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Beethoven’s Fifth...

Digital notes, more annoying than dramatic, woke Li from her deep sleep. It took a few seconds for her to realize-where she was, what was happening. But suddenly she was sitting straight up, eyes wide with terror.

She couldn’t believe it! She’d fallen asleep on her hall-way couch—a very scary thought considering what she’d come home to a few hours before. She was still wrapped in her sleeping bag, still in her street clothes, pistol still in hand. But the couch itself had moved. It was no longer next to the back door where she had positioned it, intending to sit guard, with a clear means of escape, until morning. Instead, it was up against the wall, clear across the hallway. How did that happen?

She froze now, truly realizing what a dangerous thing she’d done. Falling asleep while an intruder might still be in .the house? As a highly-trained intelligence operative, she should have known better, should have at least retreated to her car. But then again, she was fairly new to all this, with exhaustion and the weirdness working against her. To make things worse, though, she’d left the back door open and the fog that had rolled into her yard had rolled right into her hall-way as well, leaving everything covered with a sticky dew.

Beethoven’s Fifth started playing again.... What was that? She reached down to her ankle holster. Her cell phone was ringing with a newly programmed tune. She looked at the screen and groaned. It was a text message. From Nash. A glance outside told her it was still at least 90 minutes be-fore dawn. What the hell was he doing buzzing her at this hour?

She tried to read his message through bleary eyes: “DGSE op term’d ex prej this PM west ave improv car bmb. Sht hits fan. Call me ths AM plz.”

Li collapsed back on the couch. The long message was in text-speak, a language she could barely understand when she was wide awake, never mind half-asleep. She had begun to attempt a translation when ... she heard a noise. It came from upstairs. A definite thud. A footstep, maybe. Or a window closing. Her gun was up, pointing toward the top of the staircase nearby. But then another noise came, this one from me front of the house. She looked down the hallway. A light was coming from her living room.....

She’d always been prone to vivid dreams, especially ones about haunted houses, but Li had never sleepwalked before. That’s what this felt like now, though. Everything—from her troubles at work, to the troubles in the country, to what had happened earlier this night—all seemed part of a bad dream that wouldn’t go away. She stood up uneasily and felt as if she were floating on clouds, where it was really just the fog. Safety off, her gun ready, she glided down the hall to the living-room door. It was wide open this time. She took a half-step into the room. The lamp was still off, as she had left it; the light was actually coming from her kitchen. She pinched herself to see if she really was awake. What was going on here? Was this old place haunted after all? She took two more steps in. The light from the kitchen was flickering crazily. She could hear dull clinking noises. Glasses? No—cups. And the sound of water boiling, the mild whistle of steam. Two more steps. Shadows, moving against her kitchen wall. A candle—she could smell the burnt wax.

Two more steps. At the edge of the kitchen now. Her breath caught in her throat and stayed there. Two figures were sit-ting at her breakfast table, their backs to her.

She lifted the pistol up to eye level. Two more steps and she was suddenly right behind them. They were drinking tea. Her tea.

“ Don’t... move ...” she said with as much gumption as she could muster. Can a bullet kill a ghost? she found her-self thinking.

The figures went rigid at the sound of her voice. The fog from outside had somehow surrounded them, too, and Li half-expected them to disappear into it—and then finally she could wake up.

But the figures did not vanish. Instead, they turned around and smiled at her.
And they were ghosts.


The team reassembled and discussed the situation amid a storm of windblown cigarette smoke. They were under the gun. They had to get moving. They had a timetable to meet, and if they were just a few minutes late, it might mean disaster. As unappealing as the Sky Horse seemed, it was obviously the only ride in town. Where they were going they couldn’t walk. Or take a bus. Or Li’s little Toyota. The S-58 would have to do.

Ryder and Gallant climbed up into the old chopper’s cockpit. At first it seemed to have so many levers and dials, it was like they were seeing double. It made the Transall-2 look like the space shuttle. But while everything original was very old, they were surprised to see the control panel had three laptops connected to it by cable wires and modem strips—
a shoestring adaptation of a modem flight computer. There was also a GPS device hooked up for navigation, a heads-up display for both pilots, and a bank of TV monitors carrying video transmissions from small cameras placed strategically around the old copter. It looked ancient, but some very high-tech additions had been made inside the S-58. But still there was the question of flying it. Finch’s three ring binder helped them locate most of the crucial controls: the power systems, steering, and so on. They’d both learned how to fly an enormous Kai seaplane during their last operation in the Philippines. But the Kai was a relatively new design. The Sky Horse had been built approximately the same year Gallant had been born It would take the best of pilots days, if not weeks, to learn how to fly the copter properly. Trouble was, Ryder and Gallant had less than a half hour to accomplish the same thing.



It was about 1:00 A.M. when they finally pushed the old chopper out onto the cracked, weed-strewn airstrip. Things had moved quickly. The copter was fueled up. The machine guns were cleaned and readied. What little gear the team had of their own was stored onboard. But they were still at least two hours behind schedule.

After a few false starts, Ryder and Gallant finally managed to get the aircraft’s prestart systems running. Fuel pressure up. Engine oil heated to proper temperature. Batteries holding even. Gyro in place and balanced.

Gallant pushed the starter—and the engine behind them burst to life. No rattle, no roll. Barely a noise. Both pilots watched in amazement as the control indicator needles all climbed in unison, almost like an orchestra timed to the engine’s increasing RPMs. Once engaged, those four droopy blades straightened right out and. started spinning with a controlled frenzy. Incredibly, they were almost silent, too. The attached laptops lit up with a myriad of colors now, showing them readouts on just about everything onboard. These visual displays helped identify more newly added equipment around them. A high-powered radio receiver promised to let the pilots monitor all sorts of communications from miles away. A FLIR set would allow them to see very far in the dark. The onboard video monitors would al-low them to see above, below, in front of, and behind the copter. They had a weapons panel that would allow the pilots to fire the .50-caliber gun in the nose. They had flare dispensers, hard-points to attach bombs, even large inflatable pontoons attached to the landing gear struts that would allow them to set down on water if they had to. Ryder and Gallant were simply amazed. But even bigger surprises were about to come.

The computers automatically raised the power up to take-off speed. Their improvised flight computer screen flashed a message indicating that one push of the key enter button would lift them off. Ryder and Gallant just shrugged and Gallant hit the magic button.

Suddenly they were airborne.

To those on the ground, it was an astonishing sight.

One moment, the big chopper was idling quietly, the huge rotor blades creating a mighty downwash. In the next, the aircraft literally jumped into the air. The power was startling, yet the helicopter itself remained amazingly quiet. They watched as the copter translated to forward flight.

Suddenly it shot forward almost as if it were jet powered. It went over their heads, turned right, and soared way out over the ocean in just a matter of seconds. It continued a wide bank, circling back over the base once before streaking out toward the water again.

Then the helicopter began a very steep, very fast climb. It went up not unlike a Harrier jet, all power and exhaust. It climbed so high, so fast, those on the ground quickly lost sight of it as it disappeared into the clouds. They waited. Five seconds, ten seconds, twenty ...

Suddenly they were besieged by a great whoosh of wind and spray. An instant later the huge chopper went right over their heads no more than 30 feet off the ground. It had come at them from behind, but they hadn’t seen it or heard it until it was practically on top of them. The ghosts hit the deck; that’s how sudden the copter’s appearance had been.

The aircraft then banked sharp left, back out over the ocean, and, incredibly, nearly went completely over, showing an agility matched only by the latest supercopters of the day, like the Apache, the Commanche, or the Euro-copter Tiger. It soon righted itself, turning the comer sharply, and began to climb again.

This time, though, it swooped up to about two thousand feet and then went into a sudden hover. It turned 360 degrees on its axis, displaying amazing agility, before coming back down again and pointing its nose out toward the open sea. Suddenly there was a huge flash of light. For an anxious moment or two, those on the ground thought something had gone wrong. But no—Ryder and Gallant had simply engaged the big .50-caliber machine gun in the nose. The resulting pyrotechnics lit up the sky like fireworks.

It went on like this for the next ten minutes. It was almost dreamlike, the big chopper flashing all over the sky like some futuristic flying machine. Finally, it came in for a landing, touching down in front of the small crowd of observers with barely a thump, the only noise being the remaining weeds getting stirred up by the huge rotors. The pilots shut everything down and climbed out to meet the small contingent of elderly men—now forever known as the “Doughnut Boys”—who’d been watching along with the ghosts.

“ Who are you guys?” Gallant exclaimed to them. Finch was also there. He replied for the group. “They are simply good Americans,” he said. “Just like we were told you were.”

 

Saint Helena, Nebraska

The only bar in Saint Helena was packed. This meant just about thirty people were jammed inside the Eastside Tavern, and just about all of them were drunk. This meant nearly half the population of Saint Helena was currently intoxicated. It was early Monday afternoon. Summer school had been dismissed and most people had taken the afternoon off from work. A special occasion had been planned for this date; that was the reason for the unofficial holiday.

A foreign soccer team was scheduled to come to town and play a goodwill game against the county’s youth soccer club. The match had been in the works for about two months. As the county seat, Saint Helena had the only regulation soccer field this side of Danson, Nebraska, which was 100 miles to the south. Downtown Saint Helena, which consisted of the tavern, a drugstore, and Casey’s Cafe, had even been adorned with red, white, and blue bunting, small American flags, and hundreds of balloons for the occasion. The problem was, the foreign soccer team never showed up. Practically the entire town had turned out at the nearby soccer field, dozens of people in folding chairs and umbrellas, picnic lunches at hand, kids running, playing, adults swatting the cow flies away. It was the end of June. It was hot. And the town had been looking forward to this for some time.

But the foreigners were supposed to be here at 10:00 A.M. By noon, the crowd had begun to wilt. By twelve-thirty, the kids had scattered, and the women had left, leaving the men-folk to their own devices. The Eastside Tavern was packed shortly before one.

Darts was the game of choice these days in the Eastside, this ever since the mechanical bull fell into disrepair. Fueled by cheap Larry’s Home Brew on tap and the occasional drag of some skunkweed out back, a huge match began. With a lot of money on the table and people making side bets every-where, the darts really started flying.

The match grew so in-tense, no one even blinked when a huge thunderstorm rolled over about two, dousing the town and its balloons and bunting with two inches of rain in less than 15 minutes. The match neared its peak by 3:00 P.M. Ten teams had been whittled down to just two—and there was $500 on the table. That’s why everyone was so shocked when Charlie Ray, the town’s 95-year-old minister, burst into the tavern and announced “Someone just told me the foreigners are here!”

Everything froze inside the bar. They were here?

“ Actually,” Reverend Ray corrected himself, “Joey, the janitor, called me and said all of us better get back over to the soccer field dam quick.”

The field was behind the four-room Saint Helena’s elementary school, about a quarter-mile down the road from downtown.

The rain had let up considerably by now, but the sky was still very dark. Almost as dark as night. This was real tornado weather, but me revelers piled into their pickup trucks and old Fords anyway and proceeded back down to the grade school.

They met Joey the janitor in the small parking lot. Joey was not a very bright bulb, but he seemed very agitated when the townspeople arrived. They had expected to see the bus that had carried the foreign soccer players here parked in the lot, but no such vehicle was there. Only Joey. And he was almost crying.

He just pointed out to the field; the crowd—now about twenty people, most very drunk—couldn’t get much out of him. So they all walked out to the rain-soaked field, this as lightning began flashing off to the west. But there was nothing there. The field was empty; the trees that lined it on one side—and just about the only trees of any height in the county—were blowing mightily in the wind. There certainly was no soccer team out here, foreign or not.

Just as the men were beginning to think this was a prank played on them by the wives, for surely they had all gathered at someone’s house to drink and talk as well, Joey led them to one of the trees about halfway down the field. He pointed up.

The crowd looked—and saw a dead body caught in the branches. Or at least it looked like a body.

At this point some of the drunker men believed this was still a joke. The figure in the tree, high up at about twenty feet, was wearing a soccer uniform and was covered in blood. But it looked more like a dummy that some of the school kids had stuffed earlier, as a way to taunt the foreigners.

But two men, sober ones, climbed the tree and they con-firmed the ghastly truth: this was a body, and it was indeed wearing a soccer uniform. The man appeared to have been beaten to death, at the very least. But most bizarre, there was what looked to be a handful of bacon—yes, bacon—stuffed down the crotch of his shorts. A small American flag was stuffed into his mouth.

Still, many in the crowd below didn’t believe it was real. On their lips was the same question, asked over and over: “How the hell did he get up there?”


Denver

It was now almost 8:00 A.M., local time.

The four men had just finished their morning tea when Ashmani heard an odd beeping noise, electronic and muffled.

He didn’t know what it was at first. He was sitting close to their raging campfire, the crackling wood distorting the sound at first. But then Azi stood up, nearly tripped over the camp-fire, and scrambled toward his tent. He looked both excited and frightened. That’s when it hit Ashmani.

It was the phone. It was ringing.

Their orders...

Finally....

“It is the signal,” Azi confirmed. “It is time to shoot....” The two Muhammads went into action. One of them threw Ashmani his watch. Ashmani was the timekeeper. He noted the time on the fake Rolex. Eight-o-five A.M. It was a Saturday.

People traveling early for the weekend. A full airliner. A big airliner.

A fat target.

Ashmani felt his heart start pumping rapidly. Real timing was called for here.

The two Muhammads finally joined them. They were the soccer players and thus the weapons experts. They soon had the first missile married to its launcher. Azi ran down the road to a preappointed spot from which he could see most of the eastern end of the campground and its main road as well. He whistled three times, loud and shrill. Everything was clear.

Ashmani double-checked the missile, another of his duties. The sighting device was turned on. The battery indicator showed a substantial charge. The weapon needed a few minutes to heat up. The two Muhammads took up a position right behind his tent and just 10 feet from the edge of the cliff. A small green steel barrier, similar to a guardrail on a highway, was located here, driven into the rock. It made for a perfect aiming spot.

Once they were set, Ashmani rushed back to his tent and grabbed his laptop. He’d downloaded many regular flight schedules for the airport below. Their orders were to shoot down the biggest plane possible. Only the big airline companies flew the very big planes—except for the odd charter or cargo plane. Ashmani ran his finger down the list for this morning, this date: United. American. Delta. Each had at least one plane departing within the next 15 minutes. Perfect....

He took out his binoculars, returned to the guardrail, and trained them on the airport below. There were five main runways; they crisscrossed one another at fifty-degree angles. Because the wind was always blowing from the west here, those planes taking off left from the runway nearest to them and frequently flew right over the campground itself.

Ashmani trained his binoculars on the northernmost run-way. Five airplanes were waiting on a taxiway nearby—a 747 was just pulling into position at the far end. It was a United Airlines plane—Ashmani believed it was heading for Dallas.

Praise God! he thought. We’re about to kill a bunch of Texans.


Maria Chunez had never been on a Greyhound bus before.

She’d never had a reason to before today. Growing up in the border town of Mexiras, about 40 miles from Laredo, she’d stayed close to home, never crossing the border or even wondering what Texas was like. But earlier that year, her niece had moved to Oklahoma City. As a Christmas present, six months early, she’d sent Maria and her two young sons round-trip tickets to Oklahoma by way of Greyhound bus.

This had been the biggest event in Maria's life. She loved Oklahoma City, she loved the American people. But most of all, she loved the Greyhound bus.

It was six in the morning now and the bus was heading south on Route 27. Suddenly, she saw a strange airplane. It was flying very low, that’s what caught her attention. It was out to the east, off the left side of the bus, flying very fast and coming directly right at the bus.

Maria had seen airplanes before, but not one like this. It’s bottom was shaped more like a boat. Its wing looked like it was upside down, attached on top of the plane and not on the bottom. It had two strange things hanging down from the end of this strange wing. They looked like two smaller boats themselves.

Why would an airplane look like a boat? Maria thought.

She looked around the bus and wondered if anyone else could see it. The bus was just about the only vehicle on this part of the highway this early morning. She didn’t think it was important enough to bother the driver about.

But when Maria looked out the window again, the airplane had come up on them so fast, suddenly it looked like it was going to crash into them. It was so close now, Maria could see the face of the pilot bearing down on them.

At the very last moment, the plane veered wildly to the right and disappeared over the top of the bus. The noise of its two engines was deafening. Maria blocked her ears.

Just as suddenly, the airplane reappeared again. It was now riding right alongside the bus. It was almost even with them. Planes were supposed to be fast, Maria had always thought. How could this plane go slow enough to match their speed? She had no idea. Its wheels were down now and it looked like parts of its strange wings were lowered and its engines were smoking almost as if they too wanted to be moving faster..

Then she saw two small doors open on the side of its fuselage and two men appear behind them. They were dressed in black uniforms and were wearing helmets. They looked like soldiers, except they had beards and long hair and appeared to be disheveled. The plane was so close by now, Maria could clearly see their faces.

She could also see their guns.

Again all of this was happening so fast, that just her and the bus driver were really seeing what was going on -- and he had yet to react. The unreality of it all had overwhelmed him as it had Maria. She sensed he wasn’t sure what to do, stop or keep going? The plane started shaking. It wasn’t flying fast enough! The men inside crouched behind their weapons as if they were about to fire.

She could see them taking aim . . .


It was a little before 9PM when Ozzi and Li climbed into her Toyota and started down Reservoir Road.

Ozzi drove, Li was in charge of their weaponry. It consisted of their remaining M-16 clone with about 100 rounds left of ammunition. They had no telescopic sight, no long-range capability, nothing in the way of night vision. They had no edge at all in any attempt they might make on General Rushton. But they still had to go out and try, mostly because they didn’t know what else to do.

They drove down through the Virginia suburban streets, quickly moving away from the dreariness of the reservoir road. The streets were not as populated as one might have expected for a pleasant summer’s evening. No doubt the entire DC area was still on edge, with so many rumors floating around about massive weapons due to go off, invisible terrorists everywhere. Ozzi couldn’t blame them for wanting to stay inside.

They got on the Parkway, heading into DC itself. The traffic was very sparse. In fact, for the last mile before their exit, Li’s Toyota was just about the only car on the road.

"This is weird," Li said as Ozzi steered onto Virginia Avenue -- it too was nearly empty of cars.

If possible, the traffic became even sparser the closer they got to the center of DC, down near the Capitol and the White House. They were heading for the EOB as it was the likeliest place they thought they would find General Rushton. But all they saw now were taxis and panel trucks.

They turned onto Maryland street, and started heading inward. At one intersection that came up to a construction detour. Ozzi commented that the public works people had seemed particularly busy digging up the streets of DC this summer.

The detour forced them to turn onto Olsen Avenue. Ozzi knew his way around DC. Taking a small side street two blocks down would get them back onto Maryland, where they wanted to be.

Ozzi wheeled onto this stretch of road -- and immediately hit the brakes. This alley was usually full of nothing but dumpsters. But something was drastically different here now.

The alley was filled with military hardware. Not just HumVees and troop trucks, of which there were many, but huge A-1 Abrams tanks too. And Bradley Fighting vehicles, and LAVs and Stryker APCs.

"What the f . . ." Ozzi cried.

Li was just as stunned. "What is going on here?" she asked.

Ozzi started the car moving forward again.

They passed six massive A-1 tanks, their crews lazing at their turrets or sitting on their snouts. The soldiers watched the Toyota go by with studied indifference. Many were smoking. Some were sleeping. One solider flicked his expended cigarette at the Toyota. Whatever the hell was going on here, it didn’t seem too disciplined.

They passed more HumVees, more troop tucks, then more tanks. At the end of the three blocks, they saw the most unusual piece of equipment of all in this unusual stationary parade. It was a CTX, a tracked vehicle about two-thirds the size of an Abrams tank that was used for one thing only: battle management, especially coordinating ground forces with air assets. Unarmed, but stuffed with all kinds of communications equipment, the CTX was usually found about a mile behind the front-lines, coordinating the battle ahead.

What was it doing here?


Dave Hunn woke up in pain.

Strangely, it was not his chest that was aching -- it was his head. He had a massive headache, the after-effects of the trauma his bullet wound he'd received just 24 hours before.

Hunn opened his eyes, taking a moment to remember exactly where he was. It was dark; the clock said 11PM. Ozzi and Li had been gone for about two hours. Hunn wondered if they’d been able to get at Rushton, or if they were even still alive.

Now he realized what Li must have gone through during the nights he and Ozzi were out, trying to turn the world on its head. It was not easy, living with the anticipation, the anxiety -- and being in the creepy, noisy house certainly didn’t help the situation. At that moment he realized just how brave a person Li was.

Ozzi too . . .

But now, what Hunn needed most was an aspirin.

He looked around the room, not really wanting to move very much. It was filled with the clutter of computers and their assessories, the walls covered with pictures of the stupid napkin drawing. But no sign of any aspirins.

He lay back on the pillow, and thought a moment. Suddenly, he was upright again.

There might be not be any aspirins here, but there was something in the room that could help dull his pain. He looked beyond the mish mash of laptops, to a shelf beyond. Sitting there, all alone, a beam of moonlight coming in through the dirty window framing it perfectly, was the bottle of Thunderbird he’d bought during his quick trip up to Queens.

"Come to poppa," he whispered.

Five minutes and a lot of hobbling later, he and the bottle of Thunderbird were back in the bed together. Hunn twisted off the cap and took a very long gulp. He lay back, his headache fading, his spirits lightening. What a spot he found himself in, he thought in a rare moment of introspection. Everything he’d been through in the past year or so -- he couldn’t imagine any Arab mook going through what he’d experienced to fight for his cause. He knew someday someone somewhere might accuse him being a terrorist himself. An American terrorist. Even he did not like the sound of that.

His head was beginning to swim now. He was feeling good now, but he just couldn’t lay here. He needed stimulation to make this day of recovery complete. But what was there to entertain him in this gloomy old place?

The answer was actually right in front of his eyes. Li’s TV and its connected DVD player. Hunn’s eyes locked on it and went wide at the same time.

What were the chances she had any porn laying around? he thought, the real Dave Hunn now shining through. As soon as the notion came to him though he knew there was no way. He wasn’t sure Li even knew what porn was.

He leaned forward now and pushed the DVD switch and the tray came out displaying the disc Li had watched last -- in fact, her only DVD disk, of her favorite movie. Hunn had no idea who Marlene Dietrich was, but he pushed it to On anyway. The music began, the subtitles popped up, and finally he saw the title: "The Blue Angel."

Nope, no porn here. This was old, scratchy. And German.

Damn, Hunn thought. With a title like that, the best he could have hoped for was a documentary of the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatics team.

He took another long swig of Thunderbird.

If only, he thought. If only . . .

Then he was suddenly sitting straight up again. He felt his body tingling all over. He looked at the bottle in his hand. The dark wine colors, the name so boldly written across the label. Thunderbird . . .

He looked back at the DVD, in freeze-frame on the title of the 1930s movie.

Blue Angel . . .

Thunderbird . . . Blue Angel . . .

Hunn slapped himself upside the head.

Just like that he’d figured out where the terrorists' bus was going.




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