The Eighty-eighth Key, Ch. 52

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Part VI

Chapter 52

“Intel reports Saddam is deploying his Scuds in the west,” the Air Force major told the assembled pilots, “but nothing is showing up in any of our most recent satellite imagery…”

Callahan looked at the current photograph on the screen and held up his hand.

“Go ahead,” the major said. “It’s Callahan, right?”

“Yessir. Are the launchers small enough to fit under a highway overpass?”

“Yes, and that’s going to be your biggest concern. These missiles aren’t heavy, relatively speaking, and so the damn things are really easy to move around. There are literally hundreds of small metal buildings along highways 1, 10, and 22, and these routes place Scuds close enough to targets in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and to put both coalition troops and large civilian population center in harm’s way, particularly in Israel. Word is Patriot batteries will be deployed around major air bases in Saudi Arabia well before the outbreak of hostilities. I don’t have word on placement of batteries in Israel at this time, but we have to assume that Saddam is going to go after Israel from Day One…”

“Why?” Rooney asked.

“To rupture the integrity of the coalition,” the major replied. “If Israel is pulled into the conflict our Arab partners will likely either refuse to participate in the liberation of Kuwait or, worst case, they may use that as a pretext to move against Israel. At that point we’d have…”

“A clusterfuck,” Callahan sighed.

“Exactly. Now, Captain Callahan has trained his team to go after possible nuclear warheads, and as I understand the way he’s structured you guys, we’ll have two specially modified Hueys as the basic maneuvering unit, followed by four Blackhawks carrying elements of Army Rangers and British SAS, and six Hellfire armed Apache helicopters riding the perimeter. So, two eleven unit teams – is that about right, Captain?”

“Yessir.”

“What’s the outline of your plan? The basic plan, anyway?”

“We operate at night, first of all. We assume they’re going to hide out in the shadows during daylight, which means they move at night – especially if they plan to launch. Basic operational characteristics of these mobile launchers is to fire one missile and move to a new, pre-arranged hiding place, and one usually not too far away. That way they keep their exposure to a minimum, and avoid discovery by back-tracing trajectories.”

“So, how do you go about detection?”

“First assumption we’re making is that there are Scuds with nuclear warheads out there. Even shielded warheads emit particle trails, both alpha particles and gamma particles, but we won’t run into alpha particles unless we happen to fly right over a warhead at very low altitude. Gamma ray particles are another matter, as you know. Still, we can’t detect by long range observation. We have to fly through a trail of particles left by a warhead, presumably as it’s being moved from place to place…”

“Or, as you said, if you accidentally fly over a launcher, correct?”

“Correct. And then we have to hope their escorts maintain discipline and don’t open up on us.”

“So,” the major asked, “what’s the best case scenario?”

“Best case?” Callahan mused. “We run across a trail and follow it, and we run up on them from the rear before they plan to launch. Other than that, it’s going to come down to simple luck, preferably finding a mobile unit moving between locations – and before a launch. I’d assume if they go nuclear all bets are off and Israel will hit back with a nukes?”

“If Saddam decides to go nuclear, Captain, you’d better pray you get to that launcher before anything heads out. Saddam can hit Istanbul from these locations, not just Tel Aviv or Riyadh. And once that genie is out of the bottle there’ll be no easy way to wind things down again.” 

“Major,” Rooney asked, “is it confirmed Saddam has nukes?”

“Look, you guys have all seen the same shit on CNN that I have. Cheney and Powell are convinced, so POTUS is on board. That makes this operation a policy level decision, so that means you guys are going to be the tip of the spear. The number one operational priority right now – before hostilities commence, it to track down any nuclear tipped Scuds and take ‘em out. That means if you run across any, I repeat any Scuds without nuclear warheads you get the word back to SoComm and let them deal with it. We can’t lose these two Hueys in some sort of spurious, feather-legged fire-fight. Got it? Everyone clear on that? If someone starts shooting at you your response is simple. Call the CAP, let the Strike Eagles handle the threat. Cover the Hueys and get out of the line of fire, then start hunting again.”

Everyone nodded.

“Again, men, your mission is simple. Find any nukes – on launchers or otherwise – and let either the Rangers or the Apaches take ‘em out. We’re looking at three to four weeks before hostilities commence, but you guys go to work tonight. If you succeed, the war will be over in a matter of weeks, not months, and the world stays a little safer for the time being. Now, we’ll have a briefing by the lead Eagle driver on your CAP, and he’ll go over frequencies and call-outs for the night’s hop…”

_______________________________

“Jesus, Callahan, what the hell did you get me mixed up in?” Rooney said, grinning as they left the tent.

“Shit, this is gonna be a turkey shoot,” Callahan said. “Line ‘em up and knock ‘em down.”

“Yeah? And what if we screw the pooch? Then what, Smart Guy?”

“World War Three,” Deke Slater, the lead Blackhawk pilot said. “And we’ll be right in the bulls-eye when the word goes out to turn western Iraq into a glassed-over parking lot.”

“Thanks, Harry,” Rooney sighed.

“Stop worrying about it,” Callahan grinned. “This Saddam character doesn’t have any nukes. If he did we wouldn’t be over here right now.”

“How do you figure that?” Slater said.

“Seriously? Well, we got half the air force holed up on a couple of air bases in Saudi Arabia, and the other half on Diego Garcia. Two or three well aimed missiles and there goes the United States Air Force. So…no way do we take that kind of risk…”

“So then Cheney and Powell are…”

“Garden variety politicians, Deke. Doing what they do best. We had to act when this jack-ass moved on Kuwait, and we had to intervene with some kind of global coalition or public opinion in Ames, Iowa would have skewed negative. Without public support, no war. If no war, then Raytheon and all the other toy-makers don’t get in on another half trillion in procurements…”

“I keep forgetting you’re one of those ‘peace-love-dope smokers’ from San Francisco,” Slater added. “That’s the same shit y’all were spouting back in ’68.”

“Slater,” Callahan quipped, “you were still in diapers back in ’68.”

“True. But the premise stands.”

“Fuck, it’s gonna be Christmas in like a week,” Rooney snarled, “and here we are stuck in some desert that thinks it’s an ice box. I don’t know about you guys, but I miss San Fran. Shit, there aren’t even any trees out here…”

The two specially equipped Hueys were in their makeshift hangers, both fueled and ready to go. Their special antennas and probes were deployed and looked like the skeletal structure of a bat’s wing, and they’d both been repainted from flat black to a kind of putrid looking gray-green that was supposed to be harder to see at night. Both were very lightly armed with just two HVAR pods with Willy-Pete loadouts, and they weren’t carrying door guns – or gunners – so both were, for all practical purposes, unarmed.

Located northeast of Turaif, Saudi Arabia, this special facility had been carved out of thin air in a matter of days, and sat on the map where Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq came to a point. The main highway from Baghdad to Jordan, Highway 10, lay just across the Iraqi border, but several Iraqi air bases lined that highway, as well. Smaller highways and roads crossed over Highway 10, and these overpasses provided endless opportunities for cover that mobile Scud launchers could utilize anytime reconnaissance satellites flew overhead. There was an almost endless supply of small buildings, too – most belonging to national mining concerns – where these launchers could hide.

Tonight’s mission – the group’s first – would take them between two small Iraqi air bases to the paved highway, and Callahan’s Huey would fly along just above the highway for about 20 miles – his team’s Blackhawks and Apaches flying on either side of the main roadway. F-15 Strike Eagle fighter bombers would fly overhead in the “No Fly  Zone” established during the initial phases of Operation Desert Shield, waiting for any signs of response from the poorly organized Iraqi Air Force. Rooney and his team would wait, then fly along the same route twenty minutes later, hoping to catch anyone that decided to break cover and run once Callahan’s team passed.

Callahan had trained for just this scenario, only in Germany – in the sixties, in what would have been the opening phases of the Third World War. Still, the mission in Iraq was the same: find nuclear warheads typically used in tactical operations, those used on either short range missiles or in artillery shells.

Callahan’s team took off at zero-dark-thirty and crossed into Iraq; almost instantly radar alarms sounded so he dropped lower and assumed a hover, then he crept along at about thirty knots until they came to the highway. There was hardly any traffic on any roads these days, so what traffic there was had to be considered hostile…

“Cat 1 this is Eagle 3, looks like a Mig taking off from H3, cold and dark, turning north in your direction. Suggest you go quiet.”

“Cat 1 roger.” Callahan simply flared and landed in the middle of the highway about twenty meters from an overpass and waited for the Mig to vacate the area…

“Cat 1 Eagle 3, I think they must have painted you, he’s coming in low to make a run down the highway.”

“Eagle 3, you’d better engage.”

“Already on him.”

Callahan saw the Eagle maybe ten miles ahead and coming down fast from forty thousand feet, and a second later he saw an air-to-air missile leap from the Eagle and streak down towards the Mig. Another Eagle fired an anti-radiation missile at an unseen Iraqi radar installation, and literally within seconds all known threats had been eliminated.

Callahan got his Huey back in the air and proceeded east down the motorway – but when it was time to turn south and bug out he couldn’t – because the downed Mig was a flaming wreck lighting up the entire area. He decided to turn north and then backtrack about ten miles before turning back to Turaif. He called Rooney and told him what had happened, then gave him the abort code. An hour later he was back at the base.

“What happened?” Rooney asked as Callahan climbed out of his Huey.

“That downed Mig must’ve been loaded with external fuel tanks. It was burning like a sum-bitch; even the snakes were casting shadows out there. When we backtracked we made your mission redundant, so why take the chance?”

“You want to go out again?”

“Tonight?”

“Sure, why not?”

Callahan looked at his watch. “Sure, let’s refuel and go west this time. You call the CAP and let ‘em know.”

“Right. One thing’s for sure. I bet the Migs stay in their hangers from now on.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Callahan said.

“Anything on your readouts?” Rooney asked, meaning the particle monitors.

“Nothing. Just cold air.”

_________________________________

And night after night it was the same. Fly down low and scope out the main highways. Then the secondary highways. Then roads that seemed just large enough to handle a jeep.

And always, nothing. No radiation signatures – or anything at all, for that matter.

Night after night, flight after flight. Nothing. Not even conventionally armed Scuds.

The Air Force major returned for their next briefing.

“We think all the Scuds are simply warehoused right now. We’ve identified a command and control radio net and all the chatter indicates they aren’t about to expose them until they absolutely need to.”

“So, what do you want us to do?”

“You won’t have long to wait now, Captain. Take a few days off; be ready to roll on Wednesday.”

He and Rooney flew down to one of the big US facilities in S.A. and Harry waited until evening then called the Cathouse.

“Callahan Air,” the receptionist said, “how may I direct your call?”

“DD, please.”

“Yes, who’s calling?”

“Uh, Callahan.”

“Excuse me?”

“This is Harry Callahan, now please connect me with DD!”

“Yessir…!”

“Harry? Where are you?”

“The dark side of the moon.”

“Oh. Looks like all the diplomatic initiatives have fizzled out. What are you up to?”

“Oh, I got a hot date with a camel in about a half hour. What’s going on there?”

“Nothing much to report. We just took delivery of our first D-model 1900. It starts on the Santa Barbara to Mammoth run next week, and the flights are booked solid through March. Same with the Eureka to SFO run, beating all our projections right now.”

“Well, that sounds like good news. How’s the doc?”

“Real good. Taking piano lessons from Nils. He’s the one that comes out to the house to tune yours, and he comes by for dinner out here after he finishes up. Nice kid.”

“Seemed that way to me, too.”

“I’m not sure how well those guys are running the shop though, Harry.”

“Oh?”

“Seems pretty fast and loose to me.”

“Got time to take it on? See what’s what?”

“Maybe. Frank was telling us about your assistant over in Switzerland. Think she could come over and give us a hand?”

“I don’t see why not.” He gave her Didi’s direct line and told DD to give her a call. “Anything else I need to know?”

“I don’t think so?”

“Okay. My camel is waiting for me. Wish me luck…”

He went back to the bar in the O-club and found Rooney nursing a rum and Coke, looking glum.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked.

“CNN. Looks like war after all.”

“Yeah. Seems unavoidable at this point.”

“You have any property in Israel?”

“Me? Nope. All that stuff wound up in either Denmark or Switzerland.”

“Where in Switzerland?”

“Davos. Heard of it?”

“Any skiing there?”

“Yes, decent too.”

“Man, I wanted to spend time at Tahoe this winter, maybe even Mammoth. I started learning two winters ago and now I can’t get enough of it.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling. I’d like to hit Davos again, so maybe we could stop by on the way home?”

“Man, that would be the best. I mean it, Harry. That would be the bee’s knees.”

“Yeah? Well then, let’s count on it. A week or two in the mountains will probably take care of whatever ails us by that point.”

“Did you get through to DD?”

“Yeah. Nothing major going on. Starting the Santa Barbara to Mammoth run soon.”

“Maybe I should go for a fixed wing, ya know?”

“You’re young enough. No reason not to, and you’ll have increased benefits when you get back.”

“When we get back. Man, does that sound good right now.”

“I bet this thing is over before it starts. Worst case, we’re out of here by the end of February.”

“I sure hope you’re right, Harry.”

“Relax, Mickey. Too many negative vibes and you’ll kill the buzz.”

“The buzz? What the hell are you talkin’ about, Harry?”

“Rum and Coke, Amigo. Settle in and mellow out, think about something else. Bottom line, Ace, is that sitting around worrying about getting killed ain’t gonna to change a damn thing. If it happens it happens, so you might as well enjoy yourself while you’re still around and the rum is reasonably priced.”

“That’s right. I keep forgetting you did a year in ‘Nam.”

“That was mean bush, Mickey. This ain’t gonna be like ‘Nam, though, so just take it easy – everything is gonna work out just fine.”

“Man, you say so, but I sure wouldn’t mind some tail tonight.”

“Not here, Mick. This ain’t the place, and don’t you forget it. You don’t want to buy into this kind of pain, believe me.”

“Well, the least the Army could do is bring some hookers over here, ya know?”

“Last time I looked, Ace, Pimp wasn’t a recognized operational specialty…but I could be wrong about that.”

“Man, I know you’ve been through the ringer and all, but you’ve become like, I don’t know, some kind of monk. Don’t you ever, like, you know, ever get horny?”

“About 23 hours a day.”

“What? You? Saint Harry?”

“I ain’t a saint, Mickey. Never was, never will be.”

“Bullshit. What you’re doing with CAT…that alone ought to qualify.”

“CAT…that wasn’t for me, Mickey. It was for y’all.”

“That’s my point, man. You get all this money and you coulda just disappeared to Switzerland. But no, what do you do?”

“You know, when all that happened we were balls deep in the Escobar-mercenary cop shit, then Sara happened and it was like some sort of cosmic tumblers rolled and rolled and then slipped into place. I went on this, well, kind of walk. Ran into this girl in New Orleans. One wrong step away from bein’ homeless, ya know? Nothing going her way but she had a good hearted soul, and then it clicked. Mickey, this is for real – something just clicked in my head. When I started walking I kind of had it my mind that I’d just give it all away. Just hand it out, dollar by dollar.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard about this girl before. What happened?”

“Coffee, donuts, a scholarship at Tulane she was about to lose, nothing happened – and then everything did. I got her settled in school and put money aside for her in case she made it into medical school.”

“What happened to her?”

“She settled down, got her feet under her, graduated top of her class – pre-med – and she got into a med school in Chicago. In her second year now, and every time I get a letter from her it’s like getting a letter from a daughter, ya know? I love her like that, Mickey.”

“Whoa…”

“Once upon a time I saw girls like her as victims. Never strong enough to make their way in the world, ya know? So I had to take care of them. My mission, ya know? Then a little truth hit me. Sometimes what those folks needed was kind of like a father, some guy in their life who was interested in more than just their vagina. This girl’s father had roughed her up then basically abandoned her, and by that point she saw men as nothing more than predatory creatures – to be avoided at all cost. A real father wouldn’t have done that, Mickey. A real father wouldn’t have taken his daughter’s life and snapped it in two. What she needed was a real father, and to me it looked like I had been nominated. And the thing is, Mickey, I had the means to make it work – so I did. And I’ll get down off my soapbox in a minute, but hear me out, okay?”

“Yeah? I’m listening…”

“So, the cosmic tumblers, right? Call it destiny, call it fate – but what I think really guided me to that moment was my mother. My mother’s last composition, to be more specific.”

“Composition? Your mother was a musician?”

“Yeah. You could call it that.”

“And so, you’re saying that…”

“Her last piece was…is…laid out kind of like a roadmap. It took me a while to find the bread-crumbs, for the path through the history she was building…or telling me.”

“Where does it lead?”

“I haven’t found that out yet. There’s a problem, too. A big one. From what I’ve been able to piece together she was working on the closing movements when she passed away. Now, the thing is I can tell that she didn’t write the last notes. They don’t follow the sequence. The passage kind of dissolves in a way it, well, it couldn’t have – not following the same structure she’d been using up to that point. So someone changed it, someone has the notes she wrote, and inside those notes – and I mean buried within the structure of the movement’s conclusion – everything she laid out comes to a conclusion. A logically derived structural conclusion within the music itself. And I have to assume the secret she’d discovered was in those notes. The secret she was trying to get to me.”

“Man, I’m sorry, but Jerry Lee Lewis is about as far as I got in the whole piano thing. You know, like Good Golly Miss Molly?”

“Yeah? You ever get into Live at the Star Club?”

“What’s that?”

Callahan smiled. “Oh, nothin’ much, Amigo. Nothin’ much at all, but I do see you need another rum and Coke…”

_________________________________

When they got back to the base his Huey was just coming out of an overdue maintenance check, and he had been scheduled to take it up for a pre-mission check-out that afternoon – just to certify that the aircraft was indeed airworthy. Back in his flight suit and after donning his helmet, he made his walk around with this particular Huey’s crew chief. With nothing amiss, he climbed behind the right stick and started her up, then took off for a fifteen minute circuit to the south – away from Iraq.

Alone with his thoughts he thought again about his monologue with Rooney, and the things he’d consciously tried to push out of mind for the last few years, then – 

“Yes, I was wondering when you were going to make the connection.”

Startled, Callahan turned and saw The Old Man in the Cape sitting in the left seat…

“What the Hell are you doing here!” Callahan snarled.

“Oh, I was just curious. You know, what it was like to fly one of these things. Noisier than I thought, that much I can tell you…”

Callahan pushed the stick hard over – and the view ahead shifted from blue sky to rocks and sand. Callahan looked at the Old Man and saw abject terror in his eyes – so he let up and resumed flying straight and normal.

“What did you do that for!?” the Old Man cried – before he disappeared. Then, a moment later he reappeared: “That really wasn’t a nice thing to do, you know?” And with that he was gone, again.

“Interesting,” Callahan sighed as he reefed the Huey into a tight, high-g turn to the left. He flared at the base about ten minutes later, then signed-off on the crew-chief’s chit. With that done he grabbed Rooney and went to their pre-mission briefing.

“Okay,” the Major began, “tonight is kick-off time, and we have new intel we have to run down before the first air assaults hit this region.”

“Like, uh, what are we expecting out here?” Rooney asked. “I mean, we’re about as far from Kuwait as possible, right?”

“The chatter we’re picking up leads us to believe that as soon as the invasion begins Scuds will launch at targets in S.A. and Israel. We’re assuming that any launchers this far west will be targeting Israel. Our worst case is a nuke hitting a population center like Tel Aviv, and with that in mind this mission is targeting a large mining operation with an unusual amount of tire tracks around two buildings…”

“Tire tracks?” Callahan asked.

“The mine has been closed for months. The tracks weren’t there three days ago. Any more questions?”

“You got overheads?” Callahan asked.

The screen filled with satellite imagery of the mining complex.

“What are they mining out there?” someone asked.

“An odd coincidence here. Bauxite and, well, Uranium. A B-1 out of Diego Garcia is slated to hit the facility at 0200, so we’ll want to be on site at 1130 hours, a half hour before hostilities commence. If there are launchers in the buildings we need to hit them before they can move into position.”

An Army colonel was sitting in on this briefing, and he spoke up now.

“Callahan’s and Rooney’s ships will be carrying mini-guns on this hop, but we want these two assets to make an initial sweep – then back off. These two ships will be carrying medical teams and a radiologic assessment officer for after action analysis, so keep these two covered at all cost. And remember, you’ve got to be out of the area before the B-1 drops. Any questions?”

There were none.

Callahan went back to his Huey as techs finished removing the rocket pods, replacing these with two small Gatling-style electrically operated mini-guns.

“How many rounds?” he asked.

“1500 each side. Here’s the weight and balance sheet for your workup.”

“Anyone got a weight on this medical team?”

“On the sheet, Captain, other side.”

Callahan read through the weights and entered the units – in pounds – on the graph, and any way he tried it he came up heavy. “Rooney?” he called out.

“Yo?”

“You worked the numbers yet?”

“Yup. Too goddamn heavy is what I get!”

Callahan turned to the techs. “Find me 600 pounds and dump it.”

“Captain, this load out comes from the Colonel. We can’t…”

“As far as I can tell, the Colonel ain’t flying this crate. Now, get rid of 600 pounds cause these things ain’t gonna get off the ground at this weight. We clear?”

“What’s the problem?” Callahan heard the Colonel asking as he walked into the hanger.

“We’re too heavy is the problem,” Callahan snarled.

“At night, with these temps and density altitudes? You sure?”

Callahan walked the colonel through the numbers and the graph, and the old man grumbled but nodded in agreement. 

“I don’t want to send you boys in without weps, but that’s the only thing I see you can get rid of. That’ll give you about 200 pounds to spare at take off.”

“Well,” Callahan added, “it’s that or dump the medical team.”

“Captain, some of my boys are gonna get killed out there tonight…”

“Okay, will one med team do the job?”

“Not if it gets shot down,” the colonel countered. “I want two teams out there, period.”

“Then we go in clean. Only way the numbers work.”

“Okay. Sidearms and rifles all around then.”

Callahan shrugged. “We can do that, no problem.”

“I wonder where the hell my people screwed up this calculation?”

“This is an early 60s model, sir. Optimally, you should have this equipment on a 412.”

“Callahan?” the colonel mused. “You the character running the air taxi thing in California?”

“Yessir.”

“And you’ve got 412s?”

“Yessir, for running fire fighters at altitude. Nothing better, in my opinion.”

“Oh? I didn’t know you guys were doing that. Interesting. How about we send you back to Germany and we refit some new 412s with this stuff. Think you could train replacements?”

“Take about a month, sir, from start to finish.”

“Well, good. This whole nuclear thing is a crock; Hussein shot off his mouth one time too many, far as I’m concerned anyway, so this is nothing but a waste of time, if you ask me.”

Callahan shrugged. Because he really didn’t know what to say now.

“Well, Ivan won’t stay quiet for long. We need to upgrade our equipment in Germany and Korea, and you’d be doing me a favor if you could take this on and see it through. This Rooney work for you?”

Callahan nodded. “Yessir.”

“Okay. He goes with you when you head out. We’ll let you make a few sweeps out here, as long as you’re here, anyway, then send you both back to Frankfurt. Train your replacements then you can go home.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The colonel nodded. “Should’ve had you do this ten years ago, but hell, the program should have never been axed in the first place. Well, y’all be safe out there…”

Rooney walked over. “Did I hear that right? Out of here soon?”

“Let’s just stay safe, Mick. I see light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I see snow, Harry. Swiss snow.”

“I hear that, Amigo. Well, let’s saddle up and head out.”

Take off, head north along the Jordanian border, avoiding the two main highway border stations by cutting inside Jordan, then east – into the desert. 2315 hours, the target mining facility just beyond a low ridge-line dead ahead – and Rooney falls back, letting Callahan’s Huey take the lead. Over the ridge and just ahead everything snaps into focus: three Scud launchers and truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns. Then – literally dozens of anti-aircraft batteries open up on Callahan’s Huey…tracer rounds leading right to the windshield…Callahan reflexively jinking hard left as hundreds of rounds hit home, the Huey disintegrating before his eyes, the searing pain of dozens of heavy caliber rounds tearing through flesh – 

– and an instant later his untouched Huey is miles away in a hover five thousand feet above the desert –

Men in the back are screaming in pain at one point in one reality, and inside the next second they are sitting in puddles of confusion and doubt – their eyes telling one story, memory still trying to comprehend impending death in another, the dissonance creating a rebellion of the senses.

“What the fuck just happened!” a medic screamed as he clawed at his helmet.

Callahan knows what has happened and his mind instinctively tries to reach for the ‘why’ – then he catches himself before he falls into that trap…

“That’s the Callahan maneuver,” he said over the intercom. “Nothin’ to it, so y’all just sit back  and relax…”

But his mind is trying to reorient to set-point-zero once again, his body rebelling as the effects of the discontinuity grab him by the throat.

“Cat 2, Cat 1, you still with us?” Rooney said on the net. “Cat 1, come in!”

“What do you mean am I still with you?” Callahan said, perhaps a little too meekly.

“You just cleared that ridge and the sky lit up – then you were fucking gone!”

“Cat 1 to all units, two, maybe three Scuds getting ready to launch. Heavy AA units in place. MOVE IN NOW!”

“That weren’t no fuckin’ maneuver,” one of the medics in back cried. “We be dead, we be in heaven right now…”

“Get your head out of your ass!” Callahan snarled. “And stand by to pick up wounded!” The scene below erupted in pure chaos as Hellfires and mini-guns raked the makeshift launch area, then one of the Scuds cooked off, the shock wave from the blast ripping up the night. Cries for help started coming in and Callahan reefed his Huey into a tight turn and came down near a green smoke flare. Men were loaded and he took off, heading straight for base ten meters above the sand.

Rooney arrived about ten minutes after Callahan’s Huey, and even before the rotors had spun down Rooney went off in search of Callahan…

“What the fuck happened out there, Harry?” he said when he found Callahan walking with the crew chief. 

“What do you mean – what happened?”

“Your ship…man…it disappeared into a wall of tracers – I saw it coming apart in mid air – and then…just fucking gone, man. And then – a few seconds later you’re miles away and nowhere near the LZ!”

“I kicked the rudder and started a roll left, and hit the collective pretty hard, slipped sideways then up. Learned that trick in ‘Nam…”

“Yeah? Well, man, you gotta show me that one sometime, ‘cause I ain’t never seen no shit like that before.”

Callahan turned to the crew chief. “Better check the Jesus nut when you look over the rotor head. I must’ve stressed the whole rig pretty good.”

But by then a seriously pissed off Rooney had disappeared.

And by then the talk had started. The medics in Rooney’s Huey started sharing accounts of what they’d seen and that got everyone wound up again. Then the medics in Callahan’s Huey started recounting what it felt like while they were getting shot – and then nothing – just orbiting the scene a couple of miles away from the scene without a scratch on anyone. Rumors spread after that, insane stuff about time travel and ruptures in the space-time continuum, officers got involved and a minor uproar developed. Within hours Callahan and Rooney were sent to Frankfurt, their Hueys following on a re-tasked C-5A; Callahan started developing a curriculum to train a new generation of ‘Sniffers’ after they settled into their new quarters. Rooney continued to question Callahan for a few days then finally just dropped it. A general came by and asked if Callahan could put together a course stateside and then simply discharged them, then and there. Freshly minted colonels now, Callahan and Rooney put on their civilian clothes and grabbed a train to Munich, then another to Zurich. 

Callahan called Didi before they caught the afternoon express to Davos, and she met them at the station in time to take them to dinner. After they settled in at the restaurant she started right in:

“Your CFO at the helicopter company called, wanted to know if I could come and help out with some of your business interests there…”

“Yes?”

She shook her head. “That’s not going to happen. I am fully engaged here…”

“I take it you are still working for…”

“Exactly,” she said, stopping Callahan as she smiled at Rooney. “I’d love nothing more, but under current circumstances it’s simply not possible.”

Callahan shrugged. “Medellin again?”

“And Moscow. Even as they seem to be coming undone they continue to stir up trouble in Syria.”

“And now Scuds,” but Callahan regretted saying that as soon as the words left his lips. Yet Rooney was keeping quiet now, his eyes locked on Didi’s.

“Yes,” she said. “But the skiing is good here now. I’ve called my favorite shop; they’re expecting you first thing in the morning. You should be up on the slopes by noon.”

“Any chance you could come with us?” Rooney asked, and Didi seemed taken aback.

“Me? Really? Actually, I’d love to! I haven’t been up once so far this year.”

“Great!” Rooney said. “It’s a date!”

Callahan watched this exchange silently grinning, knowing it had been at least a year since Rooney had been with anyone – and Didi was anyone’s guess. ‘Well, this could be interesting after all…’ he said as he watched the two of them schmoozing away during dinner.

She had her gear loaded on Avi’s Range Rover by the time breakfast was finished the next morning, and she took them into town with one eye on the road – and one eye on Rooney. Two hours later, with new clothes and skis, they rode up the funicular to the summit and Callahan watched Rooney fumble with his skis, not quite knowing what to expect as Didi helped Mickey with his bindings.

“I’ve never seen anything like these,” he confessed. “Marker? What’s with the rotating heel?”

“Supposed to release easier, more controlled,” Didi said. “Just slide this clip to center the turntable and step down as you normally would.”

Callahan hung back and watched Didi flirting with Rooney, utterly amazed she’d apparently fallen for him so quickly. The two of them laughed when they fell, laughed when one tried to help the other back up – only to be pulled down again, and he found watching the two of them more fun than the skiing. By the time they stopped for lunch they couldn’t keep their hands off one another.

Then he looked around the room.

It was the same as the last time he’d been here – with Avi and Sara – and that hit him like a gut punch. He excused himself and walked out onto the snowpack and he saw the Old Man in the Cape standing on the main observation deck – looking out over the valley.

“I didn’t expect to see you up here today,” Callahan said as he approached.

“Indeed? I do hope you’re not still angry at me.”

“Why would I be angry?”

“You should have been more careful, you know?”

“So? Why intervene again?”

“The general and his little pre-flight pep talk? It didn’t happen that way. He delayed you by twenty minutes.”

Callahan sighed. “So, what you’re telling me is that it had already happened once before. Why don’t I remember that one, too?”

“Other interventions. Think of several pebbles hitting a pond at the same time. Ripples interact in unpredictable ways.”

“You care to tell me what’s really going on?”

“You haven’t figured it out yet?”

“No, not really.”

“You know, I do miss snow. And this view! I could never tire of it.”

“Uh-huh. You were saying?”

“At least two groups of people are trying to alter the timeline of your existence, for their own ends.”

“And you? Who are you? And why do you care one way or another?”

“I can’t tell you that. Not without throwing another pebble into the pond.”

“I think I’m beginning to lose touch with reality.”

“Understandable, I think. I might if I was in your place, as well.”

“Am I caught up in – well, something like a war?”

“More like a dominance dance between rival factions.”

“Factions?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You’re joking, right? That thing in Iraq left about twelve witnesses…”

“None having the slightest idea what happened.”

“Getting me summarily tossed out…”

“As happened before, Harald. You have a way of doing that, if you’ll recall.”

“What has all this got to do with my mother and her music?”

The Old Man turned to Callahan, compassion in his eyes. “You are on the right path now, so try to stay on it. She left all you need to find your way.”

And then the Old Man was gone, and as no one else on the deck noticed anything out of the ordinary Callahan turned and walked back to the restaurant.

Where Rooney and Didi were making goo-goo eyes at each other. And watching Rooney holding hands was almost too much…!

“Anyone still feel like skiing today?” he asked, looking at Mickey.

“Maybe one more run?”

“Sounds great!” Didi said, giggling like a thirteen year old.

Callahan rolled his eyes as he settled up and led them back out to the snow. 

They stayed for a week, Rooney and Didi keeping at it all night, every night.

His mother’s piano, still in the living room, was in tune. On their third night at the house, Callahan sat at the keys and played segments from his mother’s Second Concerto, going back to the assault on the Scuds – wondering what version of events he’d find. 

Only now he found he could play events almost like he was controlling a VCR, switching angles, fast forwarding, going back to look at something from another point of view, and he could see almost the exact moment of the intervention. Anti-aircraft rounds slamming into the Huey, glass shattering, bullets hitting him – and several medics in the rear of the aircraft, too – just before an invisible hand reached out and yanked them backwards in time, repositioning the Huey miles away in the process. Still, even after looking at this event over and over again, Callahan was no closer to understanding why it had happened. ‘Dominance dance’ just didn’t mean that much to him, because too many pieces of the puzzle were still missing.

He called DD back at the Cathouse, advised he would be returning in less than a week, and that he’d appreciate someone tidying up the house before his arrival. “And ask someone from the shop to get the piano in tune.”

“Oh? Are you going to be playing more?”

“Probably,” he told her, trying to keep his voice free of emotion.

“I’m sure you’ll have company.”

“Oh? How’s the doc doing with his lessons?”

“Pretty good, I think. He’s still trying to play Debussy the way you did.”

“Well, good to hear. And Didi is stuck here; other commitments, I guess you could say.”

“I figured as much. You might want to spend some time at the shop when you get back. They’re burning a lot of incense over there these days…”

“Really? Well, that sounds encouraging…”

“Encouraging?”

“DD, that’s called sarcasm. I know that must be a concept wildly unfamiliar to you, but truth be told there are some people who resort to using it from time to time.”

“Hah! Anything else I can do before you get back?”

“Well, Mickey seems to have fallen in love with Didi, so you might want to sign him up for Swissair’s frequent flier program.”

“Sarcasm, again?”

“No, actually not.”

“Wow. I am impressed. Well Harry, see you soon.”

He stayed at the house the next several days, let Didi and Rooney figure out if this thing they’d found had legs or not, then Didi called out and announced she’d made their flight reservations for the trip back to California.

“I thought the Army was going to fly us back?” Rooney asked. “What gives?”

“We were discharged, Mickey. No paperwork to tend to ’til we get home. And – do you really want to ride home in another C141?”

“Not really, no.”

“Okay, so you two go ski your asses off tomorrow…”

“You’re not coming?”

“I might,” Harry said. “We’ll see.”

“I kinda wish you would,” Rooney whispered. “I have something special in mind.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Concerning Didi.”

“I see. When and where shall I meet you two? At the top – by the funicular station?”

“Just come with us in the morning, Harry. I hope that’s not too much to ask.”

“Okay. Will do.”

Callahan agreed – not because he was curious, but he thought this might not go as Rooney hoped and he wanted to be around to pick up the pieces if things went tits up. He left them to cook dinner at home and went into town, more to walk the streets and take in the vibe than anything else, but he had his Nikon with him and he wandered the street looking at the world through the viewfinder. After the sun dipped behind the mountains he went to his favorite place for fondue and had a quiet meal to himself.

Off just after breakfast the next morning, the three of them rode the funicular with their ski boots not buckled all the way, then they collected their skis at the top and went out onto the snow to get sorted out. Boots buckled, snow gators arranged just so, gloves on and goggles cleared, Callahan stomped down on his Markers, then looked down, looked everything over. Rooney was helping Didi this morning, all gallant chivalry now – his insecurities checked at the door, then he buckled up and signaled he was ready to go, too. 

“You lead the way, Mickey!” Callahan called out over the wind, and they skated along to reach the first real drop off under blue skies and really cold temperatures. Mickey reached the beginning of the trail first and disappeared over the edge, then Didi slipped from view. Callahan got to the edge and stopped, watched them make a few turns before he poled over the lip of this first little cornice. 

It was a groomed intermediate run, an ego building rollercoaster made out of soft white corduroy, and Callahan caught up with them in short order, then fell in behind Didi as she cruised along. About halfway down Rooney skied into a little alcove of pines, the trees acting as a sort of windbreak here, and he pulled his goggles up and slipped his gloves off. Harry followed suit, then Didi did as well.

“You know,” Mickey began, “this has been a really odd few months, but when I was at my lowest Harry held out the idea of coming up here to the mountains after our time in Iraq was up, and for some reason that kept me going. I’ve never hated anyplace as much as I hated Iraq, and I’ve never been as depressed as when we got there. The idea of dying there filled me with despair, and Harry, without you, without this,” he said, holding his arms out wide, “I don’t think I’d have made it out of that hellhole.

“Still, as much as this place has come to mean to me, nothing could have prepared me for meeting you,” he continued, looking at Didi as he pulled out a little ring box. “Fact of the matter is, Didi, I’ve fallen in love with you, and I wanted to ask if you’d consider marrying me?” 

Callahan, expecting this, and expecting the worst, was completely blown away when she flew into Rooney’s arms and smothered him with kisses – both of them falling down into a snow-covered heap. Callahan retrieved the ring after it disappeared into a wall of white spray, then he helped Didi up before he helped Mickey.

“I think you’d better give her this before you lose it for good,” he said, handing over the ring.

“Well,” Didi said to Harry – still in the clutches of a massive hug, “maybe I will be coming to San Francisco after all!”

“If you two are getting married you will be, ‘cause you ain’t stealing my best pilot! Now, you’d best come here and give me a hug, too!”

They skied down to the village and Harry took them to one of those ‘special places’ with lots of cozy Swiss atmosphere and devastatingly good food, and he left them to it after a few hours – to talk through the details – while he went out to the house to call DD and key her in. He went out and looked up at the mountain again, wondered how many people had fallen in love on her slopes. He could just see the rooftop of the clinic from where he stood, and his mind went back to Sara and their time on the mountain before he thought about Didi and the changes coming her way. How would her father – Colonel Goodman – take the news? 

And how would all their lives change now, he wondered. 

Assuming these events were on the correct timeline, that is…

_______________________________ 

© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…[but wait, there’s more…how about a last word or two on sources: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until work is finalized. Yet with current circumstances (i.e., Covid-19) waiting to list said sources might not be the best way to proceed, and this listing will grow over time – until the story is complete. To begin, the ‘primary source’ material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two seminal Hollywood ‘cop’ films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. Steve McQueen’s grin was never trade-marked, though perhaps it should have been. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’/vigilante storyline derives from characters and plot elements originally found in that rich screenplay, as does the Captain McKay character. The Jennifer Spencer/Threlkis crime family storyline was first introduced in Sudden Impact, screenplay by Joseph Stinson, original story by Earl Smith and Charles Pierce. The Samantha Walker television reporter is found in The Dead Pool, screenplay by Steve Sharon, story by Steve Sharon, Durk Pearson, and Sandy Shaw.  I have to credit the Jim Parish, M.D., character first seen in the Vietnam segments to John A. Parrish, M.D., author of the most fascinating account of an American physician’s tour of duty in Vietnam – and as found in his autobiographical 12, 20, and 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam, a book worth noting as one of the most stirring accounts of modern warfare I’ve ever read (think Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, only featuring a blazing sense of irony conjoined within a searing non-fiction narrative). Denton Cooley, M.D. founded the Texas Heart Institute, as mentioned. Of course, James Clavell’s Shōgun forms a principle backdrop in later chapters. The teahouse and hotel of spires in Ch. 42 is a product of the imagination; so-sorry. The UH-1Y image used from Pt VI on taken by Jodson Graves. Many of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed within the works cited above, but keep in mind that, as always, the rest of this story is in all other respects a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing cinematic-historical fabric. Using the established characters referenced above, as well as the few new characters I’ve managed to come up with here and there, I hoped to create something new – perhaps a running commentary on the times we’ve shared with these fictional characters? And the standard disclaimer also here applies: the central characters in this tale should not be mistaken for persons living or dead. This was, in other words, just a little walk down a road more or less imagined, and nothing more than that should be inferred. I’d be remiss not to mention Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, and Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt. Talk about the roles of a lifetime…and what a gift.]

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