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Authors: Richard Herman

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BOOK: Force of Eagles
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*

Barbara Lyon, the condo’s owner, was holding court by the swimming pool. Two younger men were stretched out on the deck chairs beside her, both intent on acing the other out in a bid for her attention, favors. Stansell couldn’t blame them. Barbara was on the spectacular side and the string bikini she was wearing would cause traffic accidents.

“Rupe,” she called, twisting around on the deck chair and leaning forward. Stansell wondered if the rumors about her being a Las Vegas showgirl before she married and later divorced an Air Force major were true. He paused and walked toward her, deciding that even in her mid-thirties she had the body and looks many twenty-year-old girls would kill for. “I need to check your security system, we had a false alarm today,” she said, tugging the top back into place. Barefoot she was two inches taller than he was. The two younger men decided Stansell wasn’t in the game.

He followed her up the stairs, startled at how the beige color of the bikini blended with her tan, making her look almost naked from the back. God, she does make it hard for the troops.

Barbara turned in time to catch his half grin. She gave her long ash blonde hair a toss, a gesture she had practiced in front of a mirror, sure it would add to the effect she wanted to have on the colonel. Actually she found herself attracted to Stansell and his rather quiet ways. The difference in their heights didn’t bother her—she knew that it didn’t make a difference in bed. She liked his well-conditioned body and pleasant looks. And if he would let his dark hair with the few strands of gray at the temples grow long on the sides…She stepped aside to let him unlock the door to his condo, deliberately brushing his arm.

“Let me deactivate the alarm,” she said. “What’s the code?” Stansell told her the four digits that worked the alarm. She carefully punched in the numbers and watched the digital display flash from “secure” to “ready to arm.” Her lips made a slight pout as she studied the box and shifted her weight onto her right leg. She recycled the alarm, fingers playing with the knot on the left side of her bikini, snapping it against her hip. “The problem’s not here. Must be the main box. I’ll get the repairman to check it.” She knew there was nothing wrong with the alarm.

Stansell nodded. Barbara decided she was going to have to be more obvious. Some men just didn’t pay attention. “It’s hot today, you wouldn’t have anything cool to drink?”

“Iced tea? Beer?”

“Iced tea would be fine.” She leaned over the kitchen’s bar while he got the tea for her and a beer for himself. She had noticed the framed photograph of two small girls and a startlingly beautiful woman on the fireplace mantle. “Is that your wife?”

“Was. Divorced. Three months ago.”

It fell into place for Barbara. She had seen the same pattern before and knew there might be a future for her with Stansell.

He handed her the iced tea.

“Don’t those flight suits get awfully hot during the summer?” She reached out and drew a finger across his chest, touching the Nomex flight suit, stopping at the zipper. “All those zippers, and I do like the patch.” She ran a finger over the Triple Nickel’s squadron patch on his right shoulder.

She waited. If Stansell didn’t take the opening it would be plan B-time.

“I only wear It while I’m here. You can have it when I leave.”

“I’ve got to go. Thanks for the drink.” She set the half-empty glass down, smiled at him and turned to leave. “Oh, could I interest you in dinner some evening? I do have some old friends in the Air Force. We might have some mutual acquaintances.”

“Thanks, I’d like that.”

She smiled at him again and left, running plan B over in her head.

Alone, Stansell took his beer and sat down on the couch, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. Once, he would’ve been over Barbara like white on rice. Now—nothing. He didn’t want to get involved? Old hat but maybe true. He pulled the Mission Data Card out of the flight suit’s leg pocket and reread the notes he had made during the debrief. Donaldson was right. He was flying like a newbee right out of basic fighter maneuvers. What was the problem? He knew how to fly the jet but was letting the damn past get in his way. Concentrate on flying, the program, quit the damn looking at ghosts, wondering about failing, feeling guilty about surviving when all those people died and now some were POWs.

Shake it off and get with it, he told himself as he went into the bathroom, peeled off the sweat-stained flight suit and stepped into the shower. The water felt good against his skin. He heard a knock at the door but ignored it. Since he had come back from the Persian Gulf, he seemed to linger a lot in showers.

“I came back for the rest of the tea,” Barbara called from the kitchen.

“Help yourself.”

The door of the shower swung open and Barbara stepped in. “That feels good.” She gave a wiggle and her bikini bottom fell to the floor. “Untie me, please.” She turned her back to him and held her long hair up, showing Stansell the knot that barely held her top in place. “God, it’s hot today.”

He pulled the knot free and she shrugged off the top.

“Here, let me wash your back.” She faced him and reached around, scrubbing his back. “You must pay more attention.” She laughed, rubbing against him.

Nothing happened.

“Oh well, never mind, I did want to talk to you about dinner. Tomorrow night okay?” She scooped up her bikini and stepped out of the shower, not bothering to dry off. “Seven o’clock,” she told him, and walked out of the bathroom.

A moment later he heard her close the front door. He shut off the water, toweled down, rubbed his hair dry and stared into the water-streaked mirror, not wanting to see too clear an image of himself. For a moment it could have been his old wing commander at Ras Assanya staring back at him. “Muddy” Waters…damn you, Muddy. How to live up to you? To your sacrifice and the way the Wing felt about you? And then: oh, come off it, colonel, this is bull. So you have doubts you can be the man the late Muddy Waters was. Remember what he had done, what you learned from him about the human side of the Air Force and just do what Rupe Stansell can do and not what Waters would have done if he’d lived. Easier thought than done, but he was getting there, and actually felt much better.

He wiped the steam from the mirror and studied his reflection, then slowly turned his face to the left and ran his hand along the right side of his head, brushing his hair back, trying to cover the scar where his right ear used to be.

 

 

Chapter 2: D Minus 33

 

The White House

 

Michael Cagliari leaned against the back wall of the East Room of the White House, content to stay behind the cameras during the Friday afternoon press conference. As the President’s National Security Advisor, he preferred it that way and worked hard to maintain a low profile.

The dean of the press corps, Peter Whiteside from the Affiliated Broadcasting System, sat quietly in the first row, waiting. Whiteside’s dislike of the President was well-known.

“Jean,” the President pointed to the back row at the stylishly dressed older lady from Savannah, Georgia, starting the press conference.

Predictable, Cagliari thought, he likes Jean Ramsey.

“Mr. President, there’s a growing concern about the buy-out of many U.S. corporations by foreign interests. Many are fearful that the wealth producing capability of our country is falling under the control of overseas investors. How do you intend to address this problem?”

The President was well-prepared for this and subsequent questions, and then he recognized Peter Whiteside with a “Pete.” It had been decided to avoid recognizing Peter Whiteside and only allow him the privilege reserved to the dean of the press corps of ending the press conference with the traditional, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.” The Chief must be feeling very confident, the National Security Advisor thought. The microphone boom was carried down front and put in front of the reporter. “Mr. President, during your election campaign you said, and I quote, ‘I will never trade arms or money for hostages nor will I engage in negotiations that could bring discredit on the United States.’ Reliable sources report that your representative is sitting at a negotiations table right now in Geneva bargaining for the release of the two hundred and eighty hostages captured by the Iranians after our defeat in the Persian Gulf. Can you tell us if progress has been made in these negotiations, and I have a follow-up.”

“Pete, that sounded more like a political statement, but I’ll answer It. First, the Iranians are holding two hundred and eighty-two prisoners of war. They are not hostages. And yes, I am pursuing negotiations at Geneva for their release. We have reached a critical juncture, and to discuss negotiations in public could well compromise the progress we’ve made.”

“Mr. President, this is not my follow up, but is it true that Secretary of State Cyrus Piccard is the negotiator?” Whiteside’s heavy eyebrows seemed to knit together.

“I have nothing more for you on that.”

Whiteside shouted his last question, interrupting the next reporter, loud enough for the boom mike to pick up. “Sir, are you trying to outbid a Libyan offer to buy the hostages from Iran for a million dollars each?”

The President fixed Whiteside with an icy stare. “Pete, you need to check your sources.”

“End it,” Cagliari growled into the small microphone attached to his lapel that linked him to the press secretary. Where the hell does Whiteside get his information? It was partly true. The Secretary of State was trying to convince the Iranians to reject the Libyan offer relayed through a third party. Well, at least the President had sidestepped the question.

The man holding the boom mike made sure he understood his directions from the press secretary, walked back to Jean Ramsey and spoke to her as he held the mike up to her. “Thank you, Mr. President,” she said in a loud voice, ending the press conference.

Whiteside literally spun around, angry-faced, while the President waved at the reporters and retreated up the red carpet of the main hallway. Cagliari made his way through a crush of reporters and slipped through the door leading to the Green Room. He hurried after the President.

The President’s chief of staff, Andy Wollard, was waiting for him in the hall outside the Oval Office. “The Chief is pissed,” he said, announcing the obvious.

Cagliari followed him into the Oval Office, where the President was sitting at his desk.

“Sit down, Mike, get comfortable. This is going to be a long one.” His voice was flat.

“That was a bad question from Whiteside,” Cagliari said quickly.

“There’re no bad questions, only bad answers. Besides, it’s true, the Libyans are trying to buy the POWs. We needed secrecy and time to bring the Iranians around. I’d say we’ve lost both of those now.”

Cagliari braced himself as his Chief lit a cigar; a habit he had forsworn months ago. He puffed once and stubbed it out.

“Filthy habit,” he said. “Andy,”—he gestured at his chief of staff—“get the Secretary of Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in here. Now.” The intense precision of his voice propelled Andy Wollard out of the office.

“Mike, if the negotiations fail, and now it seems they will, I want the POWs rescued.”

 

 

Chapter 3: D Minus 32

 

The Pentagon

 

General Lawrence Cunningham’s driver drove directly from the general’s residence to the River Entrance of the Pentagon—the Joint Chiefs of Staff entrance. The driver had timed the Saturday morning traffic, and Cunningham had plenty of time to walk the thirty yards through the almost deserted corridor to reach the command section in E-ring. He wasn’t worried about being late to the hastily called meeting—there would have to be an all-out emergency for it to start without him. He didn’t look at the portraits of former chairmen of the JCS that lined the wall. It was a group he would never join.

His aide, Colonel Richard Stevens, was waiting for him outside the Tank, the conference room where the Joint Chiefs met. The Tank was opposite room 3E880, the Secretary of Defense’s office. Stevens had just come from the Joint Special Operations Agency around the corner in Corridor Eight. The close proximity of Special Ops to the command section signified its importance. Stevens held the door of the conference room open for the general. “The meeting has been changed to the Command Center and delayed until 8:30,” Stevens said. “I was just told. We need a secure place to talk.”

They entered the large room. A conference table surrounded by soft leather chairs filled the center. The general sat down in the one reserved for him—the Air Force Chief of Staff: Since the room was vacant, Stevens sat in the chair next to him. Normally he would have taken one of the office chairs that lined the wall.

“Sir, I talked to General Mado in Special Ops. The President has ordered a task force to rescue the POWs if negotiations fail.”

The general focused on the opposite wall, absorbing the news. The POWs were etched in Cunningham’s conscience. They were, after all, his people, left behind when the 45th Tactical Fighter Wing had been extracted out of its base at Ras Assanya on the Persian Gulf.

The President had ordered the Air Force to deploy the 45th into the Gulf to support the United Arab Command in an attempt to block an invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia through Iraq by the latest revolutionary group running Iran. And the 45th had done its job. The situation was stabilizing when Mid-East politics raised its head and a face-saving gesture was needed to induce the Iranians to the negotiating table. What looked like a symbolic attack on Ras Assanya to prove the Iranians were still a force to be reckoned with turned into a full scale battle. The base was in danger of being overrun before the U.S. Navy could get its ships back into the Gulf. The wing commander of the 45th, Colonel Anthony (“Muddy”) Waters, had thrown his F-4s at an oncoming Iranian invasion fleet crossing the Gulf and fought a rear-guard action while he evacuated his wing out of Ras Assanya.

BOOK: Force of Eagles
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