Commander Mitchell had Kemal’s letter projected on the wall of the Commander’s office. And these men were arguing, heatedly.
“She cannot go alone. I will not permit it. Do you not know that the cursed mujahids have placed a bounty on her? A quarter million Euros, in gold, for her death?” The Commander’s jaw was set, and his cold, blue eyes locked with Mark’s own hard brown ones. “I will not allow it,” he repeated.
Mark too was intense. “Commander, we understand your concern for your pilot. But this is something we cannot ignore. Your own leaders in theater agree.” A new picture appeared on the screen, a young American, in Naval uniform. “This is U.S. Navy Lieutenant Chad McDowell. He’s a pilot too, attached to VFA-103, the ‘Jolly Rogers,’ operating from the USS Ronald Reagan, in the Persian Gulf. Three months ago, he was lost in action over Iran.”Mark clicked the Power Point, and it now showed a succession of grainy photos, obviously taken from a videotape. “See this? It’s a video, shown on Iran state television. It’s an American aircraft, shot down by antiaircraft fire.”
The last picture was of a fin stabilizer, painted black. A white skull leered up at the photographer, emblazoned on what had to have been the tail of a fighter aircraft. “We’re certain that Sacha’s contact is referring to Lt. McDowell’s aircraft.”
“How can you know this?” The Commander was indignant. “From this…this cryptic note, of which we cannot even determine it’s provenance, you connect it to an American lost in battle thousands of miles away from us? Ridiculous! You expect me to send Captain Andreeva to her death at the hands of that madman in Suhumi, for this sort of vain glory?”
“Commander.” The new American stood up. “It’s far from vain glory, I assure you.”
My Commander fixed his cold, angry eyes on the new American. “And you are, sir?”
“Lieutenant Commander Daniel Phinin, U.S. Navy, sir. I’m attached to the U.S. carrier air wing in the Gulf. We’re certain that this message is authentic, and we’re even more certain of who it’s referring to.” Phinin tapped the image of the skull projected on the wall, and cocked an eyebrow at the Commander. “Lieutenant McDowell was flying an F/A-18E Super Hornet. The nickname for this aircraft is the ‘super bug’ — Get it? Super Hornet, Super Bug? It’s not a very kind nickname, I know, but there were a lot of Tomcat drivers that were opposed to it and so it became popular to call it that. Anyway, VFA-103 is one of the first squadrons to fly the Super Hornet in combat, and they’ve been very successful with it. And you can see the squadron’s logo here on the tail. Captain Volkan is sending us some sort of message about Lieutenant McDowell, sir, and it is imperative that we meet with him and find out what it is.”
“You speak as if you know him yourself, Commander Phinin. Why do you not meet him yourself, eh?”
I could contain myself no longer. “Sir.”
My Commander narrowed his eyes at me in displeasure. Now, it was me on the hot seat. “Alexandra Dimitrievna, you have something to add to our deliberations?”
I swallowed, and hurried on. “Da. Kemal contacted me because I would see the letter to be authentic. It must be his, sir, it can be from no other! Only he would know what passed between us in my hospital room in Suhumi. And he related it accurately! And his position is precarious. He would not trust easily.”
Phinin broke in. “That’s right, Commander. Our sources tell us that Kemal Volkan, an officer of the Turkish military intelligence service, is working undercover in Abkhazia. He currently is serving as some sort of go-between with the Iranian mullahs, the Islamists in the Turkish military and government, and the Islamic Resistance and Liberation Front in southern Abkhazia. Before the Islamic government in Turkey fell, he was an advisor to the IRLF and that is how Captain Andreeva met him last year. His faction is secularist, however, as is most of the Turk army, which is now the main power-broker in Turkey, and they have set him up as a double-agent there. Like us, he must be sure of his contact. And he will trust no one save Captain Andreeva with this information. We’ve tried to contact him, without success. We thought he was operating in Iran, until recently.”
“And, Commander, I am sure you know more than you are telling.” It was not a question. My Commander looked back at me. “Alexandra Dimitrievna. Do you trust this Turk?”
Need I say more, my friends? Yes, of course I trust Kemal, with my life. He could have delivered me to Muqtadeh and his men, and instead he delivered me to freedom, at personal risk to himself. Now, I must return that trust. And so I followed his instructions, flying the F-15 assigned me in the 27th Squadron to the international airport of Batumi, in Georgia, there to meet my own destiny.
But this story is not only about me.
After I left the meeting, another discussion ensued. None of these men, the Americans, nor my own countrymen, wanted to leave me to this mission, all alone.
And this is how Lt. Commander Phinin found himself at Gantiadi, in the laager of the 2nd Company, 2nd Battalion, the 210th Guards Armored Regiment, winners of the Order of Suvorov and the Order of Bogdan Khmel’nitskiy, the Port Arturskiy Regiment, seeking shelter with my brother and his men next to that IRLF tank, sharing their stale coffee, and having recruited them for a mission with the assent of their regimental colonel.
“This…is a relic.” Vadim made a face and spat in the general direction of their new…or perhaps, not so new T-55. “I remember when they were not so, you know. The fifty five, our fifty fives were reliable once. And strong, and the best tank in the world.”
“Da.” Pavel, my old friend from Komsomol, always cheerful. “And you are too a relic, Vadim Filipovich, but do you not have some fight left in you? This old veteran shall serve us well enough, considering the rabble south of the Gumista!”