Ranya awoke from a catnap lying on her back. She had been resting on the wild grass, her brown pack for a pillow. She was wearing dark blue jeans and her black hooded sweater, her booted ankles crossed, her fingers intertwined across her stomach. The two men who were going to be the other passengers on the plane were occasionally talking, while sitting on opposite sides of a picnic table twenty feet away from her.
In the camps, she had become accustomed to making the transition to consciousness in a sly way, in secret. In D-Camp, they had slept in open barracks on bunk beds. Useful information could sometimes be overheard, if one was skilled at pretending sleep. She knew that a giveaway was sudden perfect stillness and quiet on the part of the faker, so she gradually began a light snoring sound, her mouth partly open. After five years internment in the camps, the natural sleeping sounds women made were all very familiar to Ranya Bardiwell.
She had been dropped off at this place by Mark Fowler, in his truck. The two men were already waiting there, clad in desert camouflage uniforms, sorting through their gear on the wooden picnic table. Fowler asked her to wait in the truck while he went over and talked with them, and he returned in a few minutes. "Don't bother trying to make friends with those guys. They've got their game faces on, you might say. They're in the tactical mode now. They'll accommodate you, and that's about it. It's Caylen Barlow's plane and pilot, so they don't have any choice about taking you, but don't expect them to like your showing up. Just listen to the pilot. He's already been briefed, and he knows exactly where to drop you off. You're clear about the link-up in Mountainview?"
"Sure, no problem."
"You've got the New Mexico road map? You'll be forty miles southeast of Albuquerque, when you jump out."
"I've got the map in my pack, and a compass. We're landing on a dry salt lake. After I get out, I walk four miles south, across the salt flats, until I hit State Road 60. Railroad tracks run parallel to 60; I follow the tracks five miles west toward Mountainview. Right at 6 AM, I walk into the Ancient Pueblos Restaurant on State Road 60, and order breakfast. I ask the waitress for Don, and then I tell Don that C.B. sent me. He'll keep me in the back room until the bread truck makes its delivery, and that's my ride into Albuquerque. It's a good plan."
"Yeah, it is," replied Fowler. "Now, most of the folks in Mountainview are still on our side, but watch out. Milicias could set up checkpoints or do sweeps while you're there. When they show up, it's always at least fifteen or twenty of them, sometimes a lot more, and they're usually kind of twitchy on the triggers. Especially around gringo cowboys, like in Mountainview."
"I'll be careful."
"Don't put your pistol together until you're in the city. It won't do you any good at a checkpoint anyway; it'll just give you away."
"You've got my knife?"
"Right here." She patted her right side front jeans pocket. "Thanks."
"Well, okay then, good luck. I hope you find your son, I really do. Getting his address, that was a lucky break. If you make it back here, you know you've got a place to stay. Both of you."
"Thanks for everything you've done?"
"No problem, I'm glad to help. Say, how's your shoulder?"
"Sore, but I'm damn glad to be rid of the chip." An adhesive butterfly closed the tiny incision.
"You've got everything you need?"
"Yes, thanks. I'm ready." Barlow and Fowler had seen to her outfitting with the gear and clothes she would need. After much discussion, she had decided to keep Linssen's 9mm Glock pistol. It was broken down into its main parts, and concealed against the metal internal frame of her pack. They were concerned about magnetometers being used in Albuquerque in portals, and metal detecting wands being used at checkpoints. The Glock had plastic ammo magazines and a plastic grip and frame assembly, and hence fewer steel parts to conceal. These parts and the ammunition were hidden inside the modified seams of the pack's heavy-duty nylon fabric, against the metal alloy internal pack frame.
The downside was that the pistol had to be carried in such a way that it would not be readily available in the case of an unexpected emergency. She was simply smuggling it into the city, to have it ready to use at the time of the hoped-for rescue of her son. Fowler did provide her with a wickedly sharp Strider folding knife for self-defense, in situations where the Glock would be disassembled, hidden and unavailable.
While resting on the grass she reviewed her conversations with Barlow and Fowler. She visualized her forthcoming rendezvous and pickup at the restaurant. She imagined various possible rescue scenarios in Albuquerque. Even through closed eyelids, she could tell that the sun was almost gone. Their plane was going to arrive at last light. She continued to feign light snoring, her mouth agape in an unladylike pose, while she listened carefully. Finally, she was rewarded with unguarded conversation by her two reticent companions.
"She's sure a sweet piece of ass, ain't she? Pretty face, nice long legs... Looks real inviting, laying there on her back?"
"Too hard for my taste. I can't abide women that tough. Women should be softer. And she looks like a butch with that short black hair."
"You're just pissed off because she won your HK off of you yesterday."
"Naw, it ain't that."
"The hell it ain't. You're pissed off because you had to buy your own pistol back from her. You should be grateful she let you have it back for only fifteen hundred blue bucks."
"Yeah, she don't have a clue what guns are worth."
"Lucky you didn't bet your rifle, or she would've took that too."
"Like hell she would! Okay, I'll give her she's a crack shot with a pistol, and not half bad running around with a little bitty carbine. But take us out to the thousand-yard range, and I'd eat her lunch! Nobody can touch me at a thousand yards with my .338."
"Shit you say! I can beat you left handed at a thousand! Hell, I made a sixteen hundred yard kill with this here fifty caliber last December. Confirmed it with the laser range finder, in front of two witnesses."
"Where, across the Rio Grande, down by El Paso? Man, that ain't sniping, that's just plain murder."
"So? It's a free-fire zone out on those river islands, ain't it?"
"Yeah, I suppose it is, but it's still nothing to brag on. Nobody's shooting back, to speak of. Nobody serious. Did I ever tell you about when I was in Iraq, when?"
"Only about two dozen times."
"Yeah, well, that was sniping. The real deal. Once I spent three straight days in a sniper's hide, right in Ali Baba's back yard. Peeing in a bottle, not moving an inch. You earned your kills over there--they were shooting back."
"Well, we're going to earn them tomorrow morning, that's for sure. A whole bus load of armed Milicias and only two of us?"
"Don't worry; it'll be a turkey shoot. We used to do it the same way in western Iraq, taking out Syrian infiltrators in SUV convoys. We'd put a round from a suppressed fifty cal through the lead vehicle's engine block, and they wouldn't even know they were being shot at. They'd think they busted a rod or something. Once they'd stop, they'd all climb out to look at the engine, take a leak, stretch their legs..."
"And that's when the fun begins!"
"Yep, you've got that right. I've flown recon over our ambush position. It's in a draw, on a long upgrade. Once the bus comes to a stop, there's nowhere for them to go, no cover or concealment at all. You'll be 400 yards in front with the fifty caliber, so if anybody feels like staying inside the bus, just put rounds straight through it. Then they'll get out! I'll be on the flank, and I'll have the angle to pick off anybody who tries to find cover under the bus, or behind it. We'll both take out the runners, and they'll all be dead in five minutes, max. Then we'll call for the bird. You wait--it'll be even better than Iraq."
"How many, you figure?"
"Intel report says they change the guard at 0800 hours, and usually it's about twenty of them Milicias in a ratty old school bus. Brown berets, M-16s, the whole nine yards. So they'll be getting to the ambush site just after seven. We'll do the job and be in the air before they know what hit them."
"You think they'll have any shooters, anybody who can put out counter fire?"
"Naw, these Brown Berets are all show and no go. They're good for scaring old ladies at checkpoints, that's about it."
"What if the plane doesn't show up for the extraction? We'll be a hundred miles from nowhere if the shit hits the fan."
"It'll be there. Anyway, we won't initiate the ambush unless we're in radio contact with the plane. He'll be sitting on the ground just a few minutes away, like we briefed it. And just in case, we've got a solid escape and evasion plan. Hey, you didn't mark it on your map, did you?"
"What, you really think we could be captured? Man, I do not plan on being captured by those Milicias--that is not in my plan."
"I didn't say it was. It's just not professional to mark your map, just in case. The guy's taking a big risk, being our E and E contact. So marking his ranch or anything else on your map...well, it's just not right. It's not professional."
"Look, just because I didn't fight in Iraq, doesn't mean I'm not a professional."
"No offense, but Albuquerque SWAT isn't exactly the Army Special Forces."
"Now, don't start on--"
"And anyway, why couldn't you pass that Spanish test? You're born and raised in New Mexico, and you couldn't pass the Spanish test? Hell, I learned some Arabic, and I hated those freakin' rag heads. All those pretty little senoritas you got over in New Mexico and you couldn't learn Spanish in 28 years?"
"Look, you dumbass Tennessee redneck, I do speak Spanish! I mean, I speak it okay for a gringo cop, right? But that test was a son of a bitch. No way could a gringo pass it. It was rigged so only beaners could pass it, I swear to God."
Both men were instantly silent. Ranya heard it at the same time, the faint buzzing sound of a distant airplane engine. She opened her eyes, stretched, and stood up, then slung on her pack, her back to the two men in desert camouflage.
It was now last light, and the unlit plane wasn't visible until it was very near. It was flying only a hundred feet above the ground, a high-wing single engine prop plane. The dirt strip was just a designated scrap of flat pasture, identical to any other 500-yard long parcel of dirt and grass. Only the picnic table, some fifty gallon drums of aviation fuel, and a faded windsock on top of a metal pole identified these 500 yards as an airstrip.
The plane turned into the wind, tipping a wing, leveled out and landed gently, rolling past them and coming to a halt only a few hundred feet away. The little aircraft was a tail dragger and it maneuvered awkwardly on the ground, swinging around and taxiing back toward them. It seemed to be painted in shades of tan and beige, but this was difficult to determine in the fading light. It finally came to a stop with its high right wing tip almost over the table. The big three-bladed prop wound to a halt and the field was suddenly quiet again. It was clear to Ranya that whoever was flying was intimately familiar with this crude landing strip.
The pilot opened the cockpit door beneath the left wing and hopped down, while the two other men opened another pair of doors on the right side of the fuselage. These two doors swung to both the front and to the rear, revealing a second bench seat behind the pilot and copilot's seats, and behind that an open cargo area. The two-man sniper team ignored Ranya, and loaded their tan packs and rifle bags into the empty space behind the rear seats.
One of the snipers then took a black hose and clambered up on the angled wing strut, and put the nozzle into the fuel inlet on top of the wing above the cockpit. The pilot walked to the drum by the picnic table and began manually pumping gas, topping off his tanks. They worked without words; it was evident that they were well practiced at loading and fueling the airplane in near darkness. As instructed, she approached him, and he greeted her. He was a lanky forty-something, about her height, with crew cut hair. He was wearing fatigue-style pants and a dark t-shirt. Military, or ex-military, she thought.
"Howdy. You're my mystery passenger?"
"Pleased to meet you, mystery passenger." He continued rotating the pump handle while speaking to her. He might have been smiling, but the light was fading fast and it was hard to tell.
"You're getting out first, so you'll sit in back, on the right side. You just have the one pack? Stow it on the floor, between you. We'll be in the air for an hour and a half on this leg, and when we land, we won't be hanging around. Once we stop, I'll holler go, and out you go. Open the middle door, chuck out your bag, hop out quick and get clear 'cause I'm going straight out. That's it, that's all there is to it. Almost a touch-andgo, and then we'll be gone. Just hike south till you hit the tracks. The half moon's going to rise at 2300 hours--that's eleven PM. It'll be easy going for you."
"I really appreciate this, and I'm sorry if I'm putting you at any extra risk."
"Nah, forget it. It'll look just like a false insertion. We do a couple of false insertions on every run, to make it harder for them. Just in case they're tracking us. So far, we haven't had any problems--I generally fly too low for radar--but it's SOP. Doing false insertions, I mean. Anyway, that part of New Mexico is just one big landing strip for a Maule 7. The dry salt lakes are even easier. It ain't no big thing."
"Well, I appreciate the ride."
"Hey, it's my job. But you're welcome."
The sniper who was leaning over the wing whistled, and the pilot finished pumping the aviation fuel. He retrieved the hose nozzle and the sniper stepped down from the strut. The pilot walked around the plane giving it a final visual check, and then stood well off by himself and lit a cigarette. When he was through with his smoke, he ground out the glowing butt with his boot, and climbed back up into the left seat.
The older sniper from Tennessee, who Ranya recognized from the shooting range, sat in the right front seat next to the pilot. They conferred quietly over a folded air map, using a pencil light. She had been proud to overhear during her recent "nap" that she had won the Heckler and Koch pistol off of a Special Forces combat veteran--a Green Beret. She had been happy to sell it back to him after the matches were over: she needed the cash, and couldn't take any extra firearms into New Mexico. At the time, she had thought fifteen hundred dollars was a great price. Oh well. "Blue bucks"--it took some getting used to. Five years was a long time to be away.
The other sniper--the former Albuquerque SWAT cop--climbed into the back seat from the right side and slid across without a word to her, and pointedly looked out the left side window. So he was one of the cops who had been fired for failing the Spanish test. She already knew from the big-rig truck driver that this was a new form of governmental ethnic cleansing--Nuevo Mexico style.
Ranya climbed up and in after the SWAT sniper, placed her pack vertically on the floor in the middle, found her three-point seat belt mostly by feel, and buckled herself in. Finally she latched the door beside her closed. It was a tight fit in the narrow cabin, and she was uncomfortably close to the sniper beside her. They were almost touching at the hips, with their knees bent around her pack.
It was now fully dark, and the pilot fitted a pair of night vision goggles over his face, adjusted the straps, did final checks and switched on the engine. The moment he let off the brakes, the propeller began to pull the plane forward with a powerful surge. Ranya couldn't see any of the gauges or dials in the front of the cockpit; she supposed that the pilot had no problem seeing them with his night goggles. He taxied to the center of the field, adroitly swerved into the wind, and gave the Maule full throttle. The acceleration pressed Ranya back into her seat and the plane immediately hurtled forward with a roar, bumping down the unseen pasture like a runaway dune buggy. In what seemed like only seconds, they lifted smoothly off the ground, and began to climb into the night sky.
Unnoticed by the three men, she couldn't stop smiling.