Combat, Vol. 2
AL-JIHADBY STEPHEN COONTSOneJulie Giraud was crazy as hell. I knew that for an absolute fact, so I was contemplating what a real damned fool I was to get mixed up in her crazy scheme when I drove the Humvee and trailer into the belly of the V-22 Osprey and tied them down.I quickly checked the stuff in the Humvee's trailer, made sure it was secure, then walked out of the Osprey and across the dark concrete ramp. Lights shining down from the peak of the hangar reflected in puddles of rainwater. The rain had stopped just at dusk, an hour or so ago.I was the only human in sight amid the tiltrotor Ospreys parked on that vast mat. They looked like medium-sized transports except that they had an engine on each wingtip, and the engines were pointed straight up. Atop each engine was a thirty-eight-foot, three-bladed rotor. The engines were mounted onswivels that allowed them to be tilted from the vertical to the horizontal, giving the Ospreys the ability to take off and land like helicopters and then fly along in winged flight like the turboprop transports they really were.I stopped by the door into the hangar and looked around again, just to make sure, then I opened the door and went inside.The corridor was lit, but empty. My footsteps made a dull noise on the tile floor. I took the second right, into a ready room.The duty officer was standing by the desk strapping a belt and holster to her waist. She was wearing a flight suit and black flying boots. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun. She glanced at me. "Ready?""Where are all the security guards?""Watching a training film. They thought it was unusual to send everyone, but I insisted.""I sure as hell hope they don't get suspicious."She picked up her flight bag, took a last look around, and glanced at her watch. Then she grinned at me. "Let's go get 'em."That was Julie Giraud, and as I have said, she was crazy as hell.Me, I was just greedy. Three million dollars was a lot of kale, enough to keep me in beer and pretzels for the next hundred and ninety years. I followed this ding-a-ling bloodthirsty female along the hallway and through the puddles on the ramp to the waiting Osprey. Julie didn't run--she strode purposefully. If she was nervous or having second thoughts about committing the four dozen felonies we had planned for the next ten minutes, she sure didn't show it.The worst thing I had ever done up to that point in my years on this planet was cheat a little on my income tax--no more than average, though--andhere I was about to become a co-conspirator in enough crimes to keep a grand jury busy for a year. I felt like a condemned man on his way to the gallows, but the thought of all those smackers kept me marching along behind ol' crazy Julie.We boarded the plane through the cargo door, and I closed it behind us.Julie took three or four minutes to check our cargo, leaving nothing to chance. I watched her with grudging respect--crazy or not, she looked like a pro to me, and at my age I damn well didn't want to go tilting at windmills with an amateur.When she finished her inspection, she led the way forward to the cockpit. She got into the left seat, her hands flew over the buttons and levers, arranging everything to her satisfaction. As I strapped myself into the right seat, she cranked the left engine. The RPMs came up nicely. The right engine was next.As the radios warmed up, she quickly ran through the checklist, scanned gauges, and set up computer displays. I wasn't a pilot; everything I knew about the V-22 tiltrotor Osprey came from Julie, who wasn't given to long-winded explanations. If was almost as if every word she said cost her money.While she did her pilot thing, I sat there looking out the windows, nervous as a cat on crack, trying to spot the platoon of FBI agents who were probably closing in to arrest us right that very minute. I didn't see anyone, of course: The parking mat of the air force base was as deserted as a nudist colony in January.About that time Julie snapped on the aircraft's exterior lights, which made weird reflections on the other aircraft parked nearby, and the landing lights, powerful spotlights that shone on the concrete in front of us.She called Ground Control on the radio. Theygave her a clearance to a base in southern Germany, which she copied and read back flawlessly.We weren't going to southern Germany, I knew, even if the air traffic controllers didn't. Julie released the brakes, and almost as if by magic, the Osprey began moving, taxiing along the concrete. She turned to pick up a taxiway, moving slowly, sedately, while she set up the computer displays on the instrument panel in front of her. There were two multifunction displays in front of me too, and she leaned across to punch up the displays she wanted. I just watched. All this time we were rolling slowly along the endless taxiways lined with blue lights, across at least one runway, taxiing, taxiing ... A rabbit ran across in front of us, through the beam of the taxi light.Finally Julie stopped and spoke to the tower, which cleared us for takeoff."Are you ready?" she asked me curtly."For prison, hell or what?"She ignored that comment, which just slipped out. I was sitting there wondering how well I was going to adjust to institutional life.She taxied onto the runway, lined up the plane, then advanced the power lever with her left hand. I could hear the engines winding up, feel the power of the giant rotors tearing at the air, trying to lift this twenty-eight-ton beast from the earth's grasp.The Osprey rolled forward on the runway, slowly at first, and when it was going a little faster than a man could run, lifted majestically into the air.The crime was consummated.We had just stolen a forty-million-dollar V-22 Osprey, snatched it right out of Uncle Sugar's rather loose grasp, not to mention a half-million dollars' worth of other miscellaneous military equipment that was carefully stowed in the back of the plane.Now for the getaway.In seconds Julie began tilting the engines down to transition to forward flight. The concrete runway slid under us, faster and faster as the Osprey accelerated. She snapped up the wheels, used the stick to raise the nose of the plane. The airspeed indicator read over 140 knots as the end of the runway disappeared into the darkness below and the night swallowed us.
Two weeks before that evening, Julie Giraud drove into my filling station in Van Nuys. I didn't know her then, of course. I was sitting in the office reading the morning paper. I glanced out, saw her pull up to the pump in a new white sedan. She got out of the car and used a credit card at the pump, so I went back to the paper.I had only owned that gasoline station for about a week, but I had already figured out why the previous owner sold it so cheap: The mechanic was a doper and the guy running the register was a thief. I was contemplating various ways of solving those two problems when the woman with the white sedan finished pumping her gas and came walking toward the office.She was a bit over medium height, maybe thirty years old, a hardbody wearing a nice outfit that must have set her back a few bills. She looked vaguely familiar, but this close to Hollywood, you often see people you think you ought to know.She came straight over to where I had the little chair tilted back against the wall and asked, "Charlie Dean?""Yeah.""I'm Julie Giraud. Do you remember me?"It took me a few seconds. I put the paper down and got up from the chair."It's been a lot of years," I said."Fifteen, I think. I was just a teenager.""Colonel Giraud's eldest daughter. I remember. Do you have a sister a year or two younger?""Rachael. She's a dental tech, married with two kids.""I sorta lost track of your father, I guess. How is he?""Dead.""Well, I'm sorry."I couldn't think of anything else to say. Her dad had been my commanding officer at the antiterrorism school, but that was years ago. I went on to other assignments, and finally retired five years ago with thirty years in. I hadn't seen or thought of the Girauds in years."I remember Dad remarking several times that you were the best Marine in the corps."That comment got the attention of the guy behind the register. His name was Candy. He had a few tattoos on his arms and a half dozen rings dangling from various portions of his facial anatomy. He looked at me now with renewed interest.I tried to concentrate on Julie Giraud. She was actually a good-looking woman, with her father's square chin and good cheekbones. She wasn't wearing makeup: She didn't need any."I remember him telling us that you were a sniper in Vietnam, and the best Marine in the corps."Candy's eyebrows went up toward his hairline when he heard that."I'm flattered that you remember me, Ms. Giraud, but I'm a small-business owner now. I left the Marines five years ago." I gestured widely. "This grand establishment belongs to me and the hundreds of thousands of stockholders in BankAmerica. All of us thank you for stopping by today and giving us your business."She nodded, turned toward the door, then hesitated."I wonder if we might have lunch together, Mr. Dean."Why not? "Okay. Across the street at the Burger King, in about an hour?" That was agreeable with her. She got in her car and drove away.Amazing how people from the past pop back into your life when you least expect it.I tilted the chair back, lifted my paper and sat there wondering what in hell Julie Giraud could possibly want to talk about with me. Candy went back to his copy of Rolling Stone. In a few minutes two people came in and paid cash for their gas. With the paper hiding my face, I could look into a mirror I had mounted on the ceiling and watch Candy handle the money. I put the mirror up there three days ago but if he noticed, he had forgotten it by now.As the second customer left, Candy pocketed something. I didn't know if he shortchanged the customer or just helped himself to a bill from the till. The tally and the tape hadn't been jibing and Candy had a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it-old-man attitude.He closed the till and glanced at me with a look that could only be amusement.I folded the paper, put it down, got out of the chair and went over to the counter."So you was in the Marines, huh?""Yeah."He grinned confidently. "Wouldn't have figured that."I reached, grabbed a ring dangling from his eyebrow and ripped it out.Candy screamed. Blood flowed from the eyebrow. He recoiled against the register with a look of horror on his face."The money, kid. Put it on the counter."He glanced at the blood on his hand, then pressed his hand against his eyebrow trying tostaunch the flow. "You bastard! I don't know what you--"Reaching across the counter, I got a handful of hair with my left hand and the ring in his nose with my right. "You want to lose all these, one by one?"He dug in his pocket, pulled out a wadded bill and threw it on the counter."You're fired, kid. Get off the property and never come back."He came around the counter, trying to stay away from me, one hand on his bleeding eyebrow. He stopped in the door. "I'll get you for this, you son of a bitch.""You think that through, kid. Better men than you have died trying. If you just gotta do it, though, you know where to find me."He scurried over to his twenty-five-year-old junker Pontiac. He ground and ground with the starter. Just when I thought he would have to give up, the motor belched a cloud of blue smoke.I got on the phone to a friend of mine, also a retired Marine. His name was Bill Wiley, and he worked full time as a police dispatcher. He agreed to come over that evening to help me out for a few hours at the station.It seemed to me that I might as well solve all my problems in one day, so I went into the garage to see the mechanic, a long-haired Mexican named Juan."I think you've got an expensive habit, Juan. To pay for it you've been charging customers for work you didn't do, new parts you didn't install, then splitting the money with Candy. He hit the road. You can work honest from now on or leave, your choice.""You can't prove shit."He was that kind of guy, stupid as dirt. "I don't have to prove anything," I told him. "You're fired."He didn't argue; he just went. I finished fixing the flat he had been working on, waited on customers until noon, then locked the place up and walked across the street to the Burger King.
Of course I was curious. It seemed doubtful that Julie Giraud wanted to spend an hour of her life reminiscing about the good old days at Quantico with a retired enlisted man who once served under her father, certainly not one twenty-five years older than she was.So what did she want?"You are not an easy man to find, Mr. Dean."I shrugged. I'm not trying to lose myself in the madding crowd, but I'm not advertising either."My parents died twelve years ago," she said, her eyes on my face."Both of them?" I hadn't heard. "Sorry to hear that," I said."They were on an Air France flight to Paris that blew up over Niger. A bomb.""Twelve years ago.""Dad had been retired for just a year. He and Mom were traveling, seeing the world, falling in love with each other all over again. They were on their way to Paris from South America when the plane blew up, killing everyone aboard."I lost my appetite for hamburger. I put it down and sipped some coffee.She continued, telling me her life story. She spent a few more years in high school, went to the Air Force Academy, was stationed in Europe flying V-22 Ospreys, was back in the States just now on leave.When she wound down, I asked, as gently as I could, why she looked me up.She opened her purse, took out a newspaper clipping, offered it to me. "Last year a French court tried the men who killed my parents. They are Libyans.Moammar Gadhafi refused to extradite them from Libya, so the French tried them in absentia, convicted them, sentenced them to life in prison."I remembered reading about the trial. The clipping merely refreshed my memory. One hundred forty people died when that Air France flight exploded; the debris was scattered over fifty square miles of desert."Six men, and they are still in Libya." Julie gestured at the newspaper clipping, which was lying beside my food tray. "One of the men is Gadhafi's brother-in-law, another is a key figure in Libyan intelligence, two are in the Libyan diplomatic service." She gripped the little table between us and leaned forward. "They blew up that airliner on Gadhafi's order to express the dictator's displeasure with French foreign policy at the time. It was raw political terrorism, Mr. Dean, by a nation without the guts or wit to wage war. They just murder civilians."I folded the clipping, then handed it back."Ms. Giraud, I'm sorry that your parents are dead. I'm sorry about all those people who died on that airliner. I'm sorry the men who murdered them are beyond the reach of the law. I'm sorry the French government hasn't got the guts or wit to clean out the vermin in Tripoli. But what has this got to do with me?""I want you to help me kill those men," she whispered, her voice as hard as a bayonet blade.Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Coonts. Stephen Coonts is the author of seven New York Times bestselling novels, the first of which was the classic flying tale, Flight of the Intruder, which spent more than six months at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. His novels have been published around the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He was honored by the U.S. Naval Institute with its Author of the Year Award in 1986. His latest novel is America. He is also the editor of two anthologies, War in the Air and The New York Times bestselling Combat. He resides with his wife, Deborah, in Nevada.