Surprise came from the first large steel container up forward in the belly of the C-130. As the plane lifted off from the runway and began to climb out over the Atlantic, a hatch up on top suddenly popped open. Sarah heard it and looked up, but she didn’t see anything.
They were crouched on the floor against the side of the plane-Sarah, Herman, Bugsy, and Adin. A few seconds later a man appeared, looking down at them from over the edge of the container.
Bugsy barked at him and lunged to the end of his leash as Sarah struggled to hold him.
“Easy,” said Adin. He petted the dog and looked up. “It’s only Teo. I was hoping it would be you.” He glanced up at the man. “You can eat him later,” Adin told Bugsy.
“Who else would it be?” said the man.
“I could think of at least a half-dozen colonels, all of them younger than you,” said Adin.
“Yes, but none of them as good. It’s getting a little warm inside,” said the man. “Do you mind if we join you?”
“What if I said yes?” Adin smiled up at him.
“Then to hell with you.” Wearing military fatigues and combat boots, the man looked considerably older than Adin, maybe in his late forties or early fifties. He climbed down using the red cargo netting suspended from the inside wall of the plane. Regardless of his age he was quite fit, short, and stocky, his face tanned as if he’d lived his life on a golf course in Palm Springs. His balding forehead was etched with craggy lines and deep furrows. His most memorable feature was his beaming smile. “This the young lady you were telling me about?”
“What has he been saying?” said Sarah.
“Allow me to introduce you. Sarah Madriani, this old man is Teo Ben Rabin. Colonel Ben Rabin to some. But you can just call him Uncle Ben,” said Adin.
“Only behind my back,” said Ben Rabin.
“And do yourself a favor,” said Adin. “Don’t believe anything he says.”
“Nice to meet you.” Sarah smiled, nodded, and shook his hand.
“Teo, I’d like you to meet Herman Diggs.”
Ben Rabin stepped gingerly around the dog, keeping a little distance. “I like to keep all my fingers,” he said.
“Mr. Diggs is our navigator for this trip,” said Adin. “By force of character, you might say. He refused to tell us where we were going unless we took him along.”
“A man after my own heart,” said Ben Rabin. “Shalom. Welcome aboard.”
Herman nodded and shook his hand.
“Are you feeling all right?” said Ben Rabin. He was looking at Herman.
“I’m not great in airplanes,” said Herman. “Specially with the fuel tank and the fumes, sittin’ sideways like this.”
“You’re looking a little green around the gills,” said Ben Rabin. “You want, I will find you a seat up top with the flight crew. The air up there is a little better.”
“Might take you up on that,” said Herman.
“Give me a minute.”
“I take it he’s not really your uncle.” Sarah looked at Adin.
“Only in spirit,” he told her. “The colonel is a man with many nephews.”
Ben Rabin pounded on the side of the steel container. “You can come out now!” He yelled at the top of his voice. “The rest of my relatives.” He looked at Sarah and smiled. “We were beginning to wonder how long it was going to take before we got airborne. It is damn hot in there.”
“Makes you wonder what it was like in the Trojan Horse?” said Adin.
“Something like that.”
A few seconds later, men began to crawl out over the edge of the steel container, all in camo-green battle fatigues and heavy boots.
“How many did you bring?” said Adin.
“One platoon,” said Ben Rabin. “Eighteen was all we could fit. Like sardines in a can.”
“What about the other container?” said Adin.
“Equipment. Ground transport, one Desert Raider with a mounted 105-millimeter recoilless rifle, and one equipment trailer. The trailer will have to do double duty,” said Ben Rabin. “Transport both men and equipment. Do we know how far we’re going to have to go once we hit the ground?”
“I don’t know anything yet. We’ll have to talk to Mr. Diggs.” Adin turned and looked at Herman.
“What are you expecting, World War III?” said Herman.
“Could very well be,” said Ben Rabin. “Do you have any idea what we’re going to be dealing with when we get down there?”
“Not a clue,” said Herman.
“You do know where we’re going?” said Adin.
“A general idea,” said Herman.
Adin gave Ben Rabin a look as if to say “the blind leading the blind.”
By now the soldiers were wandering up and down inside the belly of the plane, working on the two containers, pulling out equipment and arms, loaded backpacks, staging it all in the narrow aisle between the large fuel tank and the two metal containers. Most of the men appeared to be slightly older than the usual soldier, in their late twenties or early thirties, some of them sporting longer hair. Ben Rabin turned his attention to give them a hand.
“Who are they?” asked Herman.
“What do you mean? Oh, them. Just Israeli Defense Forces,” said Adin.
“Yeah, and I’m the Pied Piper,” said Herman.
“Wouldn’t mean anything to you if I told you,” said Adin.
“Special forces,” said Adin.
“S-13?” said Herman.
Adin gave him a look. “How would you know about that?”
“Lucky guess,” said Herman. That and the shoulder patch of the Shayetet 13, the anchor, sword, and shield emblazoned over the bat wings.
“What is S-13?” asked Sarah.
“If your dad is where these people are going, I’d say he’s in some serious trouble,” said Herman. Then he leaned into her ear and whispered. “Shayetet 13 are naval commandos, cross between the Seals and Delta Force. They don’t usually show up for a party unless somebody’s gonna get shot.”
The news settled on Sarah like ether, but Bugsy wanted to join the soldiers. Seeing all the movement and commotions excited him. He was like a kid who wanted to join the activity. Every once in a while one of the soldiers would lean in and pet him. He didn’t seem to mind.
“You can let him go,” said Adin. “It’s better if he gets their scent.”
Sarah let loose of the leash. Adin unclipped it from the dog’s collar and let him run.
“You and I need to go up forward and look at some maps,” he told Herman. They got to their feet and went toward the ladder leading up to the flight deck. Sarah followed.
“When we get on the ground, I’m going to ask both of you to stay onboard the plane,” said Adin.
“We’ll have to talk about that,” said Herman.
“This is not negotiable,” said Adin. “Depending on where we land, we may not have much time. We’ll offload the vehicle and a stacked trailer from the other container. That’s ground transport for the men and their equipment. Once we’re on the ground we’ll get going in less than a minute. You’re just going to be in the way. It’s very likely that the plane is going to have to take off again.”
“Why’s that?” said Herman.
“Because we won’t be landing at an airport with customs and immigrations,” said Adin. “It will be an unimproved field. We won’t know precisely where until you give us your information. Your background indicates you worked in Mexico…”
“How do you know that?” said Herman.
“Never mind,” said Adin. “The point is, you know as well as I do what an unimproved field in Mexico means.”
“Drugs,” said Herman.
Adin nodded. “The pilot is going to want to turn it around and get back in the air as fast as he can.”
“Understood,” said Herman.
“Good,” said Adin. “Stay right here.” Adin climbed the ladder up toward the flight cabin. He knocked on the metal door, and someone inside opened it.
Neither Sarah nor Herman could hear what was being said up in the flight cabin over the din of the four large engines.
A few seconds later, Adin came back down the ladder with a handful of maps. “What’s the name of the place we’re going?”
“Coba,” said Herman. “South of Cancun in the jungle. Twenty miles or so from the town of Tulum on the Caribbean side.”
They huddled over the map with Sarah looking on until Herman circled an area with his finger. Coba didn’t show up on the flight chart, but an unimproved landing strip off the main highway some distance to the east did. Adin marked it with a pen.
“That’s a ways. I was hoping for something closer.” Adin’s concern was not only the cartels but the Mexican military. Driving a distance on open roads with military hardware was likely to draw attention. The last thing they needed was a firefight at a roadblock with the Mexican army. “Do you know where her father is?”
“In the area somewhere,” said Herman.
“Any way to reach him?” asked Adin.
Herman shook his head. “No cell number that I know of.”
“Not much to go on,” said Adin.
“According to Paul, there’s supposed to be some kind of a large antenna array. Somewhere near Coba in the jungle.” He pointed to the area on the map once more. “If it’s big enough, it should be visible from the air.”
“Give me a second,” said Sarah. “I might have something.” She walked back over to the area where they had been sitting and found her purse. Inside was a folded piece of paper. She opened it and looked at it. It was a printout of one of the early e-mail messages sent to her by her father through the FBI. At the top was Joselyn’s e-mail address. She handed it to Adin.
He looked at it. “We’ll try it and see.” He headed back up the ladder toward the flight deck. This time he disappeared inside with the door closed.
“Listen to me!” Herman took her to one side. “When the plane lands, get over there behind that metal container and sit tight. Stay away from that fuel tank,” he told her, “in case there’s shooting.”
“Where are you going to be?”
“I’m gonna be goin’ for a ride,” he told her.
“You told Adin you would stay on board.”
“I told him I understood. I didn’t tell him I’d do it.” Herman already had his eye on one of the packs lying in the aisle. On top of the backpack was a TAR-21, a Tavor assault rifle, a shortened bull-pup design manufactured by the Israelis and used for both close-quarters combat and longer open field fire.
Physically, Herman was not yet a hundred percent. He was still recovering from the wounds Liquida had inflicted. But a gun would go a long way toward giving him a leg up. No more wrestling with knives, at least not for now.
Herman had seen the short TAR-21s but only in photographs and online. He wondered how a country that was so small could develop such cutting-edge weapons. It looked like a space gun. It fired the same round as the American M16 and was accurate out to the same range, roughly three hundred meters. But the rifle was only half the length of the M16. The Israelis knew that in tight urban combat, in a building where you had to swing the muzzle to fire, short barrels provided the shooter with a lethal edge.