Amen, Sisters!

Women gathered yesterday to make their voices heard across America in cities such as Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Madison, Denver, Park City, Bismark, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles — from sea to shining sea.  It was the largest protest in U.S. history!

And for our sisters across the world who also participated from places such as Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Melbourne, London, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Sidney, Tokyo and even Antarctica — 670 gatherings around the world with 4.6 million attending!  Thank you all for your solidarity and for helping us get the message out.

Many of you may have voted for our now-President because you felt oppressed — like your voice wasn’t being heard; like no one understood the difficult economic fights you had.  Like your dollar wasn’t going far enough.  Like you were a second-class citizen, never able to reach the next rung up.  Isn’t that why you voted for someone who promised he would fix all of that?  Will he?  Well, the first step would be to acknowledge the message.

Women all over the world have fought those very same tough battles every day. We have consistently been paid less than a man in the same position, even though we may have more education than the man does.  Women are sometimes overlooked or under-represented in positions of power because there is still that perception that women lack strength; that they can’t make tough decisions when called upon to do so; that the Chairman of the Board should have the face of a man, not a woman.  And even, I dare say, that the President of the United States — the most powerful country in the world — should be a man, and not a woman.

The glass ceiling we were so close to breaking, remains intact.  But that doesn’t mean we’re defeated.

Case in point:  Read the signs of the women who gathered:

     Women’s Rights are Human Rights

     Hear Our Voice

     Marching to Protect the Rights for Which Our Mother’s Fought

     Hope Never Fades

     Keep Your Laws Off My Body

     Our Bodies … Our Mind … Our Power

It is time to let old perceptions die.  It is time to open the collective eye and openly acknowledge that we are — after all – one, among a vast sea of humanity, on a bright blue dot in an ever-evolving universe.

Make no mistake gentlemen — we have been heard.  I believe we can and will make a difference.  Hear that message.

 

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

Saying Farewell

On Tuesday evening, January 10th, President Obama will give his farewell speech in his hometown of Chicago after two terms of service.

I hope his farewell message will inspire us to look harder at how we can work together for the mutual benefit of each other and for the well-being and health of our country and its economy.  Nothing should be more important than that.

If we fail in that regard — if we continue to act like children taking sides — we won’t have to worry about Putin — or any other foreign influences — for that matter.  We will have done the job for them.

Yes, clearly, I am an Obama fan, but that doesn’t mean I have always agreed with him.

I have, however, respected that he volunteered for perhaps what is the most difficult job in our country and his commitment has been unswerving.  He has kept the dignity of the office and earned the respect of both our military and intelligence agencies.  And he promises to walk at our side in solidarity as we continue to move forward.  I say you cannot ask for more than that.

So, I will be listening on Tuesday night and undoubtedly feeling somewhat nostalgic — but ready, nevertheless, to turn the page.

Remember, it is our resolve — as American citizens — that gets the job done — every day.

Join me.

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.

A Message To Our Friends

Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Istanbul who experienced a senseless attack while innocently and joyously celebrating the coming of the New Year.

Terrorists are just thugs and cowards that mirror childhood images of the neighborhood bully.  You know, the one you really wanted to poke in the face. Yeah, that’s him.

But, when we stand up to the gutless wonders of the world who hide behind the skirts of women and hold children up as shields and expose them for what they are — low-life cowards — that’s when we win and that’s when they lose their power.

Istanbul, you are stronger than you feel today.

Join us in melding our beliefs into a common goals — we will be stronger and better than ever before.  All it takes is extending a hand — and we have so many to extend.

To everyone in Turkey – our hearts are with you and we are honored to stand strongly by your side in the midst of your sea of anguish.

We’ve got your six.

Peace …

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.

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