PART I, CHAPTER 1
Tehran, April 24, 1961
Dusk's first sentinels descended upon Tehran. A light snowfall accentuated the unseasonably cold April evening. Huddled in the front seat of a parked Citroen with arms crossed against their chests-trying to fight off the cold-were two American men in their early twenties.
With chattering teeth, the one in the driver's seat gazed intently at a seven-foot statue which faced in an easterly direction. The statue stood across a busy street from the ancient structure known as the Green Palace.
Plaintive distant wails of Moslem prayers pierced the twilit gloom. The man in the passenger's seat had his eyes pointed toward a magazine in his lap.
The driver noted his colleague's diverted attention from the corner of his right eye, and registered his mild protest. "C'mon, Osi, get your eyes off Miss February and back on the tall stone guy."
Indifferent to the rebuke, Osi gazed languidly in his partner's direction and replied in his typical monotone, pitched just north of a whisper. "Be cool, Dago. Mohammed has my full attention, but the young guy who publishes this magazine-Hugh Heffner-I can't believe the way he's swimming in money and dames. I mean, any real man would have to be a little bit jealous."
Intensifying his forward gaze, the other American grumbled, "Well, you shoulda been a skin magazine tycoon, instead of a spook, if that's what you wanted."
Osi opened his mouth to respond, but before he could do so, the driver grabbed him by his arm and spat out an urgent command. "Heads up! Look at the guy with the camera. He's now circled the statue twice and just started his third go-round."
"You mean the towel-head?" asked Osi. (He was a veritable fountain of racial and ethnic stereotypes.)
"Yeah," replied CIA special agent, Mario Tonelli. He raised binoculars to his eyes, and pressed forward against the steering wheel. "Look, he's doing something on the far side of the statue."
Osi Mattatussu, also CIA, raised his own binoculars, and began to share his colleague's excitement. "I see him, but I can't tell what he's up to."
For the past eight hours, the two CIA operatives had been staking out the statue of Mohammed the Prophet across the street from the Sadabad Palace Complex. They were following a tip from U.S. Army Intelligence in Munich that a Soviet operative would be making a major drop at the statue some time on April the 24th.
"Whatever he was doing," Mario said, "he seems to be finished now."
In apparent confirmation of the agent's words, the unidentified man ambled away from the statue, and vanished into the deepening gloom of the falling night.
Mario turned to face Osi. "We'll wait five minutes, to make sure he's gone. But then we have to move in before KGB beats us to the punch."
"Funny you should bring that up," Osi said, "because there's a black limo about fifty meters straight ahead, creeping toward us. I'm guessing that it ain't the Ayatollah out for an evening drive."
"Okay," said Mario. "Change in plans. We move in now. As soon as we get there, you assume a firing position while I try to find the package."
Both men immediately exited the car and raced in the direction of the granite Mohammed. They wore dark gray business suits with wing-tipped black shoes, but the soles had been specially constructed with the rubber treads of a runner's track shoes underneath.
Mario Tonelli was about five-ten, with the blinding speed and elusiveness of a scat back, which in fact he had been, during his football days at South Central High in Philadelphia. Osi Mattatussu was an American Samoan-six foot-three and 220 pounds of pure muscle-a natural athlete, who yielded little to Mario in the speed department.
A special urgency drove their race to the statue. They were fully aware of how critical this mission was. Munich Station had told them just enough to impress its importance upon them. The word on the street in Berlin and Vienna was that a KGB mole, deeply embedded in NATO, had tipped off the Castro regime in Cuba of the planned invasion at the Bay of Pigs by a CIA-organized force of Cuban exiles.
As a result of the tipoff, the previous week's invasion attempt had ended in disaster. Castro's army had been waiting for the insurgents when they landed on the beach. The survivors had been captured and assembled in a sports stadium, where they were harangued by Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro for the better part of two days about the virtues of Communism.
Some of the invaders had simply jumped over to the communist cause, and were now happy Fidelists. Many others had been imprisoned.
For the new American president, John F. Kennedy, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion had been an unmitigated disaster. Though he bore up well in the aftermath, he clearly had been humiliated and weakened as a leader in the eyes of the world.
All of which came back around to this dead-drop in Tehran. If the tip from Army Intelligence was accurate, the package would contain information regarding a Soviet plan to capitalize on the serious damage sustained by the U.S. president. The information might even be powerful enough to deliver a fatal blow to Kennedy's prestige and effectiveness as an international figure.
Osi reached the statue of Mohammed only a fraction of a second after Mario. Fortunately, the drop site was on the side opposite the black limo.
Using the monument for cover, Osi swiftly crouched into a firing position as he pulled a Smith and Wesson Colt .45 from his shoulder holster.
Mario knelt behind Osi's bulk, searching for breaches in the square base of the seven foot figure-openings where a document could have been inserted.
The base was constructed of white bricks, with about an inch of concrete between each one. At first sight in the semi-darkness, Mario could see no flaws in the concrete. He pulled a small flashlight from his suit coat pocket and prepared to make a closer inspection.
The limousine braked to a halt about thirty meters away from the statue. Four silhouettes emerged from the vehicle, each headed in a different direction.
"Uh oh, Dag," said Osi, using his favorite nickname for Tonelli. "Hostile's on the move."
"No sweat Samo," replied Tonelli, reciprocating with his own sobriquet for the big Samoan.
"Right," Osi said, "but it's getting dark. I need to pick them off before they can flank us."
Mario concentrated on the row of bricks with greater urgency. Even with the flashlight, he could detect no irregularities in the concrete.
"I'm going to have to go brick by brick," he said. "Buy me some time. Give them an ultimatum-'Surrender or face immediate annihilation.'"
With Mario and Osi, the tighter the position in which they found themselves, the more they resorted to sardonic humor. As if in response, a bullet fired by Hostile whizzed over Mario's head. Taking advantage of the muzzle flash of the fired weapon, Osi opened fire and brought the shooter to the ground with a bullet to the left knee.
Mario continued working on the twenty four bricks. Only a miniscule overhang was available for him to grip each one. But the son of a mason from blue-collar South Philly had the powerful stubby fingers of a laborer. He rapidly probed each block-seeking to pry it loose. There was no play in any of them. It was an arduous task.
Osi had bought them a few seconds by dropping the first shooter, but the reprieve proved to be very temporary. As Mario gripped and tried to loosen brick number 8, shots began piercing the air around them.
Osi stared and listened intently for cadences in the shooting which might tip off the enemy's location. Hostile had not yet flanked their position but the bad guys were definitely getting closer.
Mario had just discerned looseness in brick number 9 when a bullet hit the base of the statue about three feet away from Osi, sending fragments of brick and mortar flying in every direction.
One particularly sharp piece of concrete lodged itself in Osi's right calf. "Son of a Bitch!" yelped the big Samoan. "What's taking you so damned long? I thought your old man was a Dago brick layer!"
"Never mind my old man," Mario said. "Maybe you should try shooting in the general direction of the enemy every once in a while."
Another three shots rang out-one of them grazing Mario's shoulder. He clamped down on his body's instinctive desire to recoil from the source of the pain. He gritted his teeth and remained silent, his face a mask of rapt concentration.
Three more shots rang out in staggered cadence, similar to Morse Code. Dot-dot-dash.
From the muzzle flashes, Osi could see that their position had been flanked by Hostile. He either took immediate action, or he and Mario were dead men. At least two of the shooters were grouped together on the opposite side of a slight ground elevation, about fifty feet away. Osi had a little surprise for them...
He slipped a hand grenade from under his jacket, popped the pin, and released the thumb lever. After a quick two-count, he lobbed it toward the pair of prone hostiles, a perfect arc that dropped the grenade right on top of the enemy shooters just as the three-second primer reached the end of its burn.
The detonation split the night with shrapnel and fire, instantly dispatching the hostiles to oblivion.
Osi was reaching for a second grenade when he caught sight of the fourth hostile, running back in the direction of the limo.
There were no more shots, and soon the limousine sped away into the darkness.
Mario had no difficulty extracting brick number 9. The thin package behind it consisted of four envelopes, secured by a rubber band.
He shoved it under his jacket and signaled Osi that it was time to go. As they rushed back to the Citroen with their prize in hand, the two men barely noticed the pain from their wounds.
Donald J. Farinacci is a Vietnam-era veteran of the United States Army, a practicing attorney, and an award-winning author. He has a deep interest in veterans' affairs, which he pursues as a member of the Military Law Committee of the Nassau County Bar Association, and as a long-time volunteer with the National Veterans Administration hospitals program. This latter involvement led to his induction into the Four Chaplains Legion of Honor. He is a Long Island resident and is married, with three children and five grandchildren.
1961 - Sliding Toward Armageddon is his fifth published work.
Find out more at: http://www.DonaldJFarinacci.com.