She stepped from beneath the shadow of the trees at the edge of the compound without a sound, her footfalls barely seeming to make contact with the ground. Dressed in a dark grey flight suit, devoid of national emblems or insignia of rank, she wore no hat and sported soft-heeled, lace-up boots.
She was tall, around five feet nine, and slender. Her hair was cut short just below her ears and her eyes were hidden from view by a pair of tinted sunglasses, which would have seemed odd to any observer because it was the middle of the night.
She moved purposefully, yet without haste. Somewhere in the trees, an owl gave a curious hoot.
The heavy rain helped to deaden most sounds. It poured down all around her but she paid it no heed; she didn’t have time to worry about the weather. In fact it was quite a relief from the stifling heat and humidity of the day.
She crossed the worn, weed-strewn tarmac and made for a small, one-storey hangar nestled between a stack of rusted oil drums. Nearby, the twisted and broken fuselage of an old Cessna jabbed her propeller-less nose mournfully up towards darkened heavens where she had once danced.
The hangar looked deserted. Filthy, partially broken window panes spilled no comforting light out into the darkness of the soaked night and the flaking, peeled paint on the frames told her the place had been abandoned decades earlier. It didn’t look like there’d be anything to find but looks were meant to be deceptive in this game. As her ride had long since snaked its way back down the treacherous mountain track, she had little choice but to continue walking.
The doors to the hangar were closed but unlocked. The special heat-sensitive glasses she wore indicated no sign of life behind them – everything was cast in a cold shade of blue to match the chill rainwater sneaking its way down the collar of her jumpsuit.
She carried no weapon on this job. There wasn’t much point; it was a simple pick-up that benefited the other side, as much as her own. Her glasses did, at least, help her see who was about when the cloak of darkness had fallen. There was nobody to see but her eyes still scanned back and forth with practiced concentration.
She tested one of the doors and was pleasantly surprised to feel it slide smoothly aside on newly greased runners. She pushed open both doors and peered inside the dark building. Rain drummed noisily upon the curved, corrugated roof of the hangar, which was in better condition than it appeared from the outside; the space beyond the doors being perfectly dry. Inside, she made out a large shape covered by a swathe of heavy tarpaulin. Bingo.
A quick look around and the woman moved inside. She quickly walked around the shape, pleased to be out of the rain. Satisfied, she started to pull the tarpaulin free. The cargo was already stashed aboard, shielded behind lead plating within a concealed unit built into the nose. The woman didn’t bother to check the compartment. The aircraft was here and financial necessity dictated that the cargo had to be.
Hauling herself nimbly up into the familiar cockpit; the clear canopy was already slid back invitingly, she needed no urging to get going. Sliding into the pilot’s seat, she closed the canopy and dogged the latches. The other side was playing it straight with the aircraft. That should please the boss, she mused wryly.
Keeping all lights off, she ignited the Pegasus engine. It whined into life without argument. Disengaging the brake, she taxied the plane out into the rain, where even the sound of its engine was dulled by the deluge of water falling from the sky. When clear of the hangar by about ten feet, the woman checked she was buckled into the seat and slipped on a flying helmet she found on the floor.
Once the helmet was adjusted to fit comfortably, she vectored the engine thrust downwards through the four exhausts and opened the throttle. The whine grew into a banshee-like wail as the airframe slipped the bonds of gravity and rose into the darkness, still showing no lights, on a cushion of 18,000 pounds of thrust.
This particular Harrier was twenty years old, give or take a year, but had been well maintained and took to the air with the assured grace of a serving fighter. The airframe had been coated from nose to tail in specialist black paint. Operating at night, it made her practically invisible to radar and just as invisible to the naked eye, unless the moon was out and the skies were clear. You could hear her coming but she was hard to spot.
The woman lifted the aircraft in a vertical, hovering climb until she hit fifty feet. Adjusting the angle of thrust with the hands of an expert, she lifted the nose and powered away in a conventional forty-degree climb that pressed her into her seat with the reassuring hand of g-force. The stalwart old aircraft vanished into the filthy night, on a mission to deliver cargo over eight hundred miles away. What the pilot couldn’t possibly have known was that this flight was to be her last.
As soon as the aircraft disappeared, a figure emerged from its hiding place within thick vegetation just behind the hangar. Clad in motorcycle leathers, face obscured by a crash helmet, it was pushing a powerful trials motorcycle. Throwing one leg over the seat, the engine kicked over and the machine surged past the hangar and began a sure-footed descent of the slippery mountain road. Securely nestled at the bottom of the rider’s backpack sat a heavy, lead-lined metal cylinder.
A little over one hour later, both aircraft and pilot passed from the world in a brief flash of orange, noticed only by a pair of spider monkeys, startled from their slumber by the splintering of wood and the snapping of nearby boughs.
Then, as quickly as the disturbance came, it was gone. Unsettled by the intrusion, the monkeys moved off to find less exciting treetops and were soon snuggled up together in a high hollow, quickly falling asleep again. Anxious eyes stared at watch faces as the hours crept by and no word came. Eventually, realizing that something had gone terribly wrong, somebody picked up the telephone and made the necessary call.