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Behind Enemy Lines
By Cindy Dees
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAir Force Captain Annie O'Donnell eased off the throttle and pulled back on the collective. She brought her helicopter smoothly to a hover over a featureless spot in the black ocean of jungle below them. The rendezvous point. Somewhere beneath her, a team of American soldiers was watching a rebel army prepare to go to war. And tonight that team was bugging out.
"What's the infrared scope showing, Rusty?" Her copilot shrugged. "I've got an image of a clearing directly beneath us, maybe fifty feet across. No heat signatures, yet."
Five long minutes ticked by while they waited for the distinctive glowing blobs of human heat to light up the dark scope.
"Anything?" she asked yet again.
"Still nothing. You know, we can't sit here all night, boss. Somebody's bound to hear us eventually."
"Let's give it one more minute."
She was a sitting duck, hovering stationary like this. It didn't take fancy detection equipment to hear the distinctive thwocking noise of a helicopter. The back of her neck itched ominously.
She addressed the two crewmen manning the winch in the back. "Gentlemen, when we leave, I'm going to bank hard to the right and accelerate fast. Don't get dumped out the door."
"Retract the forest penetrator seat andprepare for departure," she ordered.
"Yes, ma'am." Annie's palms went slick with sweat on the control column. It was a good bet that missing this pickup would make her passengers' lives a heap more complicated for the next couple of days.
"Seat's retracted and stowed, Captain."
"And we're out of here in five, four, three ..."
"Wait!" Rusty called out. "Got 'em. Two targets in the clearing, more moving in. They're transmitting the proper codes."
The winch motor whirred behind her, already lowering the cable and its heavy, steel seat back into the clearing some hundred feet below the canopy of leaves. The men behind her traded terse commands while one manned the winch motor and the other hung out the door, guiding the cable and reporting on the progress of the evacuation.
"Man in." Annie heard the grunt of the first soldier as he landed unceremoniously on his belly on the Huey's floor. He was left to crawl out of the way and right himself while her crew continued the evacuation.
"Roger, winch away."
Metal hissed as the steel cable hurtled down into the belly of the beast once more.
"Two's on the seat."
"Hoisting him. Ten feet per second." That was pretty fast. Whoever was hanging on that cable was getting a heck of a ride and probably getting the dickens scratched out of him as he tore up through the trees.
Two more soldiers landed in the helicopter. "Winch away."
"Cap'n, I've got movement on the scope."
"Talk to me, Rusty," she ordered.
"I've got the last two men center screen. I paint four, maybe six more people just coming into range."
Annie frowned. They weren't expecting company. "You copy that, back there?"
"Yes ma'am. We're hauling 'em up like bats outta hell back here."
"Five hundred feet. Ten hostile targets now."
"How are we doing, gentlemen?"
"Number five on the cable, ma'am."
"Max out the winch. We need to go. Now."
"Already doin' it. Fourteen feet per second."
"Cable's at forty feet. Thirty. Twenty! Slow the winch!" Frank shouted.
"Relax, Frank. I got it." Arty groused. A thump as the fifth man hit the floor. "Clear."
"One more to go, ma'am. Damn, Arty. You 'bout slammed the last one's head into the skid!"
Annie interrupted. "Cut the chatter, guys. Rusty, report."
"Hostiles at two hundred feet. Closing fast."
Annie glanced over at the radar screen, then back at her own controls. A sudden warning tone made her jump.
"Trouble!" Rusty yelled. "They've got antiaircraft weapons! Looks like some sort of surface-to-air missile."
"Have they got lock on?"
"Not yet, Cap'n."
"Where's the last man, Frank?" she asked tersely.
"Climbing on the seat now."
"Get him out of there. He's about to have company."
"Cable's winding, ma'am."
"How far to lift him, Frank?"
Rusty's voice was clipped, desperate. "Weapon activation, Annie." His voice rose. "They're gonna shoot as soon as they get lock on."
"How far, Frank?" she called.
Ping. Ping, ping, ping. Annie flinched and ducked. There was no other sound quite like bullets tearing through metal.
"Winch is hit! Motor's jammed!" Arty yelled. The warning tone in the cockpit changed pitch, became louder, more insistent.
Lock on. Her gut turned to water. "We gotta go, Annie!" Rusty shouted.
Frank yelled from the back. "I got a man hangin' on my cable. 'Bout forty feet down. He's gonna die if we drag him through the trees."
They were all going to die if a missile hit them. The next moment suspended itself around Annie in a slow-motion eternity where life and death hung in delicate balance. She could stay and try to retrieve the man hanging below her, thereby jeopardizing the lives of the nine people on board, or she could go, probably kill the man on the cable, and save everybody else.
"Hang on!" she shouted as she slammed the throttles forward.
She felt, rather than heard, the first thud when the man beneath her crashed into a tree. The scream of the engines wasn't loud enough to drown out the collective groan that issued from the five passengers in the back.
Dear God. What had she done? Please don't let that man suffer. Please make his death swift and painless.
She climbed as high as she dared, right to the thirty-foot limit of the envelope over the jungle where radar couldn't paint her. The man on the cable was still in the trees, but hopefully the smaller growth at the top of the jungle would be less destructive than the heavier trunks and branches lower down.
The guy didn't have a chance in the world of surviving, but on the off possibility that some higher power owed him a miracle, she planned to give him all the help she could.
Every few seconds a shudder passed into her hands from the helicopter's control column as the body of the soldier beneath her hit another tree. She nearly moaned aloud as grisly images of his mangled form swam in her mind's eye, shredding her self-control. It took every ounce of her self-discipline to force her mind to the business at hand.
"Status report, Rusty. What did that ground fire hit?"
"Your VHF radio's out, the oil system's leaking."
"It'll take an hour or more to run dry." They could be back in St. George in forty minutes. Forty endless minutes for that man down there to bleed and suffer.
"The door window got knocked out, and the winch got hit," Rusty continued. "Beyond that, we've got bullet holes here and there. Nothing major."
Excerpted from Behind Enemy Lines by Cindy Dees Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.