by Stephen Coonts


The satellite photos showed a wash just off the east end of the runway. We worked our way along it, then crawled to a spot that allowed us to look the length of it.

The runway was narrow, no more than fifty feet wide. The planes were parked on a mat about halfway down. The wind was out of the west, as it usually was at night. To take off, the planes would have to taxi individually to the east end of the runway, this end, turn around, then take off to the west.

“If they don’t discover that the guards are missing, search the place, find the bombs and disable them, we’ve got a chance,” I said. “Just a chance.”

“You’re a pessimist.”

“You got that right.”

“How many guards do you think are around the planes?”

“I don’t know. All of the pilots could be there; there could easily be a dozen people down there.”

“So we just sneak over, see what’s what?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“For three million dollars I thought I was getting someone who knew how to pull this off.”

“And I thought the person hiring me was sane. We both made a bad deal. You want to fly the Osprey back to Germany and tell them you’re sorry you borrowed it?”

“They didn’t kill your parents.”

“I guarantee you, before this is over you’re going to be elbow-deep in blood, lady. And your parents will still be dead.”

“You said that before.”

“It’s still true.”

I was tempted to give the bitch a rifle and send her down the runway to do her damnedest, but I didn’t.

I took the goddamn M-16, adjusted the night-vision goggles, and went myself. My left side hurt like hell, from my shoulder to my hip. I flexed my arm repeatedly, trying to work the pain out.

The planes were readily visible with the goggles. I kept to the waist-high brush on the side of the runway toward the planes, which were parked in a row. It wasn’t until I got about halfway there that I could count them. Six planes.

The idea was to get the terrorists into the planes, then destroy the planes in the air. The last thing we wanted was the terrorists and the guards out here in this desert running around looking for us. With dozens of them and only two of us, there was only one way for that tale to end.

No, we needed to get them into the planes. I didn’t have enough radio-controlled detonators to put on all the planes, so I thought if I could disable some of the planes and put bombs on the rest, we would have a chance. But first we had to eliminate the guards.

If the flight crews were bivouacked near the planes, this was going to get really dicey.

I took my time, went slowly from bush to bush, looking at everything. When I used infrared, I could see a heat source to the south of the planes that had to be an open fire. No people, though.

I was crouched near the main wheel of the plane on the end of the mat when I saw my first guard. He was relieving himself against the nearest airplane’s nose-wheel.

When he finished he zipped up and resumed his stroll along the mat.

I went behind the plane and made my way toward the fire.

They had built the thing in a fifty-five-gallon drum. Two people stood with their backs to the fire, warming up. I could have used a stretch by that fire myself: The temperature was below sixty degrees by that time and going lower.

No tents. No one in sleeping bags that I could see.

Three of them.

I settled down to wait. Before we made a move, I had to be certain of the number of people that were here and where they were. If I missed one I wouldn’t live to spend a dollar of Julie Giraud’s blood money.

Lying there in the darkness, I tried to figure it all out. Didn’t get anywhere. Why that guy addressed me in English I had no idea. He was certainly no Englishman; nor was he a native of any English-speaking country.

Julie Giraud wanted these sons of the desert dead and in hell—of that I was absolutely convinced. She wasn’t a good enough actress to fake it. The money she had paid me was real enough, the V-22 Osprey was real, the guns were real, the bombs were real, we were so deep in the desert we could never drive or hike out. Never.

She was my ticket out. If she went down, I was going to have to try to fly the Osprey myself. If the plane was damaged, we were going to die here.

Simple as that.

Right then I wished to hell I was back in Van Nuys in the filling station watching Candy make change. I was too damned old for this shit and I knew it.

I had been lying in the dirt for about an hour when the guy walking the line came to the fire and one of the loafers there went into the darkness to replace him. The two at the fire then crawled into sleeping bags.

I waited another half hour, using the goggles to keep track of the sentry.

The sentry was first. I was crouched in the bushes when he came over less than six feet from me, dropped his trousers, and squatted.

I left him there with his pants around his ankles and went over to the sleeping bags. Both the sleeping men died without making a sound.

Killing them wasn’t heroic or glorious or anything like that. I felt dirty, coated with the kind of slime that would never wash off. The fact that they would have killed me just as quickly if they had had the chance didn’t make it any easier. They killed for political reasons, I killed for money: We were the same kind of animal.

I walked back down the runway to where Julie Giraud waited.

I got into the Humvee without saying anything and started the motor.

“How many were there?” she asked.

“Three,” I said.

We placed radio-controlled bombs in three of the airplanes. We taped a bomb securely in the nosewheel well of each of them, then dangled the antennas outside, so they would hang out the door even if the wheels were retracted.

When we were finished with that we stood for a moment in the darkness discussing things. The fort was over a mile away and I prayed the generator was still running, making fine background music. Julie crawled under the first plane and looked it over. First she fired shots into the nose tires, which began hissing. Then she fired a bullet into the bottom of each wing tank. Fuel ran out and soaked into the dirt.

There was little danger in this, as Julie well knew. The tanks would not explode unless something very hot went into a mixture of fuel vapor and oxygen: She was putting a bullet into liquid. The biggest danger was that the low-powered pistol bullets would fail to penetrate the metal skin of the wing and the fuel tank. In fact, she fired six shots into the tanks of the second plane before she was satisfied with the amount of fuel running out on the ground.

When she had flattened the nose tires of all of the unbooby-trapped planes and punched bullet holes in the tanks, she walked over to the Humvee, reeking of jet fuel.

“Let’s go,” she said grimly.

As we drove away I glanced at her. She was smiling.

For the first time, I began to seriously worry that she would intentionally leave me in the desert.

I comforted myself with the fact that she didn’t really care about the money she was going to owe me. She could justify the deaths of these men, but if she killed me, she was no better than they.

I hoped she saw it that way, too.

She let me out of the Humvee on the road about a quarter of a mile below the fort. From where I stood the road rose steadily and curved through three switchbacks until it reached the main gate.

With my Model 70 in hand, I left the road and began climbing the hill straight toward the main gate. The night was about over. Even as I climbed I thought I could see the sky beginning to lighten up in the east.

The generator was off. No light or sound came from the massive old fort, which was now a dark presence that blotted out the stars above me.

Were they in bed?

The gate was still open, with no one in sight on top of the wall or in the courtyard. That was a minor miracle or an invitation to a fool—me. If they had discovered King Kong’s body they were going to be waiting.

I stood there in the darkness listening to the silence, trying to convince myself these guys were all in their beds sound asleep, that the miracle was real.

No guts, no glory, I told myself, sucked it up, and slipped through the gate. I sifted my way past the Land Rover and began climbing the stairs.

I didn’t go up those stairs slow as sap in a maple tree this time. I zipped up the steps, knife in one hand and pistol in the other. Maybe I just didn’t care. If they killed me, maybe that would be a blessing.

The corridor on top was empty, and the door to the radio shack was still closed. I eased it open and peeked in. King Kong was still lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor, just the way I had left him.

I pulled the door shut, then tiptoed along the corridor toward an alcove overlooking the courtyard.

I heard a noise and crouched in the darkness.

Someone snoring.

The sound was coming from an open door on my left. At least two men.

I eased past the door, moving as quietly as I could, until I reached the alcove.

Nothing stirred in the quiet moment before dawn.

From the rucksack hanging from my shoulder I removed three hand grenades, placed them on the floor near my feet.

And I waited.