Tanner's Twelve Swingers

Page 21

He pressed a pedal on the floor of the plane. There was a brief rumble beneath us, and then, the pursuing fighter abruptly disintegrated.

“Take to that, Alexei cogstocker, some of a bitch! Take to that, boasting crud! Take to that!”

He laughed and laughed and laughed. Then, with a half-sigh, he swung the plane around again and headed once more for the North Pole.

“Lucky I guessed right,” he said after a while, when there were no more annoying blips on the radar screen.

“What do you mean?”

“The pedals. Couldn’t remember which one delivered the rockets. The plane is always loaded with some of a bitch rockets, but I never use them in experimental flying. Two pedals, one is rockets, one is not. I pick the one on the left, and goodbye Alexei!”

“What does the other pedal do?”

“Delivers the bombs. But we got no bombs, Joe, so-”

“The girls,” I said quietly.

“No sweat, Joe. I pick the right pedal.”

“The girls,” I said, “would have been scattered all over Russia.”

“I pick the right pedal, Joe.”

I closed my eyes for a few seconds. I opened them. Then, without saying any more, I opened my seat belt and went to the back of the plane to see how everyone was getting along. They were all still there. Igor had picked the right button. Or pedal, or whatever.

Minna wanted to know what had happened. I gave her a much-abridged version, careful not to mention how close she had come to leaving the plane ahead of schedule. I told her simply that another plane had tried to catch us, a bad plane, and that Igor had blown it to bits with a rocket.

She was delighted. She wanted to know how to express enthusiasm in English if one couldn’t say son of bitch. I told her hooray or jolly good show or fabulous were all acceptable to varying degrees in various parts of the English-speaking world.

“Hooray! Jolly good show! Fabulous!”

The Lettish girls had fallen silent; one or two of them seemed to be sleeping. Milan had withdrawn entirely into his coat and might have been sleeping himself. I bundled Minna up warmly and suggested she take a nap. She smiled up at me and gave me a kiss and closed her eyes.

Then I went up front again to watch Igor fly the plane.

“Hey, Joe? That’s Alaska down there.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, I used to fly over Alaska all the time,” he said. “All the time fly over some of a bitch Alaska. Take pictures, you know. Where you want to land? Air base?”

“Could you find one?”

“I know where they are, Joe. No sweat. Big one near Fairbanks. No sweat.”

He did something to slow us down, then headed the plane downward. How he found the base, I have no idea. Evidently he had flown over it often enough in the past. Perhaps our radar defenses are not as foolproof as we like to think. They’re a good deal better over Air Force bases, however; as soon as the big airfield came into view, so did a great many U.S. planes. Some of them roared up at us and hovered around us.

“I could shoot those some of a bitches down,” Igor said.


“I won’t.”

Other planes roared past us. For a moment I couldn’t imagine where they were going. Then I figured it out.

They were going where we had come from.

“Land as quickly as possible,” I said. “Someone has to tell those planes to come back.”

“No sweat, Joe.”

Landing was a much less furious matter than take-off. Igor might have been a nitwit in certain other areas, but he was an expert when it came to flying a plane. He set the fighter-bomber neatly down, taxied the length of the runway, and came to a smooth stop. The plane was instantly surrounded by at least a hundred armed men.

“What next, Joe?”

“Now we get out.”

“Snow out there. It’ll be cold.”

“It would be cold anyway,” I said. “They might not be too glad to see us.”

I was the first one out, with Igor right behind me and the Lettish girls following in turn. Everyone was staring hard at all of us, and especially at the girls. I picked out the clown with the most gold braid on him and went straight for him. I asked him briskly who was in command, and he said he was.

“Then you’d better call those planes back,” I said. “This isn’t an invasion, it’s a rescue mission.”

“What the hell,” he said. But then he turned to someone and gave an order, and someone ran off to get on the radio.

“And who in hell-”

“This is Colonel Igor Radek of the Soviet Air Force,” I said, pointing to Igor. I didn’t know whether he was a colonel or what, but it seemed no time for vagueness. “He is claiming political asylum and is delivering to the U.S. Air Force the only existing specimen of the MIXK-One fighter-bomber.”

“What in-”

“No shit,” Igor said.

“And these are twelve members of the Women’s Gymnastic Team of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic,” I went on. “They are also claiming political asylum. They are also freezing, as are we all. Could we get inside where it’s warm?”

“Just a minute. Who the hell are you?”

“An American citizen,” I said. “My name is Evan Michael Tanner. That’s all I can tell you.”


I was suddenly very weary. “Let’s go inside,” I said again. “Inside, where it’s warm. It’s not very warm out here, is it?”

“Listen, fellow-”

“You’ll want to call wherever it is that you call when something odd happens. Washington, I suppose. Just tell them my name. It may take a while, but sooner or later some idiot will come up here with a gum wrapper, and then everyone will know that everything is all right, and then I can go home.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Nobody does. Let’s go inside.”

We went inside. It was much warmer there, and that helped. None of us had been dressed for Alaska. Igor was in fairly good shape in his flying clothes, but the rest of us were completely unprepared for the cold.

“Now let’s hear it, Tanner.”

“You already heard it,” I said. “Get on the phone and tell them my name. Tell them I wouldn’t tell you any more than that. And if some Ivy Leaguer hands you a gum wrapper, read what’s on the back of it. It might be important.”

Chapter 17

This time there were no cute little Ivy Leaguers with gum wrappers. This time there were some high-level messages sent to and from Washington, and evidently the news got to the chief at the right time, because the Base Commander came up to me before long with a bemused expression on his face.

“Tanner,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure who you are-”

Neither was I.

“-but you’re pretty well connected, I’ll say that for you. The gymnastic troupe gets on a special plane tonight for New York. They’ll be met by some attachés from the Athletic Division of the Cultural Exchange Mission of the State Department, whatever the hell that means. They’ll be in good hands, I gather. I suppose State will want to run a lot of publicity on this.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“That idiot pilot stays here with us while some aviation experts have a look at his plane. He’ll go through a full debriefing. We have men who can speak Russian, of course-”

“He speaks English.”

The commander looked at me. After a few seconds I looked away. Some of a bitch, I thought.

“He’ll undergo a debriefing. So will Butec, in Washington. The State Department section on Yugoslav affairs wants to have a long talk with him. Then there’s supposed to be something about a book-”

“He’s planning to write a book.”

“Whatever the hell it is. But you, you’re a special class. They’re sending a plane for you, Tanner. It’ll be here in a couple of hours. Very hush-hush. I don’t even know just who it is you work for, but they’ll have a plane here in a few hours and whisk you away to never-never land, for all they care to tell me about it.”


He studied me. “You don’t look important,” he said.

I eyed the gold braid, the white hair, the erect military bearing. “You do,” I said.

“Eh?” He frowned, puzzled. “You undercover types,” he said. “Don’t pretend to understand you.”

“We’re just ordinary fellows.”

“Uh.” He sighed. “Well, you might as well make yourself comfortable. I usually have a little Scotch about now. Care to join me?”

“I’d like that.”

He poured Scotch for each of us. I finished mine first, and he poured me another.

“Tanner? You know, there are two CIA men outside who want to talk with you.”

“What did Washington say?”

“That CIA wasn’t to be allowed to see you.”

“Well,” I said, “then that’s the answer.”

He whistled softly. He was becoming more and more deeply convinced of my importance by the minute. I, on the other hand, did not feel very important at all. I hadn’t done anything, really. I just kept being in the wrong place at the wrong time and I kept accumulating more things and people and now I’d brought them all along with me. I could appreciate the fact that all of this would have been quite brilliant had I planned it. But I hadn’t and I didn’t feel brilliant. Just exhausted. And thirsty – I freshened my drink.

“You must be tired, Tanner. Incidentally, what am I supposed to call you? Just plain Tanner? Nobody said anything about rank, and I don’t suppose you people carry military ranks, or maybe you do, I’m not really at all familiar with your type of show…”

His voice trailed off quietly. If I was all that important, he seemed to be saying, there ought to be something more to call me than just my last name.

“Tanner is fine,” I assured him. “That way I’ll always know who you mean.”

“Uh. Well, fine, Tanner, fine. Listen, you must be dead on your feet. That plane won’t get here for a few hours yet. Want to grab a little shut-eye?”

“Thanks just the same, but no.”

“A few hours sleep never hurt anyone.”

“Not just now.”

“Keyed up, eh?” He grinned. “You’re a cool bunch, you people, but I guess you’re as human as the rest of us. I’ll get out of your way, Tanner. And” – he abruptly thrust out his hand, and I, after a moment’s stupidity, took it and shook it – “just let me say I’m proud to know you, Tanner. You’re all right. And what you did was, well-”

I got rid of him as quickly as I could. The plane would arrive in a couple of hours, and I had things to do. I had to tell the girls how much of their story to give out with and I had to explain to Milan that he had not yet written that book of his. If they knew it existed in manuscript form, they would want to have script approval rights. It would be far better to greet them with a fait accompli.

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