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By Catherine Mann
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFebruary: Over the Persian Gulf
"We've been hit!"
The aircraft commander's words popped like bullets through Senior Master Sergeant J. T. "Tag" Price's headset. Ricocheted around in his brain. Settled with molten-lead heat as J.T. sat in his solitary loadmaster perch beneath the cockpit in the cargo plane.
Not that he even needed the aircraft commander's announcement. The teeth-jarring thump still shuddered through the C-17. Yet up to that last second, he hadn't given up hope of a minor malfunction.
Minor? The wash of warning lights blazing across his control panel told him otherwise. "Details," he quizzed, quick. Brief. Never one to waste words even on a good day.
This sure as hell wasn't a good day.
Aerodynamics went to crap. The craft already rattled, strained.
"Missile hit," the aircraft commander, Captain Carson
"Scorch" Hunt, answered from the cockpit above. "Probably a man-portable, fired from a boat, I think."
The plane bucked. Shuddered. His checklist vibrated off the console. "Are we gonna have to put down somewhere bad or can we make it to Europe?"
"We're not going to make it to Europe."
Silence echoed for two seconds, cut only by the rumble of engines taking on a progressive tenor of pain.
J.T. pivoted toward the cavernous cargo hold containing a pallet full of top-secret surveillance equipment. The technology could not fall into another government's hands. Beyond that, the stored intelligence from monitoring terrorist cell-phone traffic would give away field agent identities. "Plan of action?"
"We'll have to circle back and haul ass toward the coast to land in Rubistan."
Definitely bad. But not as bad as it could be. Relations with the country were strained, yet not outright hostile. Still, the equipment on that pallet made for a serious time bomb if they didn't offload it before reaching land. "How much longer 'til feet dry?"
"Ten minutes until we make the coastline."
Tight, but workable. Scooping his small black binder off the floor, he flipped through to the destruction checklists.
"All right, then. Stretch it if you can while I destroy as much of this crap back here as possible before ditching it in the ocean."
Then pray like hell they didn't end up ditching the plane, too.
"Make it quick, Tag. I can buy you one, maybe two extra minutes over the water, but hydraulics and electrical are going all to hell."
"Roger, Scorch." J.T. unstrapped from his seat. "Beginning destruction checklists. Get the back ramp open."
He pivoted toward the man strapped into a seat two steps away. Spike - Max Keagan - also an OSI agent undercover as a second loadmaster on the flight, another potential land mine if the Rubistanians discovered the man's real job. "Stay out of the way 'til I'm through, then get ready to start pushing."
Spike flashed him a thumbs-up while keeping clear, laser-sharp eyes processing from his agent's perspective. He raked his hand over his head, normally spiked hair now in a buzz cut for his undercover military role.
Feet steady on the swaying deck thanks to twenty-four years in the Air Force and five thousand flying hours, J.T. charged toward the pallet. He flipped red guard switches, started hard drives erasing data about terrorists financing operations by trafficking opium out of Rubistan. And somewhere on their own base in Charleston was a leak. Thus the involvement of the Air Force's Office of Special Investigation.
As he destroyed data, J.T. tried not to think about all the government time and money wasted on the trafficking investigation. He hooked his fingers in the metal rings, pulled while also pushing a small plunger. Foam filled the mother-boards, seeping out.
The load ramp yawned open. Wind and light swept the metal tunnel. The coughing drone of wounded engines swelled.
Now to finish the last of the destruction the old-fashioned way. He yanked the crash ax off the wall. Hefted back. Swung.
What a helluva way to miss an appointment with his wife at the divorce attorney's office. Sorry I can't make it, babe, but I'm a guest of a foreign government right now.
He jerked the ax free of the cracked metal, swung again. God, he'd worried more times than he could count about leaving Rena a war widow, knew she had prepared herself for it, as well. But how the hell did anyone prep for a peacetime front-door visit from the commander, nurse and chaplain?
He'd already caused her enough grief over the years, and now to end it this way. Damn it. She deserved better.
But then she'd always deserved better than him.
J.T. hefted, arced the ax over, repeated, again, endlessly. Sweat sheeted down him, plastered his flight suit to his back. Air roared and swirled through the open hatch. Still, perspiration stung his pores, his eyes.
The aircraft's tail end swayed more by the second. His muscles flexed, released, burned until the surveillance computer equipment lay scattered, split into a pile of metal and wires.
"Destruction checklist complete," he reported, then nodded to Spike. "You ready?"
"Roger." The undercover agent charged forward to push, no help forthcoming from the screwed electrical system.
They tucked side by side behind the pallet. Air and ocean waited to swallow the equipment.
J.T. shoved, grunted. Rammed harder. Toward the gaping open hatch yawning out over the gulf. Boots planted. Muscles knotted, strained, until ...
The pallet gave way, hooked, caught, lumbered down the tracks lining the belly of the plane, rattling, rolling, tipping.
Swiping a sleeve over his forehead, J.T. backed from the closing ramp, avoiding the friction-hot rollers along the tracks. "Quickest you'll ever throw away a billion dollars. Now get your ass strapped in upstairs."
"Roger that." Spike clapped him on the back on his way toward the front.
J.T. jogged past his loadmaster perch, up the steep stairwell to the cockpit. For a crash landing, the higher up, the better. Two seats waited behind the pilot and copilot. J.T. darted right, Spike left, and buckled into the five-point harness.
The clear windscreen displayed coastline and desert meeting, sunrise cresting. He plugged in his headset again, reconnecting to the voices of the two men in front of him. Their hands flew over the throttle, stick, instrument panel as they battled the hulking craft.
Scorch, their aircraft commander, filled the left seat, a fair-headed guy who looked more like some mythological Greek god from the book in J.T.'s flight-suit pocket, a book he'd packed in anticipation of the quiet time out over the Atlantic. Hell. Scorch would need to tap into some godlike powers to get them out of this one.
Excerpted from Joint Forces by Catherine Mann Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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