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Strait Flush Ch 7 Friday 0644
Strait Flush Ch 7 Friday 0644
During the drive to the airport in the early dawn hours, Tom mentally pieced together the arguments and risks of continuing this bizarre mission. At first there was the plan, which gained reality as easily as an airliner touches down in a distant land. Then there was a period of semi-disbelief, as additional facts and plans were formulated and personalities met. Now the original plan was beginning to take on a sinister side as the cab wheeled into the private sector of the Dubai International Airport. Visions of smugglers and criminals began to tempt Tom's ideas of himself.
Passing several pilots walking from the hanger area towards their planes, Tom wondered if they, too, were involved in some sort of conspiracy that only they knew about.
Tom tipped the cab driver and squinted toward the office complex built alongside the long white hanger building. Too late for breakfast, now that the sun is up.
A small white sign with red writing guarded Marty's parking spot in front of the office bearing his name. There was no vehicle in the space, but Marty did mention that he usually parked in the hanger, anyway.
The office door was open, a faint buzzer in a rear room sounded as the smell of oil and aviation fuel mixed with the dryness of Arabian sand lingered in the room. It was not large, with a small table and two comfortable chairs to the left. The carpet was thin and dirty. A desk with credenza was on the right, both cluttered with papers and maps, but not in a messy sort of way. Even Marty's messes had symmetry and logic. A door leading to the rear was slightly ajar. Tom heard footsteps approaching.
The door swung wide, Marty was dressed in a green Nomex jumpsuit which was too small for his frame, western boots and Dallas Cowboys ball cap. His hands were busy removing grease with a red rag.
"I'm glad to see you could make it, Tom ." Marty beamed. Tom indicated the briefcase.
"It's always a good morning after the first cab ride is behind you." Tom laughed.
"Come on back and take a look at this bird. It should bring back some memories for you." Marty led Tom back into a dim equipment room. Engine parts and crates were on both sides of the narrow walkway leading back to another open door. Sunlight from the east poured into the hanger through the open doors and momentarily blinded Tom as the two stepped into the smooth concrete of the hanger floor.
On his right was a dusty Beech Bonanza with most of its port engine gutted. Several cardboard boxes were lying against the wall behind it. Across the hanger and occupying the largest area was the front two-thirds of a spotless white Lockheed Hercules, its majestic tail jutting outward towards the taxiway. A red Toyota pickup was parked near the wall.
The plane was unmarked, except for the necessary identification numbers on the tail section. Marty turned and waved his hand like a salesman showing off the latest Corvette.
"So, what do you think?""
"Looks good so far. How's the maintenance and performance?"
"The guy I use works alongside me, he's former US Air Force, went to several in-county outfits after he got out, got on with a contractor for the Saudis and freelanced after it ran out."
"I've taken her to the Pacific Rim several times, flew back to the states with her twice, a few more times to Europe, once to South Africa nonstop. She's got durability and reliability bred into her."
"I think this is what I've been looking for. Let's look inside, is it unlocked?"
"Sure, I was doing some final systems checks before you got here."
"One small hydro leak near the rear loading ramp. You know what we say about Herky Birds, if it isn't leaking some hydro somewhere, it must not have any left."
"No biggie. Let's look inside." Marty led Tom to the rear of the plane and the two walked up the lowered cargo ramp. The morning sun cast a shadow around the top and interior sides, magnifying the tunnel effect.
It was as Tom had expected. Immaculate. The interior side panels were lined with padding. The side sling-bench seats were in the stowed position. This C130 was in mint condition. Marty led Tom up the short ladder into the cockpit area and took a seat on the starboard side.
"This is an old E model, built in `66. New radio. New VOR. GPS. New temperature data control systems so I can run alternate fuels. Generator for self-contained starts. Three of the four engines have less than three hundred hours on them. Two new Hamilton Standard props. Four new tires. Is this spiffy or what?" Marty was beaming . Tom looked around the cockpit interior.
He hadn't actually been on a C130 since a short hop from Da Nang to Tan Son Nhut during his wild and reckless years, but the memory of the loud and uneasy flight was reeling in after his first walk-in with Marty. The first plane had bullet holes patched in a dozen places. Like some of the crustiest battle vets he remembered seeing in the bush. Battered and dependable. This plane will do.
"OK, Marty. Looking good so far, but we're still a ways from the load and even further from where it's going. How soon can we get going?"
"Anytime you wish, sahib. Ten minutes to get the nose out and office locked up. Let me call up some help and we'll be airborne in fifteen." Marty pulled himself out of the seat and followed Tom down the stairs into the load bay.
Once on the hanger floor, Tom inspected the tires and blades. Seems OK, he thought. Marty disappeared into the office to call ground crews for assistance. He reappeared with a thin briefcase in hand.
"Tom, we need to talk business before we take off."
"Already had that figured out." Tom opened his briefcase and extracted a leather-bound zippered bag and handed it to the pilot. Marty unzipped it and peered inside, then gave Tom a wink. The ground crew arrived with a small tractor at the hanger door behind Tom.
"Shall we? The plane's fueled up, but you'll need to stay off until it's backed out."
Tom watched the multinational crew attach the tractor to the front strut assembly and ease the big bird backward as Marty shouted instructions in Arabic from the open cockpit window.
Once on the tarmac of the taxiway, the ground crew detached the tractor as Tom walked out from under the hanger. The heat of the sun was beginning to seep through his clothes. Two Asians, possibly Filipino secured the sliding door behind Tom. Marty dropped the side door from the plane's fuselage and motioned for Tom to board. Tom trotted across, feeling somewhat scrutinized by the ground crew.
Once inside, Marty secured the side personnel door and went up the ladder without a word. Tom followed him into the pit and took the flight engineer's seat, between and to the rear of the pilot and copilot’s seats. Marty was all business now, checking radio frequencies and gauges. He looked back at Tom as he bucked his seatbelt and grinned. "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Let's do it, then." Tom watched as Marty expertly flipped switches and knobs, peered over his right shoulder and fired up the starboard inboard engine. The plane shuddered and swayed as the huge Allison turboprop roared to life. Then the left inboard. Marty repeated the process until all four engines were filling the cockpit with what can only be described as a steady roar. Marty motioned for Tom to wear the headphones hanging on a seatback. The roar subsided to a loud moan. Marty's voice crackled crystal clear into the earpieces. "Everything OK back there? To answer, press the switch behind the left earpiece in the up position. It'll lock and become voice-activated. Tom positioned the microphone and located the switch.
"We're gonna roll outta here as soon as the tower wakes up." Tom heard the pilot talk into the radio in English. After two attempts, a reply.
Marty followed the signals of the ground crew increased the portside prop pitch. The blades cut into the still desert air and gave the plane a lurch and Marty steered the front wheels with a small steering wheel near his left knee.
The Lockheed ambled down the tarmac and turned right again, filling the cockpit with the morning sun. Marty spoke again into the radio, then turned and straightened the bird down the runway. He increased the bite of the constant-velocity props and Tom felt the feeling of being sucked into the back of the seat as the cargo plane gained ground speed. Within a half minute, Marty pulled back on the yoke and Tom felt the nose lift cleanly. Within seconds, the sands of the runway apron slid behind them as the plane gained altitude.
Marty trimmed the flaps and banked the plane to the left in a wide arc. The shore approached and disappeared beneath them. Dhows and tugs were cutting circles in the harbor. Tom watched two oil tankers on the horizon, heading south with their bellies full of Arabian crude, bound for Japan or the U.S.
Marty came over the intercom once again. "We're following the shore, just off Saudi airspace until we get to Quatar, then head east and approach Bahrain from that side. The airport is on a jut of land on the northeast side, and it's usually busy, even for this time of the year."
"You mean for the Ramadan season?"
"Yeah. As far as Arab countries go, the UAE and Bahrain are the most liberal. A lot of Arabs will come to Bahrain just to party, since most of what they like is taboo in their own country. Bahrain is an amusement park. Now that the war is over, you can guess that many of the ships will stop by for replenishment and liberty. There is a US Navy base on the island, so a lot of the formalities will be in effect. "
"How far is the base from the airport?"
"A few miles, but everything is a few miles apart in Bahrain. There shouldn't be any problem with traffic through the airport, but a ship of any size may have a tough time."
"This is the easy way."
"You said it, buddy." Marty slipped on a pair of gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and adjusted his ball cap under the headphones and leveled the big plane.
After a half-hour of small talk and light banks, Marty began the descent into Bahrain. Sure was right about the airport being on a jut of land, thought Tom. Like Hong Kong. Or San Francisco.
Marty spoke into the microphone. Tom heard the broken English of the traffic controller. The airport runway appeared below and Marty corrected the glide, lowering the flaps and undercarriage. The ride became more uneven. Tom watched the dhows disappear under the plane through the side windows. Land appeared after sandy water. The plane touched the tarmac with a kiss from the tires. Marty expertly lowered the nose and flared the props to begin the slowing process.
The prearranged meeting place was near the Exxon hanger. Several Gulfstreams and Lears glistened in the morning light. Marty was directed to a spot and parked. Within minutes, the engines were spooled down and wheels chocked. The two unbuckled and climbed down the ladder and into the bay. Marty opened the personnel door and a wave of warm air swept through the opening.
That familiar, yet odd sensation of stable ground after a flight increased Tom's feeling of alienation. He spotted two Arabs from the Souk near the hanger bay and motioned for Marty for follow.
A third Arab appeared from the hanger and the five met halfway. After the usual eye-greetings and handshakes, the third Arab introduced himself as Galib, the interpreter.
"I am to assist you in any way during your stay in Bahrain." Galib was polite. Another middleman, thought Tom. "I have specific instructions. The man with whom you wish to see is in a nearby hotel. We will go to the proper location together by car. The plane needs to go to the airstrip near the warehouse location and rendezvous with our loaders there. We can inspect and complete our business in the isolation of this airstrip."
"Is this strip paved? On the west side south of the tunnel?" Marty looked through the interpreter. Tom felt the Arab shrink in the presence of the two westerners.
"Yes, it is. Are you familiar with the ...."
"I've landed there several times. Which hanger will I taxi to?"
"Look for Number Four, the loaders will be in front."
"Will do. When will you be there?"
"Within the hour, you may leave whenever you wish."
"I'll wait a half hour." Tom could sense some of Marty's irritation. Maybe too long dealing with Arab businessmen. Marty was usually the type of guy that handled his own details, and was miffed when he couldn't bring his own loaders and kickers. Now the plan is changing again, however slightly. It wasn't likely the exchange would take place under the Bahrain International Airport tower. At the very least, some of the constants could be retained by straightforward plans. Tom was beginning to get the feeling that he was a very small piece in this giant undertaking.
The Arabs spoke in their language, motioning to the south. Galib turned to Tom.
"We are ready whenever you are, my friend." Tom stifled a wince when he heard the phrase. He had heard it too many times in other places, all by people wanting to take advantage of him.
"Let's go" Tom turned to Marty. "I'll see you shortly."
"No problem" Marty grinned. "My friend." Marty didn't miss the phrase, either, thought Tom.
The ride to the Sheraton was in a black Mercedes limo. The two Arabs gazed out the window without speaking. Tom tried hard to remember their names. Khamiab? Rahman?
Galib spoke only after reaching the hotel lobby.
"The Kuwaiti businessman is by the lobby in a sitting room on the right. He is a relative of the ruling family, although distant. He speaks perfect English, so I will wait in the lobby."
"Thanks. What is his name?"
"He will offer that to you."
Skeptical, Tom moved through the lobby toward a small anteroom adorned with rugs and pillows. The hotel in Dubai had such a room also, thought Tom, always with several traditional Arabs talking about oil production or world politics.
The Kuwaiti rose to his feet when Tom entered the room and shook his hand.
"Greetings, and welcome, Mr. Rossi. I hope your flight was pleasant."
"It was a former military transport, but under the circumstances, pleasant enough."
"Please sit down." The Kuwaiti motioned to a pillow. The two Arabs from Dubai walked in also and exchanged greetings before taking their places across from Tom and the Kuwaiti.
"I didn't get your name, Mr..."
"Manjour. Please call me Manjour."
"Manjour" Tom repeated. A quick glance at the Arabs' face showed the obvious. The Kuwaiti was using an alias. "My friend, the pilot, will be taking off within minutes for the warehouse area. We may be in for a long day."
"Exactly, Mr. Rossi. We will not delay the process. The reason I brought you here is to discuss formalities. The weapons are in containers marked as oilfield equipment. You can reuse the original crates, but there are customs paperwork located in the warehouse in a plastic bag. The forms will need to be accurate insofar as size and weight."
"It is not necessary to be exact, within 10 or 15 kilograms per crate. Just in case."
"Are we expected to move smoothly through customs?"
"We have taken care of that at this point. I understand your colleague has made arrangements in the destination, wherever that may be."
"Let's hope so."
"Precisely. Any risk is a danger to all of us."
"I will need to inspect the weapons. All of them. I have instructions to reject those that are unserviceable. If it is not a great amount, the price should not need to be adjusted."
Manjour laughed. "No problem. They were dropped only once. Would you like me to warranty them?"
Tom sensed the tone under the humorous facade. "No, I doubt that will be necessary. I must make my own guarantees." The other Arabs laughed also, without knowing why.
"Tell me, Mr. Rossi. Are you going to tear down each weapon and inspect for rust? We do not have so much time, as you may know."
Tom could feel the anger rising within himself. "No. Just a simple look-see."
"Allah be praised. I thought you might be a weapons expert, expecting too much for a low price. Is your profession in weapons?" Manjour was still humored.
"No, I only know what I learned in the Marine Corps." It was Tom's turn to smile as Manjour's face turned serious.
"I see. These American Marines. They fought alongside the Arab nations in my homeland while the American Army encircled the army of our enemies. They alone went into the mouth of the cat. They are much respected among the Arab states." Manjour paused. "Let us commence with our business." For the first time since the meeting, Tom felt more respect than the Arab would grant an errand-boy.
"I think we should go to the storage area." Tom was getting impatient.
"Yes. I will not be going with you now, but later, after the inspection. Galib will be with you if you have any questions." Tom stood as Manjour got to his feet. The Arabs followed suit. A flurry of conversation, Galib appeared in the doorway.
Manjour shook Tom's hand. "I will see you shortly, Mr. Rossi. It was an honor to meet one of you." The remark took Rossi by surprise.
The four went back to the lobby overhang, where the limousine was waiting. The African driver expertly wheeled the long sedan into the divided four-lane and out of the airport grounds.
Rossi felt the urge to stare out the window at the variety of palms and shrubs lining the streets throughout Muharraq. The causeway to the main island was lined on either side by rows and rows of dhows, many under construction. Odd how the design hasn't changed in centuries, mused Tom.
The highway led along the northern coast of Manama, then turned south after several miles, passing through the town of Isa. The terrain began to turn mountainous, as the Mercedes purred up grades and onto plateaus, more sand and rock. And pipelines. Off to the east Tom could see the massive refineries on the coast with their jetty umbilicals to the tankers that gave these Arabs their power.
Proceeding down the west side of the mesa, Tom spotted a racecourse on the right side of the road and wondered if there was a limit on bet size at that track.
Near the Arabian Gulf University, the Mercedes eased onto a gravel road alongside an overland pipeline. The road followed the pipeline up the side of a small line of rocky outcropping that extended north and south for miles, like a natural fortress wall, only a few kilometers from the island's western shore. At the top, the valley opened to reveal an airstrip running parallel to the ridge. Several tin buildings on the south end. One dilapidated tower. One white C130. The Mercedes purred on.
10/28/2005 2:17 pm
reading like a book......|
10/28/2005 7:13 pm
why, thank you...my pleasure..|
it gets better....
10/28/2005 11:06 pm
hey jim. it looks like I got some back reading to do! I'll get caught up this weekend so I can make an informed comment.|
10/28/2005 11:37 pm
Hey 5er! I'm the same about yours...it isn't easy doing this one day at a time. It's easier to catch several chapters at on sitting to get the 'flow'...y'know?|
10/30/2005 1:12 am
Do you know that Im printing evry page of this blog.. Someday I hope to see you write a book and il be the first one to buy it, promise. You are a very good writer. Why do I print your evry page of your novel?...Secret...just carry on..you are making someone dear to me very happy. Mwah!!!|
Love..Faith ..and Hope..
11/1/2005 2:35 pm
i know exactly what you mean about the flow. it is easier to read at one sitting, especialy when the chapters are delivered on an erratic "schedule." (I'm talking about me, not you!)|