“This time I’m really retiring, Ben.” I looked over at my seatmate once again in the long-range executive jet heading west. Steven Royce had been talked out of retiring immediately and was regretting it now. “I’m almost glad I’m getting recalled, this shitstorm is even bigger than your last one.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I said. “At least you know the paperwork for losing a boat, and this one wasn’t near as expensive,” I said. The spy ship lost in the first attempt at recovering the Iranian autonomous anti-ship torpedo had cost fifty plus million dollars, far more than the oil platform repair trawler blown up on this op.
“You lost three people this time, and one was on loan from the Navy,” he said. “As soon as we are debriefed, you’re heading for Houston.”
“Has anyone told her father yet?”
“No. Officially, we haven’t listed her as missing because we don’t want to tip off the Iranians about what was going on with your mission. If they see a specialist in underwater salvage and submersibles, they’ll start looking below the waters too.”
“We could list her with her British identity,” I said.
“We considered it and rejected the option. Her alternate identify shows the same line of work, and it will raise questions as to why a woman with her skills was brought along.”
“What about Mark? Do they have him?”
“We believe so, but so far official inquiries have been stonewalled. We are refusing to divulge what they were doing in international waters, and they are threatening reprisals after the second spy vessel was sunk off their waters. Mark is listed as killed in action, but the Navy is keeping it quiet. The lads in British Intelligence are helping, they are making inquiries based on his assumed name. When things calm down, both countries will press to have his body released to his family.”
It sucked; Mark was divorced, but had two daughters and a son, ages between nine and fourteen. He’d never get to see them graduate, get married or have children. James was single, but a true warrior, and I’d become a close friend to Charlotte in our time together. I had been thrilled they found each other, and it was about the shortest honeymoon ever. “Is the Navy continuing the search?”
“They will, but only for another day or two. If they stick around too long, it will raise suspicions. The Iranians are already harassing our warships, the Chosin is being shadowed by a half-dozen Iranian speedboats. Their helicopters are shadowing ours, always positioned between them and the coast. The Navy is sending patrol aircraft, so are our allies, but nothing.”
“I don’t even know if they made it out,” I said. “They were in the middle of a dive, over a mile inside their waters. They could be in an Iranian prison by now.”
“I hope not.”
“What do we tell her father?”
“As much of the truth as we can,” he said. “He knows she was working for the CIA and the op was in foreign waters of the Persian Gulf. You can tell him, in confidence, that she was on a dive with her husband James when the Iranians attacked. You don’t know if they made it back up, you barely escaped. As long as you don’t tell him what the target was, or exactly where you were diving, we should be fine. He’s a Vietnam veteran, he’ll understand.”
“God.” I put my head in my hands. “I don’t know if I can face him.”
“Maybe we will get good news before then,” he said. “Now, get some sleep, it’s a long flight.” I finished my drink and put the chair back; he was right. “This time I’m really retiring.”
When we finally touched down in Washington, DC, we were shown to a waiting Suburban and driven straight to Langley. Stan DeSchand, the Director of Covert Operations, was there again along with all the people we’d talked to before, but this time the CIA Director and the Director of Homeland Security was there too. My cryptic message that our mission was successful had made some waves. “Welcome back, Ben,” Director Clark Griffin said. “I’m sorry about your crew.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I haven’t given up on James and Charlotte.”
“We haven’t either. I’ve already been in touch with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They won’t leave an inch of water unsearched.” He moved around to the head of the table, leaving me at the other end. “Did you bring the chip?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “I managed to retrieve it on the flight this time.” A few people around the table laughed, knowing what I meant about how I transported it. “It’s cleaned, and Steven duplicated it onto his laptop.”
I handed it to the tech guy, while Steven set up his laptop to the big screen. “This video file contains the whole dive, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cut to the fun part.” He moved the slider on the screen to 24:47, it was just before the sub reached the first Cherubim.
I sat back, watching the faces since I had already watched the video a half-dozen times on the boat. When it was over, you could have turned your car around in the gaping mouths around the table. “Was that…” One of the analysts was opening and closing his mouth like a bass lying on the dock.
“Eden. The Garden of Eden, and that was a unicorn. And those were Cherubim, the Angels of the Lord set to guard its entrance. It’s all true.” Nobody said anything for a while, they just kept looking at the screen where the image of the garden entrance was showing, then to me. “We have verified the existence of the Garden that God created, where Adam and Eve were driven from, and where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life reside. All about a mile and a half into Iranian territorial waters west of Bushehr.”
“The Tree of Life?” The Homeland Security Director was looking right at me.
“Yes. According to Genesis chapter two, God placed the two trees in the garden, along with other fruit-bearing trees. He told Adam and Eve they could eat freely of any of the trees, EXCEPT the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When the serpent talked Eve into eating the fruit and she gave it to Adam to eat, they knew of sin. God cursed the serpent, and kicked them out of the garden, setting the Cherubim in place to guard the entrance.”
“To keep them from the Tree of Life. If they ate the fruit of the Tree of Life, they would be immortal.”
It got quiet, finally the Director spoke up. “So if the Iranians find a way in, they can become immortal?”
“Yes,” I said. “With all that implies. The tree could have hundreds of fruits, and if all it takes is a bite, just imagine how many immortal Shiite soldiers our boys could be facing.”
“Or how many Americans could become immortal if we got there first,” Steven said. “We have the advantage here; we know what and where it is, they don’t. Yes, it’s in their backyard, but we’ve snuck in under their fence before.”
“The real question,” I said as I leaned forward, “Is do we go in there ourselves, or just prevent them from finding it instead?”
“It would be the greatest archaeological discovery in history, plus it exists three hundred feet under the water! Who knows what we might find in there,” one of the analysts replied. “It would be a tragedy to destroy it.”
“The Cherubim won’t just let someone in,” I said. “There are forces at work here you cannot imagine. This isn’t a simple thing, and we’ve already lost two, maybe as many as four people there. We need a better plan, because we only get one shot at this. If we can’t get in, we sure as hell can’t let them in.”
“I agree,” the Director said. “We’ll put a team together and figure it out. You’ve got another trip to take, I understand.”
“Yes sir. I have to tell Charlotte’s father that his daughter and son-in-law are missing.”
“Get some rest, Ben. You’ve done well.”
It didn’t feel like it. As exciting as the discovery was, I’d give it all back to have some of Charlotte’s jambalaya again.
I was driven to the airport and was soon on my way to Houston. The closer I got, the more sick I felt. I’d been doing this job a long time, and the people who worked for me were either recruited or CIA. The recruited ones did it for their country or pride, and when they were killed, it was often at the hands of the murderous regime. I didn’t have to face their family, I just wrote the report. The agents were tougher, but they were honored as heroes, and the CIA brass handled their families. This was different, because she was contracted to me. I’d sat across the table from her and her father, and it was my responsibility.
I rented a car and drove to the harbor warehouse where Deepwater Repair Solutions was located. The secretary was sitting there filing her nails. “Can I help you?”
“I need to see Lazard Courtois, please.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. Please tell him Ben Farthi is here, and I need to talk to him urgently.”
“Have a seat, I’ll see if he’s available.” She made a phone call. “He’s working on the boat,” she said.
“I know my way.” I walked past the desk and through the shop, exiting to the dock. As I walked over to the repair boat, Lazard came up out of the small cabin and spotted me.
He froze. “Charlotte?”
“I’m sorry.” I could barely watch as he fell to his knees, tears streaming down his weathered face. I jumped on board and helped him to sit on a bench.
“How? Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She and her husband, James, were diving to free the umbilical cable after the sub got stuck. The last I heard from them was when they started their dive.”
“James too?” I nodded, causing him to break down again. “They were married?”
“Less than a day, but yes.” I sat with him for hours, telling him the whole story except what exactly we were looking for. I told him about how proud I was of her, of her expert use of the submarine to recover our first target. I told her about James, and how their relationship quickly developed. I didn’t have any photographs of their wedding, but I described it and told him how happy she was.
Then I told him about the final mission, how they made the dive to retrieve the submarine, and how the Iranian helicopters and patrol boats had driven us off before we had to scuttle them. “Mark is dead too,” he asked.
“Yes, he was shot from the helicopter as I tried to escape,” I said. “There was nothing at that point I could do for Charlotte and James. I figured if I cleared the area, they would be able to use the sled to exit territorial waters and we could pick them up later. We haven’t found them, and we don’t think the Iranians have them either. The Navy is continuing the search.”
“There’s still a chance?”
“There’s always a chance, sir, but it’s a slim one. If anyone could keep them alive, James could.” I thought of something else. “Their marriage needs to be registered as well. James had no remaining family, so all his assets will go to her, and from her to you. The paperwork should be arriving shortly. We also have to close out the contract we have with your company.”
“I can’t think about money right now.” He got up and jumped off the boat. “I have to go,” he said. “I have to be there to search for her.”
I jumped back to the docks and followed him. “I understand you want to be there, but the search will be called off before you can arrive,” I said. “My boat is gone, the operation is over. It may be weeks before we have an asset in that area again.”
He turned to me and grabbed my shoulder. “I need to be there. If this becomes a recovery mission, I want to be part of it.”
I nodded my head, I could understand what he was doing. His only daughter was missing, presumed dead, probably lying on the seafloor. He wanted to bury her properly. “I will be in touch,” I said. “We haven’t said anything to the Iranians about her. It would be better if she was reported missing in the Gulf of Mexico instead of the Persian Gulf, and I’ll need your help with that.”
“I’m supposed to be heading out to the Piper Kilo rig tonight. I’ll need your help, it would be best if we called it a diving accident.”
“What do you need?” We hatched the plan over dinner, and at midnight I made the call to the Coast Guard. Charlotte Courtois was reported missing after becoming separated from her dive partner and not returning to the surface. The search continued for a day, but in the thousand-foot waters of the Gulf, there was no chance of recovery.
Two days later, the church was packed with friends to pay their last respects to Charlotte. We left for the Persian Gulf that night.