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«Cairo Countdown», Dick Stivers

Dedicated to the eleven American agents whose reconnaissance flight was downed by the Russians in 1958. The men parachuted onto Soviet territory and were captured in the outskirts of Yerevan. The lost airmen have never been recovered by the United States.

1

Dust blurred the parallel lines of lights. Engines whining, the unmarked, black-painted U-2A/B spy plane taxied onto the center runway of Cairo International. Inside the cockpit, the American pilot — wearing an oxygen suit stripped of all insignia and marks of manufacture — spoke into his microphone, "This is Executive Underwriters' shuttle jet requesting permission for takeoff…"

"Permission granted," an accented voice told him. "Crosswinds of five kilometers per hour. Visibility three kilometers."

"No problem. On my way up."

The engine noise rose to a shriek, and the spy plane rolled forward, gathering speed. The Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13 engine generated 17,000 pounds of thrust, pressing the pilot back against his form-fitted seat. In seconds, the landing-gear wheels left the smooth asphalt of the runway. The hundred-foot-wide wings flexed in the slight crosswind.

Gaining altitude, the pilot banked to the east. The flight would take him first over the Gulf of Suez, the Sinai, Saudi Arabia, then Iraq to the Shatt al-Arab, where the armies of Iraq and Iran fought their vicious war of attrition. The high-altitude photos and electronic surveillance would allow the intelligence agencies of the United States to assess the casualties and destruction of the latest battle between the Iranian fanatics and the Iraqi defenders.

Below the spy plane, the lights of Cairo spread across the desert. The pilot watched his radar screens for any possible commercial flights crossing his flight path. Three blips appeared simultaneously, shooting upward from the slums circling the metropolitan center.

"This is Executive Underwriters' shuttle to Executive Center..."

Even as the pilot spoke, he died, a Soviet-made SAM-7 heat-seeking antiaircraft missile exploding in the exhaust vent of his engine.

Flaming debris that had been an American pilot and a top-secret multimillion-dollar aircraft fell to the Egyptian desert.

*  *  *

"We had a unit watching the place when they sent up the rocket," Bob Hershey told the agents assembling in the living room of a luxury home in the Cairo suburban quarter of Heliopolis. Hershey, a middle-aged CIA officer, had the look of a college athlete gone gray. He wore slacks and an undershirt. He spoke to the agents as he slipped on a tailored Kevlar vest and pressed the Velcro closures.

"It's an old apartment house," he continued. "We've got the place circled."

"We're going to take them?" an unshaven agent asked.

"Damn right. I sent Hopper and McGraw out there — they were the only other guys on duty. Told them to tail any of the crazies who leave. We're waiting for our liaison team now."

"You call all the discos?" an agent joked as he checked thirty-round Uzi mags.

"Didn't need to, Parks. I gave Sadek a pager. Got sick of calling nightclubs and apartments and whorehouses. Now we got direct communications with our playboy prince…"

The men laughed despite the tension. Then headlights swept the draperies as tires screeched around the circular driveway. Car doors opened, slammed closed.

"Speak of the devil…" Hershey said.

The four CIA men turned as Salah Abul Sadek burst through the room's double doors. A ranking officer of the Egyptian secret police and liaison to the CIA soldiers operating in Cairo, Sadek wore a lavender disco suit with a matching wide-brimmed hat. One of his men, in a wrinkled gray suit, followed him, a folding-stock Kalashnikov slung casually over a shoulder.

"Yet another attack?" Sadek asked in his British-accented English. "It was that airplane, am I correct?"

"One of our jets as it left the airport," Hershey told him.

"The bastards! Will it never stop? Does your embassy have a statement for the newspapers?"

"That's the ambassador's worry." Hershey slipped on his suit jacket, tucked Uzi mags in the coat's wallet pockets. "What we're going to do is stop those fanatics. Tonight."

*  *  *

Wind banged a Coca-Cola sign. Dust swirled on the street's stones, the wind from the desert carrying litter and the stink of the slums. Three Fiats followed an alley-narrow street through a district of shops and tenements. Yellow light spilled from the windows. One neon sign, Arabic symbols in electric blue, marked a shop.


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