On Target 

on_target

Over the Caribbean Sea: Present Day

“Blackbird 33, Blackbird 33, this is Sentry 20 reporting a pirate ship at your ten o’clock, twenty-eight miles.”

Pirate ship? The improbable radio call from Sentry rattled around in flight engineer Shane “Vegas” O’Riley’s headset as he manned his station of the CV-22 aircraft. He couldn’t have heard what he thought.

Sure they were out over the wild and wooly Caribbean, but someone must be screwing with them. Air Force crewdogs were well known for their practical jokes.

Except today, he couldn’t be any less in the mood for gags. This flight to deliver supplies served a dual purpose for him. He would make a stop at a tiny godforsaken island where his wife worked teaching in the latest needy village to cross her aid group’s radar.

There, he would also hand over divorce papers for her to sign.

But back to these freaking pirates. Since the weather was dog crap, he was in charge of the radio while the two pilots had their hands full of bouncing airplane.

Shane thumbed the radio “transmit” key, sweat burning his eyes, his flight suit sticking to his shoulder blades in the unrelenting summer heat. No a/c could keep up. “Sentry did you say a pirate ship? Is Johnny Depp onboard with his swashbuckling costume? Do you want us to land this puppy on the poop deck and get his autograph for you?” Since the CV-22 took off and landed like a helicopter, then rotated the blades forward to fly like a plane, they actually could manage just such a feat if there were a pirate ship. “I’ll tell him it’s for your daughter if you’re embarrassed.”

The jerking craft jarred his teeth, hard, faster than the roller coaster ride he’d taken with his two daughters at Six Flags last summer.

In front of him sat the two pilots. Aircraft commander Postal gripped the wobbling stick while newbie to the CV-22 co-pilot Rodeo took wildly fluctuating system reads off the control panel. Shane glanced over his shoulder back into the belly of the craft to check on the three gunners – and yeah, thank God – they’d strapped their butts down tight.

Their radio crackled in the inclement weather, words sputtering through unevenly, “Pirates… guns at… cruise ship.”

Some theme cruise perhaps? A pocket of turbulence whacked Shane’s helmet against the overhead panel and rattled his brain worse than a baseball bat upside the temple. “I’m so not in the mood for this ‘Argh’ and ‘Shiver me Timbers’ garbage. We’ve got a weather emergency here.”

“Sorry,” the radio voice claiming to be Sentry 20 responded, “not yanking your chain, Blackbird 33. We have a message relay from Southern Command Headquarters. Ready to copy?”

Shane straightened in his seat. “Really? No joke?” he said, still only half believing. “We’ll play along for the heck of it, ready to copy.”

The radio crackled to life. “Blackbird 33, proceed to one-eight dash zero-five north, zero-six-three dash five-nine west to intercept a pirate vessel, suspected to be terrorists threatening a passenger cruise ship. You are ordered to disable the pirate boat,” the connection went staticy for another two jostles, “or destroy the pirate’s vessel, a cigarette boat, if you or the cruise ship are fired on. Copy?”

An order to shoot a cigarette boat that just happened to be tooling around in the water? This could be the worst kind of set-up for an ambush in such a lawless corner of the ocean. Unease prickled up Shane’s spine as he could already see all his crewmembers’ faces plastered across the six o’clock news.

That would be a helluva way to end his career and his marriage in one fell swoop. “Who is this?”

“Listen up, Blackbird,” the voice barked back, “I authenticated the communication when I got it and I think you should do the same.”

Well they got that right. “Rodeo, dig out the code book.”

“Way ahead of you, Vegas. Here ya’ go.” The co-pilot’s normally easy-going demeanor was nowhere to be found as he passed back the book before quickly returning to the controls. Rodeo had his hands full running both his co-pilot’s position and checking Shane’s flight engineer regular duties monitoring engine and aircraft health since he had to deal with this buccaneer BS.

Vegas thumbed through the pages until he found what he needed. “Sentry, authenticate foxtrot-mike.”

“Sentry authenticates with zulu-tango.”

“So, Sarge?” Rodeo’s voice shot over the radio to tech Sergeant Shane O’Riley. “Is that correct?”

Holy crap. Shane verified it once, reread again. No movie star autographs in their future today. This was the real deal. “That is the correct response, sir.”

The aircraft commander, Postal, cursed into the interphone. “Well spank my ass and get me an eye patch.” Clicking over to radio to broadcast beyond the plane, “Good authentication, Sentry, we are headed that way… Rodeo, give me a–”

“Already on it,” the copilot interrupted. He might be new to the craft but the man was a freaking genius, a quick thinker on his feet to boot. That worked well with a gut instinct player like Postal. “Come left to heading one-seven-seven. Showing time to intercept at eight minutes. Target is now twenty miles ahead.”

“Copy all.” Postal’s normally wired façade faded at the very real threat ahead – a flipping terrorist pirate ship, no less. “Crew, lock and load, cleared to fire a burst. Let’s make sure those babies are working in case we need them.”

Brrrrrp. Brrrrrp. The sound of quick bursts from electrically powered mini-guns hammered through his helmet just before the smell of gunpowder drifted up to linger in the cockpit. The right gunner, left gunner, back gunner – Stones, Padre and Sandman – all checked in ready to go.

Both pilots looked out to the horizon searching for a sign of the boat. Shane kept his eyes forward, his thumb on the radio and tried not think about the divorce papers in his flight bag. There wasn’t much to divvy up, not with Sherry living her life in one NGO tent after another. Most of her gear consisted of easy-to-pack toys for the kids while she left a few things back home.

His little girls. They were Sherry’s, adopted during her first marriage – Cara from Vietnam and Malaika from the Sudan. And once the divorce went through he would lose all right to them. Ah hell. His throat clogged.

He wanted to settle down, have a real family life. Sherry insisted she was living a real life around the world and he was welcome to join them anytime.

Where the hell was the compromise in that?

His aircraft commander cranked the craft in a flawless bank. Postal’s wild eyes stuck to the horizon, his hand on the stick. “Work that radar hard, Rodeo. Let me know when you’ve got a good bead on him.”

“Roger that, start a right turn, shallow bank. Roll out. Straight ahead five miles.”

The air grew heavier. Some might say with humidity, but Shane had been around, fought in enough conflicts to know that the minutes leading up to battle sucked emotions out of a person and pumped them into the air where they couldn’t distract a man. Inside, he could stay emotionless. Six years he’d served, since he’d given up the early beginnings of his pro baseball career to enlist after 9-11.

He’d never regretted the decision. But both careers spoke to the core of who he was, a good old fashioned picket fence, baseball and apple pie family man. He thought he’d found that with Sherry and the girls. He wanted to be the big strong dude who built a home for his family and protected them.

And by protecting, he’d meant from burglars. Not freaking pirate ships and tribal warlords that attacked tent villages. What the hell was she thinking hauling the kids around to unruly corners of the world like this?
Postal leaned forward, the air getting a good pound or two heavier until he said… “Okay, I got ‘em visual. Start a turn to go around them. It’s a cigarette boat. Get the infrared cam on them and see what they look like.”

Rodeo nodded, sweat glistening on his dark bronze skin. “Got a lock. Zooming cameras for confirmation… and ah hell, big guns on that boat. I would say the pirates.”

Pirate Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t have a speed boat like that.

The infrared screen display bloomed upward. Gunfire from the boat. Aimed at the CV-22. No more questioning how to respond.

Heaven help them. This was it. Open combat to the death.

Blaze of Glory 

blaze of glory

PROLOGUE

Baghdad, Iraq: nine months ago

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore once we get back to the States.”

His soon-to-be ex-girlfriend’s rejection rattled around in Captain Bobby “Postal” Ruznick’s head as loudly as the echo of worn out shock absorbers rattled along the dirt road. Dumped by a woman, in a crappy military bus, no less.

A first, but not a surprise.

He’d expected the heave-ho from Dr. Grace Marie Lanier – a profiler for the police when she wasn’t called up for her Army Reservist duty – after their second date to a no-cover-charge bazaar festival in downtown Baghdad. Then she’d hung around for another date and he’d started to think maybe…

So yeah, this did sting a little after all. Not that he would let on and launch into some major discussion when he had bigger concerns.

Such as the off-kilter sense he was getting from the desert town landscape outside the gritty windows. This should have been a simple bus ride to his plane, wrapping up a two week quick gig in Baghdad. But then nothing around here ever turned out simple.

A Special Ops pilot, he had to trust his instincts or he could too easily end up taking the eternal dirt nap.

“Bobby, I know you’re awake behind those sunglasses.” Gracie’s prissy tones contradicted her sultry, exotic scent. “Your boot’s tapping so hard you’re vibrating the floorboards worse than the potholes.”

This didn’t seem like an opportune moment to mention more than one woman had told him he twitched even in his sleep, so he kept listening to her ramble on like his third grade teacher spouting the benefits of Ritalin for settling his ass down. Except his junkie ma never made it to the parent/teacher conference. By the time he’d gone to live with his grandma, he’d figured out to avoid raisins, grapes and sugar. He’d learned to concentrate hard and process those eight ka-zillion stimuli catapulting his way all at once. He’d fast figured out how to pick which one demanded the bulk of his attention.

The newly erected placards scrolled in local dialect along the dusty road won, hands down.

“Really, Bobby, I don’t want to drag this out. Certainly it will be awkward during the flight home, but after we land tomorrow morning, we’ll never have to see each other again. I’ll return to North Carolina, you can kick back on your Florida beach.”

He grunted.

What else could he say? She was right. A shrink and a psycho really didn’t make for much of a match.

He figured he’d been lucky to get three dates. But holy hell, then on date three she’d flattened her hand to his fly during a lip lock behind a Humvee a second before the “time to leave” call from fellow CV-22 pilot Joe “Face” Greco. Face’s sucky timing had cost Bobby’s one chance at Gracie. Sexy Gracie. Blond and busty and so smart he got off on the fact she couldn’t string syllables together after their first kiss.

Now he wouldn’t luck into a repeat.

Damn. Big time damn. And so not anything he could think about now because holy crap something wasn’t right outside the grimy bus window. He couldn’t read the messages spray painted on plywood, and likely no one on the bus could read Arabic either.

Might just be signs for homemade fig preserves or a “have you seen my lost goat?” Or it could be something else altogether – like a warning to locals.

Except these locals were in surprisingly scarce supply in the small village outside of Baghdad, not a kid in sight. He logged all textbook signs of an IED – improvised explosive device. The IED could be stored anywhere or strapped to anyone.

Inside the rusted out jeep on the side of the road.

Buried under that leaning palm tree.

Perhaps stuffed in that dead cow carcass rotting in a ditch.

Gracie shifted in her seat, plastic crackling. Her soft curves pressed against his side and threatened distraction, no matter how adept he was at multi-tasking. More of her sexy scent mingled in with the pervasive military bus smell – much like an old Boy Scout tent, not that he’d ever been a Boy Scout. However his buddy Face had, and vowed military gear carried the same musty stink.

Distracting thoughts whacked him from all sides. Shit. He was better than that now. Concentrate, and do not let emotions slither through to remind him how hell could explode in seconds.

“Bobby, you’re a talented pilot and even a, uh, fascinating man. But we’re just too different. That whole ‘opposites attract’ cliché is true, but not always healthy.”

“Uh, huh.” He shoved to his feet. Fascinating? Cool. He would process that later for sure. But first– “’Scuse me.”

“Where are you going?”

Her faint question tickled at the edges of his narrowing focus. He braced a hand on the back of a seat as he walked, then another seat, left, right, making his way up the aisle with slow deliberation while assessing that cow carcass in the ditch as the already creeping bus slowed at an intersection.

Plenty of carcasses decayed around this place for days, but that bovine gut offered plenty of room to hide a bomb. He suppressed nightmarish images of other IEDs strapped to women and children. His brain flashed with memories of bombs tucked beneath murdered American soldiers waiting to be retrieved and honored for their sacrifice. Instead their dead bodies in the field were rigged to a device and used as a tool by the enemy to blow up more Americans.

His gaze skipped ahead to the camo-wearing driver. The dude wasn’t an Iraqi National since they didn’t hire locals to drive buses. The burly guy was an Army reservist like Gracie. Trustworthy.

But everyone was edgy and, well, Bobby had a rep for acting irrationally. This uptight Sarge driving the rattletrap bus already thought he was a loose canon.

Usually they were t-totally correct. Just not today.

Still there wasn’t time for chitchat. Discussion would cost valuable minutes and he needed to get up front. Fast. Sprinting would get him tackled by any of the Army dudes packing the seats, rifles on their laps.

Of course a rifle didn’t deliver much of a wallop against an IED. He made his way forward.

Slow. Steady. Focused. Almost there.

A hand snaked out, grabbing his elbow. Bobby resisted the impulse to draw back a fist – thank God, since the hand was attached to his crewdog buddy, Joe “Face” Greco who so wouldn’t take well to a fist fight. “What are you gonna do, Postal, get off and walk? Sit down and catch some sleep. We’ve got a long flight ahead of us. Listen, cheap ass, I seriously doubt the driver has any complimentary pretzel packs and a soda cart.”

Postal’s parsimonious ways were legendary.

Bobby nodded toward the empty seats up front, let Face assume whatever he wanted and kept on walking. Past “Vegas,” a family man with kids.

Sandman, Padre and Stones, each of those gunners was a crew member with helmet bags and rifles of their own. His brothers-in-arms who didn’t deserve to be blown to hell by a terrorist IED coated with cow guts. Nobody deserved that.

After dodging countless bullets on the street as a kid and even more bullets as an adult in war zones, he figured he was already living on borrowed time. Better to go down in a blaze of glory than let those bastards hurt a busload of innocents. Like Gracie, who yeah, was always a little too perfect to hang out with a messed up, adrenaline junky like him anyway.

And if he was wrong about the IED? Well, they would just have another reason to laugh and call him Nucking Futz Postal.

Bobby stopped beside the driver. Focus. Adrenaline surge. Act.

He grabbed the wheel before the Army sergeant could do more than look up.

Bobby jerked the wheel left. Hurtled the bus off the road amid hollering from the back. The rear mirror showed slinging bodies too busy righting themselves to overtake him.

Excellent.

He slammed against the seat, clenched his hand around the steering wheel. The driver’s shouts were lost in the…

Boom.

The explosion behind them rocked the earth, drowned out words, but not the hoarse shouts. The rearview mirror filled with the image of flames splitting the road behind them, exactly where they would have driven.

Hands locked, he guided the wheel, plowed the bus through a piece-of-shit barn on the city outskirts. Chickens squawked and scattered.

The bus blasted out the other side of the ramshackle barn, into a ditch and up onto the road again. Safely. Although new shock absorbers were definitely no longer optional.

At least they were safe, and Baghdad International waited ahead in the stretch of desert.

Heated nerves chilled, settling in the stunned silence surrounding him. Sweat sealed his flight suit to his body, but more from the temp than from any stress because he’d always known he would succeed.

Well, he’d been pretty sure.

He nodded to the driver. “Here ya go, Scooter. All yours again. But I’m thinking we need to get the hell out of here ASAP.”

Bobby released the wheel and pivoted away. The swaying bus lurched under his feet before steadying again as the rows of passengers gawked and whispered.

Left hand on a seat, right, left, he made his way back down the narrow aisle.

Joe Greco shook his head and clapped him on the shoulder. “Thank you, crazy ass bastard.”

That he was.

Gracie stared back at him with eyes wide. Wary. Confused. But mostly wary.

Yeah, he was definitely too close to the edge for Dr. Uptight. That pissed him off, which was better than regretting the fact he would never get naked with gorgeous Gracie.

Without a word, he plunked in his seat, slouching. Boot bouncing a never ending restless rhythm, he settled in for a few minutes’ powernap before their flight out of this shithole and out of Dr. Gracie Marie Lanier’s perfect world. She balanced it all, profiler for the cops, then racing to do her duty when called to her Army reservist psy-ops job. All that and hot as all get out. Shee-it.

As still as she sat, Gracie fidgeted causing too many damned tempting brushes of those lush breasts of hers against his arm.

With a final huff, she stilled. “Well, Bobby, you sure picked a hell of a way to avoid our farewell conversation.”

Code of Honor 

code of honor

Prologue

Iraq – two years ago:

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Calling any Coalition aircraft.”

The SOS crackled through Captain Joe “Face” Greco’s helmet, all other chatter dissipating faster than the clouds outside his windscreen. Adrenaline snapped through him, narrowing his focus. The two-hour flight in his Pave Low helicopter to ferry around a photojournalist should have offered a break from months of knife-edge missions.

Keeping the peace was a deadly endeavor.

Hands steady on the stick, Joe scanned the cracked desert rolling below and listened for the rest of the call, ready to launch if the threat fell into his range.

“This is Alpha one-six-three, seven miles west of Fallujah.” Gunfire popped in the background with the panting voice. “Requesting air support and evac.”

Alpha one-six-three? Dread kicked into high gear. Distinguishing voices over the radio might be tough, but Joe also remembered the number designation. The staticky shout for help blended with the chop, chop, chop of his helicopter blades, stirring hellish recognition. He’d dropped off that Special Forces team yesterday to track insurgents. He knew these Green Berets.

He knew their leader – Cooper Scott.

Shit.

Muscles tensed for action, Joe barked to the copilot beside him. “Postal, get me a heading to Fallujah.” “Jesus Christ, Face, shouldn’t we radio command post for authentication?” First Lieutenant Bobby “Postal” Ruznick clicked keys on the navigational computer even as he argued. “I’m up for a gun battle as much as the next guy, more so probably. But if I’m going to get my ass shot off, I’d rather not go down in some set up ambush.”

“I’ve got voice confirmation on this one.”

“Roger that, then. Spinning up directions for Fallujah as we speak, boss.”

Joe resisted the urge to twist the cyclic, dip the rotors forward and plow ahead, follow his nose and to hell with directions. Those dudes should have been safe. He’d landed his Air Force Special Ops helicopter randomly twenty times yesterday to disguise placement of the twelve Green Berets tasked to track Al Qaeda foreign fighters, terrorist insurgents on suicide missions with no respect for rules of war. How the hell had the team been uncovered?

He’d figure that out later. After he pulled their bacon out of the fire. First he needed to call the air operations center while Postal plotted a flight path.

Joe thumbed the radio button. “Bear Cave, this is Yogi two-three. I’m in receipt of a mayday transmission.”

Flight name themes changed by the day. Yesterday they’d all flown with Superman IDs. Today some guy with a sense of humor had opted for a cartoon. Humor in hell, sometimes all that kept them sane. Too bad a literal guy like him sucked at humor. “Proceeding seven miles west of Fallujah to aid Alpha one-six-three. How copy?”

“Bear Cave copies all,” the control center responded.

“Heads up in the rear,” Joe radioed his gunners, two in the side windows and one at the helicopter’s back deck.

“We’ve got a mayday call. Make sure your guns are charged, and buckle down our guest.”

Damn, damn, damn it, why did they have to be carting a civilian today? An innocent female civilian who expected to change the world with her camera. A female who meant too much to Cooper.

Joe refused to think about what she could have meant to him.

His headset cranked up again. “Yogi two-three, this is Bear Cave, confirming that your mayday is valid. We’re scrambling two A-10s for support in ten mikes.”

Ten minutes. An eternity for Cooper and his men.

Postal straightened in his seat. “Pick up a heading of three-three-zero while I get something in the nav system. I’ll give you a heading marker in a second.”

Joe twisted the cyclic, tilting the rotor blades on top of the helicopter forward, dropping the nose to bite into the air and propel. The chop, chop sped to a roar. His other hand steered the stick, while his feet worked the rudder pedals to maneuver the tail. Hands and feet synched to dance the craft through the sky.

Too many valuable seconds were ticking by. He keyed up the radio. “Alpha one-six-three, responding to your mayday. We’re on our way, a single Mike Hotel five three–” MH-53, Pave Low “–what’s your situation?” Would Cooper recognize his voice as well?

“Our hide site got blown. We’re on the run.” Gunshots sputtered between his words, fire, return fire, explosions. A scream. “We’ve got about fifty guys on our ass. Several vehicles, too, with mounted weapons.”

Now the scratchy voice over the airwaves spurred images from the past in a macabre parallel – of his elementary school pal on the other end of walkie-talkies, playing war games in Joe’s backyard, practicing for the day they would grow up and live them out for real.

This was too damn real with no chance for do-overs.

The headset blasted with another explosion. Closer to Cooper’s radio. Louder again. “Crap. We’re getting nailed. How fast can you get here, Face?”

No question. They both knew who they were talking to, and he and his crew weren’t the only ones listening. Their passenger heard as well. Photojournalist Brigid Wheeler would document much more than she’d bargained for when they’d left their Kuwaiti base this morning.

At least Cooper didn’t know she was on board, and her headset wasn’t wired for responding. Only listening. Joe could almost hear his pal chewing him out for not flying her back ASAP. Not an option. She’d signed her liability waiver when she’d taken the press tour in a war zone. But then Cooper wasn’t much for rules.

Would she recognize Cooper’s voice garbled through static since she had far less time on military headsets?

“We’re ten miles out. Five mikes. Just hold on. We’ve also got two A-10s taking off from Baghdad International in eight mikes.”

Flat desert rolled past below him. Empty. Sun broiled through the windscreen, reflecting off the sand for a double dose of hellish heat. Light revealed too much. After-sunset flights offered the advantage of state-of-the-art night vision goggles and an infrared camera.

Forget bitching about the hand fate dealt. Work with it and win.

“Hey, bud…” Joe stopped himself short from using Coop’s name, which would alert Brigid if she didn’t already know. “Give me a better fix on your position. You got any coordinates to share?”

“Negative on coordinates. Little too busy running and shooting to check my GPS,” he said between gasping breaths.

“Once we snag a defensive position, I’ll get a read. Best I can tell now we’re seven miles west of the edge of town. We’re running west in a wadi–” a gulley trench in the sand that wouldn’t offer much protection “–and we’re trying for an abandoned village a mile west of here for cover.”

“Roger that. Will continue inbound.” Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his flight gloves, the stench of body odor and hydraulic fluid swelling.

Hopefully Cooper’s Special Forces team’s return fire would be enough to hold off the insurgents. Rugged terrain would slow the vehicles. There was a chance.

God, what he wouldn’t give for a joke to connect with his bud right now. Too bad his hands and brain were too busy to reach for his palm pilot and look one up.

Instead, he settled for one of their childhood sayings. “You’re still the baddest dude in the jungle.”

A choked off laugh huffed through. “Hell, if I was in a jungle I could take a GPS reading from behind a banana tree.”

Not even a palm in sight.

The copilot tossed aside a map and started logging fresh data into the navigational system. “I think I’ve got a lock on their location from the wadi. Follow the heading marker.”

“Copy.” Centering up on the heading marker, Joe shoved aside relief which would only waste seconds.

He tipped the rudders and squeezed another couple of miles per hour out of the Pave Low, one-forty-five, one-fifty, until she strained and rattled, giving all she had and more. She was a good old war hound. But just that – old, penetrating deep into enemy territory with only so much speed to haul in and haul out.

Scrap negative thoughts. Concentrate on flying and the beer at the end of this rotation when they got back to the States. Cooper stationed in Georgia, with Joe a short jog down at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle.

Finally, dots appeared on the horizon, a city stretching ahead of the racing men. Fallujah.

Twelve Army soldiers – one officer and his team of eleven – were losing ground. In hand to hand combat, the Green Berets could take the insurgents gaining on them. But they were outgunned and on foot, chased down by crappy trucks and jeeps. Urgency pounded harder than his blades overhead. Sand churned below from the chopping rotor.

“Come on, come on, baby,” he coaxed. “Almost there. All right in back. Target area approaching. Gunners engage trucks coming up on the right hand side.”

He swept over trailing trucks in the convoy as the ground neared, gunfire sputtering down. One, two, three vehicles exploded. Five more ahead were almost on top of the team. Almost there. Almost…

Out of time.

Sweat seared his eyes, friend and enemy mixing as the insurgents overtook the Special Forces team. Whispers of defeat buzzed in tune with the howl of the engines. He couldn’t keep spraying their attackers with fire and risk killing whatever remained of their own. Not to mention further pissing off the bad guys who were now seconds away from having American POWs in their hands.

If he landed, his crew would be taken. He couldn’t even let himself think what those bastards would do to a woman. There had to be a way to keep things together until the A-10s arrived. His mind clicked through options. He counted vehicles again, five… One lagging behind so close he could almost see the face of the man in back as he…

Pivoted.

Hefted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder.

“Fucking A!” Joe jerked left. “Hold onto your ass in back.”

Whoomp. Hiss.

The RPG – rocket propelled grenade – hurtled toward them. The Pave Low tipped to the side, strained to avoid.

His windscreen imploded…