Munro Crane stared at the stranger’s face through a sea of tuxedos and ball dresses, and was immediately transported back to a dusty mountain road somewhere north of Kabul roughly five years earlier. Not in his wildest dreams had he ever thought he’d see that face again.
Back then, in Afghanistan, the face had belonged to a soldier fighting alongside the Northern Alliance. Now it belonged to a handsome Armani-clad businessman. It was older, more lined, but the eyes were the same – dark, aggressive and bitter. Despite the camouflage of the fine suit and the opulent surroundings, those eyes had not changed.
The stranger’s gaze finally settled on Crane and for a moment neither blinked as they both struggled to comprehend what they were seeing.
Crane felt as if he’d been pole-axed. What did you say to the man who had pulled you out of the rubble in a demolished bunker and dragged you a mile to safety, when he could have just walked away and left you for dead?
He inclined his head in a greeting. The businessman said something to the politician he was talking to and nodded towards Crane. Crane recognised the man as Senator Travis Malloy. The soldier had some influential friends. He unconsciously stored the information away for future use. In his days in the Special Forces, he’d been trained to observe and remember.
The businessman made his way towards Crane who was sitting at the bar and stopped in front of him.
“Comrade,” was all he said as he stared at the man whose life he had saved all those years ago.
“I guess I’m finally being given a chance to say thank you,” Crane said sincerely, and held out his hand.
The man tilted his head in acknowledgement and shook the proffered hand. “No problem. You would have done the same I’m sure, under the circumstances. We were fighting on the same side, after all.”
It was true. Men in the armed forces had an unwritten code of honour that meant never leaving a fallen soldier behind. The Afghan wouldn’t have left Crane to die on that unmarked piece of rubble any more than he would have his mother, and vice versa.
“Yeah, well I’m grateful none the less.”
“I’m glad to see you made it out. I almost lost you a couple of times. You were badly injured.”
He didn’t know the worst of it.
“A couple of teenagers found me and dragged me into the hamlet. Luckily there was a woman there with some medical knowledge – else I probably wouldn’t have survived.”
“It wasn’t your time to go,” the soldier acknowledged with a wry smile and a shrug. “My name is Kaz, by the way. Kaz Erkel.”
“You live here in Portland, Munro?”
Crane paused at the familiar use of his first name. Most people just called him Crane. He didn’t correct Kaz though. The man was just being friendly.
“No, not really. I’m east of here, bordering on the National Forest.”
“An outdoors man, then? It figures.”
Crane nodded. “But not you?”
He took in the tailored suit, shiny black shoes and impeccably manicured finger nails. Always observing.
Kaz sighed, “No, never was the outdoors type. Grew up in California and graduated with an MBA from Stanford.”
Crane was studying him curiously. “You were a good soldier,” he said.
“I was an angry soldier. Not a good one,” Kaz replied immediately. Crane didn’t miss the wry grin. “The Taliban murdered my father and his family. I wanted revenge.”
“Revenge is a powerful motivator,” Crane agreed. Now it made sense. Kaz had joined forces with the Northern Alliance to avenge his father. But this was Kaz’s domain. This was the kind of life he was born into. Not Afghanistan.
When Crane had looked up all those years ago and seen Kaz’s face staring down at him, he had assumed that the soldier was an Afghan. They had not spoken, Crane hadn’t been able to, so speech identification had been out of the question. Every time he thought of the soldier that saved his life, he thought of him in combat gear on that dusty road, grease on his face and an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Now he realised that picture was all wrong. This was the context his saviour fitted into, this gilt-edged political terrain with its champagne and caviar and false promises – not Afghanistan.
For Crane it was the total opposite. Being a soldier had come naturally to him. It was something he excelled at. Even during his nine week basic combat training, also known as boot camp, the physical activity invigorated him. He thrived on pitting his skills against nature and surviving in the wilderness. He had a natural sense of direction could find his way back to base camp from just about anywhere. Naturally fit and used to pushing himself mentally, he graduated top of his class and automatically progressed to Advanced Individual Training with a recommendation for Special Forces.
Hob-knobbing with fast-talking politicians and suave businessmen in five-star hotel conference rooms was definitely not his forte. In fact, if it wasn’t for his friend Doug requesting his presence at this shin-dig, he’d probably be blasting his Perception Overflow X model kayak over the steep, fast rapids on the Salmon River right now. That was as close as he got to a war zone these days.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. I learned a thing or two during the war. I look at things completely differently now.” Kaz was saying seriously but Crane sensed an underlying bitterness that his hard eyes could not veil.
“War changes a man,” Crane concurred.
“Did it change you?” Kaz asked suddenly. Crane raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“I’ve always been a soldier,” he replied, “but yes, I suppose it did. After the injury I retired from the armed forces. My knee will never be the same again.” He tapped his fist on his left knee.
“So what you do now?” asked Kaz, pulling out the stool next to Crane and sitting down. Even that he did stylishly, Crane thought.
“I’m a private investigator,” he said slowly, watching Kaz for a reaction. Most people considered it a step down the career ladder. Others were intrigued, usually the ones who read too many detective novels. Which category would Kaz fall into?
“How interesting. Are you for hire?” asked Kaz, his eyes bright with curiosity. Crane was taken aback. That was one question he was not expecting.
“Um, yeah, I guess so. You need some work done?” An uneasy feeling was building in the pit of his stomach.
Kaz nodded slowly. “I could utilise your services for a week or so. It wouldn’t be what you’re used to though. Not very exciting. It’s mainly a surveillance job. In fact, I’d do it myself, but it would be a bit… well, obvious, if you know what I mean?”
The feeling grew stronger. Crane took a sip of his lime and soda. He’d grown to trust his instinct over the years. It had never done him wrong.
“Want a drink?” he offered.
“Scotch, on the rocks,” Kaz told the bar tender in a voice used to ordering people around.
“Surveillance?” Crane enquired when Kaz had been given his drink.
“Mm… it’s a rather delicate issue.” He studied Crane from under long eyelashes and hesitated, as if making a mental decision. “Can I trust you?”
“My work is strictly confidential,” replied Crane.
“Glad to hear it. It involves my wife you see.”
“You want me to spy on your wife?” Crane struggled to keep the surprise out of his voice.
Kaz didn’t look remotely uncomfortable with the idea. “I know it might seem a little strange, but hear me out.”
Crane tried to keep an open mind.
Kaz shifted on his stool. “I love my wife very much and have since the first moment we met. She’s had a few mental problems over the years. She’s prone to anxiety and takes anti-depressants, that kind of thing. Lately, I’ve noticed a change in her. She seems more distant, more detached, and she disappears for hours at a time and won’t say where she’s been or what she’s been doing. I’m worried she might be involved in something… dangerous.”
Crane frowned. “What do you mean, dangerous?”
Kaz shrugged, not making eye contact. “Maybe drugs, or maybe she’s seeing someone she shouldn’t be. There are a lot of crazies out there, as you know.”
Okay, now they were getting closer to the truth.
“Are you worried she may be having an affair?”
Kaz looked away. “Is it wrong to want to know the truth?” He took a sip of his drink. His hand was steady and unwavering.
Crane sighed inwardly. This was the last thing he needed. To spy on some guy’s wife because he couldn’t handle the fact she was having an affair. Except it wasn’t just some guy, it was the guy who had saved his life. He owed him and unfortunately it was payback time.
“Okay, I understand. Here’s the deal. I’ll find out what’s going on with your wife. It shouldn’t take longer than a week or two. If she is having an affair, I’ll know in a couple of days.”
Kaz beamed. “Great, thanks. Here’s my cell number. You can contact me anytime on it, day or night.” He slid a business card across the bar.
Crane acknowledged it with a nod but didn’t pick it up. Kaz got up as if to leave.
“Hey, what’s her name?” Crane asked. He knew nothing about this woman. Not even what she looked like.
“Sarah. Her name is Sarah. She drives a silver Mercedes SLK convertible and every morning she works out at the Country Club. That might be a good place to start. This is my address,” he took a stylish silver pen out of his jacket pocket and reached for his business card. On the back he scribbled an address near the lake, a very exclusive area.
So Kaz Erkel had money. Crane wasn’t surprised. It fit. The fancy clothes, the high-flying friends, the manicure.
“Do you have a picture of her?”
He shook his head. “I’ll email you.”
It was Crane’s turn to hand over his card. Cheaper paper, zero design. Just his name, occupation and email address.
Kaz flicked the card with his forefinger. A gesture of confirmation.
“What are your rates?” he asked idly.
“None,” said Crane firmly. “I owe you. Let’s just call it a favour.”
Kaz nodded, accepting his answer for what it was – payback.
After Kaz had returned to his party, Crane sat mulling over what had transpired. His gut was telling him something didn’t add up, but none-the-less he’d do what he was hired to do and hope that it didn’t take up too much of his time.
“Munro! Sorry I’m late, national emergency,” a voice bellowed from behind him. Crane cringed. Doug only called him that that to wind him up. It worked every time. He always felt like the wayward teenager he used to be when he was called by his first name. Probably because he got into so much trouble as a kid. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kaz Erkel giving Doug the once over.
The stocky, still agile, ex-CIA agent, retired recruiting detachment commander for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. and more recently local county sheriff, Doug Keeting, gripped his hand and pumped it enthusiastically. “Sorry I’m late.”
“What was it this time, Doug? Escaped convict? Hostage situation?”
Doug laughed. “Can’t tell you buddy, you know that.”
Crane grinned. He had met Doug during his SERE course which was part of the qualification for Special Ops. It stood for Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion. On this course soldiers were trained in skills which allowed them to survive in any conditions. You became an expert on the methods used to survive in the arctic, desert, open ocean, jungle, mountain regions, in combat and captivity situations. Doug had been his instructor and had initially tried to break Crane, who steadfastly refused to be broken. Eventually, a grudging respect developed between them and by the time Crane graduated they were firm friends.
“You know I hate these places, Doug. What you bringing me here for?”
“Don’t panic, the river can wait. I have a job for you to do.”
Doug knew him too well. Ever since he quit the army, kayaking had become his adrenalin fix, something that restored his spirit but at the same time invigorated him and pumped him up. It didn’t match the army for pure excitement value, but since he was pushing forty it was probably time to turn the excitement down a notch – especially since his last experience.
Crane flexed his ankle under the bar counter and said wryly, “Well, that job is going to have to wait. I’ve already got one on the go, starting tomorrow.”
Doug looked extremely put out. “How long?” he sighed.
Crane shrugged. “A week. Two at the most. It’s just surveillance.”
“Damn! I need you for this one, Crane. It’s important.”
“Sorry Doug. There’s nothing I can do, I mean that. I made a promise to someone.”
“It’s a homicide… I know how you love those.”
Crane was tempted, but he’d made a commitment. “Can’t help you.”
“You’re forcing me to go to your opposition, you know that? And let me tell you they’re not nearly as good as you!”
“Which is why I’m not worried,” Crane smiled, thumping his old friend on the shoulder.
He would have been if he had any idea what the next few weeks held.
Crane hadn’t had the dream in a long time. As he drifted in and out of consciousness he heard the Chinook helicopters approaching. He calculated the distance of their approach at the back of his fuddled mind. 700 Metres and counting… 500 metres… 300 metres…
There was frenetic activity all around him. Doctors and nurses ran out of the clinic, presumably to the safety of the underground caves below, which he’d managed to explore briefly before he became addicted.
It was an ingenious captivity plan. More effective than any prison bars might have been. He couldn’t have moved right now even if he hadn’t been clipped into the bunker wall.
The guard at the entrance remained, although he’d lost his stoic expression and now appeared to be concentrating hard on what was happening outside the bunker windows. Crane noticed the sweat spreading in dark damp circles under his arms. The man was afraid. Good.
100 metres… He guessed the allied forces were using the Chinooks because of the altitude. At an insertion of 85,00 feet and upwards, if they were using the peaks as cover, nothing could compare to the CH-47’s performance. He remembered his instructor’s voice back in air training.
Altitude can be your enemy, so can the weather.
In the Chinooks they could also transport a large number of soldiers, relatively quickly. It was going to be a big insurgence. He knew from his own intel that the U.S. forces had completely underestimated the number and fire-power of the enemy. They had guessed about 800 enemy fighters, when he knew for sure there were at least 2000. Thanks to his previous efforts over the last few months, the allied task force knew they were fighting a well-armed enemy with small arms, machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
At the time of his capture he still hadn’t been able to determine whether they were using man-portable surface-to-air missile systems which he could now confirm they were. Unfortunately, he had no way of warning the coalition and special forces teams which would be hauled up in a strong point somewhere nearby, waiting the designated fifty-five minutes for air support before they attacked.
Crane had no doubt they were planning a massive air offensive. He’d suggested the bombing runs for diversion purposes and to support the ground forces, so they would come in fast and hard with low flying B-52s, B-53’s and F-16s. When that started he hoped he’d be able to find some cover, because this bunker was visible from the air, and he was certain his captors wouldn’t value his lousy addict’s life enough to drag him to safety forty foot underground, in the well-ventilated caves that riddled the hillside – another ingenious adaption to guerrilla warfare.
Before he’d become incapacitated due to the frequent heroin injections they administered which kept him semi-comatose, he’d managed to get down to the second level of the bunker, which he discovered was already twenty metres underground. Well-stocked, ventilated and close to comfortable, the enemy could survive for months without coming up into the open. Entire rooms were equipped to store ammo and weapons, food and medical supplies. The sleeping quarters were on the lowest levels, at least thirty to forty foot deep.
Suddenly, he heard rapid mortar fire. Where was the air support? Had the insurgent team come under attack? He struggled against his chain knowing his weakened condition would prohibit him from making it to the door, let alone being able to take down the guard who glanced at him. The sweat marks were growing.
Yes, you’d better be nervous, thought Crane vengefully. The good guys are coming.
The fire-fight continued for almost an hour. Crane strained at his chain, filled with desperate frustration. His team were under attack and there was nothing he could do to help.
Then he heard it.
Faint at first, getting louder, the closer they came. The guard heard it too. He hesitated for a millisecond, then ran out of the makeshift clinic, no doubt to warn the Taliban guerrillas hiding below.
The air attack was in progress. Crane recognised the low screams of the B-52s and B-53s, preparing to jettison their load. Slightly further away, was the throbbing rat-a-tat-a of the Apache helicopters that specialised in close air support for the ground troops.
A bomber flew overhead and Crane braced himself for impact. He wasn’t wrong. The first bomb hit the bunker’s south side causing maximum damage to the square fortress-like structure.
As he silently praised the accuracy of the B-52 pilot he considered how ironic it was that he was now a victim of the very attack he’d helped to plan.
Another bomb dropped and the far side of the clinic completely imploded. Rubble flew in all directions. Crane was lying against the back wall on a tiny stained mattress when the dust enveloped him like a terrible scene from The Fog and threatened to suffocate him. His visibility was reduced to almost zero. He tore his already tattered shirt into a strip and tied it around his nose and mouth. He tested the chain again – it was still firmly attached to the wall. The impact had done nothing to loosen it.
A shout echoed nearby, and then he spotted the fallen body of his guard, who had obviously been ordered back to the clinic. He was bleeding profusely, his blood mixing with the dry dirt on the bunker floor.
Crane took two deep breaths and tried to clear the mist from his brain. The last time they’d administered the heroin it had been dark, so it had either been early this morning, or late last night. Once the dizzying euphoric effects took hold it was impossible to know how long you were rendered unconscious. Judging by the state of his craving, and the uncontrollable shivering of his body, he gauged that it had probably been the night before.
A stainless steel table had overturned nearby and if he stretched he could reach it with his free leg. He dragged the table closer and kicked it over, positioning himself underneath it just as the second wave of bombing started. As the bunker exploded and rubble and rocks rained down on him, Crane lay motionless under the table and as far back against the stone wall as he could get. He shut his eyes against the dust and bits of flying debris that swirled around him and waited. What felt like an eternity was, in fact, only fifteen minutes, after which the bombing halted. The ground commandos must be close by.
More shouting. He looked out from behind his now twisted and dented shield and saw a small team of guerrilla’s emerging from a back-wall outside the clinic entrance.
The passage to the underground cave network.
The explosion had caused the clip fastened to the bunker wall to become loose and with a few hard kicks, which made him feel worse than ever, Crane managed to free himself from his bond. He leopard-crawled across the floor towards the dead guard, and fighting a wave of nausea, managed to grab the man’s weapon.
The AK-47 was loaded and ready to use. As the guerrillas ran for the door, he opened fire. They turned on him in surprise but he was well protected by a wall of debris and fallen rock. With uncanny precision given his current mental condition, he picked them off one by one, freeing up the bunker entrance for the infantrymen who he could now see approaching. They ran in zigzag style across the open courtyard and re-grouped just outside the north entrance to the bunker, a few metres from where he crouched.
Shots rang out and Crane realised the soldiers were being fired on from behind. They dived for cover, and a long and intense fire-fight ensued. As far as Crane could tell, the allied soldiers suffered no casualties.
Then, the Afghan National Army moved in from the west, and got caught in the fire short of the objective area. They could go no further. Two hulking Apache’s emerged from the darkening sky and opened fire on the enemy shooters. Unfortunately, this caused a fresh load of rubble to careen off the hillside above the bunker. Crane knew he had to move or risk being squashed by falling boulders. Not entirely sure his legs would hold him, he stumbled towards the north entrance, attempting to join the Special Forces operatives holed up outside. The guerrillas saw him make a run for it, and opened fire. He dived for cover, but not before an enemy bullet caught him in the thigh. It was a flesh wound, but the bullet was still inside. Grimacing against the pain, he tore what remained of his shirt into strips and made a temporary tourniquet around the wound. Checking the AK-47 rifle he yelled at the Special Ops guys to head for the cave opening. As they ran towards the entrance, he provided back-up cover, while the Apache’s maintained support from the air. The Afghan army approached and the special ops task force flushed out the caves by means of grenades.
Then all hell broke loose. A throng of over-excited guerrillas emerged guns blazing from another cave exit, taking out two special ops guys in the process. One fired a surface to air missile at the Apache’s causing the first helicopter to perform an emergency landing behind the safety of a mountain peak. The other was less fortunate and suffering a direct hit, exploded in mid air. It fell inelegantly to the ground, twisting and turning in some hideous air dance, leaving a plume of acrid black smoke behind it.
Another missile was now headed in their direction. Most of the soldiers managed to dive for cover, but Crane, slowed up by his leg and still shaky on his feet, didn’t make it in time. The missile impacted the roof of the bunker directly above him and he fell to his knees as tons of rock and brick exploded above him. It was only when he came round a couple of hours later that he realised the battlefield was deserted and he was trapped under a mountain of rock.
The icy water felt good as it closed over his head. It squelched the demons from his dream, which had come back to haunt him, no doubt brought on by his chance meeting with Kaz Erkel yesterday. Crane didn’t believe in coincidences as a rule, but what were the chances?
He flipped his kayak into the upright position, blinked the water out of his eyes, and let the strong flow of the current pull him down a narrow creek that bubbled with small eddies. As was his intention, the combination of the cold water, steep gradient and anticipation of what was to come, banished any thought from his mind, except survival.
The Little White Salmon was legendary in extreme kayaking circles. Experienced paddlers came here from all over the world to test themselves against the Grade V rapids and falls, consistent, all-year flow, and steep, narrow gorges. For those less experienced, it was a terror-filled ride, fraught with dangerous caves and powerful underwater hydraulics that could be life threatening – and very often were. More than a few times, Crane had pulled out amateur paddlers pinned below some of the bigger drops. Once he’d rescued a guy who broke his back careening over Spirit Falls. He’d dragged him out from beneath a rocky ledge a hundred feet downstream with no pulse. Luckily, the paddler had been resuscitated and airlifted to the nearest hospital.
The official ‘put in’ point was half a mile upstream from Crane’s cabin, but pressed for time and anxious to get thoughts of war out of his head, Crane didn’t bother to walk. Instead, he got kitted up and slid off the rocky bank beyond his front yard into the narrow, fast-flowing creek and immediately felt his kayak pick up speed.
The flow of the river was usually around 2.9 feet in summer, but lately due to a fault in the aquifer that supplied the river, it had been running at a dangerous 3.9 feet. This pushed the adrenalin levels from a steady charge, to heart-pounding insane.
Around the first corner, the creek tilted on its edge and blasted through a half mile long rapid punctuated by large black boulders. It was not unlike a roller coaster ride, and Crane relied on his strength, ability and lightning-quick reactions to make it through the non-stop gauntlet of swirling dips and vigorous undercurrents. The rapid ended abruptly at a rocky ledge with the only sane way through via a narrow chute on the far left of the river. Crane charged through the sluice, digging his paddle blade into the ledge as he passed. Below the chute was a churning hole which Crane neatly cleared and emerged exhilarated.
Choosing the middle line, Crane skimmed over a couple of huge boulders, his kayak flying through the white water. He knew from experience to avoid the left side of the river, which had serious pinning potential.
Entering the boulder-free lower section of the river, Crane managed to catch his breath, although his heart was still pounding. His respite was short-lived, however, as this section of the river was studded with waterfalls and ledges of every kind. There was no safe route and some of the bigger falls were fed by steep, fast rapids leading right into them.
Forcing his body to remain loose, Crane accelerated over a series of slippery ledges that culminated in a ten-foot drop with a powerful hydraulic and a large cave under the river’s left wall. He didn’t quite clear the ledge and cartwheeled over the drop, only to be flushed out a few seconds later, and thankfully not into the cave. He’d had to fish his kayak out of that cave in pieces on more than one occasion in the past.
Next up, a thirteen-foot waterfall followed by a narrow drop immediately downstream. Emerging intact, Crane took his usual line down the narrow channel that followed and rounded a sharp left turn after which the water dropped away into a steep vertically walled gorge.
With his breath coming in rapid gasps, Crane pulled to the side of the creek to rest. He was shaking from the adrenalin. It was not unlike the feeling he used to get on special forces missions, after his team had survived a gunfight or sabotaged enemy infrastructure and made a narrow escape.
That was an awesome session, but it was time to call it a day.
Up ahead was the Horseshoe, probably one of the most dangerous and underrated drops on the river. A large submerged boulder backed up the flow in the middle of the river, making the churning hole beneath it a near perfect drowning machine that was almost impossible to escape from. As it was beneath the water, this rapid was deceptively dangerous for those not familiar with the river. The tricky cross-currents above the boulder were amplified by the narrow walls of the gorge and tended to funnel unwary paddlers into the middle of the drop, resulting in highly dangerous swims.
If, by some miracle, you managed to survive a swim at the Horseshoe, there is another thirty-three foot plunge a mere forty feet downstream. Caught unprepared and without a kayak, the drop will kill you. Almost the entire current pours into a pocket against the right wall below the waterfall. If you aren’t killed by the force at which you hit the rock face below the water, the current will lock you in and you’ll soon drown. Usually, it’s a combination of both.
At low flow, this was a dangerous drop, only for the really experienced paddler, but at 3.9 it was suicidal. Even he wasn’t that crazy.
Climbing out of his boat, Crane collapsed on the river bank listening only to his rapid breathing and thumping heart.