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Authors: Richard Herman

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BOOK: Force of Eagles
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Cunningham studied Stansell’s map, tracing the route the colonel was proposing. He tried without success to visualize what a pilot would see on the low-level route through the mountains of western Iran. The general was angry with himself for losing the ability that fighter pilots needed to survive in combat. Running the Air Force had apparently dulled his ability to take a few clues and create a mental three-dimensional image of reality. Like flying a fast moving jet through mountains he had never seen before.

Mado, a master at judging Cunningham’s reactions, had sensed from the moment he and Stansell had entered the general’s office with Rahimi that it would be a rough meeting.

“Okay, Colonel, what the hell does this tell me?”

“The POW compound is 275 nautical miles from the tri-border region of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. For a slow mover like a C-130 at low level, that’s about an hour’s flying time—”

“Dammit, colonel, be specific.”

“One hour and eight minutes from time of penetration of Iran’s border to the prison at 240 knots indicated airspeed. Low-level all the way. Given the increasing capability of the Iranian air defense net that’s a long time over hostile territory. That’s why they need a combat air patrol for escort.”

Cunningham lit a cigar and drew it to life. He liked the way Stansell refused to be intimidated.

Mado read the signs and started to relax but quickly put himself back on edge, giving the appearance of being worried. The cigar was the clue to the general’s attitude, and Mado did not want Cunningham to know that someone could read him enough to anticipate his reactions.

“What type of aircraft do you want for the CAP?”

“Strike Eagles—F-15Es,” Stansell said.

“You want to put at risk one of the most cosmic jets I own? Not at twenty-nine million dollars a copy.”

“It’s also the most versatile jet you have, general, and can do a lot more for us than fly a CAP. We’re facing a lot of unknowns, and flexibility can make the difference.”

“Back burner that for now. What’s the other reason you’re here?”

“General, we’ve seen an OSI incident report on Sergeant Byers,” Mado told him, and summarized the report and Stansell’s connection with Byers, believing that it fitted into the cover they were building for Delta Force. Cunningham’s face told him nothing.

“Miss Rahimi,” Cunningham said, “this is your area, how do you see it?”

Dewa Rahimi looked at Stansell. Everything the colonel said and did told her how much he wanted to be part of the rescue mission, and she wanted to help him. But the connection with Byers was too obvious…“It opens up the possibility of compromising the mission if they’re also after Colonel Stansell,” she said.

“Is there any indication Stansell’s being watched?” Cunningham asked.

“None.” She felt better.

Stansell volunteered no information about the tails. Or what seemed like tails.

“I’m not about to switch horses this early on,” Cunningham said. He caught the look of relief on Rahimi’s face, quickly followed by one of surprise. Maybe she suspected something…One smart female, he thought. He would have to think harder about how to distract her and the colonel before they tumbled onto the truth—which he hated and still hoped to overcome by making a diversion into the real thing…

Now Cunningham turned on the two men. “Not enough progress, you need more people to help get this thing moving. Get ’em. I can think of three reasons why this mission will fail—for starters, poor intelligence and piss-poor training. You’ve got to weld strangers from Air Force and Army into a tight team. Where the hell are you going to train so this doesn’t turn into a fiasco? None of the crews you’ll be using has ever been in combat. No test can predict how an individual will react the first time someone starts to hose him down. You need a training program. So what is it, and where?”

Stansell looked at Mado, who offered no support. “We’ll have all that to you by this time next week, sir. But I still want F-15s for CAP.”

Good answer, Cunningham thought. You’ll make this into plenty more than a cover operation, or goddamn Quaker cannon…“I’ll decide later when I see the threat estimate in your ops plan. Talk to Byers if you’re worried about him, he may be involved in something else. Dismissed.”

Stansell was convinced the meeting had turned into a disaster, especially with Cunningham’s voice chasing them out of his office…“Don’t screw this one up.”

As they walked to Mado’s office Dewa said, “Is that for real or a front he puts on as a commander?”

“Most of that was meant for me,” Mado said. “I was trying to read him, watching his cigar, and he caught me out.”

Stansell ignored the exchange. “Cunningham said to get help and get moving.” There was an edge in his voice. “General, I know you’re working eighteen hours a day bringing this on line, but I’ve got to start making things happen. I know who can help, and I need airlift.”

*

 

Kermanshah, Iran

 

Vahid Mokhtari, commandant of Kermanshah prison, stamped his feet on the hard dirt in front of the building that served as both administration and quarters for the guards. He could have waited in his four-room apartment in the corner of the second floor that overlooked the yard where the POWs stood punishment and he would have seen the car the moment it drove through the inner gate of the main entrance into the prison, but anticipation and impatience drove him outside. The two guards waiting on the entrance steps knew Mokhtari was not stamping his feet to keep warm in the cold night air.

The loud squeal of the outer iron-barred gate that opened into the entrance tunnel of the compound echoed through the quadrangle as it rolled back on its track. Mokhtari’s lips twitched slightly as he turned and retreated up the steps.

He was ready for his next guest.

The two guards glanced at each other, relieved that Mokhtari ignored them. They walked down the steps when they heard the outer gate winch shut. The car was in the tunnel. After a few moments they could see the inner gate split open and each half swing back, tripping the consent switch that activated the ramp. The tracks of the ramp had been greased earlier that day and now it moved silently, covering the deep pit in the entrance tunnel and allowing the car to drive through.

The headlights of the car swept the compound as it turned toward the waiting guards. The main building was dark except for the light in the office window at the end of each floor. Two heads appeared in the window of the top office on the third floor and watched the car drive in and swing up to the smaller administration building.

A series of tap codes began working through the walls of the main building, alerting the inmates of the car’s arrival. Unseen faces crowded into every barred window that overlooked the compound while other inmates listened for any reaction from the guards. The building became eerily silent.

Colonel Clayton Leason, the senior ranking officer who commanded the POWs while they were in captivity, pulled himself out of his bunk and joined his cellmate at the window. “What do you think, Doc?”

“It’s too late for normal business. Maybe a courier, or they’re bringing another prisoner in.” Both men stared into the night, looking for clues, gathering whatever wisps of information they could use to resist their captors.

When the car stopped beside the two waiting guards a man jumped out of the front passenger seat and jerked the rear door open, then reached in and pulled out the lone occupant. “She’s yours,” he said, and got back into the car. The driver mashed the accelerator and spun the car’s wheels, kicking up a shower of dust as he headed for the gate, anxious to leave the prison.

The two guards grabbed the woman and hurried her up the steps. The black canvas bag over her head hid her features. Stiff from the long ride, she stumbled on the steps and fell, only her handcuffed wrists in front of her helping her break the fall. The guards pulled her to her feet and guided her into the building and to the basement office where Mokhtari was waiting.

The tap codes started again.

The woman pulled herself to attention when the guards released her. She could see light through the bottom of the bag and was aware that three other people were in the room. All men, she thought. Her latest set of jailers.

Mokhtari said nothing, using silence as his opening move. It became a waiting game. He pulled off his wristwatch and set it on the desk in front of him so he could time the interval.

The woman started an internal count—one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three…

Mokhtari understood the rationale behind the orders he had received from Tehran—humiliate her, extract all the information you can and then break her. In the end, send a shell back to the Americans.

His superiors, badly wanting vengeance, had picked the commandant of the prison as their weapon. It had infuriated them that a woman had been the commander of Caravan, the radar Ground Control Intercept site that had directed the fighters launching from Ras Assanya against them. They had monitored her voice over the radio as she set up engagement after engagement, never making an error. Finally they convinced themselves that she was using a newly developed radar system—no woman could have
that
degree of skill. They also wanted to know about the radar so as to use it as currency in negotiations with the United States or Russia.

Most of all, though, they wanted revenge.

Mokhtari had once served as a sergeant in Savak, the Shah’s secret police, and had developed a reputation as their best interrogation specialist. Amnesty International had a thick dossier on him filed under “Torturers/Active.” When the Shah had been overthrown in February of 1979, Mokhtari had quickly switched sides and aligned himself with the Ayatollahs, providing them with information on his former superiors.

Rather than exploit the turmoil of the revolution and seek promotion, he became an obscure, hard working jailer. He made sure to treat his charges carefully and developed a reputation as being incorruptibly honest. When the shadow of his years in Savak had faded and the revolutionary committees had decimated the ranks of professional police officers, he started to move up the ladder of promotion, never appearing to be self-seeking. He let events and the lack of competitors work to his advantage. Finally he had been appointed commandant of the prison at Kermanshah.

At thirty-nine years of age the husky, balding Mokhtari had taken over the prison and quickly established a rigid and brutal authority over the inmates and guards. During his first day as commandant he had discovered a cook was selling prison rations on the black market and had a firing squad execute the man in the compound. When the order came down to prepare the prison for the POWs from Ras Assanya he had been equally efficient in creating room. The POWs arrived to find an empty prison waiting for them.

Mokhtari was the logical choice—his own—to interrogate the woman.

For nineteen minutes she stood there, not moving.

“Remove her handcuffs,” Mokhtari ordered.

So you’re impatient, she thought. I thought we’d be here at least three hours before anything happened, not twenty minutes. She had the count slightly wrong. “Strip her,” Mokhtari ordered.

*

 

The Pentagon

 

The tall black captain walked briskly through the corridors of the Pentagon. He checked his watch—only slightly before five P.M. It might be an early day, his wife Francine would be delighted to see him home before seven. The assignment to ASTRA, the Air Force’s elite leadership training program in the Pentagon, was demanding his full attention as well as straining his new marriage. Captain James “Thunder” Bryant had been married less than two months.

Bryant tugged at his moustache, a reflex. Who the hell was General Simon Mado? And why did he want to see Bryant ASAP? He hesitated before entering Mado’s office to check his uniform. The buttons on the coat of his new Class A blue uniform were already tight. “Got to start working out and cut down on the calories,” he mumbled, pushing through the door into Mado’s outer office.

The secretary told him to go right in, motioned him into an open door and checked her watch. It was quitting time.

“Thunder, good to see you.” Stansell stood up and stuck out his hand when Bryant entered the office.

For a moment, Bryant didn’t move. His stomach tied a knot. The last time he had seen Stansell was on the ramp at Ras Assanya just after a rocket attack. “Damn, Colonel,” he finally said, shaking the offered hand, a smile spreading across his face. Then he turned to the two-star general and snapped a salute. “Captain Bryant, reporting as ordered.” He also took notice of a petite woman sitting quietly in the corner.

General Mado waved a salute back at him. “Relax, Captain. Make yourself comfortable.” He waited while Bryant undid the buttons on his coat and sat down on a couch. The big man moved like a professional football player, impressing the general. “Don’t want to use up too much of your time. ASTRA keep you hopping?”

“I’d say, sir.”

“Good to hear nothing’s changed.” Mado smiled. “Colonel Stansell here seems to think you might want to help us on a special project. It would mean losing your ASTRA assignment and extensive travel. You’d have to leave the Pentagon, which might not help your career.”

“I’d like to know more before taking a bite of that, general.”

“Sorry, I can’t tell you more unless you buy in.”

How much more could Francine take? “Sorry, sir,” Bryant said. “I’ll have to pass on this one.”

“It’s for Waters,” Stansell said.

The black man stared at the colonel, “Waters? Really? Well, in that case…I’m in.”

The woman stood and walked out the door. She made sure the secretary’s office was empty and the outer door locked before she returned, closing the general’s door after her. The three men said nothing, their eyes on her.

“Thanks, Dewa,” Stansell said.

“Captain, you’re looking at the team that’s going to rescue the POWs, late of Ras Assanya,” Mado said. “I’m the joint task force commander, Colonel Stansell is the mission commander and Dewa Rahimi is heading up our Intel section. We want you to be our mission planner and responsible for training. Dewa, bring Captain Bryant up to date.”

BOOK: Force of Eagles
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