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Authors: Brian Garfield

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BOOK: Checkpoint Charlie
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Where was the damned thing? Where?

I had the feeling I needed to find the answer within about seven seconds because it was going to take the Venezuelan minister that long to come this far down the steps while the Saudi was getting out of the limousine; already the Venezuelan was nearly down to the fountain and the Saudi was ducking his berobed head and poking a foot out of the car toward the pavement. The entourage of Arab dignitaries had hurried out of the second limousine and they were forming a double column on the steps for the Saudi to walk through; a police captain drew himself to attention, saluting; coming down the stairs the Venezuelan minister had a wide welcoming smile across his austere handsome face.

They'd picked the limousine at random from a motor pool of six. So it couldn't be in the car.

It couldn't be on the steps because the
palacio
had been guarded inside and out for nearly a week and it had been searched half an hour ago by electronic devices, dogs and human eyes.

It couldn't be in the fountain either. That had been too obvious. We'd exercised special care in searching the fountain; it had only been switched on ten minutes earlier. In any case you can't plant a bomb under water because the water absorbs the force of the explosion and all you get is a big bubble and a waterspout.

In other words there was no way for Gregorius to have planted a bomb here. And yet I knew he had done so. I knew where Gregorius was; I knew he had field glasses to his eyes and his finger on the remote-control button that would trigger the bomb by radio signal. When the Saudi met the Venezuelan and they shook hands on the steps not a dozen feet from me Gregorius would set it off.

Six seconds now. The Venezuelan came past the fountain.

The walkie-talkie in my hand crackled with static but I didn't turn it up. The mind raced at Grand Prix speed. If he didn't plant the bomb beforehand — and I knew he hadn't — then there had to be a delivery system.

Five seconds. Gregorius: cold, brutal, neat, ingenious. Then I knew —
I
was the bomb.

Four seconds and my arm swung back. It has been a long time since I threw a football and I had to pray the instinct was still in the arm and then I was watching the walkie-talkie soar over the Venezuelan's head and I could only stand and watch while it lofted and descended. It struck the near lip of the fountain and for a moment it looked ready to fall back onto the stairs but then it tipped over the rim and went into the water.

His reaction time would be slowed by distance and the awkwardness of handling binoculars and the unexpectedness of my move. Instinctively he reached for the trigger button but by the time he pressed it the walkie-talkie had gone into the water. The explosion wasn't loud. Water blistered at the surface and a crack appeared in the surrounding rim; little spouts began to break through the shattered concrete; a great frothy mushroom of water bubbled up over the surface and cascaded down the steps.

Nobody was hurt.

*   *   *

W
E WENT INTO
the hotel fast. I was talking to Cartlidge: “I assume the one who's still upstairs in his room is the blond one with the crew cut.”

“How the hell did you know that?”

“He's Gregorius. He had to have a vantage point.”

Gregorius was still there in the room because he'd had no reason to believe we'd tumbled to his identity. He was as conceited as I; he was sure he hadn't made any mistake to give himself away. He was wrong, of course. He'd made only one but it was enough.

Cartlidge's bomb squad lads were our flying wedge. They kicked the door in and we walked right in on him and he looked at all the guns and decided to sit still.

His window overlooked the
palacio
and the binoculars were on the sill. I said to Cartlidge, “Have a look for the transmitter. He hasn't had time to hide it too far away.”

The Blond said, “What is this about?” All injured innocence.

I said, “It's finished, Gregorius.”

He wasn't going to admit a thing but I did see the brief flash of rage in his eyes; it was all the confirmation I needed. I gave him my best smile. “You'll be pleased to talk in time.”

They searched him, handcuffed him, gave the room a toss and didn't find anything; later that day the transmitter turned up in a cleaning-supplies cupboard down the hall.

To this day Cartlidge still isn't sure we got the right man because nobody ever told him what happened after we got Gregorius back to the States. Myerson and I know the truth. The computer kids in Debriefing sweated Gregorius for weeks and finally he broke and they're still analyzing the wealth of information he has supplied. I'd lost interest by that time; my part of it was finished and I knew from the start that I'd got the right man. I don't make that kind of mistake; it didn't need confirmation from the shabby hypodermics of Debriefing. As I'd said to Myerson, “The binoculars on the windowsill clinched it, of course. When the Venezuelan and the Saudi shook hands he planned to trigger it — it was the best way to hit all three of us. But I knew it had to be The Blond much earlier. I suppose I might have arrested him first before we went looking for the bomb but I wasn't absolutely certain.”

“Don't lie,” Myerson said. “You wanted him to be watching you in his binoculars — you wanted him to know you were the one who defused him. One of these days your brain's going to slow down a notch or two. Next time maybe it'll blow up before you throw it in the pond. But all right, since you're waiting for me to ask — how did you pick the blond one?”

“We knew until recently he'd worn his hair hippie length.”

“So?”

“I saw him at the pool toweling himself dry. I saw him shake his head back the way you do when you want to get the hair back out of your eyes. He had a crew cut. He wouldn't have made that gesture unless he'd cut his hair so recently that he still had the old habit.”

Myerson said, “It took you twelve hours to figure that out? You
are
getting old, Charlie.”

“And hungry. Have you got anything to eat around here?”

“No.”

Checkpoint
Charlie

I
ALWAYS MISTRUST
Myerson but never more so than on those occasions when he pulls me off a job that's only half done and drags me back all the way from Beirut or Helsinki or Sydney to hand me a new assignment. Usually it means he's at his wits' end and needs me to bail him out.

This time it was a short trip back to Langley. I'd been in Montreal and consequently managed to arrive at Myerson's lair without the usual jet lag; my only complaint was hunger — there'd been nothing but a light snack on the plane.

It was two in the morning but Myerson keeps odd hours and I knew he'd still be in his fourth-floor office. I trampled the U.S. government seal into the tiles and the security guard ran my card through the scanner and admitted me to the elevator. The fourth-floor hall rang with my footsteps—eerie, hollow like my innards: I was short-tempered with hunger.

“Where do you buy those suits, Charlie,” Myerson greeted me, “a tent shop?”

I hate him too.

I sat down. “It's late, you're rude and I'm hungry. Can we get down to it without half an hour of the usual sparring?”

“I guess we'd better.”

I was astonished. “It's serious then.”

“Desperate, actually. You've been following the Quito hijack?”

“Just the headlines.”

“We're in a bind.”

Myerson's smile displays a keyboard of teeth reminiscent of an alligator. He rarely employs it to indicate amusement; he uses it mainly when he is anticipating the acute discomfort of someone other than himself.

For a while he smiled without speaking. Then, after he felt he'd struck terror deep into my heart, he resumed.

“The hijackers have nearly one hundred hostages, a Boeing 727 and a variety of explosives and small arms. They have a number of ransom demands as well. They've communicated the demands to the world via the plane's radio equipment.”

“Does anybody know where they are yet?”

“Sure. We've known their location from the beginning. Radio triangulation, radar, so forth. It's a field the Ecuadorians built a few years ago to give their air force a base against the Tuperamo guerrillas. It's been in disuse since March of last year but the runway was sufficient for the 727, which is a relatively short-roll aircraft. They couldn't have done it with a jumbo. But they seem to know what they're doing; undoubtedly they took all these factors into account. We're not dealing with idiots.”

“Access by road?”

“Forget it, Charlie. It's not an Entebbe situation. We can't go in after them. Our hands are tied.”

“Why?”

“International politics. Organization of American States etcetera. Just take my word for it.”

“Then what's the scam?”

“The hijackers have demanded the release of seventeen so-called political prisoners who are incarcerated in various countries on charges of terrorism, murder, espionage, so forth. What the liberation people think of as victims of political persecution. Actually most of them are vermin, guilty of the vilest crimes.”

“Plus they're doubtless asking for a few million dollars and a free ride to Libya or Uganda.”

“Yes, of course. Disregard all that, Charlie. The problem is something altogether different.”

“Then why bore me with inessentials?”

“Bear with me. Twelve of the seventeen so-called political prisoners are Ché guerrillas who're incarcerated in various South American jails. Four in Ecuador, seven in Bolivia, one in Venezuela. Four more are in prison in Mexico.”

“That adds up to sixteen. Where's the seventeenth?”

“Here. Leavenworth.”

“Who is he?”

“Emil Stossel.” And he grinned at me. Because I was the one who'd put Stossel in prison.

I didn't give him the satisfaction of rising to the bait; I merely said, “So?”

“So the Latin Americans have elected to accede to the terrorists' demands temporarily, figuring to nail them after the hostages have been freed. The plane has several high-ranking Latin American dignitaries on board. The OAS doesn't want to risk their lives any more than it has to.”

I snorted. “They're already at risk.”

“It's not for us to decide. The various governments have agreed to turn the sixteen guerrillas loose and give them safe passage to Havana. They're asking us to cooperate by handing Stossel over to the East Germans in Berlin.”

“Why not Havana? It's closer.”

“He's not Cuban. The Cubans would have little reason to grant him asylum — he'd be an embarrassment to them. He's German. Anyhow that's the demand and we've got to live with it.” Myerson glanced at the clock above the official photograph of the President. “In two hours we're putting him on a plane in Kansas. It will connect with an international flight at Dulles. He'll be in Berlin tomorrow night.”

Then Myerson made a face. “It's asinine, I agree — you don't make deals with terrorists. These governments are fools. But we've got no choice. If we held out — refused to release Stossel — you can imagine the black eye we'd get if the hijackers started murdering hostages one at a time.”

“All right,” I said. “We've got our national tail in a crack. We have to turn him over to the DDR. I don't like turning mass murderers loose any more than you do but I still don't see what it's got to do with me.”

He smiled again. I fought the impulse to flinch. “How's your broken-field running these days, fat man?”

I saw it coming. His smugness made me gag. He said, “You're going to intercept the pass, Charlie.”

“Before or after he crosses the wall?”

“After.”

“Lovely.”

“We can't recapture him until after the hijack has been dealt with, can we. The hostages have to be turned loose before we can lay a finger on Stossel.”

“In other words you want to deliver him to the East Germans and wait for the hijack to end and then afterward you expect me to get him back and put him back in Leaven-worth to finish out his sentence.”

“Right. After all, we can't have the world think we've gone soft, can we. We've got to prove they can't get away with it. Carry a big stick and all that.”

“We could kill him,” I said. “It's a lot easier to assassinate him in East Germany than it is to bring him out alive. No, never mind, don't say it. I know. We won't be stampeded into committing public murder, especially on hostile soil. We have to bring him back alive because that's the best way to rub their noses in it.”

“You have the picture, I'm happy to see.”

I said, “It's impossible.”

“Of course it is. They'll be expecting it. They'll leave no openings at all.” He smiled slowly, deliciously. “Charlie, it's the kind of job you do best. You get bored with anything less.”

“Ever since that caper with von Schnee I've been
persona non grata
in the Eastern sector. If they catch me on their side of the wall they'll lock me up for a hundred and fifty years. In thumbscrews. On German peasant food.”

“Yes. I know. Adds a bit of spice to the challenge, doesn't it.” And he smiled more broadly than ever.

*   *   *

E
MIL
S
TOSSEL
had cut his eyeteeth on Abwehr duplicity and he'd run a string of successful agents in the United States for the Eastern bloc intelligence services. The FBI hadn't been able to crack him and I'd been assigned to him about twelve years ago before we all got dumped into a fishbowl where we were no longer permitted to do that sort of thing domestically. It took time and patience but in the end we were ready to go in after him. His HQ was in Arlington not far from the Pentagon — Stossel had nerve and a sense of humor.

BOOK: Checkpoint Charlie
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