Colonel Grenot – Sneak Peek
There is a certain atmosphere about a seaport on a summer afternoon. The smells of saltwater and diesel oil. The heat of the sun and the grit of dirt. Men shout and swear, and tugs maneuver freighters in and out of the docks. The sense of the place is the same anywhere in the world, whether a bustling, modern hive of gantry cranes and shipping containers or a sleepy patch of earth dotted with loose stacks of cargo.
Astara was more the latter. It lay on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, and its thousand years of history were scattered with bloodshed and the rise and fall of empires. Rulers came and went. Armies marched, and borders followed them from north to south and back again. Through it all, the port went quietly about its business. There was always cotton to ship. Rice. Building stone. Oil.
The current border bisected the town just north of the port, separating Iran from Azerbaijan. But the difference meant little to the people here. Family bonds stretched across the border, and many of the port workers had girlfriends on the other side. The checkpoint on the main road routinely waved people through, and small boats went steadily back and forth along the shoreline. Astara’s border was languid and porous.
That was just how Jessie Diamond liked them.
Right now, this part of the seaport was calm. No ship rested at the pier. The sounds of engines and shouting were just a dim rumble in the distance. Waiting alone on the flat, dusty ground between the wharf and the storage yard, Jessie stood out. She was a woman of perhaps thirty, blonde, lean, and wiry. Her clothes suggested a pilot, and the documents she carried confirmed it, adding that she was Polish and in Iran to support an oil company survey team. The pilot part was true enough, but that was the only truth in the papers. It was a very different job that had brought her to Astara.
A job that was starting to go wrong. Her contact was late. There could be any number of reasons for that, but none of them were good.
“Where the hell is he?” she murmured into her collar mic.
Niall Beaton’s voice came back, calm and confident. “They want this really bad. He’ll be here.”
“Unless he got caught. Anything moving?”
“No. You’re secure.”
Jessie sighed. “Then I guess we wait.”
She checked her watch again. Almost half an hour. She’d give him some more time, but the longer she stayed exposed like this, the greater the danger.
All this for a movie.
But of course, it didn’t matter what the package was. Jessie was paid, and paid well, to get it where it needed to be. Her business cards summed it up. “Diamond Transport. When it absolutely has to be there. Or anywhere else but there.”
So she’d wait for as long as it was prudent, and then a bit longer if need be. That was the job.
At least she had Niall at her back. He was hidden in a nest of boards he’d built atop a huge stack of Russian lumber at the edge of the storage yard, watching over her. Knowing he was there gave her the confidence to keep hanging around in the open, where she stood out like a fly on a wedding cake.
Few people really got the relationship between Jessie and Niall. He was fifteen years older than her, a big, physically imposing man with a look and bearing that hinted at his special forces past. Outsiders at first tended to assume he was the one in charge, with Jessie as an underling or perhaps his mistress—a suggestion that would cause anger to flash behind Niall’s dark eyes. When his unquestioning deference and the depth of his loyalty to her finally registered, they looked for some explanation. Niall just shrugged off questions, usually saying simply, “she got me out of South America.”
That was technically accurate but, like Jessie’s survey pilot guise, it didn’t begin to cover the truth.
What mattered was that she could trust him, more than anyone else, with her life if need be. As long as he was there, an enemy would have to kill Niall to get to her. And she’d seen how hard Niall was to kill.
“Movement,” he said quietly in her ear. “Motorbike. One rider with a bag. Coming up from your four o’clock.”
She turned and saw it, the bike’s engine humming as it approached across the packed earth. The rider pulled up a few feet away and turned off the engine. The motorcycle was a small-bore commuter bike. It looked like a Honda CG125, or maybe a locally produced knockoff. It wasn’t very powerful, but it would be quick and agile, and it would keep running through almost anything. A good choice for this part of the world.
The rider took his helmet off. He was a handsome young man, maybe twenty-two. The black canvas duffel bag slung over his shoulder would contain the rough footage for the latest film by Kamran Amiri, a world-renowned Iranian director who’d run afoul of the government somehow. He’d been forbidden to work but had shot his latest film in secret. He’d used film industry contacts to get word to a group of prominent Hollywood figures, and they’d hired Jessie to get the film back to the states for post-production. The young man on the bike had the look of a film student, she thought, probably one of the great director’s disciples.
He shook out his hair and nodded to her. “Halina?”
It was the name she’d given them, the one on her forged papers. “You’re late. Everything all right?”
“I’m Tamaz. Yes, yes. Kamran just wanted to make sure he had everything. The film is here, and his notes on editing, soundtrack.” He patted the end of the bag. “Everything to finish the film has to be here. Everything. This is Wind in the Night now. The only footage.”
Tamaz walked slowly toward the waterfront and Jessie followed. This wasn’t a date. She’d prefer to take the bag and get out of here. But apparently, he wanted to talk.
“Have you seen Kamran’s work?” he asked as they strolled along the wharf.
“I’ve seen The Serving Bowl.” She’d watched it after she took the job, to get a sense of what she was involved in.
He nodded. “Good film. Early work. This will be better.” He caressed the bag with one hand. His other held the strap, as if he didn’t want to let the bag go.
They stopped and looked out over the water. In the distance she saw a small Caspian freight hauler heading into port. There would be more activity here soon.
“You should give it to me,” she said gently. “It has a long way to go.”
He looked at her and she saw hesitation in his eyes.
“It’ll get where it’s going,” she said, trying to sound reassuring.
“It has to!” he said with sudden intensity. “The world has to see…people have to know. We are more than just imams and bombs. Our people are artists too.”
She reached out and carefully lifted the strap off Tamaz’s shoulder. Then she slung it over her own and let the bag’s weight settle on her back. “It’s my responsibility now. My duty. Do you understand?”
He nodded, then something behind her caught his eye and his face fell. “VAJA,” he murmured.
VAJA was the secret police arm of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Niall’s voice crackled in her ear.
“Incoming. Two black vans from the main road. Get moving!”
They ran back the way they’d come. As they neared the motorcycle, Tamaz stopped and grabbed Jessie’s arm.
“Take my bike,” he said urgently, and thrust the keys at her. He took a deep breath. “I won’t need it anymore. Go!”
Then he turned and strode rapidly toward the two vans speeding toward them across the open yard.
Jessie threw one leg over the bike and sat down. She turned the key in the ignition and opened the choke. Ahead of her, Tamaz walked in front of the nearest van, his arms raised in surrender. He was trying to buy her time to escape with the film that was more precious to him than his freedom. The van braked to a stop barely a foot from him. Tamaz never flinched.
Jessie sprang up and came down hard on the kickstarter. The bike’s engine roared to life.
As armed VAJA agents spilled out of the first van, the second whipped around it and sped toward her. Jessie gunned the throttle, spun the bike around, and took off in the other direction.
“Coming to you!” she shouted into her mic.
The far end of the yard was a maze of stacked loose materials. There was Niall’s lumber pile, pallets of rice and sorghum, oil drums, building stone, and more. All laid out in a rough grid with paths between wide enough to allow a handcart or a forklift. She could tie them up there for a while and give Niall the time he needed.
She came around the corner of the lumber stack, and Niall was there waiting, his pistol in his hand. She stopped in front of him and dropped the bag at his feet.
“No shooting! Get the Cat!”
Niall nodded. She was already roaring off as he put his gun away and grabbed the duffel bag.
She circled around the lumber and came back into the open field between the cargo and the wharf. The second van immediately veered toward her. Beyond, she saw Tamaz, his hands cuffed and a sack over his head. The VAJA agents threw him into the back of the other van and climbed in. There was nothing she could do for him. He’d made his choice. All she could do now was make it count.
She roared along the edge of the yard with the van in pursuit. She led them as far from Niall as she could. If she was lucky, they didn’t know he was there. As she approached the fence that separated the port from the main road, she slowed and took a sharp right around a stake pen full of heavy burlap sacks. Then she immediately turned again. The vans couldn’t turn this sharply, especially at speed. She took a quick left, then another right around a pallet stacked with plastic jugs of cooking oil. Left, another left, then a right, until even she didn’t know quite where in the yard she was.
Then she stopped. With the bike idling, she could hear the vans’ engines echoing off the stacks. One shot past two rows behind her, and she heard it skid to a stop in the dirt. Then it reversed and braked hard as it reached her row again. The side door flew back from the momentum, slamming hard against the end of its track, and a gun appeared from the dark interior.
Jessie hit the throttle and disappeared down another row as a shot echoed behind her. Another turn, and they again had no idea where she was. The van was too ungainly in the tight paths. The agile little bike had the advantage here.
But a minute later she raced down a row and saw a man on foot to her right, running with a pistol held down in both hands. He snapped the gun up as their paths crossed, but she was gone before he could fire. Then, to her left, she spotted one of the vans outside the maze, pacing her, trying to keep her from breaking out. If they had enough men, they could start placing them at intersections and hem her in. She was running out of time.
Another turn, another running man. This one didn’t try to fire but shouted into a handset. They were drawing their net tighter around her.
A few moments later, she was very relieved to hear Niall’s voice in her earpiece.
“Cat’s hot! Where are you going?”
Jessie stopped beside the Russian lumber to get her bearings. Then she gunned the throttle. Just as she dropped the bike into gear, a man rounded the corner directly in front of her. The agent wore a suit and carried a pistol. She kicked out hard as she passed and knocked him back into the stacks of 2x4s. Then she was gone. A few moments later, she shot out of the maze and back onto open ground. One of the vans was perhaps fifty yards away on her right. She spun the bike left, throwing up dirt, and sped along the wharf. Ahead of her, the seawall jutted out like a curled finger, protecting the harbor from the sea. She pushed the little Honda as fast as it would go. It was quick to get up to speed, but it was no racer. The van was closing behind her. Soon it would run her down, and they’d have her.
As she reached the seawall, she put one boot out and dragged the bike around, leaning hard into the too sharp turn. It was just like riding her older brother’s dirt bike in Idaho when she was a girl. Then she was racing away down the seawall.
The seawall was too narrow for the van to follow. The best they could do was chase her on foot now. Advantage back to the bike. The van skidded to a stop, and two figures jumped out and ran after her.
Then Jessie glanced to her left and saw what she’d hoped for. Its twin engines roaring, a PBY Catalina flying boat raced down the shoreline, picking up speed as it sliced through the water. Niall had done his part. All she had to do now was reach the plane. And that was going to mean getting wet.
She was running out of seawall fast. She saw a bit of lip on the outer edge of the wall. Come on, she mentally urged the bike. One last sprint. Give me everything you’ve got.
Its engine screaming in protest, the Honda soared off the edge of the seawall and into the air. Jessie drew her legs up and pushed off the frame as hard as she could. Then she was tumbling between the sky and the sea, the bike below her, the Catalina a silver shape ahead. She saw the bike plunge into the sea and then the warm water of the Caspian reached up and slapped her hard.
She came up sputtering and turned until she could see the plane. Niall was already starting to turn away so he wouldn’t run the Catalina aground or into the seawall. She’d have to get to him. She took a breath and started to swim.
Behind her she heard shouting and the pops of gunshots. She ignored them and concentrated on swimming. Stroke, stroke, arm over arm, breathe, kick. She was closing the distance. The engines went down to idle, and Jessie saw the Catalina’s side hatch open. Niall hurled a float toward her, trailing a rope. Then he was gone, back to the cockpit. Jessie swam a dozen more strokes and grabbed the float. She hauled herself hand over hand toward the plane as it began to move again.
She dragged herself through the Catalina’s wake, struggling to breathe and keep her grip on the rope. Then she reached up and grabbed the lower lip of the hatch, the metal reassuringly solid in her hand. She hauled herself up over the rim and fell onto the deck of the cargo hold. Soaked and shaking with adrenaline, she pulled herself up and closed the hatch.
The gunfire outside had grown more intense. She heard short bursts of automatic fire, and then bullets slamming into the Catalina’s tail.
“Damn it!” she shouted. That metalwork wasn’t cheap. “Niall, get us out of here!”
“What do you think I’m doing?” he shouted back.
Jessie headed up to the cockpit. The plane might look like a stock Catalina from the outside, but a World War II flight crew wouldn’t recognize the interior. Jessie had had the plane rebuilt and updated from the outer skin in. The side hatch and cargo bay themselves weren’t part of the original design, and it just got more unusual as she headed forward, past living quarters, a galley and weapons locker, and into the completely redesigned cockpit. She’d kept the overhead throttles because, well, she had to keep those. But the rest of the cockpit was all modern avionics and fly by wire.
She spotted the black duffel bag tucked safely behind the pilot’s seat, and she settled into the other seat. They were accelerating away from the seawall now, out of the range of the VAJA agents’ guns.
“Where are we going?” Niall asked.
They couldn’t just cruise back into Azerbaijan. Sneaking themselves into Iran was one thing. Charging across the border in a World War II flying boat and racing back out in a hail of gunfire was a bit much for either country’s authorities to overlook.
They’d worn out their welcome here. But they had enough range to get across the Caspian to Turkmenistan. Jessie had good contacts there. Good enough to get them in without a flight plan or entry papers. They’d check the damage to the plane, refuel, and get the package back to the U.S.
She glanced back again at the black duffel bag. It had cost a lot to get it this far. Tamaz was facing a dark future. Prison at least. Possibly torture, or worse. He’d sacrificed himself for a piece of art without hesitation. It had meant that much to him.
“It better be a damn good movie,” Jessie said as the Catalina broke the surface and climbed away into the east, heading out to sea.