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17�30' south latitude
18 52' west longitude
Why did sex sound so noisy when it wasn�t happening to you?
Miki Fortune steadied her digital camera and tried to ignore the grunts and groans from the nearby tent where her two models were doing the nasty again in full audio. There was no mistaking the sharply heaving canvas where her gorgeous six-foot-one Scandinavian model was getting screwed up, down and sideways by an equally gorgeous male model from Montana.
Satisfied with two shots of the pristine cove, Miki shouldered her camera gear and headed back up the beach. White sand crunched beneath her feet and a warm wind ruffled her hair, but all Miki saw was camera angles and F-stops. Paradise meant nothing when you were trying not to screwup the biggest opportunity of your life, a full-color calendar called Best Beaches of the World.
Behind Miki the tent walls shook harder. Panting voices carried on the wind. "Oh, Looogan. That way. Harder -- harder!" The canvas snapped and the sound effect grew more obvious.
Miki scowled. If people wanted to have sex, they should do it in another state.
Logan Brooks, Miki�s tanned male model, ground out an urgent curse. Something crashed to the ground beyond the canvas wall.
Disgusted, Miki stowed her camera and lenses, then glanced at her watch. After all the time zones she�d crossed between her home in New Mexico and this beach southwest of Bora Bora, her body clock felt permanently out of synch. But tired or not, she had finished the day�s shots without a hitch. Now that her new digital cameras were stowed and their precious memory cards transferred to a portable hard drive, Miki couldn�t wait to get back in the air.
Paradise was fine when you were eighteen and crazy in love, enjoying a clothing-optional vacation. When you were working, paradise felt like salt in an old wound, reminding you of all that was wrong with your life.
Which, in Miki�s case, could have filled most of Montana.
One of the pilots leaned against a palm tree and peeled an apple, clearly enjoying the models� escapade. An older pilot napped in the shade, hat over his head. Her boss sat in a leather campaign chair scanning the photos she�d transferred to his laptop.
Vance Merchant didn�t look pleased. She�d given him her best work, shots that shimmered with dawn light and burned with sunset crimson. There was no possible reason for his frown other than the simple fact that he could. The man knew he held all the power and he enjoyed wielding it mercilessly. He was a tyrant, just the way Miki had heard. Being around him was about as much fun as sharing a cardboard box with a scorpion.
But the job was important, her first chance at national commercial exposure. If the calendar was a success, Miki knew she�d receive dozens of travel assignments, a fiercely competitive category of photographic work. So she dug her toe slowly through the warm sand, fighting uneasiness as she waited for Vance�s verdict.
Her balding boss looked up as the tent shook one last time. Moments later Miss Finland 2002 emerged, stunning in a black string bikini that hugged her body like butter. When her partner appeared, he was rumpled and languid, his shirt buttoned wrong and his zipper still open.
Someone snickered. The men looked up as Miss Finland stretched languidly. Vance smiled and started to make a comment.
Miki cut him off. "Can we go now?"
The model, who currently worked under the name of Jasmyn, stretched slowly while she toyed with her tiny bikini top, aware that she had all the men�s attention. "Me, I am hungry with appetite. I can eat very big horse right now." She frowned beautifully. "Anyone have very big horse to give?"
Miki�s boss muttered something to the older pilot. Miki ignored them.
Sometimes men had all the subtlety of boa constrictors. And now three new bruises darkened Miss Finland�s elegant neck. They�d have to be digitally removed, the same way Miki had removed the other bites and scratches incurred from St. Thomas to Tahiti. Luckily, Miki was very skilled at both cosmetics and Photoshop.
Vance Merchant looked up and waved his hand at the younger pilot, who climbed aboard one of the two amphibious Cessnas rocking in the water. As the models waited, the pilot revved the engine and gestured from the small cockpit.
About time, Miki thought, heading toward the plane. This place was getting creepy. Besides, the wind was picking up.
Vance caught her arm. "Not you. I need a dozen more shots of the reef before we leave, babe."
"You�ve got to be kidding. I filled a flash card this morning."
Her boss�s eyes narrowed. "I�m the one who decides when we�re done, honey. Remember that." He tossed her his big Nikon, careless of the $10,000 piece of equipment. "Get moving."
Vance Merchant could afford to buy a camera a day for the rest of his nasty life. His silver spoon came from his father�s success in coffee commodities -- and his mother�s good fortune in being an oil heiress. The man�s trust fund was obscene.
As Miki checked the camera, the balding business- man slid an arm around her shoulders. "I can see that taking orders is a problem for you. We�ll have to do something about that."
She pushed his hand away smoothly and thought about decking him. One solid chop to the collarbone and he would be moaning. On the other hand, physical assault didn�t get credits on a job resume.
Excellent lighting skills. Inventive with neutral density filters. Crushed the supervisor�s collarbone. May be unstable and probably dangerous.
Not the best path to career advancement. Miki sighed. She needed to stop drifting and start being serious. Photography was in her blood, a passion since she was ten. Day and night images haunted her thoughts, burned into her head. The problem was getting someone�s attention so that she�d have the backing to shoot for a living. She had finally grown up and started to take her work seriously, which meant no decking the boss.
The Cessna�s motor turned over. The models were aboard with all their gear, and the pilot was checking his equipment.
"What�s he doing?"
The Cessna began to pick up speed. Miki felt a sudden sharp uneasiness at how isolated they were on this speck of an island. "They�re leaving ahead of us? I thought we were flying out together for safety."
"If you do your job, we�ll be flying out in a few minutes." Vance glanced at the older pilot, and a silent signal seemed to pass between the two men.
"What do you mean, do my job?" Miki frowned at Vance. "I think we�ve got enough background shots for ten calendars."
"You think? Who�s paying you to think, babe?" Sunlight burned on Vance�s yellow silk shirt as he traced Miki�s neck. "The sooner you stop whining and start shooting, the sooner we take off."
"You can�t let them go ahead of us, Vance."
"I just did, babe. Move it because your stalling is costing me money."
No point trying to change his mind. After three weeks of travel in close quarters, Miki had figured out that the man was impossible. She stalked over the sand and leveled Vance�s Nikon, trying to ignore the roar of the other Cessna as it prepared for take off. Palm trees waved, the ocean glittered -- and clouds piled up to the south.
Miki couldn�t shake a sense of unease. When she finished two dozen new shots from different angles, she gritted her teeth and turned back to her boss. "I�m done here. Why don�t you take a look so we can go?"
"Cool your jets, babe."
Babe? If Miki never heard that word again, she would die a happy woman. Was it stupidity or arrogance that made men think women actually liked that name? Of course, Babe was better than Blondie. For the last five years, Miki had dyed her natural blond hair to a streaky brown in order to shield herself against the wrong kind of male attention. From bitter experience she knew that being blonde automatically took off five years and ten pounds. The only problem was that being blonde also knocked fifty points off your I.Q. in the eyes of most men. Some women seemed happy with the tradeoff, but Miki wasn�t one of them. So why the hell was she back to bubblehead blond now?
When she�d heard about the team shooting an exotic calendar called Best Beaches of the World, Miki had instructed her photo agent in Santa Fe to accept the offer with no negotiation. At first her agent had been discouraging. "Waste of time, Fortune. Vance Merchant only hires blondes because he thinks they�re good luck." The agent had rolled his eyes. "That means all blondes, all the time. Besides, Merchant is a little hard to work with."
Miki was too enthusiastic to let the offer slip away. That same day she had dyed her hair to its original streaky gold, angry but determined to snag the job.
Unfortunately, her agent had neglected to mention several details. For example, Vance Merchant�s interest in blondes usually took on touchy-feely overtones by the second day of a shoot, and Miki soon tired of dodging the producer�s fast hands. Between the constant travel and the isolated location shooting, she could never seem to escape him.
Not that she would whine. She could handle a weasel like Vance Merchant. The trick was finding a way to rebuff him without costing her the job.
All her irritation snapped into sharp focus as she waited for the balding California millionaire to amble across the beach in his $800 handmade Panama hat. When she held out the camera, he moved in close, pressing against her shoulder while he looked into the LED screen.
Miki controlled her irritation by imagining a few more zeroes in her bank balance. "So what do you think?"
"Nice cloud detail. But I keep telling you, we�re here for the sex and the skin. That�s what sells, not your artsy nature shots."
Miki bit back a hot answer, reaching for the camera, but Vance moved out of reach. "You screwed up Jasmyn�s close-ups today. Where�s the mineral oil I told you to use on Jasmyn? There�s no shine, no sizzle. Are you a total idiot?"
I�ll give you shine, Miki thought. "Vance, you didn�t tell me--"
"Can it, babe. I need a dozen more windward shots across that slope. Then I can crop and insert some shots of Jasmyn later in post-production. Get to it."
"Now?" Miki started at him in disbelief. The other Cessna had taken off five minutes ago and the dark clouds were getting closer. Was the man crazy?
"Are you coming or not?"
She ached to tell Vance where he could put this job and his expensive Nikon, but somehow she swallowed her pride and nodded. Why did all the good jobs come with jerks in charge? Was there something wrong with her?
"Fortune, are you listening to me?"
Vance muttered as he vanished behind the low sand dunes. As soon as Miki crossed the slope, she saw a shirt spread out on the ground. Vance was standing beside it, tugging at his belt.
She went absolutely still. "What are you doing?"
"Don�t be so damned uptight. It�s just sex, something to loosen you up and get your creative juices flowing. I saw you staring at Miss Finland and the hunk. All that noise got you excited, didn�t it? You want it."
Vance�s belt hit the sand. "You�re wasting time. Get naked."
"You�re nuts as well as a creep. The only thing I�m doing is boarding that plane. You handle the sex by yourself. I figure you usually do that anyway," she added grimly.
"In that case, you�re fired." Vance made the little Donald Trump hand gesture, his voice icy. "Take your choice."
Did he always get away with this, Miki wondered? Didn�t people file lawsuits for this kind of behavior? As the tropical wind ruffled her hair, she saw her career going up in smoke and was too angry to be diplomatic. Enough was enough. What she did next was for her and all the other women Vance had suckered over the years.
She kicked sand toward him, pleased when he yelped with surprise. While he was distracted, she followed with a roundhouse kick from one of her many hours of classes. She wasn�t coordinated, but her blow to his ribs got the job done, making Vance gulp, caught in mid-curse. He lurched sideways and landed face down in the sand.
A noise drew Miki�s gaze. She saw the first Cessna circle high, dipping its trim wing once before heading east. The plane�s receding outline left her with the cold feeling that she was cut off from civilization, stranded forever.
And this wasn�t a reality show. This was her life.
Grabbing her camera bag, she sprinted for the remaining plane, ignoring Vance�s threats. Get in line, she thought. She had car payments due, credit card bills to pay and now she�d blown her best job in months.
Sand hissed behind her. The millionaire producer huffed over the sloping crest of the beach, red-faced. There was a fresh bruise on his flabby right shoulder.
"You�re through, Fortune. There�s no city small enough for you to hide. Forget about taking pictures for a living. Forget about portraits or calendars or greeting cards. You�re over, honey. I�m going to see to it personally as soon as I get back to L.A."
Miki resisted an urge to hit him again, instead dredging up a cloyingly sweet smile. "If I�m over, then it won�t hurt me to file a nice sexual harassment suit against you, will it? Won�t that look lovely when it hits the papers? You sell a lot of calendars in college bookstores, don�t you? I�d say your sales are going to tank when the female students hear about your problem keeping your pants zipped."
Vance�s face turned an even deeper shade of red. "You little bitch. You are dead as far as new photographic work is concerned."
Miki returned his cold stare. "Try it, Vance. If you do, my agent will enjoy contacting every female photographer in America so they hear about your little scam," she blustered.
Meanwhile, her teeth were chattering. Fired and now blacklisted. Could her life get any worse?
At least she had new photos for her portfolio, taken on her free time during this trip. Several freelance sales should help make up a month�s lost salary and the cost of her new camera equipment.
Vance puffed past her, smiling. "You didn�t read the last page of our contract, did you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Stupid move, babe. I mean you can forget having anything for your portfolio. It�s all mine -- every print and digital image. Your film agent wanted to reject the clause, but it was nonnegotiable if you wanted the assignment. That means you get no use of anything without my approval -- and trust me, you won�t ever be getting that." His lips curved. "Unless you want to reconsider my offer."
"You mean the quickie in the sand?" Miki squeezed her hands together to keep them from lunging at him. She�d purchased a new camera and lenses, slaved for three weeks, and now the weasel had cut her out of rights to her own work.
Vance was right about that. She should have listened to her photo agent and negotiated harder, but she had been too afraid of losing the job. She had decided to stop coasting or being casual about her life plans. That meant no more whining.
And look where that had gotten her.
She knocked Vance�s sweaty fingers from her shoulder. "I�d rather suck glass chips through a straw." She stalked to the Cessna and climbed abroad. The pilot barely noticed her, too busy staring at the dark line of clouds covering the horizon.
Miki turned, following his gaze. "Is something wrong?"
"Not really. We�ve got a little weather moving in, that�s all. Where�s Vance?"
"Back up the beach. Probably grabbing his gear."
"He�d better hurry up." The pilot rubbed his neck. "Once we�re up in the air, you should check that your cameras are stowed. That storm is moving in faster than I thought."
16�58' south latitude
152�12' west longitude
Miki couldn't drag her eyes away from the wall of gray clouds. Slouched beside her, Vance muttered crossly, avoiding eye contact. Dutch, the pilot, hadn�t spoken since they�d lifted off, but he�d consulted his watch twice and his fingers were tight on the controls.
A pilot with white knuckles was never a good sign.
"What the hell�s going on out there?" Vance snapped. "You said that tropical depression was moving to the south. You said--"
"I was wrong." The pilot didn�t glance up. "And if you�re asking why I didn�t know sooner, it�s because you insisted on renting the oldest plane you could find. I told you the nav and comm equipment was out of date."
Miki squirmed uneasily. Old equipment and a cheapskate boss. How could her fantasy job get any worse?
She peered at a dark wedge of clouds to the south. "Shouldn�t we be halfway to Bora Bora already? We can outrun the storm."
"A Category Five storm can pack crosswinds above 160 miles per hour. If we�d left when I wanted to, instead of waiting for you two to do the dirty in the dunes, this storm wouldn�t be a problem."
"That wasn�t my idea," Miki said angrily.
"You wanted it," Vance snapped. "Don�t give me that bullshit."
The engine sputtered, cutting off Miki�s angry response. Dutch pumped a control beside his knee, his mouth a flat line.
"What�s wrong?" Vance swung around. "What was that noise?�
The grizzled pilot didn�t answer, fiddling with a row of controls.
"Damn it, I asked you a question, Dutch."
"Trust me, you don�t want to hear the answer." The pilot leveled a cold look at his employer. Miki realized that Dutch wasn�t looking bored and lazy any longer. "Get your seatbelt hooked, the way I told you."
"Why should I--"
"Because I told you, damn it, and I�m in command here."
Vance looked startled, then angry, but he did as he was told. He wiped sweat off his forehead as he stared out at the gunmetal sea below them, alive with boiling waves. "What are we going to do now?" His voice was petulant.
"Praying wouldn�t hurt." Dutch fingered the radio and waited, but all that came back was static.
The engine coughed again.
They were in real trouble, Miki realized. Trouble as in mayday and life jackets and forced sea landings. Her fingers dug into the sides of the seat as she fought back terrified questions.
Dutch looked back at her. "You strapped in, Blondie?"
She nodded mutely, cheered by his thumbs-up gesture. They were in a seaplane, she told herself. Dutch was an experienced pilot. He could bring the plane down, land at sea and radio for help. Someone was bound to find them. There had to be major shipping lanes nearby.
But she wasn�t thinking about pontoons or shipping lanes when the engine sputtered and died completely. The plane nosed forward and shuddered. Cold with fear, she squeezed her hands against her lap as they plummeted toward the angry water.
Dutch gripped the radio microphone. "This is Cessna ID number three -- niner -- four -- zero -- niner broadcasting on Mayday frequency. I repeat, this is a Mayday call . . ."
Max Preston had nothing good to say about airplanes. The ground was better than the air, but water was where he felt most at home, thanks to both instinct and long training.
Right now he was thirty thousand feet above the Pacific, the sun brushing scattered clouds as he secured his jumpsuit. In approximately six minutes he�d hit the plane�s jump door and drop into a two-minute free fall.
He still couldn�t get over the Labrador retriever nearby, strapped into a vest and parachute of his own. "Is Truman prepped?" he asked.
His commanding officer nodded briefly. "The dog is A-okay, Preston. He�ll be on oxygen via mask, just like you. Are you clear on those codes we went over? 92 for visual on Cruz or any hostile forces in the area. 705 for sighting of the missing weapon."
Max shifted his parachute slightly, straightening the line of his oxygen mask. "Good to go on the codes, sir. Two short burst signals, 606, for probability on the weapon device and 797 in the event emergency extraction is called for. But I won�t need extraction." The Navy SEAL�s face was calm as he slipped on the thin but highly tensile gloves that had become a staple during his long covert training. From now on his skin contact would be limited. His senses were too special to risk sensory overload.
Wolfe Houston, team leader of the government�s secret Foxfire program, crouched down and patted the big Lab beside Max. "Hustle my man right in and right out, Truman. You okay with that?"
The dog barked once, tail wagging. He jumped up, licking Wolfe�s face without the slightest tension.
"Good dog. You can give us the top ten list when you get back."
Though the Lab had plenty of jump experience, Max still felt odd jumping with an animal -- even a veteran like Truman. But that was the new Navy for you. Always innovating. And in Truman�s case, there were more surprises. The program�s medical team told Max to expect unusual strength and intelligence, along with other abilities that hadn�t been confirmed yet.
Max checked the watertight container holding his GPS system and secure satellite phone. After that came a final survey of his oxygen hose and mask. When Houston gave the thumbs-up, Max slid on his helmet, which would provide oxygen and protection in the frigid temperatures at heights above 30,000 feet, where vulnerable skin and eyes risked freezing.
A tall man bearing a marked resemblance to Denzel Washington sprinted down the plane�s main deck. "Gentlemen, I just got a weather update." He held up a high-tech laptop and pointed to swirling images on the screen. "We�ve got a new depression west of Bora Bora that may drive in Category Five winds inside seventy-two hours. In the meantime, I�m tracking convective and boundary layers with real time analysis from the Naval Research Lab Tropical Storm Center."
"Give it to us in English, Teague." Wolfe Houston crossed his arms. "Is this going to impede Preston�s jump capabilities?"
"That�s a command decision, sir. All I can tell you is that there�s a storm out there and it�s one big sucker. Currently we�re looking at a forty-eight-hour safety window. If you want to wait--"
"We can�t afford to wait," Wolfe snapped.
Izzy Teague tapped impatiently on the keyboard. "In that case, I�d say get the hell in and get the hell out."
That was the kind of English Max understood. He gave a nod to Houston. "I�m ready to jump, sir."
Houston stared out at the faint shimmer of the sea below the commercial cargo plane. "All of you know the score. Cruz could be down there already, setting up the deal for his buyers. We can�t afford to lose that new weapon guidance system, and we definitely can�t afford to let Cruz escape again." When he looked at Max, his face was set. "It�s a go. Like Izzy says, get in and get the hell out. Try not to get yourself fried in the process."
Max got the message. Enrique Cruz had once been the leader of the government�s select Foxfire team of genetically and biologically enhanced soldiers. Then something had gone wrong. Cruz�s skills had shot off the charts and he had acquired the ability to project false images to his targets with complete accuracy, allowing him to disappear at will. But with the new skills had come mental lapses and growing paranoia. He had managed to escape from government control weeks earlier, setting off an extensive but unsuccessful manhunt. As the Foxfire program continued to work out the kinks, it quickly expanded to include service dogs on the team, although details of their use were being kept secret.
Izzy saw Max put a soothing hand on Truman�s head. "Don�t worry about this big guy. He�s already made over ninety successful jumps. Last month he got an honorary medal from the guys at the Army�s Yuma Jump School. He�ll be fine."
Max gave a crooked grin. "Hell, I thought he was Navy."
"He�s whatever you need him to be."
A uniformed crewmember in headphones hurried toward them. "Drop Zone in five minutes, sir. We�re keeping radio silence as ordered."
Max tightened his gloves and stared out at the sunny sky. No one spoke.
"Do not engage with Cruz unless prior clearance is received. Remember that, Preston." Wolfe Houston�s eyes were hard. "This man is unstable, unpredictable and he�s getting more powerful every day. We can�t be sure what new skills he�s taken on since his desertion. Hell, his adaptability was always part of his success. He used to be one of us, but now he�s an out-of-control killer. Remember that." The officer took an angry breath. "I should have taken him out last time when we were in that mine shaft with the dogs."
Houston shot a glance at Izzy. Both had been badly hurt during a nasty encounter with Cruz three months earlier. "Cruz could be capable of much stronger retaliation than we know."
Max felt the silent undercurrents that came with bad memories. "Understood, sir."
"Assume that Cruz is faster, stronger and meaner than you expect and then double that," Izzy said. His fingers idly traced his elbow as he spoke, and Max remembered that both of his arms had been broken in the violent confrontation with Cruz.
"We�ll take him out this time." Max moved awkwardly to the rear exit doors, where the crew helped secure his fifty-pound parachute pack in place. As the jumpmaster counted down the final seconds, Max briefly touched the silver scar at his collarbone, one of many he�d received months before during a bungled mission in Malaysia. Though he�d nearly died, those wounds had led to his selection for the ultra-select Foxfire team, so he held no regrets. This team made up of specially trained and genetically enhanced Navy SEALS was the finest group of warriors on the continent -- probably on the whole planet -- but they were never photographed, never congratulated and never mentioned in any press article or standard government briefing.
Max looked down at the Lab waiting alertly near the exit door. He checked that the dog�s parachute line was clear, properly positioned beside an altimeter that would trigger an automatic chute opening at 300 feet. The oxygen line was already attached to the dog�s headgear.
"One minute to drop zone, sir."
Max felt the drum of the plane�s engines and the howl of the wind beyond the jump doors. The world seemed to slow down, every atom of his body focused on the here and now as he prepared to jump. He felt his pulse spike. His breath tightened to compensate for the adrenaline surge.
When the jump light went on, he moved to meet the air�s fury, his body hammered as he followed the Lab out into the void.
Miki opened her eyes and gasped as water spilled into her mouth. She was choking.
When her terror cleared, she realized the water was coming from a broken plastic sports bottle shoved above her seat. She was dry everywhere except for her face.
Outside the plane was a different story. Angry waves slapped against the Cessna�s body, spilling froth over the window.
Vance was slumped forward against the pilot�s seat. Blood trailed down both cheeks.
"Vance, are you okay? Can you hear me?"
When he didn�t answer, Miki tapped his shoulder to get his attention. Her hand came away slick with blood.
His body slumped sideways, stiff and lifeless, and she caught a breath in horror, gagging.
"Dutch, what should I do?"
The big man coughed and Miki saw him wipe away blood with his left hand. His right arm was out of sight on the seat as he fiddled with the Cessna�s controls.
Copyright � 2006 Christina Skye