A combined T-72: Balkans On Fire
and Lock On: Flaming Cliffs Mission Report
My helicopter was in route to Aacy, and inside it I found the long, enveloping garment that the Muslims call an abaya, a garment that covers from head to toe.
Normally, I would find this most insulting. But in the Emirate, women are not to be seen. My Turk guide explained to me, quietly, that he would pass me off as a female relative, should we be accosted before we got to Kemal. Women in the Emirate are not allowed to travel alone. And this would hide the fact that I am of European stock, fair-skinned, and lighter hair than the Muslim women of this region. Without the abaya it would be obvious to all that I am Russian, their enemy. Beneath the veil, I am unseen.
What our Georgian pilot thought of this, I do not know. But subsequent events gave me a guess as to his thoughts. It is he who ultimately betrayed me. But I get ahead of myself.
The Mil-8 landed in a wooded area. Much vegetation, several buildings, on the outskirts of what I much-later learned was Aacy village. My Turkish guide quickly ushered me into a small building with a low-hanging roof. I was left in a sparsely furnished room, with a table set with simple food, bread, cheese, wine. I had forgotten my hunger in the madness of this journey. I waited for a moment, then cut a piece of the yellow Cheddar cheese-my favorite, as it happens. I heard the door open behind me. I turned, and beheld a man, with a kaffiyeh scarf wound around his face. Swarthy hands loosened it, and a face emerged that I recognized!
I pulled the veil from my face, and embraced Kemal with a glad cry, my friend who I owe my life.
“Ah, Sacha, it is good to see you again, my beautiful Russian friend. I see your time in the Imam’s care did you none the worse a turn.” His dark eyes twinkled a little as he smiled down at me.
“I am fine, Kemal! And I am glad to see that you have survived thus far. I knew at once that it was you who sent me the message.”
“Indeed. We have much to discuss. Something important has taken place, and both our countries can profit from it greatly. Please, sit.” Ever the gentleman, Kemal pulled out a chair for me, then opened the bottle and poured two glasses. From his shirt he pulled a leather packet out, and began laying items on the table. I stopped in mid-swallow, nearly choking on the wine. I picked them up, gingerly.
A watch, a ring, two military dog-tags. The wristwatch was bright steel, a Rolex diver’s watch, very expensive. The reverse was engraved. “To Riley, from Mom and Dad.” The ring was a U.S. Naval Academy ring, showing a class date and engraved on the inside CPM. A look at the dog-tags showed their owners to be a Chad McDowell and Riley Lindel. I looked at Kemal, tears forming in my eyes. “Two of them, Kemal?”
“Yes. The Iranians have them. But soon they will be brought here, to Abkhazia. To the Imam’s base, at Suhumi. The Iranians do not wish to lose them. I have a message about them for you — and oddly enough, it is from the Imam himself — though he does not know that it is to you I deliver it.”
“What is it?”
“The Navy interrogators in Bahrain hold an Iranian pilot. His name is Muhammad al-Muqtadeh. The Imam says that the Iranians wish to trade your Americans for this pilot, who means much to the Iranians. I will tell you this, which the Imam would not have you know: he is beloved of the Iranians’ Ayatollah, who is the Imam’s own mentor.”
I recoiled in surprise. So this is why the Iranians are so close to the IRLF! “How is this trade to take place?”
“On the tarmac at Suhumi, at a time of the Imam’s choosing. You will be notified.” Kemal lifted his glass, and took a swallow. “Dom Perignon, 1995. A good vintage, no?”
I regarded him suspiciously.
“Ah, Sacha. Do not look at me so. Your brow is too comely to be so furrowed in distrust. See, I will tell you all. You are right to guess that there is more. There is much more.” He took another sip of the wine. “Muhammad is also the Imam’s only son!”
“Yes. You must take this message to the man who leads the squadron that Lt. McDowell and Lt. Lindel are from. It is his people who hold Muhammad, or people who he commands. And if it is not they who hold the Imam’s son, then their intelligence operatives, who this man certainly can influence, do hold him. You will take these trinkets to this man, and to him alone. He is called Bones, and he is a captain in their Navy. You know him, do you not?”