Authors: Stuart Woods
There were places where the road was pretty much obliterated by the shifting sands of the desert, but mostly, he felt he could drive at seventy mph in safety. They were comfortable in their seatbelts and with the vehicle’s air-conditioning on.
“The Jeeps are configured with special ACs for the desert,” Wilcox said. “I know because I configured them. The cooling systems are beefed up.”
“That’s comforting to know,” Stone said. He put on his sunglasses, as did the others. “Brio, call your guys on the radio and ask them to keep an eye out for that half-track.”
“I don’t think they would drive it on the road,” Wilcox said. “The noise of the tracks on asphalt would be intolerable.”
“I’ll bet they’re following the road,” Stone said. “I mean, they’re not going to be using celestial navigation. They’ll use the GPS, just like us.”
Brio made the call to the other cars.
“When we refuel at the oasis,” Brio said, “I hope they take credit cards.”
“Why?” Stone asked. “When we’ve got two and a quarter million dollars in cash in the trunk.”
“Why didn’t Zanian take it with him?”
“They were in a big hurry. Maybe they just forgot to transfer the trunk to the half-track.”
Another hour of driving, and Stone pointed. “Is that a mirage? I see palm trees.”
“That’s the real thing,” Wilcox said. They drove into the palms, and at the direction of Henry Wilcox, found the pumps, in what looked like an ordinary service station.
Wilcox got out of the Jeep and conversed in Arabic with the attendant. He pointed at all the Jeeps.
The man looked at them in consternation. Wilcox said, “He says he hopes he has enough gasoline, but he’s joking. He also says his tanks were filled by fuel trucks yesterday.”
“Does he take credit cards?”
Wilcox asked him and the man nodded assent.
“Ask him if he’s seen the half-track,” Stone said, and Wilcox did so. Wilcox came back to the car. “He says the half-track was filled more than an hour ago, then drove back in the direction of the airfield we just left.”
“He’s remembered the trunk,” Stone said, “and he’s going back for it. Brio, radio everybody to return to the airport when they’ve
refueled, and to watch for the half-track along the way. They’ll be armed and dangerous.”
“Right,” Brio said.
“How are your men armed?” Stone asked.
“With M-16 assault rifles and Beretta 9mm sidearms. Standard military issue. Ours are in the trunk.”
“Let’s get them into the cabin with us,” Stone said.
After moving the weapons, while waiting for all twenty-four Jeeps to be refueled, Stone and Brio walked across the road to a little hillock and surveyed the view. It would be sunset soon, and that would make the half-track harder to find, unless they used their headlights.
“This is gorgeous,” Brio said of the sunset.
“Yes,” Stone said. “I wish we had a blanket and no FBI agents traveling with us.”
She pinched him on the ass. “A one-track mind,” she said.
Wilcox was taking a turn at the wheel, and Stone, now in the rear seat, got his phone out.
“Who are you calling?” Brio asked.
“Faith,” he said. “No answer on her cell. I’ll try the satphone.” He dialed another number, and the copilot answered.
“Put Faith on,” Stone said.
“Yes, I’m here. I can hear you on my headset.”
“What’s your location?”
“About an hour out of Dubai,” she said.
“Go ahead and land there, and while you’re refueling, see if Zanian’s Gulfstream is at that airport.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Return to the Sultanate because that’s where his airplane is going to be repositioned to. They forgot something important and had to go back for it. You’ve got enough fuel to return to the Sultanate, and still make Cairo, haven’t you?”
“Then don’t refuel at Dubai. Wait and do it at the Sultanate.”
“Okay, we’ll just look for the Gulfstream, and then take off, if we don’t find it.”
“Let me know if you find it.”
Stone hung up. “I’ve never played cat and mouse with twenty-four Jeeps and two Gulfstreams,” he said.
“Thank God Zanian forgot the trunk,” Brio said.
“I agree. He might be gone by now if he hadn’t.”
The group mounted up and made a U-turn back to where they came from.
An hour later, Faith called.
“Stone, the airplane was at Dubai, but it left shortly after we landed.”
“Where did they file for?”
“The coordinates of the Sultanate’s airport.”
“Okay, go flat out, and damn the fuel use. When you get there, whether the other airplane is there or not, park in the middle of the
runway and leave the APU running and all the lights on, especially the wingtip strobes.”
“Because if you get there first, I want to keep their Gulfstream from landing, and if you don’t, I want to keep them from taking off. But listen, if they fire on you or threaten you, even with small arms, get out of their way. I don’t want our airplane shot up.”
“Got it.” She hung up.
“You know,” Brio said. “I really did underestimate you at the outset. I apologize. Just one thing, though.”
“Are you and the ambassador aware that you are both wearing tuxedos?”
“We do what we can with what we’ve got,” Stone said.
As they approached the Sultanate’s airport, Stone stopped about a mile out and looked ahead. “Anybody see any flashing lights?” he asked. It was dark now.
“No,” the other occupants said.
“Open all the windows,” he said, “and listen.” They all listened.
“I hear something,” Brio said.
Stone got out of the car and faced east, and the others followed. “Landing lights,” Stone said pointing ahead of them.
Then a large aircraft flew over them at about five hundred feet, shaking them with the noise, and touched down on the runway, making a lot more noise as it reversed its engines. “That’s a Gulfstream,” Stone said.
“Yes,” Brio said, “but which one?”
“I can’t tell,” Wilcox said.
“Neither can I,” Stone echoed. “Brio, get on your horn and tell all the Jeeps to stay off the runway.”
Brio did as she was asked. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“We’re waiting for the other Gulfstream,” Stone said. “If it lands, it’s ours, because the first one didn’t block the runway.”
They stood in the darkness and waited. A cloud moved, and the moon revealed itself, plump and full.
“That should make driving easier in the dark,” Wilcox said.
Stone got Faith on the satphone. “What’s your location?” he asked.
“Ten minutes out of the Sultanate airfield,” she said.
“Another Gulfstream landed five minutes ago, and it’s at the far end of the field. You perform a short field landing, stop in the center of the runway, do a 180-degree turn, stop, and shut down your engines, but keep the APU running and all lights on.”
“Short field landing, one-eighty turn and stop, engines off, APU and lights on. Leave enough runway length to take off again.”
“Why are you telling her that?” Brio asked.
“I don’t want to end up with the two airplanes nose to nose. There is no reverse gear on an airplane, so they would both be stymied. I want our airplane to be able to take off again, if necessary.”
“Okay, got it,” Brio said.
Wilcox pointed East. “We’ve got lights. Airplane landing. It looks very low, perhaps too low.”
“That’s Faith aiming for the very end of the runway. Normally, she’d aim at the markings farther down, but she wants to stop short.”
The airplane suddenly seemed to lose power.
“She’s cut the engines,” Stone said. “She’s landing dead-stick.”
“What’s ‘dead-stick’?” Brio asked.
“No power. She’s turned a Gulfstream into a glider.”
“How well do they glide?”
“Not well,” Stone said.
The Gulfstream appeared, and set down on the runway, brakes screaming. Then, as it slowed, it swung right, almost stopped, swung left, completed the 180-degree turn, and stopped.
“Brilliant,” Stone said.
“That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Brio said.
“Everybody into the car,” Stone said as he got behind the wheel and started the engine. “Brio, get on the horn and tell the Jeeps to line up across the runway behind our airplane, headlights on. I want them to be sure they’re trapped.”
Brio made the call, and the Jeeps started to move. Stone didn’t join them but aimed at the open hangar across the runway.
“Where are you going?” Brio asked.
“To where they left the Range Rover, where they think the trunk is.”
Brio handed two handguns forward and aimed an M-16 out a window and worked the action. Suddenly, Stone braked.
A lone vehicle sat there in the darkness.
“That’s not a Range Rover,” Wilcox said. “That’s the half-track. They’ve switched to the Range Rover. Look.” He pointed ahead toward the rear of the hangar.
Stone drove toward the rear doors and eased through the
narrow opening. Ahead of them was more of the moonlit Arabian Desert than Stone wanted to see. Far ahead, he saw two red lights, which suddenly disappeared. “There they go.”
“Stop,” Wilcox said, getting out his map. “How much fuel do you have left?”
“Less than half a tank.”
“He’s got a full tank in the Range Rover; it’s been driven only from the palace. That’s why they changed vehicles. You’ll have to gas up, before we go after them, and you’d better bring a couple of full jerry cans, as well.
Stone drove around to the FBO office, now dark. He used his pistol to shoot the lock off the door. Inside, they ransacked the drawers, until they found the pump keys. They found some empty jerry cans, too, and filled three of them.
Meantime, Brio was on the horn to her agents. She ordered twelve cars to stay with the airplanes and prevent anyone from moving them and for the other twelve to fill their tanks and wait for further instructions.
Wilcox had a light on a desk and spread out his map. “They’ll be headed west, toward Jeddah, on the Red Sea. Just before that is Makkah, a last-chance-for-fuel stop. There’s nowhere else to go in that direction, and they can get out of Jeddah by boat, plane, or rail.”
The two men changed from their tuxedos into desert clothing, while they waited for some of the Jeeps to refuel. Brio used the ladies’ room to do the same. Stone called Faith and told her to have her crew get some dinner from the galley and to rest up. “We’re headed for Jeddah,” he said. “Flight plan for there and
pick an FBO for refueling. You need to beat us there by at least an hour.”
Finally, they were back in their Jeep and set off. What Jeeps had refueled followed them west.
“Now we’re in Lawrence of Arabia country,” Wilcox said.
They were back on the road, and a better one than the last. Stone was able to manage eighty mph at times, but he knew the Range Rover could do so as well.
“I wish I could sleep,” Brio said from the rear seat.
“What’s stopping you?” Stone asked, dodging a pothole.
“That’s okay. When it’s your turn to drive, I won’t be able to sleep, either.”
An hour along Stone saw red lights far ahead. They were flashing, and they weren’t moving.
“What is that?” Wilcox asked.
“There’s a flashing blue light, too,” Stone said, pointing. “It’s got to be a police car. Maybe they’re getting a ticket.”
“What are we going to do, if we catch up to them?” Wilcox asked.
“Capture them or shoot them,” Stone said. “There won’t be another choice.”
Now the stationary car seemed to be rushing at them. Stone slowed and pulled alongside, and Wilcox turned a flashlight on it.
“Two men, apparently dead,” the diplomat said. “The windshield and the front windows are all shot out.”
“I guess they didn’t want to be arrested for speeding,” Stone said, pulling ahead and switching off his headlights.
“Is there enough moonlight to drive this fast?” Brio asked.
“I hope so. Tell your people about the police car and tell them to shut off their headlights. I don’t think we want them to see us coming.”
“Not after that,” Wilcox muttered.
“I wonder,” Stone said, “if they looked for the trunk in the Range Rover when it was in the hangar, or just assumed it was there?”
“They might have assumed it if they were in a big enough hurry,” Brio said.
They blew through the empty streets of a small village.
“Warn your Jeeps,” Stone said to Brio. “We may have woken up some people.”
Brio did as instructed.
Another two hours passed, and a glow appeared in the western sky. “That’s the loom of Jeddah,” Wilcox said, “and about on schedule.”
“Where are we going to look for them once we’re there?” Stone asked.
“The airport?” Wilcox asked. “I doubt if there’ll be much flying
this early. That will be true for Zanian’s Gulfstream, too. Most airports don’t open before seven or eight
“Same there. Not much moving.”
“That’s a better choice, I think. Problem is, they could be in any kind of boat.”
“What are the choices on the Red Sea?”
“Dhows, and plenty of them. Cargo ships. Tankers.”
“Think private,” Stone said. “Motor yachts?”
“There won’t be much of that,” Wilcox said. “Jeddah is more a commercial port than a place for pleasure cruising.”
“If they can find a boat, where would they head for?” Stone asked.
“Alexandria or, more likely, Cairo,” Wilcox replied. “They can get lost there, or Zanian’s airplane can meet them.”
They reached a road that ran along the edge of the Red Sea. Stone turned left and drove along for a few miles, and as he did, boats became scarcer. He made a U-turn.
“This looks more likely,” Wilcox said. “There, there’s a motor yacht.”
“I think Zanian would be looking for something more comfortable,” Stone said. He slowed as shops began to appear along the road. He passed one with a large sign that read:
travel agent book passage. charter aircraft and yachts
. He looked at his watch. “Seven-thirty,” he said.
“Aircraft taking off over yonder,” Wilcox said, pointing. “Looks like a commercial flight.”
There was a restaurant, a working-class sort of place, a couple doors down from the travel agent. “Let’s get some breakfast while we wait for the travel place to open.”
They parked and went inside, where they found a table and let Wilcox, with his Arabic, order for them. They got eggs and some sort of sausage, and a pot of coffee.
“Suppose Zanian makes Cairo?” Wilcox said. “Where would he likely go from there?”
“He wants to disappear, at least for a while, so not Rome, Paris, or London,” Stone replied.
“How about Sicily?” Wilcox asked.
“Less crowded than bigger places this time of year. Decent airport, rental houses, a tradition of lawlessness on the part of some of the population.”
“I like it, but it’s a wild pitch,” Stone said. Stone called Faith’s cell phone and couldn’t get connected. He tried the satphone and Faith answered.
“Where are you?”
“Holding at the VOR,” she replied. “Jeddah won’t let us land yet. Maybe another half hour.”
“Is Zanian’s Gulfstream still back at the Sultanate’s airport?”
“Yes, and we’ve got the runway blocked with half a dozen Jeeps, so they’re not going anywhere soon.”
“Call me back when you’ve had a look around the Jeddah airport.”
“Will do.” They both hung up.
“The airport is looking less likely for Zanian,” Stone said. “Faith has got him boxed in, and she’s waiting to land in Jeddah.”
An hour later, the travel agent opened. As they walked into the office a lone woman in Western business clothes was tidying up.
“Good morning,” she said, in English.
“What do you have in the way of a motor yacht charter?” Stone asked.
“Of motor yachts, we have only three,” she said. “One is the Sultan of Saud’s yacht, but that is nearing completion of a refit in a local yard and not ready for sailing yet. Then we have a thirty-foot Italian boat and a sixty-five-foot boat built in Germany.”
“Have you photographs of them?”
She pointed at the wall behind her desk. “There,” she said. “Let me get the files.” She rummaged in a drawer and came up with two file folders.
Stone glanced at the thirty-footer, then moved on to the sixty-five-footer.
“It’s pretty,” Brio said.
“How long a charter?” the woman asked.
“A few days, no more than a week. We’d like to leave the yacht in Cairo.”
She handed him a written description and more photos. “She’s based in Alexandria. Would that be convenient? She’s lying here now.”
“Perhaps.” Stone scanned the description. A crew of four, including a cook.
“She had a thorough refit last year and has been used only twice this year.”
There was a discussion about money. She offered a better deal for cash, in dollars.
“Done,” Stone said. “I’ll get you the cash.”
He and Brio walked out of the office and went to the car. Stone got a fistful of dollars from his valise.
“We’re really going for a cruise?” Brio asked.
“It’s a good way to search the coast. Have you got a better idea?”
They went back to the office, concluded the deal, and signed the contract. The woman called the yacht’s captain, conversed, and hung up. “She can be ready to sail in an hour.”
“Good,” Stone said.
As they left, Stone turned to Brio. “Tell your agents in the Jeeps about our yacht, and to keep pace with us and look for signs of Zanian ashore.”
Brio did so, and everybody got into the Jeeps. Half an hour later they saw the marina and their charter moored there.
Stone parked. “Tell your people to take our Jeep and meet us in Alexandria.”
Stone went aboard, found the captain, and asked him to send people to the car for their luggage.
Stone’s phone rang. “Yes?”
“It’s Faith. Zanian isn’t here.”
“All right, make for Cairo, same place we landed last time. Find a good hotel and get some rest. We’ll be three or four days, coming by sea.”
“As you wish.”
Shortly, they were on board and drinking coffee while their luggage was stored.