Thursday, 23rd January 2020 - 0:40:23 am
Bob Douglas walked along the edge of the landing strip. A slope with outcrops of rock marked the limit of the landing area at this point. He reckoned it must be the hundredth time had had passed by here in the past day and a half. He glanced back at the radio tent. The sides of the tent were rolled up to let in any passing breeze. Douglas could see the operator hunched over the radio. He wasn't fooled by it this time. The first couple of times he had seen this operator in that position, Douglas had come sprinting across the field thinking there was an incoming message. False alarms. The operator on duty, he learned, sometimes assumed that position to relieve tired muscles.
The other guy, the relief operator, bothered Douglas even more. He liked to spend his entire shift lying on his back, the band connecting the head-phones arcing over his nose. Douglas couldn't help going to the tent time after time to make sure the man wasn't sleeping. He never was.
The operators were men Douglas didn't know. That was one of the problems with reassembling an old organization. Some of the old guys had gotten lives. Well he had too, but he couldn't pass up this chance to relive some past exciting times. New guys had to be brought in though. Lou Gorski had recommended these two when he found he was being left behind.
Gorski and Minh along with General Trinh were minding the Southern California operation. Someone had to stay back there to collect all that money. Douglas had to smile every time he thought of it. That was about as sweet an operation as he had ever heard on. Making that drug syndicate support all of Kincaid's people. Well, what the hell. It kept them off welfare.
Bob Douglas guessed that the landing strip, there in the mountains of Iraq, had been built for and used by smugglers. If so, there had been no sign of them. Except for the Iranians and the Kurdish woman who met them when they landed, they hadn't seen another human being.
It was probably the size of their party that frightened the local people and the smugglers away. A huge C130 sat at the west end of the short strip. Its wing struts had been reinforced so that rockets could be attached to the underside. The rocket posters cut the length of strip the plane needed for takeoff down to about a thousand feet.
Alongside the big cargo plane were the two aircraft it had hauled in: a stripped down Huey Helicopter and a twin-engine STOL aircraft. Both could pack in eight passengers in a pinch, although that would be twice their normal load. The two aircraft had been partly disassembled for the trip here and then reassembled on the ground.
Douglas checked the skies. There were a few clouds but nothing threatening. Weather was one of their worries. Even empty, the C-130 would have trouble taking off if the dirt strip got rained on hard. It would have to be flown out at the first threat of a moderate rain.
The three aircraft mechanics and the C-130 crew had been brought into the operation by Douglas. A couple of them he knew from the old days. He knew the rest and trusted them. They were all good at their work and knew how to keep their mouths shut.
Besides them and the two radiomen there were twenty of Trinh Won's Bandits. They were heavily armed. Hao was leading them.
Whalen had wanted to bring in Special Forces or Navy Seals. Kincaid wouldn't have it. "Someone up the line would find out where those guys were going," he said. What would be better for security in the mountains of Iraq than twenty tribesmen from the mountains of Vietnam?
So here they were.
This was interesting company for a would-be crop duster. If he hadn't hooked on with Kincaid, that's what he supposed he'd be doing. Or maybe worse. He's had a feeling that day in the jungle. The day he joined Kincaid's exodus. He had a feeling he was joining a winner.
It was a funny time to have that feeling. The guy's prospects couldn't have been more bleak. His own country had abandoned him. He was going to walk out through three countries to safety. True, he had a lot of fire power with him, but he also had a lot of women and children to haul along.
Bob Douglas still wasn't sure why he had joined Kincaid. Even looking back it seemed like a crazy thing to do. With the end of the Vietnam war a certainty, Air America was going to cut way back so he'd probably be looking for a job. But he could have found a better job than joining Kincaid. Any job would have been better than that. That wasn't a job at all.
The truth is it was more than just joining a winner. It was more like joining a cause. How many times in a guy's life does he run into something that he would gladly make great sacrifices for? Douglas had the answer to that one: in his case, just once. When something like that comes along, something a guy can really believe in, you have to grab it right now, snatch it up before it gets away.
Bob Douglas would be lying if he said he had never regretted his decision. There was the time the last water buffalo had gotten stuck in some quicksand in Laos. The rain was pouring down. He had been exhausted and miserable by the time they got the damn thing out. Then he came down with malaria before they could reach Thailand. It had been the same damned water buffalo that carried him then. What goes around comes around.
Thailand was a surprise. He had always expected to reach it. They were going through countries in chaos. A heavily armed, well disciplined group could go wherever they liked when chaos reigned. But Douglas expected problems with the Thais. Some countries don't like irregular military units crossing their borders. Douglas expected at best a long internment. Much worse things could be in store.
But it didn't work out that way. Once everyone was disarmed, the Thais were friendly as hell. A tent camp had been set up. It was hard to understand what was going on, but it looked like they had been expected.
Then a bunch of silent Americans appeared. They wore military fatigues without any markings whatsoever. They gave no information about who they were or where they were from or anything else. All they wanted to know was who all these people were. They made list after list, even making note of whatever animals had survived.
Then they started flying people out. That drove Kincaid up the wall. They told him everyone was going to the States but there was no way to prove it. He could go on any plane he wanted, he was told, to prove their destination. Since he couldn't be on every plane, he chose to leave on the last. Douglas went with him.
They landed on a nearly vacant field in the California desert. Douglas was quickly isolated from the rest. They took him to a Quonset hut that didn't have air conditioning. In a small room inside he met a little guy wearing glasses who wouldn't give his name. He had on a t-shirt and shorts. He was sitting behind a scarred metal desk sweating. There was a chair in front of the desk and nothing else in the room. A couple of papers and a folder were on the desk.
"Sit," the little guy said. He had a high pitched voice.
Douglas sat. It had to be over a hundred in there.
The little guy looked through the folder. As he looked he asked, "You know that war is over, don't you?"
Douglas was surprised at the question. He didn't answer.
The little guy looked up at him over his glasses and repeated, "Don't you?"
"I know it's over for me. I can't say about the rest of it."
"I see you've got some back pay coming. That should be helpful in case you need a lawyer."
"A lawyer? Why should I need a lawyer?"
"You probably don't. You did walk out of a government contract. You were semi-military. Some might interpret that as a form of desertion, but I don't think so."
Douglas could only stare at him.
"That is only one of the options here. That one is out of my hands. It is still being discussed." He tapped the folder. "I see you have some skills, you're a pilot."
"Who are you?"
"I am nobody. When you leave here, you will have never met me."
"Are you with the government?"
"I am with no government, no how. Now can we continue?"
"We are discussing your future."
"No shit! When did we start doing that?"
"You have two options here. With option one, you will receive your back pay and some money to help you resettle here in the states. However the government might be looking for you to press the charges I mentioned. I would suggest you assume a new identity and find a new line of work. I don't think the government has much of a case, but they can be persistent and lawyers are expensive."
"They would never bring me to court."
"I believe they are discussing a military court. Since much of this is sensitive to national security, not a lot of news of the proceedings would get out."
"Holy shit!" Douglas finally realized what was happening, "this is a cover-up. We embarrassed the shit out of everybody."
"Would you like to hear option two?"
"Sure, go ahead, what's option two?"
"There is a major airline that is very interested in hiring... er... black or African-American or... what do you call yourselves these days?"
"You were talking about option two."
"This major airline will train you so you qualify for the larger aircraft and put you on as a regular pilot. I believe you would be the first... ah... of your race... to become a chief pilot on this particular airline."
"So let me get this straight. On option one I become a fugitive for the rest of my life. On option two I become a chief pilot for a major airline."
"Okay, what's the catch?"
He had to sign some papers. It wasn't a sellout. The war was over, after all. He only had to agree not to talk about what had happened and not to have any contact with any of the people with whom he'd been involved. Who wouldn't go for that deal?
Kincaid was the only one.
It was years later when Bob Douglas received this note:
WE'RE BACK. WANT SOME FUN? Call 714 555 3232.
CALL FROM A PAY PHONE FAR AWAY.
The message was typed on lined, three hole, school paper. It was folded in a plain white, legal size envelope. Only his name was on the envelope, nothing else. It was left in his box at headquarters where he picked up his schedules and office memos.
His hands must have been shaking as he read it, standing at his box. A friend asked if he was okay.
"What?" he said. "Oh yeah, sure, just got some news."
He found an empty cubicle and sat down. Here we go again, he thought. Again he had two options. He had a great job, a beautiful wife and two sweet kids.
On the other hand was this guy who broke laws when it suited him. "Call from a pay phone far away?" That didn't sound reassuring. That didn't sound like a class reunion. That sounded like something he should stay far away from.
He sat his wife down and asked her, "Honey, you know that stuff I could never talk about?"
"Would you talk sense. How could I know stuff if you never talked about it?"
"That stuff you asked me about and I couldn't tell you?"
A sudden expression of fear came over her face. "Oh my God!" She was nearly in tears. "What's happened? Are you in trouble?"
"No, no. Something's come up, that's all. I have to take a trip to look after some business, that's all. There's no trouble."
"Then why are you acting so weird?"
"There's just something I have to do and I can't explain it."
"To your own wife?"
"I want you to take the kids to visit your mother in Florida for a little while. You've been wanting to do that for a long time."
Douglas didn't want to miss the chance of doing something important with a stand up guy.
That didn't mean the guy was 'straight" or 'square." Hell, they had broken more laws than he could count. But Kincaid had the knack of cutting through all the bullshit to get right to the core of a problem. If some on the bullshit happened to be somebody's law, then that was just tough shit. Kincaid always did what he had to do.
Even so, he would only go so far. Kincaid had never sold drugs. He wouldn't allow anyone in the group to sell drugs. That annoyed General Trinh from time to time, especially when they occasionally were sitting on millions of dollars worth. But the old man went along.
Of course, no one could deny that they all had come to live off of the drug trade. But they never dealt drugs. They wouldn't even sell back to the drug rings what they had lifted from them. Kincaid burned that stuff.
The drug rings didn't have to pay off. They had other choices. They could stop operating. They could try to fight it out. They could increase their defenses. But they chose to pay off. What's that old adage? Oh yeah, 'If you defend everywhere, you defend nowhere.'
And now everything had come full circle. They were back working for the government again. And this operation was supposed to resolve all the problems between Kincaid's veterans and the United States.
To Douglas' way of thinking, everything was bass ackward. The government was going to pay off Kincaid and his men so now they could stop harassing the drug trade. Wouldn't it work better the other way around? They were hurting the druggies pretty bad while they were operating, but now they're going to stop.
Just as well though. Finish this last operation and Douglas could get back to his wife and kids. It's been fun while it lasted. He wouldn't have missed it for anything. He was back to doing something important again. Not that flying an airliner wasn't important, of course, but thousands of guys did that. How many guys had walked entire villages of people out of Nam? How many guys had beaten a bunch of drug racketeers at their own game? And now this job. It all gave him a great deal of self respect. This stuff was important.
At these times it was the waiting that bothered him most. No matter how many missions he had flown in Vietnam, he had never gotten used to the waiting. That was why he was out walking. All day he walked up one side of the landing strip, until he could barely make out the silhouette of the radio in the tent. Then he crossed the narrow runway and walked back on the other side, over and over, checking constantly for activity at the tent.
All kinds of things went through his mind. What if? What if? What if? And for every imagined disaster, Bob Douglas formed a tentative plan of reaction. But all the 'What ifs,' and, 'Then I'd dos,' wound up amounting to the same thing: If anything happened to Steve Kincaid, Bob Douglas would either get him out or share his fate. Nothing could stop him from trying.
The operator was still hunched over the radio. He suddenly looked up and waved. Douglas set out for the tent at a dead run.
When he got closer, he could see that the operator was writing on a pad. This was it! An incoming message! Kincaid had finally been heard from.
The flyer didn't disturb the radio operator as he listened and copied down the message. Instead he got out the code book and started deciphering it. Douglas had completed the first couple of words when the operator looked up and said, "He's signing off."
"Are you sure you got it straight?" Douglas asked.
"Acknowledge receipt," Douglas told him.
He soon had the message decoded. There were only seven words.
SANANDAJ X STRIP NORTH
NEAR ARMY X DAWN TOMORROW XX
Douglas burned both the coded and decoded versions of the message while he wondered about it. STRIP meant that Kincaid had ruled out the use of the chopper. He got out his charts. Sanandaj was in easy chopper range. That meant Kincaid wasn't sure he could make it at dawn. Douglas might have to spend some time in the air waiting for him, therefore he needed the aircraft that could stay in the air the longest. He had to use the STOL.
NEAR ARMY was in the message to help him find the strip, but it was also a warning. He'd have to stay well away until the signal for the pickup was set out.
Hao came up, his eyes questioning. Douglas told him what he knew. There was no place for Hao or anyone else on the trip in. They had already discussed that. Douglas couldn't be sure how many would have to come back with him. Space was at a premium.
He checked his watch. There were twelve hours to kill.
He went to prepare the aircraft. He had to keep busy. He didn't want the, 'What ifs,' to get at him again.