SIXTY-THREE

HERMANN TRIED TO GAUGE THE MAN SITTING ACROSS FROM him. He was indeed the vice president of the United States, but he was no different from the myriad of other politicos he'd bought and sold from around the world, men and women eager for power and lacking in conscience. The Americans liked to portray themselves as above that type of reproach, but ambition was irresistible to anyone who'd tasted its potential. The man here, in his library, on the night of the winter Assembly, was no exception. He talked of lofty political goals and shifts in foreign policy, but he'd been willing from the start to betray his country, his president, and himself.

Advertisement

Thank heaven.

The Order of the Golden Fleece thrived off the moral deficiencies of others.

"Alfred," the vice president was saying. "Level with me. Is it really possible there's evidence Israel has no biblical claim to the Holy Land?"

"Of course. The Old Testament was a major source of study at the Library of Alexandria. The emerging New Testament, toward the end of the library's existence, also was analyzed in detail. We know that from surviving manuscripts. It's reasonable to assume that both texts and analyses of the Bible, in its original Old Hebrew, still exist."

-- Advertisement --

He recalled what Sabre had reported from Rothenburg. Three others had been killed by Israel. Each visited by a Guardian. Each involved in Old Testament study. Haddad himself had received an invitation. Why else had he been extended such an honor? And why had Israel moved to kill the Palestinian?

There had to be a link.

"I was in England recently," the vice president said, "and was shown the Sinai Bible. They told me it was from the fourth century, one of the earliest Old Testaments still around. Written in Greek."

"There's a perfect example," he said. "Do you know the story?"

"Bits and pieces."

Hermann told his guest about a German scholar, Tischendorf, who in 1844 was touring the East in search of old manuscripts. He visited the monastery of St. Catherine, in the Sinai, and noticed a basket filled with forty-three old pages written in ancient Greek. The monks told him they were to be burned for fuel, as others had been. Tischendorf determined that the pages were from the Bible, and the monks allowed him to keep them. Fifteen years later he returned to St. Catherine's on behalf of the Russian tsar. He was shown the remainder of the biblical pages and managed to return them to Russia. Eventually, after the revolution, the communists sold the manuscript to the British, who display it to this day.

"The Sinai Bible," Hermann said, "is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts. Some have speculated Constantine himself commissioned its preparation. But remember, it's written in Greek, so it was translated from Hebrew by someone utterly unknown to us, from an original manuscript that is equally unknown. So what does it really tell us?"

"That the monks at St. Catherine's are still ticked off, more than a hundred years later, that their Bible was never returned. For decades they've petitioned the United States to intervene with the British. That's why I went to see the thing. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about."

"I applaud Tischendorf for taking it. Those monks would have either burned it or just let it decay. Unfortunately much of our knowledge has met a similar fate. We can only hope that the Guardians have been more careful."

"You really believe this stuff, don't you?"

He debated whether he should say more. Things were progressing rapidly, and this man, who would soon be president, needed to understand the situation.

He stood.

"Let me show you something."

THORVALDSEN BECAME INSTANTLY CONCERNED AS ALFRED Hermann rose from his chair and tabled his drink. He risked another peek below and saw the Austrian leading the vice president across the hardwood floor toward the spiral staircase. He quickly surveyed the upper catwalk and saw that there was no other way down. More window alcoves broke the shelves on the remaining three walls, but there'd be no way he and Gary could seek refuge within any of them.

They'd be spotted in an instant.

Hermann and the vice president bypassed the stairway, however, and stopped before a glass case.

HERMANN MOTIONED AT THE LIGHTED CASE. INSIDE RESTED AN ancient codex, its wooden cover pitted, as if attacked by insects.

"It's a fourth-century manuscript, too. A treatise on early church teachings, written by Augustine himself. My father bought it decades ago. It carries no historical significance-copies of it exist-but it looks impressive."

He reached beneath the podium and depressed a button disguised as one of the stainless-steel screws. From an axis at one corner, he swung the top third of the case away from the remainder. Inside the bottom two-thirds rested nine sheets of brittle papyrus.

"These, on the other hand, are quite precious. My father also bought them, decades ago, from the same person who sold him the codex. Some were written by Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. A great church father. He translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, creating a work known as the Vulgate that ultimately became definitive. History calls him by another name. Jerome."

"You're a strange man, Alfred. The oddest things excite you. How could those wrinkly old sheets have any bearing today?"

"I assure you, these have great relevance. Enough to perhaps change our thinking. Some of these were also written by Augustine. These are letters between Jerome and Augustine." He saw that the American still was not impressed.

"They had mail in those days?"

"A crude form. Travelers heading in the right direction would take messages back and forth. Some of our best records from that time are correspondence."

"Now, that is interesting."

Hermann came to the point. "Have you ever wondered how the Bible came to be?"

"Not particularly."

"What if it was all a lie?"

"It's a matter of faith, Alfred. What does it matter?"

"It matters a great deal. What if the early church fathers-men like Jerome and Augustine who shaped the course of religious thinking-decided to change things? Remember their time. Four hundred years after Christ, long after Constantine sanctioned the new Christian religion, at a time when the church was emerging and eliminating philosophies contrary to its teachings. The New Testament was just then coming into being. Various Gospels assimilated and arranged into a unified message. Mainly that God was gentle and forgiving, and that Christ had come. But then there was the Old Testament. What the Jews used. Christians wanted it to be part of their religion, too. Luckily for those early church fathers, Old Testament texts were few, and all were written in Old Hebrew."

"But you said this Jerome translated the Bible into Latin."

"Exactly my point." He reached into the case and lifted out one of the tanned sheets. "These are written in Greek, the language of Jerome's time." Beneath the parchments lay typed pages. He lifted them out. "I had the letters translated. By three different experts to be sure of the work. I want to read you something, then I think you'll see what I'm referring to."

I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by human arrogance, but by divine grace. Our task is to assure the human spirit is lifted and that the message is clear through the words of Christ. Your wisdom, offered when I began this task, has proven correct. This work that I labor over will form the first inter pretation of the ancient Scriptures into a language that even the most uneducated could understand. For there to be a connection between the old and the new seems logical. For these Scriptures to be in conflict seems self-defeating and would only elevate the Jewish philosophy to a superior position, since it has existed much longer than our faith. Since we last communicated, I have struggled through more of the ancient text. The progress is made difficult by so many double meanings. Once more I seek your guidance on a critical point. Jerusalem is the sacred city of the old text. The word yeruwshalayim is used often to identify the location, yet I have noticed that nowhere in the old text is ��yr yeruwshalayim ever used, which clearly means "city of Jerusalem." Let me demonstrate the problem. From the Hebrew, in Kings, Yahweh says to Solomon, "Jerusalem, the city/capital that I have chosen in it." Farther on, Yahweh states, "so that the city in Jerusalem recalling the memory of David be fore me-the city where I have chosen to establish my name-may be pre served." My brother, can you see the dilemma? The ancient text speaks of Jerusalem not as a city but as a territory. Always it is the "city in Jerusalem," not Jerusalem itself. Samuel actually speaks of it as a region where the Hebrew says "the king and his men set out for Jerusalem against the Jebusites who in habited the region." I have struggled with the translation, hoping for some error to be discovered, but it is consistent throughout the Hebrew usage. The word yeruwshalaim, Jerusalem, always refers to a place comprising a number of cities, not to a single city by that name.

Hermann stopped reading and stared up at the vice president. "Jerome wrote this to Augustine while he was translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin. Let me read you what Augustine, at one point, wrote to Jerome."

He found another of the translations.

My learned brother, your work seems both arduous and glorious. How amazing it must be to reveal what scribes gone for so long have recorded and all with the divine guidance of our most glorious God. You are certainly aware of the struggles that we all endure in this most dangerous of times. The pagan gods are dying away. The message of Christ is growing. His words of peace, mercy, and love ring true. Many are discovering our new message simply because it is be coming available. Which makes your effort to bring to life the old words that much more important. Your letters clearly explained the problem you are facing. Yet the future of this church, of our God, rests with us. To adapt the message of the old with that of the new is not a sin. As you have said, the words possess many double meanings, so who is to say which is right? Certainly not you or I. You asked for guidance, so I shall give it. Make the old words true to the new. For if the old be different from the new, we surely will be at risk of confusing the faithful and fueling the fires of discontent, which our many enemies keep burning. Yours is a great task. To be able for all to read the old words will mean much. No longer will scholars and rabbis possess control over so important a text. So my brother, work hard and be well knowing that you are doing the work of the Lord.

"You're saying they intentionally changed the Old Testament?" the vice president asked.

"Of course they did. Just this reference to Jerusalem is a good example. Jerome's translation, which is still accepted as correct today, denotes Jerusalem as a city. Jerome's Kings reads, Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen. That's absolutely contrary to what Jerome himself wrote in the letter. Jerusalem, the city/capital that I have chosen in it. Huge difference, wouldn't you say? And this description of Jerusalem is used throughout Jerome's translation. The Jerusalem of the Old Testament became the city in Palestine because Jerome made it so."

"This is crazy, Alfred. Nobody's going to buy any of it."

"It's not necessary that anyone buy it. Once the proof is found, there will be no denying."

"Like what?"

"An Old Testament manuscript penned before Christ should be definitive. Then we can read the words without the Christian filter."

"I wish you luck."

"Tell you what. I'll leave the governing of America to you and you leave this to me."

THORVALDSEN WATCHED AS HERMANN REPLACED THE SHEETS into the display case and closed the compartment. The two men lingered for a few minutes, then left the library. The hour was late, but he wasn't sleepy.

"They're going to kill the president," Gary said nervously.

"I know. Come, we need to leave."

They descended the spiral staircase.

Lamps still burned in the library. He recalled how Hermann liked to boast that there were some twenty-five thousand books, many first editions dating back hundreds of years.

He led Gary to the case containing the codex. The boy hadn't seen what he had. He reached beneath and searched for a switch, but felt nothing. Bending down would be difficult. One of the handicaps of a crooked spine.

"What are you looking for?" Gary asked.

"There's a way to open this case. Have a look and see if there's a button underneath."

Gary dropped to his knees and searched.

"I doubt if it will be obvious." He alternated his attention from the case to the door, hoping no one came inside. "Anything?"

A click, and the case separated slightly about one-third of the way down its length.

Gary stood. "One of the screws. Pretty neat. Unless you poke it, you'd never know."

"Good job."

He revealed the hidden compartment and saw the stiff sheets of papyrus with writing from edge to edge. He counted. Nine. He stared around at the bookshelves and spied some oversized atlases. He pointed, "Bring me one of those large books."

Gary retrieved a volume. Carefully he slid the papyri and translations into the pages to both conceal and protect them.

He reclosed the case.

"What are those?" Gary asked.

"What we came for, I hope."

SIXTY-FOUR

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7

9:15 AM

MALONE LEANED BACK AGAINST THE BULKHEAD IN THE CAVERNOUS C130H transport. Brent Green had worked fast, hitching them a ride on an air force supply flight out of England bound for Afghanistan. A stop in Lisbon at the Montijo Air Base, supposedly for a minor repair, had allowed them to board with little fanfare. A change of clothes had awaited them; Malone, Pam, and McCollum now sported army combat uniforms in varying shades of beige, green, and brown, along with desert boots and parachutes. Pam had been apprehensive about the chute, but accepted his explanation that it was standard equipment.

The flight time from Lisbon to the Sinai was eight hours and he'd managed a little sleep. He recalled with no affection other flights on other transports, and the pall of oily jet fuel that hung in the air brought back memories of when he was younger. Staying away far more than being home. Making mistakes that hurt him even now.

Pam had clearly not liked the first three hours of the flight. Understandable, given that comfort was the least of the air force's concerns. But finally she'd settled down and fallen asleep.

McCollum was another matter.

He'd seemed right at home, donning his parachute with expert precision. Perhaps he was ex-special forces. Malone hadn't heard from Green as to McCollum's background. But whatever was learned would soon be of little consequence. They were about to be out of touch, in the middle of nowhere.

He stared out the window.

Dusty, barren soil stretched in every direction, an irregular tableland, tilting ever upward as the Sinai Peninsula narrowed and erupted into craggy brown, gray, and red granite mountains. The Burning Bush and the theophany of Jehovah all supposedly occurred down there. The great and terrible wilderness of Exodus. Monks and hermits for centuries had chosen it as their refuge, as if being alone brought them closer to heaven. Perhaps it did. He was curiously reminded of Sartre's Huis Clos vision.

Hell is other people.

He turned from the window and watched McCollum leave the loadmaster and walk toward him, taking a seat on the aluminum frame that stretched across the bulkhead. Pam lay ten feet away, on the opposite side, still sleeping. Malone was eating one of the meals ready to eat-beefsteak with mushrooms-and drinking bottled water.

"You eat?" he asked McCollum.

"While you were sleeping. Chicken fajitas. Not bad. I remember MREs all too well."

"You do look at home."

"Been here, done this."

They'd both removed their earplugs, which provided only minor insulation from the constant drone of the engines. The aircraft was loaded with pallets of vehicle parts destined for Afghanistan. Malone imagined that there were many similar flights each week. Where once supply routes depended on horses, wagons, and trucks, now the sky and sea offered the fastest and safest routes.

"You look like you've been here, too," McCollum said.

"Does bring back some things."

He was watching his words. Didn't matter that McCollum had helped get them out of Belem in one piece. He remained an unknown. And he killed with expert precision and no remorse. His redeeming quality? He held the hero's quest.

"You've got some pretty good connections," McCollum said. "The attorney general himself arranged this?"

"I do have friends."

"You're either CIA, military intelligence, or something along that line."

"None of the above. I'm actually retired."

McCollum chuckled. "You keep that story. I like it. Retired. Right. You're up to your eyeballs in something."

He finished the meal and noticed the loadmaster eyeing him. He recalled that they could get touchy as to how MREs were trashed. The man motioned and Malone understood. The container at the far end of the bench.

The loadmaster then flashed his open palm four times.

Twenty minutes.

He nodded.

SIXTY-FIVE

VIENNA

8:30 AM

THORVALDSEN SAT INSIDE THE SCHMETTERLINGHAUS AND OPENED the atlas. He and Gary had awoken an hour ago, showered, and eaten a light breakfast. He'd come to the butterfly house not only to avoid the electronic listening devices, but to await the inevitable as well. Only a matter of time before Hermann discovered the theft.

Morning was free time for the members, as the next gathering of the Assembly was not scheduled until late afternoon. He'd kept the parchments inside the atlas beneath his bed all night. Now he was anxious to learn more. Though he could read Latin, his Greek was minimal, and his knowledge of Old Greek, which surely would be the language of Jerome and Augustine, was nonexistent. He was thankful that Hermann had commissioned the translations.

Gary sat across from him in another chair. "You said last night these may be what we came for."

He decided the boy deserved the truth. "You were kidnapped so as to force your father to find something he hid away years ago. I think that and these papers are linked."

"What are they?"

"Letters between two learned men. Augustine and Jerome. They lived in the fourth and fifth centuries and helped formulate the Christian religion."

"History. I'm starting to like it and all, but there's so much to it."

Henrik smiled. "And the problem today is we have so few documents from that time. Wars, politics, time, and abuse have devastated the record. But here are writings straight from the minds of two learned men."

He knew something about both. Augustine was born in Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father. Eventually, as an adult, he converted to Christianity and recorded his youthful excesses in The Confessions, a book Thorvaldsen knew was still required reading at most universities. He became the bishop of Hippo, an intellectual leader of African Catholicism, and a powerful advocate for orthodoxy; he was credited with formulating much of the church's early thinking.

Jerome, too, was born to a pagan family and misspent his youth. He was also learned, and came to be regarded as the most intellectual of all the church fathers. He lived as a hermit and devoted thirty years of his life to translating the Bible. Ever since, he'd been associated with libraries, so much so that he became their patron saint.

From the little that Thorvaldsen had overheard last night, these two men, who lived in differing parts of the ancient world, apparently communicated with each other during a time when Jerome was fashioning his lifework. Hermann had made his point to the vice president about biblical manipulation, but he needed to understand the situation fully. So he found the translation pages and started perusing them, reading the English passages out loud.

My learned brother Augustine, there was a time when I believed the Septuagint to be a wondrous work. I read that text in the library at Alexandria. To hear the thoughts of those scribes, as they recounted the troubles of the Israelites, brought to life the faith that had long filled my soul. But this joy has now been replaced with confusion. In my work to convert the old text it is clear that great liberties were taken in the Septuagint. Passage after passage is not correct. Jerusalem is not a single place, but a region that contains many places. That most sacred of rivers the Jordan is not a river, but a mountain escarpment. As to the names of places, most are wrong. The Greek translation does not conform to the Hebrew. It is as if the entire message was altered, not through ignorance, but design.

Jerome, my friend, yours is a difficult task, made even more so by our great mission. What you have discovered has not gone unnoticed. I, too, have spent a great deal of time in the library at Alexandria. Many of us have perused the manuscripts. I read an account from Herodotus, who visited Palestine in the fifth century before our Lord. He found the area under Persian rule inhabited by Syrians. He noticed no Israelite or Jewish presence. No Jerusalem or Judah. I found that remarkable considering the old text mentions that was the time when the Jewish Temple was being rebuilt in Jerusalem and Judah enjoyed the status of a great province. If these had existed, the learned Greek would have noticed, as he carries the reputation of an ardent observer. I found that the first known identification of ancient Israel with what we call Palestine comes from the Roman, Strabo. His Histories is a thorough account, and I was privileged to read it in the library. Strabo's work was completed twenty-three years after our Lord was born, so he wrote at a time when Christ actually lived. He notes that the name Judea was first applied to Palestine during Greek rule, the Greek word for a Jewish country being Ioudaia. That was only a century before the birth of our Lord. So sometime between the visits of Herodotus and Strabo, some four hundred years apart, the Jews of Palestine established a presence. Strabo himself wrote of a large body of Israelites who fled from a land to the south and settled in Palestine. He was not clear as to which land, but he reasoned that, given the proximity of Egypt and its easy access, the Exodus must have occurred from there to Palestine. But nothing proves that conclusion. Strabo noted that the source of his tale was the Jews of Alexandria, among whom he spent much time. He was fluent in Hebrew and noted in his Histories that he, too, found errors in the Septuagint. He wrote that the scholars at the library of Alexandria, who translated the old text into Greek, simply connected the old text to what they learned from the Jews at that time. Strabo wrote that the Jews of Alexandria had forgotten their past and seemed comfortable creating one.

My learned brother Augustine, I have read the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jew who wrote with great authority. He lived a century after our Lord was born. He clearly identifies Palestine with the land in the old text, noting that the region is the only place he knew where a Jewish political entity existed. Of a more recent time, Eusebius of Caesaria, on behalf of our most exalted emperor Constantine, has designated names from the old text to sites in Palestine. I have read his work On the Names of Places in Holy Scripture. But after studying a text of the old text in Hebrew, it is clear that Eusebius's work is flawed. He seems to have loosely applied meanings to place-names and in some cases simply guessed, yet this work carries a great importance. Pious and credulous pilgrims use it as their guide.

Jerome, my friend, we must execute this task with great diligence. Our religion is but forming, and there are threats from all sides. What you are attempting is critical to our existence. To have the old text translated into Latin will allow those words to be read by many. I urge you not to alter what those who created the Septuagint started. Our Lord Christ lived in Palestine. For the message we are formulating with the newer testament, we must present one voice. I recognize what you have said: that the old text seems not a record of the Israelites in what we call Palestine. Why should that matter? Our goal is much different from that of those who created the Septuagint. Our newer testament must be a fulfillment of the old. Only in this way will the meaning of our message be elevated to a status greater than the old. To link the old with the new will demonstrate how vital our Lord Christ was and how important His message is. The errors that you note in the Septuagint need not be corrected. As you have written, the Jews who aided those translators had forgotten their past. They knew nothing of their existence from long ago, only what was happening around them at the time. So in your translations, the Palestine that we know should remain the Palestine of both testaments. This is our task, dear brother, our mission. The future of our religion, of our Lord Christ, is with us and He inspires us to do His will.

Thorvaldsen stopped reading.

Here were two church fathers, perhaps the most brilliant of all, laboring with how to manipulate the translation of the Old Testament into Latin. Jerome was clearly privy to a manuscript written in the original Hebrew and had noted errors in its previous translation into Greek. Augustine knew of Herodotus and Strabo-the former recognized as the father of history, the latter of geography. One a Greek, the other Roman. Men who lived centuries apart and fundamentally changed the world. Strabo's Geography still existed and was regarded as one of the most precious of ancient texts, revealing much about that world and its time, but his Histories was gone.

No copy existed.

Yet Augustine had read it.

In the Library of Alexandria.

"What does all that mean?" Gary asked.

"A great deal."

If the early church had falsified the translation of the Old Testament, adapting its words to fit its purposes, that could have catastrophic implications.

Hermann was right. The Christians would certainly join the fight.

His mind raced with what the Blue Chair was planning. He knew from conversations they'd had through the years that Hermann was not a believer. He regarded religion as a political tool and faith as a crutch for the weak. He'd take great pleasure in watching the three major religions struggle with the implications that the Old Testament they'd always known was in fact something altogether different.

The pages Thorvaldsen held were precious. They formed part of Hermann's proof. But the Blue Chair would need more. Which was why the Library of Alexandria was so important. If it still existed, it might be the only repository that could shed light on the issue. That was Malone's problem, however, given that he was apparently now on his way to the Sinai.

He wished his friend well.

Then there was the president of the United States. His death was planned for next Thursday.

That was Thorvaldsen's problem.

He fished his cell phone from a pocket and dialed.

SIXTY-SIX

SINAI PENINSULA

MALONE ROUSED PAM. SHE SAT UP FROM THE NYLON SEAT AND removed the earplugs.

"We're here," he said.

She shook sleep from her brain and perked up. "We're landing?"

"We're here," he said again over the engine roar.

"How long have I been out?"

"A few hours."

She stood from the bench, her parachute still strapped to her back. The C130 bumped and ground its way through the morning air. "How long till we land?"

"We're getting out of here shortly. Did you eat?"

She shook her head. "No way. My stomach was in my throat. But it's finally calmed down."

"Drink some water." He motioned at the holder.

She opened the bottle and gulped a few swallows. "This thing is like riding in a boxcar."

He smiled. "Good way of putting it."

"You used to fly on these?"

"All the time."

"Your job was tough."

That was the first time he'd ever heard a concession about his former profession. "I asked for it."

"I'm only beginning to understand. I'm still freaked out about that bugged watch. Stupid me actually thought the man liked me."

"Maybe he did."

"Right. He used me, Cotton."

The admission seemed to hurt. "Using people is part of this business." He paused, then added, "Not a part I ever liked."

She drank more water. "I used you, Cotton."

She was right. She had.

"I should have told you about Gary. But I didn't. So who am I to judge anybody?"

Now was not the time to have this discussion. But he saw that she was bothered by all that had happened. "Don't sweat it. Let's finish this. Then we'll talk about it."

"I'm not sweating it. Just wanted you to know how I felt."

That was a first, too.

At the rear of the plane, an annoying whining accompanied the rear ramp opening. A gust of air rushed into the cargo area.

"What's happening?" she asked.

"They have some chores. Remember, we're just along for the ride. Walk back that way and stop where the loadmaster is standing."

"Why?"

"Because they asked us to. I'm coming with you."

"How's our friend?" she asked.

"Nosy. We both need to keep an eye on him."

He watched as she headed aft. He then crossed to the opposite bulkhead and said to McCollum, "Time to go."

He'd noticed McCollum had watched their talk.

"She know?"

"Not yet."

"A bit cruel, wouldn't you say?"

"Not if you knew her."

McCollum shook his head. "Remind me not to get on your bad side."

"Actually, that's real good advice."

He saw that his message had struck home. "Sure thing, Malone. I'm just the guy who saved your hide."

"Which is why you're here."

"So generous of you, considering I have the quest."

He gathered up the rigger sack in which he'd stuffed what George Haddad had left for him and the book on St. Jerome. They'd retrieved them from the airport before leaving Lisbon. He clipped the bundle to his chest. "And here's what I've got. So we're even."

McCollum clipped a pack to his chest, too. Supplies they might need. Water, rations, GPS locator. According to the map, a village lay about three miles from where they were headed. If nothing was found they could walk there and find a way twenty miles south to where there was an airport, near Moses Mountain and the St. Catherine's monastery, both popular tourist attractions.

They donned goggles and helmets, then walked aft.

"What are they doing?" Pam asked as he came close.

He had to admit, she looked good in fatigues. "They have a parachute operation to perform."

"With this cargo? They dropping it out somewhere?"

The plane's airspeed slowed to 120 knots, if he remembered correctly, and the nose tipped upward.

He slid a Kevlar helmet onto Pam's head and quickly snapped the neck strap.

"What are you doing?" Confusion flooded her voice.

He adjusted a pair of goggles over her eyes and said, "The rear ramp is down. We all have to do this. Safety precaution."

He checked her harnesses and made sure all four straps were buckled into the quick-release clamp. He'd already made sure his were fine. He hooked both him and Pam to the static line.

He saw that McCollum was already connected.

"How can we land with that ramp open," she yelled.

He faced her. "We're not."

He saw the instant of comprehension. "You can't be serious. You don't expect me to-"

"It'll open automatically. Just hang on and enjoy the ride. This chute is a slow one. Designed for first-timers. When you hit the ground it'll be like a three- or four-foot fall."

"Cotton, you're frickin' insane. My shoulder still hurts. There's no way-"

The loadmaster signaled that they'd arrived near the GPS coordinates he'd provided. No time to argue. He simply lifted her from behind and shoved her forward.

She tried to wrestle free. "Cotton, please. I can't. Please."

He tossed her off the ramp.

Her scream faded fast.

He knew what she was experiencing. The first fifteen feet were pure free fall, like being weightless, as the static line played itself out. Her heart would feel like it was pounding at the back of her throat. Actually, quite a rush. Then she'd feel a tug as the static line released the parachute from the pack, and he watched as Pam's streamed out into the morning sky.

Her body jerked as the chute grabbed air.

Less than five seconds and she was floating to the ground.

"She's going to be pissed," McCollum said in his ear.

He kept his eyes on her descent.

"Yeah. But I always wanted to do that."

-- Advertisement --