Trade Azerbaijan will be an Amazon Short Read, just over 30,000 words long. It exists in time between Trade Bangkokand Trade Bishkek (not yet released). I was often concerned while conducting background research for this book. But take heart. As of this writing we’re all still in good health.
Tuck (Web) Webber is supported by counterterrorist teams as he negotiates to keep deadly material out of the hands of unauthorized buyers. Though a work of fiction, the reader will recognize elements of truth built upon investigation. At the very least, Trade Azerbaijan is an exciting read.
The sky over Bangkok is dark. Rain pours here like no other place Tuck Webber has ever been. Tallis is behind the wheel of their company Range Rover. Brick rides shotgun, occasionally wincing, arm in a sling to isolate his shoulder. It’s the first day since the rescue mission that Web has spent any amount of time with his operators. He feels indebted for all they’ve done, and continue to do, to keep his team in Thailand safe.
As they ride, Web sits in the back seat, quiet, almost sullen. The vibration of the road below him, and the steady rhythm of windshield wipers battling a steady pounding, has a strangely calming effect. It’s not enough.
Web’s nerves are still worn raw from a lengthy meeting he had earlier in the day with General Phang and a dozen of his lieutenants and technicians. As Web gazes through bulletproof glass at dense Bangkok traffic, often barely visible even a few yards away, he reflects on how his wife Samantha is struggling with recent events.
“You decide yet, boss?” Tallis asks.
“Just thinking,” Web says. “Did you get Joe on the plane?”
“He didn’t want to go,” Tallis says, keeping his eyes front, speeding slightly around a cautious driver. “But yeah. Made sure he was in a seat and headed home.”
“Did he seem to be all right?”
Brick says, “Hard to say, boss. When I seen him yesterday he was in and out of it. What them insurgents done to him is on top of a career in the ring. He’s a tough little bastard, but you can’t just bounce back. He won’t be back for a long time.”
“Maybe never,” Web says and then smiles. “Did you really just call him little? Only someone your size could call a light heavyweight golden gloves champion little.”
Tallis changes lanes. “Did the Thais pick a new location for the op center? It would be nice to know when we’re going to move.”
“That’s why I called a meeting. Let’s talk then,” Web says, and closes his eyes, effectively ending the discussion. Except for the downpour, they ride in silence.
Four days earlier, the team stood in the furious light of a funeral pyre. It was their way of honoring a much-loved friend and colleague, one of the most valued members of the team. Afterwards, they did their best to heal the pain of loss with stories and laughter. For some, especially for Brick, Web knows the loss will take much more time to overcome.
Their SUV turns into Don Muang airport and approaches a new guard shack. Since their cover was blown, their gray man approach of blending into the population has been replaced with a hardened perimeter and Thai guards. The building is known now, subject to possible insurgent attacks at any point in the future. Guards rest in vehicles, others huddle beneath temporary green awnings, shielded in part by stacks of sandbags.
A rail barrier is raised and their Range Rover is waved through. They decide to drive around the building and enter the hangar. Inside, they are buzzed into the command center.
At first glance Web feels like nothing has changed. UAV pilots still sit at their workstations. Technicians manage flight controls, server balls and massive streams of data showing street corners, river landings and highway tollbooths across Bangkok and the country. Rich looks up from the control panel on the command and control riser. He continues to route the ever-growing flow of information. On display, the video wall shows aerial views of coastal areas, busy intersections and urban streets.
But Web, better than anyone, knows things are different. Chatter dies down when he enters. Eyes follow him across the room and to the riser. Patch is already there. He greets Web and Tallis. When he shakes Brick’s hand, the pilots and techs applaud. “Welcome back,” Patch says
Web sits heavily and asks for coffee. Rich sends a tech to the office. “Everyone here?” Web asks.
Rich says the launch crew is in the hangar and volunteers to get them. Web says not yet. He says when they came into the hangar he talked to them. Says they’ll join in a few minutes. I just want to review a few things with the managers first. He pulls out a slip of paper. “I met with General Phang and his advisors again this morning. We’re definitely being moved, but the general can’t yet say where. My guess is we’ll end up north somewhere, probably Lopburi. That’s where some of his lieutenants want us to move. Rayong was mentioned. We aren’t in a position to make demands, but the general wants us to research benefits from tactical, logistics and security concerns. Any opinions?”
Patch picks up the slip of paper, essentially a rough map with three marked locations. He says, “We don’t want to be farther north. Wouldn’t make sense. If anything, we need to head south.”
Rich, the lead technician, looks over the map and agrees. “Of these options, it has to be Utapao. That puts us on the gulf and gives us a straight shot at the oilrigs and southern districts. Better communications and a lot easier on us for launch and retrieval. Doesn’t hurt that we’re near Pattaya, either.”
“I forgot,” Web says. “You spent time down there. Anything else? Am I going to have issues with employees?”
“Can’t think of anything,” Patch says.
Web says, “I’ll forward our preference to Choochai. If anyone can make it happen, he can. He’ll get back to you, Patch. We should know something within a week.”
“Why me?” Patch asks.
Web inches his chair back. He speaks directly to his partner. “I need you to carry the ball again. Wherever we end up, I want higher operational security and for all of us to be together. Think about some kind of compound, rather than billeting in apartments or condos. Maybe we pay a little extra and get the top floors of an apartment complex. The general has plenty of properties that might work.
“When the Thais decide, I told them to get in touch with you directly, Patch. Only you. I won’t be readily available. Copy me on the big stuff but for anything else just get it done.”
Brick says, “Where you going, boss?”
“More important to me, when are you coming back?” Patch asks.
Web says, “I have to deal with some things. It’s personal. My highest priority right now has to be Samantha. She wants to go home, but there’s no way I can just put her on a plane and get back to work. She and I are out of here in the morning. Going to take our time getting home, decompress a bit, maybe spend a week in Florida or somewhere before I come back.”
Patch says, “I’m all for it. Haven’t seen her since the funeral but I have to believe she’s hurting. Can’t do what she had to do and not get scars.”
Rich says, “I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have pulled the trigger and watched that guy bleed out like that, even if he was a terrorist.”
Web stands, turns his back to the table and faces the video monitors. He checks his watch and asks that they all get on with it. For the next hour he addresses everyone on the team, thanking them again for their dedication and commitment and reviewing where the corporation has been and where it is going.
A round of applause is given to Lee, James and Anish. Like Brick it is their first day back on the job. Following days of captivity in the hands of secessionist insurgents, Web made decompression mandatory. They’ve been allowed to visit the op center whenever they wished, but they’ve each also had to speak daily with a counselor Web flew in from the States. From nightly reports, Web believes these men will rise above the physical and mental ordeal they suffered in the Sathorn Unique Tower.
When the meeting ends, Web tours the facility with Patch one last time, discussing the complications Patch and the team will face during the move. Every tool is in place. Work tables are clear and floors are spotless. “Sorry to bail on you like this,” Web says. They stand in the center of the open hangar near the parked Range Rover. Even in this rain, they prepare to launch another UAV, a test of rain fade and optics.
Patch shakes his head at Web. “You’re not bailing on anything. Just focus on the next right thing. She’s got to have snakes swirling around in that brain of hers, Web. Has to. Even with training it takes a lot to put a round in someone, especially how everything went down that night. Don’t spend as much time as you need, spend as much time as you can. Things will move along here just fine.”
“Hell of a lot to ask of you. Can’t trust just any moving company, has to be done at night. And you’re going to need a couple more people to replace the ones we lost.”
Web laughs. “Got it. You can handle things.”
“I can. But before you leave talk more about this compound idea you have. I agree we should all be together, wanted that when we came here the first time, if you recall, but what did you mean by compound? I don’t see us stringing concertina and raising guard towers.”
“No, of course not. I don’t know what I mean. Maybe there’s a hotel for sale hear the hangar. I wouldn’t be disappointed if you found something with land. If you come across something interesting, a resort or whatever, let me know. I’m willing to spend a lot more if it gives me retirement options.”
“Slacker,” Patch says and laughs. “Whatever happened to never going to retire? Going to work till I drop?”
“Did I say I was retiring?” Web says, feigning disappointment in one of the best friends he’s ever had. “I said options. Retirement options. I’ll spend extra to have options.”
Web returns to the Oriental Residence where he and Sam have stayed since the rescue operation. They eat in the open air at Suan-Lum Night Bazzar and then spend then walk arm in arm one last time through Lumphini Park.
They take a seat on a park bench so Web can quickly check email. Among the many messages about business decisions he’s relegated to his brother Sonny, Web notices a message from Sotheby’s. A regular customer, Web gets department notices on various collectibles. A suit of Maximilian jousting armor, made by one of the most famous armorers of all times, Kolman Helmschmied, is up for bid. It was made in Augsburg Germany, circa 1510. He inspects photographs sent in a link. “Check it out,” he says, and holds out a photo of the armor. Sam takes his phone and looks at what to Web is a remarkable find. She regards it with casual interest.
“What do you think?” Web asks. “Let’s spend a few days in London. You pick accommodations, itinerary, whatever you want. I’d like to attend the auction.”
Sam hands his phone back and smiles. “Looks too small for you, but sure. If we can stay at the Baglioni Hotel, count me in.”