Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya.
Laura had tarted herself up so that she was quite a distraction, he thought, watching her approach the passport-control slot with her hidden contraband. She walked with a bouncy stride that wasn’t really her own, chest up and out, her rear also very much on view in tight yellow shorts that barely reached her hips. Her navel rode calmly in all this motion, its ring with the diamond chip winking. Laura had made herself, in fact, all distractions, and every male eye in the shedlike arrival area was on some part of her. The fact that she didn’t have a really pretty face was irrelevant.
Alan Craik grinned despite himself. She was enjoying it! He, on the other hand, was nervous, for her as much as for himself, and he tensed as she sashayed to the passport-control booth and started to chat with a security officer. More balls than he had, he thought. He had only to move a 9mm pistol through; she had something far more dangerous.
He flexed his fingers to relax them, felt the odd sensation in his left hand where two fingers were missing. Or, rather, were red stumps. He forced himself to look at them, felt disbelief, slight disgust. My hand. The fingers had been blown off by a bullet seven weeks before. There had been talk of his leaving the Navy.
He balled the hand into a fist and forced himself to concentrate. Back to work.
Alan laid his U.S. passport, a twenty-dollar bill sticking from its top, in front of the black man at passport control. The man, too, had been looking at Laura, and Alan grinned.
“Maridadi,” Alan said. Pretty.
The man’s eyes flicked over Alan’s shoulder again to Laura, fifty feet away, and he growled “whore” in Swahili, which Alan wasn’t supposed to understand. He stamped the passport and waved Alan through. The twenty had disappeared.
Alan took three steps, clearing passport control, and looked for her. For a moment he lost her, then saw the bright yellow of her buns swinging up the stairs to the balcony above. He guessed that she had seen the sign up there for a ladies’ room, used that excuse to bypass customs temporarily. Up there, however, farther along the balcony, was a uniformed Kenyan soldier with an automatic weapon, strategically located between the stairs and the exit at the far end that led directly to the terminal. He was there to turn back anybody who tried to get out that way.
The yellow shorts flashed and the door to the ladies’ room closed. Alan turned and walked out.
He waited for her in the terminal hall. His pulse had leveled off again, and the sweat that had threatened to leak down his sides had stopped. His part was over: he had moved the weapon and fifty cartridges through the airport’s security. Now, if Laura didn’t get arrested for moving drugs–
A wooden dhow moved south along the Kenyan
coast, nearing Mombasa. It was going slowly under motor power, its sail useless in the humid breeze that blew from the shore. The men aboard could smell the land beyond, an odor slightly spicy, smoky, earthy, overlaid with the moist decay of the mangrove swamps where Africa met the ocean.
A dark man sat at the foot of the mast, waiting for the first sight of the city. Just now, he could see only blue-green haze where the land
lay, and here and there a darker mass where a point thrust out. He had binoculars hung around his neck, but he did not use them. He was in fact seeing far more clearly with an inner eye, which looked beyond the haze, beyond Africa even, into his future.
In four hours, he would be in paradise.
He believed this more completely than he believed that he was sitting on a ship on an ocean on a ball rolling through space. He believed with both passion and simplicity; he believed utterly. He had no fear of the destruction of his physical self that would send him there. They had assured him that he would feel nothing: a flash, a pressure, and he would wake in paradise.
Another man approached him. He had a bag of tools in one hand and, in the other, a black plastic case that held a detonator. “Time,” the man said.
The dark man shook his head. “Not yet.” He returned to his contemplation of paradise.
“Hey, man,” he heard her voice say behind him.
“My God, you made it!”
“Piece of cake!” She shrugged. Grinned. Held up a hand so that he could see that the fingers were trembling. “Little reaction after the fact.” Laughed. Her distractions bounced, and Alan Craik, loyal husband,
father, moral man, pursed his lips and thought that it was going to
be a long three days–and three nights–before she went on to other duties.
“How’d you get by the guy with the gun?”
“Walked.” She moved a little closer. “Want to see how I walked?” She wasn’t wearing a bra, he knew–she had told him earlier–and her silk T-shirt was definitely a little small.
“I think we ought to do our report.”
“You’re a great partner, Craik. I tell you, man, I sure lucked out with you!” She sighed. Laura Sweigert was a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent, good at her work, tough, but she had a reputation for liking what she called “contact sports” when the workday was over. “I just scored big, man–you think I want to write some fucking report?” He remembered a news report about a female tennis star who, after a big win, said she just wanted to get laid.
A long three nights.
He was saved by a voice calling his name. Behind them and to their right was the exit lane from immigration, lined on both sides by a crowd of greeters–family, hustlers, tourist reps, women in saris, men with hand-lettered signs that said “Adamson” and “Client of Simba, Ltd.” The voice calling “Mister Craik! Mister Craik!” came from there, and Alan searched the two crowds, feeling Laura’s hand on his bare arm. He thought he recognized the voice and searched for a face, a white face in the mostly black crowd, and then he saw a Navy ball cap and knew he had the right man, and he waved.
“Craw! Hey, Craw!”
Master Chief Martin Craw had been one of the people who had got him through being an ensign. Craw had taught him the back end of the S-3. Craw had shown him how to massage old tapes and older computers and pull up targets from electronic mush. Craw had given him an example of what a Navy man should be.
Now Martin Craw came toward them, a little grin on his face as he took in both Alan and Laura, hand outstretched.
“Laura, I want you to meet the best master chief in the U.S. Navy. Martin, this is Laura Sweigert, who just brought a kilo of white powder through Kenyatta arrivals.”
“Ma’am.” Craw was in his early forties but seemed an ancient to Alan because of his great, quiet authority. His grin, however, and his quick appraisal of Laura were not an old man’s. “How’d you do that?”
Laura rocked back a little and smiled at him. “I think it was the
Craw reddened only a little. “Kinda dangerous.” He didn’t make clear whether he meant the T-shirt or the white powder. Craw was from Maine.
She made a sound that pooh-poohed the idea. “Hell’s bells, Craik brought through a goddamned gun!”
“Not so loud–”
She held up her hands. “Okay, okay.” Her fingernails, like her toenails, were painted a glittery red. Her lipstick was pink, her eyeshadow violet, her hair a mousy brown that you ignored because it was gelled to look as if she’d just got very, very wet. “Entirely legit,” she said. “We’re testing airport security for NCIS.”
“I figured.” Craw grinned. He jerked his head at Alan. “He’s always legit.”
Laura made a face. “So I’m discovering.” She put a hand through Craw’s arm. “What are your plans for the next couple of days, sailor?” Alan, caused abruptly to see Craw through her eyes, realized that the senior chief was a damned good-looking man.
Craw saw Alan’s look, blushed. “I’m goin’ to be working for Mister Craik.”
Alan bent and picked up his helmet bag, which held the H&K. “You want to bring me up to date, Chief? Like, um, what you’re doing here?” He had last seen Craw on board the USS Thomas Jefferson a week ago, when he had had to fly back to CONUS to be deposed for a national-security case.
With Laura leaning against him, Craw explained that he had flown into Mombasa the evening before from the CV to set up the U.S. hangar there as their home base while they shore-deployed. “Orders from the CAG.” He raised his free hand, which held a black attaché case.
“Yeah, I know, I got ’em, too. But I didn’t expect to be met at Nairobi.”
“Thought I could brief you flying back to Mombasa. The admiral’s goin’ to inspect us tomorrow.” Again he gestured with the attaché case. “Got some paperwork–”
“What the hell, we just got here!”
“Well, he’s makin’ a shore visit, so it’s some ship today, us to- morrow.”
That changed the price of fish. What he and Laura had just done–moving illicit items through airport security for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service–was a peripheral responsibility, a test of local conditions that would become part of a report. He had treated it as a game; however, with this return to the realities of his detachment, the pleasures of the game faded and the serious trivia of Navy life took over.
They began moving away from the arrivals area. “What’s our space like down there?”
“Kinda filthy. One of the old air force hangars at Mombasa airport. Not been used for a while–dust, gear missin’–been a lotta thievin’, I’d guess. I put everybody to cleanin’ up, but the place is big–room for a couple P-3s in there and to spare, if you had to.”
They were walking toward the Air Kenya desk now to start the flight to Mombasa. “How many personnel?”
“Aircrew for one plane plus seventeen–other plane comin’ in a few days.”
“Nyali International.” American military, like government people, got put up in the big international hotels on the beach because they were supposed to be more secure than hotels in Mombasa itself. “But I told ’em, you boys just plan to be in this hangar nonstop till the admiral’s blown through, then I’ll get you some rack time. They’re all good boys.”
They were, Alan thought; they were all good boys now, although when he and Craw had first encountered them some months before, they had been pretty bad boys. Detachment 424 was a one-shot unit put together to test-drive a 3-D radar-imaging system called MARI, and it had been almost run into extinction by its acting officer-in-charge before Alan and Craw and a few others had been able to shape it up. Now deployed with the Jefferson in the Indian Ocean, it had been ordered to fly off to Mombasa for two weeks as an advance party for a visit by the entire battle group.
“Give me a rundown.”
The men on the dhow smelled Mombasa before they saw it–a dustier air, car exhaust, garbage, people. The dark man raised his binoculars but couldn’t penetrate the haze; Mombasa is a low city, anyway, most of its seafront masked by trees, and the dhow was still well out, although in the shipping lane so as to seem as much a part of normal traffic as it could. Other dhows and rusty merchant ships had passed them going the other way; once, a sparkling-white Kenyan Coast Guard ship had approached and the men had tensed, but it had passed without hailing.
The dark man gestured toward the deeper haze of Mombasa. “We go on past the city. Kilindini Harbor is beyond. Tell Simoum that he and the crew can take to the boat once he has sailed us into Kilindini.”
The other man–paler, nervous–squatted in front of him, holding out the tools as if they were an offering. “Haji, I am ashamed–I am losing my, my–I want to go with them.”
The dark man shook his head. His face was severe, but his voice was kind. “Pray. You will be with me in paradise. God is great.”
The other man began to weep.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Force Protection by Gordon Kent. Copyright © 2004 by Gordon Kent. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.