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|Chapter 12: Departures|
Time, it is oft said, heals all wounds, but Chase’s had not yet been given time. In his heart of hearts, he was glad that he’d have a few days apart from Eric, and hoped that things would be back to normal by the time Eric returned from wherever he was going.
Eric, for his part, found himself subtly rattled by the evident remaining tension, and he too hoped that his absence would help bridge the rift. Helen’s full reaction to the events at the party, delayed until their return to Los Angeles, had been a mix of ice and fury, one he would not soon forget.
With those recollections in mind and with everyone ostensibly too busy sleeping to see him off, Eric secured his khaki duffle, mounted his motorcycle, and turned the starter with solitary purpose. He listened to the roar of the engine as it rose and then subsided, before putting his bike in gear and riding at a more sedate than usual pace across the dark streets of Los Angeles.
In the quiet din of a city dawn, Eric wheeled his motorcycle into the parking lot at Van Nuys Airport, the short ride having passed in thought. The one firm decision he’d made was that he’d keep his vow: no more tequila. He’d realized, if belatedly, the risks he’d run, but more critically just how much havoc he’d caused, so many times, for those who were important to him. Eric wasn’t close to many people, but for those to whom he was, he valued them more than he would ever admit. Not so much for his own sake, but for theirs, he forswore forever the tequila he loved.
Lost in his drifting reminisces, Eric shouldered his duffle bag and strolled over to the Consolidated Jet Charters office. After the perfunctory greetings, he’d been directed towards his waiting plane.
The pilot ushered Eric aboard, both of them stooping due to the cabin’s low ceiling. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Carlisle. I’m Fred Beam and I’ll be your pilot.” The pilot smiled as he handed Eric, per normal procedure, a business card and an informational pamphlet, both emblazoned with the company name and logo. The purpose of the business card was so that the client, during the ground leg of their charter period, would be able to contact the charter offices and the flight crew, the latter via satellite phones. Eric, who had been through the boarding procedure many times before, smiled and slid the card into his wallet. With that taken care of, the pilot said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this short for now because we need to take off right away. If we don’t, we’ve got an hour’s wait for another departure slot. I’ll send the Navigator back to brief you as soon as we’re in the air.”
Finding the Learjet somewhat similar to the ones Instinct had previously used – The Lear had been chosen due to the range needed – Eric nodded amiably to the pilot and the two flight crew who had remained in the cockpit. Receiving friendly acknowledgements from the pilot and copilot, and glancing at the back of the apparently oblivious and outwardly busy navigator, Eric walked to the rear of the plane.
The Lear’s cabin was cramped; essentially a narrow tube less then six feet in internal diameter, it had eight seats. These were arranged in pairs, facing one another, two pairs on either side of the narrow aisle. Stooping a little, Eric walked to the last pair of seats on the plane’s left side and plopped himself down into the plush leather of the rearmost, which faced forward. He glanced absently at the pamphlet in his hand, and slipped it into the magazine slot built into the fuselage next to the two seats, intending to read it later… if he had nothing else to do.
Donning his earphones and cuing up his iPod, Eric settled back, watching with interest and a slight vestige of tension as the jet taxied out, and then began its takeoff roll.
As the roar of the engines subsided, the plane banked towards the dawn, climbing out on the first leg of its long journey. Eric eased his seat all the way back and closed his eyes, hoping for some sleep.
Fifteen minutes later, a voice and a nudge against his shoulder intruded upon Eric’s fruitless quest for slumber, “Sir, I’m your navigator, and I’ll also be acting as your bartender. We have some meals and beverages for you and your guests, once they are aboard. Can I get you anything?”
Not wanting to open his eyes and thus scuttle any chance for sleep, Eric smiled politely and said, “I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t ask for tequila,” General Bradson said as he aimed his camera at Eric, holding it just below his shoulder level and using its LCD screen as the viewfinder.
Momentarily puzzled why the navigator would have reason to say that, Eric opened his eyes and looked to his right at the ‘navigator’. The shock of recognition, compounded by the apparent incongruity, caused Eric’s jaw to drop open and his eyes to bulge. The actinic flash of the General’s camera did nothing to abate Eric’s confusion, and he asked in a stunned voice, “General Bradson… what are you doing here, and, uh, what’s with the camera?”
Smiling, the General slid his tall frame into the seat opposite Eric’s, and after a few moment’s silence, replied in an intentionally offhand way, “Oh, Helen said she wished she could see the look on your face when you found out I was on board, so I promised I’d take a picture.”
With gut-clenching apprehension replacing confusion, Eric sputtered, “Helen knows?”
The camera in the General’s hands flashed again, and then he set it aside before replying with a chuckle, “I figured she’d like one of that expression, too. Yep, she’s the one who told me about it, so I think it’s a safe bet that she knows.”
“How… Why… What are you doing here?” Eric asked, as he tried to make sense of what he’d been told. After a moment, he added, “If Helen knows, why did she let me go?”
With a shrug, accompanied by another chuckle, the General replied, “I’m just guessing here, but I doubt she objects to your trip, otherwise she’d have probably said something to you. As for me, that’s a lot more complicated. I’m here because I needed a ride somewhere. Unless I get your agreement, your two pilots are going to drop me off in Telluride when you land there. I’m here because of my son.” The General leaned back into his seat, and gave Eric a brief rundown of his son’s predicament. With that background out of the way, the General continued, “I won’t tell you what I’m planning on doing, because that knowledge could put you at risk for legal charges. The Feds have been investigating me; they suspect what I’m up to. I need a way to get out of the country and to my destination unobserved and without going through passport control anywhere. What I want to do is tag along to the Canary Islands with you, with me playing the role of flight crew. Then, after you’re on the ground, this plane will take me somewhere, drop me off, and then return in ample time to pick you up. If you are agreeable so far, I do need to ask for your silence. For your sake as well as my own, I was never here, okay?”
“That last bit sounds like a line out of a bad spy novel,” Eric quipped in an attempt at humor that fell flat as his confusion and shock ebbed. He then added in a quiet and serious tone, “Count me in. I’ll help in any way I can. Will you need any help getting back?”
In a slightly darker tone, the General replied, “That won’t be a problem, no matter what.”
His curiosity aroused, Eric wanted to ask for details, but the General’s expression left no room to suppose that they would be forthcoming. Instead, he said, “I hope that you and your son can come to the wedding in two weeks. You’re both invited to the wedding and the bachelor party.”
Knowing that would be singularly unlikely no matter what transpired, General Bradson answered with a nod and then said, “Thanks, Eric. I’ll let Brian know, if… ” The General let his words trail off, unwilling to give voice to the many things that particular ‘if’ could encompass. The General was under no illusions as to his chances for success, or the even longer odds against his own survival. He also knew that even if he should succeed, he would not long be at liberty. That thought triggered another involving a very minor detail, but General Bradson was a man of his word. “Does that laptop of yours have an SD memory card reader?”
Eric looked at the sides and back of his high-end laptop, and found two slots that he judged to be roughly the right size. However, they were not labeled, so he said with a shrug, “I can see two it might fit, but I can’t tell for sure.”
“One way to find out, just be careful and don’t force it,” the General said with a smile as he handed Eric the postage-stamp sized memory card.
Eric found that one slot was too narrow. Trying the other, he found that it fit perfectly. Opening his file manager, he found that the card had been recognized as a new drive. He clicked it open, and copied the two files to his desktop. He then clicked on one, and then the other, to display the pictures. “You’re right, Helen will love these. I look like my jaw is about to hit the floor,” Eric said, as he ejected the drive from his system tray and then handed the General the memory card.
As the General popped the card back into his Canon camera, he gave Eric a faint smile and a nod. With nothing left to say, he returned to the cockpit to convey the news of Eric’s agreement to the flight crew.
Sitting back down in the jump seat – the Lear didn’t require a navigator, and there were no actual navigational instruments accessible from the General’s position – General Bradson said, “Eric agreed. I was pretty sure he would. I guess it’s a go, provided you guys are still okay with this. Now that we’re in the air, I feel that I should mention one other thing, especially as I just told Eric. One of the two U.S. Marines I’m trying to save happens to be my son. I hope that doesn’t change anything.”
Fred glanced at his co-pilot, and saw that, as expected, there was no sign of refusal. They’d talked the mission over not long after General Bradson had first approached the pilot, and the co-pilot, after some initial hesitation, had agreed. “No problems here, General. As far as I’m concerned, family comes first, and I’d do this for any serviceman. Like I told you when we met; you saved my family so I’m sure as hell not going to begrudge you for trying to save your son. I guess this flight will be one to remember, except that Charlie and I will be forgetting it right after it’s done. Right, Charlie?” The co-pilot nodded in agreement.
The General nodded, and then used the time to start reviewing his plans for the insertion, filling the flight crew in on all the details.
Eric found the landing in Telluride to be somewhat tense due to the proximity of the mountains. He’d landed there many times before, but ever since one very bad day when a bomb went off, killing the pilot and resulting in a terrifying emergency landing, he'd been more apprehensive when it came to flying.
Breathing a sigh of relief as the plane came to a standstill near the small terminal building, Eric unbuckled his seat belt and went to stand by the door, which the pilot was busy opening. As the door opened and the pilot lowered the stairs, Eric glanced across the tarmac to see Jim and Linda, each toting a medium sized suitcase, hustling towards the plane. Bounding down the stairs to greet them, Eric took Linda’s suitcase and said with a lopsided smile, “No need to hurry, they need to top up the tanks and they won’t leave without us.”
Once the suitcases had joined his duffle bag in the cabin’s small baggage compartment, Jim glanced through the open cockpit door, and then did a fast double take as he recognized General Bradson. Receiving a wink from the General – who he’d met in Telluride the night Brandon and Chase came out, as well as seeing him on TV many times – Jim turned in confusion, and before he could form a question, Eric was heading for the rear of the cabin, motioning for Jim and Linda to follow.
Eric ushered Jim and Linda into the pair of seats across the aisle from his own, and took note of Jim’s puzzled glance towards the cockpit. Once they were all seated, Linda gushed, “This is fantastic! I’ve always wanted to fly on a private jet, and getting to do it for my honeymoon is just perfect! Thanks for this, Eric!”
Chuckling, Eric replied, “After you nailed me with that bouquet at your wedding, I nearly changed my mind. Anyway, I’m happy to… and besides, you’re helping me out because I might not be able to wrap everything up in time before I have to fly back. I’ve got to pick out a location for the party, book it, make all the arrangements like catering, rooms, and a whole lot of other stuff.”
Noting what hadn’t been said, Linda arched an eyebrow and asked delicately, “I’m sure the wedding arrangements are complicated too?”
“Yeah, I’ve got to do those too,” Eric replied with a casual one-shouldered shrug. Glancing at Jim, who was looking towards the cockpit, Eric asked, “Hey big guy, see anything unexpected?”
Nodding once, Jim kept his eyes on the open cockpit door and said, “Yeah, now that you mention it… how come General Bradson is on board and wearing a flight crew uniform?”
With an overly casual shrug, Eric replied, “I’ll let him tell you. It’s kind of a secret. Helen made the arrangements for him to be here, and I only found out after we took off.”
That comment caused Jim to snap his head around and look at Eric in surprise. “I thought this whole trip was supposed to be a secret from Helen?”
“So did I,” Eric said with a scowl. “I don’t know how she found out. The General said she’s known for weeks, so that means she found out before I told you or Jon. Sometimes I think she knows what I’m up to before I do. Wish I knew how she does it.”
Laughing at Eric’s discomfort, Jim said, “If she was against this plan of yours, I think she’d have found a way to stop you.”
“Yeah, the General said pretty much the same thing,” Eric replied, still perplexed as to how Helen had found out. The possibility that she’d used her home’s intercom to eavesdrop never crossed his mind.
Jim grinned as he glanced out the window, watching the plane’s takeoff roll. “This explains why Helen seemed so uninterested when I asked for some extra time off for the honeymoon. Linda and I decided we’d just stay an extra week until the wedding if we could arrange it, and Helen didn’t bat an eye. She also didn’t ask where we were going, which surprised me. Now, it makes perfect sense. It also explains the grin she was trying to hide. Anyway, I need to talk to you about the extra stay: if I can swing it so the extra hotel days costs you less than the flight back, are you ok with us staying? This way you won’t need to fly us back out for the wedding.”
“That’s no problem either way. Anyway, we’ll be landing very early in the morning, local time, and we’ll take a cab to a few places I’ve got on my list. We’ll pick one and should be checked in by noon,” Eric said.
An hour later, General Bradson ambled back into the cabin and took the seat facing Eric. He gave Linda and Jim roughly the same explanation he’d given Eric, and asked for their silence. Jim, who knew a little about military operations, raised an eyebrow at the General’s offhand use of ‘Drop me off’, but decided not to ask.
After some small talk, the General stretched out and reclined his seat, pulling his cap down over his eyes. He was soon asleep and not long after, so was Eric, who had not slept the night before the flight. Jim and Linda stayed up, watching the scenery from the window between them.
During his long years in the Air Force, General Bradson had acquired the innate ability to wake up when the pitch of jet engines changed, and so he opened his eyes when the pilot throttled back to begin the decent into Halifax/Stanfield International Airport in Nova Scotia, where they would refuel. The airport was perfectly situated for their needs; it lay almost directly under the shortest flight path from Telluride to La Palma, and close to the halfway point.
After take-off from Halifax, the pilot set the autopilot for Isla de La Palma, and the co-pilot performed his auxiliary duties as cabin steward, heating up pre-packaged meals in the plane’s miniscule galley – nothing more than a large cubbyhole in the baggage closet – and pouring drinks. Jim kept a close but surreptitious eye on Eric, to make sure that tequila was not on the menu.
General Bradson ate with the passengers, surprised that the lasagna dinners bore little resemblance to airline food. He correctly surmised that the air charter company could afford to spend a little more on in-flight meals than could either the Air Force or the commercial airlines. What surprised him the most – especially due to the extremely limited storage space – was the service itself; no trays or plastic cutlery was to be seen. Instead, the meal was served much as it would be in a restaurant: on good china, but on the foldout tables between each pair of opposing seats. These the co-pilot set for a formal meal, right down to the tablecloth. The one concession to their location was the lack of any candles.
Eric, who was no stranger to private jets, found himself acting as host, and even surprised himself by giving a formal toast to Jim and Linda’s newfound state of matrimony.
After the meal, General Branson moved to one of the empty forward pairs of seats and was soon asleep again. The knack of catching sleep on demand was another holdover from his service years, and one for which he was decidedly thankful.
Linda too dozed off, while Eric and Jim played one of Eric’s video games for a few hours before they too fell asleep.
An hour before landing, the co-pilot gently awakened his passengers to serve them a breakfast of ham and cheese omelets, to which he added a side dish of fresh fruit and orange juice. Eric found that meal not at all unlike commercial airline food, but he didn’t mind one bit: breakfasts were the one meal he felt that commercial airlines usually did well.
Concern over General Bradson’s unknown plans hung over Eric, Jim, and Linda, making them feel awkward and apprehensive, as well as less talkative than would have normally been the case. They knew, without needing to be told, that he was heading into danger.
Once the plane was on the ground at La Palma Airport on the island’s east coast, the pilot opened the door and lowered the stairs. As his co-pilot gathered the baggage, the pilot told Eric, “We’ll be returning here in a few hours. Charlie and I both have satellite phones and the numbers are on the card I gave you, so call us if you need anything at all. We arranged a taxi for you, it’s just outside the gate, but you’ll have to go through customs first. Charlie will help you with your baggage while I take care of refueling.”
Eric glanced out the open door, breathing in the heavy tropical pre-dawn air that wafted in as he watched a fuel bowser truck pull to a halt behind the plane’s wing. Taking that to mean they intended to take off as soon as possible, he said, “We’ll be fine handling the baggage ourselves; it’s only one bag each. You guys stay here and do what you need to do. Oh, do me a favor; just add any flying time for today to my bill and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Hearing Eric’s words, General Bradson began to protest, but Eric cut him off by saying, “General, I want to do this. My charter, my choice, so you can’t talk me out of it.”
Eric’s expression left the General no option, so he nodded. “Thanks, Eric. I mean that.”
Extending his hand, Eric hesitated before asking, “When will we see you again, General?”
They shook hands as the General gave Eric a reassuring smile, one Eric did not buy for a second. “I can’t say because I just don’t know,” the General said, sure that he was unlikely to ever see Eric again.
“Safe journeys and good luck, General,” Eric said in a slightly strained voice, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Jim and Linda added their well wishes, and then, along with Eric, picked up their bags and walked down the stairs. After a farewell wave, they walked the few yards into the tiny terminal, where they found a bored customs officer at the gate. After a cursory glance, he stamped their passports and waved them through.
Minutes later, in the taxi, Eric gave the name of the first candidate resort to the driver, and as they pulled away, Eric glanced back in the direction of the refueling Learjet. His view was blocked by the small terminal, but that didn’t matter. His thoughts were on the General and his son, whom Eric had never met. Eric sighed to himself, thinking that troubles like theirs made anything he himself faced appear very trivial by comparison.
The first minutes of the taxi ride passed in silence, until Eric decided that he was there on a mission of his own for Brandon and Chase, and resolved to concentrate on that and to do his level best. With that in mind, his mood brightened a little as he glanced out the window, as the first glimmerings of dawn allowed him to really see the island for the first time. Eric gave Jim and Linda a mischievous wink as he said, “I think this is the perfect place. They’ll love it.”
The taxi ride took over an hour as they wound their way four and a half thousand feet uphill to cross the island’s soaring north-south spine, before descending to the western coast.
The next two hours passed in a mix of sedate driving and frantic activity, as they went to one resort after another. At each one, Eric, with Jim and Linda in tow, raced around the grounds, and if he liked what he saw, appeared at the front desk to get a guided tour of the facilities from the manager. Eric had phoned ahead days before, so they were expecting him, but it all took time, and Eric was fully aware that the clock was ticking.
At each resort, Eric paid careful attention to what he considered the important details. First and foremost, he looked for seclusion and privacy for both the resort and the grounds. He turned down the second resort minutes after arriving upon noticing that it had almost no grounds and as a result, very easy visual access from adjoining buildings. If the resort filled his first criteria and the grounds and pool looked good, Eric carefully scrutinized the conference rooms and other large areas for their suitability for the party. What he found were mainly lavish conference rooms, which he felt were okay, but just didn’t seem right.
Engines roaring, the Learjet climbed out from La Palma, turning west as it cleared the south end of this island. The flight plan they’d filed was simple; a takeoff from La Palma, a four-hour familiarization flight over open waters to the west, then a return to La Palma. The only part they adhered to was an initial flight west, to clear radar coverage. General Bradson used the time to stow his camera – which he needed for his planned mission – and do a final checkout of his parachute.
Two hundred miles west of La Palma Island, the pilot checked his instruments, paying special attention to the transponder.
A transponder works by sending out a coded signal when it receives a pulse from an air traffic control secondary surveillance radar, also called beacon radar. Most modern air traffic control systems – including airport control towers – use primary and secondary radars in conjunction, and primary radar works by actively broadcasting a powerful signal and listening for the reflected signal. Secondary radar has far greater range and can overcome terrain limitations, but it depends on a transponder on the aircraft responding to the secondary radar’s signals. On most models of transponder, an indicator lets the pilot know when it is sending a reply pulse. The Learjet’s transponder included a visual indicator that flickered when it was sending a pulse, and the pilot watched it intently as he neared the limit of La Palma’s secondary radar’s range. When he saw that his transponder was no longer transmitting, the pilot knew it was time. With a terse, “Here we go,” he turned off the transponder and rolled the Lear onto a heading of due south for the thousand-mile flight.
The co-pilot checked his map and GPS display. “We should be safe from anything other than a skin paint,” The co-pilot said, meaning a direct radar detection by primary radar, “and there are no ground stations in the area.”
“Unless we come near a warship or fighters with active radar on, or we’re being tracked on infrared via satellite,” General Bradson said, though he considered those risks unlikely.
Fred, the pilot, shrugged. “I’m not worried. We’re filed as a familiarization flight so it’s expected that we’d be all over the sky and at unusual altitudes. That means we’re fine even if detected, until we enter Cape Verde airspace,” the pilot said. Nodding in distracted agreement, General Bradson spent a few minutes going over the plan, one last time. One thing the General regretted was that his improved radar detector was packed away in the one place he could carry baggage on his jump, alongside his camera, GPS, and other delicate but essential gear. There wasn’t time to set the radar detector up, nor would there be time to re-stow it.
Two hours later, the Learjet was one hundred miles northwest of Santo Antão, the westernmost island in the Cape Verdes, and the most mountainous in the chain: three hundred square miles of mainly largely uninhabited volcanic craters and mountains. The island’s northern half has significant rainfall, giving it a thick covering of vegetation.
Pulling his parachute out of the Lear’s tiny baggage closet, General Bradson said, “I’ll get my gear ready. We shouldn’t have any risk of detection: the nearest radar is on São Vicente, the next island to the east. According to the air charts, it’s intermittently operational. Just keep the mountains of Santo Antão between us and São Vicente and the terrain will conceal us.”
Glancing ahead at the distant outline of Santo Antão, the pilot said, “General, looks like we’ve got a problem. I can see some fog in the valleys. You said to stay below four thousand feet to keep under the main ridgeline, but that means dropping you off over a valley, and you’d be landing blind. That won’t work, so I’ll pull up just before you jump. That radar won’t get a good lock on us if we’re quick, and that way you can jump over higher ground.”
Shaking his head in spite of the fact that neither the pilot nor co-pilot was watching him, General Bradson said in a firm tone, “No, Fred. That’s too much of a risk for you guys, and besides, I need to get to lower ground, otherwise I’ll waste too much time climbing down. I’ve jumped in worse than this. I’ll be fine.” The General sounded far more certain than he actually was. The fact that he would be jumping without a reserve parachute didn’t help.
The co-pilot helped the General into the parachute harness, double-checking the straps. With the main chute on his back, the General was unencumbered except for the small canvass cover on his chest, where the reserve ‘chute would normally be housed. General Bradson had needed somewhere to carry his gear, and due to the nature of his jump had opted not to have a bag clipped to his harness. He also needed to protect it from impacts, so the reserve parachute casing had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, however, the General was recalling the three jumps, out of the many he’d made, where he’d needed that reserve.
Ten minutes later, the Learjet roared through the turbulent air over the rugged, empty coast at four thousand feet. It was time.
The pilot throttled back, watching as his airspeed slowly dropped. He deployed the landing gear and flaps, slowing further to one hundred miles an hour before saying, “Open the door.”
The co-pilot and General Bradson undogged the door, heaving it back into the cabin as the hundred-mile-an-hour wind blasted into fuselage. Seeing a fog-shrouded valley coming up fast, the pilot yelled, “From three, on my mark. Godspeed, General!”
“Mark!” The pilot yelled, and checked his airspeed again before beginning a slow bank to the left. As the wing dropped past thirty degrees, he eased in a little right rudder to null out the turn and began his rapid count.
General Bradson positioned himself in the hatchway, one hand on each edge. Upon hearing ‘Three’, he heaved himself forward, aided by the downward angle, as the pilot snapped the Lear into a right-hand roll as General Bradson sailed headlong out of the Learjet, clearing the leading edge of the wing by less than an arm’s length.
The co-pilot struggled to close the door against the slipstream, and after a few desperate seconds he had the hatch secured. The pilot increased throttle, centered the rudder, and banked the Learjet into a tight left-hand turn. As airspeed increased, he retracted the flaps and raised the gear, maintaining four thousand feet as he accelerated through three hundred miles an hour and rolled out on a heading of north by northwest. Within minutes, the Lear was out over the open sea, and after thirty miles is began a leisurely climb to cruising altitude for the flight back to La Palma.
Looking without seeing at the sea below, picturing instead in his mind’s eye the craggy terrain they’d seen, the co-pilot asked, “Do you think he got down okay?”
After a few moments’ thought, the pilot replied, “Jumping into fog, rugged unfamiliar terrain, no reserve ‘chute… I hope he made it, but there’s a good chance we’ll never know.”
© 2008 C James
Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions.
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me.
Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice.
A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.