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Authors: Richard Herman

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BOOK: Force of Eagles
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What Bill Carroll had seen was a tall and slender body that moved with controlled grace. Unlike many of the pilots, he found her hard brand of
professional
competence easy to live with and did not feel threatened by her abilities and rank.

Mary, as penance, she told herself, had spent the next two days seeing the sights of Athens alone. A poster in a travel agency’s window off Omonia Square advertising the island of Mykonos caught her eye. Suddenly she was very tired of the city. She went in, booked a room on the island and got directions to the ferry. A traffic jam had delayed her taxi the next morning and the forward gangplank was already up when she got to the ferry. She just made the second gangplank before it too was raised. After buying a ticket from the purser she found a seat on the sundeck and did her best to enjoy the seven-hour voyage. When she got off one of the small boats that served as lighters, carrying passengers and cargo from the ferry into the dock at Mykonos, she discovered the travel agency had not made her room reservation. Her search for a room had turned up nothing, and Mary was eating a late dinner, resigned to finding a table at some
tavern
until they kicked her out and then finding somewhere to hole up until she could catch the ferry back to Athens the next day.

“Enjoying Mykonos?”

She turned to see Bill Carroll. This time she smiled, relieved to see him, and told him about the lost room reservation.

“Well, don’t take this all wrong,” he said, “but my room has twins and you’re welcome to one of them…”

Mary looked at the slender young captain, earnest brown eyes and all, and accepted. Next morning she woke up to find his bed empty. After a moment she saw a shadow move across the balcony at the end of the room. She kicked her long legs out of bed and padded across the room to join him at the railing, wearing only a tee shirt.

He was watching a magnificent sunrise, drinking coffee. “Something else, isn’t it?” They watched the morning hues paint the village as it came to life. “I’m going over to Delos today to see the ruins. Want to come?”

A comfortable feeling had replaced earlier skepticism she had felt on the C-130, and for the next four days the relaxed charm of the island had its way with them as it forced their world to, momentarily, yield its harsh demands and allow them to play and discover each other, in the end as lovers.

*

The bus’s engine coughed to life, bringing Carroll back to the present.

The Iranian sat down as the passengers crowded back onto the bus, chattering about getting under way again. He handed Carroll a pear. When Carroll at first refused he forced the fruit into his hand. The bus jerked into motion and Carroll ate the damn pear, an unintentional gift on his twenty-seventh birthday from a friendly Iranian, yet.

Mary, he thought, why didn’t you leave when Muddy Waters ordered you out? Mary…now a POW…

*

 

Washington, D.C.

 

The silver blue Dodge Omni that Stevens had arranged for Colonel Stansell to drive struck him as typical of the Air Force—plain, boring and functional—nothing like the big dark blue BMW behind him. He wheeled the car through Washington’s light Sunday morning traffic, heading for Interstate 95 and General Eichler’s home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And also Muddy Waters’ widow. After a few miles he started to enjoy the drive and left the Interstate for old Highway One that paralleled 95. A more interesting road, he thought. Apparently the driver of the BMW felt the same way.

The trees barraged him with autumn color. What a contrast to Luke and Ras Assanya, he thought. I’m really turning into a desert rat. Ras Assanya…the name came back to him, wouldn’t let him go. He forced himself to think about where he was going. What kind of woman would Muddy Waters have married? He ran through some possibilities but knew Waters had been too complex to pin down…“Muddy, I was lucky to have known you,” Stansell said to the image burned in memory.

Stansell had first met the tall colonel at Ras Assanya. Waters was in command of the 45th Tactical Fighter Wing, a collection of old F-4s and young fighter jocks. Somehow, Waters had whipped them into shape and had turned the 45th into a top-notch outfit. But they had been taking heavy losses and Stansell’s squadron of F-15s had been deployed to provide a combat air. patrol for the 45th. Together, they had provided the key that opened the door for negotiations to stop the fighting. But the enemy wanted a price. And the price had been the 45th. Waters had a way that captivated people, and Stansell had found himself wanting to follow the man. It was a new experience for him. When the F-15s were withdrawn, Stansell had stayed behind rather than return to a new desk job at his old base. And when the Iranians sent an invasion fleet across the Persian Gulf against Ras Assanya, Stansell had watched Waters fight for his wing’s survival, launching his F-4s against the oncoming ships, forcing himself to sacrifice them while he evacuated his men and women. Stansell had run the evacuation for Waters, and had been especially impressed by how reluctant the men and women of the 45th were to leave—most wanted to stay behind and fight. Waters’ influence reached deep.

And then those final hours assaulted Stansell…images of the civil engineers and the herculean task of keeping the runway open while two C-130s dodged artillery barrages shuttling people out, the last five F-4s escaping, and Waters being killed in an artillery salvo when he tried to surrender the rear guard rather than sacrifice them. Command had fallen to Stansell, and he had been obliged to surrender the 45th. Afterward the Iranians had interrogated Stansell...

Waters…who could replace him?

The sign announcing Fredericksburg brought Stansell back. He was sweating. The quiet beauty of the town helped calm him and he understood why Eichler chose to retire here. It was easy finding the two-story white-framed house. He took a deep breath, put his memories back into their carefully guarded box and rang the doorbell. A plump, white-haired old woman answered the bell. “You must be Colonel Stansell, please come in.” She led him down a hallway to a study. “The Brigadier never says much,” she warned him. Her soft Southern accent, the way she was dressed and the house all made Stansell think of a more courtly, softer way of life. She ushered him into a wood paneled room. The French doors were open to the warm October morning, letting the sun shine in on Melvin “Messy” Eichler, Brigadier General USAF (Retired).

“Brigadier, Colonel Stansell is here,” she announced before leaving them alone.

“The bastards don’t know how to do it,” Eichler said. The cancer killing him had extracted its price. The early stages of the disease and chemotherapy had wasted him. Now it was bloating him as his systems closed down. But there was nothing wrong with his voice. It still carried command.

“Pardon, sir.”

“How to rescue those POWs. I’m not stupid, just dying. Cunningham wants you to figure out how to do it. Right?”

Leukemia had not defeated the searing intellect and blunt words that had made the maverick intelligence officer such a controversial figure. Eichler’s career extended back to World War II and the OSS. He had been a driving force under General Curtis LeMay in the early days of the Air Force and had later become an expert in special operations. If he had been a pilot and worn wings he would have made four stars. And if he had kept his mouth shut during Vietnam. He had repeatedly told the top brass and the President how they were making a mess of it, earning his nickname “Messy.” He told them how to use special operations to fight the war but no one listened and he had been retired.

“They didn’t bother to ask when they tried to get the hostages out of the American embassy in Iran. ‘Eagle Claw’ was a fiasco. Should have hung a few of the bastards out to dry on that one. And Grenada…a world-class fuckup that we managed by sheer mass. We should have gone in at night, only the Rangers saved our bacon. Learn from them—” Stansell started to interrupt but Eichler waved him to silence. “Anna’s not going to let me talk long, so listen. You need good intelligence. Without it, you’re dead. You’ve got to know the rules of special operations. A special operations force does not hold ground or try to defend a place. Ignore rules like that and you’ll get your ass blown off.

“Your team needs to be totally self-contained. Everyone works for you—ground, air, intel, maintenance, everyone. No split command. It’s your show. And no duds, everyone pulls his own weight. Don’t rely on your machines. One hundred percent backup for aircraft. Avoid helicopters if you can. For God’s sake, keep it simple, make it fast.” Eichler leaned back in his chair, his breathing labored, tired from talking. His eyes closed, and Stansell could see the man’s body relax.

After a few minutes Stansell stood up, walked to the French doors, went into the hall, surprised to see Anna Eichler standing there leaning against a wall.

She walked him to the door. “He was wrong, you know. I would have let him talk. It’s his last chance.” She stopped at the door and put her hand on his cheek. ‘Thank you. Both our boys are dead, he’s given this one to you. Please do it right.”

*

Stansell drove through the town until he found the Waters address. This time a handsome middle-aged woman answered the door. “Mrs. Waters, I’m Colonel Rupe Stansell. I called yesterday.”

“Oh, yes. Sara is expecting you.” She smiled at his confusion. “I’m Martha Marshall, Sara’s mother.” Stansell followed her into the combination kitchen and family room. A young woman was on the floor changing a baby’s diaper.

She stood and held the baby up for inspection. “Melissa, meet Colonel Rupert Stansell. He knew your father.”

The colonel was obviously at a loss for words. Sara Waters was in her late twenties and beautiful. Her dark-gold hair cascaded to her shoulders and her brown eyes held a warmth and friendliness. Giving birth to Melissa had not hurt her figure. She decided to let him off the hook. “We hadn’t been married too long. I met Anthony when I was in the Air Force working at the Watch Center.”

Within a few minutes, Melissa was cradled on his lap and he felt comfortable with the two women. Mrs. Marshall invited him to dinner and suggested he and Sara take Melissa for a walk while she finished preparing the meal.

Sara pushed the stroller as they walked down a tree-lined street. “Please tell me about Anthony and that last day,” she said. She turned to him, her eyes calm. “I’ve got to know. They never returned his body.”

Stansell decided that Sara was asking for blunt honesty. “I don’t think they will,” he said. “The Iranians interrogated me for over twelve hours after I surrendered the base. They were only concerned with finding your husband. They wanted him bad. Two guards took me out to the security police bunker where he was when the last artillery barrage walked across the base. It took two direct hits. Not much left. I couldn’t identify anything.”

“How did it happen?”

“Artillery was chewing us up. The civil engineers worked all day to get enough runway open to launch our last F-4s. I was hoping we could get the C-130s in again and get some more of our people out. We got the F-4s launched but no luck on the C-130s. About three hundred of us were left. Mostly security police, some maintenance, wounded, and civil engineers…They wouldn’t evac out. Even when they could. Your husband ordered an intelligence officer out, Bill Carroll—”

“I know Bill,” Sara said. “He wouldn’t leave.”

“He didn’t.”

“And you didn’t either.”

Stansell shook his head. They walked in silence for a few moments. “Near the end he hadn’t slept for two days. He was dog-tired. There was a lull in the fighting. He told me to run the show and wake him up in an hour. I let him sleep for over three hours. When I did wake him he didn’t get on my case for letting him sleep so long, just asked for the current status. When I did he knew what he had to do—surrender, stop the waste. He was killed before he could do it…

“There was something about the man, I wanted to serve under him. I’m not easily led, certainly not given to hero worship, but I would have followed that man just about anywhere.”

“I followed him too,” she said.

After dinner Stansell stayed longer than he intended before heading back to Washington. He drove the Omni north, still preferring the old highway. Mado had outlined the plan after the meeting with Cunningham, and he had spent Saturday night in the Watch Center with an analyst going over intelligence from Iran. Eichler’s advice kept going around in his head. Pieces were fitting together. He could make it work—

A dark blue car flashed into his rearview mirror. “Looks like the same BMW I saw driving down,” he mumbled. As the BMW accelerated and overtook him Stansell glanced at the two men in the car. Both were dark-complected and wearing sunglasses. The BMW accelerated away, disappearing into the Sunday evening traffic, and Stansell found himself breathing hard. “You can’t get paranoid every time you see someone that looks like an Iranian,” he told himself.

“And you’ve got to stop talking to yourself.”

*

Stansell’s pencil traced the first two letters of the BMW’s license plate—AN—the only two numbers he had been able to read when it had briefly pulled abreast of his car. He crumpled the paper up and threw it in a corner, then sketched a diagram of the prison where the POWs were being held. His pencil seemed to move of its own accord, creating an oblique view of the compound, much like a pilot would see as he approached it from low level. The drawing skill that he’d always had allowed him to add surrounding vegetation and buildings, and his artist’s eye had no trouble changing the vertical reconnaissance photos the Watch Center had shown him to another angle with different perspective and details.

Why does this look so familiar? he thought. He was a military history buff from way back, did this come from a book or…? As though doodling, the pencil changed the flat roof on the three-story main building to a sloped roof. Something was moving deep inside his memory, emerging…He threw the pad to the floor beside the easy chair he was stretched out in, then got up and walked around the VOQ room, stopping at the window, staring into the night—

BOOK: Force of Eagles
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