The rusting aircraft hangar stood at the end of a seldom-used airfield just outside the small mountain town of Marejo. Weeds grew unchecked around its edges and pigeons nested in the roof, giving it the appearance of an abandoned hulk, but the structure, and the concrete airstrip it served, still had a few sporadic users.
One of those was a dark-haired, forty-year-old American, owner and operator of a weather-beaten, olive-drab helicopter—a Bell UH-1, commonly called a Huey, a craft that currently absorbed both his admiration and scorn.
Three hours of work in the sweltering hangar had left him concerned about the Huey’s state of airworthiness. In truth, he marveled that it was still operating at all. And as his eyes flashed from one section of the craft to the next, he wondered just how many things he could patch together and still continue to fly. Grimly amused at the thought, he guessed he’d find out soon enough.
Glad for any excuse to move toward the fresh air, he walked to the entrance, wiping the grease from his hands with a tattered rag. Across the tarmac, a dust-covered Land Rover approached, moving slowly down the access road. He guessed this would be a follow-up to the call he’d taken the night before, an offer he had turned down without hesitation.
So they’d come to talk in person now. They must really want something this time.
The black SUV swung toward him and parked at the edge of the tarmac. The door opened. To his surprise, a woman stepped out. Attractive and fashionably dressed, she slammed the door with more than a little edge and strode toward the hangar, her eyes hidden beneath tortoiseshell sunglasses. There was something confrontational in her gait, like a tiger spoiling for a fight.
As she approached, Hawker considered his own grubby appearance, covered in grease and sweat and three days of unshaven stubble. “Great,” he mumbled to himself, then stepped back inside, where he could at least splash some water on his face.
Leaning over the sink, he heard the soles of her boots clicking on the concrete floor.
“Com licença,” she said in Portuguese. “Excuse me; I’m looking for a pilot named Hawker. I was told I could find him here.”
He shut off the water, dried his face with a towel and looked in the tarnished mirror; a marginal improvement. He turned. “You speak Portuguese,” he said.
He shook her hand cautiously. “The NRI?”
“We’re a federally funded research house,” she said. “We do a lot of high-tech work in partnership with universities and corporations. Though that’s not exactly why I’m here.”
He’d heard rumors about the NRI in the past. And however unreliable those sources might have been, there was more to the Institute than her little sound bite let on. “You people are persistent. I’ll give you that.”
“You should be flattered,” she said, smiling.
“‘Flattered’ is not quite the word,” he said, though he couldn’t help but smile back. “I turned your friend down on the phone. Apparently you didn’t get that word.”
She removed her sunglasses. “I did, actually. But from what I heard, our men didn’t get a chance to make an offer.”
He threw the towel in the sink. “There was a reason for that.”
“Look,” she said, “I’m not exactly thrilled to be out here myself. Four hours on a dirt road is not my way of enjoying an afternoon. But I’ve come a long way to see you. The least you could do is hear me out. How much could that hurt?”
He stared at her. She was a bold, attractive woman, working for a questionable branch of the U.S. government and about to offer him a contract that would undoubtedly involve some type of covert, illegal or otherwise dangerous activity. And she wanted to know how much it could hurt?
Still, he didn’t want to send her away. “You thirsty?” he asked. “Because I am.”
She nodded and Hawker led her to the side of the hangar, where a dingy refrigerator stood beside a table with a coffeepot. He scooped some ice from the freezer and poured a cup of black coffee over it. “This or water?”
She looked suspiciously at the scratched glass and the dark liquid within it. “I’ll take the coffee.”
“You’re brave,” he said, placing the glass in front of her and pouring himself a drink of water. “And you have come a long way,” he added, taking a seat across from her. “Up from Manaus, I’m guessing, since that’s where your friend wanted me to go. Apparently you have gainful employment to offer. So let’s hear it, tell me about this job.”
She took a sip and her expression did not change. He was impressed; the coffee was absurdly bitter.
“The NRI is funding an expedition into a remote area of the western Amazon,” she said. “The final site hasn’t been determined yet, but we’re pretty certain it’ll be accessible only by river or air. We’re looking for a pilot and helicopter for up to twenty weeks, with an option for next season as well. You’ll be paid for flying, local knowledge and any other duties that would be mutually agreed upon.”
His eyebrows went up. “Mutually agreed upon,” he said. “I like the sound of that.”
“I thought you would.”
“What’s the cargo?”
He had to stop himself from laughing. “Doesn’t sound so bad. What are you leaving out?”
“Nothing of importance.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
A perfect pause, practiced. “I don’t follow you.”
He felt certain that she did, in fact, follow him. “What are you doing all the way up here when you could have hired someone in Manaus? Why the long journey to see me? Why the midnight phone call from the man with no name?”
The response was deliberate, with gravity in her voice that he recognized from his past. “We’re interested in maintaining a low profile, a vision local hires don’t always seem to embrace. We’re looking for someone who won’t ask questions and won’t answer them if they come his way.” She shrugged. “As for the phone call. Well, we needed to make sure that you were in fact you.”
The call had included a lot of questions, questions he’d chosen not to answer. That had probably been enough.
Calls like that, or inquiries by other means, had been common over the past ten years, especially during his exile in Africa, after his separation from the CIA. They came from rebel elements, foreign governments and from corporations and proxies of the same Western interests he’d supposedly been excommunicated from. When a man is listed as a threat by his own country, he is presumed to be open to offers from all sides.
Depending on who was asking, the questions took different forms. The dictators, generals and warlords were refreshingly, if disturbingly, direct. The agents of the various Western governments were far less clear, their words always couched in the hypothetical. If this individual were to disappear, then the killing in this region might stop. If this man were to fall into our hands … if this party were to receive these weapons … then funds might be placed into this numbered account. For years he’d listened to these proposals, picking and choosing from a litany of offers up and down the West African coast and into parts of Asia.
He told himself that he’d rejected all those that might be patently evil, but in places that reeked of madness it was often hard to tell the difference. Guns begat guns; one dead warlord was replaced by two with a blood feud between them; an oil terminal that gave money to a mad dictator also gave jobs and food to people who worked on and around it—was it moral or immoral to blow such a thing up? Finally, he couldn’t tell anymore. He’d left Africa and arrived in Brazil, ready to vanish forever. It seemed for a while that he had, but the call had come anyway. Apparently some people were not allowed to disappear.
Hawker stared at the woman across from him, realizing, at least, that her offer had not been phrased in the hypothetical. “You have security issues.”
“Anonymous threats and a break-in at our hotel. Items were taken, others destroyed. Things of little value, but the message was clear: someone doesn’t want us going out there.”
“Plenty of them,” she said. “From radical environmentalists who think we’re out to destroy the rainforest, to mining and logging concerns who think we’re trying to stop them from destroying the rainforest.” She paused. “But we have reason to believe it goes deeper than that.”
He understood what she was saying: there was more at stake than she could or would tell him. But she needed him to know it in general. It made him wonder how much she knew. She seemed a little young to be in such a position and making such a request. No, he decided, “young” wasn’t the right word. More like “keen” or “zealous.” Perhaps that’s what people looked like when they still believed in what they did. He couldn’t remember.
“No questions asked?” he guessed.
“Not many that I can answer.”
He’d try another tack, one she’d be able to confirm, at least to some extent. “And what do you know about me?”
“Enough,” she said.
“Enough to wonder what someone with your reputation is doing in the middle of nowhere.”
“People who trusted me died,” he said, thinking that if she didn’t know that, she didn’t know enough. “You still want to hire me?”
She appeared unfazed. “The people I work for do. You were the only name on a short list. Chosen personally, it seems.”
She took another sip of the coffee, maneuvering the glass carefully and examining the chips in the rim as she placed it down. For a second he thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then her eyes flashed at him again. Apparently she’d made him wait long enough. “Stuart Gibbs,” she said. “The NRI’s director of operations.”
The name rattled around in his head. Hawker didn’t know the man, but he’d heard of him. Gibbs had been fairly high up in the Agency when Hawker had left, a rising star with a reputation for arrogance and ruthlessness. And now he ran the NRI, or part of it anyway. Such a nice little organization.
As he considered the offer, every instinct in his body shouted at him to turn it down, to tell this zealous young woman that Director Gibbs could go to hell and take his offer with him. After all, the only right that those in exile retained was the privilege to remain that way. But another thought had begun to form in his mind: the possibility of a door opening, one that he’d expected to stay forever closed. It began with Director Gibbs and his personal interest in the operation.
“How long have you been with them?” he asked.
“Almost from the start,” he said, showing her that he knew a little something about the organization. “And Gibbs?”
“From day one,” she replied, annoyed by his probing. “As you’ve probably guessed.”
Hawker had guessed exactly that and it only reinforced his intention to say no, but she didn’t give him the chance.
Suddenly, the tiger was tired of playing. “Look,” she said, “I can see this is going nowhere. I didn’t come out here to waste your time. We just want an American pilot for what is essentially an American expedition. Obviously, you’d prefer to remain here.” She looked around. “And why not? I mean, who’d want to give up all this.”
She handed him a business card. “My problem is time—I don’t have a lot of it. Here’s my number. Call me before noon tomorrow if you change your mind. Wait any longer and I’ll have someone else.”
Hawker watched in detached amusement as she stood and turned to leave. He stole a quick glance at the battered old Huey. Whatever the other considerations were, the job would pay well. More than he could make in a year or two in a place like Marejo. Not to mention the half-dozen things on the Huey that he could repair or replace and bill to the NRI, things that weren’t likely to get fixed any other way. Simple choice, simple compromise—that’s how it always started.
“Relax,” he said. “I’m interested. But you have to understand: I don’t take checks.”
She halted her departure and looked him in the eye. “Somehow, we didn’t think you would.”
The next thirty minutes involved negotiations over timing, charter fees and operating costs. Formalities really, and for the most part quickly out of the way. When they were done, Hawker stood and walked her back to the waiting Land Rover.
“I should be in Manaus by tomorrow night,” he said, holding the door as she climbed in.
“That works,” she replied, her lips curving upward into a perfect smile. “I’ll see you then.”
Hawker slammed the door, just as the engine roared to life. As she drove off, his mind replayed the conversation and the decision he’d just made. There would undoubtedly be more to the journey than archaeology, but how much more was difficult to determine. The presence of civilians made it unlikely that anything too outlandish was in store, but the personal attention of NRI’s director suggested just the opposite. The contradiction bothered him; it left him wondering which direction the danger would come from, a sickly familiar feeling.
As he watched the Rover take the main road, another thought occurred to him, the kind that flashes into one’s head and then pretends to disappear, only to lurk in some dark corner of the mind and whisper incessantly at the consciousness.
He could understand why the NRI didn’t want a Brazilian pilot. Having someone like himself enhanced security no matter what type of operation they had in mind. But the NRI was a big organization, with people all over the world. They had to have their own pilots; probably had them in spades, and nothing could be more discreet than using an insider for the job. So why go through all the trouble and expense of hiring him when it would have been easier and even more secure to bring in one of their own? The thought nagged at him as the Land Rover vanished into the setting sun. It was a question, he decided, that could not have a healthy answer.