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"They're called the Wild Bunch, Major Klein," Agent Carl Bennington warned. He pushed his glasses up on his hawklike nose and watched her through narrowed eyes. "You've been assigned to the Nogales Border Patrol unit, and we're glad to have you aboard. The Black Jaguar Squadron down in Peru was also known as a wild bunch. That's why I wanted you here with us. I need a wild woman to tame a bunch of wild men. Your credentials precede you."
Dallas Klein sat in the straight-backed chair in front of the commander's oak desk, which was scattered with reports. "Sir, we cracked the mold on Apache pilots. We proved females could handle the big combat helos, in our work interdicting drug shipments out of Peru. We stopped tons of cocaine from coming to the shores of North America. The BJS continues to be a viable force against the drug trade to this day. Major Maya Stevenson, our company commander, pushed the limits by insisting that an all-female cadre could carry out these dangerous missions. In the six years I served as executive officer to the BJS, our numbers have been impressive."
Bennington nodded and looked down at his papers. "Major, when I saw your stats, I begged the powers that be to get you up here to help us. Frankly, I don't care if you're an alien from another planet and green in color." He punched his blunt finger down on the desk. "You ladies know interdiction like few in our trade do. I was impressed as hell by your moxie, your strategies and tactics to stop the flights."
Feeling a rush of pride, Dallas smiled. "It's nice to be praised for what we did as a company of women, sir. And I'm glad to know that you're gender blind."
Grunting, Bennington nodded and ran hisfingers through his thinning hair. "Well, I'm not doing you any favors, Major Klein. Are you familiar with what's been going on along our border with Mexico since 9/11? I know you were in Peru at the time, and I don't expect you to be up-to-date."
"The shift in the drug flow? Yes, I'm aware." Dallas appraised her new CO. He had to be in his fifties, and was dressed casually in a short-sleeved white shirt and tan Dockers. His cramped, air-conditioned office here in Nogales, Arizona, very close to the border, reminded her of Major Stevenson's officemessy. Dallas's own office was always the epitome of tidiness. That was her forte: bringing organization to chaos.
"Yes, the routes have changed dramatically. I've been in charge of border interdiction for the state of Sonora, just across from us, for a while now." He pointed to the window, where, through the slats of the venetian blinds, Dallas could see the sun beginning to rise over the dusty desert. "This drug running to the U.S. border is the brainchild of Manuel Navarro, the head of the Colombian drug ring. He's the guy that bought the Kamov helicopters from Russia, and is using them in South America to protect his trade routes and operations. I'm sure you're familiar with Navarro and his Kamovs."
"Very familiar," Dallas said grimly. "We've had a lot of sky combat with those bastards. So far, it's a draw. But Navarro is a greedy kingpin who wants to expand his empire. I figured he'd turn north and try to include Mexico in some way."
"Navarro is creative, if nothing else," Bennington agreed. "And he favors air transport of drugs. He couldn't use the Russian helos up here, so he switched to the Cessna workhorse, the C-206 Stationair."
"So the reason you wanted me is because of my drug interdiction experience down in South America?" All Dallas had seen since she'd arrived in Nogales was a lot of cactus, chaparral and endless desert. This landscape was barren compared to the hot, humid jungle where she'd lived for the last six years. A complete change. But then, she had been born in Tel Aviv, and her country was desert. This was more like home, and that made her feel good. She had recently visited Israel for a month, spent a wonderful time with her parents, who worked for the Mossad. Now she was back on loan to the U.S. government, as before, and Dallas relished her global role in stopping drugs.
"That's exactly why I asked for you. If anyone knows Navarro, Major, you do. You can help us stop these incoming drug shipments." Bennington got up and poured more coffee into his mug. He held up the pot. "More, Major Klein?"
Rising, Dallas offered her cup and kept it steady as he filled it. "Thank you, sir."
With a grunt, Bennington settled in his squeaky leather chair once more. He glanced over the rim of his glasses. "May I be frank with you, Major Klein?"
Sitting in turn, Dallas sipped her coffee. "Always, sir. If I'm to be the X.O. of your operation, there has to be honesty between us." When Bennington smiled, she saw that his front teeth were slightly crooked. The knowing smile reminded her of a coyote.
"That's what I want to hear. While we're alone, I'm Carl, and I'm calling you Sarah."
"Although Sarah is my given name, sir, I prefer to be called Dallas."
"A nickname?" Bennington asked.
"Of sorts." Shifting in her seat, Dallas set her mug on the edge of his desk. "As a child growing up in Israel, I had a love affair with the American Wild West. My parents read me a book about the cowboys of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and at the tender age of three, I demanded to be called Dallas. I wanted to be one of those cowboys." She grinned.
"I see this as a good sign," Carl told her with a chuckle. "Okay, Dallas it is. You and I will work as a team. The CO. and X.O. are inseparable, and you know from experience I'm the good cop, and you're the bad cop. X.O.'s always handle the mess in a squadron or company."
"I'm well aware of that role, yes, sir."
Frowning, Bennington straightened. "I'm going to be blunt, Dallas. I've got a personnel problem here in my squadron. And the last X.O. couldn't or didn't want to handle it, which is why I jettisoned him. Maybe what I need in order to tame the Wild Bunch is a woman, not a man."
"Good discipline shouldn't hinge on gender, Carl," she parried. "If it's a personnel problem, why can't you discharge the troublemaker?"
"The Wild Bunch is composed of three men, all ATF agents. The problem is they're damn good at what they do and are some of the smartest and gutsiest pilots I've got. I don't want to lose them. But I sure as hell don't want them behaving like cowboys. They break a lot of rules and regs to get the job done. I'm afraid that if these three men are allowed to continue without a firm hand, they're going to sink to the level of the smugglers we're trying to stop."
"I see," Dallas murmured. "So it's just as you saida wild woman to tame a wild bunch."
Carl chuckled. "Sort of, but your record is impressive and impeccable. You helped to create the BJS without any blueprint, without any help from our government. And you did it successfully. I believe you have exactly what it takes to manhandle these three rogue pilots of mine. Otherwise, I'm going to have to get rid of them, and that would be a terrible loss. In particular, Agent Mike Murdoch has helped shape how we hunt and halt the air-to-ground smuggling originating out of the state of Sonora. He and his buddies just need, well, I'm hoping, a woman's touch to bring them around."
"What was your last X.O. like?"
"Agent Bailey Turner was a hard-nosed and by-the-book kind of man. He was an ex-Army pilot, and had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan before joining the ATF five years ago."
"You're saying his management style didn't put a dent in the Wild Bunch's antics and behavior."
Giving her an admiring look, Carl said, "I'm impressed with your immediate grasp of the situation."
Dallas felt another inner glow at his praise. "I often find it more useful to ask questions than give orders. Your three ATF agents are obviously a talented and skilled group. My instinct would be to work with them and observe, until I understand what's going right and what needs reshaping."
With a sigh, Carl sat back in his chair. "You're a godsend, Dallas. Your management style will be just what the Wild Bunch needs."
Dallas heard the unmistakable sound of two small planes landing on the asphalt runway nearby. As she peered out the window, she saw a Cessna turbo Stationair 206 flash by. In her new assignment, this tough workhorse plane would be her home, instead of an Apache helicopter. Fortunately for her, she was licensed to fly fixed wing aircraft as well as helicopters. Dallas was sure it was one of the reasons she'd got this job.
"Ah, the Wild Bunch is back. Good." Bennington gave her a searching look. "Murdoch is the head of the group. Everyone looks to him. He's a rebel with a cause. Unfortunately, he just went through a nasty divorce, and I know he's not feeling kindly toward women right now. Be prepared, Dallas. I'm hoping he won't drop a load of prejudice your way, but you never know."
"Forewarned is forearmed," Dallas answered. "May I go introduce myself to the men?"
"Let's meet them at the reporting area. They're supposed to file their flight reports at ops, and then we can talk with them. That's a good place to introduce you as my new X.O. and the fact I'm making you the fourth member of their group." Rising, Bennington pulled his dark blue ATF cap onto his head. "Come on, Dallas. Time to meet the Wild Bunch."
Mike Murdoch had just finished scribbling his signature on a report when the door to their small ops room opened. Brilliant morning sunlight slanted into the space where he and the other two pilots sat. After recognizing Bennington's lean, wolflike frame, he turned to the person standing behind him. Since the X.O. had left a month ago, Murdoch figured it was his new boss. The light was so bright he couldn' t make out any details yet. Unhappily, he glanced at Jake Gardner and Bob Howard, who were still working on their reports at the large rectangular table. Scraping his chair loudly across the hardwood floor, he stood.
"Agent Bennington?" he said in a growl. Usually, their CO. hid behind his desk in his office, a fact that made Mike happy as hell. The less the head ATF agent messed with them, the better.
"At ease, everyone," Bennington said, and stepped aside.
"This is our new executive officer, Major Dallas Klein. Major Klein, let me introduce you to our pilots."
Murdoch stared in surprise. The tall, slim woman in the green flight suit blew him away. A woman? Impossible! They'd ridden roughshod over the last X.O. just to get the bastard to leave them alone so they could do what they did bestfinding and downing drug smugglers. But a woman? Mike scowled as he took a good look at her, noting at once how confident she seemed, her shoulders thrown back with pride. She had an oval face with olive skin, and her sable-colored hair barely brushed the collar of her flight suit. Mouth tightening, he tried to ignore his body's response to this very attractive woman.
Meeting and holding her unusual golden eyes, Mike realized she was different, not a type he'd ever run into before. Oh, there were women ATF agents, for sure, but not in their game, and certainly not cowboys riding the border to flush out drug smugglers. He saw an alertness in Klein's gaze that made him uncomfortable, as if he were staring into the eyes of a golden eagleeyes that missed nothing.
"Major Klein, let me introduce you to our men," Bennington said. "Agent Mike Murdoch has been with this border unit for two years."
Dallas felt a riffle of danger as she stepped forward and offered her hand to the scowling agent. He was in his early thirties, she guessed, as she gazed into the glacial blue eyes trained on her. There was no welcome in his square face, his thinned mouth. Tension radiated from his body, which had to be six feet tall. Still, Dallas found his craggy face handsome, even shadowed as it was by a five o'clock beard. His green flight suit showed off his powerful male body, the sleeves carelessly rolled up to just below his elbows.
"Agent Murdoch," Dallas said, stepping forward and thrusting out her hand. She deliberately maintained eye contact, and by the way he tensed his hard jaw and flashed her a steely look of competition, she knew she would have her hands full dealing with him. She saw his gaze flit from her face to her proffered hand, obviously weighing whether to shake it or not. Not to do so would be a flagrant sign of disrespect.
Dallas waited. She wasn't about to take no for an answer from this pilot. A few strands of his short, black hair fell across his furrowed brow, giving him a boyish look. Where was the boy within him? Dallas wondered. Could she reach that hidden side of him, instead of the cold male who clearly didn't want her to step into his world?
"My hand is getting tired, Agent Murdoch," she said with a slight smile, hoping to break the ice.
He thrust his arm forward. Surprised at the warmth and firmness of her handshake, he jerked his hand away, as if burned. "Major Klein, welcome to the Wild Bunch," he muttered, though he knew he didn't sound the least bit sincere. Slanting a glance to his left, where Jake and Bob sat, he saw their jaws had dropped over the fact that a woman was going to be their X.O.
"Thank you, Agent Murdoch." Dallas turned, and as her boss introduced the other two pilots, they shook her hand promptly.
Bennington smiled quizzically. "This morning you'll give Major Klein your reports on the activity you encountered. She needs to get her feet wet." Then he looked squarely at Mike, whose scowl was deepening by the second. "Murdoch, you'll no longer be flying solo. I'm assigning Major Klein to team with you." He glanced at the other pilots. "Jake and Bob will continue to fly together. ATF regs require a pilot and copilot on our missions, so Major Klein's involvement will bring us up to speed. As soon as she's steeped in your drug interdiction routines, and trained up through your experience, she'll take over strategy and tactics on missions."
"Yes, sir," Mike said gruffly.