the eighty-eighth key
A silver Mercedes 300D pulled up outside his building promptly at eight the next Friday morning, and the back right door swung open as the sedan stopped. The driver jumped out and took Callahan’s suitcase, put it in the boot then shut the door as Harry settled in. To his surprise he saw a man in the back seat with him, a middle-aged man with an attache case shackled to his left wrist.
“Diplomatic pouch,” the seat-mate said while patting the leather case. “You’ll be flying with me today. Here’s your passport.”
Callahan took the green booklet and opened it, saw his name and date of birth inside before he realized it was a US passport. “Is this legit?”
“Oh, yes,” the courier said, adding, “it came in last night from DC. Cutting it a little too fine, I think, but don’t quote me on that….”
Harry put the passport in his coat pocket beside his wallet and looked on as the Mercedes swung out into traffic, making its way through the city for the one-o-one and, he assumed, out to SFO. The driver and his front seat companion – who looked like a commando of some sort – said not one word all the way to the airport, though the commando-type got out at the main terminal entrance and swept the scene before letting anyone out of the sedan.
Callahan and the courier walked inside and straight up to the red and white TWA counter, and the courier handed a pre-printed slip of paper to the smiling agent standing there. She looked up once and smiled at Harry, printed-out two tickets and, with a black grease pencil, marked two boarding passes as well. She took Callahan’s grip and put a baggage tag on the handle and Harry looked at the airport codes and made a quick mental note of them before his bag disappeared down the rolling conveyor. New York Kennedy, Geneva, Tel Aviv would be the ones most likely used, Bullitt had told him as they went over all the possibilities for commercial transport from San Francisco International to Israel, and that was indeed what had been printed on his bag just now.
They walked to the departures concourse and then straight out to TWA’s Ambassador’s Club; the courier showed their IDs and boarding passes and he then escorted Callahan to a table that had a great view overlooking the the tarmac below. Callahan took a seat as a hostess came over to see if they wanted coffee or juice, and moments later Harry tried not to look as Bullitt and a very attractive woman came in and presented their papers to the girl at the check-in desk. They went to the far side of the room and sat; the courier managed to not smile.
A half hour later the Israeli commando came in and walked directly to their table, the look in his eyes all-business.
“The aircraft is secure. Let’s go.”
The courier stood and beckoned Callahan to follow; the three of them walked out a side door and downstairs to another waiting car, this time a nondescript Ford sedan, and, after Callahan got in, the car sped off across the ramp towards the air cargo facilities on the north side of the airport. The courier was no longer with them, and the only aircraft visible was a small jet parked far from any others, a Lockheed Jetstar.
As the sedan pulled up to the Lockheed the airstair opened and Callahan saw a hostess standing in the doorway; the stairs performed a fascinating mechanical dance on their way to the concrete as the Ford stopped; the commando got out and opened his door.
“We’ve advised your police inspector that we have made alternate travel arrangement s for you,” the commando said, barely grinning.
“Swell.” Callahan looked the jet over quickly – he vaguely remembered this was the same type of jet Pussy Galore had flown in Goldfinger – only this one was almost solid white and with little decorative ornamentation or other markings. There was a small Star of David on the tail, and registration numbers on the outer engines, but no other identifiers he could make out as he made his way up the airstairs.
“Good morning,” the rather stunning hostess said as he stepped inside, “could I take your coat?”
Callahan slipped out of his jacket and handed it over to the girl, then he turned to walk aft – and there was the old man from the hovel behind his apartment. Only now the man was busily engaged pouring over stacks of papers.
“Well, well,” Callahan said as he walked up to the old man, “hi – Dad.”
“Hello, Harry. Sit down, would you? Do you need coffee? Tea? I’ll be with you in a moment,” and at that the old man sighed, then stood and walked forward to the cockpit. A moment later the engines on the right side of the aircraft began starting, then those on the left. His ears popped once, then again, and a blast of chilled air suddenly hissed out of the overhead vents. Callahan reached up and twisted his shut just as the old man returned to his seat.
“So, where are we going?” Callahan mused out loud. “Blofeld’s mountaintop hideaway, perhaps?”
“Blofeld?” the old man asked, his uncomprehending eyes rimmed with fatigue.
“Never mind. So, I take it we’re not off to see the sights in Jerusalem?”
“Jerusalem? Ah, no, not at all. Tel Aviv first, to visit with your mother for a few days, then we have a small request to make of you.”
“Of me? Really? Do tell…”
The old man shuffled through a few open file folders on his tray table, then stopped at the one he was looking for. “Yes, it concerns your time in Vietnam, as a matter of fact. We have some people who would like to talk to you about what transpired on the tenth of February, 1968.”
Fingers of icy-cold dread ran down Callahan’s spine, though he did his best to appear momentarily confused. “February sixty-eight? I was stationed outside of Hué then, if I remember correctly. Flying medevacs in and out of C-med, I think.”
“Well yes, that much we know. Yet we’d like to talk to you about events surrounding the eighth through the tenth, before you returned to Phu Bai.”
“I’m sorry, but I…”
The old man held up his right hand. “Please, stop,” he said as he took a photograph from one of the folders spread out on his lap; he tossed an 8×10 black and white photograph to Callahan and tried not at all to suppress his smile.
And there it was, all of it; an unwelcome memory brought to life once again for his lasting amusement. Callahan standing by the open doors of black Huey – along with all the other members of the insertion team, including Jim Parish. The thick, low clouds off to the west, blanketing the mountains to the west of Hué city, the electronics ‘package’ mounted over the cockpit, the support troops gathered beside the second ‘slick’…all of it right there, a nightmare he couldn’t forget…if only because it seemed no one was going to let him.
Callahan had no idea the photograph even existed, but now he thought how it ended up here on this jet had to be a story for the ages.
He heard the engines spooling up, then turned his head and looked out the little square window just as the jet started down the runway. He craned his head a little and looked at the terminal, saw the TWA 707 just pushing back from the gate, and while he hoped more than anything else in the world that Frank Bullitt was onboard that airliner, all he could see in his mind’s eye was Jim Parish sitting in the bar at the Caravelle, still sitting there with oozing blood all over his hands.
“So,” Parish said as Callahan looked over his orders, “off to Phu Bai?”
“Looks that way,” Callahan sighed as he looked after the indescribably gorgeous cocktail waitress.
“Cute enough for you?” Parish added.
Callahan shook his head as he slipped back into the present, though he felt his pulse hammering when the girl turned and looked at him. “Man, she is something else.”
“How long’s it been since you had any?” Parish said through a sleepy grin.
“High school,” Callahan said, shaking his head.
“High school? What the fuck!” Parish howled. “What’s wrong with you, man? Did it fall off, or are you one of those goddamn closet faggots?”
Callahan turned and glared at Parish, the look on his face apparently enough to shut the guy up. “Bad experience,” was all he said.
“So? Did you have to go and join a monastic order? Fucking high school! No fucking way!”
“I just don’t think it’s all that goddamn important anymore, ya know?”
“Not important? Man, I got a news flash for you, but gettin’ laid is about the only thing in this fucking fucked-up universe that is important. A few weeks out in the bush you’ll fucking understand; dipping your wick is the last great thing in the entire fucking universe, the best fucking thing God ever created. Jesus! Not important…? That’s fucked up, man.”
Callahan looked at Parish, at the nonstop trickle of blood pooling on the floor under his chair, only now he saw the man’s face growing noticeably more pale. “You know, you’re going to bleed to death if you don’t get that under control.”
“What? It’s just a knick, don’t worry about it…”
“You seen the blood down there on the floor?”
Parish bent over to take a look – and promptly passed out, falling to the floor in a ragged heap.
“Fuck,” Callahan sighed, standing and signaling the heavenly waitress – who came over immediately, the look of honest concern clear in her eyes.
“Could you call for an Army ambulance, or something like that?”
“Yes, yes,” the angel said as Callahan looked her in the eye, the sight taking his breath away once again. He watched as she hurried away to speak to the bartender, who picked up a telephone and started talking in hushed, ragged barks. Harry knelt and felt for a carotid pulse, found it and did a ten-second count, finding a rate of 120 beats per minute, then he noticed the waitress standing beside him once again…
“Do you have any clean towels,” he asked, and as he heard her walking away he found himself wondering what her name was…
Parish moaned and his eyes fluttered open… “What the fuck happened?” he asked Harry.
“You’ve lost too much blood, bucko. Ambulance on the way.”
“You know how to take a pulse?”
“120 about a minute ago.”
Parish nodded, tried to sit up on an elbow but thought better of it. “Get me some water.”
“With or without whiskey,” Callahan smirked.
“Straight up, partner.”
They heard an ambulance approach and Army medics were soon by Callahan’s side, loading Parish on a stretcher and carrying him out of the hotel bar, Harry walking alongside. “Can I do anything for you?” Callahan asked before they slid Parish inside the ambulance.
“Yeah, one thing. And it’s important, so listen up.”
“Okay,” Harry said, leaning close.
“Go get your skinny white ass laid.”
Callahan’s lips scrunched up as his eyes watered, then he nodded to Parish as the doors slammed shut. He looked-on as the old Ford disappeared into the late afternoon traffic, then he fished his orders out of his pocket and looked at them once again. ‘Take first available transport,’ they said, and he wondered what to do for a moment…until he saw the waitress once again, that is. Then he knew exactly what he wanted to do. More than anything else in the world, as a matter of fact.
He watched the Jetstar turn to the northeast over the bay, and moments later Oakland then Walnut Creek slipped-by far below. He wondered what to say next, how to avoid this most unwanted line of questioning. “You know,” Callahan said to the oblique reflection in his window, “I don’t even know your name.”
The old man steepled his fingers. “Avi. You may call me Avi, Harry.”
“So, Avi the Danish Physicist. Is that about right – Dad?”
“Nuclear physicist, if that helps you in the present circumstance. Like your mother, Harry. Just like your mother. And please don’t turn my words around, try to use them against me. And I do not appreciate sarcasm.”
“And you work for the Israelis now, is that it? Gave up teaching, I guess?”
“Oh no, I am still a teacher, Harry. I teach anyone who will listen, because I believe I have something very important to pass along.”
“And that would be…? What, that the bomb is bad?”
The old man smiled a little as he took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and proceeded to clean his eyeglasses. “I suppose so, when you get right down to it, but no, what I have to teach is a little more circumspect. My adopted home is surrounded by men who would love to do nothing more or less than kill every Jew left in the world.” The old man paused, let the words hang in the air apparent before he continued. “I think it would be immensely useful if you would, under present circumstances, try to recall that your mother numbers among that group of people, and that many of those very men live less than one hundred miles from where she lives right now. Do you understand that, Harald.”
“She can move back to California tomorrow. As a matter of fact that would suit me just fine, Avi.”
“Would it indeed? You seem to have forgotten there are many people in your country, even in the great state of California, that share these same views. That would love nothing more than to see all Jews everywhere driven back to the camps, driven into the ovens and the gas chambers, or simply worked to death. Would that do you, Harry?”
Callahan shook his head. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“I know what I know, and I also know that I will not waste my time or yours trying to convince you of things so obviously self-evident. Suffice to say, you might open your eyes to organizations like your Klan, or even the John Birch Society. Hatred takes many forms, Harry. Some less obvious than others.”
“And what has all this got to do with me?”
“It is of those men that surround Israel that I want to speak. Men like Sadat and Assad. You know these names?”
“So, this is a good thing. Well, it seems that these two men have decided to wipe Israel off the face of the earth one more time. Perhaps as soon as next summer, but there is great uncertainty about that right now.”
“And you would know this how?”
The old man shrugged, smiled as he put his glasses back on. “People talk, Harry. I wish I could tell you who.”
The old man seemed to turn inward on himself for a moment, then he spoke with a more direct, a more urgent tone in his voice. “Alright, Harry. King Hussein for one, and one of Sadat’s sons. They are telling us these things. Now do you understand?”
Callahan leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees then rested his chin in the cups of his hands. “And which of these characters has a bomb?” Callahan asked.
“No one does, not yet anyway, though Assad keeps asking his Soviet puppeteers for one. Of Sadat’s aspirations we are less sure.”
Callahan looked out the window again, looked at the spine of the High Sierra as it drifted by in the distance. “So, why do you need me?”
“Your training, Harry. What else?”
“There are lots of helicopter pilots out there, Avi. You don’t need one more.”
“Lots of pilots? True enough,” the old man said as he rummaged through one of his file folders, then he settled on another photograph and tossed it onto the tray table.
Callahan caught a glimpse as the image slid across the table, as well as the other photograph of the insertion team, and right then he knew there was nothing left to hide. The old man knew everything, had proof of it all – in black and white and on glossy 8×10 sheets of paper. Someone on the inside, he knew – but that hardly mattered now.
“What is it you call this black box? The Wizard? Isn’t that about so?”
Callahan shrugged. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Avi.”
The old man smiled again, picked up the photograph and studied it for a moment. “It’s quite ingenious, really, but of course I designed it, so modesty prevents me from saying so.”
Callahan looked at the image, then into the old man’s eyes – and it was then he remembered where the black box’s nickname came from: the designer, who had by the early 60s developed quite a reputation in the community. “So, you’re the Wizard?”
“So it would seem, Harry. So it would seem.”
“Why do you need me?”
“Because Harry, you are the only pilot in all the world who has used the unit under operational conditions.”
Callahan shrugged, appeared to draw a blank.
“Harry, don’t be coy. The eighth of February? You remember, though I’m sure you would like to forget those days.”
Callahan turned and looked at Nevada’s high desert outside, now miles below and fading into something like a forgotten memory.
“But you haven’t forgotten them, have you? No sane man could. The world came very close, did it not? And you did well. Very well indeed.”
“You seem to know everything there is to know, Avi, so why don’t you tell me what you really want.”
“I want you to spend some time with your mother, Harry. And when you’re through we would like you to go look for something?”
“Yes, well, it seems one of our bombs is missing…and we’d like you to find it for us.”
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