Read The Shield of Darius Online

Authors: Allen Kent

The Shield of Darius (23 page)

BOOK: The Shield of Darius
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

At the entry checkpoint for his target run, a coordinate just north of the border village of Halabjah, the Mirage banked gradually left to follow the Sirvan River into Iran, passing north of Hamadan and the village of Bahar before turning due east to approach Tehran from the south. Beyond Nowbaran the jet roared out over open desert, kicking up twisting plumes of dust as it followed the plan in its carefully programmed memory, avoiding villages and military outposts as it closed on the Iranian capital.

As the jet crossed the Qom highway it banked sharply north toward the southern edge of Tehran and Shel disengaged the autopilot, pulled the Mirage up to 1500 feet and activated the targeting system in the nose of the aircraft. Instantly an optical scanner surveyed the city ahead, matching the patterns and shapes of buildings with those stored in its memory from high resolution computer enhanced aerial photographs. Within seconds, the matchmaker identified and locked, displaying on a small screen just to the right of the altimeter a quarter mile square of the city, centered on Kush Avenue. In the middle of the display, two flashing dots illuminated side-by-side squares; the Caravan and Rubaiyat Hotels.

Shel waited tensely, steadying the screaming jet as it streaked toward the targets, shaking the startled city below. A green light flashed beside the display, activating the guarded trigger switches on his console. He snapped back the red cover guards and flipped the switches.
One. Two.

Iranian buildings of the Rubaiyat’s vintage had been constructed around arched brick supports that made them sturdy as a concrete bunker from above. Knock out the footings at the bottoms of the arches and they collapsed like a house of cards. Shel’s laser homing systems were programmed to bring the bombs right through the front doors. With the bombs locked and tracking, he held until he saw the flash, then pulled up sharply and threw the stick hard right into a tight sixty degree bank turn that jarred him back into his seat and held him until the large round directional indicator approached due south.

He rolled out heading 173, plunged again toward the barren Iranian landscape south of the city and leveled 200 feet above the ground, re-engaging the autopilot. If his fuel held and all else went as planned, he should be able to make his pickup point 200 miles due east off the coast of Muscat where he would ditch the aircraft and be picked up by a launch from a west-bound freighter, flying Liberian colors. Within minutes, the Iranians would scramble their fighters, squadrons of F-4s and F-14s purchased during the days of America’s Iranian arms sales. He would have been seen by hundreds on the ground, but the plane could not be identified. American? Israeli? Probably one of the two. But what could one do with so much uncertainty?

 

.  .  .

 

In the smothering closeness of his room in the Rubaiyat, Jim Cannon heard the roar of the approaching jet and jumped to his feet with arms spread wide, laughing aloud.

“He’s done it, Janet!,”
he shouted, turning to the woman who read silently on the bed across from him. “I’ll be damned if the little guy hasn’t brought in the cavalry!” She stood and stepped beside him, wrapping an understanding arm around his waist and pressing her cheek against his shoulder.

With a whistling scream, the room, and Jim, and Janet and the Rubaiyat Hotel disintegrated in an orange ball of fire.

 

.  .  .

 

On an isolated pad at the east end of Tel Aviv’s main east-west runway, the blue and white KLM 747 sat in the dark of the Mediterranean night surrounded by a dozen glaring spotlights. Rajid Malak was alone in the jet’s plush blue-upholstered first class lounge, watching the seconds tick away on his electronic trigger. He had stopped it once on landing, re-entering twenty-four hours. That was eleven hours and fifteen minutes ago and he had nothing now to do but wait. He hadn’t been into the cockpit, fearing that in the confined space of the cramped compartment he might be overpowered before he could defend himself. He had spoken only to the attendant with the French roll and to Captain Geyl, who conveyed his messages to Israeli officials in the control tower.

Below, Leah Lavi had herded all of the passengers into the rear of the aircraft and sat beside the forward bulkhead where she watched them cower in their seats as she fingered the third trigger. Had he been more alert, her accomplice overhead might have heard the murmur as the cockpit crew saw a lone figure dressed in a KLM flight engineer’s uniform step quickly into the circle of light directly in front of the plane’s nose, carrying a looped rope over his shoulder. He might also have heard the dull thud as the rope was lofted toward the cockpit window and slapped against the metal exterior by a crew member who caught the rope and tied it to the copilot’s flight controls. Had Malak entered the cockpit, he would have seen a fair-haired Israeli commando climb hand-over-hand up the rope to the two story window and squirm head first through the narrow opening. But he was too preoccupied with the countdown and with his own thoughts and looked up only fleetingly as the young flight engineer stepped out soberly into the lounge. A black flight publications case hung loosely in one hand.

“We’re making progress,” the young man said, setting the case on the floor and sprawling into a chair, facing Rajid.

“Half the time is gone,” the hijacker said soberly. “Something must happen soon.”

He glanced down again at the counter in his hand and looked back up only to see the long silenced muzzle of a Beretta 22LR pistol before two dull shots smashed into his chest in a splatter of crimson.

The young commando returned the weapon to his case and, clutching it in his left hand, walked loosely down the circular stairs to the lower level. He looked up past the bulkhead at Leah Lavi who inched out into the aisle to study him with black, suspicious eyes.

“I think we’ve about reached a settlement,” the flight engineer said.

“I want to see released Hamas leaders standing here, telling me in person,” she snapped back, glancing sideways at the frightened huddle of passengers in the crowded rear of the plane.

Before she could turn again to the young officer, a shot from the Beretta caught her squarely between the breasts, hurling her backward over a seat and into the cramped space between rows. A woman screamed in the rear of the plane as the electronic trigger tumbled harmlessly into the aisle. The commando picked it up, glanced at the digital display and held it overhead for the passengers to see.

“This says we have about twelve and a half hours to get out of here. Will that be enough time?”

A rising murmur turned into shouting applause, then sobbing relief as the passengers and crew filed out past the blood-splattered bodies of their captors, inching away from them as they passed, as if the corpses might rise and reach out for them.

When only the blond commando remained, he stepped out onto the high steps that had been rolled to the forward door of the 747 and beckoned to a pair of heavily padded and helmeted bomb specialists and two white-clad attendants who stood beside an open ambulance. The bomb squad drove a service truck to the side of the aircraft and hoisted a platform carrying a reinforced steel canister up to the front loading door. As they entered to begin work on the bomb, the ambulance crew clambered up the steep steps with a folded stretcher and black body bags and placed them on the floor beside Rajid Malak who stood at the bottom of the circular stairway.

“You’d better let us zip you into one of these things while we carry you out, Agent Ishmael,” one of the attendants said. “There are TV crews all over the place out there.”

“Don’t zip those things all the way up,” Leah said, stepping up beside him and rubbing gingerly at the spot where the exploding dye pellet had bruised her protective vest. “I can’t stand closed spaces.”

Ishmael turned to the bomb disposal men. “Take a little time on that. It’s supposed to be sophisticated. Has anyone heard how Shel did?”

The blond commando held up a clenched fist. “All according to plan. Bringing this plane down when you did kept him out of sight until he could slip into the mountains. No one picked him up until he hit the hotels, and he made it back to the pickup point, punched out, and let the plane crash into the ocean. But the news is already screaming “Israeli jets hit Tehran.”

“Jets?” Leah repeated.

The commando laughed. “According to Tehran, there were three. The sons-a-bitches claim they shot one of them down.”

“But the hotels are gone?” she asked.

“Blown to hell.”

“Let the front office know we can move forward with contingency plans for the reactor strikes,” Ishmael said, and stretched out on one of the cots, wriggling into one of the black body bags.

 

.  .  .

 

The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency walked into his office on the top floor of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, tossed his briefcase into a chair and picked up one of two phones that sat side-by-side on his desk. It was 7:15 a.m., the best time to reach the President in his office. The Director punched in two digits and waited, knowing that if the phone buzzed more than twice, the Chief had other morning commitments. The phone was answered on the first ring.

“Mr. President, I have a report on that Middle East situation we spoke about earlier. Are you free to talk?” The director was not concerned about line security. His office was swept daily for listening devices and everything he said into the phone was immediately encrypted and decoded by a unit in the President’s desk. Both the encrypting and decoding units and programs were checked and changed daily.

“I’m alone. Go ahead.”

“The operation was successful. We can give the Pentagon the green light in the Gulf.”

“Does this have anything to do with the incident I was called about last night by the Defense Secretary?”

“To be honest Sir, I don’t know for sure. I assume it might. I received the call just before I left for the office. My message said only that the operation was complete.”

“If this is it, it’s created a huge international stir. I’m announcing no connection with the strikes whatsoever. I hope I’m right about that.”

“Absolutely, Mr. President.”

“The Israelis did this on their own? We weren’t notified? What can you tell me about it?”

“Nothing, Sir. I don’t have any idea how it was done or by whom. I’m not even sure it was the Israelis. We have maximum deniability. I just know we’re out of the woods.”

The President’s voice was slow and edged with uneasiness. “If we had any role at all, I’ve told you before that I don’t like the idea that there are some operations you don’t have direct control over. In fact, these Unit 1 things scare the hell out of me. Who really knows what’s going on?”

“I don’t know that this was Unit 1. But even if it was, only the operative and his control know completely. In fact, I’m not certain the control always knows how things are accomplished. He knows the objective and what needs to happen. From there on, it may be up to the operative to get it done. But I don’t know that anyone sees the whole thing operationally. That’s why the network exists – and frankly, Mr. President, that’s why it works.”

“I still lose sleep over it,” the President said. “It runs against my grain – none of us here knowing what’s happening.”

“I understand completely, Sir. But we’re in a business where the rules don’t matter to anyone else. If we don’t have our own team that plays outside of the rules, we’ll always end up on the losing end – both figuratively and literally. If we could somehow get a candid expression of public opinion about this, I think we’d find that most Americans would like us to have something like Unit 1, and would prefer not to know we do. Plus, I really don’t think we had anything to do with this.”

The President sniffed irritably. “As long as we can continue to talk each other into it. I’ll call Defense and State and tell them things are clear. What reaction can we anticipate from Iran?”

“Israel is vehemently denying the attack, as you’ve read. But our sources tell us that whatever happened as a result of the raid will make Iran much less likely to retaliate.”

“Hmmm,” the President mused. “Helluva deal.”

The Director hung up and gazed out over the tree-covered valley of the Potomac that stretched below his window. These operations ran against his grain, too. But he didn’t lose sleep over them. He couldn’t, and still do his job.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-THREE

 

The Caspian Sea is not a true sea, but a huge inland lake 300 kilometers wide and 1200 kilometers in length that lies fifty meters below sea level along the northern Iranian border. It earned its name sometime in antiquity when it was thought to be part of a great sea that circled the world, and its remoteness and exotic coastal cultures still surround it with a sense of mystery. While most of the Caspian lies sandwiched between four former Soviet Republics, the southern tip dips like a shallow, uneven bowl into Iran and is bordered by the Persian provinces of Gilan on the west and Mazandaran on the east.

Unlike the vast arid plateau of central Iran, the Caspian coast is lush with heavy rain forests and quilted with the greens, browns and yellows of fertile rice paddies and tea plantations. The sea once teamed with beluga, giant long-nosed sturgeon of prehistoric look and origin, whose finest specimens reach over twenty feet in length and weigh more than a ton. Though fishing is now tightly controlled, each spring trawlers from the surrounding nations still ply the beluga spawning grounds to net thousand pound females whose bellies swell with steel gray roe. Strained and washed, the delicately flavored eggs are lightly salted and vacuum sealed into ornately decorated jars and tins under the Romanoff label, bearing such names as Beluga Molossol, meaning ‘little salt.’ In the finest markets of Europe and the United States, this King of Caviars will bring as much as $200 an ounce.

Strapped securely to a tree trunk within sight of the Caspian’s gray water, the furthest thing from Ben Sager’s mind was caviar. He was worried that he was too close to the stream. Too close to the rice paddies and the road with the sirens. Untying the
chador
, he lowered himself gingerly to the ground, cringing against the ripping pain in his side as he stretched the final few feet to the forest floor. The path he had taken from the stream continued as no more than a low, covered animal run and he crawled further along it, tearing at thick, broad leaves and tentacled vines that grabbed and clung until he collapsed from exhaustion.

On the road the sirens retreated, returned, and retreated again. The air was wet and thick, held close by the press of the jungle. As the trail widened slightly, Ben rolled heavily onto his back and squinted through a heavy screen of semi-consciousness and motionless leaves into the dappled sunlight. Above and to his left, a flock of long-tailed black birds with white markings screeched and whirled in the air and he smelled the acrid bite of fermentation. The smell triggered a rush of saliva and quickened his rebellious muscles. He forced himself back to his hands and knees and plunged into the tangle beside the faint trail, following the noise and smell like a stalking hound until he knelt below three trees that had attracted the flock. The ground beneath them was littered with spoiled fruit, black and rotting to pungent mush. Above, the limbs hung heavy with green and purple figs.

In the thickness of the forest, the elephant ear leaves of the fig trees had shuttered the sun, leaving the ground beneath clear of smaller vegetation. Ben stood unsteadily and stretched for the lower limbs, doubling at the waist and knees as the pull at his abdomen slipped him backward into the black mush. He lay among the spoiled figs and looked up into the green blur above, closing his eyes to let it fade into pale blue and yellow inside his lids. Then she was there, her black hair against the yellow and her mouth smiling and speaking without words.

“Kate. I can’t do it,” he whispered. But she wouldn’t leave until he opened his eyes and staggered back to his feet.

Tying a short, thick stick to a corner of his
chador
, he lofted it over the lowest limb of the large, central tree which branched only inches above his head. He wrapped the cloth around his wrists and attacked the trunk with his feet and legs, gritting and crying aloud against the fiery spasms in his chest and stomach until he was able to throw a leg over the limb and struggle onto its top. For a long moment he stretched breathlessly against the smooth bark, then pushed slowly into a sitting position. The birds had not yet penetrated the heart of the tree and he reached two plump purple figs without moving. Though his stomach spasmed and ached up into his rib cage, he felt little appetite and ate slowly, finding the sweet juice and grainy meat hard to swallow. As he ate, the gnawing in his belly subsided and he stretched slowly, looking above for more fruit.

The tree was tall and evenly limbed, gripping the steep incline of the mountain so that its upper branches opened out over the slope high above the rice paddies. Ben turned slowly and hugged the trunk, easing to his feet on the thick branch. Like a mountaineer in the rarefied air of Everest, he labored upward through the branches, conquering a limb, pausing to gulp air, climbing to the next. As he found full, untouched fruit he ate them, stopping at a point where the fig tree overlooked the fields below. He strapped himself to the trunk and nibbled at the flat slab of bread.

Through the leaves he could see to his right the stream running across open fields to the road and beach. Farther still, the couple’s house stood at the end of the row of cottages, their automobile still parked beside it.

To his left, the coast stretched uninterrupted as far as he could see. Rough stone beaches and gray flat water. He loosened the
chador
and slid out onto his limb perch as far as the branch would support his weight, peering along the slope of the hill. Fifty yards to his left another trail parted the forest, large enough that its track could clearly be seen from above as it dropped away from him toward the rice paddies. He would watch the road until dark. If all seemed still, this trail would take him again to the fields. The border must be sixty, maybe eighty kilometers north. Four days. Five, depending on how fast he could move at night and how often he had to return to the mountains for food.

As the morning lengthened, the sun climbed steamy hot above the trees, lifting  stale vapor from the forest floor and sticking his clothes to his chest and back like soggy tissue paper. He gulped it in, separated the oxygen, and sweat the water back out onto the slippery branch. His stomach churned violently and he retched up the figs, shooting cramping waves from his groin up through his shoulders and neck. He stretched again on the limb, trying to relieve the spasms, but found instead that the ripples moved to his legs and back.

On the road below he heard the distant hum of heavy traffic and parted the branches to open a hole in the foliage. Two police cars – and coming from the south, a procession of camouflaged military vehicles. Six jeeps and two small canopied trucks. Either the couple had reported him, or the police weren’t treating the bus as a common theft.

The convoy stopped in front of the block houses and unloaded a dozen men; small brown figures with black rifles, a half mile away. Maybe more. The vehicles started off again, some carrying soldiers north along the narrow highway and others back toward Rasht, leaving three jeeps and six men clustered about the dwellings.

In mid-morning, a large square olive drab van joined the collection, and Ben heard the sharp bark of dogs. He again parted the limbs and strained to see the animals, fearing they might move directly to the hillside and somehow pick up his scent. Instead their handlers marched them up the road to a point directly across the paddies from his blind, then back again to the van. They were German shepherds, strong buff colored dogs that pulled against their leashes as they worked methodically back and forth across the black tarmac, pausing occasionally to sniff at an object the soldiers held in front of their trained noses. A black rag. A piece of old
chador
from the wreckage.

As the sun reached its zenith one of the trucks returned, picking up loose soldiers and a jeep which followed it north toward the border with Azerbaijan and Ben’s escape. As soon as the vehicles disappeared beyond a turn in the road, one of the remaining jeeps began a slow systematic patrol of the highway, driving briefly out of sight to Ben’s left, then back and out of sight to the south. On the third pass it stopped where the road crossed the shallow stream and two men climbed stiffly out, clambering down the far side of the culvert with rifles slung loosely over their shoulders. They reappeared moments later, conferred briefly, gesturing first toward the open sea and then to the jungle. Dividing their ranks, one struck off across the fields toward the trees and the other leaned against the green fender. The searching soldier followed the low dike that defined the edge of the rice paddies, picking his way carefully across the marshy ground. As he approached the edge of the jungle, he disappeared below the thick screen of trees and Ben pressed flat against the limb, freezing his breath and listening for the man’s thrashing penetration into the tangle along the stream bed. Instead, the soldier reappeared, shaking his head and calling loudly to his comrade, waving his arms in a dividing motion to show the thickness of the undergrowth.

Both jeeps stayed until dark, alternating posts as patrol and sentry. As the day lengthened, low swollen clouds piled against the mountains, darkening the evening and pressing the humidity into misty drizzle. When he could no longer see the outline of the patrolling jeep, Ben dropped painfully from the tree, folded the
chador
into a wide belt around his waist, and forced his way parallel to the slope until he reached the open trail. This one was trampled bare with frequent use and he slid down the clay slope to the edge of the paddies.

As he reached the low embankment separating the outer field from the jungle, a bright spotlight pierced the darkness to his left. The light turned a long cylinder of darkness into glowing haze, pulling everything toward it in veiled relief. Ben dove forward into the thick sludge of the paddy, flattening behind a curtain of knee high plants as the beam drifted over him. When it was gone, he rose dripping with fetid water, and tried to jog forward along the dike in a low crouch. The jarring wrenched at his gut and he stumbled again to the edge of the trees, dropped his soggy pajama pants and emptied what little remained in his bowel. He tried to relax and let his body work, fearing that strain might tear at the inflamed lining of his intestines and send blood after the watery waste.

Again the beam pierced through the rain, reaching its limit just ten feet to his left. Ben was hunched beneath the first tree he had come to at the edge of the forest, facing the road, and dropping his head between his knees, froze in place as the spot moved across him and stopped with him crouching in its hazy center. He thought of bolting into the Jungle but realized he was hobbled by the pants around his ankles and would fall as soon as he moved. Muffled voices filtered through the heavy mist, short and questioning. After what seemed an eternity, the light passed on, but he remained motionless, arms wrapped tightly about his naked knees, head forward, sensing where the light was as it played slowly along the tree line. It moved fifty feet to his right then, as he had anticipated, darted back to his spot, circling him in its misty halo. The voices spoke again, holding him in the veiled glow until he feared he would faint and pitch forward. Then the light was gone. Apparently satisfied that the distant, shrouded object was inanimate – a stump or clump of dark brush – the soldiers started the jeep and drove north.

Ben waited until he could no longer hear the hum of the engine before pulling the loose pants back around his waist and feeling his way forward along the levee. He passed the patrol range of the first jeep, only to find another with its own spearing shaft of light that sent him head first into the murky waters of the fields, rising again black with mud and smelling of human waste.

Near midnight he passed along the mountain side of a village, fed by another stream that tumbled noisily down through the jungle above him. He waded in, feeling the cool water wash the slimy coating from his feet and legs, and turned up its course. Once into the jungle, he crawled beneath overhanging vines with the water lapping against his chest, scrambling upward as the bed became bare rock where the stream had stripped away the topsoil. Two hundred yards into the forest the trees opened around a waist-deep pool, formed as the stream cascaded over a low rocky ledge. The rain had stopped and in the open circle above the pool the clouds were parting, leaking glimmers of moonlight into the opening in the forest. For two or three yards on either side of the pool the ground was flat and bare, trampled by the feet of animals and villagers who came to drink and draw water.

Unwrapping the
chador
, Ben stripped away the rest of his clothing and bandage. He sloshed them in the water until they were free of mud, then stretched them over bushes along the bank to dry. Slowly he settled into the pool until he sat shoulder-deep, his head resting back against the water-sprayed rock. The low fall tumbled soothingly over the taut muscles of his face and rinsed his hair and beard. He raised his chin and let the water fill his mouth, drinking until his belly felt bloated. Sleep tugged at his chest and eyelids and resisting the urge to slip forever into the peaceful embrace of the pool, Ben dragged himself onto the muddy bank, thought fleetingly of snakes, marauding wild boars, and the last of the Caspian tigers, and drifted willingly into unconsciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: The Shield of Darius
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Livvy's Devil Dom by Raven McAllan
Insatiable by Meg Cabot
The Catherine Wheel by Wentworth, Patricia
A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr