Guardian 

GuardianCover

GUARDIAN

CHAPTER ONE

Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada:

Major Sophie Campbell had wanted to be a J.A.G. since she lost her father in elementary school. That didn’t mean she always enjoyed her job.

Today, she downright hated it.

But come hell or high water, she would get some useful nuggets of information out of the witness for the defense – cocky aviator David “Ice” Berg.

“Major Berg, you are aware that the Fire Control Officer on your test team, a man under your command, made a serious error firing from an AC-130 gunship into a private citizen’s home?”

“Ma’am, I was there,” Berg drawled, his South Carolina roots coating each word. “It was tough to miss the flames. But Captain Tate didn’t screw up.”

Of all the test directors to be in charge of this particular mission, why did it have to be Berg? Sexy as hell with a sense of humor and unflappable calm, he managed to charm his way through life.

Not today.

“Let me rephrase the question.” Sophie flipped through the pages of her legal pad.

Stalling.

She didn’t actually need further information. She needed to decide the best tact for extracting crucial evidence from the rock-headed aviator occupying the witness stand for the past two hours. Based on prior encounters with stubborn Major David Berg, Sophie prepared herself for a protracted battle.

“Major Berg,” she pressed, dropping her paper on the walnut table in the military courtroom, “in the month leading up to the incident, your team was under incredible pressure to complete testing on the gun mount system. You were being pushed to finish ahead of schedule so it could be used in combat.”

“Objection!” Counsel for the Defense leapt to his feet. “Is there a question?”

“Su-stained,” the judge, Colonel Christensen, monotoned. “Get to the point, please, Major Campbell.”

“Yes, sir.” She nodded.

Berg didn’t so much as blink. He’d earned his call sign “Ice” honestly. The man truly was an iceberg under pressure, and today’s stakes were high. Damn high. In order for a child to get justice, a young captain with a spotless record would have his life and career ruined with a court martial conviction.

This case sucked on a lot of levels.

“I’ll rephrase.” A simple twist in wording would get the question before the witness, cast some doubt in the jurors’ minds. “Are you certain Captain Tate didn’t cut corners on crew rest before the mission in question?”

Berg quirked a dark, lazy brow. “Asked and answered in my initial deposition. I am certain.”

Sure, she was pushing the edge of the envelope with badgering a witness, but her options had dwindled in the past couple of hours. She needed to win this case. Too many people counted on her, the child injured in the military testing accident. She also had a child of her own dependant solely on her.

She refused to consider that Berg might be right. Not that she doubted his honesty. His pristine reputation at Nellis Air Force Base carried whispered “awe” aura. As much reputation as anyone could garner working in the top secret field of dark ops testing. He was known as by the book aviator with nerves of steel. No, she didn’t question his ethics, but he must have missed something or been misled by those who worked for him. Maybe he had to cut a corner in the testing process that led to Captain Tate making this tragic – and too damn high profile – military accident.

“Major Berg, do you acknowledge that there was immense pressure in the month leading up to the incident in question?”

“Stress is standard ops in the test world.”

“And why might the pressure be higher during wartime?”

“Troops in the field need the technology we develop.”

“And in times of stress, you agree that sleep can be difficult?”

Sophie neared the raised wooden stand. Berg radiated such raw strength she doubted any amount of months on the job would lay him low.

A long-banked heat within her fanned to life.

Her steps faltered.

Heat?

The slumbering numbness that had invaded her emotions for the past year eased awake with a burning tingle. An almost painful warmth spread through her, begging to be fed by–

Major David Berg? David? “Ice”? No way!

What could have snagged her attention now, after she’d known him for at least a year and a half? Something about him today seemed different somehow.

His mustache. He’d shaved his mustache, unveiling a full, sensuous–

Sophie blinked once, twice. Had he noticed her lapse? A honking big unprofessional lapse.

She cleared her throat along with her thoughts. “Did Captain Tate receive the full eight hours of crew rest?”

“Twelve hours, ma’am,” Berg answered smoothly. “Regulations state crew rest is twelve hours long, something I know, my crews know and I’m sure you know.”

“Of course, twelve hours.” Well, it had been worth a try to trip him up, create a reasonable doubt. Moving on to plan B.

Sophie closed the last two feet between them, stopping just in front of Berg. Air conditioning gusted from the vents above, working overtime to combat the Nevada summer heat. Her uniform clung to her back, the blue service jacket about as thick and stifling as a flak jacket right now.

Her nerves must be frazzled from the insane year of restructuring her life as a single mother. She needed to concentrate on her job, not … him. Since Lowell’s death, she didn’t have the time or energy for anything other than caring for her son and paying off the mountain of bills her husband had left behind.

She pressed ahead, placing an evidence bag with a scheduling log inside on the witness stand. “If it’s twelve hours, then I’m confused how you fit in the missions and required rest without a single minute being off.”

He picked up the schedule, scanned it, and placed it back on the stand. “The numbers are tight, but they work. Yes, we were on a deadline. A tight one with no wriggle room, not even a minute. That’s what we do, year in and year out. When has the military not been over worked and under manned?” Berg’s drawl snapped with the first twinges of impatience. “So in essence, the crazy ass schedule we work is actually standard.”

Trained to watch for the least sign of weakening in her witness, Sophie rejoiced over the almost imperceptible clench of his jaw. Berg’s pulse throbbed faster above his uniform collar, the reaction so subtle she felt certain only she noticed. She ignored her own quickening heart.

Time to press the advantage, if she dared.

A quick glance at the judge’s bench reassured her. The jowly presider looked in need of some crew rest himself. She needed to move fast.

“Major, you can’t be with your testers twenty-four/seven. So it’s actually impossible for you to say with complete certainty that Captain Tate received the required amount of rest prior to his mission? I mean really, did you walk with him every step of the way?” Her words fell free with a soft intensity that curled through their pocket of space. “Eat with him? Follow him to the bathroom?”

If she could just piss off Berg enough, she sensed he would snap and slip, say one little thing wrong that would enable her to secure a conviction. It wasn’t like he would go to jail – although somehow she knew he would rather go take the punishment on himself than see anyone in his command suffer that shame of a court martial.

“Ma’am, I’m not required to watch my testers sleep. However I did see Captain Tate drive away, in the direction of his home after dinner – which I did watch him eat.” His steely eyes glinted like the flecks of silver dusting his coal black hair. “However, I didn’t follow him into the bathroom since we’re not a couple of junior high girls.”

Sophie snapped back a step.

Chuckles drifted from the jury. Damn it. Of course he played well to a crowd. In a military proceeding, the accused could choose whether judge or jury trial and just her luck, they’d gotten a jury.

“Order!” The judge’s cheeks shook like a basset hound’s. His gavel resounded through the military courtroom.

Part of being a successful attorney involved knowing when to retreat with grace, recouping for the next advance. Having foolishly depended on her husband for so many years, she now struggled with the concept of relinquishing control, of not delivering the last shot.

“Thank you, Major, for that … enlightening … information about the personal hygiene habits of your unit. I only wish you could be so forthcoming with the rest of your testimony.” Sophie turned to the bench. “Withdrawn.”

The judge darted a censorious glare her way. The jury laughed again, but this time she didn’t mind.

Berg canted forward, his shoulders and chest seeming to enlarge, filling the witness stand with his muscular chest full of military ribbons – a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star, and almost too many air medals to count. Each oak leaf cluster signified ten more combat missions. He didn’t just put his ass on the line testing the newest equipment in the inventory. Berg served overseas, sometime the first to use those new systems outside the test world.

Rumor had it, he’d received that Distinguished Flying Cross in Afghanistan. As the fire control officer in an AC-130 gunship he held off hundreds of Taliban fighters attempting to capture a pinned down SEAL team. Berg had stayed in the fight well past daylight, dangerous for the aircraft. He’d shot so precisely, so effectively his ammo had lasted until a helicopter could arrive with pararescuemen to scoop up and out the injured SEALs.

She accepted the inevitable. Any shot she could deliver here today wasn’t going to rattle a man who’d spent hours flying over hundreds of Taliban fighters lobbing potshot and aiming rocket launchers his way.

“Nothing further.” Sophie affected her most efficient walk, heels tapping back to the table. She pivoted on the toes of her low pumps. “We reserve the option of recalling this witness.”

After two hours of cross-examination, she’d scored more than a few points.

At what cost?

She and Berg had run into each other during early depositions. And even before that, they’d first met in a past investigation, but she’d still been married then. He’d been in the middle of a messy divorce. She hadn’t looked at him – hadn’t really seen him – the way she did today.

Regardless, stakes were too high for her to worry about David Berg. If she won the court martial proceeding, that cleared the way for the young boy injured in the accident to move forward with a civil suit.

The judge rested his cheek on his fist, the jowl shifting to seal one eye. “You may step down, Major Berg.”

Sophie averted her gaze from the witness, pretending to jot notes. With an hour left until court recessed, she didn’t want to risk jack. No doubt when she saw Berg next the unexpected attraction would have left as abruptly as it had arrived.

Annnnnd, she looked at him anyway. Damn.

Her nerves tingled.

Tucking his wheel cap under his arm, the major circled to the front of the stand. His uniform fit his lanky body perfectly, accentuating each athletic stride.

She studied him from a more personal perspective. Sexy with jet black hair, but not handsome, she decided. Not in the conventional sense. His angular features defied so mundane a label.

Deep creases fanned from the corners of his quicksilver eyes, attesting to a combination of years in the sun and ready laughter. His skin was a hint lighter where his mustache had been, drawing her attention back to his mouth. He wasn’t smiling now.

Berg exuded the confidence of a man comfortable in his skin, his appeal making her distinctly uncomfortable in her own.

Sophie resisted the urge to tuck her thumb in the waistband of her skirt. Already snug, her uniform tightened as he narrowed the distance between them. She resolved, yet again, to eliminate midnight ice cream sprees until she could afford to buy a larger size. He probably didn’t even know how to count fat grams.

The hungry heat returned … and she didn’t crave a pint of rocky road.

The last thing she wanted was some obstinate aviator cluttering her mind. She finally had her life on track, and she didn’t intend to risk her hard won independence simply because of a fleeting bout of hormonal insanity.

Level with her, Berg hesitated. His six-feet-four-inches dwarfed her five-feet-three. Five-four if she added the minimal lift of her shoes.

Even when not in uniform, she’d always disdained high heels, maintaining they gave her the look of a child playing dress-up. At that moment, she would have plea-bargained two gallons of rocky road for a pair of Tina Turner spikes.

Steel gray eyes pinned her for one slow blink before Berg shoved through the swinging wooden rail and out of the courtroom.
***

Major David “Ice” Berg cared about two things above all else: His daughter and his job.

Steamed by more than the Nevada sun, Dave leaned against the exterior wall by the front entrance of the courthouse. At least Haley Rose was settled with his sister for the afternoon.

Five minutes alone with Major Sophie Campbell to straighten the facts and his world would be in order. With one of his tester’s career in the balance, he couldn’t just walk away.

He glanced at his watch, impatient from waiting in the heat, dryer than his South Carolina home state’s humidity, but still a scorcher of a day. He had to pick up Haley Rose from his sister’s before driving back to the condo. Single parenthood left him with little time to waste.

What was taking the lady J.A.G. so long?

Jumbled voices swelled through the opening doors. Masses poured out and divided, easing down the courthouse stairs like the gush from an emptying aqueduct. Bluebirds feeding on the patchy lawn scattered, clearing a path. No sign of her.

Dave pushed away from the warm wall and jogged down the steps, exhaling his frustration. He would have to take a long lunch tomorrow and track her down, which would make him late picking up his daughter twice in a week. Crap.

He cut a path across the scraggly lawn. A fluttering bluebird snagged his attention. He glanced back just as Sophie stepped through the door. She paused for a moment to put on her hat. He braced for the inevitable whammy – that wallop to his libido that came every time he looked at her.

Long ago, he’d learned to harness his reaction around her. From the first time he’d come across her eighteen months ago during a deposition on another case, he had wanted her. The glint of her wedding band had sparked regret. Not to mention he’d been in the middle of a hellacious divorce.

After discovering Sophie’s ritzy address, he’d thanked heaven for the near miss. His single brush with a materialistic woman was one too many. His single brush with marriage was a mistake not to be repeated as well.

Her marital status may have changed, but her posh neighborhood remained the same. He didn’t need any further incentive than that to resist her. Encounters focused solely on work offered security from temptation.

Sophie hurried down the steps, her pencil straight uniform skirt hitching higher up her leg. Her legs had driven him close to crazy during his stint in the witness stand. And when his eyes travel upward to the best set of curved hips in the free world?

A man could lose himself in her softness.

Her sun-streaked blonde hair was swept back into some kind of twist. Not for the first time, Dave imagined pulling out the pins and testing the silky texture sliding between his fingers. Her light hair contrasted with her golden glow, deep brown eyes, lightly tanned skin.

Tan lines.

Shit.

He knew the minute she saw him. Her gaze went from open to distant in a snap.

“Major Berg,” she acknowledged before charging past.

Ego stinging, he watched her hips twitch in her brisk, twitchy walk as she left him in the dust. His whole body throbbed from viewing only two inches of skin above her knee, and she barely noticed him. He couldn’t decide why her dismissal bothered him more than usual since he didn’t plan to do anything about the attraction.

A good swift reality kick reminded him of his reason for seeking her out, and he resolved to take comfort from the chill of her greeting.

“Major,” David called, catching her in three strides. “Wait a minute.”

“I haven’t got a minute.” Sophie tossed the words over her shoulder without meeting his gaze.

“Make time.”

She took two shorter, quick steps for his every long stride. “Call my secretary for an appointment.”

“Hold on!” He gripped her arm and tugged her to a halt. “If I’d wanted an appointment, I wouldn’t have spent the last hour waiting.”

The combined force of her sudden stop and spin to face him brought them a whisper apart. The simple act of touching her for the first time sent blood surging well below the belt.

Down, boy.

Dave unclenched his hand, allowing himself a brief trail down Sophie’s sleeve as he released her. A bubble of privacy wrapped around him as it had during the moment in the witness stand when she’d leaned a bit too close for a second past his comfort level.

A hint of uncertainty crossed her face before she stepped back. “This better be important.”

“It is.”

“You have exactly two minutes.” She checked her watch, late day sun glinting off the face plate. “I’m late picking up my son.”

He gestured toward the corner of the building, away from the crowd. “Let’s step over here in the shade.”

Following her, he almost cupped his hand to the middle of her back. Sophie stopped to face him just in time to prevent him from making that colossal mistake. Sophie Campbell was a J.A.G., an officer in the same Air Force he served. The Bronze Star on her uniform proved she was more than just someone sporting a bunch of “I Was There” ribbons. Right now, he wanted to know how she’d gotten that Bronze Star as much as he wanted to know the taste of her.

“One minute left, Major Berg.”

Right. “We need to talk about your line of questioning upstairs.”

“Do you have something to add to your testimony?”

“No.”

“Then we have nothing to discuss.” She moved to dart around him.

Dave braced a hand against a sprawling eucalyptus tree, blocking her escape. “I feel bad for that injured kid – Ricky – and for his family, too. Aside from how damn tragic the whole thing is, Professor Vasquez has got to be swamped with his son’s medical bills. I’d like to help the kid win a hefty settlement, but I can’t. You’re on the wrong track.”

“Major Berg–”

“Cut it out, Sophie. We’re not in the courtroom.” So much for keeping matters impersonal.

“This isn’t accomplishing anything. If you have something concrete to discuss, come to my office and we can meet in a more … professional setting.” Her gaze skittered away from his. “David, I really can’t do this today.”

He concurred on that point at least. “Am I supposed to wait around until you can fit me into your schedule?”

“I’ll be in touch.”

“No good. I don’t feel much like playing tag-team with your voice mail.”

Sophie watched undisguised frustration wrinkle David Berg’s brow as he barricaded her exit. She needed to leave. Now. Rather than diminishing, the tingling she’d felt earlier had increased to something resembling a third-degree sunburn.

Much longer with him and she might launch herself at him like a sex-starved woman. Which, of course, she was, even if she hadn’t realized it until an hour ago.

Sex. That’s all it is, just a natural, physical reaction. After a nap and some ice cream, she would be fine. The reasonable explanation calmed her. As a normal, healthy woman, of course her body would inevitably react to enforced abstinence. She could push aside the unwanted attraction long enough to talk with him, for the good of her case.

“All right, I would like to go over a couple of points in the incident report. But, I honestly don’t have time this afternoon.”

David’s hand pressed to the tree trunk brushed mere inches beside her cheek. His heat reached to her like a furnace blasting on an already hundred-plus degree day.

He shifted, his knee bent, his shoulders angling closer. “What if I meet you tomorrow for lunch?”

The offer tempted her. Hell, the man tempted her. She tried to focus on his tie instead of the flecks of steel in his blue eyes.

The rows and rows of tiny rectangular ribbons on his uniform jacket drew her eyes. An icy chill in her veins burned worse than the heat. How long before he too ended up cold and lifeless, like her husband, like her father?

She had no intention of waiting around to find out. “Your two minutes are up. Stop by my office after court tomorrow.”

Sophie ducked under his arm in an attempt to escape his appeal.

Two cracks sounded.

David slammed into her, tackling her. Her briefcase flew from her grip.

Another pop. A gunshot? No time to question. Her head smacked the rocky earth, David Berg’s body blanketing hers…

From Guardian, Berkley Sensation
Copyright Catherine Mann 2012

Protector 

PROTECTOR

CHAPTER ONE
Nellis AFB, Nevada

“I’ve lost my edge, Colonel.”

The admission burned its way up Captain Chuck Tanaka’s throat, each word pure acid on open wounds inside him. But he was an ace at embracing pain, and he’d be damned before he would endanger anyone else by taking the Colonel up on his offer to put Chuck back in the action.

F-16s roared overhead, rattling the rafters in the gaping hangar. Colonel Rex Scanlon stood beside him as airmen prepped for deployment to the Middle East with immunizations, gas masks, duffel bags full of gear. Close to two hundred warm bodies going to war.

Including his crew. His old crew from the top secret test squadron.

Pilots Jimmy Gage and Vince Deluca lined up with loadmaster Mason Randolph standing in a long, long line for a gamma globulin immunization along with an assload full of other shots to prepare them for the diseases overseas. He remembered well how the huge needle left a lump that made for uncomfortable flying. Back when he’d been their navigator. Before his injuries grounded him for life.

These days he was the squadron mobility officer. He ensured all deploying personnel were up to date with training, shots, equipment.

In a nutshell? He rode a desk and pushed paper.

Musty gear and a low hum of chitchat filled the hangar. All familiar. Jimmy, Vince and Mason shuffled forward, flight suits down around their ankles in boxer shorts while the doc shouted, “Next.”

“Tanaka?” Scanlon leaned forward, staring him down from behind black rimmed glasses. “I need you on this mission. You’re the man. You have the skills.”

Not the skills he wanted, not the job he wanted. Better to exist.

Chuck took a folder from an overeager airman and signed off the bottom of a form. One more ready to deploy. Around them, uniformed men and women carried large green deployment bags stuffed full of equipment picked up at numerous stations. Security cops were posted throughout, watching and talking into radios. Off to his left, a dozen more who’d completed drawing equipment sat on the floor fitting the ballistic plates into their body armor. Another group checked over their weapons, disassembling and putting them back together.

His fingers twitched with muscle memory from performing the same tasks countless times. In the past. Speed mattered and he couldn’t trust his hands or his feet any longer.

Chuck slapped the folder closed. “I figure I’ve given my fair share to Uncle Sam. He won’t mind if I sit out the rest of my commitment to the Air Force at my desk, rubber stamping paperwork.”

Scanlon scrubbed his face, sighed hard, his eyes too full of the hell that went down when they’d both been in Turkey two years ago. “Without question, you’ve sacrificed more than your fair share for your country. But this op, this enemy, these people…” His jaw clenched and the pity shifted to something harder. “This is our chance to even the score for what they did to you and those other servicemen they kidnapped.”

Hunger. Mind games. Torture. Chuck’s grip tightened on his clipboard.

Thankfully, his thoughts were broken by another airman thrusting a folder at him. He opened it and took a few minutes to calm himself by reading the checklist before signing at the bottom. He embraced routine and monotony through the days and sweated through the nights.

Chuck passed the folder back to the airman and waited until he stepped away before meeting the Colonel’s gaze dead on. “A very wise nun always told me holding grudges is bad for the soul.”

“In case you didn’t notice, I’m not laughing.”

Neither was Chuck these days. But he was getting by. Surviving one step at a time, literally, as he recovered from the ass kicking he’d taken overseas at the hands of a sadistic bitch bent on prying secrets from servicemen, then selling the info to the highest terrorist bidder.

She hadn’t gotten jack shit from him about the covert test missions he used to fly or the cutting edge equipment he developed in the dark ops squadron. But he’d paid a heavy price for keeping those secrets.

“Pardon my bluntness, Colonel, but have you taken a look at me lately?” His eleven broken bones had healed as well as they ever would, and he was lucky to be on his feet again. Reconstructive surgery had taken care of most of the scars. External ones, anyway.

His ex girlfriend claimed he was still an “emotional cripple.” Whatever the hell that meant. “Sir, I know exactly what I’m worth these days, or rather how little. You’re not fooling anyone here. Offering me a mission is the equivalent of a pity fuck. Sir.”

Scanlon’s thick eyebrow hitched upward through two shouts of “Next” before he pulled the clipboard from his hand and gave it to Chuck’s assistant, a surprised master sergeant.

The Colonel guided Chuck away from the bustle and behind some pallets loaded for the deployment. “Chuck, this mission could be the back breaker for what some of the intel spooks think is a major attack here in the States. Our equipment, equipment you helped test, is the only way to exploit the one hole we have been able to find in their organization–”

“Not interested,” he interrupted, desperate as hell to stop the Colonel from taunting him with what he could not have anymore.

Scanlon continued as if he’d never been interrupted, “You’ll go in undercover as a blackjack dealer on an Italian cruise ship next week. You won’t be going in alone. I’ll have your back, and David Berg will be running the surveillance equipment on board the Fortuna. Think about it. At worst you’ll get some sun and great food. And at best, you’ll bring down a terrorist cell.”

Hunger for the chance to fight back gnawed at his gut. “You don’t need me as the front man.” Maybe… “Why not let me operate the gadgets? Nobody runs the packet analyzer and translator algorithms as well as I do. It’s more art than science.”

Shit, he was already envisioning himself there. “Forget I said that. I’m exactly where I should be–.”

Pop! A gunshot blasted from the other side of the pallets. A chunk of wood splintered into the air.

Chuck jerked hard and fast, looking over his shoulder even as he knew it had to be some dumb ass who’d slipped a round in his weapon then seriously screwed up with an unintentional discharge. He looked across the hangar—

And stared straight into cold, emotionless eyes of a gunman who looked too damn much like one of their own firing wildly into the clusters of airmen.

So fast. Shouts and more pops. Bullets. From the gunman and the security cops, but no one could get a decent aim as the guy ran and bobbed. The gunman turned toward Chuck’s old crew. Fired. Jimmy spun back as a round caught him in the shoulder. The gun tracked Jimmy for another—

Chuck drew his sidearm before he could think and centered on the uniformed gunman’s chest. Pop. Pop. Pop. He squeezed off three shots, center of mass.

Everyone and everything in the hangar went unearthly still. The only sound was a haunting echo of Chuck’s shots.

The gunman crumpled to the ground a second before the acrid scent of gunfire bit the air.

Chuck’s fist clenched around the familiar weight of his 9mm. The hangar seemed to freeze frame, imprinting itself in his brain. Cops with weapons drawn. Others with their fists wrapped around the butt of a gun. The unarmed huddled, hugging their heads protectively.

Slowly, sounds of sirens outside pierced his consciousness and snapped the frame back into motion. Security cops swarmed the downed gunman. His old crewmate, Jimmy, sat up, clutching his shoulder with blood pouring between his fingers while the rest of the crew checked him over. No one else opened fire but the edgy need to stay on guard seared the air as three other injured held onto a bleeding leg or arm. No one dead though. Thank God.

Adrenaline singed his insides, his pulse pounding in his ears. The gun felt right in his hands. Taking out an enemy felt even better.

The Colonel secured his unfired weapon back in the holster and stared at Chuck’s smoking gun, now pointing upward. “Still think you’ve lost your edge, Tanaka? Because from where I’m standing, it appears you just stopped a massacre.”

Chuck lowered his weapon slowly, the inevitable flooding his veins with each slug of his heart. “That same old nun also told me gloating is as dangerous as grudges.”

“Fair enough, Captain. I take it then you’ll be joining Berg and me at the morning briefing?”

He nodded once without taking his eyes off the unconscious gunman.

“Good, good,” Scanlon righted his black framed glasses. “Meanwhile, you may want to brush up on your blackjack skills.”

Chuck thumbed the barrel of his weapon, an undeniable thirst filling him. The need to get back in the fight. The need to defend his comrades.

The need to avenge.

There were still a lot of blanks to be filled in, but then that’s what briefs were for. He didn’t need to hear anymore well-executed persuasive arguments. He already knew.

He was going all in.
**

Renegade 

renegade

Dark Ops Novel 3:
RENEGADE
By Catherine Mann

Chapter One

Present Day: Tonopah Test Range, Nevada:

For Tech Sergeant Mason “Smooth” Randolph a great flight was a lot like great sex.

Both brought the same rush, sense of soaring and driving need to make it last as long as absolutely possible. On the flipside, a bad flight was every bit as crappy as bad sex. Both could quickly become awkward, embarrassing, and downright dangerous.

As Mason planted his boots on the vibrating deck of an experimental cargo plane, his adrenaline-saturated gut told him that today’s ultra secret mission had the potential to rank up there with the worst sex ever.

The top notch engines whispered a seductive tune, mingling with the blast of wind gusting through the cargo door cranking open. Whoever came up with dropping supplies out of the back of a fast moving aircraft must not have stood where he was standing now. Of course for that matter, nobody had stood in his boots on this sort of flight. That was the whole purpose of his job in an Air Force’s highly classified test squadron.

He did things no one had tried before.

On today’s mission, he would offload packed pallets from a test model hypersonic cargo jet, a jet that could go Mach 6, far outpacing the mere supersonic speed of Mach 1. The deck of this new baby gleamed high tech and totally pristine without the oil and musty smell that accumulated with the history of many successful missions.

The metal warmed beneath his boots as the craft ate up miles faster than the pilot up front – Vapor – could plow through a buffet. If the plane completed testing as hoped, future fliers could travel from the U.S. to any point on earth in under four hours. Entire deployments could be set up in a matter of a single day, ready to roll, rather than the weeks-long build ups of the past.

No doubt, the price tag on this sleek winged sucker was huge, but for forward thinking strategists, it saved many times over that much by shortening deployments. Of course money had never meant dick to him.

He did care about all those marriages collapsing under the strain of long separations.

Radio talk from the two pilots up front echoed in his headset as he checked his safety belt one last time, then raised his hand to hover over the control panel. His empty ring finger itched inside his glove. Yeah, this test in particular struck a personal note for him. It was too late for him since his own marriage had already gone down the tubes, but maybe he could save some of his military brethren from suffering the same kick in the ass he’d endured six years ago.

Without slowing, the cargo door cranked the rest of the way open, settling into place with an ominous thunk. Wind swirled inside, the suction increasing with the yawning gape. No more time to consider how the drop shouldn’t even be possible. Not too long ago, going to the moon hadn’t seemed possible. It took test pilots, pioneers. All the same, this was going to be sporty.

Mason tightened his parachute straps just in case and keyed his microphone in his oxygen mask to speak to the pilots in the cockpit. “Doors opened, ramp clear.”

“Copy.” From the flight deck, pilot Vince “Vapor” Deluca acknowledged. “Thirty seconds to release.”

Mason scanned the cargo pallets resting on rollers built into the floor. Everything appeared just as he’d prepped for this final run before next week’s big show for select military leaders from ally nations around the world. Pallets were packed, evenly balanced, and lined up, ready to roll straight out over the Nevada desert. Muscles contracted inside him as the pilot continued the countdown over headset.

“Jester two-one,” Vapor continued, “is fifteen seconds from release.”

Mason focused on the bundle at the front of the pallet. A void of dark sky waited beyond the back ramp only a few feet away, ready to suck up the offload. He mentally reviewed the steps as if he could somehow secure the outcome. A small parachute would rifle forward, air speed filling it with enough power to drag out the pallet. That chute would tear away, sending the pallet into a free fall until the larger parachute deployed.

“Five,” Vapor counted down, “four-three-two-one.”

A green light flashed over the door.

The bundle shot its mini-chute into the air behind the door. As it caught the hypersonic air the first pallet began to move, rolling, rolling and out. One gone. The second rattled down the tracks, picture perfect, and then the next in synchronized magnificence as the mammoth load whipped out at a blurring speed.

Mason’s gut started to ease. Next week’s shindig for their visiting military dignitaries could be a huge win for the home team and moving this plane into the inventory. A flop, however, could mean death to their government funding, an abrupt end to the whole project. He keyed up his mic–

The last pallet bucked off the tracks.

Oh shit. The load slammed onto its side with hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds of force. The cargo net ripped, flapping and snapping through the air. Gear exploded loose, catapulting every-fucking-where.

He ducked as a piece of shattered pallet flew over his head.

“Smooth?” Vapor’s voice filled the headset. “Report up.”

Mason grappled for the button to respond while sidestepping a loose crate cartwheeling his way. The mesh net whipped around his leg and jerked him toward the open back. His feet shot out from under him.

“Smooth, damn it, radio up–”

His mic went silent. The cord rattled useless and unplugged. His helmeted head whacked the deck, sparking a fresh batch of stars to his view of the night sky.

He slapped his hands along the metal grating, grappling for something, anything to slow the drag toward the back. Would his safety harness hooked to the wall hold? Under normal circumstances, sure. These weren’t normal circumstances. Everything was a first ever test at unheard of speed.

He vise-gripped the edge of a seat. The pallet dragged at his leg. He kept his eyes focused ahead, squeezing down panic, hoping, praying Vapor or Hotwire would come back to check. His arms screamed in the socket and his legs burned from being stretched by the weight of the pallet teetering on the edge of the back hatch.

Don’t give up. Hang on.

The bulkhead opening filled with a shadow. Thank God. The copilot – Hotwire – roared into view, his mouth moving as he shouted words swallowed up by the vortex of wind.

Mason’s fingers slipped. The weight, the force, the speed, it was all too much. “Oh, shit.”

He pulled his arms in tight as the pallet raked him along the metal floor like a hunk of cheddar against a grater. Ah damn, what about his safety harness? The strap around his waist pulled taut. An image of his body ripped in half came to mind, a snapshot that would forever stay in safety manuals to warn others of the hazards of fucking up. Not that he knew what he’d done wrong. That would be for others to decide after they buried the two halves of him in a wooden box.

Hotwire hooked his own safety belt on the run and reached. So close. Not close enough.

Mason’s harness popped free from around his waist. Whoomp. The air sucked at him like a vacuum. He flew out of the back of the plane at hypersonic speed only to stop short when he slammed against the pallet, his leg still lashed by mesh. Pain detonated throughout him. Then his stomach plummeted faster than his body.

Happy Fucking New Year.

Instincts on overdrive, he wrapped his arms around the pallet. The pressure on his body eased as the pallet continued a freefall downward into the inky night. His flight suit whipped against him. Images of his ex-wife flashed though his head along with regret. A shiver iced through his veins. Was he dying?

No. The wind and altitude caused the cold. Think, damn it. Don’t surrender to the whole life review death march.

Either he could do nothing and pray that when the larger chute opened it didn’t batter him to death against the pallet. Or he could free his leg from the netting, kick away from the pallet and use his own parachute, provided it hadn’t been damaged during the haul out the back of the plane.

His options sucked ass, but at least he was still alive to fight. Getting clear of the damaged pallet seemed wisest. Determination fueled his freezing limbs. Vertigo threatened to overtake him as he kicked to untangle his boot from the netting. He jerked, pulled, and strained until yes, his leg came free.

“Argh!” Mason grunted, muscles burning.

He shoved away just as the large chute deployed. His body plummeted, pin-wheeling. The pallet was jerked to a stall by the chute, tearing apart in a shower of wood and supplies. Good God, he would have been drawn and quartered.

He reined himself in, struggling to control the fall while gauging his surroundings but the solitary void combined with an eerie silence. How much further until he landed? If he pulled the cord too soon, he could float forever with no sense of direction, ending up lost deep in the desert.

Screw it. Better too early than waiting too long and shattering every bone in his body by not using his parachute soon enough. He reached down, feeling along his waist until he found the handle.

He yanked. Cords whistled past and overhead. Nylon rippled upward until… whoomp.

Air filled the chute and pulled him. Hard. The rapid stall knocked the wind out of him and damn it to hell, crushed his left nut under the leg strap.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts, no time to piss and moan. He grabbed a riser and hefted into a one arm pull up to ease pressure on the strap. Ahhh, better, much better. Pain eased. His brain revved.

Now, how did that “You just fucked up bad and are now floating towards the earth” checklist go?

Canopy. His eyes adjusting to the dark, he checked the canopy and no rips, no tears, not even the dreaded “Mae West” where a line looped over the chute for a double bubble effect.

Visor. Little chance of landing in a tree here so he pulled the visor up.

Mask. He stripped his oxygen mask off his face, unhooked the connectors on his chest and pitched it away into the abyss.

Seat kit. Strapped to his butt, it contained a raft. Not much call for that in the desert. He opened the connector and ditched the raft too.

LPUs. Life preserver units. He thumbed the horse collar LPU around his neck and down his chest, pulled the inflate tabs and another high pressure bottle inflated the floatie. It might cushion the landing and save a few broken ribs. Although no telling what he might have already busted back in the plane. Thank goodness for the adrenaline numbing his system.

What next? Oh yeah. Steer. Damn, he was punch drunk. He reached up for the risers and grappled until he wrapped his fingers around the steering handles.

The next step? Prepare. Yeah, he was so prepared to smack into the ground he could barely see. He scanned below as best he could, checking out the sand, sand, sand, occasional bundle of desert scrub staying clear of the distant mountains. Okay, dude. Final step.

Land. He put his eyes on the horizon and bent his knees slightly, ready to perform the perfect PLF, parachute landing fall. The ground roared up to meet him. He prepped for… the… impact.

Balls of the feet.

Side of the leg and butt.

Side of the arm and shoulder.

Complete.

Mason lay on the gritty sand, stunned. No harm in lying still for a few and rejoicing in the fact he would live to fly and make love again. There wasn’t any need to rush out of here just yet. He wasn’t in enemy territory.

Although he didn’t have a clue exactly what piece of the Nevada desert he currently occupied. His tracking device would bring help though. Rescue would show up in an hour or so. Maybe by then he could stand up without whimpering like a baby.

He shrugged free of his parachute and LPU one miserable groan at a time. Already he could feel the bruises rising to the surface. He would probably resemble a Smurf by morning, but at least he still had all his limbs, and no bones rattled around inside him that he could tell.

His teeth chattered, though. From the freezing cold of a winter desert night, or from shock? Either way he needed to get moving. He pushed to his feet, stumbling for a second before the horizon stopped bobbling.

A siren wailed in the distance.

Already? Perhaps this flight experience wouldn’t suck so much after all. Even bad sex could be rescued with a satisfying ending.

He blinked to clear his eyesight. Twin beams of light stretched ahead of a Ford F-150, blinding him the closer the vehicle approached. He shielded his eyes with one hand and waved his other arm. Ouch. Fuck.

A loudspeaker squeaked and crackled to life. “Get back down on the ground. Lay flat on your stomach,” a tinny voice ordered. “If you move at all, you will be shot.”

Shot? What the hell? Had he landed in some survivalist kook’s farm?

But that wouldn’t explain the siren. He must have drifted into restricted territory, not surprising since they flew many of their secret test missions in secured areas. The truck screeched to halt and someone wearing cammo stepped out. A flashlight held at shoulder level kept him from seeing the face, but he could discern an M4 carbine at hip level well enough.

He shouted, “Don’t shoot. I’m not armed, and I’m not resisting.”

“Stay on the ground,” the voice behind the light barked.

A female voice?

Okay, so much for his PC rating today. He’d assumed the security cop was a male, not that it made any difference one way or the other. He respected the power of that M4.

Mason flattened his belly to the desert floor, arms extended over his head. A knee plowed deep in the small of his back. If he didn’t have a bruised kidney before, he sure did now.

A cold muzzle pressed against his skull. All right, then. The knee didn’t hurt so much after all.

“Hands behind you, nice and slow.” The lady cop’s husky voice heated his neck. “So, flyboy, do you want to tell me what you’re doing out here in Area 51?”

Hotshot 

hotshot

Honduras – Present Day

Major Vince “Vapor” Deluca didn’t need to ask if there were Harleys in heaven. For him, hogs and planes both transported him from this world to brush paradise.

Not to mention both had saved his hell-bound ass on more than one occasion. And right now, he needed some of that heavenly salvation – on wings rather than wheels – in a serious way if he expected to pull off this potentially explosive mission.

Flying his AC-130 gunship at twenty-five thousand feet, Vince peered into a monitor at the increasingly restless crowd below in the rural Honduran town. With the help of his twelve crew members, he monitored citizens pouring out of the hills to cast their votes in the special election. An election that could turn volatile in a heartbeat, the politics of this country precarious with warlords determined to stop the process. Local government officials had requested U.S. help with crowd control.

Using any means possible to keep the peace.

Vince cranked the yoke into a tight turn, flying over the voting place, a white wooden church. The sensors bristled along the side of the aircraft to scan the snaking crowd lining up. His sensors were so good the guys in back were able to study faces, gestures – and guns worn like fashion accessories.

He knew too well how mob mentality could unleash an atomic Lord of the Flies destructive force.

His fists clenched around the yoke. “Okay, crew, eyeballs out. Let’s score one for democracy.”

“Vapor,” the fire control officer, David “Ice” Berg, droned from the back, as cool and calm as his last name implied, “take a look at this dude in the camera. I think he’s the ring leader.”

Vince checked the screen, and yeah, that guy had whacko written all over him. “He seems like a hardcore cheerleader yelling and flapping his arms around.”

Co-pilot Jimmy Gage thumbed his interphone. “Those gymnastics of his are working.” Jimmy’s fists clenched and unclenched as if ready to break up the brawl mano-a-mano. He’d earned his call sign “Hotwire” honestly. Vince’s best bud, they’d often been dubbed in bars the Hotwire and the Hotshot. “The crowd’s getting riled up down there. Hey, Berg, do things look any better from your bird’s eye view?”

“Give me a C for Chaos,” Berg answered, dry as ever.

Vince worked his combat boots over the rudders while keeping his eyes locked on the screen scrolling an up-close look at the ground. “Roger that. All Cheerleader Barbie needs is a ponytail and a pair of pompoms instead of that big ass gun slung over his shoulder.” A riot seemed increasingly inevitable. Not surprising since human intel had already uncovered countless attempts to terrorize voters into staying home. “Barbie definitely bears watching, especially with those ankle biters around.”

He monitored the group of children playing on swings nearby while adults waited to vote. Conventional crowd control techniques could sometimes escalate the frenzy. This mission called for something different, something new. Something right up his alley as a member of the Air Force’s elite dark ops testing unit. In emergency situations they were called upon to pull a trick or two from their developmental arsenal.

And pray it worked as advertised since failure could spark an international incident. Or worse yet, harm a kid.

Today, he and his dark ops crew were flying the latest brainchild of the non-lethal weapons crowd. A flat microwave antenna protruded from the side of the lumbering aircraft. The ADS – Active Denial System – had the power to scorch people without leaving marks. Testing showed that as it heated up the insides, people scattered like ants from a hill after a swift kick.

Uncomfortable, but preferable to a lethal bullet.

Jimmy made a notation in his flight log. “Careful with your bank there, Vapor. Getting a little shallow.” Once his pencil slowed, he glanced over at Vince. “Barbie might be providing a distraction for someone else to make a move.”

Valid point. He increased the bank and smoothed the action with a touch of rudder. “Good thing there are thirteen of us to scan the mob because we’re going to need all eyes out.”

A string of acknowledgments echoed over Vince’s headset just as Barbie grabbed the butt of his rifle and slam – the past merged with the present.

A group of misfit teens festering with discontent. Four hands hauling him from his Kawasaki rat bike. Screaming. Gunshots.

A girl in the way.

Sweat stinging his eyes now as well as then, Vince reached up to adjust his air vents for like the nine hundredth time since takeoff. How could they make this airplane so high tech and not get the damn air conditioning to work?

“Time’s run out for Barbie.” The rattling plane vibrated through his boots all the way up to his teeth. “Crank it, Berg.”

“Concur,” the fire control officer drawled from the back, “Let’s light him up.”

“I’m in parameters, aircraft stable, cleared to engage.” Vince monitored as a crosshair tuned in on the infra-red screen in front of him and centered on the troublemaker. He hoped this would work, prayed this guy was a low level troublemaker and not one of the area’s ruthless mercenaries. He didn’t relish the thought of the situation escalating into a need for the more conventional guns aft of the non-lethal ADS.

That wouldn’t go well for the “get out the vote” effort.

“Ready,” Berg called.

“Cleared to fire,” answered Vapor.

“Firing…”

No special sounds or even so much as a vibration went through the craft. The only way to measure success was to watch and wait and…

Bingo.

Barbie started hopping around like he’d been stung by a swarm of bees. His AK-47 dropped from his hand onto the dusty ground. The crowd stilled at the dude’s strange behavior, all heads turning toward him as if looking for an explanation.

Jimmy twitched in his seat. “I halfway wanna laugh at the poor bastard except I know how bad the ADS stings.”

“Amen, brother.” Before integrating the ADS onto the airplane they’d tested it on themselves. It was disorienting and unpleasant to say the least, but not damaging.

He was willing to take that searing discomfort and more to power through developing this particular brainchild, a personal quest to him. He could have been on the side of the evil cheerleader today if not for one person. A half-crazy old war vet who took on screwed up teens that most good citizens avoided on the street. Don Bassett had never asked for anything in return.

Until this morning.

Vince relegated that BlackBerry e-mail he’d received minutes before takeoff to the back of his mind. “No time to get complacent, everybody. Keep looking. I can’t imagine our activist with the automatic weapon is alone.”

The system had the capability to sweep the whole group with a broader band. But he hoped that wouldn’t be necessary as it would likely shut down voting altogether.

Bad-Ass Barbie shook his head quickly, looked around – then leapt toward his AK-47 lying in the dust.

Berg centered the crosshairs again and said, “I think he needs another taste.”

Vapor replied, “Roger. Cleared to fire.”

“Firing…”

The rabble rouser again launched into some kind of erratic pep rally routine.

“Stay on him,” Vince eyed the monitor, heart drumming in time with the roaring engines, “run him away from the crowd.”

Berg kept the crosshairs planted on the troublemaker as he attempted to escape the heat. The wiry man sidled away. Faster. Faster again, until he gave up and broke into a sprint, disappearing around a corner of the building.

Hell, yeah.

Vince continued banking left over the village so the cameras could monitor the horde. As hoped, the crowd seemed to chat among themselves for a while, some looking up at the plane, discussing, then slowly reforming a line to the church.

Cheers from the crew zipped through the headset for one full circle around the now peaceful gathering. Things could still stir up in a heartbeat, but the pop from the ADS had definitely increased odds for the good guys.

God, he loved it when a plan came together. “Crew, let’s get an oxygen check and get back in the game.”

His crew called in one by one in the same order as specified in the aircraft technical order ending with him.

Vince monitored his oxygen panel and called out, “Pilot check complete.”

With luck, the rest of the election would go as smoothly and they would be back in the good ole U.S. of A. tomorrow night.

Five peaceful hours later, Vince cranked the yoke, guiding the AC-130 into a rollout, heading for base where he would debrief this mission and lay out plans for their return home.

And contact Don Bassett.

Vince finally let the message flood his mind. He couldn’t simply ignore the note stored on his BlackBerry. The e-mail scrolled through his head faster than data on his control panel.

I need your help. My daughter’s in danger.

That in and of itself wasn’t a surprise. Bassett’s only daughter had been flirting with death before she even got her braces off. Her parents kept bailing out Shay’s ungrateful butt. What did surprise him, however, was Don asking for help. The dude was a giver, not a taker. Which meant that for whatever reason he must be desperate.

Not that the reason even mattered. Whatever the old guy wanted, he could have. If not for Don Bassett’s intervention seventeen years ago, Vince wouldn’t need a motorcycle or airplane to transport him from his fucked up world.

Because seventeen years ago, he’d led the riots.

Seventeen years ago, one of his fellow gang members had been gunned down by cops just doing their jobs.

Seventeen years ago, he could have been looking at 25-to-life.

Cleveland, Ohio – two days later

“Suicide hotline. This is Shay.” Shay Bassett wheeled her office chair closer to her desk. Tucking the phone under her chin, she shoved aside the steaming cup of java she craved more than air.

“I need help,” a husky voice whispered.

Shay snagged a pencil and began jotting notes about the person in crisis on the other end of the line.

Male.

Teen?

“I’m here to listen. Could you give me a name to call you by?” Something, anything to thread a personal connection through the phone line.

“John, I’m John, and I hurt so much. If I don’t get relief soon, I’ll kill myself.”

His words clamped a corpse cold fist around her heart. She understood the pain of these callers, too much so, until sometimes she struggled for objectivity.

Shay zoned out everything but the voice and her notes.

Voice stronger, deeper.

Older teen.

Background noise, soft music.

Bedroom or dorm?

She scribbled furiously, her elbow anchoring the community center notepad so the window fan wouldn’t ruffle the pages. “John, have you done anything to harm yourself?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m really glad to hear that.” Still, she didn’t relax back into the creaky old chair in spite of killer exhaustion from pulling a ten hour shift at the community center’s small health clinic on top of volunteering to man the hotline this evening. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

His breathing grew heavier, faster. “The line for one nine hundred do-me-now is busy, and if I don’t get some phone sex soon, I’m gonna explode.” Laughter echoed in the background, no doubt a bunch of wasted frat boys listening in on speaker phone. “How about give me some more of those husky tones, baby, so I can–”

“Goodbye, John.” She thumbed the off button.

What an ass. Not to mention a waste of her precious time and resources. She pitched her pencil onto a stack of HIV awareness brochures.

The small community center in downtown Cleveland was already understaffed and underpaid, at the mercy of fickle government grants and the sporadic largesse of benefactors. Different from bigger free clinics, they targeted their services toward teens. Doctors volunteered when they could, but the place operated primarily on the backs of her skills as a nurse, along with social worker Angeline and youth activities director Eli.

Bouncing a basketball on the cracked tile, Eli spun his chair to face her, his blonde dreadlocks fanning along his back. “Another call for a free pizza?”

“A request for phone sex.” She pulled three sugar packs from her desk drawer.

“Ewww.” Angeline levied her hip against her desk, working a juggling act with her purse, files and cane.

Only in her fifties, Angeline already suffered from arthritis aggravated by the bitter winters blowing in off Lake Erie . Of course that was Cleveland for you, frigid in the winter and a furnace in the summer.

Forecast for today? Furnace season. The fan sucked muggy night air through the window.

“I apologize for my gender.” Eli kept smacking the ball, thumping steady as a ticking clock.

“Who said it was a guy?” Shay tapped a sugar pack, then ripped it open.

Angeline jabbed her parrot-head cane toward Shay. “You called the person John.”

“Busted.” She poured the last of the three sugars into the coffee, her supper since she’d missed eating with her dad. No surprise. They cancelled more plans than they kept.

Angeline hitched her bag the size of the Grand Canyon onto her shoulder. “Always testing the boundaries, aren’t ya, kiddo?”

Not so much anymore. “Calls like that just piss me off. What if someone in a serious crisis was trying to get through and had to be re-routed? That brief delay, any hint of a rejection could be enough to push a person over the edge.”

“You’re preaching to the choir here.” Angeline’s cell phone sang from inside the depths of China with the bluesy tones of “Let’s Get It On.” “Shit. I forgot to call Carl back.”

Eli tied back two dreads to secure the rest of the blonde mass. “Apparently we’re in the phone sex business after all.”

“Don’t be a smartass.” Angeline stuffed another file into her bag that likely now weighed more than the wiry woman.

“Nice talk. Why don’t I walk you to your car?” He slid the neon yellow purse from her shoulder and hooked it on his own.

“You can escort me out, but Carl’ll kick your lily white ass if you hit on me.”

“If I thought I stood a chance with you…”

Shaking her head, Angeline glanced back at Shay. “Make sure the guard walks you all the way to your car.”

“Of course. I even have my trusty can of mace.”

And a handgun.

She wasn’t an idiot. The crime rate in this corner of Cleveland upped daily. Places like L.A. or New York were still considered the primary seats of gang crime. Money and protection followed that paradigm, which sent emergent gangs looking for new – unexpected – feeding grounds. Like Cleveland .

Hopefully, her testimony at the congressional hearing this week would help bring about increased awareness, help and most of all funds.

“Tell Carl I said hello.” With a final wave, Shay turned her attention to the stack of medical charts of teenage girls who’d received HPV vaccines. At least she had all evening to catch up – a plus side to having no social life.

She sipped her now lukewarm coffee.

The phone jangled by her elbow, startling her.

She snagged the cordless receiver. “Suicide hotline. This is Shay.”

“I’m scared.”

Something in that young male voice made her sit up straighter, her fingers playing along the desk for her pencil.

Boy.

Local accent.

Definitely teen.

Frightened as hell.

Too many heartbreaking hours volunteering told her this kid didn’t want phone sex or a pizza.

“I’m sorry you’re afraid, but I’m glad you called.” She waited for a heartbeat – not that long given her jackhammer pulse rate – but enough for the boy to speak. When he didn’t, she continued, “I want to help. Could you give me a name to call you by?”

“No name. I’m nobody.”

His words echoed with a hollow finality.

“You called this line.” She kept her voice even. “That’s a good and brave thing you did.”

“You’re wrong. I’m not brave at all. I’m going to die, but I don’t want it to hurt. That makes me a total pussy.”

No pain?

No cutting or shooting.

“Have you taken anything?” Alcohol? Drugs? Poison? Last month a pregnant caller swallowed drain cleaner.

“Just my meds for the day.”

On medication.

Illness?

Physical or Psych?

“So you have a regular doctor?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

She knew when to back off in order to keep the person chatting. “What would you like to discuss?”

“Nothing,” his voice grew more agitated, angry even as it cracked an octave. “This is stupid. I shouldn’t have called.”

She rushed to speak before he could hang up, “Why are you scared?”

Voice changing.

14-15 years old?

“I told you already. I’m scared of the pain. It hurts if I live and it’s gonna hurt to die. I’m fucked no matter what.”

She tried to keep professional distance during these calls, but sometimes somebody said something that just reached back more than a decade to the old Shay. The new Shay, however, shuttled old Shay to the time-out corner of her brain.

“You called this number, so somewhere inside you must believe there’s a third option.”

The phone echoed back at her with nothing more than labored breathing and the faint whine of a police siren.

“Who or what makes you hurt?”

Still no answer.

“Hello?”

“Goodbye.”

The line went dead.

“No! No, no, no, damn it.” She thumbed the off button once. Twice. Three freaking frustrated times before slamming the phone against the battered gunmetal gray desk.

She sucked in humid hot-as-hell air to haul back her professionalism. She had to finish her notes in case the boy called again. Please, God, she hoped he would call, that he wasn’t already as dead as the phone line.

Shay glanced at her watch. A four minute conversation. Would that kid be alive to see the next hour?

She scrubbed her hand over her gritty eyes until the folder holding the rough draft of her upcoming congressional report came back into focus. It was a good thing after all her dinner plans fell through. She was in no shape to exchange trivial chitchat with her father she barely knew and who knew even less about her. The report would make for better company anyway.

Each cup of coffee bolstered her to keep plugging away on fine tuning her stats and wording. Maybe she really could find a ray of hope through political channels rather than picking away one shift at a time. She just had to hang on for four more days until her congressional testimony at Case Western Reserve University.

The old Shay ditched the time out corner to remind her that ten days was an eternity when every sixteen minutes someone succeeded in committing suicide. Thinking of how many people that could be by the end of four days… The math made her nauseous.

Flipping to the next page, she spun her watch strap around and around over the faded scar on her wrist that still managed to throb with a phantom pain even after seventeen years…

Defender 

defender

CHAPTER ONE

Mediterranean Sea – Present Day

Sixty seconds ago piloting this flight had been all gumdrops and rainbows. In an exploding flash, Captain Jimmy Gage’s day turned to dog shit.

His cutting edge new CV-22 was still tooling through the late afternoon sky just fine. The folks speed boating along the Mediterranean Sea , however? Not so good.

“What the hell?” He braced his hand against the control panel while aftershocks from the detonation below reverberated upward. This day may have turned to dog shit, but God willing, not nearly as bad as three years ago.

He needed to get his head out of his ass and focus on the radio in his helmet squawked to life. A crap-ton of voices crowded the airwaves until even his flight trained ears threatened to go on overload.

He peered through the windscreen, stick shuddering in his grip. Dots still danced in front of his eyes from the blast. Blue water stretched ahead to the distant Turkish coastline. The small boat of USO performers they’d been escorting to a naval aircraft carrier stalled behind…

In flames.

Training overrode questions. Time to get his butt in gear.
There were three pilots up front and only one flight engineer in the cargo hold at the moment. Smooth would have his hands full scooping survivors from the ocean in back.

Jimmy switched his headset to hot mic so he could hear everything and respond, while keeping his hands free to work. “Vapor, swap seats with me. I’m heading back to help out Smooth.”

“Roger that,” Vince “Vapor” Deluca jockeyed by and into the copilot’s seat beside the aircraft commander. “Holy shit, what a mess down there. Coming left.”

Jimmy charged past the bulkhead, already channeled into his new role. He was a test pilot these days, and being able to fly any plane, any crew position, anytime had been a requisite for graduation. Thanks to his new job in a black ops test squadron, he could do his damned level best to ensure technology became an ally rather than an enemy as it had three years ago.

A personal mission he now lived every minute in tribute to Socrates. A mission that carried extra weight today.

This should have been a shadowy slip across international waters under the guise of escorting a handful of new USO performers to an aircraft carrier off the coast of Turkey . The flight had provided the perfect cover for them to slip into Incirlik Air Base and meet up with CIA and NSA agents already in place. All focused on locating and rescuing Chuck Tanaka, a member of their test squadron who had been kidnapped in the region a week ago by God only knew what kind of monster.

Chuck wasn’t the only service member to have gone missing in the region. But he was the only one with an experimental tracking device embedded under his skin.

No way in hell was Jimmy leaving behind another brother-in-arms.

“Hotwire?” the commander’s voice barked. “Smooth? Can either of you give us more on what’s happening?”

Jimmy leaned out the open side hatch, wind roaring around him. Acrid gusts from the flames stung his nose, his eyes. He blinked his vision clear. The explosion hadn’t taken out the entire speedboat, a good sign.

Except a hole gaped in the bow of the Navy boat, sucking in water fast. An accident or deliberate?

He’d faced plenty of hairy situations during combat and test pilot school – not to mention his four month stint as a POW punching bag – but tossing in the wildcard of panicked civilians added an element of unpredictability to any situation that had nothing to do with gauging the odds of technology. Normally he thrived on the charge of an intense assignment, even a good old head-cracking, chair-smacking bar fight to let off steam that had never quite emptied out of him even three years after Socrates’s murder.

Jimmy tore his eyes from the mesmerizing flames licking up from damaged boat hull and studied the survivors bobbing in the waves. “The boat’s listing, gonna submerge soon. People are jumping overboard left and right trying to get to the life raft, Colonel.”

Their squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Scanlon, had come along due to the sensitivity of their real mission. The delay this explosion caused could very well steal precious minutes that ended up costing Chuck or one of the other missing servicemen his life. From his own captivity, Jimmy knew the inhumane lengths some twisted souls would go to extract sensitive information from military targets – and back then he hadn’t even been part of the dark ops test squadron with its all the more explosive information to protect.

But he couldn’t think of his friend now or the international ramifications of the top secret data stored in his brain.

“Bringing it around,” their colonel drawled over the airwaves. “How many are in the water?”

The CV-22 banked hard and fast, the tilt rotor tackling the tight turn with ease. Built to replace the MH-53 helicopter, the CV-22 hovered with blades on the wings overhead and could shift the rotors forward to fly like a plane at twice the speed of its predecessor. They needed every ounce of that agility today.

Jimmy gripped the side of the hatch, hooking a gunner’s belt around his waist for safety although his balance was sure after ten years of flying. Smoke from the explosion snaked inside reminding him of another time, a crash best scrapped from his mind right now.

Already jam-packed with top-secret intelligence gear to trace their lead in Turkey , the cargo hold would be crammed to the gills fast once they pulled everyone from the water.

“I count nine swimming toward the deployed life raft, sir.”

Lucky for them they couldn’t see the sharks.

Jimmy, however, had a bird’s eye view of the too many black shadows slithering just beneath the surface.

“Nine? Hell, if there are more, we’ll be hard pressed to take them on. Vapor, are there any ships close enough to get over here and help pick these people up?”

“Negative contacts on the radar,” Vapor answered. “We’ll have to pluck them out ourselves. Shit, is that a shark?”

“Okay, then,” the commander drawled through the airwaves. “Let’s move out about three hundred yards and get turned around. Hotwire, prepare to work your ass off.”

“Roger that, sir.” He made tracks around equipment strapped to the deck, his boots clanking metal on his way toward the lowering back ramp.

“Copy all, boss man,” Vapor responded. “Sierra Four, Sierra Four, this is Prey Two-One. We have a boat on fire and sinking fifty-four miles due north of your position. We estimate nine in the water, but there could be more. Can you get a helo heading this way?”

Chatter from the aircraft carrier buzzed in the background while Jimmy worked with Smooth to rig the rescue hoist for deployment. The CV-22 downshifted into a hover over the burning boat.

There had been talk initially of flying the performers. The local coordinator, however, had decided the speedboat had more of a “Navy” feel and chose to go with the small boat for a prima donna theatrical effect.

Damned bad luck choice for the people in the ocean. But worse for Chuck if these people’s need for drama ended up costing him even one extra minute of pain.
Jimmy kept his voice as steady as his hands. “Colonel, waters are beyond choppy. That life raft could capsize at any second.”

“Alright boys, let’s get some people out of the ocean.”

The hovering aircraft descended, closer to the rocking raft, nearer still. Jimmy stared out the cavernous back hatch as the nine people waving wildly became clearer, the sharks tougher to monitor even with Smooth’s help.

Smooth swiped spray from his face. “How about you work the winch and I’ll monitor them coming up to the ramp?”

“Got your back.” Jimmy deployed the winch outward, a three person rescue hook like the forest penetrator used in helicopters. “Colonel, ease up on the raft anytime.”

“Roger. Don’t let me get too close before you lower the sling into the water. We don’t need to be shocking these folks with the static electricity in that line.”

A burst of wind growled louder than the engines. The tilt-rotor nudged so low spray speckled his flight suit.

Jimmy played the cable toward the water, the whump, whump, whump of the rotors overhead sweeping foamy ripples. “Line is on the way down. Twenty feet… Ten.” The hoist slapped the surface by the orange rubber life raft. “Contact with the water. Ready to move in.”

“Roger, Hotwire,” the Colonel replied, “easing up. Keep a good eye on all of them and make sure the rotor wash doesn’t push anyone under.”

“We’re watching,” Jimmy affirmed. “Keep coming forward. Forward. Ten feet more. Good, hold it right there.”

A man slid from the raft, the boat captain from the looks of his Navy uniform. He grabbed the rescue hook and shouted back to the others. A woman in a glittery costume detached herself from the side. With the help of the Navy dude, she pulled the horse collar over her head and under one arm like a sash. The guy seemed to have things in hand below, so Jimmy held his position by the winch. Two more women joined her, facing each other on the three-seater apparatus.

So far so good.

“I have three in place. Bringing them up.” Jimmy set the winching mechanism into humming motion. Easy. Easy. Eyes glued to the trio to be sure all arms and legs were clear of the line. The whir of the winding cable blended with the roar of wind and rotors. “Survivors clear of the water.”

Destroyed boat parts swirled below with jagged edges that could graze anyone trying to secure themselves in the hoist. Blood in the water would draw the sharks in a snap.

Urgency pumped through him, prodding him to speed this up, but his training insisted on routine. Eyes on the line. As they neared the side door, he passed over the controls to Smooth and grabbed for the cable.

“Slack…” Jimmy called the order to slow the cable. He clamped the first woman’s hand as she clambered up the ramp. “Slack, slack.” He hauled the second, then third inside. “Stop slack. Survivors on the deck.”

He reached to steady the stumbling brunette who had to be a performer given her gold sequined dress. Sopping wet and gasping, she shoved a hank of hair from her face, mascara streaking her cheeks.

Smooth’s mega-watt smile that shouted high priced orthodontics. “Damn, she looks famous.”

“Save the autograph hounding for later and let’s rustle up some blankets. We’ve got six more men and women to bring on board.” Jimmy handed the pop diva over to his panty-peeler crew mate.

In quick succession, he scooped the remaining six in two runs, four of the people wearing costumes and two men in Navy uniforms. Jimmy started to breathe easier as the last collapsed into the CV-22’s belly.

“Colonel, we’ve got them all loaded and secured. No injuries. No sign of casualties. A quick head count and we’ll be ready to bounce.” Good thing for Chuck and the other unaccounted for soldiers this had gone quickly. They should be back on track to reach Turkey for their NSA briefing by nightfall.

A collective exhale echoed, before the Colonel whistled low and long, “Thank God. Bob Hope would be so pissed.”

Smooth grinned, although his eyes didn’t stray from the barely legal diva, no surprise since the guy never let a female pass without falling for her. “Your age is showing, Colonel. Bob Hope would be over a hundred.”

Lieutenant Colonel Scanlon growled. “Hope’s the father of the USO. Stop blaspheming a legend or I’ll turn Vapor loose on you. You don’t want him rewiring your car so the horn honks every time you put on the turn signal.”

Jimmy allowed himself a laugh now that the crisis had passed without so much as a shark nibble. Humor carried them through hell in this job, one of many reasons he preferred to crew with the squadron-renowned joker.

Maybe this day wouldn’t turn into dog shit after all. They would make a quick landing on the aircraft carrier, drop off their extra cargo and be on their way, closer to finding Chuck.

His laughter faded. Back to business. “Sir, still running a visual and I don’t see any more in the water. Smooth’s asking the survivors just to be sure.”

Smooth straightened, spinning fast back to Jimmy and holding up one finger. “We’re missing one. A woman.”

Damn it. Jimmy peered into the mist of sea spray below. Any of those curling waves could be shielding her – if she hadn’t already drowned or met up with a shark.

“Okay, everybody,” the Colonel ordered, “eyeballs out. Let’s find her. Vapor, work the infrared and see if you can spot a heat source. I’m gonna start a slow circle around what’s left of the boat.”

Jimmy braced a hand and planted his feet as the aircraft banked. Half the speedboat stuck from the water, smoke billowing, stealing what little visibility he had left. A crack cut through the air a second before…

The damaged boat exploded into a watery bonfire.

The CV-22 shuddered. Their new passengers shrieked. He zeroed in on the vision below. Flames flicked upward like a demonic hand shooting a fiery bird at the heavens. The orange-red glow domed out over the water.

And illuminated a small figure struggling to stay afloat.
Bare arms smacked the water, long hair trailing behind the woman. Smoldering scraps of metal showered down around her.

A deadly shadow undulated below the surface a few feet away.

His focus narrowed, frustration at the possible cost of this delay taking a back seat to the life-threatening emergency at hand. “Got a visual. There is someone down there, alive.” Her head and shoulders bobbed then disappeared from sight, her hair swooping after her. “Crap, she just went under. Colonel, come twenty degrees right and you should see her.”

“Copy all.” The craft cranked hard and fast, the Colonel’s drawl growing thicker. “I saw her for a second before a wave hit her. Anyone else got another visual? Smooth? Hotwire?”

“I keep catching glimpses. She isn’t gonna make it unless…” Focus gelled into determination.
Jimmy patted the flattened LPU – life preserver unit – draped over him. He would inflate it once he reached her. “I’m going in. Smooth, get ready to haul us up.”

He stared out the yawning opening at the thirty-foot jump. Not much of a drop except… Hell. He hated heights even more than he hated sharks. Some might think that strange for a flier, but he’d learned from his dead sister to meet fears head-on, fists flying even to the end.

Jimmy took three steps back, keeping his eyes locked on the speck of humanity bobbing in the ocean below. He gasped in air tinged with the scent of hydraulic fluid. And sprinted toward the load ramp. His combat boots pounded metal then air. No kicking free shoes for a nice little dip. Warriors went into the water in full out gear.

“Ahhhhh…” He hurtled through the battering wind and sea spray. “Fuck.”

She’d damn well better still be alive.
* * *
Chloe Nelson refused to die. The Mediterranean Sea , however, seemed determined to override her wishes.

She grappled through the wall of water slamming over her. A week of swimming lessons at the YMCA as a kid hadn’t prepared her for the open high seas. Her head breaking free, she gasped for air, her eyes stinging. She choked on a salty gulp and prayed hard, really hard that those rescue folks in the hovering aircraft wouldn’t abandon her while she worked her way clear of the debris.

The whump, whump, whump of the blades overhead churned waves faster around her, making it impossible to grab the harness they’d lowered for the rest of her group. Now she couldn’t see the thing, much less strap herself inside.

Could this be some kind of twisted justice for stepping so far outside her comfort zone as a classical musician? Never had she expected years of nose-to-the-grindstone training would result in a gig as a back up singer wearing sequins, fringe and do-me-sailor pumps.

Rhinestone studded shoes currently spiraling their way to the bottom of the Mediterranean . Chloe pedaled her bare feet faster underwater, determined to get out of here before she drowned or a shark made her his Happy Meal.

Something grazed her upper thigh…