Mandelieu Marina, Napoule France, Wednesday, August 31st, 2005…5am
François Bouchard relaxed in the pilot's chair topside aboard Jeckle, the team's lead assault boat. The black sky was beginning to brighten with the first signs of the coming dawn. Faint colors of bright hues emerged low on the horizon as the Earth rotated steadily toward the sun in the eastern sky. He stared out to sea from over the rim of a mug of hot coffee. Steam rose from the brew and mixed with the cold pre-dawn air, combining to make its own weather system, creating a mini fog bank at eye level. He blew gently across the top of the mug, dissipating the small weather system and smiled at the view as he silently recited an old sea chantey he learned in childhood:
"…red sky at morning, sailor take warning…red sky at night, sailor delight…"
My father loved the sea. He had been either near it or on it his entire life. The south of France was his France. He wasn't a Parisian like his beloved Giselle, he was a country boy. Not in the American sense either, but in the European sense. The two perspectives are as different as they are the same. In the US a country boy is usually stereotyped as a cowboy, a hick, a backwoodsman, lonesome mountain man or a sod-busting farmer, scratching out a living by the sweat of his brow. While in Europe however, there are basically three distinctions, peasant, villager, or squire, in other words working class, middle class, and the filthy rich.
Papa began his life on the bottom rung of the European social ladder, the only child of peasant parents who managed to rise to the middle before the war. Sadly, the German Luftwaffe made sure that they'd get no higher when a1940 air raid claimed the family home as well as his father and mother, Jean Luc Bouchard and his wife Kat (short for Katrina) ,the grandparents I knew only from pictures. Angry, scared, and alone Papa joined the French Navy days afterward, eventually becoming a member of ship's company aboard the French destroyer Terrible, where he spent the next five years at sea seeking revenge and getting a crash course in diesel engineering by a crusty but knowledgeable Premier-maître, basically the equivalent of a Master Chief in the US Navy. The ancient mariner's Christian name was Henri St, Claire, a dogmatic, no nonsense sort that was quite probably a pirate in another life. Be that as it may, the old veteran was a skilled journeyman and Papa was an eager student. The Terrible spent the early days of the war engaging British supply vessels and their escorts until they went over to the Allies after Operation Torch off the coast of French West Africa. In 1943 the vessel underwent a refit and modernization in the US, spending a fair amount of time in dry dock in Boston harbor. This was where my Dad got his first taste of America and its promise of a better life. He decided then that after the war he would find a way to come back and start a new life.
The Terrible returned with two new radars, new anti-aircraft firepower and ASDIC or anti submarine sonar equipment just in time to participate in the Allied invasion of Italy in December of 1943. Early the following year they supported the invasion of the south of France during Operation Dragoon. It was an experience that brought Papa some closure, avenging his parent's murder by driving the occupying German Army out of his homeland forever. Later in the same year the Terrible was heavily damaged in a collision in December of 1944 leaving him to ride out the rest of the war in dry dock as the vessel underwent extensive repairs. Shortly afterward the war in Europe ended and he found himself adrift on land, winding up in Paris of all places where he would meet Giselle and begin a journey that would take him back to the USA and then, as fate would have it, right back here, to Marseilles, where he started so many years ago. How ironic he thought, at war with the German's once again, on a smaller scale of course, but at war nonetheless. He sipped at his coffee, silently resolving that the bastards would meet the same fate in this engagement as well.
A loud rap on the cabin hatch startled Papa as the dawn broke and he spilled a small amount of his drink. "MERE!" he shouted, bellowing out a French expletive. Sandy Lucci made his standard entrance, loudly, and underdressed as usual in a pair of cargo pants and nothing else. "Whoa, sorry frenchie, I didn't know you were up here all by your lonesome," he said apologetically as he made his way topside.
"I forgot you were a morning person too. Nothing like filing your lungs with cool fresh air, makes you feel alive, don't ya think?" Sandy added inhaling deeply and letting out a long sigh.
As annoying as the man could be, Papa had to agree with him, sunrises were special. They meant for dreamers and optimists, a moment in time when everything is still possible. Where sunsets on the other were meant for reflection, to ponder what transpired or failed to transpire before retiring to give thanks for what went right and to dream of what a new day may bring.
"Yes, mornings are quite invigorating," replied Papa, setting down his mug and getting up to stretch. He let his head roll around on his shoulders and listened to his neck pop as he reached as high as he could with his hands, joined together at the knuckles by his laced fingers, essentially giving himself a poor man's chiropractic adjustment. Cracking one's bones into alignment is almost as satisfying as scratching at a nagging itch. Sandy watched my dad with a little envy. He would have liked to do likewise, but years of abusing his body had left him stiff and slightly arthritic so his satisfaction would have to come vicariously.
"Jack-o said he and Randy will be here later this afternoon," Sandy said dumping the last swallow of coffee mixed with grounds over the side.
"You spoke with him? When? " Papa replied surprised.
"Yeah, just a few minutes ago. Well, we didn't actually talk, he sent me a text."
"I see; where are they then?"
"They're at the nerd-shack he and Randy share near the airport."
"When did they get in?"
"Last night he said, around midnight."
"Really, they had no troubles then?"
"He didn't mention any."
"Well anyway, when they get here Jack wants to take the skiffs out on a shake down cruise."
"Why? We're supposed lay low profile until Jean-Luc arrives on Friday, that's the plan, he can't alter them just like that."
"Plan's changed, and according to the professor Pat's okay with that. He said Pat would call soon to confirm," explained Sandy.
Before Papa could protest in earnest the cell phone in his pocket began to vibrate. It was me and I was going to have my hands full trying to keep my cautious and practical father off of the ceiling when I brought him up to speed on what Jack and I discussed earlier, during the wee hours.
"See, that's probably Pat right now," Sandy said snapping his fingers. He was right. Sandy might be loud and brutish but his instincts are keen as they come.
Papa rolled his eyes and swallowed a snide remark, then dug into his pants pocket to fish out his cell phone, flipping it open to answer the call.
"Hi Papa, it's me," I said in English.
"Luc? Where are…," my father started ask.
"I'm still in Monte Carlo at the Chateau, but I'll be leaving later this afternoon for Marseilles," I answered quickly, cutting him off unintentionally.
"What's wrong, something's not right; I hear it in your voice?"
Now, when it came to intuition my father was like a piano virtuoso who played better by ear than by sight. Just playing the notes written on the page might make your piece correct, but the essence of the music, the soul, comes out when eyes close and the mind lets the heart take over. You cannot feel things with your brain, you can only recognize data. It's sort of like what faith is all about, no matter what religion you claim. My father has magical ears like these that always lead him to the truth. It's pretty hard to lie to someone like that, believe me, I tried many times growing up. At this point in my life, and by the way, I'm still growing up; I've learned to trust that he will love me no matter what I have to share. I believe that people feel the urge to lie whenever they're afraid of hurting or losing someone or themselves.
Frank Herbert, the brilliant author of the "Dune" series and my favorite science fiction writer, wrote that "fear is the mind killer." I think of that whenever I'm tempted to lie or to stretch the truth. I usually follow that up with "love conquers all," a phrase of unknown origin and universal appeal. I was thinking of both now as I resolved to give Papa all the facts that Jack shared instead of cherry picking them. It was the right thing to do even though I feared his reaction. Besides, withholding the truth is the same as telling an outright lie, sadly, another lesson learned late in my life.
"Sandy told you about Jack's shake down request, right?"
"Yes he did just a moment ago. Why the last minute change in plan?"
I sighed audibly before speaking, "Hear me out Papa before you say anything, alright?" He remained silent letting me know that I had his attention and that his radar was on full alert, so I continued.
"Jack's dad is aware of our intentions and he knows more about our operation than we thought. He doesn't have details but is taking some pretty formidable countermeasures," I said pausing for a response. Papa remained silent and waited for me to finish. We've had these kinds of discussions before and he always allows my conscience ample time to help me make the right choice, which was of course to come clean.
"And so, while we're not exactly sure how much information they got from Wesley, God rest his soul, we have to make some assumptions."
"Such as," Papa asked finally speaking in a slow measured tone.
"For one we have to assume that they know about the cloaking devices and the speed boats, which means they know what to be on the look out for."
"I see, go on."
"It's also a safe assumption that they know who all the players are. Jack says that they likely have dossiers on each of us."
"My God, on everyone, Jack as well? Are you saying that Sanford Peck knows his own son is involved?"
I hesitated before answering, suppressing an instant urge to lie, "Yes, Jack's certain that they know he's one of us. He said it's a game now between him and his dad. As for me, they have a file on Patrick Bouchard but not Jean-Luc Rojier. Jack tested those waters and he's sure they haven't made the connection."
I heard Papa's response before he spoke a single word. His thoughts were accentuated with the deep breath he drew in and let it out slowly. It was officially lecture time and I kept silent. Nothing I might say next would be heard anyway, at least not until he had said his piece. That was our way, and to be honest, it worked for us, it was open and respectful and at the end of the debate there were no losers. Both sides win when you respect each other enough to open the vault so to speak. No matter what the outcome would be, it would be one you arrived at together. I wish I had had the same relationship with Monica. I shuddered suddenly feeling a cold chill. That was weird, maybe her spirit was nearby thinking the very same thing?
"Alright Patrick, before you start telling me how Jack has this all figured out, explain to me why you would risk all of our lives or futures at the very least, under these circumstances? You and I only have ourselves to worry about, but the others? For Christ's sake Patrick, Sandy and Roman have wives and families! Come on son, this is too much, we've taken this thing as far as we can, surely you can see that?"
He had a point, actually he had several points, all of them good ones too, but there was no way I was giving up now. There was just too much at stake as far as I was concerned, there were too many people counting on the foundation now, there were too many Gabriel's in the world and I felt connected to every one of them. Papa and I stared each other down for several seconds before I finally replied, honestly. I could sense that he already knew what was coming so there wasn't any reason to stall.
"You're right Papa, on all counts. That's why Jack suggested the shake down run. If all goes well like we expect it to, we're cutting you, Sandy and Roman loose. We did alter the plan, Jack and Randy will pilot Jeckle, alone. We're going ahead with one boat. Yours truly will already be onboard the Princess Grace as Jean-Luc Rojier along with Alma Donnelley. Can you believe it, we're guests of Sanford and Killeen Peck." I explained, chuckling at the irony of the Peck's invitation. Papa wasn't amused and was quick to reply.
"You can't be serious? No way am I leaving you to this alone! In fact I'm tempted to turn us all into the authorities right now just to save you from yourself and us from you! We'd have a better chance of survival with the law then with Sanford Peck and his henchmen anyway. Do you really believe Jack? Do you really think his father is that dense? He has to have made the connection between you and Jean-Luc. It's too convenient that he has not. It's just too good to be true. I don't trust Jack son, that's no secret, there's an element to him that disturbs me. He's brilliant, yes, but he's dangerous, I feel it in my bones. How I don't know, but he is nonetheless."
Everything Papa said made sense, it was sound advice, and was probably all true. Pity I could not accept it. I was committed and had already resolved to take my chances. I had to rely on my own instincts now. I shared the same misgivings about Jack and did not kid myself where he was concerned. I was also privy of the fact that Sanford Peck knew that Patrick and Jean-Luc were one in the same. He had said as much the other night at the Casino in Monte Carlo. He actually taunted me with innuendo expecting me to crack. This really was a cat and mouse game for him. I could see why Jack hated him so. But in my heart of hearts I knew that I had to see this through. I may have abandoned God to pursue this path, but He never abandoned me. My faith remained in tack in spite of my denial of it. Whatever was to happen would happen, the only part I was in control of was who it happened to. It was time for the moment of truth, literally.
"Papa, you know I love you, you know that, right? I don't say it often enough but I do. Right now though I need you to love me back and leave me be, let me finish what I started dad, okay? I'm not crazy or naïve and I'm no fool. Of course Jack is lying, he's lied to us from the very beginning, that's his sin to be forgiven for. But we needed him to get this far and we need him now to keep this going. So, we lied to him in turn, and let him believe that we're dumb as mud fences and blind as bats. We've used him all along too, that'll our sin to be forgiven for. Please trust me to be the man you raised me to be. I really did pay attention all these years," I said, appealing to his soft heart.
He was quiet for a moment. "So, what's your plan?" he asked.
"We need to convince Peck that we got wind of his Intel and decided to fold up shop, cut and run. That's why we need for you and the others to fly home. We want you to take three different routes from three different airports. The goons already think Randy split when he didn't show up in Madrid where they were waiting for him. They don't know that Jack went to fetch him in Paris. They'll never expect Jack and me to come at them alone."
"And how could you? You really think the three of you can catch and board that vessel without us? It's a five man job, no exceptions! There are no margins for error here son. You do know that, right?" Papa exclaimed, scolding me more than asking me.
"We're not hitting it at sea Papa, we've got a new plan for this job," I replied.
I could hear the wheels turning in my father's head as I waited for his reply, sensing he was relieved, intrigued, and pissed off all at once.
"I don't understand what've you got in mind?"
"Alright, this is the beautiful part. The Princess Grace has a port call in Antibes on the way to Cannes. Jack and Randy will pilot Jeckle there after the shakedown run today and dock it in the marina. No assault required now. Jack will simply walk on board like he owns the place, which in a way he does. Nobody will be expecting any of us to just walk in the front door.
"What about Randy? Where does he come in?"
"Right, well he's actually Jack excuse for being there at all. He plans to pass Randy off as a corporate accountant who's there to check the books for an unannounced but routine audit, pretty clever huh?"
"Sounds pretty fishy, why would the company order such an audit at sea?"
"It's unusual I grant you, but not unheard of as Sanford Peck is known for working outside of the box. He likes to keep his underlings guessing, it keeps them from getting too comfortable and discourages complacency or pilfering. Look nobody wants to be around an auditor for fear of being implicated in something, so Randy should be left alone to do his business, monkey business of course."
"Then what, you just stroll down the gangplank like any tourist and disappear into the crowded marketplace? Do you think it will be that easy?"
"Actually that's almost exactly what we'll do. I mean we won't walk off together holding hands or anything like that. But there's no reason to hurry, everything will appear normal and we'll take our time to exit. Jean-Luc will excuse himself to tend to an urgent G.A.W.D. matter. Randy will walk off the ship as easily as he walked on. While Jack remains behind to keep his father occupied while we make the short run from Antibes to Corsica on Jeckle where we'll wait for Jack to show in a day or two with the catamaran.
"That's the other change, Jack chartered a 48 foot cat to sail from Corsica to Sicily and then from Palermo to Taranto, Italy through the Messina Strait and across the Ionian Sea. By the time Peck is informed that he's been ripped off we'll be five days at sea and essentially invisible, cloaked by the passing of time."
My father sighed deeply into his cell phone causing me to involuntarily hold my own phone away from my ear. This was the pivotal moment in the conversation. This was where I'd find out if the truth will have served me and my cause or if I should I have just lied and kept Papa in the dark while the three of us went off line with the plan on our own. It wasn't a test of the virtue itself. It was more a test of our father / son relationship. It was time to see if he practiced what he preached. Did he trust me enough leave me to what I had to do? I would know in a moment.
"Do what you must son," he said quietly but firmly.
"Thank you Papa," I replied respectfully.
"I won't lie to you Patrick, my brain is screaming at me to go to the authorities, every instinct I have as your father says that is the right thing to do."
"Why don't you then?"
"Because my heart is calmly telling me to let go, because every instinct I have as a man says that you must finish this your way, a promise is a promise, no mater what the cost," he replied.
"Thank you Papa," I said softly.
"God's speed son," he replied as he hung up.
"We'll see," I said to no one as I did likewise.