The prologue and first several chapters follow.
Lights burned late on the second floor of the base administration building and a slow, cool rain pelted the multi-paned windows. A very nervous Lt. Colonel Ralph Johnson, U.S. Army Air Force, paced the length of his office. Periodically, he'd stop and scowl out at the dark. A short, balding, lump of a man, he felt twenty years older than he actually was. He bitched as he paced.
"Dammit! I just wish the whole goddamn thing would go away." He stopped and spun around. A young lieutenant stood at fear-stricken attention on the other side of his paper-strewn desk.
"Are you sure? I mean damn sure, the press doesn't know where those crates are?" Johnson barked.
"N-No, sir. I mean, yessir," the lieutenant stammered. "The plane is parked in with other ships in the depot area. We pulled the guard detail so there is nothing to draw attention to it."
The young lieutenant nervously licked his lips and said, "As soon as the weather lifts, the plane will leave. At the press conference tomorrow morning we'll announce everything is on the way to Eighth Air Force H.Q. in Fort Worth."
The news was welcome but gave Colonel Johnson little immediate relief.
The lieutenant sprinted out of the office and the colonel stared out the rain-streaked window. His stomach twitched and the sour taste of bile backed up into his throat.
He couldn't see a lone figure struggling across the dark ramp on the other side of the distant hangars.
* * *
Major John Williams, United States Army Air Force, was surprised at how heavy the wooden case was for its size. It wasn't large. Only slightly bigger than a fat suitcase. The blonde, hardwood exterior, birch he guessed, was heavily lacquered, like a piece of furniture. The brass hinges and latch gave off stray reflections as he struggled across the rain-swept ramp with it on his shoulder. The circular pattern of yellow triangles on its cover glowed each time lights hit it.
The box seemed to get heavier with every step and the line of airplanes didn't appear to be getting any closer. Goddamn government vehicles! If the stolen staff car hadn't decided to die half way across New Mexico, he would have made it to the Mexican border easy. That's where the money waited. That's where his future waited. He looked forward to becoming Mexico's newest and richest citizen.
Thank God the highway went right past an Air Force Base. Then thank God again that they hadn't checked the car's trunk at the guard gate. He doubted if Los Alamos Nuclear Labs would discover their toy was missing until the next morning. When they did, they weren't going to be very happy. It wasn't a bomb, but it was close enough.
Williams glanced around as he shuffled across the glistening asphalt. He was seeking alternate transportation south and he knew this was where he'd find it. The few perimeter lights created floating rainbows in dark, oil-slicked puddles. Nothing had changed since he'd last been on base. When had that been? Three years? The fall of 1944 was when he had last seen this concrete spider web in the desert. At the time he was transitioning into B-29's.
The first two airplanes, C-45's, small twin engine transports, had sealed, canvas cocoons over the engines and nose. They reminded him of sleeping falcons. The third one looked ready for flight. Williams ducked under the left wing and manhandled the box through the hatch. He was soaking wet by the time he pre-flighted the airplane and scrambled up the boarding ladder and headed for the cockpit.
The field's rotating beacon periodically flashed through the small cabin's side windows. It had been stripped of all but the two front seats. The vacant space where the other seats had been was taken up by two long, newly made, wooden packing crates. The sweet smell of fresh lumber filled the tight confines. It looked as if the coffin-like crates had just been loaded for transport.
Williams didn't give a thought to the crates' contents. He didn't care what was in them. The crates were simply going to be delivered to an unscheduled destination. He doubted if their loss would affect national security. He smirked. His box, however, would definitely have an effect on national security. He smiled again. He didn't care about that either.
Williams dropped into the pilot's seat and his hands danced over the controls, familiar even in the dark. He had taken much of his multi-engine training in the C-45. It fit like a well worn pair of boots.
The maps in his lap were hard to read in the dull, red cockpit lights. He estimated one hour due south at ten thousand feet to clear the mountains, drop down to five thousand feet for another hour and he'd be rich. And independent for the rest of his life. Screw the military. Screw the government. Screw the U.S. of A. Even as the thoughts flickered through his mind, the second engine coughed into life and he lined up on the huge, deserted ramp. He wouldn't bother with the runway.
The two 450 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines lifted the airplane off the ground in little more than ten seconds. Moist, gray rooster tails hung in the dark air behind. Williams and his cargo were in the clouds before the lights at the far end of the empty ramp flashed under him. He was on his way to a new life.
As he reset the directional gyro to match the compass, he thought it strange he had to turn so much further right than he thought he would. Compasses, however, almost never lie. The operative word was "...almost." This one was staring through its single glass eye at Major John Williams and telling him a fatal untruth.
Williams couldn't feel the magnetic forces flowing out of the cargo behind him. He couldn't feel them, but the compass did. Those forces had made an absolute liar out of it. He was headed northwest, not south.
He would never know the mistake had been made.