“Colonel, please do not confuse me with an amateur. I clearly stated they are identical. Very few people know Air Force tactical weapons ground crews record serial numbers of all nuclear weapons when they are loaded. I am NOT one of those people. I knew the correct serial numbers of these three weapons even before you were ordered to transport them from Elmendorf AFB!”

“Where are these headed now?” Grizzley asked, dismissing his tirade.

“Colonel! Do you seriously want to know that?” Thomas shook his head side to side, answering his own question. He adjusted his leather jacket, the morning temperature was beginning to climb.

“I do,” Grizzley placed his hand on his service revolver and glared at Thomas. “Otherwise you won’t unload them, understand?”

“Suffice to say, Colonel, thanks to the U.S., Japan has been, constitutionally, outlawed from owning nuclear weapons.” Thomas unzipped his jacket and pulled the left side open, revealing a holstered .45. “In these days of unchecked terrorism, we have no way of defending ourselves from another nuclear attack. These items can even a score.”

Grizzley showed no emotion seeing Thomas’s pistol. “Japan’s also been outlawed from making war, on anyone, Bin Laden included. Why does a Japanese-American broker weapons?”

“Colonel, after the Tokyo nerve gas subway attack, if terrorists claim to have nuclear weapons, there’s every reason to believe they’ll use them, you know that.”

“All I want to know right now is do you have what I want?”

“Of course, Colonel. In the satchel, there,” Thomas turned and pointed behind him. “I’ll put it in the bay when the last nuclear device is removed.”

“I want to check it,” Grizzley said, walking toward the dark blue bag.

“Trust is a very fragile thing, Colonel,” Thomas cautioned. “Did we not trust you? Did you not get 50% up front as you requested?”

“I did. Just want to make sure the rest is there — that’s my independence. I’m through with the Air Force. I’m tired of risking my life, tired of fighting so everyone else gets rich while I keep the bad guys at arm’s length. You know, I’ve been shot down twice, wounded once. I flew Desert Storm, Bosnia, too, yet the damned yahoos in this country care less! I’ve had it,” Grizzley shouted, his Oklahoma drawl fading as he got angrier. “Then some sonuvabitch with a warped agenda blows up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. My hometown! Killed innocent people…and children! I wish I coulda got my hands on that asshole…” his voice trailed off. “If I even thought these weapons were staying in the US, you sure as hell wouldn’t get them.”

“Independence has always carried a price…it can command an even higher price,” Thomas stared into Grizzley’s steel gray eyes, “a very high price indeed!” He brazenly turned his back to Grizzley and bent to pick a pink Columbine flower a few feet from the runway.

“Mmmmm, wonderful fragrance. Isn’t Colorado a wonderful state?”

“Not from where I stand, it’s not. I’m getting out of this damned state,” Grizzley growled, kneeling in front of the satchel. “Matter of small fact, I’m leaving the country!” He paused and glared at Thomas. “Mr. Koboda, you certainly don’t need to remind me what price freedom carries, I’ve fought for it, damn near died for it! Freedom is never free! But I must thank you, you’ve just paid for mine.”

“It wasn’t I, Colonel. My Commander can purchase anything he wants, any time he wants. Everything has a price.”

“Maybe I should have upped my delivery price then,” a smirk appeared on Grizzley’s face. He zipped open the satchel and flipped through the neatly banded stacks of one hundred dollar bills. It appeared the majority of the bills were used and well worn, very few new ones were mixed in with the old inside the soft-sided satchel.

“That would not have been a wise decision, Colonel. My Commander lives by an old fashioned creed; a handshake is a signed contract, his word is his bond. Trust is a given, from the beginning, until proven otherwise. He expects the same from others. He has never reneged on a deal, any deal, and he dislikes intently those that practice deception and greed.”

Grizzley knew he’d been caught with a fistful of cookies inside the jar, he didn’t like that feeling. “What about you, Mr. Koboda? Do you live by the same creed?”

“To a certain extent, Colonel. But I am paid handsomely for my services.”

“Sounds like you’d bend the rules a little, too.” Grizzley smiled, zipped the satchel closed and stood.

“Colonel, I would do whatever my Commander asked, much the same as you would do whatever your Commander asked,” Thomas said, walking toward the aircraft, “for such services, I am rewarded. Rule bending is acceptable in certain circumstances. Is that a problem?”

“I do have a problem being out here in the middle of nowhere. Why did you want these delivered here? Wouldn’t it have been easier on some abandoned airstrip somewhere?” Grizzley stepped off the metal strip and kicked at a small lizard scurrying to find refuge under a red sandstone rock.

“Simply a test, Colonel,” a grin crossed Thomas’ face. “My Commander wanted to know how serious you were about collecting the balance of the payment. I can now tell him you did not disappoint. Surely you realize you are not the first to have been contracted?”

“Uhmm, no! I assumed…” Grizzley stopped mid-sentence, “…you’re telling me this is not the first shipment?”

“Colonel, let me put it this way…a shipment had been contracted for. The delivering agent also asked for 50%. He failed to deliver,” Thomas said, his smiling eyes and friendly grin gave way to cold reality, “he had an unfortunate accident while riding his new Harley.”

Grizzley swallowed hard. His mind raced; he recalled the hit and run accident some weeks ago, just outside the base perimeter. He hadn’t known Captain Steve McKee very well since he’d recently transferred in. The scuttlebutt went around about his new motorcycle. The boys in the squadron wondered how he could afford another toy on top of the speedboat, the 4×4 and the matching snowmobiles he’d bought a few weeks earlier. An Air Force Captain doesn’t earn that much money. Grizzley’s face flushed, he felt nauseated.

“Colonel, you appear extremely nervous, are you alright?”

“Just tell your guys to hurry it up with those 500 pounders, I want to get out of here.”

“Relax, Colonel, there is no one for hundreds of miles,” Thomas swung his arm in an arc. “Your aircraft could rust long before anyone found it up here. No one ventures to the top of this plateau except a lone elk hunter.”

“Where’d you find all this surplus PCP…uhmmm, World War II runway?” Grizzley asked, fidgeting with the left breast pocket zipper on his flight suit, he didn’t think his nervousness was that apparent. “I haven’t seen any of that for years. I thought it had all been recycled. How’d you get it up here?”

“Colonel, you ask far too many questions,” Thomas said. “No matter. Government surplus is just that. In fact, your Desert Storm and Bosnia campaign equipment, and munitions, is readily accessible,” he shoved his hands in his pockets, turned and walked away.

Grizzley snorted his disbelief and followed Thomas back to the A-10. Two men in fatigues rolled the second weapon from under the plane, the third and final nuclear bomb remained. He turned to Thomas and motioned ‘hurry up’. Thomas yelled at the men in Japanese, they answered apologetically. Grizzley understood that without an interpreter.

“They are hurrying as fast as they dare,” Thomas said. “Would you like a cold drink while we wait, I have a cooler in the motor home.”

“No. Just get them moving, I can’t be missed.”

“You have plenty of time, my friend,” Thomas smiled. “There is no need for haste.”

“I am not your friend, Mr. Koboda, and I’ll be the judge of how much time I have.”

“As you wish, Colonel,” Thomas said over his shoulder, heading toward the motor home.

Grizzley knelt down on the red high-desert sand next to the strip. He was warm. What Thomas had just told him was sinking in. The Colorado sun was intense, even at 8,100 feet; the five layers of his flight suit were uncomfortable. He fanned his face with his hands. C’mon, hurry it up! Anger built as he went over the situation he was in. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, his body felt clammy. He got up and walked under the wing of the aircraft, into the shade and leaned against a tire. Two men rolled the weapons carrier past and nodded politely. ‘Bout damn time, you guys sure aren’t government-issue weapons handlers, no sense of urgency. His peripheral vision saw Thomas carrying the satchel.

The men finished attaching the last phony bomb to the mounting hardpoints. One man rolled the weapons transporter to the back of the ship and climbed up on it, tugged on the parachute lines, struggling to haul it back to the plane. He slowly repacked the nylon in the containment compartment. Thomas asked the tallest of the two men to put the satchel into the bay and looked at Grizzley. The Colonel grunted his approval and walked to the front of the plane.

“My Commander will be most pleased, Colonel. He thanks you for your help.”

“I’ll think of you, and your Commander when I’m lounging on the beach,” Grizzley remarked, “on my own personal island while my Cabana boy serves me an ice cold Mai Tai.”

“We should all be so fortunate, Colonel Adams,” Thomas said, watching him climb the ladder to the cockpit. “The handles of your satchel have been twisted around a hardpoint. Have a good day.”

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