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Operation Southern Cross - 02
 

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Operation Southern Cross - 02


  Sky Hunters

  Operation Southern Cross

  Jack Shane

  Contents

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  IT ALL STARTED WITH A BANG!

  Chapter 2

  THE USS LEXINGTON WAS THE OLDEST WORKING ship in the…

  Chapter 3

  THIRTY MINUTES LATER, COLONEL BOBBY AUTRY WAS sitting alone in…

  Chapter 4

  BY 2200 HOURS THAT NIGHT, THE USS LEXINGTON WAS fifty…

  Chapter 5

  THE DROP-OFF POINT WAS A PLACE CALLED EL TAPOS.

  Chapter 6

  AUTRY HAD NEVER HAD WHISKEY ON CORNFLAKES before…but there was…

  Part Two

  Chapter 7

  THE DAY DAWNED HOT AND STICKY OVER LOS TRIPOS.

  Chapter 8

  RAFAEL LUIS GRAZI LIVED IN THE TALLEST BUILDING IN Caracas.

  Chapter 9

  THE UNUSUAL STRETCH OF WATER WAS CALLED Enola Shallows.

  Part Three

  Chapter 10

  GARY WEIR WAS HAVING TROUBLE STAYING AWAKE.

  Chapter 11

  MOLLY OWENS WAS TEN YEARS OLD. SHE WAS THE daughter…

  Chapter 12

  THE PLACE WAS CALLED TRANERAS MONTANA NATURALEZA Reserva—the Traneras Mountain…

  Chapter 13

  BOBBY AUTRY WAS FLYING HIGH.

  Chapter 14

  THE STRIKE FORCE RETURNED TO THE TRANERAS MONTANA volcano in…

  Chapter 15

  IT WAS THIRTY MINUTES BEFORE DAWN WHEN THE SISTERS of…

  Chapter 16

  THE RIOTERS SPENT THE NIGHT IN THE SUBWAYS, HOT, smelly,…

  Chapter 17

  CAPTAIN JUMBO ELIOT HAD BEEN GOING IN CIRCLES for forty-eight…

  Chapter 18

  BOBBY AUTRY’S LONG RIDE HOME COMMENCED THREE hours later.

  About the Author

  Other Books by Jack Shane

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  PART ONE

  CHAPTER 1

  IT ALL STARTED WITH A BANG!

  The hidden warehouse known as Casa de Coco went up in a ball of flame and smoke. Two tons of coco leaves, 100 gallons of kerosene and 15 one-hundred-pound bags of processed “supercrack” cocaine—all gone in a fiery flash.

  The dozen narco soldiers lounging around the jungle camp’s barracks were thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion. It was just past midnight, but the blast turned night into day. The noise was so loud in fact, it caused the soldiers’ ears to bleed. What was happening?

  As the stunned gunmen struggled to their feet, another explosion went off just a hundred feet away. They saw the missile this time. It streaked right by them, following a path down the middle of the camp’s only street, before taking a sharp left-hand turn and slamming into the compound’s second-most important structure: the chemicals shed.

  This explosion was twice as loud, twice as fiery, twice as violent as the first. This second blast flattened not only the chemicals shed, but every building around it, throwing the gunmen to the mud a second time. Several were killed by the sheer force of the explosion. Worse for them, the building hit had been full of toxic chemicals, especially hydrochloric acid and ammonia, components used for changing coca leafs into cocaine. Blown sky high, this fatal acid rain came back down in a deluge, burning some of them horribly.

  The third blast came seconds later. The gunmen saw the missile this time too. It went over their heads, down the street again, its tail trailing smoke and greenish fire before it corkscrewed itself into the camp’s third-most important structure: its water tank.

  This explosion was the most violent of all. The jungle floor shook as if the area were being tossed by an earthquake. A tsunami of water and mud roared down the main street, leveling every building still standing and carrying away more of the hapless gunmen. Thousands of gallons of water, now gone, meant there was nothing to fight the fires, now raging all over. The camp had become hell in a very green place, all in less than a minute.

  The surviving gunmen began to panic. These were precision-guided weapons being fired at them. They could tell by the way the missiles flew and how they picked out their targets. But the camp was in a part of the South American jungle so deep, so isolated, no one knew if it belonged to Colombia or Peru.

  Who the hell would be dropping million-dollar bombs on them out here?

  THE EXPLOSIONS WERE CLEARLY HEARD AT CASA DE Pablo two miles away. The place was a mansion hidden in the thick jungle. Dozens of rooms, an Olympic-size swimming pool, exotic gardens, a zoo.

  It was the home of Pablo Escoban. He was extremely wealthy, the first man in history to make more than a billion dollars illegally selling cocaine. His estate was located in this isolated place not for security reasons but simply because elements inside the Peruvian and Colombian governments allowed it to exist out here. They would not harm him, try to arrest him or do anything to interfere with his weekly half-ton shipments of cocaine, and now supercrack, to the United States. Of course, he paid them handsomely for this favor.

  He’d lived in the jungle for almost five years now—and in that time, the only thing he’d ever had to complain about was the sometimes drenching rains.

  Until today.

  The explosions woke Pablo from a deep sleep. His bed was shaking, his windows rattling. He could even hear the water in his pool sloshing around. To the east, massive fireballs were rising over the patch of jungle where his large cocaine plantation was located. They looked oddly beautiful, ascending into the night.

  Pablo ran to his bedroom’s balcony and yelled down to the small army of security men who protected his property twenty-four hours a day. But it was already too late. Coming out of the fireballs on the horizon were a half dozen helicopters. Pablo could clearly see their silhouettes against the fire in the sky. They were loaded down with weapons, gun muzzles sticking out of their fuselages and rocket launchers hanging off of their wings. The helicopters weren’t making any noise, though. They almost seemed like something from a dream.

  Pablo knew this was not the Colombian or Peruvian army coming to get him. One of his many spies would have warned him in advance of such an attack—and besides, he paid heaps of money to both countries just so something like this would not happen.

  No—these helicopters belonged to someone else.

  He ran. Back into his bedroom, into his shirt and pants and slippers, down the stairs, through his opulent living room and kitchen and out the backdoor. There was a seldom-used opening in the twenty-foot-high wall that surrounded his palace. Pablo headed straight for it. Usually a cool customer, he was in a full-blown panic now. His only chance, or so he thought, was to get to the cover of the thick jungle beyond his lavish grounds. The only problem? The jungle was a place so dangerous, none of his bodyguards chose to follow.

  The helicopters were over the mansion just seconds later. Again there were six of them, even as another six had remained over the cocaine plant, continuing to pummel it with rockets and cannon fire.

  Three different kinds of copters were quickly buzzing Escoban’s manse. Two were small and bubble nosed. They were flitting around like a pair of giant insects, dropping dozens of flares all over the compound’s grounds. Behind them were two mid-size helicopters. These were gunships, distinguished by the number of weapons hanging off of them. They began firing rockets and missiles almost immediately, aiming at targets illuminated by the cloud of slowly falling flares.

  Most of Pablo’s security force were killed in this initial fusillade. Few of them even made it to their weapons—never mind returning fire at the helicopters. The two missile barrages also took out huge sections of the mansion itsel
f, setting off secondary explosions and splashing fire and shrapnel everywhere. Still, the worse was yet to come.

  Streaking in behind the gunships were two enormous helicopters, each with two huge rotors, sinister-looking in dull black and gray. There were six massive weapons on each of the big choppers, including a small howitzer. These monsters had so many guns sticking out of them, they looked like flying tanks.

  Both commenced firing. With most of Pablo’s security army dead, their main target was the mansion itself. Their fire was withering, with more flame and smoke than anyone could have imagined. The pair of big copters began circling the forty-five-room house, intent on blowing it apart, piece by piece. The screams of those unfortunate few still left inside could be heard above the explosions in the opening few seconds of the attack. Then there was nothing but the sound of more things blowing up and the crackling of fire in the wind.

  It was all over in two minutes. With one last great explosion—caused by a howitzer shell making a direct hit on a spare supply of propane gas stored in Pablo’s basement—what was left of the house rose about a foot in the air, then came crashing down. This sent another tidal wave of fire and smoke and debris into the air. When it all finally blew away, the mansion had simply ceased to exist. Only flames remained.

  But the carnage was not over. Their work not quite done for the night, the six helicopters were joined by their half dozen backups from the cocaine plantation attack.

  Together they turned south, toward the part of the jungle where Pablo Escoban was last seen, running for his life.

  IT WOULDN’T BE A LONG SEARCH. EACH OF THE twelve helicopters was equipped with the latest in nightvision equipment, technology that gave the people onboard a view of the jungle that was almost as bright as day. With IF capability and another eye-popping barrage of gold flares, they spotted Escoban within thirty seconds. He was huddled beneath a fallen tree on the edge of a small swamp. There were so many insects swarming around him, they were showing up on the night scopes as globs of shimmering green.

  Escoban began running as soon as he realized the helicopters were right above him. He plunged into the swamp, this as searchlight beams began falling through the dense jungle leaves, catching him from many different angles. Swimming in the filthy water, battling waves created by the downwash of the helicopters, by the time he reached the far side of the swamp, he was covered with leeches.

  More spotlights hit him as he emerged from the slimy water; the two small helicopters were now just twenty feet above him. They could have had a clear shot at him—if their intent was to kill him right away. But they held their fire…and let Pablo run.

  He was terrified, expecting a bolt of lightning from the sky to strike him down at any moment. Still, he was moving as fast as he could through the dense tropical forest.

  After a half mile or so, he burst into a clearing that housed a small native village. This was the home of Coribo, the indigenous tribe that Pablo and his coke-snorting friends, on occasion in the past, would hunt with rifles for sport.

  Now he was in their midst—and they knew who he was. They could have taken him apart piece by piece, but once they figured out what was going on—that the devil Pablo was being chased by the flying death gods—they just laughed at the hysterical drug kingpin instead. At first he beseeched them not to kill him, and then begged them for help. But the natives just continued mocking him, pelting him with rocks and animal dung. As the copters closed in, Pablo found himself stumbling madly through the mud of the village’s only street. With no sympathy found here, there was only one place he could go: back into the jungle.

  The copters followed. Sometimes, when he would move to the east, a copter or two would close in on him and fire off some flares, forcing him off in another direction. If he moved too far west, the same thing would happen, two copters would come down to nearly eye level and force him to go the other way. If he ran straight, sometimes he lost sight of the copters, until he believed that they had lost sight of him. But as soon as the thought went through his mind, they would appear again, sometimes directly overhead, and the chase would resume. Finally Pablo realized what his pursuers were doing: they were playing with him, letting him go just to hunt him again. Just as a cat would play with a mouse. Or a rat.

  The game ended at a place called Topotixa, a small site of ancient ruins. Pablo stumbled out into its clearing, this after he hadn’t seen a copter for nearly five minutes. Exhausted, bleeding from a million cuts, and covered with slime and bugs, he collapsed in front of the site’s largest structure, a pyramid-shaped affair built centuries ago to honor Xlochicha, the winged god also known as the Sky Hunter. It was here that Pablo’s pursuers decided he would die.

  They’d arrived there before him of course; he had not so much run away from them as run the way they wanted him to go. They were waiting for him as he stumbled out of the jungle. They came down as if from the heavens, silently, all muzzles and whirling chopper blades. Back in the jungle, more eyes of the indigenous peered out; these were the very reclusive Xtaki. They considered this site sacred and were compelled to see everything that happened there. They too had been hunted and tortured by Pablo in the past. They would now be witnesses to his death.

  Pablo realized the helicopters were all around him and that there was no place else to go. He began crying out for mercy, but none was forthcoming. A twin barrage from two of the mid-size gunships tore him apart in less than a second. What was one moment one of the cruelest, most inhumane individuals on the planet was in the next nothing more than a cloud of bone dust and gristle.

  The witnesses cheered, even as they fell back into the jungle for fear the great sky hunters would start after them too. Even as they saw the twelve aerial machines fly away, they moved with haste away from the ruins.

  They would leave what was left of Pablo Escoban as food for the birds of the morning.

  CHAPTER 2

  Somewhere in the Caribbean

  Thirty minutes later

  THE USS LEXINGTON WAS THE OLDEST WORKING ship in the U.S. Navy.

  She was also one of the Navy’s most decorated aircraft carriers. Nicknamed the “Blue Ghost,” the carrier saw action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and all told nearly 50 years of continuous military service. Though never considered a super-carrier—it was from the 1940s-era Essex class—at over 900 feet long and with a crew of about sixteen hundred, in its time, the Lexington was state of the art. It could carry more than four dozen warplanes and do over thirty knots.

  Even after it was taken out of active service in the 1970s, the Lex found a new life. When the Navy needed a carrier off which its new fighter pilots could practice landings and takeoffs, the Lexington was tapped to fill the role, which it did until it was decommissioned in 1991. After that, it was set up as a museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

  But that was not the end of her. Once the Lex went into retirement, the Navy had its new pilots practice off of its working super-carriers, usually ones that had just finished up a tour or were being refurbished. But this arrangement had proved problematic over the years, and now, especially after 9/11, with America’s aircraft carriers being extra busy with so many trouble spots around the world, these practice sessions began to be a burden.

  So, while it was impractical to build a huge ship just to have student pilots land and take off from, the Navy knew a practice ship was needed. That’s when the idea of bringing back the old Lex came up. In a bid to save billions by spending millions, the Pentagon decided to take the warhorse out of mothballs and have a small ferry crew sail it to San Diego, where it would be evaluated with the idea of being refurbished and serving the Navy’s student pilots once again.

  That’s how the USS Lexington happened to be cruising the lower Caribbean when the war between the United States and Venezuela began.

  IT STARTED WITH A STRANGE MESSAGE FROM AN UNLIKELY source.

  The Lex was sailing a hundred miles off the coast of Costa Rica when the communication arrived. About a
half day away from entering the Panama Canal, at the time the ship was roughly midway in its journey to San Diego. The message appeared shortly after 0100 hours, popping up on the ship’s ICC screen (Internet control center), a sort of makeshift radio shack located up on the ship’s navigation bridge. The Lex’s ferry crew had support groups in both Corpus Christi and San Diego. They were tracking the elderly ship’s progress via GPS satellites and were in constant contact with the Lex via the Internet. In fact, barrages of e-mail had been going back and forth since the Lex left Texas two days before.

  But this message was not from one of the ship’s support teams. It was from, of all places, U.S. Army Special Operations Command. They had some helicopters in the area that needed a place to land. Could the Lex help them out?

  It seemed like no problem at first. The people crewing the Lexington—just the bare minimum of 350, all Naval Reserve officers and sailors—were on a very simple mission: Take the old carrier from Corpus Christi to the San Diego shipyards. There weren’t going to be any flight operations. She was carrying no aircraft. The catapults didn’t work, there were no arresting wires. There wasn’t even an air traffic team onboard.

  But letting a few copters land on her deck? How hard could that be? And as it was Army SOC doing the asking, that meant there might be some kind of top-secret aspect to this. At the very least, it would be something the ferry crew could tell their grandkids someday.

  So the man commanding the ship—a middle-aged Naval Reserve officer named Jumbo Eliot—typed back a response immediately. By all means, the copters could land aboard his ship, if they could find it. The reply from Army SOC stated that there would be twelve copters in all. Again, no problem, Eliot replied. Then he asked where would the Lex be bringing the copters once they’d landed. To Panama? All the way to San Diego?

 
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