Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (10 page)

The passengers spilled into the customs area, gathering around baggage conveyors. A few with canyons proceeded directly to counters where uniformed United States customs agents waited.

Gorodin was in this group. Time was his adversary now, and he was pleased to have arrived early.

In sunglasses, white shirt, tie, and rumpled beige suit, he looked every bit the travel-weary businessman. But it had been years since he had operated in the field, alone and undercover.

A wave of apprehension broke over him as he approached the customs agent. His mouth turned to cotton. A wetness broke out behind his knees.

Gorodin fought to overcome his anxiety, and nonchalantly tossed his two-suiter onto the counter. He presented a bona fide French passport—one that had been surreptitiously procured, and then washed by GRU counterfeiters.

The customs agent, a skittish young woman with close-cropped hair, saw “Republique Francais” embossed in gold on the deep maroon cover.
“Parlez vous, Anglaise, monsieur?”
she asked haltingly.

“Mais oui, madame,”
replied Gorodin. “When in Rome—” he added jovially in English. He was fully prepared to converse in fluent French but gladly accommodated her.

“Great,” she drawled, “because my French is—” she paused and waggled a hand, then opened his passport and matched face to photo.

“Where you coming from Mister—Coudray?” she asked, quickly adding, “I say that right?”

Gorodin nodded amiably, and leaned on the counter.

“Mexico City,” he replied.

“City of embarkation was Paris?”

Gorodin nodded again.

“And you’re going to?”

“Dallas, New York, Paris.”

“Business?”

“Oui, madame,”
he replied, purposely slipping into French.

“Okay,” she drawled, tapping his bag. “Would you open that for me, please?”

Gorodin popped the latches of the two-suiter. His hands were sweaty, and his fingers left smudges on the chrome. He split the halves of the bag and dried his palms in his pockets.

The agent poked through the clothing, seemingly disinterested. But her eyes alertly recorded the labels of French manufacturers on most of the garments. She paused and fingered one curiously.

Gorodin’s heart quickened. His mind leapt to all the disastrous possibilities: Had the label been improperly sewn? Had he been given a shirt much too small for him? Had she spotted some silly oversight that had cast suspicion on him?

“Cardin. Great stuff,” she said. “Bought the same shirt for my husband. He loves it.” She smiled and flipped the bag closed.

Gorodin nodded, and felt somewhat relieved. He was thinking that the hours at the Embassy in Mexico City had been well spent when she made an offhanded observation that threatened to unnerve him. “Your accent, if you don’t mind me saying it,” she remarked, “sure doesn’t sound French.”

She’s right!
Gorodin thought. Despite his language skills, the years in Cuba had imparted a decidedly Latin flavor to his English. Even his Russian had been slightly tainted.

“I am a Basque,” he replied proudly, as if he’d been saying it all his life. He snapped the latches on the suitcase closed, punctuating his reply.

The agent stamped his passport and returned it.

“Have a nice day, Mr. Coudray,” she said in a singsong cadence. Gorodin slipped the passport into a pocket, and forced a smile in
response to her rhyme. Then, he slid his bag from the counter, and walked quickly into the long tunnel that led to the terminal.

There was a new confidence in Gorodin’s stride. Yes, yes, it was good to be back, he thought—back closer to the edge, thinking on his feet, winging it resourcefully. He was hurrying past a newsstand when he noticed headlines proclaiming—"CHURCHER STILL MISSING IN GULF.”

Outside, he threw his bag into a dusty Chevy wagon on the arrivals ramp and jumped in next to the GRU driver, a powerfully built young agent named Vanik.

The car pulled away immediately, heading south for U.S. 45, the arrow-straight freeway that connects Dallas, Houston, and Galveston.

The drive to Houston would take approximately four and one half hours. Gorodin would have preferred to fly. But no connecting flight meant no record of M. Coudray ever having gone to Houston. And Gorodin wanted this last task to be as clean as possible.

“Everything’s being arranged,” Vanik said.

“Good,” Gorodin replied. “We have to move fast.”

They spoke in Russian.

The long drive ended at an abandoned ranch in desolate country outside Houston. They immediately entered a ramshackle barn where a third man was painting a mobile cherry picker to resemble a Houston County Gas & Electric service truck. That evening Gorodin pored over the photographs of Churcher’s estate Vanik had taken from the Piper, and began solidifying the plan to break into the underground museum.

* * * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

Dinh Tran Xuyen and his family lived in a steel Quonset hut, one of thousands of makeshift structures dotting the countless islands and estuaries along the Gulf coast of southeastern Louisiana where colonies of homesteaders had sprung up. Most were immigrant fishermen from Southeast Asia who found that the climate and ecological makeup of the area closely resembled the land they had left behind.

Dinh had come to the United States in the mid-seventies with the members of his family who’d survived the war. They started a fishing business and made a living netting menhaden—the yellow-finned members of the herring family which run in large schools in Gulf waters, and are more commonly known as bony fish.

But Dinh wasn’t fishing this night. The deck of his forty-two-foot trawler was piled high with discarded refrigerators, bathtubs, and assorted car parts as he headed out into the Gulf. Dinh, his brother-in-law, and their teenage sons ferried the junk into the Gulf and heaved it over the side, marking the spot with an inexpensive navigation device. The submerged Lorans unit emitted a radio signal that would guide them to precisely the same spot with their next load. Indeed, they weren’t scuttling junk, but rather building a reef on which vegetation and inert sea life that would attract fish would grow.

Dinh and his family were hoisting the dismantled carcass of a Volkswagen over the side when the fog bank suddenly shifted. The search-light
of a cruising Coast Guard patrol boat pierced the darkness and found them.

“Shut down your engines and prepare to be boarded,” the captain barked over the loudspeaker.

Dinh flicked a look to the others and shook no sharply.

This had always been his fear, and he made a habit of working under the cover of darkness and fog to avoid it. Dumping wasn’t illegal—dumping without a permit was. And like most Gulf fisherman, Dinh didn’t file for one because the precise location of his reef would be marked on charts of local waters, an open invitation to poachers who’d rather fish someone else’s reef than build their own.

Dinh and the others quickly muscled the old VW over the side. The instant it hit the water, he punched the boat’s throttles home and headed for another fog bank about a mile away.

The cutter accelerated and pursued.

But Dinh’s boat disappeared in the dense haze before the cutter could catch it. The captain watched the blip on his radar screen, and decided the fog was too thick to continue pursuit safely.

Dinh kept his throttles to the wall to put as much water between the two vessels as possible. The boat had raced a few miles through the fog when Dinh spotted something dead ahead in the water. He turned the wheel hard, putting the boat into a sharp high-speed turn.

Thirty-six hours had passed since Churcher had climbed onto the piece of floating debris from his helicopter. He’d been carried northward by the South Equatorial current, finally catching the curling flow of the Mississippi River that spun him inland toward the Louisiana coast.

The sharply turning vessel sideswiped the piece of debris, knocking Churcher into the water. Then the stern whipped around right over him, and the propeller bit into his left arm, severing it just below the elbow. He was suffering from exposure and dehydration, and hovered on the edge of consciousness, but he let out a long, piercing scream nonetheless.

Dinh heard it and throttled back the engines, circling the boat while his brother-in-law panned a searchlight across the choppy surface. They quickly found Churcher and plucked him from the water.

Dinh reacted instinctively the instant he saw Churcher’s wound. After the bombings, booby traps, and napalm of the Vietnam War, this wasn’t the first severed limb he’d seen.

“Get the first-aid kit,” he shouted to one of his sons; then, turning to his brother-in-law, ordered, “Head for home, wide open!”

Dinh ripped open the plastic case his son brought from the cabin,
removed a length of rubber tubing, tied it tightly around Churcher’s bicep, stemming the flow of blood; then went about bandaging the stump. All the while his brother-in-law had the boat at full throttle heading for the village where they lived.

It was close to midnight when the boat pulled up to a swaybacked dock built on angled stilts that marched into the placid Delta waters.

Dinh’s wife ran from the Quonset hut to greet them. She was stunned to see the two men lifting Churcher’s lifeless form out of the boat.

“What happened? Is he alive?” she asked as she helped them.

“Barely,” Dinh replied. “Propeller.”

“I’ll get the pickup,” she said, assuming they would take him to the hospital.

Apprehensive looks flicked between the two men. But there was no need for discussion. Neither wanted to deal with the authorities who would want to know where they were and what they were doing when the accident occurred.

“No!” Dinh shouted, grasping his wife’s arm to stop her. “Get Doctor Phan.”

Giang Phan had been a fully accredited physician in Vietnam, and served as a battlefield surgeon. The immigrant families trusted him. He knew their customs, spoke their language, and cared for them. But he had not yet been licensed to practice in Louisiana.

Churcher lay pale and unconscious on a mattress on the floor of the Quonset hut as Doctor Phan examined him.

“He’s lost a lot of blood,” the doctor said. “He needs a transfusion. He’ll die without it. And I don’t even have the equipment to type his blood, let alone access to supplies to replenish it.”

“We can’t take him to the hospital,” Dinh said forcefully. “We can’t. Besides, he might die there anyway. Just do your best.”

The doctor let out a weary breath. “I’ll need a dish or a plate,” he said to Dinh’s wife. “Line up over here,” he ordered the assembled group when she returned with it. Then, pricking the forefinger of each, he “field typed” Churcher’s blood—mixing samples from the potential donors with a drop of Churcher’s blood on the plate until he found one that blended smoothly and didn’t clump, which meant they were the same type.

A direct, donor-to-patient transfusion was made.

Then Dr. Phan turned his attention to Churcher’s crudely severed forearm. “I don’t know,” he said dismayed at the state of it. “I just don’t know.”

* * * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

Four days had passed since Gisela Pomerantz rattled President Hilliard and Keating with her query about the Soviet
Heron
missile system.

Following the NATO luncheon, Keating and Hilliard discussed the subject in the limousine on the way to Capitol Hill. The President was scheduled to meet with auto industry leaders who had been pressing for import quotas, and he was in a testy mood. The three CEOs were averaging just under six million dollars a year, each, in compensation. For that kind of money, Hilliard thought, they should solve their own problems.

“Talk to me, Phil,” he ordered curtly.

“I don’t know what to say. According to the NIE, the
Heron
was tested, failed, and never deployed,” Keating replied, citing the National Intelligence Estimate, a top secret evaluation of the military and economic status of all foreign nations.

“When was all that?” the President shot back.

“Last test monitored—July of seventy-five. We’ve seen nothing of it since.”

“Not like the Russians to scrap an entire missile system, Phil,” Hilliard pressed. “I mean, I’ve waded through more NIEs than I can count. The bottom line is, they just can’t afford it.”

“Maybe they had no choice.”

“Come on, Phil,” Hilliard admonished.

“I know, I know. No maybes,” Keating responded defensively. “Where do we go from here?”

“Goose Jake,” Hilliard instructed. “It’s Langley’s responsibility. Set something up. Saturday. Oval office. Afternoon. Clear it with Cathleen.”

Now, President Hilliard and Chief Negotiator Keating sat in the Oval Office in the White House awaiting the arrival of Jake Boulton, director of Central Intelligence.

The President kicked back in his chair, put a foot against the desk, and propelled himself toward the window that overlooks the Rose Garden. When the chair stopped rolling, Hilliard swiveled, stood, and studied the bulletproof panes for a moment. The temperature outside was so cold that the inside surfaces of the five-and-one-half-inch-thick glass were lightly dusted with frost. Hilliard drew a face on one of the green-tinged panes with a fingertip—a circle for the head, three dots for the eyes and nose. He was about to draw the mouth when he took his finger from the glass and turned to Keating. “Before Jake gets here, run down the last couple of days for me, will you?”

“Well, it’s gone pretty much as we anticipated,” Keating replied. “All the NATO folks are eager as hell to get out of the deployment game, that’s for sure. But they want assurances. Thatcher still has daily antinuke marches in front of Ten Downing. Same for the Italian’s over the cruise installation in Sicily.”

“I know,” Hilliard said. “It’s been giving Minister Borsa grief since the day he approved it.”

“He’s been up against more than protestors lately.”

The President nodded knowingly. “I saw the antiterrorist memorandum. Far as I’m concerned, NATO can’t tighten the security screws enough. Anything else?”

“Well, the Belgians have been breathing easy since we’ve postponed. But they’re still terrified the talks’ll fail, and they’ll be forced to deploy. Ditto for the Norwegians, and Dutch who are both—”

“Pisses me off!” Hilliard exploded. “All these years, these damn heads of state have failed to sell the need for deployment to their people; the very people who put ’em in office to protect ’em! If
we
hadn’t been deploying all this time, where the hell would they be now?! I’ll tell you where—looking at a stockpile of Russian SS-20s planted throughout Eastern Europe with nothing in the West to force the Soviets to the table. No deterrent—no disarmament. Why is that so hard to understand?”

Keating shrugged.

The President shook his head from side to side despairingly and took a moment to settle himself. “Any problems?”

“A little wrinkle with the Swedes.”

“Oh?” Hilliard wondered, smoothing his beard.

“Seems they broke some KGB people who infiltrated their peace movement,” Keating responded. “Organizing rallies, pumping in money, the usual agit-prop stuff. The Swedish government wanted to declare ’em persona non grata, and boot ’em. But we convinced them this is not the time to embarrass Moscow.”

“Good going. Can’t say I blame them. They’ve had it with Russian subs plying their waters. What else?”

“Nicholson’s been kicking up a little dust. Nothing major.”

“Nicholson?” Hilliard responded, surprised. “Christ, sixty, sixty-five percent of his suggestions ended up in our disarmament package. Find me another former chief negotiator who’s had that kind of input in a succeeding administration. What’s his beef?” the President asked, feeling slighted.

“His book,” Keating replied, smiling.

“His book?”

Keating nodded. “I told him I’d mention it to you. Seems it was about to go to press and Boulton’s censors deleted half of it.” Keating let the sentence hang, heightening the President’s curiosity, then added, “For reasons of national security.”

Hilliard broke up with laughter. “Half of it?” he asked thoroughly amused.

Keating nodded again, and smiled.

“Those two have been banana peeling each other’s paths since Nixon was a choirboy,” Hilliard chortled. “Their battles on the golf course alone are—”

The intercom buzzed, interrupting him. He chuckled to himself and scooped up the phone.

“Yes?—Send him right in, Cathleen. Thanks.” Hilliard hung up, and said, “Jake.”

The door to the Oval Office swung open, and Jake Boulton, DCI, popped through it.

“Mr. President. Phil,” he said rapid-fire.

“Thanks for coming by, Jake,” Hilliard said. “What can you tell me about this damned
Heron
?”

“The SS-16A,” Boulton said crisply.

“Whatever the hell the numbers are,” the President said impatiently. “The one they supposedly tested and scrapped.”

“Right,” Boulton said, “the SS-16A. NATO code name
Heron
after the ornithological species of waterfowl. Initially developed for submarine launch. Design goal—solve chronic, unacceptable guidance system performance.” The data came from Boulton in clipped, high-pitched bursts.

“What was its problem?” Hilliard asked.

“Best we can determine—” Boulton began.

Hilliard and Keating exchanged glances.

“—the Heron took its namesake too seriously,” Boulton went on. “The bird is a patient, tenacious hunter. It waits unmoving for hours, locks onto prey the instant it appears, and—whammo—the target never gets away.”

“And the missile?” the President prodded.

“No powers of discretion,” Boulton replied. “It locked onto everything and anything. Tendency acutely manifested over water where distracting targets are isolated and clearly defined. Ships, rowboats, buoys, metallic debris, a floating beer can, in one instance, even a fellow missile, and whammo!” He made a diving motion with his hand. “Problem magnified as range increased.”

“So it was
never
deployed, right?” Hilliard asked.

“Right. NIE confirms,” Boulton replied smartly.

“Is that an—absolutely right? Or an—as best we can determine right?” the President jibed.

This stopped Boulton. He hesitated briefly, feeling suddenly unprepared. “The second, sir,” he replied with diminished fervor, anticipating the President’s reaction.

“Well, what the hell does that mean, Jake?” Hilliard pressed. “That we have doubts? I mean, how the hell can we start horse-trading with the Russians in Geneva next week if we aren’t positive we know about every system they’ve deployed?”

The President got up out of his chair, almost charged out of it.

“The concept of negotiating is based on total,
total
knowledge of the other side’s arsenal, dammit!” he continued heatedly.

YOU
know that, Jake! Geezus, I’ve got Phil here massaging the hell out of the NATO people, convincing them we’re on solid ground; and before he even gets into it, the Germans drop the
Heron
right in our laps!”

“Fortunately,” Keating interjected, “it was handled privately, and Pomerantz has agreed to keep it that way until we can get a fix on the facts.”

“But if we can’t, Jake,” the President said, still charged up, “and she drops that tidbit on the other NATO representatives—” he let the
sentence trail off, emphasizing the gravity of the situation. “And who would blame her?” he added. Then lowering his voice but maintaining his intensity, he said, “There’s no way we can back out of the talks now. None. Not after pushing so hard for them. Even a stall would be unacceptable. It’s tightrope time—no matter which way we fall we get screwed.”

He moved around the desk, and approached Boulton.

“I want this, Jake. I want it badly,” the President said with obsessive fervor.

“Yes, sir. I know,” Boulton replied contritely.

“Good,” Hilliard said. “Now, these talks are going to go on for months. Use the time. Juice your people. Fine tune your antenna. Wind up a couple of dozen more spooks and turn ’em loose. The
Heron
may be a dead duck, but—as best we can determine, just doesn’t cut it. I want to close the loop on this, Jake. Top of the shopping list!”

“Our prime KIQ, Mr. President,” Boulton said, smarting, but knowing Hilliard was right. This was a key intelligence requirement if ever there was one.

He did a crisp about-face and headed for the door.

“Jake?” Hilliard called out.

Boulton stopped on a dime and turned. “Sir?”

“Do me a favor, Jake,” the President said. “Ask your boys to back off Nicholson, will you?”

“Nicholson?” Boulton broke into a boyishly innocent smile. “I’m not aware of a problem there.”

“Glad to hear it,” the President said. He knew Boulton’s answer was his way of indicating he’d take care of it, without admitting it was necessary.

Boulton exited the Oval Office thinking about the round of golf he and Theodor Churcher had played at Eagle Rock a few months earlier. The solid thwack of driver against ball blasted thoughts of
The Heron
, and Nicholson, from his mind as he pictured his old friend’s perfect swing that the DCI had long envied.

Churcher had always been a hell of an athlete Boulton recalled—a physical fitness maniac forty years before it had become fashionable. They had run cross-country together at Rice in the late thirties. And it was Churcher who, though totally exhausted and near collapse, would dig down inside himself and prevail through sheer will and determination. They had been close all their adult lives, and Churcher’s disappearance at sea had unsettled the DCI. He blew past the President’s secretary without even a nod.

The President waited until the door had closed behind the DCI. “I’d say he got the message.”

Keating nodded.

“Brief Pomerantz,” the President said. He turned to the window. The face he had drawn earlier on the frosted pane was still visible. He put his fingertip to the glass, and drew a hard, straight line for a mouth. “And make sure she stays zipped.”

“You realize that directly contradicts your last order,” Keating said with a lascivious smile.

The President burned him with a look. “Dammit, Phil!” he replied. “This is no time for jokes. The whole thing could blow up in our faces. And there’s too much at stake to let that happen!”

Keating nodded contritely, and left.

The President angrily spun his chair and strode from the office. He had a half hour before a National Security meeting, and he knew just how he’d spend it.

“Arlington, sir?” Cathleen asked, sensing his mood.

Hilliard nodded tensely.

Cathleen called the White House garage.

The President had lost his temper, and it bothered him—not because he’d blasted Keating unjustly, but because whenever the frustrations became that overwhelming, Jim Hilliard knew he’d lost his perspective. A walk through the National Cemetery always helped him regain it.

A light rain was falling as the stretched Lincoln proceeded up Memorial Drive.

President Hilliard got out and, declining raincoat and umbrella, walked alone amidst the identical limestone slabs that marched over the undulating terrain to every horizon.

Secret Service personnel followed on foot, maintaining a respectful distance.

The President paused solemnly at one of the water-stained headstones, and bent to straighten the small bouquet of violets that lay beneath the inscription which read:

JANET DAVIDSON HILLIARD

Janet Hilliard had never served in the military, but she had died in the service of her country.

And these were the times the President missed her most—when he needed to confide his fears and cope with his frustrations. And at these times, he would relive that tragic day in Chicago.

The Hilliards had just arrived in his hometown to kick off the campaign
for his second term. Jim Hilliard was an extremely popular president. But the latest national polls had shown an unexpected surge for his opponent. And the President and his wife found the tumultuous crowds at O’Hare heartening.

They were acknowledging the cheers when the Secret Service agent saw the swift movement in the crowd, the sudden thrust of hands forward, and the deadly glint of blued metal. He dove at the President, knocking him to the ground an instant before the first sharp crack.

Janet Hilliard was standing directly behind her husband. The action that saved his life exposed her to the assassin’s fire. Not for long. Perhaps an eyeblink or two passed before another Secret Service agent had bear hugged her to the ground. But the pistol had kept firing throughout that immeasurable interlude. And Janet Hilliard had been mortally wounded.

The President won the close election that followed.

And voices on the Hill soon began whispering that the tragedy, not his record, was his edge.

The President didn’t like it; but he was enough of a realist to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, they were right. And he privately dedicated his second term to his wife’s memory, and made arms control his number one priority so that nations wouldn’t one day do to each other what a crazed American did to Janet Hilliard. Nuclear disarmament was to be her legacy, not his, and it was being endangered.

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