MURDER ON THE SIX O’CLOCK NEWS
It was the Fourth of July, 1993. Early, before six A.M. But the sun was already warm and George Heffelfinger knew that it was going to be hot and steamy in the nation’s capitol by mid-afternoon. The gray-haired senior anchorman for INN was once again departing for his annual trip by air from Washington to Boston, where he would ride as a guest of honor in the festive holiday parade, just as he had for the past twelve years. Heffelfinger had no idea that his own violent death moments from now would be the lead story that night on every television newscast in America.
After shooting down the runway at an exuberating speed, Heffelfinger expertly pulled back on the wheel of his sleek new Gulf Stream Turbo Commander and cleared the bright, green-leafed trees that grew at the outskirts of the airport, then banked the twin engine plane to the left and was soon flying above the rippling waters of the Potomac River.
Life was good, he told himself. Sure, he was getting older and would have to relinquish his position behind the network anchor desk to some young upstart soon, but right now he had nothing to complain about. At least he wasn’t rotting away in some Mid-Eastern prison like Gray Sanders, the network’s foreign correspondent who was missing for — what was it now — over three months? Sanders had simply disappeared one day while on assignment in Baghdad, and while the entire nation kept a watchful eye on “The Six O’Clock News” each night hoping to learn of the newsman’s whereabouts, no one in the federal government would admit knowing anything. It was as though the journalist had simply vanished into the atmosphere.
But Heffelfinger knew better. Or at least he thought he did. He glanced to his right where below him was the prosperous Virginia suburb of McLean, home of the CIA. When he returned after the holiday, he planned on making some inquiries of his own there. It was on that thought that the plane exploded in a blinding flash of light and a deafening sound and George Heffelfinger’s life and career ended forever.
* — *
Gray Sanders stood nude in the darkness of his solitary cell — his bearded face gaunt, his hair long and tangled, his once-strong body bruised and beaten — systematically tensing his muscles in isometric exercises.
First his hands and arms. Then his feet and legs.
Later he would attempt to do pushups and sit-ups on the urine-soaked floor of the concrete cubicle while waiting for the official orders for his execution to arrive from Baghdad. Would they come today? Sanders was beginning to hope so. His dysentery was worsening, his strength slowly ebbing. Better to face a firing squad eye to eye than to wither away into nothingness from sickness.
The American TV journalist knew no one was attempting to free him. No one. No last-second diplomatic intervention from Washington. No daring rescue. He was on his own, fulfilling his avowal that the identities of those behind his secret government assignment to the Mid-Eastern country of Iraq would be buried with him in his grave.
Puffing the fetid air in his windowless cell while pulling on his clothes after his morning workout, Sanders cursed and smashed a pestering flea on his arm. The hungry beggars were everywhere: in his filthy striped pajamas that served as a prison uniform, in the squalid army blanket he slept under each night, in his grimy, unwashed hair and beard. “You mean little bastards are really gonna miss chewing on me after I’m gone,” he growled.
Hearing approaching footsteps crunching on sand outside his cell, his heart skipped a beat; he felt a drop of nervous sweat drip down from his armpit. It wasn’t feeding time — the orders had arrived. It was the jailer coming to lead him before the firing squad. Sanders quickly retreated to the far corner of his cell. He had to prepare himself. He had a plan.
A moment later, a narrow window in the solid steel door slid open and a pair of deep-set brown eyes peered into the darkness of Sanders’ cell. Satisfied that the prisoner inside was not waiting to ambush him, the jailer inserted a key in the lock and turned it. The door swung open for the first time since Gray’s incarceration six weeks earlier and a blinding ray of sunlight splashed inside as the soldier entered.
Sanders had grown so used to his foul body odor, to the officious stench of his own urine and excrement during his isolation in the dark cell, that when the fresh desert air wafted in, he almost gagged. But he held his breath and remained motionless under the army blanket that covered his body.
“Zahafi, get up!” ordered the gruff-voiced soldier when he entered. “Time to go.”
Sanders felt a rush of adrenaline. It was the Iraqi with the pockmarked face who’d often done obscene things to his rancid food before sliding it in to him through the slot in the door once a day.
Receiving no response from the zahafi — the journalist — the soldier propped the door open with his AK rifle to admit light, then stepped across the cell to look at the covered figure slumped against the far concrete wall. He hoped the Ameriki was still alive; he had been suffering from dysentery and no medical care had been offered.
He gave the prisoner’s bare foot a swift kick with the toe of his heavy combat boot. “Yallah, yallah!” Move, move, he commanded in Arabic.
Receiving no response, he leaned forward and stabbed his fingers at the prisoner’s open, fixed eyes. They neither moved nor blinked.
“Do not cheat me out of my first execution, Ameriki,” he said while bending closer to see if he could detect any breathing.
In a flash Sanders’ hand shot out from under the blanket, grasped the guard’s uniform and yanked on it so hard it pulled the foul-breathed man right into his face.
“There may be an execution,” Gray snarled, “but you won’t be around to enjoy it!” Then he thrust up hard the knife he’d fashioned out of his urine can. The jagged metal tore into the jailer’s throat and mouth cavity, severed his windpipe and an artery, and in seconds he was gasping and gurgling, drowning in his own blood.
“That’s for whatever you and your sick grinning buddies did to my swill before you served it to me, kelb.”
Sanders shoved the dying man aside, got to his feet and hurried to the open door. He had been blindfolded when he was brought to the prison compound, so this was his first look outside. What he saw through squinting eyes did not please him.
He was in an abandoned army camp. To his left past the front gate was a desolate highway half-covered with sand. To his right was a helicopter pad with weeds shoving up through broken cement; past that, several shabby wooden barracks where the death squad was bivouacked.
Parked directly in front of him near a clump of bamboo growing along a sewage-filled ditch was a dusty van that Sanders figured must have been the one that drove him and the lynching party to the camp. Then, beyond a coiled barbed wire fence, was the Syrian desert, just an inhospitable wasteland of sand, scrub and black basalt rubble for as far as his eye could see.
“Man...” he breathed aloud. “They don’t want anybody to know about this execution.”
No one was in sight — who was stupid enough to stand under that blazing ball of fire in the sky? — except a lone sentry posted on top of the nearby water tower, his red-checked kefiyah tossing in the breeze.
Sanders reckoned that if he took out the sentry and got to the van, he might make it into the desert before the soldiers inside the barracks caught on.
“Rather die of thirst in the middle of nowhere than give these hoods their satisfaction,” he muttered as he retrieved the jailer’s rifle.
Allowing the door to swing closed with only the barrel of the AK protruding, he took steady aim, the sights zeroed in on the sentry’s head.
Abruptly the soldier turned and began yelling excitedly toward the barracks. Had he spotted Sanders? Then Gray heard it also — a helicopter!
Damn, bad timing! One of the government’s gunships, he guessed, bringing in dignitaries. Perhaps Saddam himself to witness the private execution.
The chopper swooped down unexpectedly from out of nowhere and let go with a burst of gunfire. The sentry, as if in slow motion, threw his hands into the air and tumbled eighty feet to the ground, his bullet-riddled body creating a billow of dust on landing.
Shading his eyes from the blinding sunlight, he saw that the chopper was, “An Apache! It’s American!” he exclaimed.
Screaming obscenities in Arabic, the half-dozen or so garrisoned death squad soldiers charged out of the barracks, firing at the helicopter with their rifles while fleeing for a nearby concrete bunker.
“Run, you fuckers, run!” shouted Sanders. “Marines to the rescue!” Leaving the safety of his cell, he hopped on bare feet in the blistering hot sand, wildly waving his arms in the air and yelling at the chopper.
“It’s me, you guys! It’s me!”
But when the Apache circled back toward the camp and came in low, indiscreetly strafing the military compound with its thirty-millimeter chain gun, the severity of the situation quickly dawned on him.
“Hey, dumb shit,” he scolded aloud, “these Marines aren’t dashing in for a last-second rescue — they’re exterminators!”
Exterminators, there to kill every living creature in sight with their cannons and missiles — the dead bodies to be torn to shreds and devoured by roaming packs of savage wild dogs, the remote camp to be buried under drifting grains of desert sand, just as the nearby city of Babylon was buried centuries before.
He made a dash for the van, chastising himself harshly while running. “No Intelligence Star for you, Gray Sanders! You screwed up BIG when you let your target get out alive!”
He saw the flash and felt the heat from the approaching Hellfire missile as it bore down on him, rushing to blow him into a million pieces of flesh, bones and viscera.
This is it, Sanders. This is how it ends!
That’s when he screamed...and screamed...and screamed.
“Mr. Sanders, Mr. Sanders,” the nurse in starched whites said while shaking him. “Wake up! Wake up, please!”
Gray awakened to find his pajamas and the sheets on the bed he was lying in wet with sweat; he was gasping for breath and trembling all over.
“Just another bad dream,” said the young nurse with the British accent. “Another one of those dreadful nightmares you keep having, sir.”
It took Sanders a moment to get his bearings — to realize he was no longer at the military encampment in the bleak barren desert but was in...in what? A hospital in England? He couldn’t remember anything beyond the dream that had just awakened him.
“Was I shouting? My throat’s so sore,” he complained.
“I’m afraid so, sir,” replied the nurse while sticking a thermometer into his mouth. After she’d taken his temperature and administered his medication, managing not to answer a single one of his queries, she shut off the light and left the room.
Sanders twisted and turned and attempted to return to sleep but couldn’t. Then he realized what was wrong. Kicking the covers away with his foot, he crawled out of the king-sized bed. Stripping the spread off as he went, he carried it with him into the dark bathroom, wound it tightly about himself and curled up in a corner next to the tub.
In moments, foreign correspondent Gray Sanders — Pulitzer Prize-winning TV journalist, secret undercover operations officer for the CIA — was sleeping like a baby on the cold tile floor.