< Gold Lust Book-1 >
Paperback of original
Gold Lust Book 1
5 January, Northern California.
Adrenaline ping-ponged through Nolen Martin's stomach as the front wheels of the pickup dropped over the lip of the ridge, jolting to a stop. He studied the faint trail twisting down the steep hill toward the roar of the waterfall. "Digger, is there an easier way down?"
"This is the only trail that stays on National Forest property, and allows us to get our half-ton of gear down to the stream," the old man answered. "Too steep on the other side."
"Like this isn't?" Nolen released his harsh grip on the steering wheel, then took a drink from his canteen to wet his suddenly dry mouth. "You sure you received the owner's approval for us to work this site?"
Digger looked out the passenger window so Nolen could not observe his face as he answered. "She had no complaints. Why you holding up? Can't handle it?"
"Might as well try. I never did expect to see my 36th birthday..." Within seconds, the bumps in the trail started jackhammering the pickup. Stomping the brakes did not slow their decent. "Hold on. This could be rough." Nolen wrestled the twisting steering wheel to keep the four-wheel drive pickup from flipping. It started a precarious slide sideways down the steep hillside. Fighting to avoid a boulder, he sideswiped a fir tree guarding the limit of the trail. Nolen fought for control, as he bounced the pickup across the rutted bottom of the ravine, and pointed the truck up the next sharp rise. He gunned the engine, spinning the knobby tires and kicking up a shower of dry grit.
Beside him, Digger's angular frame banged about, even though the old man tried to brace his body. "Your driving ain't helping my bones any. Even Pal doesn't like this bumping around." Barking at the two men, a black Labrador struggled to remain upright in the packed truck bed.
"You were the one who told me to follow this route. Actually, I think I'm doing a...Ouch!...damn good job."
The truck flew off the top of a dirt embankment, and dropped onto a patch of powdery sand, blasting a tan cloud into the air. Nolen skidded the pickup to a halt and leaned back. "Yes!" he yelled shoving his fists above his head. "Two times, I swore we were going to roll." Nolen took off his favorite camouflaged cap, and brushed wet strands of blond hair from his forehead while watching Digger rub his elbow.
"Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. And, I told you before to quit babying me." Nolen shrugged. "OK. Let's inspect your idea of a great gold site." He stepped out of the pickup, then flipped the seat forward to open a protective case containing his portable computer, binoculars, and several U.S. Geologic Survey maps.
After Nolen set up the computer and maps on the hood of the pickup, the two men and the dog moved to the edge of the gravel shoreline. There, they surveyed the cold, churning creek. To their right, green water tumbled fifty feet, crashing against slate-gray boulders. From the white water pool at the base of the waterfall, the stream shot through an expanding rock canal. On the far shore, the water raced along a moss-covered, granite wall. Where the wall ended, the creek deflected left and widened, allowing the current to lose two-thirds of its momentum, and swirl past a crescent-shaped sandbar.
"You were correct when we did our library research," Nolen said. "The 1849 prospectors used the ravine as a convenient place to toss debris from the upstream mines."
Digger scratched his white stubbled chin, and squinted at the man-made dam. "Perfect! This here creek's been washing through that ore from those old claims. Even if we don't find a hard rock vein, there's bound to be gold on the bottom."
"It's perfect all right--perfectly dangerous. You want me to dive to the bottom, fight the surge from the waterfall, and poke around in the dark for gold. How long did it take you to dream up this idea?"
"Didn't take no time a'tall," the old man replied with a grin. "Just thought about how you crave adventure. Like when you were in the Army, jumping from airplanes with explosives strapped to your back, becoming a war hero by saving women and children. I knew you wouldn't back away from this site."
Nolen lifted his binoculars to inspect the rock formations near the pool, looking for fingers of white quartz in the gray stone. "Why is this spot so much better than the places we worked downstream yesterday, and the day before that?"
"Current. Here, it's fast and it's tricky. Sure to scare off most prospectors. Working other locations would be much safer."
Nolen returned to the pickup and entered site details into the computer program. He analyzed the updated map on the computer screen, with its red speckles of clustered numbers, highlighting the ten-square-mile box they had been searching during the last week. Through some of the clusters, a white vector line sliced, predicting the presence of a gold vein. "Well, the probability program agrees with you. There's a ten percent better chance here than downstream."
"Yup, this could be the place where we find the Eastern vein of the California mother lode." Smiling and flapping his elbows the old man danced a little jig in the sand.
"Digger, I've listened to your big dream for years. All you need now is a nice little strike. One with enough gold to pay off Hilda's many medical bills, and allow you to take her to a good cancer specialist."
"Don't you forget--it's your foster mother's dream too. That's why she's stood by me for the last twenty-six years, while I've prospected both the east and west sides of the Sierra Nevada." As he spoke, Digger traced a line across the unfolded survey map with his shaky hand. "I've hunted gold from Mariposa in the south, to El Dorado in the north, one hundred twenty miles of the greatest gold country in the USA."
"Long on hope, but short on results," Nolen quipped. "That's why over the last eight years, I've been working more to the east, in the Reno-Susanville area. It's here someplace."
"Not many promising surface signs," Nolen replied. "The original miners may have found all the lode gold in this area."
"It's been over a century and a half since then. Lots of weather and earthquakes have exposed rock that hasn't been worked yet. Remember what I told you when we studied the mining records and old maps? Any unfound veins are goin' to be in overlooked or hard to reach spots."
"Like the bottom of this pool?" Nolen placed his hand on Diggers arm to quiet him. "Hear that grinding noise? That's a boulder in the pool shifting after the sand has been washed away from its bottom. The recent rains have got this stream raging." A shiver of apprehension shook Nolen.
"Don't you worry about the pool. After we find that branch of the mother lode, there's goin' be another gold rush in California. It'll be bigger than in 1849 when thousands of people from the east coast suffered months of hardship to come here. Just imagine 100,000 people, in their cars and trucks, flooding into this area overnight."
Nolen closed the computer and returned it to the cab of the truck. "Digger, don't forget all the problems that erupt after finding a huge strike. Remember you taught me that more people steal gold from prospectors than find it on their own."
"Stop being a pessimist, boy. That high-tech program you wrote is goin' to help find my vein. I've finally got a technology as good if not better than the big exploration companies! Those crooks can all kiss my ass now."
Nolen surveyed the surrounding trees for small yellow markers, used to define the boundaries of a filed claim. "Are you sure no one has staked a claim to this area? Since the price of gold rose above $500 an ounce, it's again profitable to reprocess the tailings near these old mining sites."
"Son, I checked the county records, and no one has placed a claim on this here part of the creek. So let's quit jawin', and get this truck turned around and the pumps runnin'. We've got plenty of daylight left. Move your short body."
"I've told you a hundred times, 5'8" is the optimum size for an American male," Nolen joked. "I'm not a height inflicted scarecrow like you."
Nolen backed the truck to the edge of the embankment, where the men slid the new Keene Engineering dredging equipment and air system onto the tailgate. While Digger started the small engines, Nolen pulled on his wet suit and prepared his diving gear. He inspected every inch of the air hose that would supply him life-sustaining oxygen and its inner tube flotation support. Then, he laid out the dredging tube, underwater lamp, and safety rope, with attached communication cable. Nolen handed Digger a headphone, and slipped on his diving helmet to verify that the radio operated properly.
"I'll use the trailer hitch," Digger rasped into his headphone, "as the near-shore anchor point. With you hooked to the rope, I can let the current push you through the pool."
"Piece of cake," Nolen answered, hoping to hide his nervousness. "Make sure the air hose doesn't snag. I'm not so good at holding my breath." Nolen waded into the cold creek just below the waterfall, awkwardly flopping his swimming flippers, while balancing on the green moss-covered rocks. "Oh crap," Nolen swore when his foot slipped, and the current snatched him into the deep water with his safety rope and air hose snaking behind him. The stream's force rushed him toward a rock outcropping, jutting from the far granite wall.
"You're not looking real talented," Digger radioed, "floating along on your back like a flopping clown."
Nolen tried to twist his body around, to view the approaching wall, in an attempt to cushion his imminent impact. "Damn, this is going to hurt." He pancaked against the wall, slamming his left knee. Scraping one hand, he grabbed onto the jagged outcropping. He looped the safety rope around the rock for a hold against the slimy wall. It took three attempts to get braced, before he could hammer in a piton, and safety clip his rope to it.
Secured, he looked toward Digger. "This first dive, I'll try to stay about ten feet below the surface. Give me plenty of slack!"
Nolen dove, and the chilling liquid closed around him, strangling the sunlight. The torrent, ricocheting off the wall, buffeted his body, spinning and tossing him. Vertigo stalked his senses. He fought to keep his diving light aimed downstream, using its feeble shaft to warn him of any approaching danger.
Digger's distant voice echoed in Nolen's helmet. "Be careful, son. Don't get tangled in a sunken tree."
The granite wall flashed by, mere inches from Nolen's fragile mask. He tried to swim away. But, his paddling had no effect. "I'm out of control, Digger." All his muscles tightened, and he closed his eyes, waiting to crash into the rock. Moments later, the roller-coaster waves spit Nolen into the slow shallows near the sandbar, allowing him to crawl back onto land.
After lashing on extra diving weights and instructing Digger to control the drift speed by slowly letting out the rope, Nolen repeated the procedure two more times. Finally, he limped back upstream.
"Does it look good, or are we wastin' our time?" Digger pressured.
"It's like a huge vertical sieve. Some quartz marbling and many cracks in the far wall. Plenty of heavy black sand packed into the cracks. It's worth a try. However, we're not going to expose any treasure without a struggle."
"Nothing's ever worn down my will to keep trying," Digger replied.
"Your willpower, but my body's paying the price. Even though I'm in the best shape of my life, this stream battered the heck out of me. Almost broke my knee on one hit. An hour or two down there, and I'll be a mass of bruises."
"You're young; you'll recover quickly. Now, how deep is it?" "Near the waterfall, it's about forty feet. From there, it slopes upward to six feet by the sandbar. It will be easier to handle the dredge hose, if I strap the lamp to my chest and walk upstream into the deeper water, by moving along the base of the wall. That way, you can support me by pulling the safety rope tight."
"Several large boulders. My worry is one might roll against my leg and pin me to the bottom."
"Son, you don't have to do this if you think it's too dangerous. I'll understand. Sending us money, and then givin' up your commission in the Army is too much already. I know it caused trouble between you and your wife."
"Our separations were not caused by paying Hilda's doctor bills. Anyway, I can't change that situation right now. What I can do is help you and Hilda."
Digger placed his gnarled hand on Nolen's shoulder. "Thanks, son..."
"It's OK," Nolen interrupted. "Let's set up the sluice box and get started."
The two men pulled a one-foot wide, six-foot long, plastic sluice box off the top of the truck and laid it parallel to the stream. Digger shoved several flat rocks under its upstream edge. Sand and water, sucked from the stream by the dredge, would wash through the sluice. Any heavy gold particles carried in the slurry, would settle behind the molded cross-slats spaced along the bottom of the box.
Nolen returned to the shallows and began edging toward the far shore. After sinking to the bottom of the stream, he studied the base of each large boulder and the cuts in the bedrock, memorizing promising places to dredge. Holding himself on the streambed became more difficult as the creek narrowed. Three-quarters of the way to the waterfall, the current's blast prevented him from taking a step without being swept backward. The current pounded him with body blows. He stopped to sink another piton into the rock wall, and hooked his rope to it for additional support.
Nolen crouched and shoved the two-inch-wide dredging tube into the sand and gravel, letting it gulp the material like a vacuum cleaner. A wire mesh on the mouth of the hose kept large rocks from being sucked up and choking the water flow. With slow motion strokes, Nolen cleaned the cracks near the base of the wall. Then, using a metal rod, he loosened sand packed within the holes in the rock slab. Routinely, he straightened his bent spine, trying to escape from the relentless pressure of the current.
Nolen began his third sweep, braced against a chair-sized boulder. "Digger, I'm looking at a triangular crack in the wall. Appears eight-feet-long. It's fist-wide at the top, then gradually spreads to about twenty-four inches across at the bottom."
"Well, quit yapping and get to work. I ain't seen any gold flakes in the sluice box yet."
"Weren't you the one who taught me to be patient when hunting gold?"
"Tossing handfuls of worthless pebbles back into the stream isn't helping my Hilda any," Digger grumbled.
After clearing the narrow upper portions of the crack, Nolen squirmed onto his stomach. He swung the hose back and forth along the base of the wall, excavating a shoulder-wide cavity. He aimed his diving light into the opening. Thousands of brown and tan specks swirled in the lamp light.
"I think there's some glitter in the back of this hole I'm working. I can't tell for sure."
"Maybe Mother Nature is ready to give us something of value," Digger answered rubbing his hands together.
"Or, just luring me into a trap. Only way to find out is to squeeze farther into this damn crevice." Nolen crawled forward and shoved his arm and the hose deeper inside. Sand slithered into the tube, exposing the top of a nugget. He stretched his arm, but his fingers wiggled long inches from the gold.
Nolen backed out and wedged the dredge hose between the wall and a nearby boulder. "I couldn't reach it, Digger. I'll have to go in farther."
"Will your claustrophobia let you enter the hole?"
"Ever since I was a kid I've told you I'm not claustrophobic." Nolen tried ignoring the sudden clammy sweat inside his suit as he unhooked his diving lamp from his chest. With the lamp and hose in one hand, he re-entered the narrow crack. Using his elbows and toes, he inched forward. When the hard rock bit into his sides, a shiver skidded up his spine. Too damn tight in here! his mind cried. Compulsively he scurried out, his breathing rate tripled.
"How are you doing, boy?"
"Leave me alone, damn it. I'm busy." Attempting to regain self-control, he closed his eyes, then counted to twenty as he slowly re-entered the hole. To prevent his mind from focusing only on the rock's firm body grasp, he concentrated on the yellow sparkle, deep within the crevice. He scolded himself for panicking. Quit being a wimp, he thought. You can't give up on your promise to help Hilda, just because it's getting tough.
"Yahoo!" Digger cheered. "Eight dime-sized nuggets just settled behind one baffle. You're into a good pocket."
Encouraged, Nolen squeezed farther into the hole.
"You don't need to point the gun at me," Digger rasped. "I won't do nothin' foolish."
Nolen stopped dredging. "Digger, who the hell are you talking to? Why is Pal barking?"
"Son, there's some young woman up here, pointing a shotgun at me. Don't shoot, lady! I've got to get my boy out of the pool!"
Through the earphones, Nolen heard two muffled explosions. Then, he felt the sudden drop in air pressure inside his face mask. Frightened, he gulped air before the ice cold water shocked his face. He drove his hands into the sand, scrambling to push out of the hole. But his weight belt jammed against the rock. The need for oxygen began clawing at his chest and throat. Nolen twisted and squirmed backward with all his might, ignoring the pain as the rock and belt ripped his skin. He popped out of the hole. Tearing off his weight belt, he struggled to keep his mouth shut to avoid sucking in suffocating water.
After what seemed an eternity, Nolen surfaced, coughing and spitting. He fell to his hands and knees on the sandbar, gulping air. Looking up, he spotted the ugly black eye of a pump shotgun being held by the woman. She stood, partially hidden, behind the trunk of a nearby fallen redwood. The tree and a bulky coat hid her features, except the mop of dark curls surrounding her face and the determination flashing from her eyes.
"What's...what's going on?" Nolen coughed.
"Get off my land!" she shouted, then aimed slightly behind him. The roar of the shotgun told Nolen all he needed to know. He bolted for the pickup with his flippered feet scattering sand and water. Jumping onto the running board, he lunged for the side mirror as Digger stomped the gas pedal, fishtailing the pickup. Through the sudden dust cloud, the woman fired again at Nolen.
Back to Top
Gold Raid Book 2
"People with courage and character seem smarter and more sinister to the rest."
--William S. Burroughs
4 October, Susanville, California
Pain gnawed through the bullet wound in Nolen Martin's left shoulder, past the diluted drugs, expanding from the recesses where infection still lingered. Nolen groaned then stirred while hoping to find relief in a new position in his bed.
He hated hospitals. Every time he was forced into one he, or someone he cared about, was bloody or damaged, often dying. And always, the sterile smell of rubbing alcohol was used to disguise the stench of sickness or recent death. It triggered his memories of doctors who strove to be saviors but often had no skill or potent that could overcome the harm done to someone's body.
When Nolen focused away from his discomfort he became aware of a barely audible murmur. He turned his head toward the sound and creaked apart his dry eyelids. Father Gabriel's black cassock draped his lanky form as he sat on a chair beside the hospital bed, head lowered in prayer, clasping his cherished Bible.
"Giving me my last rites?" Nolen whispered, closing his eyes.
The white-haired Catholic priest looked up, then smiled. "No, just a few prayers for recovery. I've prayed over you each morning since the shooting."
"Maybe you should administer the rites, Father. The unending nausea makes me feel like road kill."
"The doctor told me that your fever will soon subside, now that she has the infection under control. Seems that the man who shot you coated the bullet with human excrement. Calculated violence is hateful business."
Nolen willed himself to answer. "Especially when you are on the receiving end. Did the guy I stabbed die?"
"Yes, he bled to death in the warehouse yard. God forgive him for his actions."
Nolen caught his breath, surprised by how weak he was. His head ached. His shoulder ached. Most of all, his conscience ached. "Each time I wake I see his leering face, then the ones I killed when I was in the Army. Can't shake them."
Father Gabriel patted Nolen's arm. "The doctor warned that the combination of drugs and pain might spark some depression for a few days."
"And I keep dreaming or remembering...can't tell which...about the women I have hurt during the years."
Father Gabriel noticed Nolen squeeze tight his eyes. "Is there something you wish to tell me?"
Nolen hesitated. "I caused my ex-wife pain before our divorce. Slept with some women when we were separated. One began to care deeply for me. I didn't see her after I learned she was married. Always seem to be making women sorry."
"Nolen, in each of those instances the other person also made choices."
Nolen sharply shook his head back and forth, then regretted it. The stabbing pain signaled that his shoulder wound was not yet healed. "But I influenced them. Offered doorways I should have never offered. Entered some I should have left shut."
"Did you know you were wrong when you made those decisions?"
"Sooner or later it always became clear."
"Then did you do the right thing?"
"Not often enough."
"Seems you are confessing this morning."
"Yes...yes, I guess I am." Nolen made the sign of the cross and began the ritual phrases he had learned as a boy. "Father forgive me for I have sinned. It has been ten years since my last confession."
Father Gabriel extracted a white fabric from a small bag lying beside his feet. He unfolded the long, narrow stole, kissed it, placed it around his neck, then closed his eyes and recited a silent prayer. As the priest contemplated what to say, his thumbs rubbed the brown leather smudges on his Bible where the black veneer had been worn away over the years. Finally he spoke. "For your penance, pray each day during the next two weeks asking God to forgive the man who attacked you. And after you leave the hospital, do good with your new wealth. Change someone's life for the better."
"Whatever happened to just requiring ten Hail Marys?"
"You know I'm not your average priest." Father Gabriel traced the sign of the cross on Nolen's forehead and chanted, "As a minister of the Church, I beg God to hear your pleas and absolve you of all your sins. Be at peace, my son."
Nolen sighed thankful to be relieved of some of the guilt that had been dogging him. He gladly closed his eyes, seeking sleep.
* * *
Outside the hospital, Father Gabriel packed his Bible into the saddle bags of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and slipped on a leather jacket stenciled on the back with 'Ride with God'. He was eager to return to his duties in his tent church tending to the needs of the men and women rushing into the new gold district.
Once on the two-lane road, heavy with traffic, he wondered about Nolen and his foster family. Were they better off now that they had found every prospector's dream, the mother lode vein. Which would it be, a mother lode of opportunity or a mother lode of trouble?
* * *
4 October, Northern California
Three helicopters churned through the moonless sky, one hunter and two prey. The unseen pursuer, followed at cloud level above and to the rear of its lumbering targets. On the hunter's forward looking infrared radar, ghost-white images of the large twin-engine Chinooks shone bright. As did the metal canister dangling from the belly of the lead helicopter, a canister holding tons of gold ore.
Inside the hunter, the pilot spoke to the president of the Western Division of Continental Mining and Refining. "Clearing the highest mountain line, Mr. Tower. Twelve minutes from the truck site."
With a tense nod toward the pilot T. J. Tower acknowledged the alert. He scratched through an item on his plan for ambushing the shipment west of Reno over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Upon seeing his manicured hand shaking from the adrenalin rising in his body, he frowned. Tiny wrinkles crinkled across his tanned, and youthful face. Youthful only because of the cosmetic surgeon he routinely visited.
I hate being here, he thought. Much better when I hire others to do the dirty work. Less chance of getting caught. But heisting $17 million worth of gold can't be trusted to thieves. The scum would rip off the load. And I'm not letting anyone screw me!
"Boss, ya wants me to blow one of dem ouda de air?" a scrawny, goateed Cajun sitting behind the pilot asked.
"Scarray, don't call me boss."
Tower gritted his teeth. The type of men who performed special operations for him were always irritating and often barely in control. Like his insolent cousin, their greed for money was the only constraint to their undisciplined nature.
Scarray was one of the Tribous from Louisiana, a lowly clan of scavengers from the bayou country, adjoining the Texas border. An invisible line of safety that they often slipped across depending upon what they wanted to steal or which sheriff was hunting the latest suspect. Families so poor that they never discarded anything. Around the perimeter of their shacks they hoarded gray-splintered boards, yellow-stained toilet bowls and crumpled cars leaking black oil.
Members of the clan were intelligent though most were not well educated. They would rather poach alligators and earn a living helping drug smugglers than follow the rules of society. Few ever accumulated savings. Instead, the quick earnings from a smuggling run were squandered on liquor, fast trucks, and faster women.
Now Scarray, who reminded Tower of a twitchy gaunt rat, was doing his bidding - way too close to him. "Destroy the radios in both helicopters," Tower ordered, hoping he sounded calm. "Then take down the security bird."
Scarray flipped switches on the communication box cradled on his lap. Two red lights flashed on. Simultaneously, small hidden explosives erupted against the radio transceivers in each of the prey helicopters, preventing any emergency calls. As Scarray pressed another switch, muted explosions ripped apart key components in the port and starboard engines in the backup helicopter. It began a spiraling autorotation toward the tree-studded Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Tower's pilot abruptly forced the nose of his helicopter down. Like an elevator with a severed cable, they plummeted toward the gold prize. The sudden thousand-foot drop surprised and then scared Tower. He seized the armrests spilling his ambush plan and map onto the angled floor.
"Yahoo!" Scarray shouted. "How 'bout I turn on de radio boss?"
Tower fought to regain his composure, then answered. "Yes."
Scarray toggled more switches as their small helicopter leveled and slipped into position off the right side of the gold-carrying Chinook. Tower spoke into his radio mike. "Pilot, do not take any evasive action if you want to live. Your security helicopter is on the ground. The explosion you just felt eliminated your communications capability."
Inside the pursued helicopter Tower's voice startled the pilot and copilot. "Who the hell is that?" the copilot blurted, unbuckling his safety harness and jumping to his feet to find what was transmitting the mystery voice emanating from the ceiling. Ripping open a panel, the copilot spotted a two-way transmitter taped to the side wall. He yanked the device out and dropped back into his seat. There was a short silence as the two men stared at each other considering the emergency situation. Then, the helicopter with the gold cargo began a slow turn back toward its departure field as the copilot shook his fist toward the paralleling attacker. "Screw you, you son-of-a-bitch! 911! Mayday! Mayday! Helicopter Foxtrot 7986 under attack..."
"He's using a cellular phone, boss. Ain't it time ta hurt somebody?"
"Do it," Tower said without hesitating.
Scarray flipped another switch. Inside the Chinook a small wafer sandwich of metal plates and dynamite blasted apart from its hidden location within the webbing of the copilot's seat. Muscles, bone, and arteries mushroomed apart. The hunters listened, unaffected by the screams from the dying man and the bellow of terror from the pilot.
Tower spoke again. "Pilot, turn your helicopter back to your original course. Do that now or you will also die."
"I'm turning! I'm turning!" the frightened pilot cried.
Tower snatched his ambush plan from the floor and read aloud the next instructions. "Turn onto an azimuth of 202 degrees. In about five minutes you will spot a flashing beacon on a mountaintop. When you see the light, adjust your course to fly over it. Do you understand?"
"Yes, you...you bastard. You'll pay for murdering my friend!"
"Shut up and do what you're told," Tower commanded.
Minutes later the beacon's brilliant white staccato flash appeared in the distance and the Chinook helicopter modified its flight path.
"On the far side of the mountain, you'll see an illuminated flatbed trailer," Tower radioed. "There will be a yellow X of lights on its center. Follow the wand instructions of the ground guide and lower the gold onto the trailer."
"Affirmative," replied the pilot.
Ten minutes later the canister of gold ore was un-cabled from the helicopter and seated on a bed of rollers that ran the length of the trailer.
Tower relaxed somewhat as his helicopter orbited the transfer site. Once again his wits had saved him. Only a few more actions and he would retain his presidency, his power and his prestige.
Tower keyed his mike. "Pilot, depart on azimuth ninety degrees east, while rising to an altitude of 4000 feet. Follow that course for twenty minutes. Then you can turn north and return to your departure airport."
"You'll rot in Hell for this, you shit!"
As the hijacked Chinook departed into the dark, Tower's helicopter trailed it, evading any FAA radar by flying below the ridgeline.
On the ground, a brown rental truck spewed a cloud of diesel exhaust as it rumbled out of the tree line and backed against the edge of the trailer. Two burly men unrolled cables from winches bolted to the wall behind the truck driver. After hooking the cables to the sides of the canister, they winched it into the truck compartment, chained the corners of the canister to restraining hooks, then slammed shut the back doors and ran to the cab. As the truck bounced forward the passenger radioed Tower that they had secured their cargo and were moving onto the dirt road leading to the highway.
"Shood I surprise de pilot now, boss?" Scarray asked.
Scarray chuckled as he pushed the last switch on his communication console, enjoying the flashes from the engines of the Chinook. "Dem explosions should've shocked dat piss-ant pilot. He ain't gonna' be alertin' no cops 'till dey haul hiz sorry ass ouda de woods. If he lives."
Tower tapped his pilot on the shoulder. "Let's get back and trail the truck. I want to ensure it returns to the mine."
"Boss, do I gets my bonus fa hiding dem explosives and camera in dem helicopters last night?"
"Yes. Now shut up and help me look for the truck."
Scarray exchanged his control box for binoculars and began searching the dark below.
"Has it reached Highway 89 yet?"
"Hell no. Be bout ten minutes 'fore dey can turn off de logging trail onto de hardtop and head east." Scarray pointed his bony finger toward the ground and handed over the binoculars. "See dat yellow, flat-panel light I put on de top of de cab? Ya can't miss dat one. Same color as gold!"
"Never trust anyone," Tower said. "The drivers could have installed a similar light on another vehicle. Hand me the tracking system."
Scarray searched inside an equipment bag for the output display linked to the electronic device he had secreted under the truck.
"Hold yer horses." Scarray switched on the power button before relinquishing the box.
Tower compared the green numbers on the display to the first of three global positioning coordinates listed on his ambush plan. He began to laugh. "It's the truck with my gold."
"No one ever outsmarts ya, boss."
"Couple of hours from now we'll have the load at the mine site. Wish I could see Nolen Martin's damn face when he learns that his precious canister has been stolen."
"Ya always squalls 'bout him like de cat whose tail's been stepped on. What'd he do to ya?"
"Stole the largest gold vein ever found in America. Thick as a man's arm, sometimes as thick as a leg. Snaking through the rock for miles."
"TV said Martin waz de first to find de vein."
"First does not win you anything in the exploration business. First just tells the competition, tells the government, tells the lawyers where the wealth is. Last is what counts. And tonight I'm last on this rich ore."
"Thought ya waz supposed ta take it on de ground, not rob 'em in de air."
"This business is the same as heavyweight boxing. Protect yourself at all times. Whether the gold is still in the ground or being shipped, or in the bank, there is no difference."
"Cept fa de number of bodies dat's spread around."
"Martin is the only man who has ever outsmarted me. Made me look like a fool when he filed on the vein before me. But I was quick enough to register sites on three sides of his claim."
"Ya mean ya owns mines az rich az Martin's?"
"You idiot. Do you think I would be involved in a theft if I owned three valuable mines?"
"All my claims are belching worthless rock, and sucking away the conglomerate's money. But, now I have the second shipment of ore taken from Martin's vein. Might contain more gold than he delivered with his first flight a week ago."
"Whatcha gonna do with it?"
"When Nolen and his bitch girlfriend and his pious mother are all dirt poor again, they'll wish they had never crossed my path!"
"Well, I likes de pay and de work ya gives me, boss." Scarray rubbed his hands
together. "Lots of money and sum blood and fire be good. How can I gets another bonus?"
"Tomorrow you'll begin cutting the profit Martin's association is earning from that damn boomtown he built."
"Hey, I gots a hot honey waiting ta party wit' me in a cat house near Reno."
"Pick another time. We must move fast while Martin is still in the hospital. Unfortunately he's not in a cold grave like I planned."
"Pay me another big bonus, boss, and I'll make sure dat piss-ant dies."
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“It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God.”
— Osama bin Laden
August: Srinagar, Northwest India
Will I die for my faith this hour? To calm his mind and the tremor of his hands, Khalid Jafar confirmed, once again, that the small pistol, hidden inside his traditional Muslim robe, would easily slip out of its holster if needed. The raspy feel of the pistol grip, designed to not twist in a sweaty palm, comforted him.
He leaned on the second-story balcony railing and studied the busy street below. His men were in position. He shifted his gaze beyond the city to the string of blue lakes stretching down the valley toward the massive, snowcapped Himalayan peaks. Alien. Cold. Nothing like my beloved desert.
When he heard the door open behind him, he turned and forced a smile to greet the man from the People’s Republic of China. Not impressive. But his slanted eyes take in everything. Khalid motioned for the guest to join him among the large, yellow lounging pillows arranged around a tea table in the center of the sparsely furnished private residence. “It is kind of you to come this afternoon,” Khalid said.
“How could I turn down invitation from member of Saudi royal family?” The short, stocky man, older than the mustached Arab by a decade, settled onto the soft Persian rug. He unbuttoned the bottom of his black, tailored tunic as he leaned against the cushions.
“Was your flight from Delhi comfortable?”
“Private jet luxurious and stewardess most beautiful.”
Khalid held back the draping sleeve of his robe while filling the agent’s porcelain cup with steaming, green kahwa tea. After slicing a piece of kulcha bread, he slid the small plate across the table. “I understand you are an expert at chess?”
The man nodded. “If lucky sometimes able to stay one move ahead of opponent.”
Khalid rose and walked toward a small cabinet against the wall. Have to move fast if he doesn’t believe I can cripple the United States.
The man spoke. “When invitation reached my desk, I ask why? Why does prince wish to speak with trade attaché from People’s Republic?”
“The life of a man is guided by Allah, not by man.” Khalid carried the board to the tea table then jumped a white knight beyond his line of pawns before he sat down.
“Will prince arrive soon?”
“He is on the ski slope this morning. I am the one wishing to speak with you about something of importance.”
“I do not understand.” The man’s thick, bony finger poked a red pawn one square forward of his king.
“You know that nuclear weapons and nuclear waste are poorly secured in Russia, yes?”
“A worry for many countries.”
“Imagine the benefit China would gain if all the gold bullion in America were vaporized along with the center of Washington D.C. and downtown New York City.” Kahlid slid a pawn forward threatening the one the attaché had just advanced. “Picture the heart of American’s banking system, stock market, business headquarters, national leadership, and treasury offices disappearing in a flash.”
Glancing up from studying the chess pieces, the man responded. “Impossible. American security is strong. As is my defense here.” He moved a second pawn. “Why do you speak of war? I know only trade.”
“A way has been prepared to deliver nuclear devastation on the infidels. Would not your countrymen salute you for helping destroy America’s wealth and power, finally removing their hegemony over China?” Khalid angled his queen in line behind his forward pawn.
“If such an attack successful, Arab oil would control American economy.”
Khalid ceased stroking his thick, black mustache. “And make the People’s Republic the world’s reigning superpower for the next century.”
“But my countrymen would lose lucrative trade with rich Americans.”
“Muslim oil producing nations can give you Japan instead. A hint that oil imports would be interrupted and Japan will slash its trading with the infidel to accept China as their number one business partner.”
“How can you steal weapons?”
“I have nurtured a weakness within the Russian rocket forces. But knowing how gains you nothing. It is the outcome that benefits the People’s Republic.”
“I do not believe you. Are you working with the Russians or CIA to embarrass my country, bring down my chairman?” The man felt under the table and nearby pillows. “Do you record this meeting with hidden microphone?”
Khalid’s world went silent. The Muslim no longer heard the birds chirping in the trees. He no longer felt the warm breeze on his back blowing through the balcony doorway. I am at the crossroads. Which path has Allah chosen for me? “I am the son of Osama bin Laden and commander of Allah’s Avengers.”
The man stopped searching through the pillows. “You speak dangerous words.”
Khalid opened a drawer on his side of the table and spread several photographs beside the chessboard. “These family pictures show me with my father when I was ten, sixteen and twenty. You are the first non-believer to know who I am.”
The attaché fingered through the pictures. “Photos prove nothing, easily doctored. Why would al-Qaeda seek lowly civil servant? You wish me to deliver message to ambassador at embassy?”
“Al-Qaeda wishes to be China’s ally.”
“This discussion unsafe. If any foreign service learn I speak to relative of bin Laden, international crisis harm my nation. ” The man’s right hand moved nearer the knife on the bread plate.
“Do not worry,” Khalid said. “Spies in Kashmir watch military forces near the Pakistan-India border. To the rest of the world, I am a former officer in the Saudi Arabian National Guard vacationing with my prince. No threat to anyone.”
“Why do you spout useless babble?”
Khalid felt beads of sweat slip down his back underneath his protective vest. He pressed on. Now the deadly secrets. “We know you travel as a trade attaché but you are one of China’s best intelligence agents.”
“Do demon drugs cloud your mind?”
“We know the Chairman of the People’s Republic is your older brother. You are called Typhoon for blasting away enemies who threaten China.”
The man laughed. “A myth. Spy named Typhoon does not exist.”
“You passed orders from the chairman to the Chinese general who downed an American electronic-eavesdropping plane flying along your coast.”
The man’s left hand hesitated above the red pieces then pulled back. “Crazy talk. I must leave.”
“Do you know the faith of your mistress?”
The man hesitated. “No.”
“She shared many of your secrets with us because she follows the true faith. A woman willing to die for Allah.”
Anger scarred Typhoon’s face. “She will.” His arm moved as quickly as a prizefighter’s jab. The knife flashed in his hand. The small table hurtled aside.
As Khalid jammed his hand into his robe, Typhoon crashed his shoulder hard against Khalid’s chest, plowing them both through the pillows. The agile and strong spy wrapped his left arm around Khalid’s head and yanked back. The serrated knife seared Khalid’s throat.
“You know too much,” Typhoon said into his ear. “Did you think you could kidnap me for ransom or chop my head off on TV?”
Must get him to listen before he kills me.
The door banged open. A big, bearded Muslim, who had escorted Typhoon upstairs, lunged into the room with a black pistol in his hand.
Typhoon rolled Khalid in front of him. “Send guard out or you die!” The knife sliced Khalid’s skin, releasing wiggling strings of blood.
Khalid waved. “Zaid, go. Go!”
After the door closed, Typhoon dragged Khalid to the balcony doorway. There the spy pushed Khalid onto his stomach and jammed a knee between his captive’s shoulder blades. The stinging blade stayed at Khalid’s throat while Typhoon spoke in Chinese on a satellite phone.
When the phone snapped shut, Khalid watched Typhoon cautiously survey the several young men scattered in front of the house taking orders from the big Muslim pointing toward the balcony.
“Al-Qaeda wants something. What is it?”
“Some help escaping with the nuclear weapons.”
“Too little chance of success.”
“China wins whether I succeed or fail!”
Typhoon grabbed the back of the robe and wrenched it down to Khalid’s waist, locking the Arab’s arms to his sides, and then rolled Khalid into a sitting position and slammed him back against the wall. He lifted the pistol out of the exposed holster and pressed it between Khalid’s eyes. “You planned to kill me if I did not join perilous plan.”
He knows. “You will join once you hear me.”
“Too dangerous,” he said as he slipped the knife into his tunic.
“Dangerous for my martyrs, not for your chairman. After we seize the nuclear weapons, the Russians will scramble to locate my men. The People’s Republic can play friend and supporter to the Russians. Meanwhile, you can forge agreements with key nations in anticipation of the destruction al-Qaeda will deliver.”
“We are headed down path to overcome Americans without the risk you bring.”
“Why wait decades? Eleven months from now their Independence Day will become China’s Independence Day. My attack will kill millions, collapse the infidels’ economy and shatter U.S. international influence.”
Typhoon yanked Khalid to his feet and smashed him against the wall, then checked the activity in the street. “My men come soon. Enjoy your last breaths.”
I’m failing. “Listen! The Americans will be unable to afford a global military. Their Navy and Air Force will retreat to Hawaii. Taiwan’s resistance to Beijing will vanish the day the defense minister from the People’s Republic threatens invasion.”
“Reuniting our country would be great achievement. But a wounded America is still dangerous. The imperialists ring China with strong alliances.”
“Avenger cells pepper those lands. On my order, they will incite unrest by the Muslim masses. The Philippines and Southeast Asian countries will quickly distance themselves from America when American cash stops flowing and your chairman offers a new Asia pact.”
“You ask my country to place its fate in al-Qaeda’s hands.”
“Only a little. You have six months to prepare before I begin blackmailing the Europeans and the Americans with the threat of nuclear attack. Then you will see French and German officials rally their citizens to abandon the Americans they disdain. China’s veto power within the U.N. Security Council guarantees blocking any meaningful support for the U.S.”
Typhoon shook his head. “An angry America does not need European approval to launch missiles at my homeland.”
“North Korean belligerence can also resume with the pull back of the American military. A hostility your diplomats can secretly encourage months before Korean missiles roll out of caves. Divisions can mass along the border with South Korea. After China offers to intervene, South Korea will bow to their new protector.”
“You have strategic vision bin Laden is famous for. But you give diplomats too much credit.”
“China has survived as much by diplomacy as by war.”
Typhoon cocked the pistol. “To gain such vast political benefit, what does al-Qaeda require?”
Does he see the future or just risks? “In December during the weapons theft, distract American satellites to look toward Taiwan. Four months later assist my Avengers with two border crossings. Move units out of position. Have border guards look the other way. Such things are simple for a man as powerful as you.”
“You want China’s armies to dance for you.”
Khalid crooked a finger toward a map crumpled among his robes. “Our escape route and dates of movement from Russia are on the map.”
With one hand Typhoon shook the map open. No emotion touched his broad, flat face as his eyes traveled down the course marked by a twisting black line. “You’ll die in the mountains. What else do you want?”
“At the place and date shown on the map, deliver a computer disk containing the times and orbits of all satellites that can view the route. Include both military and commercial satellites carrying optical, thermal or radar imaging systems. A simple formatting of data that your military must already possess.“
Typhoon dropped the map. His eyes squinted. “What else? What is difficult part?”
“Secrecy. That is all that is needed for China to ascend to its rightful position of power. Involve only a senior army commander in the Western provinces, a trusted photo interpreter and the defense minister. Tell them only small pieces of the plan. Tell them as late as possible. Whisper none of this plan to any member of the politburo. We cannot chance a traitor within that council.”
“While you speak I ask myself why does son of Osama bin Laden take actions that help my country? Not because you love China. No! You need threat on Pacific flank. Make Americans focus west as you approach their other coast.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend. A saying proven true a thousand years before the crusaders invaded the deserts of my ancestors. For more than a hundred years China has struggled against the crush of the Americans. Together we can defeat them.”
Typhoon scowled. “Because I let you live another second does not mean I agree to conspiracy.”
“With al-Qaeda as an ally the secrets you told your mistress are secure, never to cause the chairman problems, never to anger the Americans into retaliation. As an ally your countrymen will never smell the bloody bodies of loved ones splattered across city streets.”
Typhoon slugged Khalid in the face, dropping him to his knees. “Do not threaten my country while you ask me to trust terrorist organization.”
Not getting through. Khalid shook his head and spit blood onto the floor. “America kills for oil and power. Al-Qaeda fights for Allah and peace. Who is the real terrorist?”
“How can I assure my brother that terrorists will not attack our cities?”
“We gain nothing from striking China. I expect the computer disks you pass to us will not reveal when Chinese satellites fly over our route, tracking our progress. You can also target my team with strike bombers allowing you to destroy us any time you choose should it be in the strategic interest of the People’s Republic. Am I correct?”
Typhoon jerked Khalid upright again. With a swift swing of his leg, he swept Khalid’s feet out from under him and slammed him into a sitting position on the floor against the wall. “Movements can swiftly change. A thirty-minute sprint could place convoy in safe hideout.”
“Provide a man to travel with my Avengers. Have him carry a means to transmit the location of the convoy back to you. But not a beacon! Should a timed communication fail to reach you or arrive un-coded, destroy the convoy and gain the favor of the infidels for killing their deadly enemy. You see China wins whether my plan succeeds or fails.”
A trace of a smile touched Typhoon’s lips. “You understand grand-alliance politics. But swarm of Russian searchers will capture convoy. A Chinese combatant found with Avenger team would expose link to my country after he is pumped full of drugs.”
“If capture is imminent, my men will smash his head and hands into red smears to prevent evidence leading back to China’s secret service. Easy to claim that the dead man came from disloyal Chinese Muslim communities in Western provinces.”
Typhoon shook his head. “Al-Qaeda is legendary for patient planning. But for attack to succeed, Muslim zealots must apply sophisticated technology.”
“You have concern that the West will not believe our threat? Or is it your own prejudice that we remain what the American soldiers call ‘desert dirtbags’, only able to explode roadside bombs?”
Typhoon grunted. “Fervor and faith are strengths in a soldier, but do not prevent Russian Air Force from blowing apart convoy. Desire cannot bypass complicated Russian security mechanisms.”
“Both my father and my uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, recognized that the evilness of America is matched by its effectiveness as a military power. That is why they hid me in Arabia studying in engineering universities. That is why, with the help of the prince, I entered the Saudi Arabian National Guard and went to America to learn the art of war.”
“Your uncle planned the 9/11 attack on New York Trade Center Towers?”
“He was a gentle man. He tutored me for years in the love of our Prophet Muhammad and how to strike at the heart of our enemy.” Khalid’s voice hardened. “As he ordered, I suffered among the infidels to learn their ways and weaknesses and devise a terrible retribution. I endured watching wanton women stride around barely dressed, dragging spoiled children to soccer matches instead of teaching them to pray.”
“China cares not what god America prays to. It is their interference in internal Chinese affairs we loathe, always confident their way is best for all nations.”
“They are a sinful people that crave fornication, homosexuality, gambling and drugs. American Jews are the worst. They purchase synagogue seats during high holy days, showing how prosperous they are by how close they sit to the altar instead of giving genuine glory to God.”
Typhoon glanced up the street, then at his wristwatch. “No matter how true your criticisms America wins wars. Al-Qaeda only wins battles and rarely ones of importance.”
“That is why I was sent to study at the infidels’ Command and General Staff College. There I absorbed the teachings of China’s great military strategist, Sun Tzu, while the American officers did as little as possible to pass the weekly tests.”
“Somehow they learn to be great warriors,” Typhoon replied.
“Unlike the Americans, who only savored their famous victories, I studied their saddest defeats; how Admiral Yamamoto inflicted humiliation upon U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor and later, General Giap in Vietnam.”
Typhoon shook his head again. “History helpful but lessons from past wars gain nothing unless properly applied.”
“That is why I spent hours on the Internet identifying U.S. homeland defenses. Each weekend when the Americans wasted time at meaningless sport events, I flew from Kansas to other cities to identify possible targets. I recorded the coordinates of those targets, noting vulnerabilities and the type of attack that could exploit those vulnerabilities.”
“Muslim terrorists renowned for selecting lucrative targets. But this plan requires operating highest Russian technology and breaching American defenses.”
Khalid grimaced and adjusted his sitting position to relieve the pain in his shoulders. “When I departed the land of sin I carried within me the knowledge of how Americans wage war. I know how the U.S. military assembles, analyzes and delivers intelligence and orders. More important I left knowing how to defeat their defenses.”
“A boast I cannot verify.”
I have not turned him to our side. “When I reached Arabia I assembled Allah’s Avengers from the nation of Islam. A nation without borders whose selfless heroes came when I sent a call for the special skills required to make the cities of America explode with torment.”
“Trained teams can fail,” Typhoon answered. “Blocking devices on nuclear weapons very difficult to break.”
“We found a Ukrainian avionics expert bitter toward America. After receiving a small fortune, he was happy to teach two graduate students how to bypass warhead encryption code. All other aspects of my plan use low-technology tactics to defeat America’s high-technology defenses.”
“Sun Tzu would be proud of you. But—”
“China’s destiny awaits your decision.”
The satellite phone in Typhoon’s pocket chirped. He spoke in Chinese then closed the phone. “My men are just up road. Say your prayers.”
Allah, I am yours.
The spy rolled Khalid onto his belly and pressed the barrel of the pistol against the base of Khalid’s skull. “Who else knows you seek China’s help.”
“One other. His name will die with me.”
Typhoon slipped the sharp knife out of his tunic and drove it through the palm of Khalid’s left hand, pinning it to the floor. “The name!”
Hot lightning jumped up Khalid’s arm. He fought the torture to his body letting only a low groan reveal his agony. “Never.”
Typhoon pulled the knife out of Khalid’s hand and tossed the blade aside. “Right answer.” He jerked the robe up to Khalid’s shoulders before rolling him onto his back. “The secrets we share must be guarded. I needed to test your will.” Typhoon dropped the pistol into the pocket of his tunic and helped Khalid stagger to his feet. “Now we are allies.”
Khalid pressed his bleeding hand into his armpit and squeezed to stop the flowing blood. “Good that I’m not your enemy.” He slumped against the wall to keep from falling. Allah is merciful!
Typhoon straightened his clothing and walked back into the room. He found the teapot lying on its round waist in a puddle but still with enough warm liquid inside to fill a cup. “Are you worried that I only agreed to join conspiracy so I do not have to fight my way out of this house?” He drank the green tea and looked back at Khalid wiping blood from his face and throat.
“It is a risk I must take to save my religion.”
“Your plan is suicide. But whether you succeed or fail, my country will be respected by the world.”
“What is important is slaughtering millions of Americans and plundering their wealth to build mosques to Allah the Almighty! Then peace and the true word will spread around the world.”
“We understand each other. Tell your guards I can leave.”
The large Muslim, weathered from years of soldiering in the harsh-desert sun and wind, led Typhoon down the stairs to the front door. Thick, black eyebrows shadowed Zaid al-Iraqi’s mirthless eyes. A beard, tinged with white, hid the furrows of his age. But the wiry whiskers could not conceal an ugly, puckered scar zigzagging from his cheek to what remained of his ear. His face was jagged and hard like the mountains guarding India.
After Zaid watched the agent drive away he reported upstairs to the meeting room. Just inside the doorway he waited until Khalid closed the Qur’an he bowed over. “Commander, I have summoned a doctor.”
Khalid nodded, exhausted.
“Is it done, commander?”
Khalid studied the bandage around his hand still oozing blood. “Yes, Zaid, my friend. No more preparations. Tomorrow you return to France and I lead Allah’s Avengers to Mongolia.”
“At last,” Zaid replied, “the Americans will pay for the death of my family, for all families massacred by the heartless ones.”
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