READ AN EXCERPT FROM
THE ETHIOPIAN INTERCEPT
CHAPTER ONE- THE BORDER
Thursday, 19 June 1975: Sierra Vista, Southern Arizona
"What you peckerwoods doin' over there?"
Jolted, I drew an abrupt breath and glanced back over the stucco cinderblock fence.
"You — I’m talkin’ to you." A lean gray-haired senior citizen had just caught me sneaking-a-peek into J. Andrew Marsden's dining room.
Who's this old geezer? Undaunted, I strode over to the fence. "You seen Mr. Marsden?"
"Asked you first." His wrinkled scowl puckered up even more. "What you think you're doin'?"
Just my luck, an argumentative old buzzard. "Sir, we work with Marsden over at the Army Proving Ground. He didn't show up this morning and we need to check and see if he's okay."
The man's body quivered, spittle oozed from the corner of his mouth. "You boys better get your butts outta here pronto or I'm callin’ the cops."
I straightened up, pulled out my wallet, and tried to sound assertive. "Sir, here's my Army ID — name's Ross Brannan."
The elderly neighbor wiped his jaw on his sleeve and scrunched up his eyes as he strained to read the card. After a few tense moments, he gave me a funny look and responded with an incoherent mumble.
"We need to speak with Marsden, it's a security matter." What I meant but couldn't tell him: a serious national defense issue was involved.
Mack called out from behind, "No vehicle in here," he stood at the garage back door, forehead against the window, "it's empty."
Mack Gibson, my boss, and I were civilian employees of the Relint Corporation. A private contractor operating the Cochise Project for the Department of Defense at the Army Electronic Proving Ground at nearby Fort Huachuca. Marsden was the brains behind the enterprise.
Mack ambled over to the old man. He was more a people person than me, and closer to the man's age by twenty years. Mack rested an elbow on top the fence and asked with a persuasive tone, "Did you talk to him or notice anything unusual?"
The man cast a suspicious eye. "He never says nothin’." Mack started to speak, but the man continued, "You boys missed him by… fifteen minutes. He just backed out and drove off." The man scratched his head. "You know what? He did have lot ’a stuff piled in the back seat."
My jaw tightened. Has Marsden flown the coop? A little voice deep inside screamed: Something’s not right.
Mack raised his left palm and spoke with a calm but firm tone, "Sir, we need to check inside the house. I'm sorry — don't have time to explain."
Unbelievable. I wheeled and jogged towards the back door.
The man hollered, "You boys better skedaddle, el pronto."
I glanced back. Veins protruded from his temples, the old coot appeared on the verge of a stroke.
Jiggled the doorknob — locked.
"I warned you SOB's." He shook a gnarled finger at Mack. "I'm calling the cops."
Mack ignored his protestations and shouted, "Go ahead, kick it in."
The old cuss shrieked rude comments about our pedigrees and shuffled back into his faux adobe house. I wondered if he was going for his gun. This was southern Arizona after all, only a few miles from Tombstone and the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp territory. There I stood, unarmed, didn't even have my switchblade.
Three steps back, sprung forward, and struck at the door with my boot’s thick Vibram sole. The lock broke on the third wallop and I pushed on inside, not sure what I'd find.
Everything in the kitchen appeared normal for a single man: dirty dishes in the sink, breakfast leftovers on the table, half-eaten bag of Cheetos on the counter, overflowing ashtray, and a box of empty beer bottles on the floor.
"Marsden. — Anybody home?" No one answered.
A hollow sinking sensation gnawed at the pit of my stomach. A vague uneasiness set in. My mind reeled with possibilities and questions. In some way, I knew from the start, a sixth sense, the funny little feeling you get before it happens, something was wrong. Sometimes instincts are right. That morning, the inevitable journey that awaits the unlucky had interrupted my third cup of coffee.
In retrospect, I should have stayed back at the office. By all rights, the MP's, CID, or both should have taken the lead. Seemed like a straightforward errand at the time: drive out there, see if he was home, check the place out. Perhaps a simple explanation was in order.
The trouble started earlier when the electrical engineer failed to show up for work, an unusual occurrence, even for Marsden. When he didn't report by ten o'clock, Mack, the assistant director, called his house — no answer. A quick glance into Marsden's office found it in disarray with a near empty bookshelf.
We searched the project lab and discovered technical data missing from the secure filing cabinets, including classified files detailing the project’s inner workings. We suspected he was up to no good and rushed to his house to confront him.
Mack joined me in the dining room. He said, "I'll take his home office and you check out his bedroom."
The room reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A California style king sized bed, with a plush Corinthian leather headboard, sprawled unmade. Scattered clothes littered the green shag carpet. Dresser drawers pulled out and half emptied.
My eyes lingered for a moment on a large velvet painting over the bed: Dogs Playing Poker. Appeared Marsden had a discerning eye for art. I reckoned he picked up the masterpiece at one of those tourist traps in Nogales.
A flat box, discarded on the floor beside the bed, held the remnant of a large pizza: a partially eaten slice laden with extra pepperoni. An empty Tres Mujeres tequila bottle and a lifeless Negra Modelo beer six-pack stood as monuments to the pizza's demise.
On the nightstand beside his bed sat a pile of raunchy magazines, not just girlie pics, real hard core: S&M, teenyboppers, and the like. —They don't even sell this stuff at the bus station. — I picked up an issue and thumbed through the first few pages. —Whoa — I'm no prude, but the pictures were downright depraved.
I wasn't familiar with all the particulars of Marsden's habits, but did know the well-paid engineer lived a high-roller lifestyle outside of work. Everyone knew he liked expensive booze and cheap women. Our boss Lieutenant Colonel Hansen had been on his case about wild weekends across the border. Several months ago, the colonel discreetly bailed Marsden out of the Nogales jail the morning after an ugly fight with a pimp. I later found out the lurid details over a Coke with Margie, Hansen's secretary.
"Looks like he’s gone." Mack peered in from the hallway. "His office is cleaned out, nothing—"
"Check this out." One of the more graphic magazine covers featured an obviously agitated redhead clad only in thigh-high boots with a long bullwhip trailing from her hand.
Mack paused, an incredulous look, and shook his head in disgust. "Can't believe you're handling those things. Must be pretty nasty, don't you think."
A gross image formed in my mind. I flicked the magazine to the floor and stepped into the bathroom to wash my hands. A stack of even more lurid magazines lay beside the throne.
Mack called from the hallway, "Go check the garage. I'll take the living room."
The garage sat empty, not even tools or yard implements. At the last moment, I noticed a piece of paper trapped under the pull-down door. A hard tug produced a multicolored pamphlet, an advertisement for Sanborn's auto insurance for Mexico.
That's when it hit me. Marsden was leaving the country with his classified work materials and notes. We worked with him every day, trusted him, and now this. Betrayal is a violation that touches one's soul.
I shouted, my voice quivering with rage, "Found something. He may be headin’ south of the border."
Mack hurried in and glanced at the brochure. "I'll call CID and get a team over here."
He had informed the Criminal Investigation Division right after we suspected a security breach. They didn't seem too concerned. No surprise there, they had dealt with Marsden's peccadilloes before.
"What ya think he's up to?" Couldn't figure his motive, the project was dead, two years wasted. Of all the possibilities, one had traction. "You don't believe he's planning to defect, do you?"
After a pensive moment, he answered, "Don't know. In any event, it would be disastrous to let him get away with a treasure trove of classified material."
"He was right. In the wrong hands, the documents stolen by Marsden might divulge our research priorities. Give the Soviets valuable insight.
Mack rolled up the garage door. "You think he's headed to Mexico?"
"That'd be my guess. Though, I wouldn't put it past him to hole up in some cathouse over the border." Marsden liked to brag about his women, but until now, I always thought it was mostly BS.
He examined the brochure. "You might be right. Bet he's in Nogales by now."
"Don't think so, too far away. So's Douglas."
Mack didn't say anything. I knew he was thinking.
Figured Marsden would want to get out of the country as fast as possible. "Naco's our best bet, it's a lot closer."
He flipped the brochure over and gave it some thought. "Don't know. Let CID figure it out."
"By the time they do, he'll be long gone. If he's defecting, it'll be too late." Like a fool, I surrendered to an ill-timed impulse. A snap decision with little thought to possible consequences. "I'm gonna try to catch up with him. He don't have that much of a head start."
Mack hesitated and glanced outside. "Okay, go ahead, I'll wait for CID."
I sprinted to my red 1965 Triumph TR4 sports car parked in Marsden's driveway, hopped over the door into the roadster, twisted the key, punched the starter button, shifted in reverse, and backed out to the street.
The cantankerous old man paced back and forth in his front yard. When he saw me, he let forth a chorus of blasphemous expletives and flashed rude hand gestures in my direction. Luckily, he was unarmed.
Mack shouted from the garage door, "Don't cross the border and don't take any chances."
Police sirens howled in the distance. I floored the accelerator. Gears meshed in synchronization. The TR surged and burned rubber for half a block to a rowdy symphony of exhaust tones. Out on the road, I headed south on Arizona Highway 92, right above the speed limit through Nicksville.
The highway turned east at Ash Canyon. The open road lay ahead. A nudge on the gas pedal and the speedometer needle inched towards a hundred miles an hour. The custom supercharged big bore motor hammered away at full horsepower, exuding pure poetry through the free flow exhaust system.
Dust devils raced across the sandy desert floor as the small open topped sports car sped along the straight and narrow asphalt. An untamed dry brown vista stretched endlessly, covered by cactus, mesquite trees, creosote bushes, and rocks, lots of rocks. The border crossing loomed ahead, some fifteen miles away.
The affair started two days before when Marsden and Lieutenant Colonel Hansen, the director, had it out over the project’s pending cancellation. The concept promised a revolutionary breakthrough: encoding for a tactical air–defense missile guidance system immune to existing electronic countermeasures. However, we made little progress over two years of intensive research. The Army deemed the design unworkable and pulled the plug.
Marsden was upset — no, more like unhinged. He had been convinced the system would eventually produce results, certain the project only needed more time and funding.
True to form, Hansen agreed with the Pentagon's conclusion: the concept wasn't viable and in the end, futile. He had been assigned as the project's director at the insistence of the Pentagon and over Marsden's objections. The pretentious officer fit in real nice with the big-shots, the pampered princes of the Pentagon, the dog washers of the military-industrial complex. He was only too glad to serve as their hatchet man. Hansen never truly believed in the project and constantly clashed with Marsden over the projects objectives and progress.
Marsden interpreted Hansen's failure to go the extra mile as an unforgivable sin. Their confrontation almost came to blows, but to everyone's disappointment, fizzled out into a two–way hissy fit.
* * *
I entered Naco, a sleepy border town, slowed to a safe speed, and drove down the main street to an adobe style building housing the U.S. crossing station.
A young Border Patrol officer sauntered out to meet me. Before he had a chance to speak, I blurted, "Did a red Plymouth Road Runner go through here this morning?"
The tall lanky man answered with a pronounced Texas accent, "Yes sir, not ten minutes ago," his eyebrows lifted, "Friend of yours?"
"No, I work with him." Marsden wasn't a friend, but we always got along. I respected his knowledge and he never talked down to me, just an odd character, nothing unusual for a person of his caliber, a PhD in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech. "Can you call over and have him stopped?"
"No sir, no can do. We don't got no authority in Old Mexico." Nevertheless, he was curious. "Why you ask?"
"I'm with the proving ground at Huachuca. We've had a security violation." I produced my Army civilian identification card. "The guy driving the red Plymouth may be carrying stolen classified documents."
The officer eyed me with an air of suspicion. My outfit: jeans, chambray work shirt, and a Denver Broncos ball cap didn't exactly look tech like.
He examined the card and spoke with a dry laconic voice, "Five ten, one seventy," he couldn’t see through my dark Ray Bans, "hmm, brown hair … you got sandy hair." He studied the photo, glanced up, and said it … the inevitable, "This picture makes you look almost like Steve McQueen."
I flashed a halfhearted grin. "Yeah, that's what the ladies tell me." Unfortunately, I lacked the charismatic appeal of my near look-alike, but the slight resemblance had proved socially useful in the past. Now I had bigger fish to fry. "Can you alert the authorities over there?"
He shook his head and handed the card back, his voice calm and courteous, "Sorry sir, ain't nothin I can do. He's cross the border, beyond our jurisdiction."
"I'm going after him." Didn't have time for bureaucratic red tape, Marsden was slipping away. "Call over and tell 'em to let me through."
The officer stiffened. "Hold on bubba, ain't a good idea. Anyhow, your vehicle got no insurance sticker for Mexico. They won't let you in without one … and he'll be long–gone by the time you get all the paperwork done."
An insurance sticker, he's going to get away because I don't have a freakin' sticker — Unbelievable. "Look, I need help, this is really important, I can't explain, national security is involved."
With renewed interest, he asked with a precise tone, "You with the MP's?"
"No, I'm a civilian tech analyst. This guy's stolen some highly sensitive materials, it's important."
The officer bobbed his head and shot an anxious glance across the border. "Hold on, give me a minute." He stepped inside, dialed the phone, spoke briefly, paused as if waiting for someone, glanced back at me, and began to speak. All I heard was snippets of Spanish, the conversation unintelligible.
No sign of Marsden's red Plymouth past the Mexican control point. Figured he was on the highway heading south. Marsden probably wanted to hole up at the local brothel, but was smart enough to keep going. Had to realize the Army wouldn't allow him to get away scot-free.
I sat trying to decide if jumping the border was worth it. My knuckles turned white as I grasped the steering wheel. Problem is, sometimes I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between bold action and stupidity.
The tall Texan hung up and returned. "Sir, just talked with my amigo, Freddy Rodriquez of the Mexican Federal Police. He might be able to assist you."
We both glanced south as twin glass pack mufflers resonated off the buildings. "Here he comes now." A late model black and white Chevy Nova sped across the border. "He can help you find him but may be powerless to hold him."
The vehicle skidded to a halt and I jumped in. Officer Rodriquez nodded a greeting. I asked, "Did you see the car?"
"Si, Senor! ¿Tiene un arma … pistola?"
"Don't know … No sè." I wasn't sure if Marsden was armed or even capable of using a weapon. He never showed any violent tendencies, at least not at work, never guessed him for a traitor either.
Rodriquez spun the Nova around, peeled rubber, and roared back across the line: glass packs thundering, siren screaming, lights flashing. The speedometer quivered on the hundred-k mark as we zoomed past the Mexican border station. People, dogs, and burros scurried aside as we sped down Calle Hildago past the plaza bandstand, slowing only to pass over the topes, or speed humps, outside town. Once on the open road, the Nova lurched forward as he floored the accelerator and the brown dry Sonora desert flashed by.
The highway south was smooth with few potholes, narrow, and no shoulders. Officer Rodriquez, in his late twenties, sported a pencil thin mustache, and his neatly tailored uniform showed he took pride in his job. He didn't ask questions and kept his eyes glued to the road. A grey burro ambled on the pavement. Rodriquez expertly braked and swerved, leaving the unfazed animal and a shower of gravel behind.
* * *
The chase gave me time to think and I managed to work myself into an advanced state of agitation. I couldn't understand why Marsden was on the run. The project was a failure. The data? Why take a bunch of almost useless materials? What happened, did he just snap and take off? No, I figured he was doing it out of spite. He hated Hansen's guts — had to be the reason, one I understood. Nevertheless, there's some things you just don't do, and he wasn't going get away with it.
A quarter hour later, we caught sight of the Road Runner in the far distance. Marsden hadn't been driving fast and didn't appear to be fleeing. We drew up behind him, siren and lights blazing. Marsden glanced up at the rearview mirror, eased off the road, and coasted to a halt on a patch of gravel.
Officer Rodriquez pulled up ten yards from Marsden's Plymouth, and shut off the siren.
"Senor, stay en auto. I talk with him."
"Be careful, I don't know if he's armed." I had no idea if he was dangerous or not and was only now beginning to understand — I didn't have a clue about Marsden.
Rodriquez patted his pistol, a chrome-plated M1911 Colt semiautomatic. "No hay problema Señor!"
He exited the car, stepped out on the pavement, and approached Marsden's Plymouth with his hand on the holstered pistol. I eased out behind the open door.
Marsden stood beside his vehicle. Dressed in khaki pants and a bright red sport shirt a size too large, he appeared flustered, his corpulent face flushed pink. Marsden forced a smile, held up his right hand, and boldly greeted the officer with his best barroom Spanish. "¿Qué pasa amigo?" He always considered himself a charmer, especially with the ladies.
Rodriquez came to a halt, half way between the cars, excitedly responding in Spanish too fast for me to understand. Marsden spread his hands in a friendly gesture. The officer relaxed his grip on the pistol.
Marsden appeared nervous, but stood his ground by the car. Rodriquez continued with his rapid-fire Spanish and Marsden gave him a No Comprende stare.
In a moment of distraction, Marsden glanced my way. His astonishment betrayed his guilt. Rodriquez diverted his attention in my direction. Marsden reached back into the car and pulled out a pistol.
Rodriquez tried to draw his weapon. Marsden had the drop on him and fired. The hard-thin pop–pop of a small caliber round echoed through the desert. Both bullets found their mark as they slammed into the tailored uniform shirt.
The officer staggered towards Marsden and slowly raised his weapon. Marsden fired. Rodriquez slumped to his knees, his chrome plated pistol clattered to the asphalt. Mortally wounded, the last desperate gasps of life passed his lips as the young officer collapsed face first to the hot pavement.
The main threat eliminated, Marsden turned his attention to me. His face burned red with anger. Fury exploded from his eyes. I had seen him like this once, a few days before during his confrontation with Hansen. A chill ran down my spine. Marsden was capable of violence. The moment incomprehensible: how can you work with someone for years and be so wrong?
Marsden raised the weapon and took aim. Stunned by what I had witnessed, my comprehension narrowed by tunnel vision, I focused on the gold-plated pistol. Something you would expect to find on a Nogales pimp. An image of death on a desert road came to mind. Now, I was about to die, a thin metal door my only protection.
A flash from the muzzle — a wet slap on my right shoulder — the shot passed through the open window and found its target, but the fact didn’t register in my frazzled consciousness.
I ducked inside the car, desperate to find a weapon. A hard pop startled me as a small hole appeared in the windshield. A second round ricocheted off the hood. I bailed out, mouth dry as a cactus, heart beating at a furious pace, slipped on the gravel, and fell to the rough ground.
Marsden fired two quick shots. The first hit the radiator and produced hot steam. The second slammed into metal, right above my head.
Stretched out helpless, paralyzed by the numbness of fear, the coup de grâce expected at any moment. Time stood still. Marsden's footsteps reverberated. A loud thud — I flinched — nothing happened. It had only been a car door slamming.
A car engine started and soon faded in the distance. I pulled myself erect, leaned on the door, and watched the red Road Runner disappear down the road.
The officer lay motionless on the hot black asphalt. The chrome pistol gleamed in the harsh desert sun. I staggered forward to the road.
A dull sting burned in my right shoulder. I glanced down. Blood oozed from the wound and dripped down to my pants leg. A mind-numbing sense of panic arose as I realized the blood was mine. Reached across and tried to stem the flow — a sharp stab of pain — I jerked back, mesmerized by bloody fingers. My head began to swim, skin cold and clammy, nausea, knees buckled…