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|Chapter 33: Rendezvous’|
On board Flight Three, flying low in the amber light of dawn over the Red Sea, General Bradson said, “We’ll tell your men that the base in Sudan has been compromised so we’re heading back to the Cape Verde Islands. En route, we’ll level with them. We’ll tell them they’ll have a million each, in a numbered Swiss account, confirmed to their satisfaction, by the end of the day. I’ll stay with you after the turnover and I’ll get you and your men to safety. I’ll also make sure that the U.S. Government leaves you the hell alone. You’ll be out, all the way out, just like you wanted for your men.”
Felecia nodded, and called over the intercom for Horst to join them in the cockpit. She knew she’d need his help with the men, and she trusted him. Once Horst entered, Felecia gave him a quick rundown on what they had planned, and was not surprised when he merely nodded. She had expected nothing less. She then pointed at the other C-130, which was a mile off their port wing. “Our immediate problem is getting away from Flight Two. They must have orders to keep us in sight.”
General Bradson glanced at Flight Two, and then ahead before replying, “We can’t outrun ‘em, we’re carrying more weight so they’re faster. I can out-fly them easy enough, but that would be a wild ride and it might be kind of hard to explain to your men. Better to use that,” he pointed ahead, at a morning fog bank hugging the Sudanese coast, “and give them the slip.”
Felecia let out a sigh. “Two of the men on board that plane are mine. I don’t like the idea of leaving them to Frankenstein.”
Horst sat up a little straighter, and reminded, “Felecia, I think they intended to kill you as well as the General when they came on board in Oman. That would be their logical move. Even if not, they were acting against your orders. They have chosen their side.”
“I know, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Felecia replied.
The General waited until they were over the narrow fog bank, skimming a hundred feet above it. “It looks like it’s about four hundred feet thick and we’re still three miles from the coast, so we should be okay. Going in now.”
General Bradson eased the yoke forward, and Flight Three nosed downward, enveloping itself in the grey mists. As soon as he felt they were concealed he banked to the right, rolling out on a northwest heading. The General was thankful for the fact that neither C-130 they were using was equipped with radar.
Felecia’s phone rang; it was Flight Two asking a little too excitedly where they were. Felecia told them, “We’re proceeding due west, using the fog for cover. It’s daylight and seeing two transports flying in formation might arouse suspicions. We’ll see you at the strip, Felecia, out.” To the General and Horst, she said, “I doubt that’ll work. They’ll be looking for us on the other side. This fog bank only looked a few miles across.”
“It won’t matter. We’ll be out of their visual range by the time we emerge,” General Bradson said, while keeping a close eye on his instruments.
Felecia was right; Flight Two circled for five minutes, and then tried to phone Felecia again. Receiving no answer, they phoned The Scar.
The answer was swift. “Land here immediately.”
Turning to face Yuri, The Scar said, “It is as we feared. Make certain the men are ready, full airborne assault gear and parachutes. We’ll follow that traitorous bitch and give them a surprise they’ll not soon forget.”
On board Flight Three, Felecia and Horst made their way into the cargo bay to tell their men that plans had changed. Calling for everyone’s attention, Felecia said, “We’ve received word that the Sudan base has been compromised. We’re returning directly to the Cape Verdes, after a fuel stop. We’ll still be paid, and sooner than we expected. It’s all arranged. You have my word on that. We’re just going a little further than we planned.” Felecia took care to keep her voice casual, and then left Horst to fill the men in on the details of their fuel stop and what they’d need to do.
Flight Three followed the Egyptian-Sudanese border westward, staying just south of it, in Sudan’s airspace, where they were less likely to draw unwanted notice. Reaching Egypt’s western border, they turned northwest as they entered Libya, staying low, for the one-hundred-seventy-five miles remaining to Kufra.
Kufra is one of the most remote places on earth. Literally an oasis in the vast Sahara, long an important stop for trans-Sahara caravans, Kufra is over four hundred miles from the nearest Libyan base. Its modern importance is due to its use as a transport hub for the oil industry.
While en route, General Bradson phoned Bill to ask if Kufra had any Libyan military presence at the moment. As Libya’s southernmost airfield, General Bradson was aware that it sometimes did, though it was not a permanent military facility. Bill was unable to find anything out, which left Flight Three with a problem. “We’re going in blind,” General Bradson said, “We’re critically low on fuel. We have to land at Kufra; we have no choice, so there’s no point in doing a flyby. Might as well use the element of surprise. The runway is roughly north to south, so I’ll bring us in from the south and roll to a stop next to the hangers and fuel. Get your men ready. Keep the weapons out of sight, if we can. We can send one of your men and Private Johnson out; he knows a few words of Arabic.”
Felecia nodded, reading between the lines. “Thanks Walter, that’s a nice gesture, but we’re in this up to our eyebrows now. I’ll trust you to send out who you like. You don’t need to include one of my men as a watcher.”
Glancing at Felecia in surprise, General Bradson’s eyes opened wide as he looked at her uniform and realized one thing he’d forgotten. “Thanks Fel. We’re in this together from here on out. You have my word on that. One other thing; get your men changed, fast. We’re all still in Iranian uniform and that’s not a good idea. See if you can rustle up something for Private Johnson and my son, too. I’d like to join Johnson on the ground and see if we can bribe our way out of any difficulties. Send Horst too, three of us should be about right and he knows Africa pretty well from the sound of it.”
Felecia headed aft, and told Horst to get the men changed back into the nondescript clothing they’d worn when taking off from Somalia. She checked their stores, and found a few spare t-shirts. Taking two, she crouched down beside Brian and Private Johnson to say, “We’re making a quick refueling stop in Libya, so the Iranian uniforms have got to go. The pants should be fine, but ditch the tops and put on the t-shirts.”
Brian was not happy to hear that they would be stopping in Libya, so he asked, “Does my father know about this? Is he okay?”
Felecia laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yep, kiddo, he’s okay and considering this stop is his idea, I’d say he’s fine with it. Why don’t you two join us in the cockpit after you get changed? I know he needs to talk to you, Johnson, regarding what we’ll do on the ground.”
Brian and Private Johnson locked eyes for a moment, unsure of how to respond, given the General’s orders to keep an eye on the nukes. Felecia picked up on the hesitation and said with a chuckle, “I think you should both come, but if one of you wants to stay here, that’s fine too. Now, get changed.” Felecia watched as the two young Marines shucked off their uniform tops, and bit her lip as she saw the mass of bruises on Brian’s torso, and the lesser, but still glaring, ones sported by Private Johnson. With a sympathetic smile, she said, “Those bastards really worked you two over. I’m glad we got you out, and I’m not sorry we blew their base to hell.”
Felecia stood up to return to the cockpit, while Brian, nursing his bruised ribs, eased into the tan t-shirt Felecia had given him. Edging closer to Private Johnson, he lowered his voice for privacy before saying, “She seems okay, not what I was expecting. Maybe you should go forward first and see what my Dad wants, and I’ll stay here.” He didn’t mention the grenade in his pocket, but Private Johnson understood, and nodded. Their conversation ended as Brian spotted his father, no longer in Iranian uniform, walking towards them.
“Come on up front, both of you, we’ve got plans to make,” General Bradson said, adding a nod to let them know it was okay.
Getting up with a little difficulty due to their injuries, the two Marines followed General Bradson to the cockpit. As they entered and he resumed his position at the controls, Felecia told the copilot, “Take a break.” With an exasperated roll of his eyes, because he’d already figured out much of what was going on, the copilot complied.
Once the copilot had left, Felecia glanced at the two Marines’ pants, noticing the bulge in Brian’s pocket, which confirmed her suspicions. With a smile, she said, “Walter and I have cooked up a bit of a switch. The nukes won’t be going to my former employer. Brian, I do hope you have a pin in that grenade. Just keep it safe, okay?”
Brian struggled to keep the shock off his face. General Bradson glanced back, surprise in his eyes, as Felecia began to laugh. “It was the obvious move, guys. I’d have done the same. However, we’re all on the same side now, right? Keep the grenade, Brian. I just wanted you to know that I’d noticed, and that means Horst almost certainly has, too. He doesn’t miss much. Please bear in mind that neither of us has objected.”
“You sure know how to make a point,” General Bradson said with a chuckle. “Okay Johnson, you’re going to get a chance to try out your Arabic. I’m wearing a money belt with fifty thousand in it. First, we’ll pretend to be Canadian oil workers, flying in some drill bits. We’ll try to buy the fuel for cash, overpaying a bit. If we have any hassles from anyone wanting to look in the plane or check passports, we may need to take what we need by force.”
“I’ll try sir, but I only know about a hundred words,” Private Johnson said.
“That should be enough. We’ll find out soon, we’re fifty miles from Kufra, Libya, and have to land there. Our mission is to get fuel then get the hell out as fast as possible.” Turning to look at Felecia and Brian, General Bradson said, “Brian, I want you to watch over the nukes with an RPG. If it looks like the plane is being taken, destroy those bombs.” Felecia nodded her consent.
General Bradson touched down about a third of the way down Kufra’s runway. It was early morning and the desert air was still. They saw no signs of human presence as they taxied off the runway, taking a taxiway diagonally to the right, coming to rest on a large, empty concrete apron, adjacent to two old hangers. Leaving the engines turning, General Bradson left Brian and Felecia on the flight deck, and with Private Johnson in tow, headed aft just as Horst opened the small side door and tossed out a rope ladder.
With his wounded ribs, Private Johnson had to struggle to make the six-foot descent to the concrete. Once Horst had joined them, General Bradson said, “I’ve got the cash in my pocket but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Worse, I don’t see a fuel truck.” The three unarmed men glanced around, hearing the oppressive silence, and seeing nothing but the airport and miles of empty, flat desert beyond.
With a mix of dread and relief, General Bradson heard it first: an approaching vehicle, coming fast.
A new-looking pickup truck wheeled into view from around a hanger, coming fast, heading directly for them. Horst’s fingers twitched and he wished that he had a gun.
The pickup came to a halt between the three men and the C-130, and a short, rotund man in a nondescript olive-green uniform got out. With a scowl on his face and his hand resting on the butt of his service revolver, he began to speak in rapid-fire Arabic. Private Johnson tried as best he could to follow along.
As soon as the man – the airfield’s manager – stopped speaking, Private Johnson told General Bradson and Horst, “I think he said that we have landed here unscheduled, and we need some papers.”
“Actually,” the airport manager said in a precise Oxford accent, “I was educated in Britain, and I speak English. In fact, I speak it well enough to recognize various accents, such as American. You have made an unscheduled, unauthorized landing here and I am impounding your aircraft until you produce the necessary government permissions and certificates for operation in Libya. Now, state your business here.”
Smiling, General Bradson said, “Well, that eliminates our language barrier. We’re flying drill bits in from Saudi for the Occidental Petroleum team that’s wildcatting about a hundred clicks north of here. We do indeed have permission to enter the Great Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” General Bradson used the full official name of the country, hoping to sway his host. “Occidental Petroleum is looking for a new field in partnership with your government. We’re trying to keep this all very low-key until we bring in the first well. We weren’t supposed to land here but the temporary strip up north was having a dust storm so we came here as an alternate. We need fuel, for which we can pay well, and then we’ll be on our way.” The General remembered reading that Occidental Petroleum was doing something in Libya, but he had no idea what or where and hoped that the same applied to the airport manager.
The airport manager shook his head. “Your plane has been impounded until I verify this via the interior ministry in Tripoli. If you are indeed authorized, you will have the appropriate paperwork with you. You have not yet produced it.”
With an agreeable nod, General Bradson withdrew a thick bundle of hundred-dollar bills for his wallet and offered them to the Airport Administration, along with an apologetic shrug. “This was a rush job, they need these drill bits right away so they told me to smooth things over if need be. Will this take care of any fees or paperwork?”
The airport manger accepted the money and flicked through it with his thumb. Determining that it was about five thousand American dollars, he said, “You have just tried to bribe me,” and drew his gun. “Now, let us see what you have on the aircraft. Open it up.”
General Bradson yelled, “Drop the main door, looks like we’re staying a while.”
The hiss and hum of hydraulics announced the opening of the main cargo bay door, and as the ramp lowered, the airport manager said pointedly, “After you, gentlemen.”
As they approached the lowered ramp, the airport manager reached for his radio. General Bradson, two paces in front, stopped suddenly, which distracted the airport manger. Horst, who had been waiting for the opportunity the General had created, spun on the ball of his foot and lashed out with an open left hand, slapping the pistol aside, and then deftly plucking the radio from the other hand of the stunned airport manager, as Private Johnson snatched the pistol away.
“You cannot do this,” the manager said, while looking down the barrel of his own gun. “I am not alone here.”
General Bradson smiled coldly. “Neither are we. Take a look in the bird.”
The airport manager glanced up the ramp, to find five men with AK-47s racing down towards him, covered by at least twice as many more from the cargo bay.
“Take his truck and go find us some fuel,” the General said to the first of the arriving troops. Retuning his attention to the airport manager, the General held out his hand. “Keys, please.”
“They are in the ignition. What is it that you want?” the airport manager asked, wondering if his country was being invaded.
“As I told you, we want fuel and then we’ll leave. We mean no harm to you. In fact, my offer to pay, and pay well, still stands.” The General fished out a much larger wad of cash, and then another, followed by a third. “That’s thirty thousand dollars, and you already have five. All we need is fuel. Think it through: if we don’t cut a deal, we’ll just take what we want and that will make you look bad, won’t it? On the other hand, if we cut a deal, you keep the cash, which is worth several times what the fuel is. You keep the difference, as our way of thanking you for your trouble. Then, we leave you and your country behind and everybody’s happy.”
The airport manager stood, sweating under the hot early morning sun, more from nerves than the heat. He watched the soldiers climbing into his truck, and knew that as soon as they passed the hanger, they would see the fuel tank farm and the fuel trucks. He looked again at the cash, and then up at the guns still pointed at him from the cargo bay. The decision was not a hard one to make. “I think your paperwork is in order after all. There is one guard at the airport gate, please do not harm him. He is old and will remain at his post. He is also my father-in-law. The fuel crew is not here. How much do you need? If it is more than the one bowser holds I will need help refilling it.”
Grinning, General told the troops in the pickup to stay put, and then handed the cash to the airport manager. “About fifteen thousand gallons.”
Nodding, the airport administrator said, “That will take several trips with the bowser, as it only holds ten thousand liters. I can do this for you, but I will need one of your men to assist.”
Shaking his head, not willing to let the man out of his sight, General Bradson replied, “We have some extra hoses and pumps. If we can taxi to within a hundred yards of your storage tanks, we can get this done right quick and be on our way. We’re in a hurry and I’m sure you’ll be happier when we’re gone.”
“Move the aircraft forward a thousand meters and you will be within reach,” the airport manager replied, pocketing the thick sheaves of cash.
In a flurry of activity, the C-130 was moved and then given a full load of fuel. Then the fuel bladders in the cargo bay were filled. During the refueling, The Scar’s former cook found the time to send a text message, giving their location and the announced plan to return to the Cape Verde islands.
It was time to go, and General Bradson had a problem. Glancing at the airport administrator, who was standing in the shade under the C-130’s wing, guarded by Horst. The General told Felecia, “We should be off the ground before he can do anything. I paid him, so I’m hoping that he keeps his mouth shut, for a couple of hours anyway.”
“We could always take him with us and then boot him out of the cargo bay,” Felecia said with a chuckle. Noticing the General’s shocked look, she added, “I meant on the runway. That way he’ll have to walk back to his truck before he can do anything. That would get us off the ground and away from here before he can sound the alarm.”
General Bradson laughed and smiled. “Good idea. Cover the nukes with a tarpaulin first, just in case. I doubt he’d know what they are but you never know.” General Bradson left Felecia to attend to getting her security perimeter pulled in and on board, and walked over to the airport administrator. “We’re ready to go. We can’t risk having you raise the alarm before we’re off the ground, so here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going with us, as far as the end of the runway. I’ll leave your keys and gun in your truck. By the time you walk back to it, we’ll be long gone. I’ll leave your radio there too, but I’m keeping the batteries. After what I’ve paid you I think you’ll be able to afford new ones.” The General had a reason for adding the last sentence: to reassure the Libyan that the money was his to keep.
With everyone loaded on board, the C-130, with General Bradson back at the controls and Felecia in the navigator’s seat, taxied out onto the runway and headed for the north threshold. The copilot raised an eyebrow and glanced at the windsock, confirming that the wind, though barely a breeze, was from the north. General Bradson noticed the look and replied to the unspoken question, “We’ve got more than twice the length of runway we need so a couple of knots of wind won’t bother us. We’re taking off downwind so our passenger can watch us disappearing out of sight, southbound, towards Chad. Once we’re out of sight, we’ll turn due west. That way if he does sound the alarm, they’ll be looking in the wrong direction. I doubt they could get here in time to bother us, but it’s free insurance.”
As the C-130 turned onto the threshold, lining up with the runway, Horst opened the side door, dropped the rope ladder, and told the airport administrator. “Time for you to go.” The man didn’t need to be told twice. With all possible haste, and with surprising agility for a man of his girth, he scrambled down the rope ladder.
Horst pulled the ladder up and slammed the door. Thumbing the intercom, he said, “Ready for takeoff.”
General Bradson, who had already completed his pre-flight checklist, advanced the throttles, and the C-130 began to roll.
The airport administrator had walked aft of the plane, and was not quite far enough away to avoid being bowled over by the propwash. He decided to stay down, watching as the C-30 lumbered down the runway and gradually climbed out, heading south. The man stood, and checked his pockets to be sure the cash was still in place. Finding that it was, he began the mile walk back to his truck. Upon retuning to his office, he wrote up and signed a sales invoice for the fuel, and placed enough money to cover it in the office safe. Selling fuel was one of his duties, so that, he believed with good reason, would not arouse any suspicion. The C-130, to the best of his knowledge was already gone from his country, so as far as he was concerned, what harm could there be in keeping the secret? Telling of it, on the other hand, could be quite harmful… to him. Then, with a smile on his face, he fired up his computer and began looking at new cars.
Two hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, The Scar stood by the side of Flight Two, while Yuri supervised its fueling and loading. Deciding that he had nothing to lose, The Scar phoned Felecia.
Felecia eyed the display and accepted the call with a cheery, “Hello?”
“Where are you going with my property?” The Scar asked.
“It’s not yours and never will be. Goodbye and good riddance Frankenstein, you son of a bitch.” Felecia’s voice held venom, though she was grinning from ear to ear.
Ignoring the barb, The Scar said in a level tone, “Turn back now or you and your men will die.”
“Fuck off,” Felecia said, and ended the call.
“I guess he won’t be giving you any glowing job references,” General Bradson said with a laugh.
With a frown creasing her face, Felecia replied, “That’s a minor concern compared to a larger one that I have. What if he’s got a remote-detonated bomb hidden on board?”
General Bradson nodded. He’d had the same thought. “Possible, but he wants the cargo. I think that would make him unlikely to take such a step. He’d have had to either wire up both C-130s, or install the bomb in Somalia, because he didn’t know which C-130 I’d use for Flight Three. Also, if he had the means, I think he’d have used it by now. The final thing to consider is that there’s nothing we could do if he does have a bomb on board: it would probably be in the wings somewhere and there’s no way we could find it. All we can do is keep going.”
On the dusty runway of his base in Sudan, The Scar resisted the urge to smash his phone. “I’ll kill that traitorous bitch,” he swore, though no one was in earshot. Thanks to his former cook, he knew that they had stopped in Kufra and were heading west, with a claimed destination of the training base in the Cape Verdes. He knew that had to be a lie. The westward direction itself also made no sense to him; if they were going to turn the devices over to the Americans, why head for West Africa? There were American bases far closer than that. That meant, the Scar decided, that they had another buyer, and that buyer was in West Africa, or maybe further… He knew they had told their men that they were heading for the Cape Verdes, which would be at or beyond the C-130’s maximum range, even with some extra fuel bladders. They could always refuel again, and he began wondering where… and suddenly, he remembered a photograph in the General’s camera, and how it had explained how the General had arrived in the Cape Verdes. “The annoying one,” he muttered, “He is involved in this somehow.”
Calling Yuri to his side, The Scar said, “There are JATO rockets in the first warehouse. We don’t have time to mount them so just place two sets in the cargo bay. Make certain the men are equipped for airborne assault, full load. I have a hunch where the traitorous bitch is going and if I am correct, we may need the JATOs to take off. In the meantime we will follow their route, assuming our cook can keep us posted.” After thinking it over for a few moments, The Scar sent the cook a text message.
Ten minutes later, Flight Two, with The Scar, Yuri, and thirty troops on board, lumbered down the runway, air-starting its number three engine, and climbed into the sky, turning west.
The vibration of the satellite phone startled the former cook. He had not realized that the device could do that and muttered silent thanks that the infernal device had not been set to ring. Several minutes later, he slipped into the lavatory and read the message; ‘Take control of the aircraft. If you cannot, prepare to destroy it and all aboard. If you succeed, I will pay you ten million.’ With visions of the money running through his mind, the former cook returned to his jumpseat to bide his time and await an opportunity. He had two options: destroy the plane while it was on the ground, or destroy it in the air and escape via parachute. He judged the latter far too risky.
Flight Three banked to the west, staying low. They transited the southern edge of Libya and entered Algerian airspace. General Bradson began to relax a little. “We’re out of Libya and over some of the emptiest country on earth. From here we cross southern Algeria, heading west.” Felecia shooed the copilot out of the cockpit and called Horst in. Then, the General continued, “My aim point is the boundary between Morocco and Western Sahara. We’ll parallel that all the way to the coast. When do you think we should tell your men that we aren’t going to the Cape Verdes? I’d prefer to leave it as late as possible. Given how things went with Flight Two, I’m betting that your former employer might have ears on board.”
Felecia considered that for a moment. “I think so too. I’d say we should wait until just before landing. Speaking of… you might start by telling me how the hell you plan to land this crate. The airport is closed, remember?”
With a chuckle, the General explained, “Ash clogs engines. So, as long as the engines aren’t running, no problem. I’ll just shut ‘em down and do a dead-stick landing. If there’s an ash plume in the air, we’ll just approach from high altitude and glide in.”
After picking up the keys from the resort employee – Jansen’s eyes had opened wide upon seeing the size of the check that Eric had handed over – Eric and Jansen walked into the employee parking lot. Jansen stopped when Eric did, and after glancing around at the dozens of various vehicles, asked, “Which one is it?”
Eric shrugged. “I have no idea. He said it’s a Mercedes but I don’t see one.” Eric assumed that he was looking for a car.
Spying the keys in Eric’s hand, Jansen said, “I see a remote. Try that.”
Eric looked and saw three buttons, though the symbol had worn away. On his third try, he was rewarded with a distant ‘beep’. Turning to Jansen, he said, “Good thinking, for a stripper.”
“That’s exotic dancer, you brainless bassist,” Jansen said with a laugh, as he walked with Eric towards the distant beep.
“Is that a car?” Jansen asked, as Eric triggered the remote again, just to be sure.
“It’s responding to the remote, whatever it is, and it does have a Mercedes logo. I think it’s at least part of a car,” Eric said, staring at the tiny vehicle.
Jansen walked up to the diminutive Mercedes ‘Smart Car’, and said, “Good thing Keith isn’t going with us. It’s a two-seater.
One of the smallest production cars ever made, the Mercedes Smart Car is less than nine feet long, which prompted Eric to say, “At least it should be easy to park.”
After getting in, they found that the two-seater was not as cramped as they’d expected. The next puzzle Eric faced was the gear selector. “I can drive a stick, but this doesn’t look like one, or an automatic. I guess we’ll find out.”
Firing up the tiny car, Eric eased the selector to ‘R’, and found himself in reverse. Carefully, he backed out of the parking space, and put the vehicle in drive. After accelerating out of the parking lot, he said, “It’s weird. If feels like it’s shifting manually but I’m not touching it, plus there’s no clutch.”
“As long as it gets us where we’re going,” Jansen said with a laugh.
Eric quickly got used to the little car, taking the switchback road with ease as they climbed towards the village of Las Indias and turned north on the main highway, LP-1. The climb had taken them closer to the summit of Cumbre Vieja and Jansen glanced up at it, seeing that at the moment it appeared deceptively quiet, just some steam plumes, not even any clouds of ash.
As the route wound its way north, clinging to the nearly vertical mountainside, both guys enjoyed the spectacular views of the sea, over two thousand feet below, and the walnut and pine trees clinging precariously to the lush cliffs.
They turned inland heading east, and as they neared the massive ridge that divided the island. Eric began to grin, relishing the surprise he was about to unleash. “Oh, one other thing: you’re going to love the next stretch of road. The guy I rented the car from told me about it,” Eric said, looking over at Jansen.
Jansen knew Eric well enough to figure out that he had something up his sleeve. There was only one thing he could think of so he asked, “Just how close to the volcano is the road?”
Eric shrugged and gave the dancer his best innocent smile. “I don’t know if ‘close’ is the right word. Not that close, really.” Eric wasn’t quite lying; the road didn’t pass close to the active crater. The fact he was concealing was that the road, Camino De La Cumbre, transited the mid-island ridge via the La Cumbre tunnel, which just happened to pass through the northernmost flank of the volcano. Eric had been surprised to find that it was still open. The reason was that it was needed and also had been judged safe; the volcanic vent that was currently active lay over two miles to the tunnel’s south. ‘I’ll tell when we enter the tunnel’ Eric thought, sporting a wicked grin as he envisioned the dancer’s likely reaction. The tunnel was indeed safe enough; an older tunnel following the same route had remained open during Cumbre Vieja’s 1971 eruption.
They entered a straight stretch of highway, and ahead, they could see the shallow white arch of the concrete road tunnel, with twin rows of lights embedded in the ceiling. “This is a tunnel,” Eric said with a wicked grin.
Laughing at Eric’s outrageous obviousness, Jansen replied, “No shit, Sherlock. So, where does it come out?”
As they entered the tunnel, Eric replied, “It’s one and a half miles long. It comes out on the other side of the mountain, and from there we’re close to the airport. The tunnel is kind of unique. It’s two thousand feet underground near the middle. Oh, I guess I ought to mention, the mountain it’s going through is the same one that put on the great show last night. We’re driving right through the northern flank of Cumbre Vieja.”
Jansen had expected a nasty surprise of some sort, but definitely not that. He began to cough, and gave Eric a horrified look. “You’re bullshitting me. You have to be.”
“Nope, it’s true. According to the guy at the resort, this is the only road tunnel in the world that goes through an active volcano.” Seeing Jansen’s scared face, Eric immediately felt bad and added, “Don’t worry, it’s just the north edge; we’re not going through the active area. They’d close it if there was any danger.”
Glaring at Eric, though the grin creeping onto his face belied any anger, Jansen said, “You ass. You waited until we were inside to tell me. You’ve been planning that all along, haven’t you?”
“Uh huh,” Eric replied with a grin of his own, and then added a wink.
When they emerged from the tunnel, it was into a world starkly different from the one they’d left behind. A moonscape of volcanic ash coated everything as far as their eyes could see. Jansen said, “Oh, shit. Helen was right not to move us to this side of the island. I’d heard it was like this, but seeing it…”
Sobered, Eric looked at the dull grey landscape. “Yeah, and I’ll bet it’s hell to breathe when the wind’s blowing or this stuff is falling. No wonder most everybody hightailed it for the north end of the island.
They drove on. The road had been cleared but still retained a thin coating of ash. The few vehicles they encountered heading the opposite direction passed in blinding clouds of ash, and Eric discovered that the windshield wipers just made a muddy mess. After finding some towels behind the seats, which due to their condition they incorrectly guessed had been used for that purpose before, they cleaned the windshield and carried on. Instead, the towels had been used by the car’s owner as a substitute for the air filter after it had clogged.
From the end of the tunnel to the airport was only five miles, but to Jansen and Eric, it seemed like fifty.
With Barbra by her side, Helen walked into the private dining room for breakfast, to find Jon, Brandon, and Chase, but no sign of Eric. In no mood to bother with niceties, Helen said, “Something absolutely critical and urgent has come up and I need to talk to you all. Where is Eric? We need him here for this.”
Chase had talked to Eric half an hour before, and seeing that Helen was in dire earnest, Chase disregarded Eric’s earlier plea and said, “He’s on his way to the airport. He should be back in a few hours.”
Kicking herself for not giving the band members a heads-up as soon as she’d heard from General Bradson, and cursing Eric for doing something as risky as driving around with the volcano acting up, Helen whipped out her phone to call him. Seconds later, she snapped it shut and handed it to Barbra, “Now the damn phones are out again, all I get is a recording.” Helen was mistaken; the reason she’d received the recording was that Eric had his cell phone turned off so that Helen couldn’t call him. “Keep trying him while I explain to the guys what’s going on… Chase, why in the name of all that is holy is Eric going to the fucking airport?”
Chase shrugged. “He wants to talk to our pilots to find out where General Bradson went. He’s worried about him. He took Jansen along… for a date.”
“That boy has the worst timing on earth,” Helen snarled, and then proceeded to explain what was going on.
Five minutes later, Jon, Brandon, and Chase all nodded in stunned silence. Jon trusted Helen’s judgment, so he offered, “The three of us, plus you, can swing this without Eric if we have to. You said General Bradson would have collateral. What is it?”
Proud that Jon was showing caution, which she could see from their expressions that Brandon and Chase also shared, Helen gave an embarrassed shrug, “He couldn’t say and I have no idea, but unless it’s adequate and we both have it and approve of it, there will be no loan. Given his problems with the government before he left – that’s why he had to sneak out of the country on Eric’s jet – I have a hunch that he can’t get any help from the government, at least not directly or quickly. Maybe he needs a conduit between himself and Washington. He won’t speak freely over a phone, so we’ll find out when he can talk to us directly. From anyone else I’d suspect a scam, but given what he’s done in the past…” Helen’s guess was that the collateral would be something to do with the U.S. government. She was both very wrong and very right.
“Okay, I’m in,” Jon said, as Brandon and Chase followed suit. Helen produced a thick bundle of paperwork, along with a warning: “There will be a lot more when the European banks open in a couple of hours.” Helen then picked up a house phone to call Jim, and told the big biker, “We need you right away. Meet us in the dining room.”
© 2009 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.
Special Credits go to our Favorite Amphibian, MikeL, for advice on artillery terminology.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.