|Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons living, dead, space aliens, goats, forum posters, editors, beta readers, musicians, or writers are purely coincidental. There may be sexual content so if this, in any form, offends you, please cease reading this lest it send you screaming from the room. If you are not of legal age to read this, please don't.|
|Chapter 14: Prelude to Battle|
General Bradson arched an eyebrow in Yuri’s direction. For the first time, his contact had let slip the mask of professionalism, letting his feelings show through. The General could easily tell that Yuri did not like Felecia. It was, however, equally apparent that Yuri’s employer was willing to over-rule Felecia on the issue. ‘They must know I’d pay either way, so why?’ he wondered.
Fifty yards into the trees, a row of bare-wood bunkhouses came into view. Yuri explained, “This compound was once a banana plantation. It failed years ago, but the worker’s bunkhouses and a few other buildings survived. You will be bunking with the troops, per Felicia’s orders, in the end bunkhouse, first cot on the left. Get some rest and we’ll talk again after dinner.”
Patting his small bag, General Bradson said, “The only cargo room I had was the reserve ‘chute casing. I’ve got a couple of clean shirts and underwear which I used to cushion my gear, but I’ll be needing some fatigues and clean clothes, judging by what Felicia said.”
“I can take care of that. I’ll make sure you have what you need. I’ll be back when dinner is ready. You will be dining with my employer and I tonight. The rest of your meals will be with the men.”
Yuri turned back for the clearing, and General Bradson, feeling very much alone, climbed a creaky set of wooden stairs to enter the musty, ramshackle bunkhouse.
The clatter of vibrating bottles from the bar, accompanied by the buzz of his empty glass on the trembling table beside him, intruded on his nap, and Eric cocked open an eye to see one of the resort guests flopping around in the pool. It took a few moments for Eric to realize that he’d been asleep, and he remained unaware of what had actually awakened him.
“Fucking jetlag,” he muttered as he stood up and looked at his watch. He let out a short sigh of relief; he’d been asleep for less than half an hour. Breaking into a run, Eric sprinted for a vacant section of the pool. Diving in and swimming underwater, he enjoyed the cool water for a few moments, before swimming to the side and hauling himself out of the pool. Checking his watch again, he abandoned his prior plan to check out the beach, and instead jogged back to his room, heading straight for the desk. Still dripping slightly, he began calling around to find a party supply store that spoke English.
An hour later, Eric hung up the phone for the last time and checked his scribbled notes. He’d found a party supply store and a bakery, and while doing so, had mentally kicked himself for not thinking to make the phone calls from Los Angeles. Phones he could use anytime, but his time on the ground had proven more limited than he’d expected.
Throwing on some clothes, Eric then gathered up his bag and notes. On his way to the front desk and the waiting taxi, he stopped to say goodbye to Jim and Linda.
“Call me and let me know what you need me to do,” Jim said as Eric turned to leave a few minutes later.
“Will do,” Eric said, though he had no intention of doing so until Jim and Linda had a few days of uninterrupted honeymoon.
Eric enjoyed the taxi ride, noticing immediately that they were not taking the route by which he’d arrived: through the center of the island. Instead, due to the resort being closer to the southern tip of the island than the road across the center, the taxi climbed the switchbacks up to the highway which encircled the southern half of the island, and then proceeded almost due east before heading north towards the airport. Eric found himself lost in the magnificent views of the sea to his right and the multiple stark, malevolent cones of the volcanic range to his left.
At the party supply store an hour and a half later, not far from the airport, Eric picked out as many corny items as he could, ranging from paper hats to assorted noisemakers. He added a few rolls of streamers and a box of confetti poppers, paid, and arranged for it to be delivered to the resort.
The next stop was a bakery a mile away. The nearest parking was a hundred yards from the bakery, and the driver led Eric on foot through the narrow cobblestone streets and paths. Eric relaxed a little, knowing that he now had a little time to spare. He slowed down, really looking around the quaint streets and, seeing the Mediterranean architecture, reveling in the novelty of it all. The buildings and streets felt dusty and unkempt to him, but a closer look revealed that the buildings were well maintained, and it was only the fine grey patina of fresh volcanic ash that had settled on the buildings and cars that gave them their initial poor first impression. With that realization came another; that he really was in a strange and foreign place, one where he was not widely known, and thus somewhat free to walk around, enjoying the everyday freedom that fame so oft denied to celebrities. The walk to the little bakery, which was over all too soon for Eric’s liking, made him regret the fact that he had to leave. He resolved, then and there, to make some time when he returned, time in which to enjoy the island and the freedom it offered.
Strolling into the little bakery, Eric smelled fresh bread and felt his stomach growl, which reminded him that he’d forgotten to have lunch.
The conservation with the baker proved difficult due to the man’s broken English, until Eric called the taxi driver in to translate. After that, things went much faster and he soon had his order in for the cakes. He’d picked fruitcake and banana nut bread, wondering who would be the first to get the joke. Eric wished he’d had a camera to capture the baker’s expression when the taxi driver had translated the instructions for the decorations.
His stomach growling again, Eric wrapped up the order and headed for the sandwich shop next door. There, he again had the driver translate, and ordered a pork sandwich on foccacia bread, which he ate in the cab on the way to the airport, deciding that it was pretty good. What was better was the fact that he’d been able to walk in off the street and have a sandwich, a simple pleasure that his life of fame had denied him for years.
Within the hour, he was back on board the Learjet, westward bound.
When General Bradson was called to dinner, he followed Yuri up the steps of the ramshackle house. Raised two feet off the ground, the home, which had once been that of the plantation owner, was a single-story rectangular affair, built fifty years before. The paint job, what was left of it, looked older still. Entering through the ill-fitting front door, the General walked across the buckled wooden floor, as Yuri led them to a room at the back of the house. The scent of roast pork wafted in from the kitchen, where one of the mercenaries – the only one, other than Felecia, allowed in the house, and in his case ostensibly due to his skills in the kitchen – was preparing the meal.
Yuri ushered the General into what had once been a formal dining room. The echoes of past splendor were there, if one looked closely enough: a few shreds of velvet wallpaper, the remains of a plasterwork cornice, and the broken stubs of wall sconces. Where once had hung a modest chandelier, now a bare bulb shone harshly in its stead, casting an unsteady light as it swayed slightly in the breeze emanating from a lone ancient, clattering portable fan.
The dining table was bare wooden planking, etched by time and careless use. Yuri pulled out a chair and waved the general to it with an exaggerated, ostentatious flourish.
Once the General was seated, Yuri settled in beside him. Lowering his voice, Yuri said, “My employer will be joining us. This is his home when he is here, and mine as well. I must warn you, his appearance can be somewhat… surprising. He survived an airplane crash not long ago.”
Having seen more than his share of burned and disfigured pilots, the General knew what to ask. “How does he prefer to deal with the matter?”
“He is very open about it. Just be up front, do not try to politely ignore his condition.”
Nodding, the General replied, “Thanks for the heads up.”
A soft shuffling sound heralded the arrival of their host, and General Bradson looked up. In the room’s entryway, he saw a modestly built man, wearing slacks and a button-down shirt. From the neck down, the man’s appearance was unremarkable, save for the pinned sleeve that covered the stump of his missing right arm. From the neck up was a far different story; a face that looked as though it had been dipped in melted wax to the point of being a caricature of human visage, and then the wax had contracted, like the wrinkled skin of a shriveled orange. Earless, no eyebrows, no visible hair of any sort and with skin a mottled patchwork of grafts and scar tissue, the man’s appearance left the General, who had encountered aviators bearing similar disfigurements, with no reason to doubt that he was looking at the survivor of a horrific, fiery crash.
Having paused to allow the General to get a good look, The Scar entered the room and took his accustomed seat at the head of the table. Acting the part of a gracious host, The Scar bowed his head slightly in the General’s direction. “Pleased to meet you face to face, General Bradson. I must commend you on your means of arrival. You are indeed a man of unanticipated talents.” The Scar said, his ruined lips giving him a slight lisp.
Taking the compliment, for indeed that was what it was, General Bradson chose his words with care. “It is good to meet you as well. I am grateful that you have agreed to be in my employ for the rescue of my son and his squad mate. How do you prefer that I address you?”
The Scar took no obvious note of the General’s verbal attempt at establishing an employer-employee relationship. “We are pleased to be working with you, General. As you may imagine, we do not use real names in our line of work. Many of my people use a first name only, real or fictitious. I prefer to eschew such subtle subterfuge. You may address me as the boss, the commander, or even by my recently acquired nickname, Scar. I’m sure you can work out the reasoning for the latter.”
The General nodded, fully realizing that his verbal maneuver had been countered and turned back upon him. He was not surprised; he’d expected a man in his host’s position to be skilled at the art of verbal manipulation. “Then I shall call you ‘Scar’. I was very impressed with the display your people put on for me when I arrived. Professionally done. I am, however, perplexed; why was the passport not sent to me? Were you a party to Felecia’s test?”
The thin parchment of his skin wrinkling slightly as he attempted to smile, The Scar replied, “Yes, in a way. We only procured it a few days ago. To be frank, we did see the need to test your skill at unconventional thinking. However, it was not so much a test as you imagine. Felecia’s intent was to disbar you from the ground mission. She does not know it, but that is something I will not countenance. We need your tactical skill and knowledge where they will do the most good. Allowing you to display your resourcefulness should blunt further objections from Felecia. I am, regrettably, somewhat constrained by her. She holds the loyalty of her men and thus she can effectively countermand my orders in some regards. She is, however, the best at what she does, so I must put up with her eccentricities, to a degree. I would prefer that you try to meet her requirements, but rest assured, General, you have already done so in my eyes.”
Deciding that he’d get no further on that particular conversational tack, General Bradson replied, in an attempt at flattery, “Thank you, Scar. You seem to have things well in hand, which is quite an accomplishment for a one-armed man.”
The Scar’s face crinkled a little more and he let out a slight laugh. “Well said, General. I think we shall get along, you and I. As for Felecia, I will do what I can to see that she does not make your training too unbearable.”
“I do need to get back in shape, but I think I can cope. If I can win the respect of her and her men, things will go a lot more smoothly than if I go along by fiat. Besides, I’m sure she can teach me a thing or two about ground combat,” the General replied, meaning every word.
With a slow awkwardness, The Scar raised his arm and snapped his fingers twice. The chef, wearing combat fatigues, appeared in an instant, and began serving the meal. General Bradson could not help but notice that in spite of the harsh conditions, the service included fine china and sterling cutlery.
When the main course of roast pork and mashed sweet potato was served, The Scar waited as the chef sliced the pork on The Scar’s plate into bite-sized cubes. Wondering what response he’d get, the General said, “I’ve worked with many newly-disabled aviators. You seem to be adjusting very well, given your apparently recent accident. If I may ask, what happened?”
With a one-shouldered shrug, The Scar replied, “Helicopter accident, about a year ago. Just a ferry flight, but the tail rotor failed. You can see the results. I am most fortunate to be alive.”
With a smile that concealed his slight surprise, General Bradson committed that incongruous comment to memory for future reference and replied, “Life throws us all a curve from time to time.” Getting down to business, General Bradson asked, “We do need to discuss operational resources. I need to know; can you acquire a C-130 that is at or near the end of its service life? It only needs to get to the target, nothing more...” The General proceeded to give The Scar a rough list of needed supplies and munitions.
Nodding, The Scar replied in a confident tone, “I have three C-130 Hercules transports available. One is well past its useful life but it can be made airworthy enough for a flight. The rest should prove no problem. However, the need for eight thousand empty mayonnaise jars perplexes me greatly. What is your operational concept, General?”
“I’m still hashing out the details. I needed to know about the resources available first. I’ll have an outline in a couple of days. I will also need a way to receive a shipment, containing no illegal or restricted goods, from the States. I’ll need internet access for e-mail in order to receive intelligence information and other updates, including weather,” the General replied. He already had a detailed plan, but saw no reason to disclose it.
Sitting with her men, clustered around several campfires, Felecia dug into an MRE – Meal Ready to Eat – pack, and as she ate, she told Wilhelm, “Tomorrow we’re doing a field exercise. The stated objective is for Horst to hold a defensive point against your attack, but the real mission is that the General fails. I’d put the chances of him succeeding at close to zero, but your job is to make sure. I’ll be directing Horst’s operations, so you’ve got to do it, understood?” Wilhelm’s nod of agreement and icy gaze clearly indicated that he did.
After dinner, The Scar bade the General goodnight, and stood by the door as the General headed for his barracks. Once the General was out of sight, The Scar said, “Yuri, he’ll be out training tomorrow, correct?’
“Yes, and that will give me time to examine his belongings. He’s clean on a bug sweep, but beyond that I cannot yet say,” Yuri replied.
As he stared into the darkness, The Scar nodded with approval. “That will do. Remember, we cannot alienate him, so we must be discreet. Also, make sure to bring up monetary matters with him soon. He will be expecting that, and it will appear odd if we do not. Any reasonable terms will do, just do not make him suspicious. Better, I think, to appear a little greedy. He would expect that of mercenaries, no?”
During the long flight back to Los Angeles, Eric waited until after the refueling stop to visit the cockpit. Gazing out through the windshield at the slightly curved horizon, Eric looked at the gradated sky above it, shifting from the familiar light blues seen from the surface to the much darker shades above. “Why is the sky so dark at high altitude?” Eric asked, sincerely curious, but also seeking to start a conversation for other purposes.
The pilot tapped on the glass before replying, “Pressure, mainly. We’re at forty thousand feet, so most of the atmosphere’s mass is below us. Most of the atmosphere is nitrogen, which absorbs green and red light better than it does blue, so we’re left with the blue tint we see in the sky from the surface. At high altitude, the air is far thinner, so there’s less of that effect and the blackness of space shows through more. Back when I was in the Air Force, I was at twice this altitude a few times. The sky is nearly pure black, much like the pictures you see of the horizon when taken from orbit. The horizon looks a lot more curved, too.”
“Did you know General Bradson when you were in the Air Force,” Eric asked, taking the opening the pilot had given him, and then adding, “And did he get to wherever he was going okay?”
The pilot was put off-balance by Eric's occasional habit of changing the subject mid-sentence. Not wanting to lie to his client, the pilot replied with poorly-concealed unease, “I didn’t know General Bradson when I was in the service, and all I can say about the rest is that we did what he asked us to.”
Eric didn’t know the pilot well enough to read him, but the man’s reaction had spoken volumes. The co-pilot’s sudden attempt to appear disinterested and aloof was a further clue, enough to make Eric wonder what had transpired. “I just want to know that he arrived okay, you can tell me that much, can’t you?” Eric asked.
The pilot prevaricated. “All I can tell you is that we did as we were asked, and as far as we know he’s okay.”
Squinting his eyes slightly, Eric weighed the pilot’s words. Based on the two men’s evident evasions, Eric had a strong hunch that whatever had happened was not as simple as flying the General to an airport and him walking away. Becoming suspicious, Eric decided to feign ignorance. “Thanks, I’m glad he’s okay. So, any bad weather ahead?”
“Nah, clear skies, radar’s clear and no NOTAMs – that means Notice to Airmen, a kind of weather bulletin – for our route, other than a southerly dip in the Jet Stream giving us some headwinds and a little delay. We should be clear all the way to landing,” the pilot said in a more relaxed tone, relieved that the conversation had taken a less awkward tack. Eric did not fail to note the subtle change in the pilot’s voice, and guessed accurately at its meaning.
Returning to his seat, Eric put his headphones back on and cranked up the volume, staring out the window as he mulled over the evidence. The pilot and co-pilot were hiding something, of that much he was sure. Why? That was the part which puzzled him. Why couldn’t they just flat-out say he arrived okay? After thinking it over, Eric settled on three possibilities. The first was that something bad, like an arrest at the destination airport, had occurred. The second was that the pilot and co-pilot had betrayed the General, maybe by tipping off the authorities as to his arrival. The third was that they literally didn’t know if the General had arrived safely.
Eric didn’t much like any of those conclusions. He didn’t know the General well, but Eric had taken an instinctive like to the man almost from the beginning. Eric also sympathized with a father who was just trying to save his son.
Thinking over the pilot’s words, Eric dismissed the idea of betrayal on the grounds that had anything untoward occurred, the pilot would have lied rather than evade. If the pilot wasn’t lying, Eric decided, then he was likely being truthful when he said that as far as he knew, the General had arrived okay. That left the third option: that the pilot and co-pilot didn’t know if the General had arrived safely.
‘How could they not know? They couldn’t just lend him the plane or how could they have gotten it back?’ Eric wondered as the mystery deepened.
Staring out at the ocean eight miles below, Eric ran through the pilot’s words again, trying to figure out what had occurred. Nothing that he could think of fit to his satisfaction, so Eric, being Eric, decided he’d dig a little more later. One avenue, he knew, was the air charter company’s bill; he’d see how many air-hours were being charged. Given that, he assumed, he’d be able to figure out how many hours of flying time it took to take the General to his destination and get back to La Palma. Eric had decided to snoop, but he justified it to himself as concern for a man who, while not yet a friend, was a person he had grown to like.
Early the next morning, a severely winded General Bradson accompanied Felecia as they joined the other mercenaries for breakfast and coffee in the tropical dawn, after a three-mile run. Taking a seat on a rock, Felecia told the General, “Well, sir, you’re in even worse shape than I thought. You weren’t even wearing a field pack and you couldn’t keep up with us.”
Struggling to control his labored breathing, General Bradson replied, “Give me a week and I’ll keep pace with you. In any case, I’m not planning on running far while on the ground in Iran. My plan doesn’t call for it.”
Felecia’s derisive laughter filled the air. “Bullshit and you damn well know it. You can’t guarantee that everything will go according to plan. Hell, you wrote a position paper three years ago, saying that any officer who relies on everything going according to plan is a fool or worse, because the battle plan is usually the very first casualty of a war.”
Irked at being hoisted so neatly by his own petard, General Bradson changed tack. “So you’ve read my work. I should have expected as much.”
Felecia shrugged. “Most of your work, and the basis for your reputation as a brilliant tactician is in air combat doctrine, something that's usually of little interest to me. But, to get as far as you did, as fast as you did made your work required reading as far as I was concerned, so I've read most of your papers that aren't solely air-combat oriented.”
Taken aback by the implied compliment, General Bradson conceded the point. “You’re right, of course. On a mission like this, things will go wrong. That’s why you need me on the ground. Here’s two reasons for you. The first is that I can do a better, faster job of adapting the plan if I’m on the ground with you, because I’ll have more accurate knowledge of the tactical situation if I’m in the midst of it.”
Felecia fixed the General in her icy gaze. “That’s one. What’s the other?”
“Your men are mercenaries. I do not doubt their skill, but they are fighting for money. What if somebody has to act as a rear guard to cover our escape? Under the circumstances, that would be a suicide mission. Can you be sure, really sure, that they would do as ordered, without hesitation? All our lives may well depend on it. One of the men we’re going in after is my son, so you could be certain that I’ll take the mission if the need arises, no matter the consequences to me.”
“You’re wrong. I’d do that for my men if need be, and Horst and Wilhelm would do that for me,” Felecia replied with an irritated air.
With a quick shake of his head, the General replied, “Listen to your own words. Horst and Wilhelm would do so for you, but what if you’re an early casualty? Then who is going to look after your men? I’m betting that you’ve never attempted a mission of this kind, not against odds like these. If you go down, are you sure, really sure, your people will complete the mission, or even make it back alive?”
“Yes. I have total confidence in Horst and Wilhelm. We’ve been together for years, and we’ve had our share of risky missions. However, I’ll give you two ways to come on the mission. The first is that you keep pace with Wilhelm, one week from today, on a five-mile run carrying a fifty-pound pack. The second way is that you convince me that you’ll be a real asset on the ground. Otherwise, you stay in the air.” Felecia crossed her arms, her body language backing up her verbal objections with an air of finality, as she’d intended.
General Bradson knew that he didn’t stand a chance in hell of keeping up with Wilhelm, who was superbly fit and half the General’s age. That left him two options; convince Felecia of his worth, or go on the mission via The Scar’s executive fiat. The latter would guarantee resentment, so the General resolved to try to prove himself. “That sounds reasonable. So, what’s today’s mission?”
Flicking a thumb towards a small storage shed, Felecia stood up, stretched, and led General Bradson towards it. “It’s simple but useful. In essence, a game of ‘capture the flag’. Horst’s platoon will secure a defensive position, and Wilhelm’s objective will be to capture the flag by any means necessary. You’re going with Wilhelm and you’ll be his tactical advisor.” Felecia unlocked the shed’s rusty padlock and swung open the creaky tin door. General Bradson followed her into the small, dark shed, eyeing the rows of paintball guns occupying improvised racks on the walls. Inhaling the scent of guns, sweat, and steel, the General took note of the fact that the equipment looked well maintained but worn, as did the racks. That small detail was enough to confirm the General’s theory: Felecia’s force must be both permanent in nature and training often in this location.
“We use paint ball guns for much of our tactical training. They work well to show a hit, and we don’t spook the locals with what sounds like a battle. It’s not like the national training center at Fort Irwin and its laser gear, but it does the job,” Felecia said as she stooped to open an old ammo can, and partially withdrew a triangular banner. The General looked in surprise at the well-worn Dallas Cowboys souvenir pennant. Felecia returned the flag to its place and closed the ammo can before saying, “I like it, so that’s what we use as a flag. The goal today is simple. After breakfast, me and Horst take his platoon out to set up its defensive position. Thirty minutes later, Wilhelm is free to leave the compound. Wilhelm’s objective is to get the flag and run it up the flagpole here in the compound before sundown. Horst’s objective is to stop him. The ammo can will be in the center of Horst’s position, in plain sight. Now, let’s go eat.”
During breakfast, which the General uncharacteristically wolfed down, Felecia explained the casualty rules. “If you’re hit in an arm or leg, you can’t use that limb for the remainder of the exercise. If you’re hit with any paint in the head or torso, you’re a kill and that’s the end of it, you return to the barracks and wait. Clear?”
General Bradson nodded once, and then asked in a carefully offhand way, “Any other rules?”
Felecia gave the General a derisive snort. “No fucking way. This is a war drill, not a game. You’re limited to the equipment provided, but other than that, just what I’ve said. Something else for you to think about; the losing team gets to do a five-mile run. That gives ‘em motivation and it also means that they won’t like you much if you screw up. Tomorrow we’ll do the exercise over, with you and Wilhelm playing the defensive roll.”
Nodding, General Bradson set down his plate. “I’ll get my notebook, if that’s allowed. I have some ideas jotted down that might come in useful, and I may want to write some things down for tomorrow.”
Felecia said to the General’s retreating back, “You’re gonna get your brass ass kicked today no matter what you do, so a notebook is fine, all the better to record the details of your defeat.” Felecia had good reason to be confident; attacking a defensive position against an opponent with no qualitative edge usually required a three to one advantage in numbers. With two evenly matched teams, the advantage lay with the defense. The only person to have won an exercise against those odds was Felecia herself, an accomplishment that she planed to repeat the next day.
Fifteen minutes later, Felecia assembled both platoons at the storage shed. She handed out the gear, each man receiving an identical loadout: one gun, four clips of ammo, and a face protector. Handing Horst the ammo can, she said, “Let’s move out.” She turned to face Wilhelm and said, “You can’t leave the compound for thirty minutes. After that, all’s fair in love and war. See you on Aardvark Hill.”
Taking the point, Felecia led Horst and his platoon out of the compound, single-file.
Watching Felecia’s team leave the compound and assuming that meant the General would be fully occupied for a while, Yuri slipped into the end bunkhouse, and made his way to the General’s footlocker. Using his own key, he unlocked it, and rifled through the General’s belongings. In the bottom of the locker, he found the General’s camera, GPS, radar detectors, and satellite phone. Sweeping them up, he took them to The Scar’s office.
After laying out the General’s possessions on The Scar’s desk, Yuri said, “I do not understand why he has radar detectors. What can they be for?”
With what passed for a smile, The
Scar replied, “They would be for detecting radar, I assume. They
appear to be standard multi-band automotive radar detectors.
We’ll check their circuitry to be sure, but I expect to find
that they have been modified to receive on different
wavelengths, such as those used by air-search radar. Now, what
have we here?” The Scar asked rhetorically, as he hefted the
General’s camera and turned it on.
© 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.