil ambled out.  The three were sitting out on the balcony, soaking up some vitamin D, when Eyan emerged from the patio doors franticly looking for something.  They all watched in amusement, and then Marc asked, “What’ n hell are you looking for?”  Eyan still, somewhat distracted, turned and bent over looking under a table covered with the remnants of the night before, and he saw what he was searching for.  It was a small note pad from next to the phone; the type that is common in all hotels.  He reached down, picking it up from under the table.  He stood there, scratching his forehead, trying to decipher his nearly illegible handwriting, and said, “Got it!”  Now everyone was really confused, until Eyan said, “Miguel – Miguel Tellez.  Two bits says he would know someone in Rocky Point we could trust.”

Akil, taking the lead, called Miguel Tellez right after lunch, using the direct contact cell phone number Miguel had written on the back of his business card.  When Miguel answered, Akil said, “Miguel, this is Akil Bishara.  I have found myself in need of help and I am hoping that you may be of service.”  Miguel answered saying, “It is my pleasure, Señor Bishara, and how may I help you?”  Akil extended the short story of why they were in Rocky Point, along with the problem the team faced with locating Carlos in such a small town that had large ears and many whispers.  Miguel’s answer was a surprise – even to Akil.  He said, “You do not need to worry, Señor Bishara.  I know of Carlos.  I have sold him many weapons over the years and I have been to his Rancho on more than one occasion but I am willing to tell you all that I know that may be of assistance.”  Akil, somewhat surprised by the information but at the same time thinking that this may have been a major mistake said, “Miguel, I fear I have unknowingly created a major problem for you and for your business.  I would not have chosen to ask this favor, had I known.”  Miguel said, “Señor, business decisions arise daily and you must react wisely.  Even though I have done business with Carlos many times in the past, you must realize that I have a warehouse filled with many weapons.  Most of those weapons, Señor, are courtesy of your uncle, Ricardo.  Ruiz International has always been fair and honest in our dealings.  So, you see, it is truly only a business decision I make here.”  After Miguel imparted the information about Carlos to Akil, the call terminated.   Akil, in turn, recounted it to the others as they began to plan their assault on “El Jefe.”

After dinner, Marc contacted Jose, the Assistant Manager, and asked of a car rental agency.  There were several to choose from, but Marc was looking for a full-sized Yukon /SUV.  He wanted something large enough to transport all four of them, plus the needed equipment.  Jose directed him to a Mexican-owned agency that had just such vehicles with tinted windows and other security options that were welcome.  These vehicles were reserved for VIP guests (Cartel-types) or the very rich “Norte Americanos,” as he put it.

By eight the next morning, the front desk rang the suite’s extension, announcing that the rental vehicle had been delivered and the keys were at the front desk.  By ten they were on the road north-bound, toward both the airport and Carlos’ Ranchero Del Sol.  At the airport, they made arrangements to have the Gulfstream refueled and also transferred more essential equipment from the aircraft to the truck, then resumed their trek.  When they passed the kilometer 31 marker, the next road to the west was the private entrance to the property. There was a large horseshoe-shaped sign above the entrance stating the obvious – “Welcome to Rancho Del Sol.” On one side of the sign, nailed to the upright support timber, was a smaller sign saying in Spanish. “PROPIEDAD PRIVADA SIN ENTRADA (translated “private property, no entrance”).  At least “El Jefe” had a sense of humor, Marc thought, as he drove past the entry, continuing on the highway.

While planning the excursion, Marc had scoured the Internet searching for anything that might assist them in their task.  He was able to find what appeared to be old mining roads filtering throughout the foothills just behind, and to the north, of Ranchero Del Sol. They proceeded on about two miles, when Eyan spotted the turnoff to the west toward the foothills.  They turned on to the dusty dirt road and traveled only a few hundred yards before encountering a “Y” in the road.  They veered to the left and continued on.  They were now entering some foothills and the road was beginning to resemble a roller coaster ride.  As they approached the top of a ridge, another road turned off.  It ran upward along the ridge, disappearing over a rise.  Marc turned the Yukon up the ridge, hoping to find a vantage point to observe the Rancho on the flats that lay below.  After topping the ridge that they were traversing, they pulled onto a level area between an outcropping of volcanic stone and the upper ridge.  They parked the vehicle.  Marc pulled out a pair of Nikon 16×50 Action EX series binoculars from their case.  He mounted them on a large doubled-braced tripod for stability.  Binoculars of this optical quality, when hand-held for almost any period of time can become cumbersome and difficult to hold steady.  The runway at the Rancho was fully visible with the naked eye, as was Ranchero Del Sol, at the far end of it.  Eyan, using a military-type range finder, said the structures were 1,840 meters (1.14 miles) approximately.  Marc could clearly see several men moving about the facility.  They had been observing the grounds for only twenty minutes, when they heard a small aircraft droning overhead.  The craft circled to the west, then dropped down and aligned itself with the runway.  After landing, two people exited the craft; it then spun around and accelerated down the strip, lifting off and flying out of sight to the west.

One of the first orders of business was to camouflage the Yukon; it was white with dark tinted windows.  Akil and Marc started collecting brush piling it all around and atop the vehicle.  The truck was most visible from the air, so changing its apparent shape also aided the disguise as much as covering it up.  Most likely it would not be noticed, there were many vehicles utilizing the area during the daylight hours.  But they decided not to push the envelope appearing in the same place several days in a row.

A bit later, as the sun began to move on to the west, the aircraft returned and deposited two more men.   Ten minutes after the aircraft had departed, they saw six men with rifles, plus two other men dressed in military fatigues, move out onto the runway next to the main house.  They began firing rifles at small white targets that had been placed on the opposing end of the runway.  It was very reminiscent of the prior Argentine surveillance.  As evening approached they uncovered the vehicle, broke down the equipment they had been using and stowed it in the truck, then drove back to the hotel.

After dinner they once again began to discuss the plan of attack, now understanding the logistics of the situation.  They would repeat the surveillance one more day, and then make their move to curtail this threat.  They planned to arrive on station before sunrise and drop Akil and Dara near the end of the runway.  They would each make their way up the landing strip on opposite sides to a suitable vantage point.  Both would attempt to get a head count and scout out security positions around the Rancho.  Time permitting each would assess the terrain for positions of emplacement.  These would become invaluable during the assault or perhaps a strategic retreat, if necessary; everyone would be able to communicate easily using the personal com units.  The dry, flat desert area below the observation hill offered no obstructions, this would aid in the operational function of the units.

They had arrived at the drop-off position shortly before 5:00 a.m.  The lights around the property had either been on all night or there was already early morning movement around the compound.  Marc flipped the switch controlling the interior dome lighting in the vehicle to null just before Dara and Akil exited.  Marc had removed all the lighting fuses including brake lights and then had donned night vision equipment to drive after departing the main highway. The sky was just beginning to show a glimmer of color on the eastern horizon as they continued on to the location that had been used the day before.  After arriving at that location, they set up the equipment necessary for the day’s observation.

Akil was the first of the two in position; he was able to use a dry sandy wash that ran perpendicular along the runway and was on the far side of the runway from the main house.  Dara was still in transit when Marc keyed his com unit for a communication check.  Akil reported that he was in position and was concealed from both ground and air.  Marc then said; “Buddy Two, are you tucked away?”  Buddy Two was Dara’s call sign.  There was a pause, and then Dara slightly out of breath said, “I need about five, get back to you then.”  Marc said, “Just checking the com.”  For a millisecond, Marc realized it was reassuring hearing her voice.  He was now realizing that this had grown into much more than infatuation.  The sun was about to rise as Dara found her niche, tucked back under a pile of mesquite, about fifty meters from the parking area at the back entrance to the main house.  She keyed her com unit and said, “OK.  I’m settled in.  If you can see the fuel tank next to the runway, I’m near it, so don’t get trigger happy, por favor,” expressing her rudimentary Spanish.  Marc keyed his com twice in reply.  For the next few hours, both Dara and Akil continued to enhance their natural cover, moving small branches and un-rooting surrounding brush.  They also exchanged their exact positions seeking to avoid cross-fire if a firefight were to erupt.

Eyan, up on the hill, broke out the M-107 -.50 caliber (LRSR) – long-range sniper rifle – and loaded several clips with M1022 ball ammo / matched standard sniper issue.  He also loaded one clip with the MK211 armor-piercing incendiary type ammunition and marked it with a piece of black electrical tape.  Then he placed the rifle on a broad-surfaced rock, overlooking the Rancho.  Marc had been busy trying to count heads as a backup using the hi-powered binoculars.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., the small aircraft was once again overhead on approach.  But this time after landing, it taxied over close to Dara’s position next to the re-fueling tank and shut down the engines.  The pilot, the sole occupant, tied off the wings to some embedded metal rings on the ground and then, after refueling the aircraft, walked off toward the main house.  Marc was thinking that they may have finished ferrying everyone into the Rancho location, based on this observation.  Dara’s location was less than twenty meters from the aircraft.  But she was extremely well-camouflaged utilizing the natural brush and cacti.  Thirty minutes later, several men emerged from the bunkhouse with rifles and equipment making their way out onto the dirt landing strip. For the next two hours, the eleven men took turns firing at the white targets alongside the far end of the runway.  As usual, two of the men wore military-style fatigues and were obviously instructing the others.  As Dara observed them, she felt something on the back of her right calf.  She turned her head slowly back, looking over her right shoulder from the prone position she had taken.  She had to fight her first reaction to flee as she saw a four-foot long Diamondback rattlesnake.  It was slowly slithering over and up between her legs, and then stopping with it head resting in the nape of her left knee.  About this time, the men had stopped firing and were busy picking up their brass from the expended rounds, removing it from the runway.  They all began to move back toward the Rancho.  Dara was now beginning to perspire profusely.  She could feel the snake moving between her legs, expanding as it coiled up to strike.  Her mind was racing, but she had no answers.  There was simply no way she could avoid what, at this point, was the inevitable.  She remained perfectly still, but her muscles were tense, now beginning to quiver.  The snake remained totally quiet, and then she felt it raise its head off the back of her knee.  She felt a jerking motion on both legs.  The brush on her left rustled; then she heard twigs snap as the snake struck!  Knowing she couldn’t use a firearm, she instinctively reached for her vest knife to fend off another attack, just as she realized she hadn’t been struck or she didn’t feel it?  She turned her head this time back to the left, catching a glimpse of the outstretched rattler.  The perspiration now in her eyes was affecting her vision; she blinked twice – then three times – before she could see clearly an image.  The snake’s mouth was wide open and had ceased pumping all of its venom into a rather plump kangaroo rat indigenous to the area.  Realizing that the snake was temporarily defenseless with its mouth full, Dara retrieved her vest knife and then, with one swift motion, severed the snake’s head.  The snake’s body began to twist violently, a normal neuro-reflex, like a chicken reacting to a similar fate.  The sound emitted in this instance was that of the snake’s tail rattle.  She grabbed for it, securing it, only after several attempts to cut it off.  The sound had attracted the attention of several of the trainees.  As they turned and walked in her direction, one of El Jefa’s Mexican guards cautioned them not to, calling them back.  All she could do was remain still and take a deep breath.

Unlike Argentina’s summer time, this was the northern hemisphere and it was mid-February – winter at this latitude.  The evening came early.  By 5:30 p.m., the team was meeting up in darkness on the road just off the end of the runway by a few hundred meters.  They returned to the hotel and conferred on the events of the day.  Dara was more than a bit reluctant to relate her experience of the day and the snake.  After a few drinks and some prodding, she tossed the rattle on the table, saying, “He was a little more intimate than I cared for,” explaining her experience in detail to the others.  They were all ribbing her, but each and every one of them knew it could have been a fatal event under these circumstances.  That night after retiring, Marc and Dara renewed their affection several times before drifting off to a very restful sleep.

Early the next morning, they all opted for room service – breakfast in the suite.  One of the first things Marc said was, “If we hit the Rancho during daylight hours, most likely it wouldn’t draw much attention” – considering what they had observed over the past several days.  Akil said, “As remote as the Rancho is, my vote would be for a night assault; it wouldn’t be out of the question at all.” Akil was an excellent tactician.  After a protracted discussion, the team decided a night assault would offer the best chances for success.  Dara was fully on board, knowing that the snakes were less active in the cool of the nighttime air.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

Take Your Best Shot

They reassessed their equipment for the assault.  Akil immediately called Miguel Tellez in Mexicali and set up a delivery of the needed items such as additional night vision equipment.  The most important items were the full-assault body armor.  The supplies were to arrive at the airport around 5:00 that afternoon; they could swing by and pick them up on the way to the Rancho.

That afternoon, they collected all their items at the hotel.  If all went as planned, they would not be returning.  Marc paid the hotel bill and made arrangements for the rental vehicle to be picked up at the airport after they had departed.

When they reached the airport, Victor Ramirez, Miguel’s associate and corporate pilot, was waiting, as the team pulled up next to the Piper Navajo Twin.  Akil stepped out and greeted Victor with a handshake, as Victor’s associate, Felix, began unloading the equipment from the craft.  Victor said, “Miguel instructed me to add an item to the delivery at no charge, Señor. It is a toy, perhaps one you may find very handy – that is, if one should wander into harm’s way.”  Victor was sporting a large smile as he turned and said, “Felix, would you hand me Señor Bishara’s gift?”  Felix quickly retrieved an odd-shaped, white-woven sack, and then handed it to Victor.  He opened it, reached in, and pulled out a rotary-fed, 20-round, 12 ga. shotgun.  To Victor’s surprise, Akil said, “A Striker 12.  I didn’t think that Pxico would have these on the shelf.  What ammo is available?”  Victor replied saying, “Of course, we have high-base shells, but we also carry Terminator X, slug /pellet.  I brought ten boxes of each – they’re in the blue-and-green striped case we just unloaded.  Akil once again shook Victor’s hand and thanked him, saying, “Please be sure to convey my gratitude to Miguel and tell him I only hope to have the chance to return the gesture someday.”

After transferring the last of the items, they moved the Yukon over next to the G150 and dropped off their personal items. They were running ahead of schedule, so Akil doubled-checked that the fuel tanks had been topped off.  Akil and Marc together did a full ground check on the aircraft knowing that they may need to make a speedy departure.  It appeared a bit dusty but none the worse for wear.  The weather was calm, a light breeze off the Gulf – around five mph with scattered cumulus.  There were no signs of rain, either visually, or looking at the aircraft’s radar.

They pulled out from the airport and turned north toward the Rancho.  Akil was busy stuffing the five-drum Striker magazines with different ammunition.  The Striker 12 was formidable close-range weapon.  One pull of the trigger, if held, could dispense 20 rounds of lethal ammunition.  The Terminator X was like a 40-caliber slug headed up with buckshot. When it hits something malleable, it flattens out to approximately two inches in diameter. This causes an entry wound the size of a grapefruit, with the kinetic energy of a small canon ball.

Fifteen minutes later, Marc turned off the blacktop highway, onto the dirt road and traveled 100 meters, then stopped the vehicle.  Everyone stepped out and put on their tactical gear and then checked out their NVG’s – night vision goggles – and inserted the magazines in the respective weapons and chambering a round.  Marc popped open the hood of the Tahoe and removed the vehicle’s lighting fuses once more.  The sun had disappeared into the west and the sky was cloudless.  The stars were bright enough to cast shadows.  Marc was now wishing it was overcast. The night vision equipment was so efficient that, even with full adjustment, the contrast was a bit overwhelming under these conditions.

A few minutes later, they arrived at the predetermined location.  It was a sandy wash intersecting the road, about 200 meters from the end of the runway.  Marc backed the truck up the wash just far enough as to not be seen from the dirt road.  He popped the hood once more, replacing the single fuse to the headlights.  He wanted the ability to use them if he needed to.

The primary objective was to try and take captive one or both of the military types that had been training the others.  But based upon the previous encounter, they all knew this would be a fifty-fifty chance at best.  As they waited in the vehicle, they mentally walked through their plan.  Akil and Dara were discussing their movements and paths of the day before, trying to determine which offered the best concealment for the evening’s assault.  Several hours had passed, when Eyan exited the vehicle, walked up upon the ridge next to the wash, and began observing the Rancho using binoculars.  When he returned, he said, “There’s little or no movement at all down there and only a couple lights are on.”  Marc replied, “OK, this is as good a time as any; let’s move out.”

It was a few minutes after midnight when they donned their weapons then moved out in tactical formation, using 5-meter spacing.  Marc was on point, then Akil and Dara, with Eyan watching the back door.  They chose to move up the side that Dara had taken the day before.   It offered the most protective cover as they approached the bunkhouse.  As they moved next to the elevated fuel tank next to the aircraft, Akil checked the plane out, making sure that no one was in it.  He also made a mental note that the ignition key had been left in the aircraft.  Not many people would steal an airplane from a known drug cartel.

They were now at the edge of the clearing.   Thirty meters of open ground lie between them and the closest cover – the carport.  One by one they crossed the exposed area without detection.  After regrouping between the vehicles, Marc signaled everyone to switch over to their Glocks, with sound suppressors; he was hoping to retain the element of surprise as long as possible.

As Eyan had said earlier, there were very few lights on around the Rancho. Marc wasn’t sure if this was a blessing or a curse, until the power was cut. Even with limited lighting, it would be too much light for the night vision equipment to be at its optimum.

It was time to move.  Marc was stepping out from behind Carlos’s Jeep moving toward the bunkhouse, when Akil reached up grabbing a strap of his tactical vest, pulling him back into the shadows.  One of Carlos’s henchman guards was rounding the outside wall of the pool patio.

Akil, as the second tactical position, saw the man first.  It was his responsibility to cover for the person ahead while advancing.  Akil raised his Glock and fired, but his first attempt at a head shot was a millimeter high, parting the man’s scalp and shredding his baseball cap.  At 20-plus meters, wearing NVGs, a silenced Glock is not your optimum weapon of choice.  With his ego slightly bruised, his second round found its mark, sounding a bit like a hammer striking a coconut.  Marc had turned to Akil, nodding his head in appreciation, as he retreated back to the vehicles and crouched down between them with the others.  They were all reacting to the first contact – a sudden increase in heart rate due to the influx of adrenalin.  They were primed and ready, but there was no response.  No lights had switched on, nor were any doors apparently opened.

After a brief period of time, Marc said, “One down and, if our count is right, fourteen remain around the compound.  We think the two men we’re looking for are bedding down in the main house.  Akil and I will work it; you two set up and cover the doors to the bunkhouse.  First order of business is to shut off the main power breaker at the service entrance.  Once we put this place into darkness, we gain the advantage.”  The electric wires to the main house were overhead, and dropped from a power pole on the south side of the building, the direction from which the dead guard had appeared from.  Eyan looked at Dara and said, “I’ll get the main breaker; you watch the bunkhouse until I return.”  Dara, nodding her head in agreement, turned toward the building, just as Marc and Akil set out across courtyard between the carport and the patio pool entrance.  Once they had entered the gated pool area, Eyan began his trek to the far side, toward the service entrance.  Dara moved around to the back of the parked Jeep and positioned herself. From this location, she had an excellent vantage point of both the Bunkhouse and the patio exit gate from the pool.

As Eyan passed by the guard that Akil had shot, he started to reach down to check for vitals, but changed his mind when he saw a massive head wound.  He continued on around the exterior of the house to his assigned task.  Marc and Akil had moved around the edge of the pool into the shadow of the patio fence at the back of the house.  They were now waiting for the lights to go out.  The only light around the patio was from the pool light.  A moment later, the light blinked and then went out.  Marc and Akil had taken up positions adjacent to each other at the back entrance of the house.  They both pulled down their night vision goggles and prepared for the impending flurry.  The first thing they noticed was someone cursing loudly in Spanish, as the French door clicked, and then swung wide open.  Carlos’s cousin, Rafael, wearing only men’s boxers, and holding a nine-millimeter pistol in his left hand, stepped from the doorway.  He was oblivious to both Marc and Akil as he reached out, seeking his way in the darkness around the pool.  Akil slipped up behind him silently, reached around with his right hand grasping his chin firmly and bracing his left arm across his back and then, with a swift, fluid motion, pulling his head to the right, snapping his neck.  The move was silent, but as deadly as a Guillotine.  His gun made the only sound, as it dropped into the pool and sank to the bottom.

From Dara’s position, the tiny incandescent light bulb mounted next to the doorway of the bunkhouse also blinked out.  She was now sharing her observations between that doorway and the corner of patio fence to her right, which should be Eyan’s egress from taking down the power supply.  The NVGs were much more effective sans the artificial light.  Eyan approached the corner with caution.  After looking to see if his actions had primed the hornet’s nest, he moved on toward Dara’s position, 20 meters ahead.  As he approached the far end of the carport, several shots rang out.  Eyan was hit and was spun around as he rolled into the cover of the vehicles under the structure.  One of the disadvantages of NVGs, as opposed to normal vision, was that, depending upon the setting, the field of view could be restrictive.  Dara had not seen the man on the roof of the bunkhouse because of this.  The flash from the muzzle drew her attention.  The shooter on the roof was fully exposed; standing on the edge of the parapet as she returned fire, switching from the 9-mil to the automatic rifle.  There were now three accounted for, as the rooftop shooter fell to the ground.

Eyan began searching his leg for the injury, but to no avail.  He then realized that although he had felt the impact, he had not felt the sting.  This is usually a sign of a traumatic wound.   He bent his right leg up as he sat and began to inspect his lower foot.  What he found was a boot without a heel, prompting a vast sigh of relief.

Marc and Akil were now in the main house.  The first room they entered was large, even by the standards of a living room.  They moved across the room and turned right down a hallway. The events to come were somewhat easy to read.  The two knew that some, or all of the people, had heard the gunshots from the courtyard and were either gearing up to respond, or fumbling around in the dark, trying to take stock of the situation.  The stairs to the second level were on the right side of the hallway.  Marc started up them slowly and as quietly as possible. At mid-point of the stairway, Marc’s head was even with the floor of the second level. He paused, looking over the stair banister at Akil, who was now moving onward up the ground level hallway.  As he returned his attention to the stairway, he detected movement on the landing just ahead of him.  He raised his Glock to fire, and then saw a woman holding a glass, wearing nothing but panties, descend the blacken stairway.  She appeared to be clueless about the events in motion.  Now – shattering the silence – came several shots from below.  The woman froze where she stood on the staircase just above him.  Marc, still able to see up the lower hallway as he bent over, could see Akil still advancing.  He turned his attention back toward the woman only to see a burst of automatic gunfire from behind her light up the entire staircase.  In an instant, multiple bullets hit Marc’s Kevlar vest after passing through the girl.  The kinetic energy of the bullets propelled her body down the stairs colliding with Marc’s.  The impact pushed Marc backwards to the bottom of the stairs, dislodging his NVGs, and thrusting him into total darkness. Now he was at a severe disadvantage.  The goggles had intensified the flash from the automatic weapons fire.  He was now flat out on his back lying on the floor gasping for air.  The girl’s body was on top of him, and his natural night vision was nil, due to the flash from the weapon.  The assailant now possessed the high ground and the advantage of knowing the floor plan of the structure.  He also had displayed no compunction about using his weapon in total darkness.

Marc’s first inclination was to push the woman’s body away and get to his feet.  At this instant, he was still struggling to get a deep breath. He had taken both secondhand bullets to the chest.  Several more shots were fired up the hallway toward Akil’s position.  The muzzle flash from the hallway was just enough that Marc could see the man slowly coming down the stairs. His attention seemed garnered by the gunfire in the lower hallway.  It was clear the man realized he shot the girl, but hadn’t seen Marc standing behind and below her.  Marc’s Glock was ripped from his hand as he tried to resist going down the stairs.  He was now searching for his backup Glock G26 sub-compact strapped to his right leg, without jostling the woman’s body, and drawing attention to the movement.

Akil was now fully engaged up the hall.  He had come upon two men occupying a front bedroom.  He was trying to take down the second of the two, but was having difficulty with limited cover, as he returned fire in the confines of the hall.  Marc keyed his com and said, “Akil!  Watch your six; I’m not sure I can cover it.”  Marc was still struggling to find his backup piece as the man was approaching the bottom of the stairs. Marc could hear him in the darkness.  The man was stripping a depleted magazine from his weapon and replacing it.  Just then, Marc’s index finger made contact with the holster snap of the G26.  He reached slightly farther and released the pinch-strap buckle; knowing this method would be nearly silent.  Akil was now about to finding himself in a crossfire situation with no escape route.  Marc freed his pistol and waited for the next shots up the hallway hoping for a silhouetted target.  As Marc raised the G26, steadying himself, a blast from Akil’s Striker 12 hit the man, now standing at the bottom of the stairs above Marc. The man’s torso was propelled over the top of Marc and the lifeless body of the girl, now beside him.  Before he realized what was happening, three other blasts rang out illuminating the hallway like a strobe light, then dead silence.  Marc’s com unit clicked then came to life.  He heard Akil saying, “Well, are you going to lay there and take a nap, or give me a hand?” Akil, still having the use of his NVG’s, retrieved Marc’s equipment on the floor then handed them to him.  Once Marc had reclaimed his composure and put on his NVG’s he turned toward Akil to see him adjusting the sling strap on the Striker 12. Akil said, looking at Marc, “I was so busy with those two in the front bedroom; I forgot I had this slung over my back.  They didn’t give me a choice, but I think they were the two we wanted to take alive.”  They then resumed clearing the main house room by room.

Eyan and Dara had their hands full outside at the bunkhouse.  Dara was scanning the roofline of the building as Eyan found a position of cover, bringing his attentions into focus.  Several of the men had exited the bunkhouse taking up covered positions, while Dara was preoccupied with the man firing from the roof at Eyan.  Two of the men that had exited the bunkhouse had moved behind it and were now trying to flank the carport position using a ravine to the left.  The carport’s side was edged with an adobe wall three-feet high and one and a half wide. Both Eyan and Dara were now huddled behind it returning fire.  Eyan using his com said, “Marc, are you two still in the house?” Marc answered, “Affirmative.”  Eyan said, “Stay there!”  He rolled over and around with his back against the adobe wall, his legs sprawled out.  Then he opened a tactical belt pack and extracted two high explosive fragmentation grenades.  He put one in each hand placing his index and second finger over the spoons then turned to Dara, as he held out the grenades, she pulled the pins.  Eyan rolled to his left away from Dara, but still behind the wall, toward the front of the carport.  He looked back, nodding his head to her.  Dara raised her assault rifle just above the wall, pointed it in the direction of the current resistance then pulled the trigger.  He released the grenade spoons then counted to five. The thirty-round clip in Dara’s weapon was near exhaustion as he rolled to his knees and discarded both grenades using a sidearm motion, once again displaying the advantages of being ambidextrous.  He dropped down quickly, utilizing the protection of the adobe wall.  Dara was busy exchanging magazines in her rifle as the grenades exploded.  A flurry of gunfire erupted to the left and behind their position.  Eyan was covered from the fire by the vehicles, as he saw Dara’s body tense up, then go limp, as she was hit several times.  Eyan did a bob, up and down, looking over the wall.  It looked clear, toward the bunkhouse.  He moved around the front of the pickup truck, in between it and the Jeep, about midway between the two vehicles.  He rose up slowly.  There were two men moving toward him and Dara, talking in Pakistani.  It was the same open area used earlier by them in their approach.  Eyan now glanced back, looking toward the bunkhouse.   One man was now emerging from the doorway looking dazed and confused.  Eyan stood up, stepped forward and turned back toward the two approaching from the ravine and opened fire, taking both down in the midst of their conversation.  He spun around as a second man was emerging from the structure, and he repeated his prior performance with the two now before him.  He sprinted out from between the vehicles and moved to Dara’s side. He reached down placing his hand on her neck searching for a sign of life.  She was not responsive to his touch at all.  There was blood on both her right hip and thigh and all around her neck and right temple area.  Eyan turned her around propping her up against the adobe wall, elevating her head slightly.  He then set out toward the bunkhouse.

Marc and Akil had cleared the second level of the main house and were now back downstairs going through the finite nooks and crannies.  Eyan’s voice broke the virtual silence over their com unit saying, “Marc! Dara’s down, she’s not responsive, but she has a pulse.  She’s been hit at least twice, maybe more, I can’t tell.  She under cover but I’ve got to move on to the bunkhouse.”

This was something that Marc had thought about when running scenarios.  He knew this was a real possibility for any of them, but had pushed it to the back of the line, choosing to deal with it if it presented itself.  Now it was here, in his face, chewing on his psyche like an indelible force.  He also knew that the only way to handle the situation was to move forward and take care of the business at hand, only then could he help her.  The kitchen was now the only area left to clear as he and Akil entered from opposite doorways finding an empty room.  They started to move out toward the rear of the house when they both heard a muffled droning sound, like someone talking in the next room. They began moving around the room symmetrically until they realized the voice was coming from within the kitchen island.  Marc began to search for a catch or perhaps a disguised handle on the cabinetry of the island.  Akil, moving around it, noticed a pattern of worn Saltillo tiles on one edge of the free standing island.  He snapped his finger twice drawing Marc’s attention, and then pointed down at the tail-tale marks upon the floor.  Marc, laying his weapon on the island cabinet, started to push first one way then the other, as it began to give way.  It was surprisingly silent as it began to slowly slide to the side, exposing a stairway down to a basement level.

As Eyan approached the door to the bunkhouse another man was attempting to exit the doorway.  Eyan raised the modified Browing12-gauge to chest height and pulled the trigger several times. The man was propelled back into the building as abruptly as he had appeared.  Eyan, reaching the doorway, retrieved a grenade from his bag of tricks and now was standing with his back to the adobe structure.  He pulled the pin and back-handed it through the entrance.  Because he was still using the NVG’s, he closed his eyes, avoiding the extreme flash of the ordinance.  As soon as the concussion of the explosion had ceased, he entered the doorway and searched for any and all movement, but saw none.  He paused for a short while, being vigilant, then retreated to Dara’s position.   As he knelt down by her side, she reacted to his presence, flailing both hands in a defensive reaction, only stopping when she heard his voice saying, “Dara, its Eyan!”  Her vision was severely hampered due to the blood from the head wound.

Akil had won the coin toss as to which one would descend the staircase first.  The Striker he was carrying was the real vote getter.  The NVG’s were once again proving to be invaluable.  From down below, a voice rang out boldly in Spanish, the English translation was, “Are you crazy in the head?  Do you know who I am?”  Carlos’s voice then reverted to a more normal tone as he ended the phone call he had been on.  Akil, now almost to the bottom of the staircase, looked to the right across the pitch black room.  At first he saw nothing but an instant later he heard shuffling steps on the concrete floor.  Shifting his head in a different direction, an image appeared from behind a large water heater.  The man was leveling an Uzi strapped to his shoulder.  Akil, deciding not to wait for an invitation, began pulling the trigger of the Striker.  The echo within the confines of the basement was deafening as both weapons engaged one another.  Seconds later, the gas water heater exploded in a bellow of blue flame.  The concussive force was more than strong enough to eliminate the threat that Carlos posed.  Akil, also reeling from the blast, turned and retreated up the stairs bracing his body with his arms as he did so.  Marc reached down to assist him as he emerged from the pit.  The kitchen was near the front entrance of the house.  Akil had lost his NVG’s in the scramble; Marc was now his guide as they made their way to, then out, the front door.  Smoke was now beginning to escape from the house as they made their way around the side toward the bunkhouse.  As they cleared the side of the building, Marc could see Eyan kneeling down at Dara’s side.  He switched his com on and said, “Eyan, how bad is it?” as they pushed on to their position.  Eyan, looking up, said to Marc, “She’s took one just above her hip, and another grazed her right temple.  I’ve stopped the bleeding at her hip – it’s a muscle hit – but the head’s not so easy.”  As he tore open a pack containing a syringe of anesthetic, and used it around the hip wound.

Akil broke off from Marc as they moved past the bunkhouse.  Using a flashlight, as he entered the structure he quickly scanned the room for any movement.  He saw none.   As he moved across the room he spotted a map on the wall with several marked locations.  He ripped it down and rolled it up as he continued searching.  He had just turned to leave when he saw a laptop computer upon an unmade bed.  He retrieved the computer as he made his way out and back to the others.  Dara was unable to walk. Marc decided they would take turns carrying her.  Eyan helped her to her feet, and then Marc took her over his shoulder and started toward the truck.  After crossing the opening to the edge of the runway, Akil remembered the aircraft and the keys were in the ignition.  He stopped and said, “I don’t think Carlos will have much need of this plane–what say, we use it?”  The house was now starting to emit flames along with the smoke as they loaded Dara into the craft as Akil disconnected the tie downs.  Once they were all aboard, Marc, handing his NVG’s, to Akil, said, “You have much more current flight experience; I’ll leave this one to you.”  Akil had a slight smile upon his face as he reached out and began flipping switches and adjusted the carb setting as he started the aircraft’s engine.

Several minutes later, they were airborne circling around back toward the main airport and the G150.  The Rancho was now fully engulfed in flames as Marc looked down upon it.  Ten minutes later, they were rolling to a stop at the airport.  They had done all the preflight checks earlier in the day on the G150 so they rapidly moved Dara to the Gulfstream and made her as comfortable as possible.  As soon as Marc felt the rotation of the aircraft skyward, he called Jose, the night manager at the hotel, and told him to add $500 to the bill if he would take care of the truck they had left in the desert.  Jose was more than happy to help.  Akil meanwhile was busy clearing channels for their flight into Scottsdale, Arizona’s municipal airport.  It was five minutes away from the Mayo Clinic of the Southwest, and less than an hour flight time, from their current location.  As the sun was starting to glimmer in the eastern sky, the G150 was on final approach in Scottsdale. An ambulance had been called and was waiting in the early morning light.

It was almost lunch time when the doctor approached the three of them with information as to Dara’s condition.  When he asked who the family member was, all three spoke up at the same time.  With some reluctance he said, “The wound to her side was superficial, muscular only, no organs or arteries involved.”  He went on to say, “Now, the injury to the head – we need to give it a little more time.  She’s had what amounts to a severe concussion and between the two wounds the blood loss was significant.  Her brain is displaying some swelling but she’s in excellent physical condition. This should help, but the brain doesn’t take lightly to being pushed around.  The next 24 to 36 hours will most likely tell us the answer.”

They checked into a resort near the hospital.  In Scottsdale, no one knows how to spell “hotel.”  Everything is either a Spa or a Resort.  The hospital had agreed to call if she regained consciousness, or if other events arose. They all had something to eat and then tried to crash for a while before regrouping at 10:00 p.m. for some dinner.  Marc was having a hard time going to sleep; he was finding it extremely difficult to free his mind from Dara’s current endangerment.  He had set the alarm on his phone; it was now 9:00 p.m. and it was vibrating on the nightstand.  He reached over, grasping it, and then silenced it.  As he sat up on the edge of the bed, he was truly wondering if he had slept at all.  His body was screaming at him in no uncertain terms.  Everything from his head to his toes was pleading for more rest.

At dinner, Eyan’s first question was to ask if Marc had heard from the hospital. Marc, looking at him with a frown, shook his head saying, “Nothing.”  Eyan answered saying, “Well, I’ve spent some time on the computer that Akil requisitioned from the bunkhouse.  It just doesn’t make sense, there’s got to be more to the story than I’m seeing.”  Both Marc and Akil’s attention was piqued, but neither had revisited the event since getting aboard the G150.  Marc, asked Eyan, “What the hell were they up too?”  Eyan’s reply was, “As far as I can tell they originally planned a synchronized attack, using their rifles to explode propane canisters at twenty or more locations.  All this was to happen in metro areas of large cities around the southwest. But, did they really think this would create havoc?”  After a moment Marc said, “I’ve seen these propane exchange centers.  They’re at almost every home center or hardware, and some grocery stores have them sitting at their front door.  How large of an explosion would ten or fifteen, 20-pound tanks going off at once, cause?” When they began doing the math, the blasé attitude Eyan had displayed faded. 200 to 300 pounds of propane, when ignited, could easily take down the entire frontal structure of a large building.  The fragmentation of the compressed steel tanks would send metal shards hurtling throughout the parking area. It would be similar to a bucket full of grenades, but with much larger fragments and a fireball fifty to seventy yards wide, taking out whatever fire prevention measure that was incorporated within the structure.

There was a moment of silence Marc said, “We need to get this information to Jon Meeks. He held up his part of the contract, so let’s give him a heads-up.”  After returning to Marc’s room, he dug out the Sat phone he had retained from the mission and retrieved Jon’s contact information, then pushed the send button.  The call was answered; however, it was not Jon Meeks.  The man answering said, “This is a restricted number, and your equipment is no longer authorized to access it, I must ask you to disconnect and do not utilize this number in the future.”  Before the connection was disconnected, Marc said, “Jon Meeks, please.” There was an extended pause; the man responded, “Do you have a response ID code number or not, sir?” Marc’s answer was, “I have information that may affect national security.  This information is for Jon Meeks only.  Now, you can get him on the line, or suffer consequences that you really don’t want nor need.  Am I making myself clear?”  Once again, the line fell silent; the man was obviously consulting a superior.  When he came back on the line he said, “Mr. Meeks is not locally available to take this call but a message will be conveyed.  Can you be reached at this number?”  Marc said, “Yes, 24/7.  Just tell him two words – first, ‘Serenity,’ – then, ‘Carlos.’” Then, he disconnected the call.  Marc knew they had the phone number.  The Sat unit he was using had to be specially coded to access the number he had called.  No more than ten minutes had passed when the phone began to emit a buzzing sound, indicating an incoming call.  Marc answered saying, “Bracken speaking.”  Jon Meeks replied, “Jesus, Marc! That was quite a mess you left in Mexico.  There was nothing left but a pile of charcoal and bodies everywhere.  When we landed the chopper, we had less than five minutes on the ground before then we saw the Federales coming up the road and had to vacate.  I’m not even going to ask how you beat us there but, more importantly, where are you and did you find out what the hell this is all about?”  Marc filled him in on their current location and also said that Dara had taken a couple rounds.  Then they agreed to meet up at the hotel in four hours so that Meeks could debrief the team.  He also asked Jon to get the locals off their back concerning Dara’s gunshot wounds; given there was a city policeman sitting at her door, waiting for her to regain consciousness.  The others had given their statements after landing.

Within the hour, the team returned to the hospital.  The information was not good.  The neurosurgeon overseeing Dara said that he had induced a coma when she began showing signs of consciousness.  This was necessary because her brain swelling had not subsided.  The tranquility of the coma was the preferred form of treatment and the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours would be a crucial time.  He did say that it was good that she was showing signs of naturally regaining consciousness.  After being reassured that the hospital would contact them if her status changed, they returned to the hotel to meet with Meeks.

They all were now about 180˚ out of sleep cycle, including Meeks, playing catch-up behind them.  The sun was beginning to illuminate the eastern sky as Jon arrived at Marc’s suite at the hotel.  As they began to discuss the turn of events since leaving Southern Argentina, Jon was more than a bit interested in the efficiency of Serenity’s ability to track the Pakistanis to Mexico.  When asked, Marc said, “Is that as important as the outcome, or do you want to know why and what for?”  At that point, Eyan produced the computer that had been liberated from the Rancho and set it up.  After reviewing some of the information that they had rendered, Jon was nearly as perplexed as Eyan had been earlier that evening.  Then Jon, as if a magic light switch had been thrown, keyed in on the true potential and devastation of the plan.  Marc could see Jon’s mind start rolling out scenarios, as he fumbled for his encrypted Sat phone within his coat pocket.  He switched it on and hit a single button autodial.  When connected, he said, “My authentication code is Alpha, X-ray, 3660.  I am requesting a condition yellow alert.  Secondary I.D. code to follow,” He began punching in a sequence of numbers and letters, and then ended the call.  He stood up, turning to Marc saying, “Thanks,” as Eyan disconnected the computer and handed to him.  Before going out the door, he stopped, turned and said, “I wish Dara the best of luck, and we’ll pick up the tab. I’ll make sure of that. Oh – and one more thing – even if no one else will say it.  Thanks for caring about what these assholes were up to and doing what was right.”   Before he departed he wrote a contact number on the back of a piece of paper then handed it to Marc, closing the door behind him. Marc and Eyan, once being in the stream of the inner intelligence circle, felt the implications of Jon’s sentiment.  Akil, could only sense their appreciation.  Eyan and Akil headed back to their rooms, Marc returned to the hospital.

Over the next 24 hours, Marc sat at Dara’s side, sometimes holding her hand and other times just sitting and talking to her as if they were normally conversing.  As the sun was setting on the second day, the doctor came into the room and said, “The swelling has subsided enough where we’re going to wake her up and see what happens.”  This was evoking both hope and trepidation within Marc.  He had made a silent pledge with himself to take care of her, regardless of the outcome of the event.

Several hours later, Dara began to exhibit signs of consciousness.  She first moved her leg, catching his attention.  Then twenty minutes later, she rolled her head from one side of the pillow to the other.  As the daylight was filling the room from an unshaded window, Dara’s eyes began to open, at first almost imperceptibly; she then blinked and began to try to focus.  Marc reached out and picked up a call button attached to the side of her bed and pressed it so hard it ceased to return to its natural state.  At first a nurse responded, followed by a doctor on floor duty.  Marc stood back as the room came alive with activity.  As Dara began to be aware of her surroundings, she became more agitated and started to once more show signs of panic as she had when reacting to Eyan in Mexico.  Marc, seeing this reaction, moved into sight, edging others aside until he was directly in her vision and placing both his hands on the sides of her face said, “Dara – it’s OK – it’s me. It’s over.”   The look upon her face slowly faded from intense fear, to confusion, then to recognition, as he gently kissed her forehead.
Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 17 and 18

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

South, To Argentina

After making their way from Serenity to Buenos Aires in the G150, they checked into a hotel on outskirts of the city.  Marc placed a call to the contact number he was given.  A meeting was set for the early morning at the team’s location.  The next morning, Ashton and Arnesto, the co-pilot, after saying goodbye, departed for Jorge Newberry International Airport to catch their commercial flight back to Madrid.  All the others began to assemble in Marc and Dara’s room just before 6:00 for the briefing.   Before long, there was a knock at the door.  Marc looked through the observation portal.  He saw one man standing outside, glancing side to side, as he waited for the door to be answered.  Marc opened the door and greeted the man.

The man said his name was Jon Meeks.  By his appearance and his mannerisms, Marc guessed he was most likely a CIA operative.  His business card read: Jon Meeks, Senior Vice President, R.A.L. Imports.  He was carrying a rather large aluminum briefcase.  After quick introduction to the group, he placed the briefcase on a table and opened it up.  Inside the lid of the case was a large 10.1-series Samsung tablet.  The bottom of the case contained a digitally encrypted Sat phone along with several other accessories, including a full dossier on the targeted subjects.  Jon began his briefing by saying, “We have intercepted and tracked several encrypted electronic messages between a location in extreme southern Santa Cruz Province of Argentina and a small village in Northern Pakistan,” as he pointed out the region on a map displayed on the tablet.  “The coded message is a derivative of an ancient Arabic dialect mixed with what can best be described, we think, as a Pakistani dialect only spoken by a small religious cult in the area around where the messages originated.  As to our efforts to break it, let’s just say, it’s our best guess.  We have been able to decipher enough to disclose that a shipment was on route via the Panama Canal on a Dutch freighter.  Long story short, with the help of some locals, we were able to inspect the cargo shipment up close and personal.  What we found, quite honestly, has us scratching our head.  The shipment was one hundred, small five-pound filled propane canisters and 40 new Russian made sniper rifles.  But the real kicker is, the shipment also contained ten thousand rounds of special infrared tracer, armor-piercing ammunition.  It’s specially made as to not emit visible light.  It was developed for use with night vision infrared goggles.  Outside of this information, we don’t have a clue what their up to.  The only real break we have is we know where the training is being carried out and that’s where Serenity comes into play.  We need hard information on what they’re planning and, yes, I know what the next question is.  The ‘Company,’ as an organization, simply cannot be involved, especially if this recon mission were to get dirty.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  The first payment has been made to your offshore account; the final payment’s due at the end of the road.  We will be here to give strictly rear-echelon support: transport, equipment and information.  Are there any other questions?”  Akil spoke up saying, “Has the shipment of supplies to the compound arrived or is it still in transit?” Meeks’ reply was, “It’s in transport, due to arrive day after tomorrow at Puerto Santa León, late afternoon.  There is a small airport just outside the town; our man will meet you all there just before sunset this evening.  When we leave the hotel, we’ll go straight to a staging location near the airport and pick up any equipment you might need.  Will Miss Petersen be going south with the team?”  Dara looked over at Marc, then back to Meeks, and said, “Yes.  Miss Peterson will be going south!”

The aircraft touched down just after four that afternoon in the province of Santa Cruz, eleven hundred miles to the south of Buenos Aires.  The airfield consisted of three small buildings and a fuel truck with a tattered wind sock attached to its antenna.  The field agent was waiting on the tarmac as the aircraft powered down.  A deuce-and-a-half, a military-style truck, moved across the runway toward the aircraft, then spun around and backed up to the plane’s cargo hatch.  Two of what appeared to be locals, began to transfer the equipment to the truck.

The team now consisting of Marc, Eyan, Akil and Dara, along with the field agent, piled into the covered bed of the vehicle.  It moved off to the north, leaving the airfield behind, as the agent introduced himself as “James Smith” to the team.  It was all the team could do not to laugh, knowing full well it wasn’t his name; such was the nature of the business at hand.  John said, “Y’all may as well make yourselves comfortable.  It’s a four-hour ride to the base camp.”  The ride was reasonably smooth for the first hour.  After that, no one was snoozing.  The road had degraded and had begun to resemble the Baja 500 off-road race by the time they had reached the camp.  Everyone was more than ready for a rest, as the truck came to a halt in the midst of the tents of the encampment.  Everyone dismounted the vehicle and found the nearest available tent and cot.

The next morning, Mr. Smith began his briefing by saying, “There is a mountain to east, about three-and-a-half clicks.  On the other side is a small stream.  Just beyond it is the training facility we’ve been observing.  I’ll take you to the top of the mountain, and then I’m out of here. The trail is beginning to show from our prior movement back and forth.  So, I suggest you start using other paths, or you’re liable to have some unwanted guests coming in here.  Once you get there and start up from the stream, start looking for sentinels; they move their position, sometimes twice a week.  Their last movement was three days ago, so be warned.”  James Smith sounded and looked like a southern hick, but he was far from it, as the team was slowly beginning to realize.  Later, as they approached the top of the hill above the river, Smith turned and said, “I suggest you go into recon mode here.  They may be anywhere once you top the hill.”  He then said his goodbyes and vanished back down the hill.

The team split into two two-person operational squads and began to filter through the thick underbrush toward the crest of the hill.  As usual, they were all using personal com units for communications.  The equipment the Company had supplied was of the top echelon available.  The com units consisted of a throat band pick-up mic, and ear piece that was wirelessly connect to a small module on their belts that encrypted or deciphered the transmission depending on the need.  Anyone not using the module with current settings would only hear static on the frequency.  Once they crested the hill and did not observe any activity, they proceeded on down toward the stream at the base of the hill.  They could now hear filtered sporadic gun fire, some distance away, coming from up ahead.  Ten meters past the stream, Eyan, on point, signaled all to drop as he detected movement just ahead.  He motioned everyone to drop back and to the left, regrouping behind a rather large fallen tree.  He briefed the others on what he had seen up ahead and set out once again as the point at a right angle to the emplacement.

About forty meters on, they encountered a very large clearing.  Staying within the thicketed edge, they could see twenty or so men milling about.  The clearing appeared to be an abandoned farm.  The land had been cleared of trees for crops but was now fallow.  It now had knee-high brush in clumps returning to its natural environment.  Dara tapped Marc on the shoulder, pointing to an area to their far left. Looking in that direction, he now realized that about half of the men were working feverishly, removing brush creating a clearing.  The team moved to a position with a better vantage.  Then, Akil asked, “Would anyone want to bet that you couldn’t land a plane in this opening?”  Marc replied, “Yep, that would be my best bet.”  The gunfire that they had heard had ceased before they reached the clearing.  But now, nothing that was currently happening seemed to indicate what the shooting was all about.

Eyan and Akil split off from Marc and Dara and moved around the perimeter of the clearing, to the right.  Dara took sentry duty while Marc began a section-by-section visual account of the encampment.  The other team moved slowly, noting all of the sentry positions they encountered.  At the appointed time, the two teams met up back on the leeward side of the hill above the stream.  They briefly compared the maps that each had drawn of the camps perimeter and placements, then started back toward base camp.  An hour later they were just a few meters short of the camp when Dara, in the lead, turned facing the others and raised her hand index finger extended vertically up in front of her lips.  The others instantly stopped and remained quiet.  She then pointed toward the sky.  At first the others didn’t hear it, but then the low-pitched [drone] became louder, and then changed pitch.  Akil said, “Well I think we called it, that’s a plane throttling down on approach, if I’m not mistaken.”  Marc went on to say, “Two bits says it’s loaded with propane, ammo and rifles.”  Eyan, with a thoughtful expression upon his face said, “Rifles, bullets, fine, but what’s the propane for?” Do ya think they’re going to use it to burn off more of the clearing at their camp?”  Marc answered, “I haven’t a clue, but it’s as good a guess as any at this point.”

Later, after everyone had consumed their MRE’s, they began to discuss the events of the day.  Dara said that Mr. Smith, she thought, had not been very forthcoming about the previous surveillance of the camp. He also never said a word about how many perps or what had gone on before they arrived.  She said, “Am I the only one that thinks that this is all a bit strange?”

They heard the plane take off and then return and land once more before dark.  Now that they had a basic understanding of the terrain and emplacements, it should be much easier to get on station earlier in the day.  They devised a plan which would allow them to view the open runway from the top of hill overlooking the stream.  One person would man this position.  The other three would take up positions around the perimeter and observe.

Before calling it a night, Marc called Jon Meeks on the Sat phone and reported the findings of the day.  While talking to him, he asked how long the surveillance had been in place prior to the team’s arrival.  Meeks said that he would have to talk to Mr. Smith and get back to Marc about it.  After considering the conversation with Meeks, Marc decided that the team would not move out at first light, as discussed earlier.  He was hoping that the ones running the show would come clean and tell him, what was really going on. He just had an uneasy feeling that the people they were watching knew they were being watched.  Had something happened that caused the Company to pull back?  Was the Company fearful of collateral damage and had the Serenity group been call in to take the inevitable bullet?  But the most irritating thing was that he hated to be lied to.  Some of the old familiar feelings were beginning to surface from the day he and Eyan were part of the bureaucracy and nobody told anyone anything.

As the tent began to illuminate from the morning sun, Marc rolled over and stroked Dara’s arm, waking her gently.  As she opened her eyes, Marc said, “Good morning.” He subtly smiled and said, “How do you manage to hike five miles through the bush with full gear, sleep in the same clothing, and yet wakeup looking beautiful?”  Dara was a bit surprised as Marc did not, as a habit, display his inner emotions especially while working a contract.  She answered him saying, “Well, maybe it’s because I know I’m the only woman around within fifty miles.”  He reached over and kissed her, then said, “I wish we were someplace else – anywhere but here,” as the smile slowly left his face.  Within the hour, they were on the trail returning to the subject’s encampment.  About half way to the camp they heard the aircraft takeoff once more, this time flying straight over head.  Akil was the only one to actually see it as it passed over due to the overhead tree canopy.  It was an older DC-3 twin engine, a real workhorse in this part of the world, even today.

As they approached the crest of the hill overlooking the stream, Akil was delegated to stay at this vantage point.  They revisited the maps they had drawn up yesterday to reacquaint themselves with the various imbedded lookout positions and then pressed on with Dara taking the point.  It took them twenty minutes to filter in around the end of the clearing.  Marc then carried out a com check with all locations.

When the sun was straight overhead, Dara once again could hear the aircraft returning.  She alerted all the others using her com.  There were stacks of several large crates at the far end of the cleared landing strip along with eight smaller cases that sat at this end of the runway.  The aircraft circled the clearing and then lined up coming straight in toward their position.  Upon touch down, the craft bounced twice and then rolled out to the very end of the runway, near the team’s position, and then turned about and shut down the engines.  Several men scurried out to the aircraft and stood waiting for the side cargo doors to be opened.  When the doors were eventually spread wide, the men began to unload two cases each of what appeared to be the ammunition from the aircraft.  The smaller wood cases that had sat at this end of the runway were moved to an area near the edge of the thicket, where tables had been set up.  They then split open the smaller wooden cases, exposing metal ammunition canisters. The men unloading the aircraft also brought the larger wooden boxes over and uncrated rifles still wrapped in Cosmoline gauze.

 Northern Mexico / Puerto, Peñasco Sonora, Mexico

Carlos Duarte and his cousin Rafael Arturo were driving north out of Puerto Peñasco, the small sleepy Mexican port, which the Norte Americanos referred to as Rocky Point.  Rocky Point sits about sixty-five miles to the south of U.S border crossing at Lukeville, Arizona.  The area has little to offer with the exception of scorpions, snakes and Saguaro cactus. The only truly redeeming factor was the Sea of Cortes.  Carlos is a wealthy man by the standards of most other people that lived in the small community.  He owns several parcels of land, two of which have houses upon them.  There are rumors that he is in some way connected to the drug cartels that are prevalent throughout Mexico and especially in the U.S. border region.  But, of course, no one would speak out of such allegations to the local Policia, nor did the Policia want to hear of such allegations.

They were now on their way to Carlos’s Rancho Del Sol, a hacienda thirty kilometers outside of town.  This was where he conducted the majority of his business.  He had constructed an airstrip suitable for small aircraft behind the main house. When they arrived, there was a small Cessna 182 Skylane four-seater powered down, with two men still inside.  The airstrip ran right up to the rear patio of the hacienda next to a large car port.  Two of Carlos’s men were standing at the rear entrance to the patio pool area, one was smoking a cigar but both were holding automatic rifles.  Carlos pulled the Jeep Rubicon in under the car port, and then motioned the men to approach the Cessna as he got out and followed.  The doors of the Cessna opened and the two men of Middle Eastern descent stepped from the craft.  His cousin, Rafael remained in the Jeep, holding an AK-47 just out of sight, in case something unscripted availed itself.   Carlos was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat that cast a shadow upon his face in the noon day sun.  Both of the new arrivals were wearing traditional head garb of the Taliban tribal factions of Afghanistan, but otherwise dressed in Western clothing.  After a short meet and greet, they moved across the pool patio to the air-conditioned hacienda followed by Rafael, sans the AK-47.

Carlos introduced his cousin Rafael to his new-found business partners saying, “Rafael, this is Mulla Jamil and Abdul Rashid; they will be our guests for a while.  Will you make sure that they have whatever they require?  And have some of the men open up the bunk house, there will be others joining us soon.”  Rafael was devoted to Carlos and always obeyed his requests to the letter.  Carlos was not someone to be toyed with, even if he was your cousin.

 Southern Argentina / Santa Cruz, Province

As the afternoon wore on, Marc could see increased activity at the far end of the runway.  They were constructing dirt mounds several feet high with shovels, picks and wheelbarrows.  One of the tasks that had been set for the day’s surveillance was to get an approximate count of the men at the encampment. Marc’s best guess, considering the area was so spread out and the groups of men were intermingling, was twenty or twenty-five.  Dara and Eyan were also faced with this nebulas task.  As the sun began its dive into the west, Marc keyed his com and said, “Let’s move out, regroup at Akil’s position.” Twenty minutes later, Eyan the last one to make it back to the position, arrived.  They departed for the compound arriving as the sun’s last rays were still touching the tree tops.  This far south, when night falls, the temperature also falls.  Using field fuel canisters that produced heat, but not smoke, they fixed a large hot pot of coffee.  They sat there drinking their coffee discussing the day’s events, going over the tally of souls each had counted.  They all agreed the best guess was twenty-five, knowing they couldn’t be positive of the total.  At slightly over six-to-one odds, the only advantage to the team was, most likely, that none of the trainees were jungle-trained if a fire fight broke out.

The next morning, returning to the airstrip clearing, they noted several changes to the lookout positions.  After noting the changes, they proceeded together, to a vantage spot that was now useable due to the change of those positions.  Within the hour, ten of the subjects were assembled around the tables at the close end of the airstrip.  Two other men approached, one following the other, both were wearing military jungle fatigues.  There were no patches or writing on the uniforms, but both wore berets and side arms.  Each of the ten men was given a special rifle, devoid of Cosmoline, taken from the wooden cases around the tables.  Over the next two hours the men disassembled, cleaned and then re-assembled their assigned firearm, while under the close scrutiny of the two military-types.  Once this was completed, they loaded the rifles and stood in a line across the end of the runway closest to them.  The team had failed to notice that at the far end of the runway on each mound of dirt a white canister of propane gas had been placed, one for each man in the line.  At the command of the first instructor, they all fired at their respective canister.  To no one’s surprise, not one round found its mark.  They repeated the process until their magazines were empty. Still, not a single canister was breached.  The fact they were using the special barium salts tracer ammunition that could not be seen without special goggles, seemed even stranger.  They reloaded, taking several ammo canisters along with them, moved half way down the runway toward the targets, and lined up once more.  This time when they fired, two of the canisters exploded in a large orange ball of flame.  The echo of the explosion resounded back down the runway.

Over the next couple of days this training continued all day long, slowly moving the men farther from their targets as they improved.  That evening back at the compound as the four team members were discussing the events of the last few days, Marc said, “OK, we know they’re training these guys to be marksman or maybe eventually snipers, but for what?  And why use LP gas canisters as targets? Does anyone have a clue?  Hell, at this point, I’ll welcome a guess.”  As he looked around at the team, there were no answers.

The next morning, they took up their observation position at the airfield, but something was strange. There were only six or eight men milling around and none were doing the things the team had observed in the past.  Eyan started to say something, just as a shot was fired.  The round hit the tree not two inches from Eyan’s head, splintering wood fragments over the entire left side of his face and eye. His instincts to run were overpowered by his training.  He dropped closer to the ground seeking cover from the hailstorm he knew was about to ensue.  He was not alone; each of the others had followed suit dropping and forming a circular pattern facing outward assuming that they were surrounded.  Just ten meters to the south of their location, was a ravine that ran down to the stream at the bottom of the hill behind them; the one that they commonly approached from.  Marc keyed his com and said, “The ravine to the south.” He needn’t say more, they all began arm crawling, using the brush available to cover their retreat.  Dara caught a glimpse of the side of Eyan’s face as they began to move out.  She reached out and grabbed his arm, motioning him to move ahead of her behind Marc in second position.  The brush was visually thick, which helped somewhat, however, it also moved as they traversed through it, drawing sporadic gun fire.  They reached the ravine at the bottom of the slope; it was really nothing more than a narrow, five feet wide by three feet deep, gully increasing slightly as it dropped to the stream below.  Marc took up position guarding the upper direction of the ravine as the others moved into it then started down toward the stream.  Eyan’s face had started to swell from the trauma that had been inflected.  His left eye was now totally swollen shut.  Once more the fact that Eyan was ambidextrous was invaluable.  He preferred to fire his weapon from the left but was nearly as capable at his right. Marc was in motion, swinging around to follow the others down to the stream, as two men appeared from out of the brush to his right.  He flipped the sear switch up to full auto on his AR 15-M4 and expended half his magazine in four seconds.  The two men, now lifeless, both rolled into the trench ahead of him.  The others looked back hearing the shots; Marc waved them on as he stepped over the bodies to follow.  Several days earlier, Akil had been the one to stay back on the hill as back up observation.  He had taken advantage of the time and scouted to the north and south of the position.  He now remembered a similar ravine to the south once again leading down from the larger hill beyond the stream.  When they had reached the stream, he recounted the information to the others then saying, “It’ll give us some cover going up the hill.”  Akil asked Eyan if he wanted him to attend his wounds.  Eyan declined reaching down and splashing his face with water from the stream.  The stream at this location was ten to twelve feet wide and a couple feet deep, with very little current.

As they started downstream, the water around them erupted in white foam with a hail of bullets.  They were coming from up above on the hill; they were now cut off from their compound to the east.  The bank of the stream afforded more protection than the ravine had but the lower ground is rarely strategic in a firefight.

Back when they had selected their firearms on the truck leaving the airport in Puerto Santa León, Akil had selected an M16A2 with a forty mm M203 grenade launcher slung on it. The armament was affectionately referred to as “Thumper” by many of the troops that had used it.  The name was attributed to the sound it emitted when it was fired.  Akil snapped the receiver open on the launcher and loaded a smoke round.  He then took up the rear position of the group and keyed his com and said, “I’m going to lay down some smoke up the hill.  When you hear the third round impact, make for the ravine.  It’s about ten meters downstream.”  Marc understood what Akil had in mind and moved to lead position at the ready.  Akil stripped off his ruck sack and retrieved one more smoke round and three High Explosive rounds from it.  He then laid them on the bank right in front of his position for quick access.  Thumper only accommodated one round at a time.  He turned and made eye contact the others then reached up quickly and fired up the hill.  He reloaded as quickly as possible and directed the next round to the right of the first.  Then reloaded with a High Explosive round and fired in between the two smoke rounds.  When the HE round exploded the sound of the shrapnel ripping through the forest leaves and trees was a sound very different from the smoke rounds.  Even a combat novice can discern the difference and would be seeking cover.  Akil, then as quickly as possible, reloaded Thumper and fired two more of the HE rounds before grabbing his ruck and heading downstream following after the others.

When he reached the ravine, he started up the hill.  Then he heard a commotion, water splashing close behind him.  He released the ruck sack, rolled over bringing his weapon around as he did so, but it was too late.  Three of the terrorists were standing in the stream directly below him, weapons drawn. At first all three were sporting shit-eating grins, but their expressions turned to one of curiosity as they realized he was of Arabic descent.  Just as quickly as the expressions on their faces had changed, Dara, concealed in the underbrush just above Akil, wasted no time dispatching the three.  They collapsed into the water that was now turning blood red.  Akil rolled over, looking back up the hill.  He saw Dara’s hand outstretched, saying, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”  The smoke from the grenades was beginning to clear as they approached the top of the hill.  Dara, now in the lead, could see several more figures moving through the lifting smoke, just ahead.  She keyed her com and said quietly, “We’ve got more bogies, up to the right, ten meters out.”  They all got down and found firing positions.  Akil had stopped and was now watching their back door down the ravine.  He grabbed two of the Buckshot rounds for Thumper from his ruck and loaded one, then pushed the other into a loop on his vest, and then flipped the sear switch to auto on his rifle. He had no sooner completed this task, when he saw movement down the hill.  He opened his com and said, “The back door’s open.”  Eyan, now resembling a one-eyed jack, joined Akil.  Three or more figures were filtering up through the thick underbrush to each side of the ravine, about thirty meters away.  Not knowing if they were coming into contact from two, or perhaps four, sides made it difficult for all of them to find real cover.

Akil fired a short burst from his rifle; this brought return fire from down below.  He could now plainly see that there were now many others filtering up the hill.  The Buckshot round in Thumper was created for just this scenario – 20 high velocity, 24 grain, metal pellets per round.  He rose up and fired the first round toward the largest concentration of return fire, then dropped down as fast as possible.  The buckshot seemed like an invisible force field as it passed through the underbrush, shredding vines and leaves as it searched for its prey.  Then the two began to lay down rifle fire as the remaining men retreated down the hill.  Eyan remained at the back door as Akil quickly reloaded Thumper with the second Buckshot round from his vest as he moved up the hill, dropping in between Dara and Marc.  Then, they repeated the sequences – first searching for the return fire – then letting Thumper do its work.  The hill was now being vacated by the opposing force.  Akil had two more H.E. Rounds remaining.  He loaded one and raised the muzzle up to approximately 45 degrees and fired sending the shell skyward.  He knew sporadic shells landing around them would further spook them.  Most people try to find a hole to crawl in under those circumstances.  He loaded the last round, but decided to hold on to it for the trip back to camp.

They regrouped and gathered their equipment and then moved off cautiously in the direction of their base camp.  Akil was now on point; they had traveled about a one-hundred meters and were now back on level ground.  He rounded a bend on the trail and saw a man moving toward him quickly, about fifteen meters away. He raised his rifle to fire, but quickly realized his magazine was depleted.  He fired the Thumper instead, and then hit the ground for protection from the shrapnel.  To his amazement there was no explosion.  He reached into his ruck, extracting a fresh magazine of ammo, then exchanging it as quickly as possible, snapping the action bolt closed, readying the weapon.  He was even more amazed that he had made such a rookie mistake, not reloading his weapon!  Then he snapped back to reality to deal with the intruder.  He raised his rifle and fired a few rounds over his cover, and then did a head bob to see what there was to see.  Marc walked up behind Akil and kicked his boot lightly saying, “He’s done for.  Get up.  We gotta move,” as he stifled a laugh.  Akil, looking at Marc, seemed a bit confused as he struggled to his feet to follow.  Down the trail, his confusion was curtailed when he approached the man’s body seeing a beer can-sized hole in his chest. “You do know that these 40 mm rounds require about thirty feet or so before they throw out the arming pin,” Marc said, with a large smile.  Akil’s retort was, “Well, big hole – small hole – same result, right?” as he made his way on past Marc, assuming the point.

Later, back at the encampment, Marc contacted John Meeks via the Sat phone and filled him in on what had happened.  Meeks’ instructions were to sit back and that he would get back to him as soon as possible.  While this conversation was in progress, Akil was busy removing wood splinters from the left side of Eyan’s face.  This was shortly after Dara had administered several micro-injections of anesthetics.  Once the drug had taken full effect, Akil was able to lift Eyan’s eyelid to determine the damage.  After close inspection it appeared that nothing had penetrated his eye.  However, one of the fragments that he had removed from his eyelid had perforated it, scratching the eye itself.  Akil finished up the triage by irrigating the entire side of his face with an antibiotic and then placing an eye patch over his eye.  Everyone in the group had various nicks, scratches and cuts from the encounter.

Just as the last bit of daylight was fading, they all heard the aircraft take to the air once more.  Later, after things settled down and they had eaten, the Sat phone started to buzz.  Marc answered; it was Meeks once again.  He said, “What we needed to know is still relevant.  Do you have any ideas what they were trying to accomplish?”  Marc’s answer was, “They’re training them to shoot – my guess is some person – but one thing’s for sure – it’s going to be at long distance, maybe at least a five hundred meters.  The one thing that makes absolutely no sense is why so many of them for what would typically be a one-man job?” Meeks then said, “Marc, I need you to go back in there and take one last stab at this.  If nothing is gained at that point, I’ll mark your contract fulfilled and you and your team go home, fair enough?”  Marc pondered the question for a brief instant, and then said, “Agreed.  But I want a full medical team available in Puerto Santa León; this could get bloody.  When they’re in place with a chopper, contact me.  In the meantime, we’ll find another route into the encampment.”  “Agreed,” Meeks said.  “I’ll call as soon as the med team’s in place, and Marc?  Thanks!”  Then he disconnected the call.  Marc was more than a bit surprised, Meeks actually sounded sincere, as if he meant it.

The next morning, after reconnecting with Meeks and asking for current satellite images of the area, they were gathered around Marc as he searched for an alternate route back to the encampment, using the images downloaded to the tablet via the Sat phone.  It had been quiet all morning; the aircraft had not returned as yet.  They were all taking the down time in stride.  Eyan had caught a few extra hours of sleep and was now asking Akil to check out his wounds and possibly change the bandage.  Once the eye patch was removed, it was a relief to see that most of the swelling had gone down and the damage was much less than they had expected.  For good measure, Akil swabbed the area with antibiotics once more, but Eyan chose not to wear the eye patch saying, “it’s more trouble than it’s worth and I would rather just deal with the irritation instead.”  By early afternoon, his eye was at half-mast, already beginning to re-open.

It was now four in the afternoon.  The Sat phone began to buzz.  Marc answered it and heard Mr. Smith’s voice.  Marc listened for a brief moment then the call was terminated.  He turned to the others, and said, “The med team is in position with a chopper at Puerto Santa León airport.  Smith said that it was a twenty-five-minute flight, one way, if we needed help.  The connection is the second flash button on the Sat phone for medical assistance, should any of us need it.”  As the evening progressed, they decided on a return approach to the airfield encampment.

The next morning, they left base camp using the same trail but ten minutes out, they veered to the east and followed a ridgeline which circled around and brought them back toward the newly constructed airfield from the west.  As they slowly moved to the edge of the clearing, they all began to realize that things were different.  The first giveaway was the silence, then, as they achieved visual ability, it was clear that the facility had been abandoned.  After slowly moving around the perimeter of the field and being fully convinced it had truly been vacated, they separated and commenced a full-scale search for anything that could either tell them where they had gone, or help make it clear what their purpose was.  After several hours of searching, the only thing they knew for sure was that all of the equipment rifles, ammo and even fuel canisters, were of Russian origin.  And there were twelve graves near where the tables sat at the end of the field.

Marc got back on the Sat phone and called Meeks and filled him in on what they had discovered.  Meeks was a bit surprised and Marc could hear him talking to someone else in the background.  When he came back on line, he said that he would schedule the chopper at Puerto Santa León to pick them up about two that afternoon at their current location.  He also said that he would direct Smith to send the truck to the base camp and break it down.  He then added that he would try to get satellite tracking information on the aircraft as to when it departed the training location.

By the time the team arrived back at the airfield in town via the chopper, a military transport was on the tarmac, engines running; waiting to transport them back to Buenos Aires.

CHAPTER EIGHTTEEN

Calling In A Favor

Upon arrival back in Buenos Aires, Jon Meeks headed up the debriefing.  As of yet, nothing had been rendered from the forensic inspection of the training site nor from reviewing the satellite information available.  But information such as this typically flowed up the chain, not down to the minions.  Meeks signed off on the contractual agreement formally releasing The Serenity Group.  The team checked into a Hilton property in the heart of the city, near the water.  At this point, they felt they all could use a little rest.  However, Akil could not put the events of the last few days behind him.  He was in his room lying on the bed, starring at the ceiling.  He could not erase the vision in his mind – that of the look upon the faces of the three men that had caught up with him at the stream, and then perished trying to comprehend why he had been their adversary.  He picked up the phone and called his Uncle Ricardo.  After the usual greeting and asking of his mother, he launched into a description of the situation that the team had gone through over the last several days. He asked Ricardo if any of his contacts may have knowledge of the Afghani sect, or even more so, knew perhaps where they may have relocated to when leaving Argentina.  Ricardo, being a major player in the global arms market, was very well-connected.  He could sense Akil’s frustration in the matter and said that he would ask around about the current happenings, with discretion.

Ricardo had been Akil’s mentor from the time his father had died years ago at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.  This had pushed him firmly toward a liberal Arabic lifestyle.  When he became an adult, his temperament would aid him in forging a business arrangement with Ricardo – one that had become very profitable.  Akil was now a bit tentative on speaking to the others of what he was planning to do if the right information became available.  He was intensely proud of his heritage and had hoped as a child to see his culture moderate and become part of a global union.  His birth father was Arabic and his mother was a full-blooded Spaniard.  It had been problematic for him in his younger years.  When it came to religion, he walked the fence.  The Koran and Bible often fit side-by-side seamlessly, and yet, butted heads on many basic ideas.  Akil had decided long ago to simply take the path of least negativity and live by what was left.  This is why he thought he had been pulled towards both Marc and Eyan.  Neither man seemed to claim religion; however, they always seemed to side silently with Akil’s vision of how things should be.

The next morning at breakfast, Akil decided to speak out about calling Ricardo.  To his surprise none of the others had any objections towards completing the contract, if the information was available.  Marc said, “You know, we’ve been paid in full for this outing as it stands now.  But if these guys ended up taking out somebody I know, or liked, well, it would really piss me off.”  Eyan, his eye now fully open, raised his glass of orange juice and said, “I’ll drink to that.” Dara clicked her glass with Eyan, saying, “I’m in.”  Akil just smiled.

It was approaching twelve noon, when Akil’s cell phone rang.  It was Ricardo calling back.  The information that he had collected was sketchy.  According to Ricardo’s resources, the second stage of the planned incursion was to be launched from northern Mexico.  There was a small town on the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortes called Puerto Peñasco.  The contact there was Carlos Duarte – his nickname was ‘El Jefe’ (The Boss).  No other information was available.  He also said that he would continue to search; although he had called in some heavy IOU’s and said he would be surprised if any more information surfaced.  Akil thanked him profusely and disconnected the call.

Akil said that he had called earlier and had the Gulfstream fueled and brought out onto the tarmac, knowing they were leaving one way or the other.  After lunch, they all sat down and began to hash out the potentials of the remaining mission.  Akil compiled a list of arms and supplies they might need as Marc surveyed the area of northern Mexico using Google Earth on the tablet he had retained from the Argentine mission.  To Marc’s surprise, Puerto Peñasco had an international airport; however, it looked almost as rudimentary as the one in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina.

As he was finishing up, Akil said that Ricardo had made arrangements for the arms and supplies to come from a contact in Mexicali.  It was about 140 miles to the northwest of Puerto Peñasco and would require perhaps a few hours of stopover.  Later, on the way to the airport, Akil was back on the phone.  This time, conveying the list of items needed to the arms contact and arranging for the truck to be at Aeropuerto de International Mexicali when they arrived.  Marc turned to Akil saying, “I’m not sure how much credit I have left with Ricardo on the Serenity account.”  Akil answered saying, “Didn’t Ricardo tell you, or maybe I should have — the Serenity Group is now a carte blanche member of Ruiz International.” Marc laughed out loud, remarking, “Now that’s a bit scary.”

With a stopover at Bogota’s El Dorado Aeropuerto for fuel, they were now touching down at Mexicali’s International Airport.  As they taxied in toward the terminal, they were given alternate directions and diverted directly to a private hanger at the far eastern edge of the terminal complex.   A golf cart with two red flags streaming from it was waiting just off the taxiway as they approached.  It pulled out in front of the aircraft, the driver waving his hand to follow.  The doors began to open on the second hanger from the end.  The doors had a large painted sign that read “PXICO AIR FREIGHT”.  The cart pulled just inside the hanger and stopped.  The driver jumped out and waved them up to the entrance, then signaled them to cut the engines.  After shutting down the aircraft and going over the checklist, as they were deplaning, two rather husky, moderately dressed, men approached.  Three other men were standing inside the hanger, heavily armed.  The lead man stepped up and extended his hand as a greeting, then said, “Welcome to Mexicali.  I am Miguel Tellez.  I spoke to Akil Bishara on the phone and this is my associate, Victor Ramirez.”  The three of them were now shocked to have suddenly realized that none of them had known Akil’s surname.

Miguel continued on saying, “Please be at ease, the three men behind me are members of my security; I’m sure you understand.  Meanwhile, as your craft is being refueled, let us inspect the items that you requested.”  He directed them into the hanger and on through to an office in the back room.  There, neatly placed on a pallet, were several open boxes containing every last item of Akil’s request.  Every item was spotless, fully-cleaned, and all identification removed.  After a quick inspection, Miguel produced a billing statement and said, “If everything is in order, all I require is a signature.”  Akil stepped up and took the pen from Miguel’s hand saying, “My uncle, Ricardo, will hear of this and add 20% to the billing for the personal service.  Miguel, with a surprised look upon his face, now understanding the relationship said, “If you require further assistance, just call.  I can deliver anywhere in Baja, California in ten to twelve hours, no extra charge,” he added.

Mid-afternoon, they were airborne once again and on track to land in Puerto Peñasco in thirty minutes.  The sun was dropping in the western sky as the G150 winged toward the tip of the Sea of Cortez.

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 15 and 16

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

You Can’t Buy Real Friends

As the sun began to illuminate Cairo, Marc and Dara were heavily involved in saying goodbye.  After a refreshing shower, they said it once more, this time verbally, but with the same urgency.  The transport vehicle was readied and being loaded down in the courtyard as they made their way down to see the others.  Marc had spoken of his intentions to Dara about helping Akil, in whatever way he, and Eyan, could.  Dara had asked to stay also, but Marc asked her to escort the Marquands to Israel, saying, “They need you more, right now.”  Dara acquiesced without further discussion.

Within the hour they were turning on the access road to Cairo International Airport’s Executive Terminal.  They were slightly ahead of schedule, which was fine with Marc, better early than late.  This time there were many more people at the terminal but luckily, not many officials.  It looked as if the more affluent residents of Cairo had decided to vacate the premises.  As they emerged from the building, the tarmac was a veritable parking lot, filled with all types of corporate jets.  Marc looked over at Stiles and said, almost jokingly, “What was that tail number, again?”  Stiles, grinning said, “Fourth one on the right, just beyond the Falcon,” knowing Marc would recognize the Falcon on sight.  It had been he and Eyan’s common mode of travel during the time they were assigned to the Secret Service.  They quickly got the Marquands and Mr. Rubin aboard; both Stiles and Dara brought up the rear after saying their goodbyes.  Marc, Eyan and Akil watched them get airborne before departing back to the compound.

Now that the curfew was in effect from dusk to dawn, they decided to move as quickly as possible to the Square.  The information coming from the television made no mention of the military trucks and tanks that they had seen the night before, which was a bit perplexing.  Before sunset they had made contact with some people near the Square that Akil knew of.  They proceeded to their location before dusk to avoid the risk of the later curfew.  Once they had arrived there, they learned the fate of the convoy they had seen the day before.  His contacts had seen them enter a parking structure several blocks from the Square.  They also reported other people had spotted convoys converging on the Square, one from the south and also one from the east.  The thing they all had in common was that each had taken up a position that afforded them cover and quick access to the Square.

Omar, one of Akil’s most trusted friends, and his daughter, had produced a rudimentary hand-drawn map of the area. It approximated the direction, distance and location of all the known military units encircling Tahrir Square.  When asked if he thought other military groups may also be hiding in the area, he said, “Anything’s possible, but we have been most diligent in our efforts to know what is going on.”  Later, Marc asked Akil for his take on Omar’s information. Akil said, “Omar is the most respected friend I possess! I would rely on his counsel as I have many times in the past, never with disappointment, my friend.”  With mixed feelings, Marc accepted his assessment; any valid information was welcome.

It was now dark.  As with most risks, there are some advantages.  The evening brings on the curfew, but it also brings along the cover of darkness.  The cell towers in the vicinity of the Square had been off now for two days.  As the group began to put together their plan, they keyed in on one paramount factor.  They must stay together in the midst of anything they might encounter.  When in the proximity of large docile crowds, this is not normally a problem. But if gunfire or perhaps CS gas is introduced into the equation, everything changes and maintaining the integrity of the group is pushed to a higher level.   They chose a regrouping location within the Square and then the five of them began to filter in, one at a time. Ten minutes later, they had regrouped beneath the largest political banner on the traffic circle at the center of the Square. There were at least a hundred banners of all shapes and sizes covering the circle. They had three com units with them, which also equaled the number of people that had visual knowledge of Akil’s relatives. They broke into groups, Akil moving on his own, his friend Omar and Marc, then Eyan and Omar’s daughter, Asysa.  They had arranged to meet back at this same location in one hour.  They also agreed to only use the radios if they found all the people they were seeking or it became imperative that they regroup and depart.

They were hoping to retrieve three people from the Square: Akil’s sister, his mother and stepfather.  His stepfather was the editor of an underground newspaper.  It was essentially the heart of the organized effort to oust the President from power.  Akil knew that convincing him to leave the Square was unlikely, at best.  But he hoped to convince him that the safety of his mother and sister was somehow more important than his vested interest in the uprising.  Akil was a patriot himself, but he was also a realist, and was well aware of the potential for violence and bloodshed.  Before coming to the Square, he had decided that the drumbeat of social change was not going to overshadow the potential loss of his immediate family.

They were moving out through the crowd methodically, each team taking a portion of the area and beginning their search from the center out.  Akil was on home turf, so to speak, and both Marc and Eyan were not.  They had both seen photos of the people they were searching for.  But the common Shemagh on the men and the Burqa’ veils covering the women’s faces, rendered the pictures useless.  Marc and Eyan reverted to being security lookouts for Omar and his daughter, Asysa.  They were ever vigilant watching for anything that seemed out of place or perhaps didn’t feel right.  But even this didn’t seem successful; the crowd was extremely agitated.  Both Marc and Eyan were beginning to feel more like infiltrators than searchers.  As they worked their way amongst the people, they began to notice secular groups separated by only a few meters.  Each of the groups seemed to have their own look-outs.

The com ear piece crackled and then Akil was heard saying, “Regroup; back where we entered the Square.”  Both Eyan and Marc with their wards began to move toward the original entry point.  Eyan and Asysa arrived first; Akil had located his family but Eyan could clearly see that Akil was extremely agitated.  He was arguing with his stepfather.  His mother and sister, heads bowed, were standing silently by his side.  Marc and Omar were approaching, when Eyan heard thumping sounds coming from multiple directions.  He looked over, coming eye-to-eye with Marc, as they then recognized the familiar sound of tear gas canisters being fired, just as the first rounds began landing in the Square.

His stepfather was still insisting that his mother and sister stay with him in the Square.  Akil turned toward Marc and gestured in a direction to move toward.  As Marc began to move out, Akil said to Eyan, “Take my sister,” as he grabbed hold of his mother and began pulling her, following in Marc’s direction.  His stepfather grabbed Akil’s arm as he began to move away, but it was to no avail. Akil was twice his size and was not to be dissuaded.  Akil turned back and displayed a look of dissatisfaction, holding his hand up with his index finger raised, as a warning sign.  His stepfather had never seen this side of Akil’s personality, but his intellect and common sense told him to release Akil’s arm.

The crowd began moving in all directions, making it even more difficult for their group to stay together.  Marc had only moved about twenty meters up the street when he saw a formation of soldiers coming in their direction. To his left was an entrance to a bakery shop.  The door was slightly ajar and he could see someone peering out from behind.  He quickly turned and burst through the door knocking the person to the floor.  It was an elderly gentleman; Marc reached out helping him to his feet as the others filed in quickly behind him.  Eyan, being the last in, shut the door firmly behind him, then pulling the blind down.  Marc moved to a wall and extinguished the light mounted upon it, as they all watched the soldiers move on by the shop.  The owner of the shop stood quietly amongst them, eyes wide in anticipation of what was to happen next.  Akil, skilled in the many dialects of the city, found the appropriate one and assured the man that nothing was to happen to him and thanked him for his involuntary help.

With the immediate danger past, the shop owner said they could observe the Square from the top of his shop at the rear of the building.  Marc and Akil, directed by the owner, made their way to the roof and carefully watched things unfold.  Eyan stayed with Akil’s sister, mother and the others.  What was to happen next was a surprise to all.  The military moved through the mass of people, paying no regard to them.  As they approached the center of the Square, the Egyptian police entered the far side.  Shots were fired and the crowd began to scramble once more in all directions.  A subtle smile came to Akil’s face; he had hoped for this, but it was still a surprise.  After a millisecond of glee, he turned to Marc, still smiling, and said “Time to go, my friend.”  Marc caught the impact upon Akil.  He had hoped the military would side with the people, against the tyrant.

As they left the shop, Akil turned to the shop owner and offered him a sum of Egyptian pounds.  But he refused the gesture, instead offering in return his bracelet, an Egyptian token of friendship.  Akil accepted the bracelet, and then offered one of his own.  He smiled at the man, as he exited the shop.

They turned up the street, away from the Square, and made a hasty retreat.  Just before reaching the first intersection, they heard voices and what sounded like many people running.  Then, from both the right and left cross-streets, twenty or more police, fully clothed in riot gear, and automatic weapons, appeared.  Akil was in the lead; he made no move to resist the sudden onslaught.  In the blink of an eye, they were all taken into custody, however not one of them were searched for weapons.  The police seemed much more interested in the events happening at the Square.  Two of the men were assigned to watch the now group of seven, as the rest rapidly moved on toward the Square.  The Egyptian policeman were well trained, although had little practical experience.  No more than a minute later, Eyan and Akil were cinching nylon quick cuffs on the two men, taken from the soldier’s own riot kits.  After relieving them of their gear, they pulled both men to a nearby stairway and secured them to the steel rail out of sight.

They reassembled where they had been taken into custody and, at just that instant; they heard gunfire coming from the direction of the Square.  A look of distress came over Akil’s mother’s face.  He could tell she wanted to return, but Akil just shook his head, indicating that he would not allow it.  As in most Arabic cultures, when the man had made a decision, it was final.  She turned away from the Square and proceeded with the others.  They once again heard people running, this time though, it was the people from Tahrir Square, dispersing.  They picked up their pace as the people began to move closer.  Marc and the rest began to see and hear bullets hitting the buildings all around them, fired by the police chasing the crowd.  They were still more than four hundred meters from the vehicles they hoped were still waiting.  Omar and his daughter were instructed to accompany Akil’s mother and sister on to the pick-up site.  The trio would hang back a short distance and cover their retreat.

The gunfire was coming closer as the people moved even nearer.  Then Eyan saw it first, one of the people in the crowd abruptly fell to the ground.  His lifeless body crumpled as others began tripping over him, and then others summarily began to go down.  The soldiers were giving no quarter; they were shooting randomly into the crowd.  The three quickly took cover behind a cement street barrier.  They glanced at each other briefly, then turned and began firing back with deadly precision.  In mere seconds, no less than eight or nine of the soldiers were taken down.  The remaining few were scrambling for cover, but no longer firing their weapons.

Most of the crowd had dissipated from the street when one of the soldiers began running back toward the Square.  Akil yelled out loudly – something in Arabic – the man stopped in his tracks and turned around.  Akil fired one shot taking him down, saying, “I never shoot anyone in the back, even these sons of Jackals,” to both Eyan and Marc.  They then began to retreat from their position, only to find themselves caught in crossfire with still more policemen.  Akil looked toward his mother and the group, as they moved around a corner, safely reaching the pickup vehicles.  Eyan was covering the rear as the three of them went into combat mode, one advancing, as the other two covered his movement.  Before they had traveled very far, two more groups of combatants appeared.  They were quickly running out of options.

Akil was the man in the middle when he quite literally stumbled, catching the toe of his boot on a poorly constructed drain grate.  He whistled at Marc, who was currently in lead position, getting his attention.  He motioned to him to return to his position, just as Eyan was preparing to advance to Akil’s location, bringing them all to the drain opening.  They converged at the same time, as Akil was trying to pry the drain grate from its mooring.  As soon as Eyan was close enough to see what Akil had in mind, he dropped his gear and began to assist in removing the grate.  Marc changed out the magazine on his weapon and began to lay down rapid fire in as many directions as was possible. As soon as he noticed the breach of his weapon freeze open, indicating that it was empty, he picked up Eyan’s and continued firing.  The grate was massive but they managed to prop up one side allowing space for them to slide through one at time.  After Marc had exhausted the ammo in Eyan’s rifle, he followed them, dropping down to the prone position and then sliding feet first under the grate’s edge.  He felt someone grab his leg directing it to a crude metal ladder leading down the vertical shaft to the primary tunnel below.  He started down the ladder, then stopped, reached into his side pack and pulled out a grenade and pulled the pin, lodging it loosely next to the bundle they had used to prop up the grate.  He swiftly descended the ladder to the tunnel below.  They moved off as quickly as possible following Akil.  Marc yelled out for the others to open their mouths and cover their ears, saying, “I left a present at the grate for our pursuers.”  A few seconds later, the concussion of the blast came rushing through the tunnel.

Akil, using dead reckoning, moved forward to the next overhead grate, then turned left to the second grate, and scrambled up the ladder.  His knowledge of the area was extremely useful, he reached down and pulled out his com unit and called for Omar.  Omar answered rapidly.  The extraction vehicle was but fifty meters away.  He directed it to their location and, with the help of the bumper wench; they were out and on their way in a few short moments.

Later, as they were pulling into Akil’s compound, safely away from the turmoil, Akil introduced both Eyan and Marc to his mother, Asilah, and his sister, Ara. After they had all had a chance to clean up, they sat down to lunch.  Akil’s mother, Asilah, was busy placing things on the table as Marc, Akil and Eyan entered the dining room.   They were coming from the great room where they had had a tasty sample of Arabic-produced wines from Akil’s cellar.

Asilah was a very beautiful woman.  Both Marc and Eyan could clearly see this now that she was not wearing a veil or dressed in her street attire.  As they began to be seated, Ara entered the room similarly dressed and was also as beautiful as her mother, if not more so.  As the dinner progressed and the conversation deepened, it was also evident that Ara was as intelligent, as she was beautiful.  She was a teacher at the university working on her doctorate in cultural antiquities.  This was an atypical education for a women living in an Arabic country.

There had been a local news blackout ordered by the President’s regime when the police had entered Tahrir Square.  After lunch, they all had returned to the great room and watched while Akil scanned the international satellite stations for news.  He landed on Al Jazeera just as a report was coming in from the Square.  The report was not what they had hoped for.  There were several casualties, many injuries, and two of the organizers had been taken captive and were said to be under lock-and-key, at an undisclosed location.

Later in the afternoon, after Akil had been in touch with several of his contacts, they were able to piece together what had happened after they had departed the Square.  The civilian casualties were caused mostly by indiscriminate shooting between the police and the military.  There had also been many more people taken into custody than was reported on Al Jazeera.  But the most disturbing information was that two of his contacts had said that his stepfather was one of the casualties.  He and two others had been singled out by the military and shot, execution style, unlike the others.

Akil also knew that the police would not stop with his execution.  They would continue on looking for his family, eventually leading to his compound.

After breaking the news to his mother and sister, he made a decision to move his weapons cache to a new location elsewhere in Cairo.  He then asked everyone to collect their belongings and be ready to leave within the hour.  He planned to use his Convair 240, an antique aircraft by today’s standards, to transport the lot of them to Madrid, Spain.

Marc called Stiles in Tel Aviv and brought him up to speed on what was going to happen, and then asked him to return to Madrid with Dara in the Gulfstream.  The Marquands and Mr. Rubin had been escorted to the American Embassy earlier in the day by Dara and Stiles, rendering the contract fulfilled.

With a stop off at Malta for refueling, the Convair was on approach to Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, just after eight, local time.  Once on the ground, Marc instructed Akil how to get to the Die/Hex hanger.  The doors to the hanger were opening as the aircraft rolled to a stop, just outside.  The Die/Hex hanger was more than large enough to accommodate both aircraft.  The Gulfstream was already being tended to by the corporate mechanics as the Convair was being ferried in.

Stiles had arranged transport for Akil and his family to Ricardo’s private compound across town, even before they had landed.  As they were preparing to depart, Marc asked Akil if he had any immediate plans.  After he had replied that he did not.  Marc, having previously cleared it with Stiles, asked him to drop by Casa Martini the next day.

Eyan and Stiles stopped off on route back to Martin’s compound and had a few drinks, but Marc and Dara drove straight back to her condo.  After they had had a shower and something to eat, they opened a bottle of wine, and moved out to the patio.  Marc filled her glass and then explained the events of getting Akil’s family out of Cairo.  Dara, with a rather troubled look upon her face, said, “I need to tell you about something I’ve decided.”  Marc, seeing the concern on her face said, “What’s up?” Dara was staring at her wine glass, as she swished it around, saying, “I’ve decided to give my resignation to Martin.”  Marc said, “I can’t say that I’m surprised, but I am a bit concerned.  Are you going back to Europol?”  “I think so, but for the time being, I’m going to sit back and try to decide what’s right for me.  I’ve got another seven months before this sabbatical period is over and, after going back out in the field with you guys, I felt alive again. I’m just not ready to be a social butterfly, flittering around, protecting the rich and famous.  I just hope that Martin will understand.  I’ve grown quite fond of him and maybe even more so of the money. I think greed, in some way, is its own prison.  I just can’t do this anymore.  No.  The fact is, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Marc reached up, taking the glass from her hand, saying, “Follow your instincts, Dara.  It’s the best advice I can give.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Changing It Up

The next day at Villa Martini, the group reassembled, joined by Martin and completed with Stiles in attendance.  They were all seated around the pool at the sunken bar.  Akil, accompanied by Ara, had arrived shortly before and had been introduced to Martin.  Martin asked what the Serenity Group thought of the Gulfstream after the excursion to Hawaii and Egypt.  Marc replied that without the use of the craft, he didn’t think they would have been in time to help the Marquands out of Cairo before the rebellion had exploded.  Then he said that although they may incur added costs with the craft, it would most certainly pave the way to better servicing Serenity’s clients.

Dara asked Martin if she might have a moment alone with him. He answered, “Why, of course,” as he rose up from his chair, joining her while walking toward the main house.  Eyan thought it was an unusual request, but didn’t want to disturb Marc while he was talking to Akil and Stiles.  Eyan noticed that Ara was at the end of the table alone and he walked over and sat down next to her, saying, “We didn’t have much time to talk in Cairo, but do you mind if I ask, have you traveled much outside of Egypt?”  Ara said, “Well a bit.  I did my undergrad at Brown University in Rhode Island.  But I actually did much more traveling when I was at a girl’s academy just outside Taos, New Mexico.  Most of the other girls were avid snow skiers, so we hit all the ski areas out west.”  Eyan was a little more than surprised; the clarity of her diction was becoming more and more evident as she talked.  Eyan ask if she had skied in Utah at the time. She replied, “Actually several times; Utah has the best powder skiing of all the places we skied.” Eyan, smiling, said, “Your English seems to improve as we talk.”  Ara, with a wide smile in return said, “The academy was an international boarding school.  Most of the girls were from all over the globe, so we were always trying to see who could pass themselves off as an American.  It was kind of a competition between us, but it really became helpful later on at Brown.  My father insisted that both Akil and I speak English only around the house after we were eight or ten years old.  He said English will be the language of the business world one day; in retrospect, I think he was right.”

Martin and Dara emerged from the main house and walked toward the group.  Marc, Akil and Stiles and were still occupied deep in conversations of their own, as the two approached the pool bar.  Eyan and Ara were oblivious to it all.  As Marc looked up, he saw Martin, and then glanced over at Dara.  They were both smiling.  He took that as a good omen, considering what he knew had just transpired.

After some cool drinks and a bite to eat, Martin begged off, saying that he had a business dinner engagement across town.  He said, “I hope you will all stay and enjoy Casa Martini in my absence.” Martin was always the gracious host.  He looked over at Stiles with a smile and said, “Feel free to use the wine cellar, Ashton.” Then he turned and walked toward the house.

A few hours later, as the late afternoon sun was laying low in the west, the conversations had dwindled as they sipped wine from the cellar.  Now that they had relaxed a bit, Marc asked Akil what his plans were for the future.  His reply was measured with much thought. Then he said, “Marc, I’m really not sure.  Until this unrest settles, it’s hard to say.  The only thing I can say for sure is, I’m not taking my family back until its safe.”  Marc asked how his mother was dealing with the loss of his stepfather.  Akil said, “She’s a proud and amazingly strong woman, and being here with Ricardo, is extremely helpful.  Ricardo’s wife, her sister-in-law, is by her side constantly.  I suppose she’s doing as well as one would expect.”

Marc said, “Akil, I would like you to consider joining with Eyan and me.  We have some things developing and we need someone we can trust with your skill set and also your business contacts.”  He went on to tell him of Serenity Island and the project currently underway there.  He said, “You know what we do and Eyan and I both trust working with you. It’s proven to be extremely lucrative.  Will you consider it?” Akil said, “I still have Ara to take care of.” But before he could say another word, Marc nodded his head toward Eyan and Ara saying, “Ara is also welcome on Serenity, although I think Eyan will be somewhat distracted with her being there.  Anyway, sleep on it and we’ll talk later.”  Akil turned back around to Marc and said, “Ara is extremely demanding at times;  perhaps we should sit back in amusement and watch.”  Akil and Ara would fit in well with the group, Marc was thinking, as they both laughed and finished the last of an amazing bottle of Argentine Malbec wine from the Mendoza region.

After a while, all were beginning to feel the effects of the wine, but most likely it was the hangover of the long week of events, as they began to say good-night.  Akil and Ara drove back to their uncle’s estate, while Marc and Dara retreated to her condo, leaving Eyan and Ashton to yet another bottle of Martin’s amazing collection.

The next morning, while Marc and Dara were still lying in bed, Marc asked Dara how things had gone with Martin with respect to her resignation.  She said, “You’re going to love this.  He was expecting it; he said he had not thought I would have lasted this long.  When I asked him why he thought that, he said, ‘Some animals are just made to run, my dear, and you are most certainly one of them.  You’ve been like a caged leopard since you been here; go do what your heart tells you to do.’ Then he hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for everything.’ It just blew me away.” When she looked up at Marc, he could see her eyes were tearing a bit.  Marc said, “He’s an amazing soul. I think we’re all beginning to just now realize how much.  “Oh,” she said, “I asked him where to drop off the car and he said, ‘Keep it.’  But I told him, I didn’t think that the Island had many roads, being so small.  He smiled and just said “Take care of Marc; he’s special you know.  As for the car, there’s room in Villa Martini’s garage until you need it.”

Later, just before noon, Marc’s phone rang, it was Akil.  After a short exchange, Marc finished the call and placed the phone on the counter.  He looked over at Dara and said, “Well, how long do think it’ll take us to close down this place and get you packed?  Akil said he and Ara would be good to go by lunch tomorrow.”

A few days later, and ten thousand plus miles behind them, they were on approach to Honolulu International Airport on Oahu, Hawaii.  Mike was there with one of his company vans to pick them all up.  Mike had been back on the Main Islands from Serenity for only three days. He was checking on his own businesses and securing more materials for construction on Serenity.

He told them that he had secured rooms for them all near his office and also conveyed that he would be returning to the Island in two or three days.  He dropped them off at the hotel with the exception of Marc who accompanied him back to the office.  It was late afternoon by the time Marc had returned to the hotel in the van. When he arrived upstairs at the room, Dara had just walked out of the bathroom from taking a shower still drying her hair.  Marc said, “That’s a great idea,” as he started to remove his shirt walking towards the bath.  As he walked past, Dara she reached out, grabbing his arm saying, “There’s a tariff for using my shower, mister,” with a coy smile upon her face.  Marc reached up and untied her bath robe and, with a spinning motion, picked her up and carried her to the bed across the room saying, “Tariff, you say?  When I get through with you, lady, you’ll be begging to pay me!”  Two hours later, they had shared a shower, ordered room service and retired to the bedroom.  Jet lag was now beginning to collect its tariff.

Over the next two days, they all laid low, recharging their batteries, as it were.  Mike called Marc late the second day to check in and see what he had planned for the group.  After checking with Mike about the facilities available on Serenity, he had everyone ready to leave for the Island around six the next morning.  They all piled into the van and made their way to the dock next to Mike’s facility.  One of the small ships that Mike had leased for transporting materials to and from island was named the “Sandollar.”  It was capable of both loading and transporting the track vehicles and materials necessary for the job. It also had the ability to be used as temporary facilities for the workers in preparing hot meals and such when it was on station at the Island and it could also be the living quarters for the group.

When they arrived at the Island several days later, both Marc and Eyan were more than impressed with the work that had been completed during their absence.  The runway had been cleared of all the underbrush and had been packed and graded; a crew was in the midst of trimming off all the lower branches of the trees that acted as a canopy over the majority of it. Several foundations had been laid for the structures to be built. The tarmac leading into the hanger had been poured and was now the staging area for the entire job. When they had left, Mike was working on the new docks and supply tanks for both generators and aircraft JP-5 fuel.  All this had been completed and it was now a bustling center of activity; the unloading process of the Sandollar was already in progress.  Some of the supplies were already being inventoried upon the dock.  Mike was turning out to be far more than advertised.  He was a natural born leader.  Marc and Eyan watched the workers go about their assignments; it was obvious they had made the right decision with his selection.

The next few weeks, it became clear that communications were the most imperative of all the immediate things that lie before them.  They needed to set up a permanent satellite phone system that insured their constant communication with the outside world.  When they approached Mike about the situation, he grinned, saying, “The antenna is on special order from a communications tower manufacturer in Japan. It has been designed to emulate the local fauna. It is slated for delivery in the very near future.”  As it was, Marc had his handheld Sat phone on 24/7, as Serenity’s link to the outside world.  Later that evening after dinner, everyone was relaxing around a large fire, fueled by the remnants of the cleared runway.  The trade winds were brisk but also refreshing, and then came a large clap of thunder as the trade winds turned from friendly to ferocious in a heartbeat.  They all picked up their drinks, and scrambled to the ship moored dockside a few meters away.  As they all took cover in the security of the ship’s confines, they commented on the ferocity and suddenness of the event.  That is, all but Mike, who was well aware of the South Pacific’s quirks.

During the following weeks, work on the compound moved forward rapidly.  Mike was a genius when it came to constructional engineering.  Every evening around the table after dinner, they would collectively brainstorm the project and postulate on, the “what ifs.”  Originally the project was designed for a handful of people.  The sudden reorganization of the Serenity Group had changed the configuration dramatically.  When Marc approached Mike, inquiring as to the possible expansion of the main house, he laughed briefly, and said, “We have a solid rock foundation and structural steel and concrete walls as it is now.  All we need to do is increase the steel rod in the walls and we can double the floor space with a second level.  I’ve already looked into the secondary needs of extra materials like plumbing and electrical equipment.  None of this will necessitate any major changes considering we’re just now starting the underground phase of the structure.  The only thing, obviously, is the completion schedule would be pushed out a bit.  Give me a few days to run the numbers on the materials.  Once I get the engineering changes worked out, we’ll have some numbers to go over.

They had been on the Island for more than a month now and things were progressing as projected.  Late that afternoon, Marc’s mobile Sat phone signaled an incoming call. When he answered it, Ashton Stiles was on the line.  After the usual niceties, he said he had called to let them know that Martin’s new aircraft had been delivered and that he and one of the corporate pilots could chauffeur the G150 to their location so the Serenity group could take possession of the craft.  Later that afternoon, after a conference with Mike, he re-contacted Stiles.  He relayed the information needed to locate the Island and the radio frequency for contacting them; also telling him it was a daylight approach only.  The installation of the field landing lights had not begun as yet. They set a window for his arrival in four days and ended the call.

As the days passed, it was becoming evident that Eyan and Ara were finding more and more in common.  For Marc and Akil it was often a common subject of conversation.  Akil had never observed his sister in this manner; she had always been such an academic, totally captured within her work studies and teaching.

Everyone had seemed to fall into a pattern of responsibility. Dara, with the help of Mike, was turning into an excellent cook. It was quite a surprise to everyone, including her.  Ara had begun helping Mike with the ordering and organization of the materials as they were needed.  The men helped out wherever they could but sometimes it was a matter of simply getting out of the way and letting the men Mike selected, carry-out their jobs. There was no standing around leaning on a shovel. Each and every one of these men had multiple abilities.

The day before Stiles was due to land, they all broke off early and walked the runway abreast looking for debris.  Mike had had the tarmac cleared for tying down the G150.  At precisely eleven the next morning, the radio aboard ship crackled and Stiles’ voice was heard saying, “Serenity, were about ten minutes out to your west.  We’re going to take a look-see, then swing around and come in on final, over.” Mike pulled the cord twice, emitting short blasts, on the ship’s air horn.  It was the pre-arranged signal for those on and around the runway to vacate.  He keyed the radio and said, “Welcome to Serenity gentleman; permission to land.”

Marc and the rest of the group were standing off the edge of the tarmac at the head of the runway.  As Stiles approached, he turned on his landing lights well over a mile out.  He touched down with a slight teetering of the wings and there was a swirl of dust off each wingtip as he began braking.  The aircraft needed little more than half of the runway to fully stop.  However, Stiles allowed the craft to taxi on once he understood the facility and could see tarmac ahead.  He finally stopped, shut down the engines, and then disembarked, joined by the co-pilot.  He shook hands with everyone and re-introduced his co-pilot, Arnesto Garcia.  Ara and Eyan appeared across the tarmac walking slowly around the tail of the aircraft. Ara was waving to Ashton as they approached.  Ashton glanced over at Marc; the look upon his face was part laughter and part question, as he noticed Eyan’s and Ara’s mutual attraction.  Marc just smiled and tipped his head slightly, acknowledging Ashton’s query.

Ashton was even more than surprised by the Island, especially considering the description he had received back a Villa De Martini.  He had expected far less than he was seeing. Marc asked him how the runway felt when landing, knowing that landing on crude runways tended to be tenuous at best.  Ashton said that, in all honesty, it was smoother than many he had landed on around the smaller venues in Spain.

Later that evening, everyone was looking forward to the barbeque.  Mike had arranged for one of the backhoes to dig a massive pit.  He had had the men stoking the fire all morning long, building up the coals to make ready for the piece de resistance – a forty-pound pig smothered in tangy BBQ sauce, then tightly wrapped in water-soaked burlap.  He had dropped it in the pit on a layer of corrugated tin covering the coals and covered it over with large palm fronds, then a layer of sand to prevent it from reigniting. The dinner was nothing short of fabulous deep-pit BBQ and when done correctly, can only be described as tantalizing.

After dinner, the workman retired to their sleeping quarters and the usual nightly conversation continued on.  Ashton had recently finished his two-week training session on the new aircraft. He was talking to Marc, Eyan and Akil about what would be required of them to acquire their certifications.  Both Marc and Eyan had their pilot’s licenses but were not certified on the G150.  Akil, on the other hand, was fully certified as he often flew between Egypt and Spain flying his uncle’s G250.  The arms business was extremely lucrative.  He also would fly his own older Convair 240 when the need presented.  They were drawn away from the topic when the volume of Mike, Dara and Ara’s laughter overpowered their conversation.  Mike was telling old Naval stories that had the girls practically rolling on the deck.  The next morning none of the management crew was any too spry. Mike walked in carrying what he described as a prelude to a Navy breakfast – orange juice and three ibuprofens – for everyone around the breakfast table.

Over the next two days, they had time to show Ashton the entire Island ending up on the top of the hill.   They were standing on the large foundation of the main structure.  The walls were beginning to rise to the top of the first level, which made it easy to see the layout of the ground floor.  They were all on the observation patio deck looking over the newly modified drawings when Marc’s Sat phone started to vibrate.  He stepped back away from the others and answered it, before the ringer sounded.  A few moments later, after completing the call, he stepped back toward the group and said, “Well, it’s time to go to work and pay for all this. We have a job request, indirectly from our old buddy, General Thomas.  It seems he’s been keeping track of our – as he put it – ‘exploits.’ He made reference to the job in South Africa but, even more surprisingly, the Egyptian retrieval, which must have been the State Department connection.  It seems they have eyes on a group down in Argentina that they think may be a terrorist group in training.  He wants us to take a look-see and figure out what they’re up to.  We’re to meet up with a contact in Buenos Aires for a briefing and any support items we might need.  It’s strictly a cost-plus job – half up front and final payment on the way out.”  Eyan said, “Why don’t they take care of it in-house?  Something doesn’t seem right.”  Akil spoke up saying, “Eyan’s got a point.  Something’s not quite kosher.”  Marc finding it odd that a person of Arabic decent would use an Israeli colloquialism in such a fashion, just smiled and said, “I agree.” Akil was somewhat like an onion; when you thought you had him pegged, he would expose yet another layer of his persona.  That may well be one of my first questions at the briefing, Marc muttered to himself, as they all started down the hill back to camp.

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 13 and 14

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Cairo Awaits

It was two hours later when Stiles and Marc arrived at the hangar, meeting up with the two other pilots who had just signed for the fuel.  Marc threw his bags onboard, while Ashton was preforming his preflight inspection of the aircraft.  A few moments later, he entered the cabin and closed the door, rotating the handle to the lock position, and moved to the flight cabin.  Marc felt the craft slowly being pulled out of the hangar, then the subtle whine of the Fanjets coming to life.  Ashton had just finished his check list when a blur of a crimson red car slid to a stop directly in front of the craft.  Ashton looked back into the main cabin saying, “Marc, I think someone’s looking for you!”  Marc got up and moved to the cockpit door looking out the front window as Dara pulled her car around the side of the aircraft and into the hangar.  Marc turned to the main cabin door, unlocked and rotated the lever opening the door.  Dara was already standing anxiously waiting for the steps to appear.  As she entered the cabin, Marc said, “I’m beginning to think you just enjoy bizarre entrances, or is it just this aircraft?”  Dara smiled then said, “I haven’t been to Cairo in two, maybe three years, and I was planning to take some time off anyway, so any objections?”  Marc smiled saying, “Well, shut the door.”

Marc had to admit, the flight time went by much faster with Dara onboard the craft.  He didn’t know what would become of their relationship, but every time they spent time together, it was a bit more difficult to depart.  He knew it was a bit early to be thinking these things, but it’s not like anyone’s truly in control of their destiny, or the detours it brings.

Later, Marc awoke, finding Dara asleep with her head in his lap.  He reached over and opened the curtain on the window.  He could see billowy clouds tinted orange from the imminent sunrise, just as he sensed the tone of the engines change to a lesser whine.  The landing gear emitted a clunking sound as it locked into the down position.  Dara was startled slightly, sat up and looked out the window.  Marc said, “We’re on approach; Eyan should be there when we arrive.”  Ashton was smooth.  Marc heard the tires cry out, but never felt the touch down.  The sun had not quite arrived on station as yet, but as usual, it was another beautiful day in paradise.  Marc once again flashed back to his youth and his time spent on the islands.

As the Gulfstream rolled up to the private terminal and began its shutdown, Marc said to Dara, “Why don’t you see if you can find some open shops?  I know you’re going to need some stuff,” referring to the fact that she had brought no bags.  Dara, looked up and smiled, then said, “Any special requests?”  Marc just smiled.  His attention was drawn to the cabin door; he heard knocking from outside.

A short time later, they were once again en route.  Marc had called Ricardo Ruiz, the arms dealer in Madrid before departing.  He had made arrangements with Ricardo to use his various contacts to arrange for a vehicle and the various weapons he had selected for this mission, and to have them waiting near the Cairo International Airport.  Ricardo was proving to be a valuable asset.  Moving arms around the globe quickly is not an easy task in this day and age.  When a bona fide arms dealer can simply pick up a phone and legally arrange for this to happen, it vastly simplifies matters.

About halfway to their Cairo destination, Stiles retreated to the rear of the craft after turning over his flight duties to the other pilots, hoping to get some shut-eye.  About seven hours later, he was slightly startled awake, hearing the pitch of the engines changing harmonics; they were starting their decent once again.  He rose and moved about the cabin gently waking the others; Ashton above all, was a perfect gentleman.

The Sat phones had been once more activated and instructions had been given to the senior pilot to fly to Tel Aviv, Israel, about thirty minutes’ flight time to the east-northeast and wait on station at Ben-Gurion Airport for their call.  Stiles did not want someone commandeering the aircraft while they were en route to and from the apartment near Tahrir Square.

As they were entering the terminal doors, Marc’s Sat phone started to flash, and then emitted two nearly-silent beeps.  Marc answered; it was Ricardo on the line. Now Marc was really impressed with the man.  He said, “Mr. Bracken, there’s been a small change in the program, the vehicle will pick up your party at the curb in front of the terminal.  The driver will be wearing a bright pink scarf with a sign saying “Uncle Tom,” his name is Akil; he will be alone.  He is my nephew and can be trusted.  He is very familiar with the area and I taught him to shoot well.  I hope he can be of service.”  Marc was more than astounded; he was now just shaking head in disbelief, saying, “Ricardo, this is beyond the call.  Are you sure you’re OK with this?  You know I can’t guarantee his safety.”  Ricardo’s response was, “Mr. Bracken, in this part of the world when a young man picks up a rifle, he has become a man.  If he can help, reward him in kind, that’s all I ask.”  Marc said, “Thank you, Ricardo.  This could help immensely.  I’ll be in touch.”  Then he ended the call.

The terminal was not as busy as one would have thought. Several of the airlines had shut their kiosks and security was all but non-existent; customs had only two uniformed agents working.  They were basically waving people through the turnstiles, no luggage checks, and only speaking to an occasional passenger.  The team, as it was, all passed without incident and walked directly through the terminal to the main exit.  Marc began to search for Akil, looking at the assorted vehicles parked along the curb.  As he turned to the right, the third car up the street was not like most of the others and the man standing next to it nearly brought Marc to open laughter.  Akil was about six-foot, three inches tall and resembled a running back in the NFL. He was a very strange sight standing there with a shocking pink neck scarf holding the sign that read “Uncle Tom.”  Akil appeared to be in his early thirties, was very muscular, and spoke English as if he had gone to school in the States.

The Cairo International Airport was about ten miles from the area that Tahrir Square occupied, near the center of the city.  Along the way, they passed by a series of apartment buildings and went through several antiquated industrial areas.  The city itself was archaic but, over the years, some of it had been redeveloped, while other parts looked much as they did millenniums ago.  About two-thirds of the way toward the Square, Akil pulled off a main road and traveled a long block down a side street, and pulled up to a compound.  The walls were twelve or fourteen feet high with a large sheet metal gate.  Akil beeped his horn twice.  A moment later, a small metal door opened within the gate.  Akil waved to the man peering from the opening.  A few seconds later, the car pulled into the compound and the gate closed behind it.  Akil invited them into the structure.  The exterior of the building was quite old but, as they walked inside, the architecture was neo-modern with a strong Western influence.

Akil showed them to what appeared to be the main living area.  He said something to a man in the room, speaking in Arabic, and the man then disappeared.  He turned and picked up a remote control unit from an end table and pushed several buttons.  A very large flat-screen television arose from a credenza mounted alongside a wall.  Marc turned to Dara and the others saying, “Now maybe we can see what going on in real time.”   Akil was dialing up CNN International on the satellite receiver as he said, “Things have been extremely dynamic in the last two days.  The police have chased the people from the Square and the people have just this morning retaken it.”  Marc pulled out some photographs; they were satellite screen captures of the apartment building that the client’s daughter-in-law and son were sequestered in.  The building was one block south of the southernmost point of Tahrir Square, well within the confines of the government’s blockade.  They were going to need the cover of night and a serious amount of luck getting in and out of the area in total anonymity safely.

The man Akil had spoken to earlier returned to the room and gestured to Akil.  He turned to the team and said, “I have taken the liberty to prepare dinner for us all.  I hope this is not being too presumptuous.” Just then, the other man opened a rather large sliding door revealing a beautiful dining room and a fully set table.  Eyan said, “Akil, as far as I’m concerned, you can be as presumptuous as you like.  Thank you for your hospitality.”  They all enjoyed the dinner; it had been some time since they had truly sat down and eaten.

When they were done, they retired back to the main room and began to discuss a plan.  In a short period of time, Akil had become an integral part of the puzzle.  Over the next four hours, they had formulated a plan which was predicated on some form of contact with the two semi-hostages.  Marc had the cell contact number and, after checking the time the sun was currently setting at their location during this time of year, he decided to contact them.  He dialed the number and just as quickly heard a rapid beeping sound indicating a system overload.  Akil said, “We need to try them between four and five in the morning. It’s the best chance we have at getting through.”  He said, “The real problem is the power has been cut to the area for several days and if their phone has been on all this time, the batteries are certainly depleted.”  It was nearing twelve o’clock midnight when they were shown to their individual rooms, again surprising them all.  Marc and Dara had just settled down in their bed, but were finding it hard to sleep, as they lay talking of the planned mission.  Marc had set his smart phone alarm to sound at four fifteen in the morning to try and establish contact with the woman and her son.  For the first time since Marc and Dara had been seeing each other, they had simply passed out lying next to each other, physically exhausted and mentally expended.

It was a rude awakening at four something in the morning for both of them, but the plan was demanding action.  Marc redialed the number.  It rang once, twice, then three times.   Then it went straight to voicemail; the line went dead.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Will It Work?

As daylight breaks over the city, the group is somewhat lethargic; the time zones had taken their toll.  As they started to congregate in the kitchen area of the compound, things began to clarify.  Marc, Akil and Dara were drinking their second cup of Arabic coffee when Ashton and Eyan entered the kitchen area.  The general mood was somewhat diminished due the fact that Marc was unable to establish contact with the primaries.  They all began collectively brainstorming the problem, looking for any and all avenues of success.  The reality was evident after a time, they would need to go in blind and deal with the cards as they fell.

For the better part of the day, they stayed glued to the news channels absorbing any and all information that could be gleaned.  In the early afternoon, they began assembling the gear needed for the mission.  Akil, once again, proved to be invaluable.  He had contacts in the area of the Square that would call and report the goings on in real time.  Marc asked about them and Akil said they were mostly made up of his cousins and nephews.   It was almost spooky that in this time of turmoil, in such an ancient city, the cellular service seemed to be the most reliable of all modes of communication.

When it came to the weaponry they potentially needed for the mission, Marc finally asked Akil, “What were you able to acquire of my wish list?”  Akil’s eyes lit up as if it were Christmas.  He turned saying, “Let me show you what I’ve been able to put together.”  They followed him down a hallway and through a door, down steps to a basement entrance that vaguely resembled a door that could be used at Fort Knox.  The door required three separate methods of unlocking, an electronic mag key, a keypad then a biometric fingerprint reader before access was granted.  As they entered the room, Akil flipped on the light.  Marc stood in sheer amazement as he realized now that Akil was the Egyptian equivalent of Ricardo.  The room was full of any firearm one might need.  The look on Akil’s face was that of man who was proud of what he had accomplished.  Then, a rather unexpected statement poured from his lips. “Perhaps, if we’re smart and just a bit lucky, we will not need these tools to achieve our objective.”  At this point Marc realized that Akil was certainly not what he had pictured, seeing him standing on the curb at the airport.  Marc’s past experiences in this region of the globe had tainted him.  He had come to believe that most, if not all the people, were extremists and prone to action without a forethought.  It was very calming to know otherwise.

As night began to fall, they began loading the two vehicles that Akil had acquired for the task.  Marc and Eyan had been in Cairo many times before, but this time was different.  As the team loaded into the vehicles preparing to depart, the tension in the air was extremely heavy.  The looks on the faces of the people in the streets were impossible to miss on the drive from the airport.  Some expressed fear, others anguish, and then there were those whose faces seemed blank, without expression, as if they had lost all hope.  This was not the Cairo, or the people, they had remembered at all.

Ten minutes later, the vehicles came to a halt after pulling into an alleyway, about three blocks to the south of Tahrir Square.  Everyone in the group donned their protective vests, and then dressed in Arab garb, hopefully allowing them to blend in and have some added protection, as they set off into the night.  The five of them formed into a covert fire team, one on point, each subtly covering the other’s movement, and one always covering the rear.  They made their way past alleys and doorsteps for the entire two block distance until they reached the apartment’s location.  As they approached the building and prepared for the planned extraction, the air was laden with both the smoke from the fires of the encampment at the Square and the occasional whiff of CS gas that the police, still loyal to the President, were using to contain the crowds.  Then, of course, there was the occasional sporadic gun fire.

Marc once again pulled out his Sat phone and redialed the apartment above.  There was still no answer.  Akil tried his cell phone; to his surprise, he still had service.  Most of the people that had been calling in reports were saying that they needed to move several blocks from the Square to get service.  He called each of the two vehicles to verify they had reached their predetermined pickup points; they both reported they had. Marc and Akil made their way into the building; the others would filter in behind.  It was extremely dark.  They had been informed that the power was off in the general area before the mission had started.  As they entered the candlelit lobby, they were approached by two people dressed in Western-style clothing.  Marc instinctively knew they were armed by the way their suit jackets were tailored. As they walked up, one hung back, his hand was extended into his breast pocket – a second confirmation of his suspicions.  The first man said something in Arabic and Akil started to respond, but just then, four other men appeared from doorways around the lobby, similarly dressed.  Despite Akil’s pleadings with the man, he was becoming more and more agitated by the second, continuing to insist that they must leave the building.  By this time, the others had, one by one, entered the building and began to disperse in the lobby.  As things were now beginning to look hopeless, Marc removed his hood and started to address the man in English.  The man was taken by surprise and his demeanor began to rapidly change.  Marc said, “We have come to escort an American family to safety at the request of their family in America.  They were trapped when the riots broke out.”  The man replied in surprisingly good English, saying, “Do you have any way to prove what you say is true?” Marc looked up at the man and said, “I have the name of the person who rents apartment 703 in this building and the names of both his wife and son that hopefully are still holed up here waiting for us.” The man replied, “What is this man’s name?” Marc said, “Thomas Marquand, apartment 703.”  The man asked them to remain there while he checked the register.  When he returned, he said, “If what you say about helping them is true, then perhaps we can make an arrangement,” as a subtle smile appeared upon his face.  Ten minutes later, the team was making their way up the stairs to the seventh floor, but only after Marc had bribed the man with $500 US.   Akil seemed upset that Marc had let the man manipulate him in such a way, but Marc simply said, “Sometimes it’s easier, and a lot safer, to skip buying the bullets and just pay the end user.”

When they reached the seventh floor, Marc opened the door to the hallway, stepped out of the staircase and slowly entered.  When he raised his flashlight looking down the hall, he could see chairs and furniture stacked in clumps.  Then he saw movement and someone yelled out in Arabic.  He turned to Akil and he translated, “They want us to leave them alone. He said they have no money or food, but he says they are armed.”  Marc said to Akil rather loudly, “Ask them if they know Mr. Marquand in room 703?”  But before Akil had the chance, a voice from down the hall said in English, “Yes, I know Mr. Marquand, do you?  What is his first name?”  Marc answered, “Thomas, we are looking for his wife and son.”  The man then said, “Why would you be searching for them?”  Marc replied, “We were contracted to provide safe passage out of the country for the two of them by Thomas’s father back in the US.”  A man in his mid-forties stepped from behind a furniture barrier a short distance down the hall and walked toward them.  He was carrying in his right hand an antiquated snub-nose .38 revolver.  As he approached, Marc said to the man, “I suggest you throw that snub-nose away and find some good rocks to throw.  You’ll have better luck hitting something with the rocks.”  The man looked down at the gun he was holding in the palm of his hand and said, “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had a reason to fire it before.”  The man had a slight build, was dressed in casual Western-style clothing, and wore wire-rimmed glasses.  There was a brief introduction.  He said his name was Jacob Rubin and he also worked for the State Department, like Marquand.  He said he worked in a different department and was on call as a translator.  He lived just down the hall in apartment 706.

Marc asked Jacob if Thomas’ wife and son were OK.  He answered saying, “The son is fine, but his mother has been ill for the past few days.  She and the boy have only been here a short time.”  Then he went on to say, “Many suffer this fate during an adjustment period to the food and water.”  They walked around the barriers down the hall and then came to a door with the numbers 703.  Rubin knocked on the door, turned to Marc, and said, “I haven’t talked to them since yesterday morning.”  Just then, the door opened slightly and a young man peered out through the partially open door, still chained.  Marc said, “Max, my name is Marc.  Your grandfather, Nicklaus, has sent us to help you and your mother.  Can we come in?”  The boy’s face lit up as he fidgeted with the chain lock and opened the door wide saying, “Mom’s in the bedroom getting dressed.  She’s feeling better tonight but she’s still really weak.  I was just going to fix her something to eat.”  It was more than obvious that the boy was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had been placed upon him.  Dara spoke up saying, “While you’re whipping up some food, I’ll see how your Mom is faring,” as she asked Max which way it was to the bedroom.

A short time later, the two women emerged from the bedroom.  Dara following very close behind Mrs. Marquand with her hands on her shoulders as she was none too stable as she walked into the room.  Marc looked over at Eyan with a concerned expression.  They both knew that the task at hand was going to be difficult enough without extenuating circumstances.  Over the next few hours, the team had jointly made the decision not to carry out the extraction until the following night, as Mrs. Marquand was much too depleted for the current window of opportunity.  Dara administered some of the medications from their standard med kits.  Mrs. Marquand began to show signs of improvement as the evening progressed.

Akil and Stiles were taking turns out in the hallway with Jacob Rubin, making sure that there were no surprises during the night.  Akil had called the two drivers and rescheduled the pickup time for the next evening having them return to station shortly after dark.  It was summertime in Cairo and the sun would rise at five in the morning and set at nearly seven in the evening.

The boy and his mother were sleeping in the bedroom; it was just before sunrise and Dara had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room.  Marc had taken the midnight shift in the hall, and had been relieved by Eyan sometime after two in the morning.  Everyone but Dara had taken a turn on watch; she had taken on the duties of nurse looking out after the woman and the boy, Max.

Marc was sitting in a chair near the window looking to the northwest toward Tahrir Square.  There was a large park area just below the apartment building and a wide tree-lined avenue on each side of the park that lead to the Square that was less than 200 meters’ distance.  Marc had tried to sleep, but was unsuccessful.  The sunrise was beginning to cast a peaceful shade of orange on the high stratus clouds over the city, as Marc noticed Dara starting to stir.  She opened her eyes and smiled upon seeing Marc watching her.  She got up from the couch and walked over to Marc and began to massage his shoulders from behind.  Marc let his head fall forward as she kneaded his neck with both hands.  As he raised his head, she bent down and kissed the side of his forehead.  Marc reached up placed his hand on the right side of her face and then returned the kiss. She sat down next to him and they quietly talked while watching the sun’s rays begin to strike the buildings around the Square.

As the light of day crept into the apartment and the smell of coffee began to overpower the smoke wafting up from the Square below.  The team began to consider the options that lay before them.  The intermittent gunfire from below had ceased during the night and now the silence was almost as disturbing.  Akil walked into the apartment from the hall saying, “I just received a call; the loyalists to Mubarak have retaken the Square during the night and are in control of the general area.”  Marc said, “I knew something was going on.  I heard a lot of vehicles, about three this morning, then shouting.”

Later, after all of them had eaten, they gathered in the living room to discuss the plan of action that would lie ahead.  Marc turned and said, “Mrs. Marquand, how are you feeling this morning?” She replied, “Much better, thank you.  Please call me Renae.” After a short conversation, they determined that they would go ahead with the extraction after sunset.  Each of the men took turns throughout the day on hall duty.  When Marc was taking his turn, he had a chance to talk to Jacob, the man down the hall in 706.  He learned that he was an unmarried man on his second duty station for the State Department.  He was off duty when the evacuation from the embassy had taken place and didn’t learn about it for several hours because the cellular service was down.  Marc also learned that the top floor of the apartment building was leased by the Embassy for the staff based in Cairo.  The other people that lived in the building were on duty when the evacuation occurred.  Marc was sensing uneasiness in Jacob’s voice as he spoke, saying he just wasn’t sure how he would manage after the team pulled out with the Marquands.  After Marc had been relieved from hall duty, he was talking to Stiles about the aircraft and the passenger capability. Stiles informed him that even as it was with just the woman and boy, it would be a two-trip affair getting all the people out of Egypt air space to a safe location.  Marc queried Stiles as to the possibility of Jacob being included on the second flight out. Stiles said, “If we don’t refuel before returning to Israel, it shouldn’t be problem.” That was all Marc needed to hear. He went to the hall door that was now kept open for air flow and walked down the hall to 706 and knocked on the door.  Jacob answered the door, wiping the sleep from his eyes, and saying, “What’s going on?” Marc said, “Can you be ready to leave at sundown with us?” All Marc needed to see was the relieved expression upon his face to know the answer.  Jacob said, “I could walk out this moment if I needed to.”  Marc smiled and said, as he turned to walk back to the other apartment, “Try and get some rest, we’ll assemble later down the hall.”

The sun was hanging low in the western sky.  Akil was on his cell phone trying to make contact with his drivers – to no avail – the grid was down.  Marc fished his Sat phone from his carry bag and tossed it to Akil saying, “Make it quick as possible, those batteries won’t last long.”  Akil made contact with them and verified the time and locations once more, and then hung up saying everything was set and that he had his drivers change vehicles, moving up to larger cube vans.

By early evening, Renae had improved a great deal and her pale color had returned to a natural hue.  They all began to suit up for the extraction.  Stiles had offered his vest to Jacob, but it was too large to be of help.  Dara had offered hers to Renae, but she instead gave it to Max, politely saying it most likely wouldn’t fit her anyway as she was a size 10 and Dara was maybe a size 6.  It fit the boy perfectly after Dara adjusted the upper torso straps tighter. Jacob had several extra Arabic galabaya’s – men’s traditional garb – which he gave to Renae and Max.

It was now shortly before eight in the evening, as they set out from the apartment’s location.  Akil had briefed everyone on the location of the pickup vehicles, just in case they were separated, or worse.  With the crowd at the Square being dispersed, it was now very quiet on the streets. Akil cautioned everyone to be as quiet as possible as they made their way toward the nearest pick-up point.  They were moving in the same fashion as they had arrived.  Marc was on point; Akil was covering the back door.  Dara was paired with Max and Stiles had Renae as a partner; Eyan was near the middle of the group with Jacob.   Marc had reached the end of the first block to the south, and then turned and signaled to Dara to bring Max to his location, as he stepped back into a darkened entryway.  They were almost to Marc’s location when headlights flashed from around the corner just beyond Marc’s position.  Dara grabbed Max’s arm and began to retreat toward an entryway to a door to her right.  She grasped the lever, and then realized it was locked.  She looked up the street as a truck turned the corner, the headlights illuminating both her and the boy standing in the entryway.  The truck pulled up right in front of them and stopped.  There were three men in the truck, the driver and two others standing in the bed, leaning on the cab.  The two in the bed jumped out and approached them, speaking loudly in Arabic while waving their weapons in the air.  Dara was doing her best to conceal her assault rifle holding it close between her and Max.  The first man walked up, then reached out and slapped the hood back off the top of her head.  She looked up but stood her ground as the man was somewhat shocked at the fact she was a woman dressed in men’s clothing.  Marc had moved to the back of the vehicle and was making his way around to the passenger side.  The man turned to say something to the other, when he saw Marc’s movement.  He raised his free hand up to his rifle.  Dara pushed Max away to the ground and swung her assault rifles butt around, slamming it against the side of the man head.  As he was going down, the driver decided to vacate the area and sped off quickly. The third man let out a gasping sound as a knife thrown by Akil struck him in the neck just below the jaw.  He fell to his knees then backwards grasping for his neck.  Dara reached down and grabbed Max’s hand and pulled him to his feet and then guided him back to his mother’s position away from the bodies. There was no way of knowing if these were police out of uniform, or loyalists, or even perhaps just thugs.

The team reassembled and moved off down the street to the south as quickly as they could, knowing that the estranged driver may be bringing others back.  They had traversed nearly the entire distance to the pickup site, when they heard other vehicles approaching from their rear.  Marc shouted out to Dara to get the Marquands to the truck in the alley just ahead.  Akil went with her so there would be no mistaking of identity as they approached the vehicles.  As an afterthought, he also sent Jacob with them.  The three remaining took cover and prepared for the worst.  They could now see multiple sets of headlights moving toward them in the darkness.  As they drew closer, Marc could make out an open jeep in the lead with a machine gun mounted on the back, silhouetted by the truck’s headlight behind it.  Eyan could see better from his position and noticed still another vehicle bringing up the rear.  One advantage they had was the streets in this neighborhood were very narrow.  Eyan signaled to the others that a third vehicle was in play.  Marc yelled out to take out the jeep and hopefully create a logjam for the other vehicles.  All three of them began to fire upon the jeep, their assault rifles set on full automatic.  The jeep veered sharply but, instead of jamming the street, it busted through a courtyard wall and disappeared, allowing the other vehicles to advance unencumbered.  They were now beginning to receive small arms fire in return from the oncoming vehicles. Marc signaled to the others to fall back toward the alleyway in hopes that the truck would be waiting, ready to bolt.  Just as they got to the corner, Marc saw Akil running toward them carrying something in both hands, larger than a common rifle, but it was too dark to see what it was.  As he approached he said, “Let’s see if this will slow them down,” as he raised a Soviet-style RPG-7 to his shoulder and took aim at the lead truck. Marc, standing to his side, tapped him twice on his head indicating that the rear back-blast was clear, as he fired the weapon with deadly accuracy.  The truck was now only sixty meters away, as the rocket’s shape charge pushed its way into the cab and exploded, ripping into the bed area of the vehicle.  Marc saw several dark silhouettes of men being thrown into the air, as the canvas covering the truck’s bed shredded and burst into flames.  The truck turned slightly, and then the front right wheel became lodged between two large, imbedded granite stones, bringing it to a rapid and complete stop as it became totally engulfed in a ball of orange and white flames.  Akil and Marc had just managed to turn around and begin to move toward the transport vehicle when a massive concussion from behind lit up the entire area and hit them.  It was so intense that Marc nearly lost his footing.  He looked at Akil questioningly, as if to ask, “What kind of round was fired at the truck?” Then, just as quickly, he realized it was a secondary explosion from the truck’s cargo area.  They both looked back toward the truck only to see a large crater where it had been, as debris, some still burning, rained down all around them.  They both began to run toward the truck as the driver pulled out from the alleyway and stopped.  As soon as they were aboard, Stiles rapped on the back window of the cab signaling the driver to go.  As they sped off into the darkness, the streets were devoid of all traffic, which helped them move quickly away from the area.  But this also made them a point of interest for any military or police patrols that were in their vicinity, due to newly-imposed sunrise-to-sunset curfew.

The truck had gone but a few blocks when everyone in the back was thrown toward the cab, as the driver pulled over and slammed on the brakes of the truck when he saw a convoy of military vehicles traversing the next intersection ahead.  He quickly extinguished the lights on the truck so they would not garner the attention of the convoy.  They sat there for several minutes as truckloads of men and equipment passed by the crossroad accompanied by several tanks.  No one said a word, but they all knew the convoy was headed toward Tahrir Square.  After the vehicles had passed, Akil rapped on the back of the cab motioning to the driver to proceed.  He turned to Marc saying, “I knew this was coming, but I thought it would be later – not now.  I need to warn my contacts at the Square.”  There was no need for Marc to respond to Akil’s statement. The tenseness in his voice and the expression upon his face was easily read by those around him.

As the truck resumed its jagged path through the city streets, Marc couldn’t separate his thoughts from Akil’s dilemma.  The man had been invaluable to this mission and had, without exception, been there at every bend of the road.

They soon reached Akil’s compound and quickly pulled in and shut the large entry gates behind.  Once everyone was safely inside, Akil arranged for the Marquands and Jacob to have their first real food in days.  After dinner, they were gathered around the table sipping wines from Akil’s wine cellar. The team began to address the next portion of the extraction.  Stiles spoke up calling everyone’s attention to the TV.  A news bulletin banner was flashing on the screen.  The Square was now in the control of the people, once again.  A short time later, Marc excused himself and found Akil in the next room.  He was just ending a phone call as Marc entered the room.  Marc once again could see a look of frustration on Akil’s face saying, “Akil, pardon the intrusion, but I assume you’re concerned about your friends and family at the Square?” Akil said, “I am.  Am I that easy to read?”  Marc replied, “Perhaps only by those who have come to know you, but yes.” He went on to say, “Our extraction is nearly complete and with your help, these people will be safe by tomorrow afternoon, but Akil what about your dilemma?”  He looked up saying, “This is not your fight, Marc.” Marc said, “And you would tell me this extraction was yours?  I don’t think so.  It’s obvious you care about these people even though you have just met them. Dara and Stiles are escorting the others to Israel tomorrow.  Once they are on Israeli soil and truly safe, Stiles will wait for my request for extraction before returning.  I’ve told him that may be several days depending on what you have planned.  Now, are we on the same page?”  The look on Akil’s face was that of appreciation.  He knew he would most likely need help, but he was not the type of person to ask for it, especially from these people that he had just met.

Akil said, “Marc I don’t have a clue how to go about this, or even if my friends will still be there or want to come away from the Square.  If the military makes a move, this could get real ugly, really quick.  Some seem to think the army will side with us but I’m not so sure.”

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 11 and 12

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Island in the Mainstream

Marc and Dara disappeared into the bungalow; Eyan gathered up his clothing and followed their lead.  Around two in the afternoon, Marc walked Dara to her car; she had a late afternoon flight to The Hague, where Europol’s main headquarters are located. She needed to fill out the paperwork necessary to facilitate her temporary transition to the private sector.  Neither Marc, nor Dara, had any false hope for the future, but both knew what had evolved was much more than simple infatuation.  He kissed her and helped her into the car, shutting the door after her.  Dara dropped the window down and said, “Marc, I know we’ll both be horribly busy for a while, but I would like to see you again, whenever we can work it out.”  Marc put his hand down on her arm, lying on the windowsill and said, “Sounds like a plan; watch your six.  On second thought, I’m sure it gets watched enough,” smiling, as she pulled away.

A while later, Marc was poolside when Eyan emerged from his bungalow and joined him.  Marc asked how his arm was doing.  Eyan said, “Actually, I think the swim helped it more than hurt it; it doesn’t seem as sore today.  Where’s Dara?”  Marc gave him the run down, then the conversation changed to the early morning discussion of the Island.  Eyan said, “I laid awake for an hour, thinking about what you said about the Island. Why hadn’t you said anything before?” Marc looks up and said, “Eyan, the reason is that I was pulling it all out of my ass!  I had no plan at all; Dara was right.  I just couldn’t let her know it. That’s what I was thinking about when you just walked up.”  Eyan said, “Marc, I think you and I should take a lesson from Martin here and shake hands, throw our joint money in a pile, and start constructing our base of operations.”  Marc replied, “OK, but we’ve never even seen the Island.  We need to go there and get a feel for what we have to work with, agreed?”  Eyan got up from his chair, walked over to the bar pit and retrieved two beers, bringing them back to the table.  He popped the tops off and said, “Your eyes are too bloodshot to look straight into right now, so we’ll just have to drink to it, if you don’t mind.”  They tapped the bottles together and a true partnership had begun.

At dinner that night, they thanked Martin for his generosity.  They also spoke of their plans for the Island and announced their planned departure the next day.  Martin offered them his corporate aircraft to get them back to Hawaii, which they graciously accepted. Martin also said that if they found a need for specialized equipment, he might be in position to help out, and to feel free to contact him.

After dinner, when they had returned to the bungalows, Marc joined Eyan for further discussion about the plan.  They first compiled a running tally on available funds.  They quickly ascertained that without using funds from dive shops, they could muster nearly three million, not counting the windfall of one million each that had been donated from Martin in stock from Die-Hex/Corp.  Eyan fired up his computer and opened up Google Earth.  With a minimal search he found the deeded Island, and then he began to peruse the graphics. As they pushed in tight on the postage-sized island, it revealed some promising traits.  Eyan brought up the distance scale in the application and determined that the Island itself was nearly a mile and a quarter in length, and almost a quarter of a mile at its widest.  According to Google Earth, most of the island was flat and rose only sixty to seventy feet out of the water, with one exception.  The shape of the island resembled a cowboy boot, similar in shape to Italy; the area around the heel rose up on an outcropping of what appeared to be rocks.  It protruded upward slightly more than 200 feet, the highest point on the island. The top of the boot pushed to the west, the heel was to the east and the toe pointed nearly straight north.  There were two areas around the Island that had large expanses of white sand beaches.  First was the entire top of the boot; the second was the top bridge of the boot, where the toe rounded to the boot top.  That area appeared to be a natural cove; they could also see what appeared to the remnants of an old dock.  One of the first realizations that hit them was that eventually they would need an aircraft. A three or four-day boat ride to the nearest airport would not work out logistically.

They decided to call it quits for the evening.  Martin had said that the corporate aircraft would be available shortly before noon.  This would leave them plenty of time to pack and say their final goodbyes.  They had made arrangements with Ricardo Ruiz, the owner of the arms distribution business in Madrid. At first, they just wanted to rent some space to place the equipment they had purchased from him in storage.  He said that he had working arrangements with other international clients that may suit their needs better.  He would, at a discounted price, buy back the used equipment and hold the funds in escrow in their open account.  When they were in need of other or possibly different equipment, he would, at a discounted rate, sell them new items, depending on their needs at the time and their account balance could be applied at that time.  He explained that this system was most expedient for his premium customers.  This would also save him labor and storage space and that, compounded with the fact that a great many of his lessor clients preferred to buy used equipment, only made it better.  Ricardo was a true entrepreneur and both Marc and Eyan could see the advantages of doing business with this man in the future.

It was about one-thirty in the afternoon when the corporate jet lifted off the runway at Madrid’s Barajas airport.  During the flight they brainstormed the possibilities taking copious notes.    Once they had arrived back in Hawaii, they had already made up their minds; they were going to continue on to their Island.  After arriving, they crashed for nearly 18 hours, readjusting to the time zone changes.  They didn’t have many connections on the islands, but Marc decided to contact “SilverCrest Flight Services,” the firm they had contracted for their flight to Madrid.  He was aware that they didn’t deal with boat rental; however, they catered to the rich and famous, so logic says they would know who to call.  Everybody refers their clients to their connections and, in turn, a referral fee is usually in the offing.  Marc made the call to SilverCrest.  When the call connected, a woman with a pleasant voice answered.    As soon as she pulled up the records on her computer verifying that Marc was indeed a client, the tone of her voice became even more pleasant.  Ten minutes later, Marc had the contact information of no less than three for-hire craft, with the range capability necessary for the trip.  At the end of the conversation she said, “Just have them call Alexis here at SilverCrest for any information they need for billing. Will you be using the same accounts for this booking, sir?”  Marc answered saying, “Yes, the Serenity Group; everything’s the same as before.”

It was just after lunch when they arrived in the harbor district at SeaBourn Charter. While talking on the phone to the owner, Marc had discovered he was ex-Navy man.  Marc’s allegiances ran deep; he made it their first stop on the list.  Mike Schell, the owner, was in the office at his desk just inside the main gate.  As they walked up, he looked up from his desk and said, “Two bits says your name is Marc.  I can spot a Sea-Dog a mile away,” as he stood up and moved out from behind his desk to greet them.  He looked like any one of a hundred other Navy men Marc had known, with one exception.  He was sporting a prosthetic leg from the knee down on his right side.  He moved as quick and graceful as anyone would without the impediment.  Marc’s first thoughts were, if he were not wearing shorts, he simply wouldn’t have noticed.  Mike shook hands vigorously with them both, asking them to have a seat, and then offering them both an ice cold beer.  Eyan looked over at Marc and laughed and said, “Sure, sounds great, thanks,” As soon as they had had a couple sips of beer, Mike asked how he could be of service.  Marc said, “We work for an organization named Serenity Group and we need to do some survey work on a small island about 1,800 miles to the west-southwest of here and we’re need of a craft.  Are you interested in the charter?”  Mike said, “As long as it’s all on the up and up, no drugs and no partying.  I can supply the boat and I’ll skipper her myself.  If you guys want to hold the price down a bit, you can work the ship with me and we’ll only need one other person on board to cook and check gauges.  You pay the fuel, food and five hundred a day.  What ya say?”  Eyan said, “Well, it sounds OK, but I’ve got to have a few beers along the way.”  Mike laughed and said, “Hell son, I couldn’t find my way out of the harbor if I didn’t have a six-pack under my belt. I said partying; you know – girls, sex and loud music – especially that rap shit.  I had one charter where there were half-naked girls all over the boat at all hours of the day and night; hell, I didn’t sleep for a week.  I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack!”  After a bout of laughter, Marc said, “Mike, sounds like a deal.  We’ll need about two days on the island.  I can’t see being there any longer than that, and we’ll take you up on the offer to work the boat.  What’s your time schedule to push off?”  Mike smiled and said, “I’ll have the supplies ordered and get her fueled up this afternoon and get the supplies on board by noon tomorrow.  I’d say, let’s look at about two tomorrow afternoon.  That work for you guys?”  They stood up, Eyan saying, “Mike, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, and in all honesty, we’re looking forward to this,” as they started toward the door.  Marc turned and said, “Call Alexis over at SilverCrest.”  Mike cut in saying, “Yeah, I know the drill; she’s my wet dream, ya know.”  Both Marc and Eyan were laughing, as they walked to their car.

It was nearing eleven o’clock in the morning when Marc and Eyan arrived at SeaBourn Charter.  They began to on-load the gear that they had been gathering for most of the morning.  Mike’s boat was a fifty-eight-foot V-hull Meridian-580 pleasure craft with twin screws matched up with twin Cummins marine diesel engines called Eve’s Revenge.

Mike was busy working below deck when they came aboard.  Marc called out to him.  He replied, “Down here, in the mechanical room, replacing a bilge pump.  They found their way down just in time to see Mike picking up and throwing his tools back into a five-gallon bucket. He then stood up as he rubbed his hands with a rag. He looked over at them saying, “Good timing, I just finished the dirty work,” with a smile.  Both Eyan and Marc were amazed looking around the compartment; it was spotless.  Mike moved over to a cabinet near the bottom of stairs and began wiping his tools off as he stowed them each in a preformed slot.

They finished loading the supplies aboard and were ready to castoff.  Mike said, “Oh, I nearly forgot, I had a booking come in after you guys left yesterday on my big boat.  The cabin boy/cook was needed on that cruise so will be a bit short handed.  Do you mind?”  Eyan said, “If you can put up with Marc’s cooking, works for me.” As they dropped the mooring lines, it was almost noon – straight up – when they cleared the breakwater.

As they settled down to a cruising speed of about twenty knots, Marc was somewhat surprised that the craft was nearly vibration free. The weather was fair and the sky was cloudless and extremely blue.  He looked at the charts and did some quick calculations; it was 1800 nautical miles to the island.  At cruising speed, they would arrive there at about sunset on the fourth day out, with good weather and smooth sailing.

The trip went by quickly; the three of them became well acquainted and played a lot of poker. The ship had all of the best navigational equipment along with RayMarine Autopilot, backed up with an E120 Radar/GPS/Chartplotter of the same manufacture.  They had been blessed with favorable weather all the way and had made great time.  Shortly after noon of the fourth day, the Island came into view on the radar.  As they approached, they still had several hours of daylight.  They circumnavigated the Island clockwise.  They were closely inspecting the coastline and as they did so, they saw some signs of former habitation, but very few.  They had approached the Island from the northeast now and, as they were completing the full circle, and found themselves near the top bridge of the boot’s shape. They could now see the pilings from an old dock protruding from the water in the cove.  Mike maneuvered the craft into the mouth of the cove and dropped anchor.  They dropped the runabout, Carrib Tender, off the fantail of the ship and loaded a few items, then went ashore.  As they approached the beach, the water was so very clear, it appeared shallow.  Marc jumped off the bow of the tender, so that he could pull the boat to shore.  This would allow Mike to shut down the engine, avoiding prop damage from old coral.  As Marc entered the water, he knew immediately that he had misjudged its depth.  He sank to his neck before touching bottom; both Eyan and Mike almost lost it, laughing so hard.  The look on Marc’s face was priceless.  Mike hit the switch to raise the engine’s shaft from the water, as the bow of the boat silently slid to a stop on the sandy beach.  Eyan stepped out onto the beach and turned to Marc with a straight face and said, as he walked ashore, “We’re going to check out the Island.  When you’re done with your swim, why don’t you join us?” Mike was still laughing so hard, he couldn’t get out of the boat.

A minute later, Marc was ashore and sitting on a remnant of an old foundation wall at the head of what was long ago a dock and building.  He was rinsing the sand from his shoes.  Eyan and Mike were securing the tender to a palm tree, near where they had beached it.  Marc walked up on to the beach and, as he did, he saw what may have been a path through the dense foliage.  He called to the others and pointed to the opening as they approached.  They collected some items such as Machete knives, side arms and water from the tender, before starting out.  Mike had suggested the side arms because the Island was large enough to potentially have wild boars on it, and it was better to be prepared, than not.  The path was inclined as they moved into the foliage, making it difficult to maneuver through.  They could see an opening about twenty yards ahead.  Just before reaching the opening someone had moved large stones onto the path to use as steps up an embankment about five feet high to the opening.  As they emerged into the open and looked around, they could see a large area that had at one time been cleared of old growth trees and palms.

The undergrowth had begun to return and the grass was about knee high.  As they walked out into the opening, it was much larger than it first appeared, Eyan stopped and looked up.   The large trees on the sides of the opening had grown a full arch canopy.  They had entered the clearing from the north side of the Island and were now facing south, as they came to its center.  To their left to the west was the boot heel; there was a large hill of what appeared to be dark volcanic stone covered in dense green shrubs and hundreds of palm trees rising up to 250 feet.  As they turned in the opposite direction, the clearing seemed to go on forever, but they could see an opening – quite large in the distance – up to the top of the island’s bootstrap, to the west.  It was now four in the afternoon.  They decided to clear the path from the beach with the machetes for easier access during the next few days.  When they had finished the task they returned to the boat at anchor and had a swim before dinner.  As the sun was setting in the west, the three were lounging on the fantail having some ice cold beers and talking about the Island.

The conversation became a bit speculative between Marc and Eyan, and then Marc turned to Mike and said, “We’re not really surveying the Island,” and before he could continue, Mike said, “Yeah, I figured that out on my own.  Why do you think I asked you if everything was on the up and up?  I figured you’d tell me when you got around to it.”  Marc apologized and began to tell him the story of how it had all come about.  When he was done, Mike said, “So, you two lease this pile of sand, do ya?  Well, things make a whole lot more sense now.”  Marc gave him a synopsis of the plan he and Eyan had pieced together, then Mike said, “I told you guys I was in the Navy, but that’s not the whole story.  I know you’re curious about the missing leg; it was a service-related injury from early on in the Afghan war, right after the war started.  I was a lower-grade officer in the Seabees; we were building some underground bunkers just outside of Kabul.  I was on a D-9 Cat scraping out the hole, when a grenade bounced off the cage and landed right next to me.  I jumped down on the far side of the seat, but the transmission tunnel wasn’t big enough to completely hide behind. They tried to save it, but by the time they got me to the med station, it was too late.  But – back to the point I was trying to make – I can help you put this place together; that is, if you need some help.  I have a Civil engineering degree and a Master’s in structural engineering from Ohio State. Hell – I had hopes of becoming an architect when I was a kid.  But building things in the middle of the desert with no materials – that taught me more in six months, than six years in school ever did.”  Marc went below and then returned with a document tube.  He popped the cap off, opened it up and then thumbed through several charts.  He then extracted an enlarged chart of the Island.  They moved into the main cabin, spread the chart out on the large table and turned on the overhead light.  After having a chance to actually see the lay of the Island, Marc said, “We need to walk the distance to the far end and see what we have to work with.”  They talked and had a few more beers before calling it a night.

The next day, some low clouds were moving overhead during the early morning with the obligatory rain showers, but disappeared before ten.  Marc and Eyan had begun their hike up the Island toward the top of the bootstrap about eight.  Mike stayed back and assessed the potential of rebuilding the dock and constructing a building to house the pumps and tanks for the island’s fuel supply.  He had completed this chosen assessment by one in the afternoon and was now making his way along the path they had cut yesterday, when his radio crackled and came to life.  It was Marc; he and Eyan were about half way down the Island.  He thought it would be prudent to check the range on the hand-held radios; they were not military issue, just commercial over-the-counter units.  He estimated that the trek would take at least another two hours to reach the west end of the Island.  Mike was planning to pick them up in the tender runabout when they arrived on the sand beach at the top of the boot.

Mike emerged from the path into the open area, and decided to check out the rock formation to the east.  He made his way to the base of the rise, and then realized it was more of a climb than he was up for.  He followed the base of the small hill to the north.  It curved back around to the east; the approach from this direction was more gradual and also had fewer rocks to navigate.  He made good time moving up the hill, he had adapted well to his disability.  Most other men in their forties would have had difficulty staying up with him with two normal limbs.  It took him fifteen minutes to reach the summit.  From the top of the butte, the view was surprising.  He walked to the edge of the bluff facing to the east and looked down; he could see the waves breaking on the rocks almost 200 feet below.  After a moment he turned to the west.  The Island was much easier to visually assess from this vantage point.  He could see where the trees thinned out toward the top of the boot to the west, and then the large expanse of white sand beach that led to the very west end of the Island.  He checked his watch and noted that he would be expected at that very same beach in less than an hour.  He took some mental notes and measurements of the flat area on top of the bluff.  He turned and began descending the hill.  He didn’t want to be late for his appointment with Marc and Eyan.

A short time later, Mike beached the tender next to where Marc and Eyan were standing at the very tip of the Island.  They cruised back to the cove and put some sandwiches together and began to discuss the events of the morning.  One of the more interesting things Marc and Eyan had discovered was that at one time there had been a landing strip down the middle of the Island.  Grass was covering it now, but they could still follow it without effort.  The other thing that they found interesting was the fact that the overhead tree canopy extended over two-thirds of the way down the Island.  Eyan’s description of the canopy was, “It was like walking through a straight tunnel with a light at the end.” The Island was proving to be much more than either Eyan or Marc had imagined.  As the day wound down to the early evening, they all bantered about the basics of the project and how to proceed.   It wasn’t long before Mike had taken the lead voice in the planning stage.  Both Eyan and Marc had begun to defer to his obvious knowledge of both the potential and the reality of the island’s development.  Mike’s first love of life was building things.  After his discharge from the military, he had rechanneled his building instincts to the construction of his charter/cruise business.  He and his wife had done well.  She had received a settlement from her first husband from a divorce.  Her ex had deep pockets, no pre-nup, and rampant penchant for infidelity.  Two years ago, she had been involved in an auto accident and died instantly as a result.  Mike had submersed himself in the charter side of the business and tried not to look back. As a result, the business was somewhat like the dive shops Marc and Eyan shared – very profitable.  Mike had been growing ever so tired of the repetition of the business over the last year and he said as much to Marc and Eyan.

The next morning, Mike said that he would like to show them something that he had tripped across the day before.  He guided them to the hilltop where he had been yesterday morning.   He had already formulated a plan for its utilization.  He pulled out some sketches on a pad and said, “Try to visualize this – the hilltop’s measurements are large enough for a sizable house.  If we were to face the structure to the east and cantilever the rear off the back of the hill just far enough, we could utilize the entire hill as a superstructure for the facility.  We would need to cut into the hill at the bottom, west side to complete the lower floors of the building, but it would be a fully weather-tight facility and easy to air condition.  We would need to run an elevator shaft from the back of the top housing facility straight down the hill.  About half way down, it would enter the ground and emerge on either the second floor or the bottom hanger where the aircraft can be housed.  The bottom level would be the same level as the tarmac.  My preliminary estimate of the square footage would be about 14,000 square feet.  That’s inclusive of the hanger, of course!  Both Marc and Eyan’s heads were spinning.  Neither could believe that he had conjured the vision and sketched it out overnight.

On the way home the next day, Mike was hard at work refining the drawings and adding auxiliary implements along the way.  As he was working, Mike realized that it was the first time in a very long time that he was truly enjoying what he was doing.  That evening at dinner, Mike brought up the subject of the construction on the island. Before he could phrase his questions and ask if they had someone lined up for the construction of the project, Marc said, “Mike, Eyan and I want to know if you might be interested in managing the project for us. We know it could be extremely difficult, especially considering you have a thriving business of your own to tend to.  But we just never realized the extent that this project could reach and, all in all, it’s more than we can handle and also generate the cash needed to complete it.”  Before Marc had finished his sentence, Mike was already smiling. It was as if Marc had read his mind.  Mike said, “I have a secret to share with both of you.  I was just about to ask you guys if you would consider using me to put this thing together.  I have contacts all over the islands and even some of my old buddies from the Seabees are hanging around looking for things to do.  We can do this thing and, if I’m not mistaken, for a lot less than one might suspect.”  Eyan said, “How and where do we save on the costs?  I don’t follow.”  Mike said, “As far as the logistics go, I know several companies that handle shipping to and from the islands. There are always ships available, especially in the lesser season that can be had for pennies on the dollar, and then when you consider I have the crews to man them and the licensing to contract them, it’s a snap.  Then, looking at the actual building on the Island, remember we are our own government.  We inspect our own work and we can use unconventional methods in our building, so we can circumvent the cost of elaborate architectural and engineering fees.  As I said, we could use the mountain itself as the structural backbone of the project.  That alone will save tens of thousands of dollars in materials.  We stay with the basics – steel imbedded in concrete, use the latest in free-form design.  It’ll be as green a building as any being built around the globe at a fraction of the cost.”

At this point, both Marc and Eyan were excited as to the prospects of the venture.  Eyan said, “Mike, what do you want out of this?  How can we ensure mutual equity?  This is going to be a big project.”  Mike said, “Will use the KISS system – you know – ‘keep-it-simple-stupid.’  You guys oversee the payments as they come in; that keeps you up-to-date on all the funding.  I’ll submit all requisitions in advance – let’s say over $25,000 dollars – for your approval.  We keep a $25,000 slush fund for the incidentals. As for me, how does cost, plus two percent monthly, sound?  Once we have an idea of the total scope of the project, we can revisit the money issue, if necessary.  I can probably have a ballpark estimate within a couple weeks.”

Before they arrived back at home port, the three of them had created a strong bond of friendship Once again, the years they had all served in the Navy was a strong elixir.  Over the next few weeks, Marc worked with Mike to formulate a general design for the Island.  Eyan had taken a trip back to California to amass the general funds needed to start the job.  He had also had several meetings with Robin Evans, the manager at the two dive shops.  He and Marc had decided to take him on as a third partner in the venture and all they would ask of him was his signature.  He had, from the very start, been the primary catalyst in the business, and they both agreed that he had earned the partnership many times over. They also discussed the plan to move – both north to the San Francisco area for a third shop – and westward to Honolulu for a fourth.  Robin had been a “hands-on” type of manager, but now he would need to step back and take an overview position and train new managers for all the shops.

Before Eyan returned to Hawaii, he and Robin went over the books for both locations.  Robin was smiling when Eyan began to understand that the shops had redoubled their profits from only a year earlier.  The second shop hadn’t been open a year yet, and it was surpassing the San Diego shop’s numbers.  There was almost two million dollars in the primary account, and a vast overallotment still in the payroll account.  Eyan rolled a million and a half from the primary account to the Serenity Group’s General Construction Account which he had just opened with a little bit over $3,000,000 with a contribution from Marc and himself.  The dive shops were listed as a subsidiary of “The Serenity Group” and Robin had no signatory rights above the dive shop’s level.

When Marc picked Eyan up at the airport in Honolulu, he was more than surprised to learn of the unexpected windfall from the shops.  They drove to the harbor, pulled into Mike’s facility, parked next to the office and walked inside.  Eyan had also closed out their apartments in California and either stored or shipped the remaining things to Hawaii before returning.  Mike was on the phone when they entered his office.  He raised his hand with his index finger in the air indicating he would be a moment.  Both Marc and Eyan took a seat and waited.  When Mike finished his call and hung up the phone he said smiling, “Well that’s the icing on the cake.  The Reinhold, a ship, is available for four to six months; she’s an inter-island-sized freighter, equipped with dock booms and a crane aft, with a commercial-sized hold.  She’s big enough for a cat-bulldozer with full blade.  The equipment company is giving us great pricing on anything we need; this down economy is kicking their butt.  Their lot is crammed with rental stuff and the insurance alone is choking them.  I’ve talked to nine of my old buddies, seven have signed on and two of them said they had several reliable, but more importantly, qualified friends that would jump at a chance of a good, stable job.

Mike pulled out some large rolled blue prints from the side of his desk and opened them up.  Eyan’s surprise was all over his face.  Mike and Marc had been hard at work putting the plans together. They had drawn it on enlarged satellite maps of the Island. Now the Island had a name.  Eyan had to smile as he looked over a map naming the Island Serenity.

He could see the position of the runway down the center of the island, running right up to the hill at the heel of the boot.  They had a large structure cut into the side of the hill where the runway terminated at a large tarmac.  He could see another outline that followed the entire top of the hill and extended out over the structure at the bottom of the hill. Marc explained that this would be the perimeter of the house that would sit on top of the hill; some of it directly above the hanger facility far below, but still connected by an elevator.  He could also see a dock and pump house located in the cove area.  Next, Mike pulled out more drawings that even Marc had not seen; now it was his turn to be surprised.  Mike had a full set of drawings for the house as he proposed it.  Marc said, “I’m not even going to ask when you had time to do these,” knowing that they had worked together eight and ten hours a day – almost every day – over the past two weeks. The drawings were not just floor plans but were, in fact, full color pencil renderings of the rooms and exterior deck, kitchen and workout room with tech facility center.  The house itself was 4,600 square feet.  It was constructed of free-form concrete and structural-tied rebar, as were the other two structures making up the compound.  The house was an amazing feat of engineering; the ocean side of it was nearly all glass floor-to-ceiling.  Each six-foot wide section of one and a half-inch thick glass, pivoted on a center axis, working like multiple giant vertical louvers. The automated weather sensors continually adjusted the doors to shunt any excessive wind or rain from the structure.  The exterior terrace that surrounded the entire house was slightly over twenty feet wide, constructed of concrete with imbedded crushed black lava rock.  Each of the large four bedrooms had a double pivotal glass doorway to the exterior deck and large private bath.  The main room that faced the west, looking through the pivoting animated glass panels, was somewhat pie-shaped.  The point of the pie was a large open kitchen area that led to a central hall to the rear of the house.  Off of the hallway was a fifth bathroom and workout facility with all the toys, sauna-room and a whirlpool bath included.  Moving on down the hallway was the entrance to the elevator that descended to the hanger facility that was carved into the rocky hill that the house sat upon.  Beyond the elevator, on down the hall, were the doorways to the four bedrooms.

Mike then opened up more drawings; these were of the lower supply and hanger facility.  The floor plan would accommodate two auxiliary living quarters, each 700 square feet, with a sizable general storage room on one side of the hall.  On the other side were two areas, one a small electrical mechanical room equipped with bathroom and storage facilities for aircraft general maintenance.  The other, a large storage area for dry goods and fresh and frozen foods.  Then, of course, was the actual hanger itself – big enough for a large corporate jet.  Above the hanger, on the second level, was the in-door shooting range and armament room.

Marc had been on the phone with Martin Colby in Madrid several times during the prior week discussing his thoughts about a possible aircraft for The Serenity Group.  After arriving at the fact that there were several needs that could not be overlooked before acquiring such a craft, Martin said that he might be able to help them acquire a craft that both filled their needs, and would be financially within their reach.  What he proposed was that The Serenity Group lease Martin’s Gulfstream G150 from the Die/Hex Corp.  There were tax benefits for his company in buying out the aircraft’s lease, and he had a new G250 due for delivery in a month or so, anyway.

Knowing the size of the aircraft was helpful in designing the hanger facility without a doubt; however, Colby’s offer solved a more pressing problem that either of them had really considered.  The Island of Serenity was located in such a remote area that a small aircraft simply didn’t have the range to reach it. This forced them into a larger aircraft that would cost much more to operate and maintain.  They had amassed a small fortune and that was the problem – that they had amassed a small fortune.  They now realized Serenity was going to cost more – much more.  Over the next few days, the three of them worked to refine the plan for Serenity.  When they cleared the runaway for use, they would leave the overhead canopy intact.  This would save time which would translate to money.  It ran almost two-thirds of the length of the island’s runway.  But because of the rise at the heel of the boot, one could only land or takeoff in one direction; takeoff to the west and land to the east.  The dense foliage on all sides would also help shield the landing and takeoffs from extreme cross-winds.

Mike had made arrangements for his second-in-command to take over the cruise and charter business for the interim.  He was far too busy to do both jobs.  He and Eyan set sail for the Island the next morning to begin doing the survey work in advance of the first of many island freighters that would be arriving over the next few weeks.

Marc, on the other hand, was packing his bags, enroot to Spain to finalize the paper work with Martin on the G150’s lease.  Marc knew that this could most likely be done by e-mail, but the real fact was, he wanted to see Dara again.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Reality Sucks

When Marc arrived at Madrid’s Barajas Aeropuerto, he was retrieving his baggage from the turnstile when he heard a familiar voice from over his shoulder say, “Hey, stranger – need a ride?”  He turned to see Dara standing directly behind him, wearing a glowing smile.  He reached out and pulled her toward him and whispered in her ear, “I’m looking for the ride of my life; how about you?” She said, “It could be arranged, but only if you’re ‘up’ for it,” as she returned the smile.  He retrieved his luggage and they made their way to Dara’s newly-purchased split-level townhouse, a short distance down the road from Villa Martini.

They pulled into the driveway and turned off the car.  Marc said, “So, how’s the new job working out with Martin?” Dara looked over at him and said, “What you see is what you get.  He’s fine – a perfect gentleman in public and in private, he takes no advantage.  It’s amazing, in general.  It’s a lot different than working at Europol but, I have to admit, I miss the excitement a lot.”

As they got out of her car, Marc’s attention was pulled away from Dara’s lure, and he finally noticed that the car was a brilliant blood red as he closed the trunk lid, after retrieving his luggage.  He said, “Nice ride – and I like the color.”  Dara’s reply was, “If you work for Martin, you learn to love red through osmosis; it comes with the paycheck.  Besides, it’s hard to bitch about a $230,000 work vehicle,” as she pressed the lock button on the remote to the SLS-AMG Benz.

As they walked up the narrow entry to Dara’s front door, Marc noticed from behind that Dara had cut off a sizeable length of her hair.  As she keyed in her entry code on the door lock, Marc said, “Do you change the length of your hair often?”  He suddenly realized he really didn’t know a great deal about her.  Dara opened the door, and then turning to him said, “You know, you would have made a great detective.  And the answer to that is no, I don’t usually, but I find myself at a lot more social functions in strapless gowns.  So, I wear my hair up and it’s a lot easier to do at this length.” She reached behind her and swirled her hair up into a bun, striking a model’s pose.  Marc dropped his baggage, as he stepped closer to her and took her in his arms.  He held her for an instant; there wasn’t a nook or cranny of either of their bodies that didn’t fit perfectly together. Marc said, “I’m ready for that ride right now!”

The next morning, Marc and Dara drove to Villa Martini and were greeted at the entrance to the main house by Martin.  After the niceties were shared, they got down to business, discussing the aircraft lease.  Martin as usual, had everything broken down into a simple contractual agreement.  Marc was astounded at the information.  Martin had also put together a projected ownership cost evaluation so that there would be no rude surprises for The Serenity Group.  After reviewing the information, Marc was satisfied that he and Eyan would indeed be able to support the outlay of capital necessary to support this part of the venture.  He made arrangements with Martin for the aircraft to be delivered to the airport in Honolulu when he received the new Gulfstream 280 that was on order.  Later, after signing all the paperwork and finalizing the deal, they, including Ashton Stiles, had drinks and caught up on the information on the Island project.  They then enjoyed an amazing dinner prepared by Martin’s new chief chef at the villa.  A short while later, Marc made a reference to being tired, possibly from the jet lag, and suggested they head toward her condo.  Martin and Stiles smiled, they both knew he was looking for some private down time with Dara.

Early the next morning, Marc remembered his e-mail alert on his phone chiming sometime during the night.  He retrieved his phone and read his messages.  One from Eyan said that he had returned to the main Island to order some special equipment for the work on Serenity and was planning on returning to the Island in two days’ time on a supply boat. One of the other messages was from Robin Evans, their partner in the dive shops, saying he had found the location for the third shop just below Santa Cruz and was negotiating a lease for the property.  The last of the mail was from someone that Marc did not know, named Nicklaus Marquand.  The voice mail said, “I have been given your contact information by Martin Colby.  He has assured me that you possess the qualities necessary to assist me in extracting my son’s wife and my grandson out of Cairo, Egypt.  As you may know, the social unrest has grown far beyond what was expected, very quickly.  My son’s wife and my grandson were visiting him when all this occurred.  He was at work at his station at the U.S. embassy when it all started to come unraveled.  He was assigned courier papers and given orders for extraction by Marine helicopter to a ship in the Mediterranean two days ago.  My daughter in-law, Renae, and grandson, Max, were at his residence.  We have been in contact with them by cell phone a few hours ago.  They are safe, but sequestered in their apartment near Tahrir Square.  I don’t know anything about the Serenity Group.  Martin was playing it very close to the vest, but I trust him.  Please contact me at your earliest convenience.”

Marc wrote down the contact information and dialed Eyan, hoping to catch him still on the main island.  He and Dara had also planned to spend a few days in Valencia at the Mediterranean Shores Boutique Spa, playing with the go-fast boat and such, but reality sucks at times.

He was able to catch Eyan before his departure back to the island and fill him in on the call from Marquand. He asked Eyan to begin assembling the gear needed for the retrieval before ending the call.  He then returned Marquand’s call and was filled in on the missing information.

Marc called Martin and thanked him for the referral also saying that if any paperwork needed to be signed on the Gulfstream, he would need to do it quickly not knowing how long it would take to get a flight out.  Martin said, “Marc, I have no pressing need for the aircraft.  How about I have Stiles drop over and pick you up?  You can be on the ground in Hawaii by sunrise tomorrow, and back in Cairo the next.  We can settle up later, and it will give you an idea of what you can expect of the aircraft.”  Marc was once more taken by Martin’s generosity and said, “Martin that’s a generous offer but things are beginning to get a little out of balance, don’t ya’ think?” Martins answer was simple, “Not when you consider that I still have Laurel to watch grow-up.  I’ll have Stiles call you as soon as he can get the plan in action.” And then he said, “Goodbye.”  Marc had met a lot of people worth a lot of money, but Martin was one that stood above all the rest, he was possibly the most unpretentious person he had ever met.

Just then, Dara came walking out of the bedroom to the main living room. She was still towel drying her hair having just stepped out of the shower.  She was positively radiant with her usual full-body tan.  It must have been the look on Marc’s face or perhaps she was just a bit clairvoyant.  She knew something was up saying, “Why do I have the feeling were not headed to Valencia?”

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