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Authors: Richard Herman

Firebreak

BOOK: Firebreak
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RICHARD HERMAN,JR.
FIREBREAK

For my mother,
Mildred Leona,
who taught me to meet life
head-on and still dream.

PROLOGUE

The five ships rode easy in the gentle swells of the South Atlantic, a welcome break after the pounding they had taken for three days. Avi Tamir stuck his head out of the main control room on the command ship and sampled the weather change for himself. Since he was a rotten sailor, he could still feel an occasional twinge of seasickness in the lower regions of his stomach. Satisfied that the storm had blown through on its race to the east and that his stomach would improve, he stepped onto the main deck and pulled the hood of his duffel coat over his head. Slowly, and then with increasing confidence, the heavyset man lumbered toward the outside ladder leading to the bridge.

Tamir mumbled in Hebrew as he climbed the steps to the bridge, wondering what in the hell he was doing halfway between the southern tip of Africa and Antarctica. He knew exactly why he was there, but he needed to jolt himself back to reality and the task at hand. He paused on the port wing of the bridge, swept the horizon with his binoculars, and pinpointed two of the South African cutters on patrol. There was a third somewhere over the horizon maintaining station with its two sister craft and his ship, all in a giant circle around an old freighter.

Harm van Dagens was on the bridge and stepped outside, joining Tamir. “They must have taken a beating last night,” Van Dagens said, marking the two cutters with a wave of his right hand. “I fell out of my bunk.” The big Afrikaner snorter. “Forty foot waves … sixty mile an hour winds … too much for an old crock like me. Come on inside. It’s warmer and there’s coffee.”

The two men stepped through the hatch onto the bridge. As promised, it was much warmer and a steward handed them each a mug of coffee. Tamir had worked with Van Dagens for three years and had come to like the gruff old man during that time. If this test was successful, Tamir calculated, he just might be home in Israel in time for Yom Kippur and would probably never see Van Dagens again. He would miss the crusty old South African scientist.

“Time to work,” Van Dagens said and stepped up to the radar scope in front of the helmsman while Tamir put on a headset and ran a checklist. Van Dagens studied the scope, ensuring the five ships were alone. He became all business. “Status of the freighter?”

“Taking on water and listing seven degrees,” the first officer told them. “They had a bad night and lost one of their pumps. They were lucky the old scow didn’t sink.”

Van Dagens continued to look at the scope. “It would not be good if ground zero sank before the ‘package’ arrived. Weather?”

“Perfect,” Tamir told him, flipping through reports on a clipboard. “Visibility thirty nautical miles plus, winds steady out of the west at sixteen knots, the ceiling is unlimited. The tail end of the storm left a scattered cloud deck at twelve thousand feet in the southeastern quadrant. It will blow out.”

“Stations?” Van Dagens asked, looking at Tamir from under his bushy eyebrows.

Tamir spoke into his boom mike and waited for a reply. “All stations are in the green and transmitting. Recorders are on.” The seventy-four South African and Israeli scientists and technicians scattered over the command ship and the three smaller cutters that ringed the old freighter in the center of the giant circle continued to run their checklists. They were a well-rehearsed team and, one by one, they checked in as they completed their assigned tasks. Finally, Tamir glanced up at the ship’s clock on the bulkhead, noted the time, and spoke into his mike: “We’ve got a go. Evacuate ground zero, send the launch message, button up. Resume countdown on takeoff.”

Six hundred miles to the north at an airfield near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, two unmarked Israeli F-4 Phantoms taxied out of a heavily guarded bunker and lined up on the runway. The two aircraft maintained radio silence as the first ran up its engines. A green light blinked from the tower and it roared down the runway. Twenty seconds later the second Phantom started its takeoff roll. The first Phantom turned to the south, arcing out to sea and allowing the second F-4 to cut it off and join up as they climbed out.

A Bantu construction worker noted the time and that both aircraft were configured with three fuel tanks; one on the centerline and one under each wing. He also photographed the first Phantom, which carried a silver-gray dart on its left inboard wing pylon. He judged it to be a 500-pound bomb, approximately ten feet long. Actually, it weighed 765 pounds, was fourteen inches in diameter, and twelve feet long. He did not risk taking a photo of the other aircraft, which carried eight air-to-air missiles. He later reported the second Phantom as an armed escort.

It had been a standard Washington, D.C., dinner party, and now the last of the guests were standing at the door, waiting for their drivers to bring their cars down the elegant Georgetown street. Senator Matthew Zachary Pontowski stood just inside the door with his wife, bidding the speaker of the House a good-night.

“Zack, think about it,” the speaker said. “We can make it happen if we start now.” He gave the senator and his wife an encouraging smile and walked down the steps, disappearing through the open door of the Lincoln that was waiting for him.

Zack Pontowski stood for a moment and watched the car drive away. The Secret Service agent who had been detailed to guard the entrance that night watched him, thinking how much the sixty-year-old man looked like a senator: exactly six feet tall, lanky with slightly hunched shoulders, a full head of gray hair deliberately left long, and a hawklike nose. The senator sniffed the balmy night air as if he was sensing a change in the weather, nodded at the agent, and closed the door.

“Two-thirty in the morning,” the senator’s wife said. “Most unusual for the speaker to stay so late but it does make for a successful evening.” He followed his wife down the hall while her practiced eye surveyed the final cleanup by the catering crew. She was satisfied with their performance and that the house would be ready for whatever the day would bring. “Emil does these things well,” she allowed. “We’ll use him again.” She looked around for a moment before calling, “Melissa?”

A tall woman in her early thirties came out of the kitchen. She was drying her hands on a towel and a dark wisp of hair had fallen over her left eye. Her simple black cocktail dress revealed her shapely legs and accentuated a trim figure that had never known the stress of childbearing. “We’re almost finished, Mrs. Pontowski. Another five minutes.” Melissa Courtney-Smith was one of the senator’s more efficient and long-suffering aides.

“Thank you, Melissa. You helped make the dinner a huge success and I know you gave up your evening.”

The woman smiled and pushed the errant strand of hair back into place. “I’m glad it all turned out well. Besides, I enjoy it. I’ll make sure you’re all locked up when I leave.”

“Did Matt bother you tonight?” the senator asked. “I saw him hanging around.”

Melissa stifled a frown. “No, not really. I found him lurking around the back stairs dress all in black with his cassette recorder. I chased him off to bed.”

The older woman paused on the stairs and sighed. “What’s he up to now? That boy’s always into something.”

“Probably James Bonding it,” the senator explained. “He’s been reading spy novels lately. I’ll talk to him in the morning.” He followed his wife up the stairs.

“Senator,” Melissa called after them, “I think he’s discovered girls.” She didn’t mention the pat Matt had given her well-shaped behind when he scampered up the stairs or the clip she had given his right ear in return.

“A bit early for a twelve-year-old,” the senator mumbled. “Now I
will
talk to him in the morning.”

His wife gave him a rueful grin. “Just like his father and grandfather.”

“I’m a bit past it, at my age.”

“Miss Courtney-Smith obviously doesn’t think so. But for your sake”—she smiled at him—“I hope you are.” It was the way their lovemaking always started.

“And if I’m not?”

“Then you better bring it to bed or I’ll do some nipping and tucking where it counts.”

He put his arm around her waist and gave her a playful squeeze. “If I remember right, it’s more like gnashing and gnawing.” They walked down the hall together. “Matt’s light is still on,” he said. “I’ll check on him.” He watched his wife go into their bedroom before he nudged his grandson’s door open.

“Grandpop?” a voice from the top bunk called.

Pontowski walked over, ruffled the boy’s sandy brown hair, climbed into the bottom bunk, and stretched his frame out. “Matt, you been bugging our home with your tape recorder?”

“Ah, I was just messin’ around, Grandpop. Tryin’ to see what it could pick up.”

“You record anything?”

“Naw, too far away. I need a remote mike. But I could hear real good and learned some super stuff. I’d make a good spy.”

“You going to be a spy now?” Pontowski asked.

“Naw, I’m going to the Air Force Academy and be a fighter pilot just like my dad was.”

The senator caught his breath at Matt’s latest announcement and he could hear the same enthusiasm in the boy’s voice as in his father’s. The old hurt welled up inside of him and he thought about how much he loved Matt.

“Well, you got lots of time to think about that. About this spy business, what did you learn tonight?”

Matt hung his head over the edge of the bunk and looked down at his grandfather. The impish grin was in place and his hair hung down. He was bursting to tell his secret.

“You’re going to need braces,” Pontowski told him.

“Aah, Grandpop, don’t change the subject. I know why they want you to run for governor and not for the Senate next time.”

“Matt, we’ve got to keep that a secret between you and me,” Pontowski cautioned him.

“Okay,” the boy agreed, pulling back into the bed. Silence. Slowly, the senator rolled off the bunk and walked to the door. He paused, remembering the night in 1957 when Matt’s father had told them he wanted to go to the brand-new Air Force Academy and fly jet fighters. With a single-minded purpose that surprised the senator and his wife, the teenager had pursued that goal and graduated with the class of 1964—the class that would lead the air war in Vietnam.

The senator turned off the light when Matt said, “ ‘Night, Grandpop.”

“Sleep tight, Matt.”

Then: “Grandpop, are you really going to be President of the United States?”

The waiting, the grinding delays, the years of frustration and failure were almost over. Avi Tamir had left the bridge of the command ship and taken his position in the control room. He kept glancing at the master clock above his head as if it were the force driving him. In a very real sense it was, for Tamir had been racing it since 1967 when he first started on this project; ever since that evening in Tel Aviv.

Like most of his countrymen, on the twenty-fourth of June, 1967, Tamir was still basking in the glow of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War that had been over for two weeks. He found life exceptionally sweet and, with a little luck, he would break free tomorrow and join his wife who was in her eighth month of pregnancy. But there was much to do, so much captured equipment to collect before it was lost or damaged. The Israelis had reaped windfalls of Soviet technology from the war and it was up to Tamir to see that it was examined and exploited.

Tamir was suffering from a twinge of guilt for not participating in the war. He had tried to join his reserve unit during the mobilization, but his reputation as one of Israel’s finest scientists had preceded him and orders were waiting that sent him right back to his office. Afraid that he had not done his part, he now drove himself, and his staff, ruthlessly.

He had worked through the Sabbath in his office on that Saturday so he could break free for two days to see his wife. He was a bit annoyed by the phone call late in the evening summoning him to another meeting, but since the call came from a secretary to the minister of defense, he could not ignore it. Five minutes later, a car picked him up and he was surprised to see his former boss, Ahrele Yariv, the head of military intelligence, sitting in the backseat. Yariv motioned for Tamir to join him but didn’t say much as they drove through Tel Aviv. Tamir was certain of their destination when the driver turned down the street where Levi Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel, lived.

They found the prime minister in his living room, relaxing in slippers. Tamir was taken aback by the two other men with Eshkol—Meir Amit, the head of Mossad, and Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense. Even though Israel is a small, egalitarian country given to informal ways, Tamir knew this was an important meeting and that he was in the middle of something big. Eshkol did not come right to the point but instead started talking about bomb-disposal techniques and the men who engaged in that line of work. He pointed out that the situation of Israel was much like that—for their first mistake would be their last one. And sooner or later, Israel would make a mistake. He wanted to talk about insurance for just such a time, he didn’t want to be like a bomb-disposal man.

Tamir said nothing as he followed the conversation, his mind racing. He knew what was coming. Finally, Eshkol had leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped together in front of him, and looked directly at Tamir. “We are now producing weapon-grade plutonium at our Dimona reactor. We want you to build us a nuclear bomb.”

“Six minutes,” Van Dagens announced to the control room. He was in radio contact with the delivery aircraft and spoke into the microphone attached to his headset. “We have an arm light.” The control room was eerily silent and the men could barely hear the ship’s engines as they maintained their station exactly twenty nautical miles due north of the old freighter.

Tamir noted the fast-moving blip on the radar scope in front of him and scanned the banks of the monitoring equipment lining the bulkheads of the large room. But his eyes always came back to the master clock above his head. The radar blip was exactly forty miles from its release point. Five minutes to go. In the back of the room, a radar controller was talking to the crew of the F-4, tracking them and ensuring that they were on course and would pickle at the exact spot that would allow the parachute-retarded weapon to descend directly over the freighter. The radar controller confirmed the F-4 was on course and on time.

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