Things Here … and There

Knowing they didn’t have enough support (or even enough of their own party’s support), Paul Ryan and President Trump finally threw in the towel late this week and pulled the health care repeal bill from the floor — and well it should have been.  Screwing 24 million Americans out of health insurance, increasing costs to a segment of the older population who mostly live on fixed incomes, telling mothers that their maternity-related costs would no longer be covered and oh, by the way, did we mention that they could no longer depend on Planned Parenthood for help with reproductive choices, not to mention the exclusion of the pre-existing clause? It should go without saying that only a politician with no conscience whatsoever could stand in front of the American people and propose the passage of such a bill.   And speaking of conscience, while some part of me would like to think it had something to do with the actual outcome here, I suspect that the reality is more likely that the bill’s lack of support had something to do with the fear of losing an upcoming election. <Just saying …>

So, President Trump now moves on to tax reform — which I guaranty you will only benefit the top 1% of earners in America who will see what amounts to an increase of somewhere near a 20% boost to their income, while the rest of the American population would only see a boost of somewhere between 1% and 10% to their income. Does that sound like equality to you?  Forecasters at the Tax Foundation and the Tax Policy Center have predicted that what then-candidate Trump previously proposed during his campaign as his plan for tax reform would add trillions (yes, that was with a “t”) to our deficit.  How long would it take us, as a country, to dig out of that?  And is this what we want to leave to our next generation?  A precedent of inequality and a lifetime of paying off the debt? To the benefit of whom?

And while all eyes appear to be on Washington and our controversial President, be aware that tensions are escalating around the Straight of Hormuz, a Straight only 21 miles across in one area, where one-third of all the oil shipped by sea must pass through.  Politics are very much in play in this region.  Iranian hardliners may be trying to put pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is the subject of an election this May.  As I have mentioned in my blog before, these hardliners are thought to be behind many of the ever-increasing provocative actions that have been carried out against U.S. and other vessels as they enter and pass through the Straight in international waters.  Previously, President Trump has warned Iran that any challenges to our ships would result in Iranian vessels “being blown out of the water.”  However, just this week, as the USS George H.W. Bush passed through the Straight, Iranian vessels appeared yet again — all weapons armed — and came within 940 feet of our carrier while our armed sailors stood at the ready.

For the sake of many nations, let us hope that we are not provoked into being the catalyst that throws gas on what appears to be already-glowing embers — in a very volatile region.

Shalom, my friends.  Stay vigilant.  And speak loudly – with One Voice.

Our Voice

Once upon a time … long, long ago …. America had but one voice — whether we faced outwardly — toward the world stage in alliance with our neighbors and friends — or whether we faced an internal challenge among our own countrymen.

It was a voice that was truthful, measured and compassionate, and yet firm in its conviction.  Most of all, it was all-encompassing.  No one was excluded.  No one was left out. Democracy is about strength — and it’s about courage.  And it’s about having guts.

Since the era of George Washington, we chose one person to speak and be that voice for us … even when we didn’t agree … because, after all, we were one, with one collective voice.  It was important that we faced our allies with strength and understanding and were able and willing to lend a helping hand.  To those who were adverse to us, we offered to listen.  We offered to negotiate our differences.

On that very foundation, we began to shape our collective identity as Americans. Able to rise, ready to roll up our sleeves every morning, and get our jobs done.

Since January, we have seen and experienced divisiveness, deception, turmoil and near-chaos from our President and and his so-called administration.  The very fabric of our country — our beliefs, goals and ideals — are systematically being dismantled — each one held up like a trophy before being gleefully shattered on the ground before our very eyes.

It makes me sad and it makes me mad.  I am one of those people who have for more years than I care to share, gotten up every morning and put my best foot forward.  “Not On My Watch” has always been my motto.  And, believe me, I know there are plenty of us out there — currently working or not — that gladly contributed to that great fabric and provided some of the strength behind that great voice we have.  I am angry that our President and his self-serving, billionaire Wall Street appointees have such little respect for what we contributed — and in some cases, what we continue to contribute — every day.

And for those great, self-less men and women of America, who put their husband or wives, families and careers on hold while they served our country — what an affront to those people!  Do they not know that thousands upon thousands of people have died protecting that fabric — that belief system?  What more could a country ask?

I feel as though I need to write a letter of apology to Japan, who was the first to extend its hand in friendship to this nightmare of an administration.  And to China who has generously offered to mediate in relations regarding North Korea. To Germany for being willing to meet our President in spite of her personally being the subject of his hostile, tweeting rants in the past.  And to Great Britain, whom we just outright insulted because our President just makes things up because it might make a good headline and it’s always a good diversionary tactic.

Yes, we do have to ride this ugly, old, bumpy, paint-peeling, wheels-falling-off wagon until the bitter end for whatever the future holds for our country.  It is what it is.

But if you have the opportunity to speak out — to add your voice to ours — speak out loudly with strength and conviction.  Let us all be The Voice that doesn’t stop speaking about truth <a concept our President has yet to acknowledge>, our compassion and lack of sectarianism <obviously towards a religion that scares the Be-Jesus out of him>, and our American honor <instead of proving to the world that he has none and never will have>.

Yes, please join Our Voice — the Voice of America — who speaks the truth — even in the darkest of days.  Our Voice can be the beacon of what’s right with America.

Shalom …

Comments Welcome!

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again … shalom!


Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 28 and 29


The Turkey Shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now, There Were Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I work for myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The End]

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

The Pot That’s Bubbling On The Back Of The Stove

I know, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Frankly, it has taken me some time now to wrap my head around our new President and the daily bombing that’s happening in Washington.

Every day, I drive to work listening to 1A on NPR radio as the usual BMW, Lexus and Escalade drivers do their lane-crashing thing as they approach 200 feet of their parking garage.  What? They’ve never driven there before? It’s not that.  It’s just that the rules of the road don’t apply to them — never did.  Our President appears to have the same thought process.  In his mind’s eye, his election was akin to any other corporate conquest he’s achieved.  After all, it’s not like this is a republic formed by the people and for the people.  Hell no.  He Inherited A Mess, he says, and he’s The Only Man In America Who Can Fix It; the Only Man That Can Make America Great Again. He’ll Bring Manufacturing Jobs Back To America.  Let’s stop there.  I’m sorry, Donald, but that train has already left the station.  Come on!  Look around the world.  We’re not the only country experiencing that issue. It is a natural by-product of invention and ingenuity.  High school educations aren’t going to cut it anymore for our young people.  They are going to have to find new ways to contribute to our forward movement and that will likely mean achieving advanced degrees.  How can a man who has been in business as long as Donald Trump has, not see that?  Perhaps it’s a natural by-product of living in an alternate reality.

Let me be honest.  I know why people voted for him — I get it.  People are tired of the same old politics in Washington.  The ones that have produced a paralysis that has gripped and polarized our elected officials to the point where nothing gets done anymore.  Change is good — I agree.  But change for the sake of change is what we got instead — and that kind of change is never productive.

It’s only the first month of Trump’s administration — and personally, I don’t see much “administering” going on.  He’s buried in mire of accusations about his Russian investments which could (and should) suggest at the very least a quid pro quo situation.  He’s refused to produce his tax returns.  Refused to divest himself of his business dealings — clearly dismissing conflict of interest issues.  He’s taken aim at the media because he doesn’t like what they say.  And the people he has chosen to surround himself with? Let’s see how that’s working:

Flynn’s already taken a bullet for the team which has resulted in a sad end to a long career when he was offered up after lying to Pence about his Russian contacts.

Priebus was the next one selected to take one for the team by reaching out to the FBI asking them to publicly disavow news reports.  His career will be short-lived, no doubt.

And don’t count on Rex Tillerson to bail things out overseas.  He is a very savvy and well-seasoned businessman who didn’t get where he is by being a yes-man. Tick him off and he’s liable to turn around and hand back the Secretary of State position and move on.  You know — like mitigating your losses?

Mattis, on the other hand, may be the only stabilizing force out there.  A military officer who, it is reported, often left his ribbons behind for casual wear and who regularly mixed with the enlisted men in his command, generating some strong, vocal (and long-lived) respect.  Trust me, the voices of reason are counting on him to be the only cool head in a sea of turmoil.

Our allies across the seas are sitting with their hands to their mouths like an Oscar audience that just witnessed someone tripping up the stairs.  What will happen next, they wonder?  Well, that’s hard to say when you’re tethered to the coattails of Donald Trump.

There are bad men in the world.  Look at Kim Jong-un, who saw nothing wrong with ordering the death of his half-brother in a public airport using a nerve agent and who is itching to push the button that would launch a Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, that has a range of 1,550 miles.  And there are subversively bad men in the world like Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB agent, who is ever-so-familiar with the concept of coercion in order to achieve his goals for Russia.

One would think that our President’s thoughts should be more centered on how he keeps America and Americans safe in such a world.  One would think he would have a larger agenda than resorting to picking who is in the press audience.

For the sake of all Americans, Mr. President, get your head out of wherever it is — and start acting like the leader of the greatest democracy in the world!


Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 26 and 27

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


Into The Black Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 24 and 25


Retribution In Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Time To Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 21, 22 and 23


Serenity Awaits

One week later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Time To Catch Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Darken Skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

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


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.




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.
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