The Surly Bonds of Earth


by Gilles Messier


I remember clearly the first time I ever heard of the “butterfly effect.” I must admit I still don’t understand all the math, but I have no doubts about the theory. After all, I experienced its effects firsthand.

It was 1982, and I was working as loadmaster for Air Phenix, a French air freight company flying Boeing 737Cs out of Marseilles. The purveyor of this arcane piece of knowledge was Yves, our navigator and resident whiz kid. Having found a butterfly resting on his map table, he proceeded to enlighten me on the finer aspects of chaos theory.

“You see,” he said, holding the insect up on his fingertip. “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, it might make it rain in New York.”
“What?” I said, tightening the straps on a cargo pallet. “How the hell does that work?”
“Well...the weather’s a big, complex system, right?” Yves explained, growing more excited and breathless with each word. “Small little changes - like a butterfly flapping its wings - can get bigger and bigger and spread across the world, like... ripples in a pond. So eventually it can grow into a storm halfway across the world.”
“So I can just wave my hand and there’ll be a tornado in Moscow?” I said. “Why hasn’t the army thought of that?”
“No, no, that’s not how it works,” said Yves. “Like I said, it’s a big complex system, lots of variables. You can’t predict the outcome; any slight change can throw the whole thing off.”
“So if you can’t predict it, how do you know the theory’s true?” I said, grinning.
“Well, I, you see...” Yves stammered, gesturing wildly with his hands. “It’s...it’s complex...I’d have to show you the non-linear equations and...”

“Forget it,” I said, turning away towards the cargo bay. I have never been much for abstract mathematics, being more the practical, hands-on sort. In a family of doctors and scientists, though, this was as good as heresy; for us, university was a sacred right of passage. After failing my way out of a half-dozen degrees I finally settled on geology, the most practical of the pure sciences. My next four years after graduation were spent in the Canadian North, prospecting for gold and uranium. I was making good money, but thirty years of numbing cold, endless nights, and the threat of death by polar bear were not my idea of a fulfilling career. Plus I was bored to death of rocks. Thankfully I had two aces up my sleeve: I could speak French, and I knew my way around an airplane. I had been flying since I was 14, but my eyes barred me from a commercial pilot’s license; short of becoming a flight attendant, loadmaster was my only ticket to the skies. When I heard Phenix was hiring, I jumped at the opportunity. There was a lot of math involved - as loadmaster I was in charge of balancing the cargo loads and keeping the aircraft stable during each flight - but it was practical and intuitive; I picked it up in a heartbeat. Within days I was at home in the sky, jetting to a new, exotic corner of the globe every week.

“You’d better get that flight plan ready ASAP,” I said to Yves. “Wheels up in two hours.”
“Oh...right,” said Yves, hastily tucking his maps and papers under his arm.
“Hey,” I said as he scurried out the door. “Grab me a coffee, will you?”
Yves paused in the doorway, nodded quickly, then was gone.

I yawned and flipped once more through the cargo manifest. Twenty-four hours ago I was lying in a plush bed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, ordering room service with my new bride Cynthia. As the white-gloved waiter rolled in the champagne, the phone rang.
“The hell...” I grumbled, reaching across Cynthia to the nightstand.
“Christian Theroux.” “I have a job for you,” a voice growled in the receiver. It was Jacques Hachey, my boss.
“Uh...okay,” I said, gesturing to the waiter to pour the champagne. “What is it?”
“Government cargo run, Marseilles to Buenos Aires. Rush job, top priority. The company is authorizing me to pay the crew triple time and double vacation.”
I put my hand over the receiver and explained the offer to Cynthia. She nodded excitedly.
“Ah...okay,” I said to the boss. “When?”
“Tomorrow. Ten A.M.”
“Tomorrow!? No. Not possible. I’m on my honeymoon, you know that.”
“Offer stands as is. Take it or leave it.”

I shouted some words that made the waiter twitch, then made to slam down the receiver. Cynthia restrained my arm.
“Take it,” she said.
“What?”
“Take it. When you get back, we’ll have an even better honeymoon.”
“You sure?”
“Oh, I’m sure I can occupy myself for a few days,” she said coyly.

“I knew there was a reason I married you,” I said as I kissed her.

That evening I hopped a red-eye flight to Marseilles. Fueled on caffeine and adrenaline, I worked until sunrise loading our aircraft and preparing it for takeoff. The cargo was a fairly typical export load: wine, cheese, clothes and cosmetics; the only unusual items were a set of 15-foot-long metal boxes, painted dark grey and covered in military stencils. These were loaded aboard by a squad of stone-faced Air Force Officers, who wasted little time and spoke fewer words. The manifest listed the boxes as “inert military stores”; figuring they were probably radars or navigation equipment, I secured them in the hold with the rest of the cargo and reported to the boss’s office for final briefing.

Jacques Hachey - or Toreau (“the bull”) as we called him - was the most stereotypical Frenchman I have ever met: a stocky man with watery basset-hound eyes, hanging jowls, and a temper shorter than Napoleon. A cigarette hung permanently from the corner of his mouth, bouncing with each word he spat. I always wondered whether after he was born, the doctors found his mother’s womb littered with cigarette butts.

“We’ve been contracted by the Air Force...” he said, pacing behind the desk in his dark, stuffy office. “...to make a preliminary shipment of military export items. This is a big one: if we nail it, there’ll be a lot more contracts for us in the future.”
He wiped the sweat from his balding head as a ceiling fan beat lazily overhead.
“We stand to make over 50 million Francs over the next two years, so don’t screw it up!”

Marc, our co-pilot, gave a long whistle. “50 million...” he said wistfully. “That will buy a lot of toupees.”
Toreau twitched, the cigarette quivering in the corner of his mouth. We all chuckled quietly.
“Enough!” he barked. “I’ve half a mind to send you all back to India after this. What do you think about that?”

We immediately fell silent.
“Thought so,” said Toreau, smirking. “Now get out and get it done!”

Such were the pitfalls of working at Air Phenix. I couldn’t complain, though, for in addition to the extra pay, I was flying with my regular crew. Technically aircrew flew on rotation, with staff being assigned to different flights as needed. But if a certain crew worked well as a team, the Company tried its best to keep them together. It was an arrangement that made all the difference; good crews were hard to find. We got the job done, and that was all that mattered.

In the pilot’s seat was Roger LeDuc. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suppose that applies to cockpits too. A devout Catholic, Roger was the only pilot I knew whose preflight checklist included 50 Hail Marys. The rest of us made do with the “Shepard’s Prayer”, which was more directly applicable to flying: “Oh Lord, don’t let me fuck up.” All that prayer seemed to pay off, though, for Roger could make a 737 do things I didn’t think were possible. Several years ago we had courted a client - a crockery manufacturer - who demanded to see a flying demonstration before signing us on. Of course Toreau selected Roger - his best pilot - for the job. Now it must be said that the Boeing 737 is a big aircraft; even in cargo configuration with the seats stripped out, it’s no fighter plane. Apparently someone had failed to tell Roger this; I can still see Toreau’s face as Roger pulled the aircraft - 93-foot wingspan and all - into a complete barrel roll over the astonished client’s head. His cigarette even dropped from his mouth onto the tarmac. Needless to say, Toreau fired Roger on the spot; the paperwork was probably signed before his wheels touched the runway. The gutsy demonstration had the desired effect, however, for the client immediately signed a shipping contract. There was one stipulation, though: the client demanded that Roger fly the shipment. Grudgingly, Toreau hired him back.

Roger’s co-pilot was not God, but he liked to think he was. Marc LaFontaine, a former Captain in the French Air Force, once flew Mirage III fighter jets over Algeria. No doubt accustomed to operating from crude dirt airstrips, Marc could take off and land anywhere. I have seen him lift a 737 off runways no longer than a soccer pitch and more cratered than the surface of the moon - all while under fire. Marc apparently had difficulty adjusting to civilian life, for he always seemed to land us in the most dangerous hotspots around the world. We still kept him around, though, for whatever mess he got us into, he was more than capable of extracting us from. Indeed, he seemed to relish the challenge. He was the kind of man you wanted by your side in a shifty backwater bar when the locals turned hostile - a situation we found ourselves in far too often. It also helped that he was the only man Toreau was frightened of.

Rounding out our team was Yves, the navigator and baby of the crew. A geographical and meteorological prodigy, he could glance out the window and know instantly where he was. He knew every river, cove and airstrip in the world and had an uncanny ability to predict the weather; his carefully-calculated flight plans saved us thousands of dollars in fuel every year. But unlike his more well-traveled crewmates, Yves was a sheltered, ivory-tower boy without a scrap of street smarts. I lost count of the times Marc’s fists came to Yves’ rescue after some cultural faux-pas or another. Whenever we flew anywhere exotic, we usually left him in the plane while we went out on business. In the air, though, we worked together like parts of a well-oiled machine. Until I met Cynthia, they were the closest I had to a real family.

An hour after final briefing, we were climbing over the azure waters of the Mediterranean, heading southwest towards the African coast. We would follow the coast down to Capetown in South Africa, where we would land and refuel before heading directly west to Argentina. With our delivery complete, the others would return to Marseilles while I flew off to my extended honeymoon with Cynthia.

Easy money, I thought.

Though the job of loadmaster requires much skill, judgement and attention to detail, once in the air you become little more than a passenger. Until we landed in Buenos Aires, all I had to do was check the cargo every few hours to make sure it hadn’t shifted. In the meantime, all I could do was sit by the window and watch the world go by. As we cleared the African coast, I marveled at the fragile spiderweb wakes of ships plying the jewel-like waters, the intricately mottled sand and jagged rocks of the Atlas Mountains, and the towering mountains of billowing white cloud drifting slowly past the windows. Even when you know all the science - condensation, buoyancy and all that - there is still something magical about seeing such a massive, seemingly solid object floating in midair. It was for these magnificent views that I had taken up flying in the first place.

At that moment, however, my 24 hours on the run finally caught up with me. Bathed in warm sunlight and the soothing hum of the airframe, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke some time later, I groggily rubbed my eyes and glanced at my watch. Only two hours had passed.
“Back among the living?” said Roger from the cockpit.
“Yeah,” I said, rising from my jumpseat to stretch. “Where are we?”
“Eleven nautical miles off the coast of Mauritania,” Yves reported telegraphically. “Nineteen nautical miles south of Nouakchott.”
“Hey Christian,” said Marc. “What are your plans when we get to Buenos Aires? I hear the girls there love a rugged Frenchman.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I have a señorita of my own waiting back home.”
“What’s the world coming to?” said Marc, shaking his head. “You’re hitched, I can’t go with Captain Hail Mary...who do I have left? Private slide rule?”
He jerked his thumb towards Yves.

“Oh come on,” I said. “I’m sure we can hook him up with a nice Gaucho!”
Yves flashed me a dirty glare.
“‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina...’” Roger began singing.
“Stop it,” Yves growled.
“...the truth is I never left you!” Marc joined in.
“‘All through my wild days’,” I sang. “‘My mad existence...’”
“Stop it!” cried Yves, slamming his fists on the map table.
“‘I kept my promise. Don’t keep your distance...’”

Yves leaped to his feet and stormed off into the cargo bay.

Laughing heartily, I turned back to the window.
The smile immediately melted from my face.

We weren’t alone.

In the distance, dodging in and out of the sparse clouds, I spotted a small jet painted in mottled brown-on-tan camouflage. Then another. Then two more. As they drew closer, I saw insignia on their fuselages: a green star in a yellow circle with red bands.

“Roger!” I called. “We have company. Nine o’clock.”
Roger glanced to his left and frowned.“Ah, Putain! C’est quoi ce bordelle!?” he growled. Despite his religion, Roger still swore like a sailor.

“...is...is...enegal fighter c...mand,” a faint voice crackled over the radio.
“This is Air Phenix Flight 124,” said Roger. “Say again?”
“...Senegal fighter command,” said the voice. “You are in violation of our airspace. Divert to Dakar or we will be forced to fire upon you.” Marc glanced out the window and rolled his eyes.
“Fouga Magisters,” he scoffed. “Training aircraft. If this tub had guns I could take them.”
“I’m sure you could,” said Roger distractedly. “Yves, where the hell are we? I thought you said we were in Mauritania.”
“We are,” said Yves, glancing at his maps. “My route doesn’t cross Senegal.”
“Bored, trigger-happy idiots,” Roger muttered, shaking his head. “Senegal fighter command, this is Phenix 124. We are a commercial cargo flight bound for Buenos Aires. According to our navigator we have not violated your airspace. Please advise.”
Outside the window, one of the jets had pulled up close. I could see the pilot with his shiny white helmet and black oxygen mask.
“Phenix 124, you will divert to Dakar immediately. You have 30 seconds to comply.”

Strangely, I did not think we’re going to die. We almost died on every flight; it came with the territory. No, my first thought was: shit! we’re going to lose the cargo. To be shot down would have been merciful compared to Toreau’s wrath if we lost a shipment. Two years ago, we were flying back from Oslo when an engine threw a fan blade, puncturing a fuel tank. Low on fuel and leaking badly, we had to land immediately. The nearest airport was Dresden, deep in communist East Germany, who despite our urgent requests denied us permission for an emergency landing. Thankfully, Roger was on hand with his typical diplomatic touch.

“Dresden tower, this is Phenix 451. Fuel is critical. Either we come down on your runway or on top of your city. Your call.”

It took them only a few seconds to reply.

“Phenix 451, you are cleared for emergency landing on runway 3.”

After landing with minutes of fuel to spare, we received a typically warm East German welcome: soldiers stormed the plane, confiscated our cargo, and threw us in prison. We were released a few days later but the cargo - a shipment of blue jeans - was never returned. I can only imagine some bureaucrat made himself a small fortune on the black market. When we returned to Marseilles, Toreau showed his displeasure by assigning us a month’s rotation flying routes over the Indian Ocean, some of the most turbulent skies in the world. We put a significant dent in the world’s airsickness bag supply that month.

“Are you sure of our position?” said Roger, glancing back to Yves.
“Dead sure,” said Yves, scowling defensively. “We’re more than ten nautical miles outside Senegalese airspace.”
“This is Phenix 124,” Roger called into the radio. “We have our position as being outside your airspace. You have no jurisdiction here. I repeat, we are not in violation of your airspace.”

He was answered with a line of tracers, which flashed by the cockpit.

“Roger, diverting to Dakar,” said Roger.
“Well, here we go again,” he sighed, pulling the aircraft into a sharp bank.
I returned to my jumpseat and buckled in. Pulling out my flight log, I pencilled another tally mark on the inside cover. This would be our eighth time being forced down.

Just another day at the office.

Twenty minutes later we touched down at Dakar Yoff Airport. The fighters swooped low overhead, then peeled off and vanished over the horizon. Roger taxied the aircraft to the crumbling terminal, and as the engines spooled down, he pulled off his headphones and sighed. I glanced out across the sunbaked tarmac. A swarm of soldiers spilled out of the terminal like ants; within minutes they had encircled the plane.

“Here comes the welcoming committee.”
“Same as always, gentlemen,” said Roger. “Just smile and nod.”

A set of air stairs was rolled up to the aircraft, and I opened the door to receive it. A stocky officer in a red beret stormed aboard, followed by a squad of soldiers with AK-47s. The officer had a long pink scar across his face, and wore large sunglasses to hide the bad eye. Hands planted on his hips, he slowly cast his mirrored gaze about the cargo bay.

Then he fixed it on me.

“What are you doing here?” he growled. “What are you carrying?” His accent was so thick I could barely understand him. Without a word, I handed him the cargo manifest.
The officer threw the paper to the ground. “What are you carrying?” he hissed.
“Trade goods,” I said. “We are en route to Buenos Aires.”
“Trade goods? What goods?”
“It’s all there in the manifest,” I said, pointing to the floor.

In the blink of an eye, the officer drew his pistol and whipped me across the face. Warm blood trickled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. It was then that I realized: he can’t read.

Hand clapped to my throbbing scalp, I picked up the manifest and walked slowly down the cargo bay, reading off the contents of each pallet.
“This is...500 kilos of cheese, 100 cases of wine, two pallets of cosmetics...”

In the rear of the plane, the soldiers had already broken open a case of wine. Rifles slung over their shoulders, they merrily passed the bottles around, grinning and laughing like hyenas.

I ignored them and continued through the manifest.
“Three pallets of clothing, 100 kilos of preserves...and 100 cases of crockery.”

Behind me I heard the clatter of footsteps as Roger, Marc and Yves were shepherded into the cargo bay at gunpoint, hands on their heads. The officer turned to face them.
“Who is the pilot?” he said, waving his pistol at the crew.
“I am,” said Roger.
The officer’s lips pulled back into a broad, toothy grin. In the gloom of the cargo bay, his smile seemed to float in midair like the Cheshire cat. He chuckled and wagged a finger at Roger.
“You are in trouble,” he chided. “You did not pay the overflight tax.”
“Overflight tax?” Yves protested. “What overflight tax? There’s no such thing!”
“Shut up,” I whispered.
The officer laughed. “You pilots must know: anyone who uses our skies must pay a tax.”
“We weren’t even in your air-”
“Shut up!” I hissed, elbowing Yves in the ribs. He yelped and fell silent. Even after four years, he had learned nothing. The officer, like everyone on the rotten continent, wanted a bribe.

“Yes, of course,” I said, nodding quickly. “I almost forgot. How silly of me.” I glanced about the cargo bay; we would have to sacrifice something, or we would never leave. The plane would be stripped down to a skeleton, every part sold for scrap, and we would be taken behind the terminal and shot. Toreau would flay us for losing cargo, but we would escape with our lives.

“Your men look thirsty,” I said. “We have 100 cases of French wine. The finest. I think...twenty cases should be a good reward for your men’s hard work.”
The officer laughed heartily. I awkwardly laughed along.
“It gets hot in Senegal,” he said, stroking his chin. “And my men are very thirsty. Fifty cases will quench their thirst.”
“No, Christian,” Roger hissed in my ear. “That’s half our damned shipment!”
“Shut up,” I shot back.

“It’s yours,” I said, making a gracious gesture. The officer turned and barked orders to his men in some local dialect. They fell upon the wine like vultures, hacking the pallets apart with machetes and carting the cases away. Soon only half our shipment remained.
“Thank you for visiting Senegal,” said the officer, baring his big ivory teeth once more.
I breathed a sigh of relief as the officer turned towards the door.

Dodged another one.

“That was close,” Yves whispered. “He didn’t even notice the...”
“Shut-”

It was too late. The officer paused in the doorway, then glanced over his shoulder.

“What is that?” he said, pointing to the long grey cases.

Damn it.

I swallowed hard. “Inert military supplies,” I said, keeping my voice calm and even.
“Open it,” he said, waving his pistol at me.
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Sealed cargo.”

The officer nodded to one of the soldiers, who immediately slammed his rifle butt into my gut. My legs gave way and I crumpled to the floor. “Okay, okay...” I groaned, painfully scrambling to my feet. Stumbling up to the fist box, I pulled a pair of wire cutters from my coveralls and cut the three wire-and-lead seals.
What are they going to do with radar sets? I thought as I undid the latches. “There,” I said, lifting the lid. “You see, it’s...”

My voice cut off as I looked into the case.

Inside, cradled in black foam, lay a long, gleaming white missile.

Fuck.

In the split second of silence that followed, the officer gaped at the open case, glanced to me, then to his men. Then all hell broke loose. He barked rapid-fire orders to his men, wildly waving his pistol about. The soldiers forced us to our knees and pointed their rifles at our heads.

“You lied to us! You are arms dealers! You are smugglers!” the officer roared, jamming his pistol against my head. “Smugglers are put to death!”

The soldier behind me cocked his weapon. Once again, my thoughts strayed to the weird.

Toreau, if I come back as a ghost, I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your fucking life!

This was it. I closed my eyes and waited for the end.

Then Roger, cool as ever, saved us all.

“Don’t shoot!” he exclaimed. “We’re loaded with fuel and explosives! If you shoot, you could blow up the whole airfield!”
He was right: we had flown barely a quarter of our route. Our fuel tanks were still full.

The officer paused and glared at Roger for several long, tense seconds. I glanced at Marc. His grey eyes were slowly scanning the cargo bay, scheming. His muscular arms were tensed. Given the chance, he could have killed every man in the room with his bare hands.

I shook my head: no.

The officer glanced to the missile again, then resumed barking orders.

“Go! Get away! Clear the field!” he shouted as his men scrambled from the plane. He aimed his pistol at Roger. “Go! Get this plane away! Get it away!”

We needed no further prompting. Roger and Marc scrambled to their stations, and the engines spooled up with a long, piercing whine. I wiped my bloody hand on my coveralls as I glared at Yves, who sat curled in terror in the corner of the cargo bay.

“Remind me to kill you when this is over,” I said.

Roger and Marc swung the 737 away from the terminal and set off towards the edge of the airfield. The ancient tarmac was cracked and pitted, and the aircraft gave a gut-wrenching lurch every few seconds. Up in the cockpit, Marc lit himself a cigarette.
“Hey...” said Yves meekly. “Put that out. We’re loaded with fuel...”
“Before they execute you by firing squad,” said Marc gruffly. “They always offer you one. I’m just preempting the bastards.”

Yves swallowed hard.

Beyond the small patch of concrete, the airfield turned to bare reddish dirt. The aircraft shuddered ever more violently as it fell into the pits and ruts. Rushing to the window, I gasped as I saw the heavy, fuel-laden wing flapping with each jarring bounce. Each flap brought the engine precariously close to the ground.

“Slow it down!” I called to the pilots, wincing as the engine grazed the earth once more.
“There: off to the left,” said Marc. “There’s some smoother earth there.”
“I see it,” said Roger, throttling back the engine. A bead of sweat trickled down his brow.
“Almost there, almost there...” he muttered, eyes fixed row of palm trees at the edge of the field. “Come on, you can do it. Just a few hundred...”

Suddenly, the floor fell away as the aircraft plunged into deep rut. Outside, the engine slammed into the earth and exploded into a raging ball of fire and black smoke.

Oh fuck!

In the cockpit, Roger made the sign of the cross.

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Hail Mary, full of grace. Hail Mary, full of grace...”
“Fuel pumps off!” said Marc, hands flying over the controls. “Extinguishers on!”
Outside the wing continued to blaze, flaming chunks of engine sloughing off and trailing in our wake. Long streamers of flame licked over the blackened surface of the wing, threatening to ignite the fuel tanks. I saw thin wisps of white vapor amid the flames as the fire extinguishers deployed, but they did little against the flames.
“Christian! Get the escape slide ready!” said Roger. “We’re bailing out!”

Wheeling around, I wrenched open the door latches and heaved the whole hatch out of the aircraft. As we finally ground to a halt, I pulled the red tab and inflated the long yellow escape slide. Roger was the first out the door, followed by Marc. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Yves still curled up in the corner, eyes wide with fear.
“Come on! Get out!” I shouted. “What are you waiting for?”
Yves clutched a nearby bulkhead and frantically shook his head.
“You sniveling piece of shit!” I barked. “Get the hell out!”
Yves glared at me, but didn’t move.

The heat of the flames outside were beginning to burn my face. Suit yourself, I thought as I threw myself down the slide. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I started sprinting as fast as I could; the fuel tanks could burst at any moment. Reaching Roger and Marc at the edge of the field, I stopped and squatted to catch my breath.

“What the hell is Yves doing!?” said Roger, pointing back to the aircraft.

I glanced behind me. Yves was standing in the doorway, tossing several small objects down the escape slide. He then followed them down, picked one up, and ran towards the blazing engine. It took me a few seconds to identify the object he carried: a fire extinguisher.

“Stupid bastard!” I growled, sprinting back towards the aircraft. Reaching the base of the slide, I snatched up the other extinguisher and charged into the inferno. Yves, coated from head to toe in black soot, dodged nimbly between the flames, attacking the blaze with bursts of white foam. When I arrived, we wordlessly began to work in tandem, beating back the flames inch by inch. After many desperate minutes, the fire was out. With an exhausted sigh, Yves dropped his empty extinguisher to the ground.

“Somehow,” he gasped, coughing from the smoke. “This doesn’t seem worth triple-time.”

I squinted at him for a second, then burst out into laughter.

“You’re an idiot, you know that?” I said, still laughing.
“It was that or lose the plane,” said Yves, shrugging. “Toreau would have loved that.”

Our victory was short-lived. A line of soldiers came charging from across the field, and soon a hundred guns were pointed at our heads. So it was that we found ourselves in Dakar’s Reubeuss Prison, a filthy barracks of whitewashed stone packed to the gunwales with sweaty, emaciated men with wide, hungry eyes. They crammed us in a dark cell with twenty other men, feeding us rotten cassava twice a day. We could easily have been murdered - or worse, but a few broken jaws at Marc’s hands convinced the other prisoners to leave us alone. Our stomachs were not so resilient, however, and within days Yves and I were on our backs with dysentery. It was two long, miserable weeks before the French Government finally negotiated our release. I suspect Toreau had something to do with the delay; he probably delayed reporting our capture, letting us stew in prison as punishment. Pale and weak, I loaded the confiscated cargo back onto the aircraft, and we limped back across the Mediterranean on one engine.

It wasn’t until we landed back in Marseilles that I read a newspaper and discovered the cause of our misadventure. While we were incarcerated in Dakar, the Argentines had invaded the Falklands, a small group of islands that belonged to England. In response, the British had sent an entire task force to recapture the archipelago. Our deadly cargo - Exocet sea-skimming missiles, I later learned - was earmarked for use against that fleet. Apparently the French Government found another means of delivering its weapons to the Argentines, for they never used our company again. I have never set foot in the Falklands, or even been to Argentina, but that little war still managed to make me sweat, 3,000 miles and half a world away.

I phoned Cynthia as soon as I reached my hotel. It rained in New York after all.


This story will appear in my upcoming collection Twentieth Century Blues