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Chapter Five

The second time he woke up it was much worse. He had degenerative damage in both knees, his right hip, his right elbow and his left shoulder. Which was why he was on fifty percent disability. All of those joints, and his back, and his head, were screaming. He knew that pain was weakness leaving the body. He'd been in worse pain in his life. Rarely, but he had. Unfortunately, this pain was crippling enough he couldn't move.

The plane was taxiing through a blacked out airport. That was as much as Mike could tell from his position. He managed to pull his jump bag around and rummage in the medicinal portion. First he pulled out a handful of Pepcid Complete and chewed them up, swallowing them with just about the last of his saliva. Then he took two eight hundred milligram ibuprofen "horse" tablets. He'd taken so much ibuprofen in BUDS that he'd ended up throwing up blood and his stomach was still sensitive to it; the Pepcids were a necessity not a nicety.

When he'd swallowed the pills, he forced his body to move, grimacing against the stabbing pain in his joints. He wasn't sure if he'd been bent or if it was just the joints reacting to the pressure change. That was a "mild" form of the bends he'd have for the rest of his life every time the weather changed. More damage or simply pain? It didn't really matter, he had a mission to complete and he had to drive the fuck on.

He had a feeling this was the final destination. More than one refueling stop would be problematic for the terrorists. They'd probably refueled in one of the "lawless" regions of Algeria. That would make this somewhere in the near Middle East. He wasn't sure 727s had enough legs to make it from Algeria to, say, Pakistan or Iran. Iran was top on his list of probable spots for the girls to be taken. Not only were the mullahs getting really crazy lately, they'd done the "hostage" game with America before.

The plane coasted to a stop and a "Follow-Me" hooked up and turned it around, backing it into position. Mike could hear echoes and realized they were being backed into a hangar. Which would be a pain in the ass to egress. The "Follow-Me" stopped, though, before the plane was fully in the hangar. The doors were partially closed and he could hear voices shouting in Arabic. That changed things. Iranians spoke Persian, Farsi, and it was close enough to Dari, which he'd heard a lot, to tell the difference between it and Arabic. Farsi was more . . . liquid. Arabic was a really guttural language like Hebrew with a lot of hawking up loogies involved. These guys were hawking loogies so he probably wasn't in Iran.

He stood up, quietly, and worked his joints, then got down on his knees and took a quick peek, upside down, out of the nose section. Group of guys in blue jumpsuits, like airport workers, unloading the plane from the back, using another one of those lift-trucks. Another cargo truck the coffins were being stacked in. A couple of military-uniformed guards hanging around watching. Two or three civvies watching as well, maybe muj. No guards on the front of the hangar. Why weren't there guards on the front of the hangar?

He looked at his clothes and rubbed his chin. Not enough stubble, clothes not shabby enough, hair too long. For that matter, the clothes were too well made; the reason everybody in the third world wanted American jeans was that Levis were just better than anything made overseas. But they didn't "look" right. He couldn't really pass for a local. A T-shirt was not a normal item to wrap around the head. It disappeared into the jump bag. Jump bags weren't normal items, nor were MP-5s. Too frickin' bad.

He took another look, then lowered himself out of the nose assembly and onto the pavement, keeping the nose assembly between him and the work at the rear. The front of the plane was in darkness, probably deliberately to try to keep the Americans from noting it by satellite and wondering.

He shifted his bag to his left and just slowly sauntered towards the doors. Once he was past them, nobody in the group at the rear was going to see him. And, still, no guards in view. Maybe they were trying to act like it was no big deal, unloading a plane in the dark of night with no lights on.

Past the doors he headed for the side of the hangar, MP-5 down. The worst possible thing he could do was kill someone. If the terrorists, and whoever was supporting them, knew the op was blown, they might kill the girls on a whim. Or speed up whatever their plans were. Al Qaeda generally killed their hostages if their demands weren't met quickly. Nick Berg had found that out. The Philippines had caved but he couldn't imagine the American government doing the same. Especially since Al Qaeda would make the demands high. And he was pretty sure that they wouldn't simply slit their throats in front of a camera. There were other things they could do to make the experience more uncomfortable for both the girls and the American public.

But they were being transported, again, "somewhere else." He had to find out, somehow, where the truck was going. If he called it in they might be able to track it on satellite, but satellites had to be in just the right basket to get a good view. Probably they were retasking all the Keyholes for just that reason, but they still had to be in the right basket.

There was another hangar next to the one where the girls were being unloaded, also unlit and unguarded. He could see guard towers in the distance and a control tower bulking against the sky. He cautiously checked the corner of the hangar, but there wasn't anyone in the dead space between the two, just a slight channel for water run-off and a bunch of litter. Typical.

He moved down the wall of the hangar cautiously. There would be, were from what he had seen, guards on the far end of the hangar. That end of the hangar, north from looking at the stars which were bright in the clear sky, was near the perimeter fence of the airport. Like most in the gomer zone it looked as if it had been put up in the 1950s and never repaired: sagging and rusted chain link with a single strand of concertina tacked on the top that dangled almost to the ground in places. He slowly moved out from the wall of the hangar, moving over to the adjacent hangar, hunting for a glimpse of what was happening at the front. What he saw, first, was that there was a guarded gate about fifty meters from the back of the hangar. He squatted down and considered the view, thinking. The girls were probably going to be driven out there. The road beyond the gate curved to the left, his direction, then climbed up some low hills towards barely glimpsed mountains. At least that was how it looked from the darkness between the hangars.

There were side doors on the hangars and he was just considering backing up and trying one, to get out of sight and call in if nothing else, when one of the blue clad workers walked around the corner and lit up a cigarette. The man was no more than thirty meters from him and glanced down the narrow alley but didn't register his squatting figure in the dark. Moving, however, was out of the question. All Mike could do was squat there, catching a faint whiff of tobacco smoke and BO, and hope like hell the guy never spotted him.

One of the guards eventually drifted over and cadged a smoke, the two of them talking in low tones as they puffed on their vile local cigarettes. If there had been a roving guard he would have been done, but the security all seemed to be focused on the rear of the plane and, probably, the perimeter of the airport. As he was squatting there in the dark a small truck drove past, just inside the fence. He guessed that there were more guards out in the other direction, looking for a reaction. But a small team could infiltrate this place in a heartbeat and take down the guards by the plane. Holding the spot would be tough, though, and he considered Panama and rethought the situation. In Panama, in a similar situation, two really good shooters had managed to take down most of a SEAL platoon and had more or less stopped it cold when the SEALs tried to advance across the runway. Fighting on airports needed a special assault mindset, given their lack of cover, and such an assault would probably kill some or all of the girls.

Finally the two gomers left the corner and Mike backed up to the door of the unused hangar. It was locked but the blade of his folding knife sufficed to force the lock and let him in without too much noise. The hangar was dark as pitch and he waited for his eyes to adjust as much as they could. There was some sort of jet, a fighter he thought, in the hangar with various parts pulled off. It looked as if the engine had been yanked. There were a lot of parts strewn around the floor and he moved across the big room carefully. He had to get in a position to cross the open area between the hangars and the perimeter fence. If he could get onto the hills, by the road, he might be able to hitch a ride on the truck as it slowed to climb the first hill. At least he could if he hurried. Still no time to call in. Maybe once he was in position, given time.

He crossed the hangar and found another door on the opposite side. He cautiously opened that one and saw that there was a blank building face on the far side. Not a hangar, maybe a maintenance area or something. No windows on the alley, though. He moved cautiously down the alley and checked the far side. No guards in that area but the open area was a great place to get spotted.

He considered the crossing carefully and really didn't like it. But. The area was built on a slight rise and he could, vaguely, see that there was a dip between the fence and the hills. And it looked as if it was designed for rainwater run-off. The alley was dipped in the middle to catch water, but it would form a pond if there wasn't a way out. And he'd seen some storm-water grates in the alley. Probably there was a culvert that led from the alley to the dip.

He backed up and found one of the grates, pulling it up cautiously to avoid too much noise then looked in the hole. Given third world maintenance he really wasn't looking forward to getting in that hole. The culvert was probably going to be at least partially blocked. He might miss the truck and never know it until he got out. But it was a way out of the airport that was less likely to get him caught, and the mission blown, than even a slow creep across the open area. If he had time for a slow creep.

He dropped into the hole and pulled the grate back over, ducking down and looking in the hole. It was black as the inside of a stomach and it looked as if it was finally time for some light. He pulled the Surefire light out of his jump bag and carefully put the red lens on it, then twisted it on. The culvert was clear as far as he could see so he got down on his belly, rigged up the sub-gun and jump bag to drag behind him and started crawling, knife in one hand and flash in the other.

About the middle of the road he hit his first obstacle, a mess of trash that was too complicated to find even one item that was recognizable. There were a couple of rats rustling in the debris that wanted to contest his right-of-way but he wasn't in any mood for it. He waved them away, bopping one of them on the head with the Surefire and forced his way past the garbage. It was pretty wet and smelled like hell, but he could live with that. The air was pretty close as well, but there were more grates to let in fresh air. As he approached one by the road he flicked off his light and kept it off, using the faint light from the grates to find his way. He didn't want a mysterious red light giving him away.

He moved down the sewer as fast as he could, given the need to remain stealthy. The sub-gun clinked against the metal sides from time to time but that was the only major sound he gave off. And except for that one pile of trash the culvert was remarkably clear. He found the far side easily enough but was balked by the fact that it had galvanized metal bars over the end. He should have considered that. They were pretty old, though, they looked as if they'd been installed with the airfield was built and the galvanization had worn off of most of them leaving them heavily rusted, and after a wrestle that left him sweating one of them finally gave way with a slight ping of breaking metal and a grinding noise.

He slid out the narrow gap, ripping his shirt and cutting his skin on the torn metal, then lay in the dip, checking his surroundings. He was below the view from the guard gate but as soon as he tried to climb the hills he would be in view. He also had to consider that perimeter vehicle. He cautiously lifted his head and got a glimpse of the hangar. The truck was still there, the plane, apparently, still being unloaded. The perimeter vehicle, either the same one or another, was in sight but more than a kilometer off. The guards on the gate were looking out as well, but at the road.

He moved cautiously down the gap, in the direction the perimeter vehicle was coming from, looking for a covered way into the hills. As the perimeter vehicle approached he flattened himself behind some low rocks and thought about being invisible. It apparently worked since the truck rumbled past without alarm. As soon as it had gotten a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the gate, he started crawling again.

Finally he reached a point where a shallow wadi came down out of the hills. He was nearly opposite the airport control building, which had some lighted windows and, presumably, people in the tower. But he figured it was as good as he was going to get. He took the wadi in a combat crouch, moving up it as stealthily as he could. He was getting worried about time, though. He had to find the road into the hills and get a good hide position before the truck pulled out. And it would be nice to find time to call in.

Carefully, cautiously, feeling his way in the dark and still trying to hurry, he made his way into the hills.

"The plane was spotted in southern Algeria by a routine KH-11 flyover," the CIA acting director said, sliding pictures of the plane, being refueled, across the table. "However, when it took off, NSA assets say that its transponder codes had been changed. The new transponder codes were picked up by a Navy destroyer headed towards Italy for refueling. The plane was moving west to east, headed in the general direction of the Levant."

"Levant?" the President said, looking at the picture.

"Lebanon, Damascus, Israel," the national security advisor said. "That coastline area."

"Please not Lebanon," the President said.

"Well, it was headed in that direction," the CIA director pointed out. "That doesn't mean it would land there. Our analysts say that the range of a 727 loaded with only the estimated weight of fifty coffins and girls averaging one hundred and thirty pounds has a range of nearly 2500 miles. That puts it at the edge of range to land in Iran from Algeria. Also, obviously, back areas of Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, what have you, if it turned south and headed down over Libya. The most likely target, however, is either Syria or Lebanon. We're redirecting what assets we have on the ground to start looking for it in both countries as well as retasking satellite assets to search for it. NSA has not picked up the satellite phone in use, either to us or others."

"So, 'Ghost' is out there, somewhere," the President said, "maybe alive, maybe dead from the second flight. And so are the girls. And we don't know where."

"We will, Mr. President," the CIA director said. "Somebody will give off an electronic emission we can decrypt or track. Just the plane taking off again in the footprint of a ferret satellite and we'll know."

"What's the status of the armed forces?" the President asked.

"All special mission teams have been put on lockdown," the secretary of defense said. "Special Operations Command and CentCom have been informed of the nature of the mission. They're working on a series of possible joint operations. If it's Iran or Syria, or even Lebanon, penetration of air-defense networks is going to make the mission tricky. It's going to be hard, for example, to simply sneak a team into Syria or Iran and bring the girls out. Both have significant armed forces of their own and air defense networks that have holes but not huge ones. We're looking at a series of plans. It all depends on where the plane lands or has landed."

"But they're ready to go?" the President asked.

"As ready as they can be without knowing the target," the secretary said. "The bases in Qatar and Iraq are dialed in and there's everything from SEAL teams to armored divisions ready to respond. I've started a movement of heavy forces towards the borders of both Iran and Syria in the event we need that much support. Bombers are standing by, fighters are standing by, Marines are standing by and a Marine Amphibious Unit has been shifted towards the Levant in case we're talking about Lebanon."

"We need to get some sort of statement out," Edward Travali said. "There's a lot of speculation about these kidnappings and a lot of fury. The parents of the girls suspected of being kidnapped are on all the networks. Most of them are from conservative backgrounds. Some of my people who have been looking at the conservative political boards . . . well, you're looking at a spontaneous war if a planned one doesn't happen. Not to mention this has raised hatred levels back to where they were post-9/11. The liberals aren't reacting the same, of course. They're almost saying it's the girls' fault."

"Typical," the President said, letting out an angry breath. "Okay, we need to know what we can say. The shooter in Athens was . . . ?"

"Not a common citizen," Travali said hastily. "Not just some guy who stumbled on the op and broke it up, although I think that might be what happened. The person has been identified but for reasons of national security and the ongoing kidnapping investigation we cannot reveal his or heró"

"His," Don Brandeis said. "The news media has at least that much."

"His name," Travali said, nodding. "We're not even willing to discuss the person's connection to the United States government except to say that he is a former special operations soldier and he was not a member of any U.S. government program. That is, the U.S. government doesn't pay his salary. We also cannot discuss the investigation except to say that it's ongoing and the full assets of the United States government are focused on getting these girls home safely."

"Secretary Brandeis, given all that we spend on intelligence and defense, don't you have any idea where the girls have been taken?"

Brandeis leaned forward, his hands on the podium, and looked at the newswoman who had asked the question.

"Young lady, is English your birth language?" he asked, his brow crinkling in puzzlement.

"Yes," the reporter replied, surprised. It was her first attendance at a Brandeis press briefing. She had been sent because of the "human interest" in the current hostage crisis and wasn't a regular Pentagon reporter. In fact she'd mostly been sent because she looked as if she would have been a target if she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and her network felt that viewers would, therefore, identify with her. She knew something was going wrong, though, by the faint snorts in the room and how her associate, a regular Pentagon reporter, groaned, then subtly shifted away from her.

"And did you go to college?" Brandeis asked very slowly and distinctly, as if talking to a four-year-old.

"Yes," she said, her lips thinning in anger.

"Then perhaps you could try to parse out a sentence like: 'We cannot discuss the investigation except to say that it's ongoing and the full assets of the United States government are focused on it.' Do you remember me saying those exactwords, young lady? Or are you just drawing pretty pictures in that notebook in your hand? A brief of my comments was handed out in advance. Maybe you should look it over and get help with the tougher words from Bill there. But for those of you who can neither read nor understand simple English, I'll make it simpler. We're not going to discuss the details of the investigation. If that's too complicated, we're not going to talk about what we know. We're not going to talk about what we don't know. We're not going to talk about what we may or may not be planning. We're not even going to discuss what we know about the weather, just in case you manage to divine something from that comment, correct or incorrect, and give it to whoever stole these girls. Now, young lady, is that clear enough for you or do you have to write it a thousand times on a chalkboard?

"And, by the way, 'given' is the stupidest word a reporter can use. It does not discuss any objective reality of a situation but invariably points to the personal bias of the reporter. And, as we both know, reporters are supposed to be unbiased. Fair and balanced and all that. No one ever says: 'Given that the sky is blue.' They say: 'Given that American soldiers eat babies for breakfast.' One is not debatable in rational everyday terms. Sky. Blue. Sometimes gray, but blue if there aren't clouds and it is day. An effect of oxygen in the atmosphere. Scientifically provable. Neither is the second worth everyday debate, it is provably wrong, but it's certainly debated among the press in my experience. So if you're going to continue to attend these briefings, first learn to read, second learn to listen and third, remove the word 'given' from your vocabulary. Otherwise it is 'given' that you will not enjoy yourself. Next question."

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