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Can You Forget?
By Melissa James
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTumah-ra Island, Arafura Sea
"There's fresh blood in this." Flashing a torch around the top of the cliff face, Tallan O'Rierdan, Nighthawk code name Irish, pointed out the stain to his team partner: a skidding footprint with a small dark pool near the heel.
Braveheart, the enormous bear of a man beside him, grinned, his teeth startlingly white against the camouflage darkened face. "So you nailed him. That was one hell of a shot in the dark, Irish."
Tal shrugged, squelching the instinctive surge of guilt. "Nowhere vital, by the looks of it." Yet his gut roiled. Shooting people went against all he believed in. Even hitting scum like Burstall, a renegade Fed who'd committed murder and almost killed a fellow Nighthawk, cut deep in a place he didn't want to analyze right now. But his objectives were clear: treat anyone injured by the rebel militia's free-for-all attack, find Burstall and bring him in - or down. "He's still on the move - toward Ka-Nin-Put."
Braveheart nodded. "Let's go."
The black camouflage paint on his face drove him nuts, but his training forced him to not scratch. He had to be invisible, unrecognizable in the jungle fatigues Nighthawks wore on recon in Search and Rescue assignments: just another soldier in a faceless army.
But the people in his secret army were SAR experts, nonofficial hunter-gatherer spies in a network only the top brass of any government knew existed, in a world few dared enter. The shadowy world of the Nighthawks.
"I'll go this way. You take that path and get to the village from behind. That way we cover our bases and block off escape."
Braveheart looked doubtful, but Irish's word was law on the field. "Meet in the middle?"
Tal nodded in detached interest, thinking how he'd treat the injured left to rot by the rebels. "ETA fifteen minutes."
The whining of bullets came closer as he ran, half crouching, toward the village, slinging his assault rifle behind him. Mortar bombs dropped not far off, thunder-filled quakes beneath his feet. The night sky blazed with the hail of silver and bloody fire, harbingers of death outshining the stars.
Sudden eerie silence all around Ka-Nin-Put told him the rebels had bolted. The brave, strong rebel army walked the walk and talked the talk with harmless villagers and young girls, but bolted when a few men with guns came near.
Just as well. If I found any of the little bastards now ... He kept the rifle firmly behind him. Temptation clawed at him as it was, the gnawing need to avenge what couldn't be avenged.
Keep it together, O'Rierdan. You're Search And Rescue, not search and kill.
From house to ravaged house, he found them all burned, with fallen and hanging doors and shattered windows bearing mute testimony to the rebels' attack - almost no evidence remained of the lives that once filled this quiet jungle village.
Please, let the Navy have got them out first. He didn't know if he could handle seeing any more people left for dead in a gaping, rubble-covered hole, or to find half-starved shivering kids hanging on to a cliff shelf until they fell into the sea. He had the skills to save them - and he would - but the nightmares the rescues engendered left him sleepless for months.
A pall of gray smoke hung beneath the night air, obscuring the stars. The stench of blood, fire and death lay everywhere. Casualties of war, they called this. Collateral damage. "What a load of crap," he muttered. There was no acceptable number of dead when you walked in the shoes of the people who'd lost acceptable family members or you found the bodies of the casualties of war hanging from trees or hacked to pieces. He couldn't let it happen if he could do anything to change it.
A long, quiet groan alerted him. He wasn't alone here.
"Kumusta po kayo? Doktor po ako," he called in Tagalog, hoping he got the words right and wasn't asking for something stupid like an umbrella or a cat skin. Hello, are you okay? I am a doctor. "Gusto ko kayong tulungan." I want to help you.
"Ai," came a weak call to the left.
The man was old, frail, very thin. His sallow dark skin hung in loose folds all over him. His almond-shaped eyes held no pain. "I cannot move," the old man said in his native language.
A puncture wound in the upper stomach, deep and lethal. The powder around the wound told him they'd shot this defenseless old man at close range: enough to have a near-identical wound coming out his spine, leaving him crippled. His vital organs would empty themselves out as he bled internally to death.
Tal didn't dare move him. "I will help you," he said in Tagalog, and gave the only help he could: a whopping shot of morphine. Then he sat beside the poor old guy and held his hand as he talked about his family and his lifetime in Ka-Nin-Put.
Ten minutes later Tal closed the man's eyes, got to his feet and punched the tree the body rested against. It shouldn't be like this! It was so bloody wrong to -
Sudden rustling let him know he had company in the steaming, acrid darkness. Probably Braveheart. But it could also be a villager hiding until the danger passed ... maybe a child, injured, or dying ... "Kumusta po kayo? Doktor po ako," he called again, unpacking the rest of his kit in case of serious injury. Yeah, he'd blow his cover if it was Burstall or even a Nighthawk, but this was why he'd left the Navy to join the elite spy-rescue group. It wasn't the worst risk he took on assignment. If the rebels found him, they'd take him as hostage to tend their injured - then barter him for a very high price. If he lived.
But the only answer was silence: no one called back, not in any language. "Hello? Who's there?"
In the quiet punctuated by the whine of bullets, his scalp prickled. No time to pack up his kit. Even if it was a Nighthawk out there, he'd blown his cover as a burned-out ex-Navy guy turned beach bum pilot, with mountain climbing and rappelling experience. Only Anson knew he was a doctor. He was so fanatical about Nighthawk security no operative knew anything about each other's life or background.
Except Songbird. An imp inside him gave the reminder. She knows more about you than Anson ever will.
Damn it, would he never stop thinking about her?
"G'day." A man dressed in black limped out from the tangled undergrowth around the village. With the night goggles, Tal saw the blood flowing down the man's left leg, and his savage grin. "Nice greasepaint on the face. Are you the bastard who shot me?"
"Yeah, and I can do it again." Tal scrambled up to come face-to-face with him. He whipped his night rifle from behind, praying Burstall wouldn't take up the challenge. In automatic mode, he checked Burstall's injury. Crikey, was that a cracked patella? Knees were so tricky to repair -
"Don't move." His eyes glittering in the darkness, Burstall held a grenade right in front of Tal's face. "Don't move, all you painted-up boys playing spies in the bush, or this one's dead meat. You shoot me, the pin's gone."
Despite the dank, sultry heat, Tal broke out in cold sweat. One year of psych training was enough to tell him this guy had a serious mental problem. He had to convince Burstall they were alone, then talk him down. "There's no one there."
Burstall sneered. "If you think I can't hear your mates belly-crawling through the undergrowth, you're even dumber than you look in your flak jacket and war paint, Rambo. So tell them to stay where they are," Burstall said softly, holding the grenade right in front of Tal's sweat-soaked face.
A lightning second to weigh his options, then he yelled, "Do as he says." If Anson or Linebacker tried to play the hero, or Braveheart did something smart with one of his pyrotechnic gadgets - talk Burstall down, now.
Tal spoke with quiet persuasion: the soothing tone he'd always used for his unstable or distressed patients. "You're surrounded. Give up, while you can. You may have some legal leverage now, but if you kill someone -"
Excerpted from Can You Forget? by Melissa James Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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