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About the Author
Date of Birth:April 12, 1947
Date of Death:October 1, 2013
Place of Birth:Baltimore, Maryland
Education:Loyola High School in Towson, Maryland, 1965; B.A. in English, Loyola College, 1969
Read an Excerpt
Monday, 6:13 A.M.
Seven years ago, during training for service with UNTACthe United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodiabrash, adventuresome Lieutenant Reynold Downer of the 11th/28th Battalion, the Royal Western Australia Regiment, learned that there were three conditions that had to be met before a United Nations peacekeeping operation could be sent to any nation. It wasn't something he'd ever wondered about or wanted to be a part of, but the Commonwealth of Australia felt differently.
First, the fifteen member nations of the UN Security Council had to approve the operation and its parameters in detail. Second, since the United Nations does not have an army, member nations of the General Assembly had to agree to contribute troops as well as a force commander, who was put in charge of deployment and execution of the multinational army. Third, the warring nations had to consent to the presence of the PKO.
Once there, the peacekeepers had three goals. The first was to establish and enforce a cease-fire while the warring parties sought peaceful solutions. The second was to create a buffer zone between the hostile factions. And the third was to maintain the peace. This included military action when necessary, de-mining the terrain so civilians could return to homes and to food and water supplies, and also providing humanitarian assistance.
All of that was carefully explained to the light infantry troops during two weeks of training at Irwin Barracks,Stubbs Terrace, Karrakatta. Two weeks that consisted of learning local customs, politics, language, water purification, and how to drive slowly, with one eye on the dirt roads, so you didn't run over a mine. Also learning not to blush when you caught a glimpse of yourself in a powder blue beret and matching ascot.
When the UN indoctrination was done"the gelding," as his commanding officer quite accurately described itthe Australian contingent was spread among the eighty-six cantonment sites in Cambodia. Australia's own Lieutenant General John M. Sanderson was force commander of the entire UNTAC operation, which lasted from March 1992 to September 1993.
The UNTAC mission was carefully designed to avoid armed conflict. UN soldiers weren't supposed to shoot unless fired upon, and only then without escalating the hostilities. The deaths of any enlisted personnel were to be investigated by the local police, not by the military. Human rights were to be encouraged through education, not force. Apart from serving as a buffer, distributing food and offering health care were the PKO's top priorities.
To Downer, being in the field seemed less like a military operation than a carnival. Come on, you warring or downtrodden Third World peoples. Get your bread here, your penicillin, your clean water. The circus feeling was enhanced by tents that were topped with colorful banners and local gawkers who weren't sure what to make of it all. Though many of them took what was offered, they looked like they wished it would just go away. Violence was an expected and understood part of their daily lives. Outsiders were not.
There was so little to do in Cambodia that Colonel Ivan Georgiev, a high-ranking officer in the Bulgarian People's Army, organized a prostitution ring. They were protected by officers of Pol Pot's renegade National Army of Democratic Kampuchea, who needed foreign currency to buy arms and supplies and were paid 25 percent of the take. Georgiev ran the ring from tents erected behind his command post. Local girls came for what were supposed to be radio UNTAC language courses and stayed for an infusion of foreign currency. That was where Downer first met both Georgiev and Major Ishiro Sazanka. Georgiev said that the soldiers of Japan and Australia were his best customers, though the Japanese tended to get rough with the girls and had to be watched. "Polite sadists," the Bulgarian had called them. Downer's uncle Thomas, who had fought the Japanese as part of the 7th Australian Division in the Southwest Pacific, would have quarreled with that description. He didn't find the Japanese at all polite.
Downer helped to recruit new "language students" for the tents, while Georgiev's other aides found different ways of getting girls to work for themincluding kidnapping. The Khmer Rouge helped gather new girls whenever possible. Except for this sideline, Downer found Cambodia a bore. The United Nations guidelines were too soft, too restrictive. As he'd learned growing up on the docks of Sydney, there was only one guideline that mattered. Did some son of a bitch deserve a bullet in the head? If he did, pull the trigger and go home. If he didn't, what the hell were you doing there?
Downer took a last swallow of coffee and pushed the heavy mug back along the vinyl-covered card table. The coffee was good, black and bitter, the way he drank it in the field. It made him feel energized, ready to act. Maybe that wasn't a good idea, here and now, where there was nothing to act against. But he liked the feeling anyway.
The Australian looked at the watch on his sun-darkened wrist. Where the hell were they?
The group was usually back by eight o'clock. How long did it take to make a videotape of something they'd videotaped six times already?
The answer was that it took as long as Captain Vandal needed it to take. Vandal was in charge of this phase of the operation. And if the French officer weren't so efficient, none of them would be here. Vandal was the one who got them all into the country, had acquired the hardware, had supervised the recon, and would get them out of here so they could start phase two of the operation, which would be run by Georgiev.
Downer fished a graham cracker from an open box and snapped at it impatiently. The taste, the crispness, brought him back to his arms training in the outback. The unit lived on these things there.
He looked around the small, dark apartment as he chewed. His soft blue eyes moved from the kitchen on the right to the TV across the room to the front door. Vandal had rented this place over two years before. The Frenchman admitted that luxury was not a consideration. The one-room, first-floor flat was located on a crooked little street just off the Boulevard de la Bastille, not far from the large bureau de poste. Apart from the location, the only thing that was important was that they be on the first floor of the building for a window escape if necessary. As Vandal had promised when the five of them pooled their savings for this operation, he would spend extravagantly only on forged documents, surveillance gear, and weapons.
As the tall, powerfully built Downer brushed crumbs from his faded blue jeans, he glanced at the oversized duffel bags lying in a row between the TV and the window. He was baby-sitting the five lumpy bags filled with weapons. Vandal had done his job there. AK-47s, handguns, tear gas, grenades, a rocket launcher. All of them unmarked and untraceable, bought through Chinese arms dealers the Frenchman had met while the PKO was in Cambodia.
God bless the United Nations, Downer thought.
Tomorrow morning, shortly after dawn, the men would load the bags onto the truck they'd bought. Vandal and Downer would drop Sazanka, Georgiev, and Barone at the factory helipad and then time their departure so everyone could meet again later at the target.
The target, Downer thought. So ordinary yet so vital to the rest of the operation.
The Australian's eyes returned to the table. There was a white ceramic bowl sitting beside the phone. The bowl was filled with black pasteburned diagrams and notes soaked in tap water. The notes contained everything from calculations about approximate tail winds and head winds at one thousand feet up at eight in the morning to traffic flow to the police presence on the Seine. Ashes could still be deciphered; wet ashes were useless.
Just one more stinking day of this, he told himself.
When the rest of the team returned, there'd be one more afternoon of studying videotapes, making sure they had everything covered for this phase of the operation. One more night of drawing maps for this part of the operation, then calculating flight times, bus schedules, street names, and the location of arms dealers in New York for the next phase. Just to make sure they'd memorized them all. And then there'd be one more dawn of burning everything they'd written so the police would never find it here or in the trash.
Downer's eyes drifted across the room to the sleeping bags on the floor. They sat in front of a sofa, the only other piece of furniture in the room. There was a big window fan in the room's only window, and it had been running constantly during this heat wave. Vandal assured him that the hundred-plus temperatures were good for the plan. The target was vented, not air-conditioned, and the men inside were going to be a little more sluggish than usual.
Not like us, Downer thought. He and his teammates had a goal.
Downer thought of the four other ex-soldiers who were involved in the project. He'd met them all in Phnom Penh, and each of them had a very different, very personal reason for being here.
A key rattled in the front door. Downer reached for his Type 64 silenced pistol, tucked in a holster hanging from the back of the wooden chair. He gently pushed the graham cracker box aside so he had a clear shot at the door. He remained seated. The only person other than Vandal who had a key was the superintendent. In the three times Downer had stayed at the apartment during the past year, the old man only came by when he was calledand sometimes not even then. If it were anyone else, they didn't belong here, and they'd die. Downer half-hoped it was someone he didn't know. He was in the mood to pull the trigger..
The door opened and Etienne Vandal walked in. His longish brown hair was slicked back and he was wearing sunglasses, a video camera carrying case slung casually over his left shoulder. He was followed by the bald, barrel-chested Georgiev, the short and swarthy Barone, and the tall, broad-shouldered Sazanka. All of the men were wearing touristy T-shirts and blue jeans. They also wore the same, flat expressions.
Sazanka shut the door. He shut it quietly, politely.
Downer sighed. He slipped the firearm back in its holster. "How'd it go?" the Australian asked. Downer's voice was still rich with the tight gutturals of western New South Wales.
"Ewed ih gow?" Barone said, mimicking the Australian's thick accent.
"Stop that," Vandal told him.
"Yes, sir," Barone replied. He threw the officer a casual salute and frowned at Downer.
Downer didn't like Barone. The cocky little man had something none of the other men possessed: an attitude. He acted as though everyone were a potential enemy, even his allies. Barone also had a good ear. He'd worked as a custodian at the American embassy when he was a teenager and had lost most of his accent. The one thing that kept Downer from lashing out at the younger man was they both knew that if the little Uruguayan ever crossed the line too far, the six-foot-four-inch Australian could and would pull him in two.
Vandal put the case on the table and popped the tape from the camera. He walked over to the TV.
"I think the surveillance went fine," Vandal said. "The traffic patterns appear to be the same as they were last week. But we'll compare the tapes, just to make sure."
"For the last time, I hope," Barone said.
"We all hope," Downer said.
"Yes, but I'm anxious to move," the twenty-nine-year-old officer said. He did not say where he wanted to move. A group of foreigners meeting in a rundown flat never knew who might be eavesdropping.
Sazanka sat silently on the sofa and untied his Nikes. He massaged his thick feet. Barone tossed him a bottled water from the refrigerator in the kitchenette. The Japanese grunted his thanks. Sazanka's command of English was the weakest, and he tended to say very little. Downer shared his uncle's view of the Japanese, and Sazanka's silence made him happy. Ever since Downer was a child, Japanese sailors, tourists, and speculators had been all over the harbor in Sydney. If they didn't act as though they owned it, they acted as though one day they would. Unfortunately, Sazanka could fly a variety of aircraft. The group needed his skills.
Barone handed a bottle to Georgiev, who was standing behind him.
"Thank you," Georgiev said.
They were the first words Downer had heard the Bulgarian speak since dinner the night beforeeven though he spoke nearly perfect English, having worked for almost ten years as a Central Intelligence Agency contact in Sofia. Georgiev hadn't talked a lot in Cambodia, either. He'd kept an eye out for their Khmer Rouge contacts as well as undercover government police or UN human rights observers. The Bulgarian preferred to listen, even when nothing was being discussed. Downer wished he himself had the patience for that. Good listeners could hear things in casual conversation, when people had their guard down, that often proved valuable.
"Want one?" Barone asked Vandal.
The Frenchman shook his head.
Barone looked at Downer. "I'd offer you a bottle, but I know you'd refuse. You like it hot. Boiling."
"Warm beverages are better for you," Downer replied. "They make you sweat. Cleans the system."
"As if we don't sweat enough," Barone commented.
"I don't," Downer said. "And it's a good sensation. Makes you feel productive. Alive."
"When you're with a lady, sweating is great," Barone said. "In here, it's self-punishment."
"That can be a good feeling, too," Downer said.
"To a psychotic, maybe."
Downer grinned. "And aren't we, mate?"
"Enough," Vandal said as the videotape began to play.
Downer was a talker, too. In his case, the sound of his own voice comforted him. He used to talk himself to sleep when he was a kid, tell himself stories to drown out the sound of his drunken dockworker father slapping around whatever cheap woman he was with in their rickety wooden apartment. Talking was a habit Downer never gave up.
Barone walked into the room. He popped the seal on his own water bottle, chugged it down in a long swallow, then pulled up a chair and sat beside Downer. He snatched a graham cracker and chomped it down as they all watched the nineteen-inch TV set. He leaned toward Downer.
"I don't like what you said," Barone whispered. "A psychotic is irrational. I am not."
"If you say so."
"Ah dew," Barone said, imitating Downer, this time with an edge.
Downer let it go. Unlike Barone, he realized that he only needed the man's skills, not his approval.
The men watched the twenty-minute tape through once, then watched it again. Before watching it a third time, Vandal joined Downer and Barone at the rickety table. Barone had gotten himself focused. He was a former revolutionary who had helped found the short-lived Consejo de Seguridad Nacional, which had ousted the corrupt President Bordaberry. His expertise was explosives. Downer's experience was firearms, rockets, and hand-to-hand combat. Sazanka flew. Georgiev had the contacts to obtain whatever they needed through the black market, which was tapped into all the resources of the former Soviet Union, its clients in the Middle and Far East, and in the United States. Georgiev had recently returned from New York, where he spent time arranging for weapons through a Khmer Rouge arms supplier and working with his intelligence contact, going over the target itself. All of that would be needed during the second part of the operation.
But part two was not on their minds right now. First part one had to succeed. Together, the three men single-framed through the tape, making sure that the explosion they planned would get them through the target zone without destroying anything else.
After spending four hours on the tape and the rest of the afternoon meeting in the field with Vandal's local contacts to review the truck, helicopter, and other equipment they'd be using here, the team ate at a sidewalk café. Then they returned to the room to rest.
As anxious as the men were, they all slept. They had to.
Tomorrow, they would begin to inaugurate a new era in international relations. One that would not only change the world by calling attention to a big lie but would also make them rich. As Downer lay on top of his sleeping bag, he enjoyed the gentle breeze of the open window. He pictured himself being somewhere else. His own island, perhaps. Maybe even his own country. And he calmed himself by listening to the voice in his head telling him all the things he could do with his share of two hundred and fifty million dollars.