The decision was the fastest and most fateful he had ever made, but living with the result was going to be problematic, even if the life he had left was to be very short in duration.
Josh stood with his back pressed into the hard cold granite. He was balanced on a small triangle of rock hanging out from the wall of a thousand-foot cliff. He could not even look down, as the slight leaning might cause him to topple forward and plunge five or six hundred feet to the surf smashed rip-rap below.
The wind was attempting to pry him loose from his precarious position, as well. Somehow it was able to wedge itself between his back and the surface of the unforgiving surface. Josh could only put a little pressure rearward without losing his balance.
The large rock had passed by him without a sound. If Josh hadn’t craned his head upward in a useless attempt to see his teammate, located three hundred feet above, he wouldn’t have spotted it in time. He would only have caught the whisper of air as it passed, doing more than a hundred miles an hour, and then glanced down to see what it was, before being jerked from the wall to join it on the rocks below.
The other end of his climbing rope had been tied around the rock. With no conscious thought at all, he’d reached to his waist and clicked open the carbineer the end was attached to. Less than a second later the piton he’d looped the rope through, and the rope itself, were jerked free and gone.
He breathed with difficulty, the adrenalin of fear and shock coursing its way through his body. He was used to the feeling. Josh knew what to do. He was a pro.
He did nothing. He waited. He thought about doing nothing and waiting, knowing that any formation of ideas in his electrified and chemically stimulated brain would be counterproductive and might lead him to do something that would kill him. Although the training was not that far behind him, he considered himself field experienced.
The wind was a nagging source of bother and discomfort. Josh pressed back as best he could, trying not to shiver. His precarious position, facing out toward the Straits of Magellan, was tenuous at best. He could not stand in place waiting for rescue. There was going to be no rescue. The rope could only have been tied to the rock and tossed over by his teammates above.
He had not been intended to survive. The team egress following the mission had been to descend the rock face in three hundred-foot increments, drive pitons in to take the weight, then descend again until they reached the bottom. Once there they were to have congregated, uncovered a pre-positioned Zodiac, and then made the sixty-mile run into Punta Arena.
There was no Zodiac below. That was Josh’ first rational conclusion. The second was that he had no rope, other than a short ten-foot connector coiled around his shoulder.
The third was that the face of solid granite wall he balanced against had no seams on its surface.
The piton he’d driven into a small crevice had taken five minutes of pounding with his Bongo hammer. He hadn’t been worried about balance then, as he’d been attached to the rope. His natural fear of heights had not been much of a problem either. But all that had changed in less than two seconds. Josh tried to relax and think. He did a quick mental inventory.
He had his Bongo hammer, curved like a hook on its back, with two holes for running the line through, up at the hammer and down at the base of the handle. It dangled from his left hand. He had ten feet of rope. He had his belt, dark sweater, and black canvas climbing trousers. He had good boots with long laces and thick socks.
He had a few extra pitons and some carabineers on a leather belt. He had about a dozen cigarettes and a lighter. That was it. No hat. No coat. No water. No food. No communications.
Josh brought up his free hand to look at it. He’d missed the gloves. Supple leather gloves. He had those.
He also had no way out. He couldn’t go up or down. He couldn’t even turn around, balanced as he was. He couldn’t bend to access his boots or laces. He could do nothing but stand in place, trying not to be forced from the wall by the ever-increasing wind, until he could longer stand up.
Josh new that his time was very limited. He was in the best shape he was going to be in. Every minute, exposed as he was, would lead to the degradation of his condition.
He could not turn around to drive in another piton. He knew that if he could he would only delay the inevitable. There was no percentage in moving. There was no percentage in staying where he was. He turned his head to the left and studied the wall opposing him. The face he was backed up to was curved. A narrow canyon indented to his left.
Out from the other side of that shallow indentation was another wall. It ran out a good twenty feet farther out than his own. Its surface was covered by clinging bushes and vertical pines of some sort. Pines with thready looking branches, which extended horizontally along the cliff but not outward. The wall was a good fifteen feet from him.
Josh knew he was looking at his only chance. He began to calculate the distances and the physics. It was entirely possible for him to make the fifteen-foot leap, he knew. He was six feet tall and his arms went out another two and half feet or so. If he launched himself toward the wall he had only to cover seven or eight feet to make contact, snag a branch or root and then secure himself.
Gravity, he thought. Thirty-two feet per second per second was the formula for the physics of a falling body. His falling body. He would have to crouch down to give himself the spring power to make the jump, which meant he would have to leap farther. He would fall about fifteen feet down, he knew, just in getting across.
By that time, his body would be moving toward the opposing wall at speed plus almost twenty miles per hour, straight down from the draw of gravity. He weighed two hundred and twenty pounds. He wouldn’t be snagging anything. He wouldn’t be able to hold onto anything. He’d hit the far wall and then plunge to his death, probably with handfuls of needles and roots griped tightly in his hands. A shiver of near terror ran up and down his body.
He thought about tossing the Bongo away, but then swung it up to his face.
The back of the Bongo hammer was a hook. A well curved strong hook. As smoothly as he could manage it, without allowing the wind to pry him loose from the rock wall, Josh worked the coiled rope from his shoulder. It was a harder task than he thought it would be. His hands were shaking from fear and the cold.
It took almost fifteen minutes to wind and fasten all ten feet of the rope around and through the holes in the Bongo, and then around his wrists and forearms. He could not secure the end of the rope so he used his mouth to wrap it around and around the final loop securing his arms. He breathed deeply and began preparing for the jump.
His arms were joined together from wrists to elbows as one triangular hook. At the end, grasped firmly between his rope-coiled hands was the reversed Bongo.
He sprang from the small outcrop he’d balanced upon, his concentration fully focused on a root system located fifteen feet down the opposing wall. His leap was not spectacular. His balance had been bad and the small triangular outcrop had not allowed his boots great purchase on its edge.
He plummeted across the chasm and down, extending his ‘hook’ as far out before him as he could stretch. The hook caught. Josh’s body swung down and smashed into the cliff face.
The impact didn’t knock him out, but he was stunned for several minutes, his breath coming finally in great wracking sobs. Pain radiated down from his hands and arms, pinned tightly together by pressure from the rope. The hook had caught upon one of the larger roots radiating across the solid rock wall, and his body hung down, the full weight of it concentrated near the Bongo.
Josh stared at the end of the rope in front of him. He realized at once that if he had been able to tie the end off, as he wanted to, then he’d never have been able to get the knot out in his current predicament. His feet had no purchase under him.
His full weight hung suspended from the hooked end of the Bongo. Working as fast as he could with his head and mouth he unwound the rope. He knew he had to move quickly or he’d lose the feeling in his hands. Without warning the rope began to give way, unwrapping itself from his wrist and arms. Josh grabbed the root with his right hand, and then flipped the Bongo down to the clip on his belt. The rope hung dangling from his side.
There was only one way to go. The rocks and straits over five hundred feet down led nowhere. The cliffs fronted a breaking sea that went on for miles and miles. The water was too cold to swim in. There was nothing to burn. Going down was merely a choice to die more slowly than a fall would have allowed. But he had pitons, the hammer and a good chunk of rope. Even more importantly, he had hope.
Three-foot gains were all he could manage on the open spaces of bare unbroken rock. Where there were roots and branches he did better. Driving the pitons into the slimmest of cracks was hard work. He quickly warmed. There was no margin for safety.
He suspended himself from one piton while pounding another, something he would never have considered, given time and almost any other circumstance. If one piton failed to hold he would know only a few seconds of rushing air before a terribly short spot of pain.
But the pitons held. It was almost dark when he reached the upper edge. The climb had taken hours. His hands and arms lacked the strength to pull him up over the edge. He had to drive one more piton on top of the cliff itself. Once there he laid down a few feet from the precipice, his face pushed against small pebbles and tufted grass. He couldn’t believe he was alive.
He couldn’t believe that it felt so good to simply be alive. He finally gathered himself together and stood to look out over the Magellan Straits. It was a beautiful vista. Harsh and gray in the light of a setting sun, but wonderfully filled with the movement and aroma of life itself. Josh breathed it in deeply.
He was surprised to find his rucksack sitting near the edge nearby, until he pulled open the zipper and looked inside. He was not surprised by the tools of his trade. He was an Explosive Ordinance Disposal expert. The charges he hadn’t used at the refinery, as well as the timers and remote detonation devices, were old hat to him.
It was the British Passport that stunned him. A British Passport with his photo and information inside its burgundy covers. Josh was a U.S. citizen and had been one all of his life. He had to sit down to consider. His parents had been British citizens. He’d never held a British Passport. He stripped off his gloves and massaged the document, opening and closing its crisp pages.
Instinctively, he knew it was real. There was a London address listed as his residence. He somehow knew that that would turn out to be real, as well.
It took moments for all of it to come home to him. The refinery was right across the unguarded and unmarked border of Chile. He had wondered why the team was assigned to blow an American refinery on Chilean soil. The British and the Chileans enjoyed an enmity that had long predated the Falklands war, and remained following it.
Josh realized then that he had never been intended to survive the mission. His rucksack was left, with the damning passport inside, to assign blame. Josh was to be the ‘lone assassin,’ like Lee Harvey Oswald, or Sirhan, or any of the rest of them. People believed in lone assassins. They did not exist in the real world, but the reality of the modern era was controlled by television and movies.
Josh took out a cigarette with steady hands. He puffed, letting the smoke be sucked over the edge of the precipice that had almost claimed him. The team had hired a van in Punta Arenas. It had dropped them near the very tip of Chile on Argentine soil. Puntas Dungeness. That had been their ingress. Josh had wondered why the egress, or departure, was by Zodiac.
Why were they required to use the words ingress and egress anyway, when entry and departure would serve? The Agency was an arcane labyrinth of codified and mysterious words and phrases. Josh thought deeper.
How could they ever enter the harbor of Punta Arenas without suspicion, in a Zodiac? He had left such questions unasked of the team leader. He wondered what would have happened if he had asked any of them.
The team had assembled in Ushuaia, further down toward the tip of
Tierra del Fuego. They’d come in on a private Pilatus turbine. That had surprised Josh too. There is plenty of commercial traffic at the world’s southernmost airport, located just three miles outside the city proper. Why had they flown in on an expensive and distinctive private plane? The reason for all of the abnormal mission activity was answered by the passport.
There was simply no need for much secrecy or cover on the part of the remainder of the team. Josh had been intended to suck all suspicion up with his damning rucksack contents and broken, very dead, body. He realized also that there might indeed be a Zodiac at the base of the rocks. It would fit. It wouldn’t be operational, but it was likely to be there.
Josh flipped the unfinished cigarette over the clip, looked up once to thank the great creator for his extension of time on earth, then grabbed his gloves, the ruck, and headed for the road. He shredded the passport as he walked, thankful that his U.S. document had been left in the plane. He had three twenty-dollar bills in his pocket. It would have to be enough.
Techni Austral ran the bus and ferry service from Puntas Arenas to Ushuaia.
Twenty-one dollars later he was stretched across the back seat, his beaten body down for a rest. The truck traffic on the highway had not been a factor in hitching a ride into town.
The first truck had stopped. Once language difficulties ensued, the ride had been very quiet. There’d been no attempted discussion about blown-up oil depots.
Josh slept most of the ten hours it took to get to Ushuaia. His original enjoyment, crossing the other way on the ferry, was no longer a factor in his travel. He’d spent twenty more dollars to overnight in Puntas Arenas, waiting for the only bus, which left every other day at seven a.m. But he had not slept. The adrenalin and fear had not let him. He was headed for Ushuaia but he had no plan.
No plan to do anything there, and no plan for conducting the rest of his life.
Getting a cab to the airport from Ushuaia had only taken a few more dollars. The plane was in the hangar, where they’d left it. Their team leader was a pilot as well. Josh vaguely wondered why he could no longer remember the names of the team. Their treatment of him as terminally disposable had affected his own thinking about them.
There was nobody inside the hanger at all. Josh walked around the exterior. The place was deserted. Ushuaia Airport sprang to instant life when there was a commercial flight in or out but just lay there, as if dead when nothing was happening on the tarmac.
Josh fished a small silver key out of his pocket. He’d found it in a drawer in the bathroom when they’d been on the long flight in. Pilatus 12C aircraft had tremendous range but flew slowly to achieve such figures. Josh tired the key in the door’s lock.
It turned. He smiled for the first time since going over the edge of the cliff.
“Thank you, God,” he said, looking up to his higher power.
He went aboard with his rucksack. His stuff was in the pocket behind one of the plush seats where he’d left it. He took the credit cards, his U.S. passport, but left the rest, including a wonderful Ghurka wallet. He worked at the back of the plane for almost an hour before deplaning. He wanted there to be no chance that his former teammates would discover that he was still among the living.
He deplaned, locked the craft back up, stashed his ruck behind a pile of spent fuel drums at the side of the hanger, and jogged back into the city. The jog did him good. In less than a half an hour he was standing across the street from a pub called The Galway. It wasn’t very Irish, the place, but it prided itself on being the Southernmost Irish Pub in the world, similar to claims for the airport.
Josh hunched down in the parking lot adjoining the pub. He knew what he was looking for and spotted them almost immediately. They were being creatures of habit, which was counter to all operational training. The three Americans sat in the outer bay window, drinking and carrying on.
It was the same pub and table they had assembled at when they’d been a foursome, prior to kicking off on the mission. Josh watched the blond team leader sip from a coffee cup.
“Ah, yes,” he said aloud, but to himself. The team leader drank Jamison’s whiskey in neat shots when he was not flying, but only coffee prior to going aloft.
Josh didn’t wait any longer. He slowly walked away before beginning his jog back to the hanger. He passed no one along the way. Once there, he settled in with his rucksack behind the barrels to wait. The men did not come for hours. Josh had not fallen asleep but he had nearly nodded off a few times, pinching himself to stay awake and using the fear of being defenseless if the men were to find him before they departed.
They had firearms. All he had was a bag filled with high explosives.
But they didn’t. There was no preflight check-up of the plane. The men simply opened the hangar doors wide, pulled the chocks from under its wheels, and pushed the aircraft out. Unaccountably, they returned inside, once the hangar door was closed again.
“What do you say, guys” the team leader intoned, standing next to the barrel that had been cut in half and upended. He lit something. Smoke began to rise from the barrel.
Josh, from his hiding place, smelled the aroma of incense. It took him back to his Catholic childhood.
“We commit the soul of Josh to your care, oh God,” the blond said. “We hope that he will forgive us our transgressions against him when we cross over to join him.”
“Amen,” the three men said together.
“He wasn’t a bad shit, you know,” the team leader said, flatly.
“Bit of a dumb fucking new guy though,” one of the other men commented.
The three walked out without extinguishing the incense. Josh watched it curl and float inside the hanger until they switched the lights out. He heard the plane’s engines stutter, and then ignite. In only seconds the plane was revving loudly, the sound growing quieter as it distanced itself down the taxiway from the hangar.
Josh stepped outside the door. He stood watching the lights of the Pilatus as it turned at the end of the runway. The team leader gave the powerful turbine full power. The expensive plane needed only half the runway to lift off. Once it was fully in the air it banked sharply south, as if headed to Antarctica, not far away. Josh knew it would hold that turn until it came to a North heading, as the team made its way back to Miami.
Josh held a small remote control device in front of him. He stared at the banking plane for several seconds before flipping up the fail-safe lever and pushing the red button. His eyes never left the plane. There was a brief spark in the air, and then the plane’s lights began to spin slowly, around and around.
“Kind of hard to fly without a tail, isn’t it, you seasoned veteran bastards,” Josh breathed.
He didn’t stay, instead, returning to the inside of the hangar and flicking on the lights.
“Your transgressions are not forgiven guys,” he intoned, standing at the half barrel from which incense still issued forth. “And I do so hope you are around when I cross over.”