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Somewhere in the Caribbean
Major John Hollister, commander of the Wolf Pack, an elite special operations squad for the H.O.T. Watch, highly decorated combat veteran, and the only man ever to lose eight men on a single H.O.T. Watch mission, placed a rickety chair in the middle of the storeroom and stepped onto its wobbly seat. Balancing carefullywouldn't want to screw up the maneuver at this delicate juncturehe flung the end of a heavy rope over the giant log beam overhead. Gotta love these islanders. They knew how to build a heck of a solid building, what with all the hurricanes in this part of the world.
With ease of long experience with ropes, he made a quick hitch knot that secured the rope tightly to the beam. He grabbed the thick hemp in both hands and gave it a good yank. Yup, it would hold his weight.
He grabbed the noose he'd fashioned earlier at the other end of the rope and gave it a long, hard look. This was it. The end. What was a man supposed to think at this final moment of his life, when he was staring his own death square in the face? What was he supposed to feel?
Thing was, he thought nothing. Felt nothing. And that was the problem. John Hollister was an empty shell of a human being. A waste of space on planet Earth. First he screwed up his own life, and then threw away those of his men. Guilty times eight. Yup. Definitely time to check out. He leaned forward to place his neck through the noose. Just kick the chair away and it will be over. The whole useless, pathetic mess he'd managed to make of it all.
He started at the cheerful tinkle of a bell out front in the main room of the shipping company announcing that a customer had opened the frontdoor. Oh, for the love of Mike. Couldn't a guy hang himself around here without someone interrupting him?
Disgusted at the delay, he hopped down off the chair, landing out of habit in complete, stealthy silence. He stepped out of the storeroom and up to the scarred wooden counter.
"Can I help you?" he asked wearily.
"I certainly hope so."
He looked up, startled at the smooth, dulcet tones of the female voice that answered him. Whoa. The woman who went with all that come-hither velvet lived up to her voice, and then some. She was slender, her skin a delicious caramel color. Her hair would probably be called brown if it weren't streaked with all those golden, sun-kissed blond highlights. Her eyes were light brown and looked right through him to the blackest depths of his soul.
Shockingly, an emotion actually registered in his gut. Embarrassment at what she'd almost caught him doing. He reeled back from her steady gaze, stunned.
"Uhh, what is it you need today?" He pulled himself together enough to ask.
"I need something delivered. Something unusual."
"That's what we do here at Pirate Pete's Delivery Service. Anything, anywhere."
At the mention of his name, the large green parrot dozing in the corner of the shabby office roused himself on his perch and gave his wings a shake. With a squawk, the bird announced, "Baawwk. Pirate Pete is a dirty old bird. Repeats every joke that he's heard. Tells the girls with big tits, which guy licks the best"
"Quiet, Pete!" John cut him off sharply. That damned bird was forever spouting off some filthy limerick. And always to the attractive female customers, it seemed.
"Baawwk!" Pete retorted, clearly offended at the interruption. "John Cowboy is ever so quick, sees a girl and he whips out his"
"Pete. Shut up."
The woman's worried expression gave way to a dazzling, toothpaste-commercial smile that belonged on the big screen. Wow.
He mumbled, "Sorry 'bout that. Should've strangled and stuffed that bird a long time ago."
"I think he's cute."
John rolled his eyes. "All the girls say that. I don't know what they see in that feathered old reprobate."
The customer replied, "He's direct. It's refreshing. A girl can relate to it."
The way she was gazing into his eyes was pretty damned direct, too. If he planned on living past the next ten minutes, she would be the kind of woman who would give him serious pause. He cleared his throat. "You said you need something delivered? Where and when?"
"To Peru. As soon as possible."
"Well, we can package it and express mail it for you or, if it's really urgent, we can courier it down there for you. We can have it in Lima late tonight if we take it ourselves."
"Oh, this delivery isn't going to Lima. I'm afraid it isn't that simple. It's going way up into the Andes mountains. I'm told there aren't even roads to the final destination."
No roads? Man, that was remote. "We can fly it in by helicopter or even air-drop your package but that would be pretty expensive. You might want to consider having us arrange a Peruvian guide to hump your package back into the mountains by llama. It'll take longer to get there, but it won't bankrupt you."
"I'm not worried about money." But the look in her eyes said she was plenty worried about something.
His invisible warning antennae wiggled. Something was up with her. What wasn't she telling him? After almost fifteen years as an army officer, much of it in command positions, he had a finely honed sense of when he wasn't hearing the truth or in this case, the full truth.
"So when's your drop-dead date?"
The woman started violently. "I beg your pardon?"
He rephrased quickly. "When does your package absolutely have to be there?"
"There's not a set deadline. But the sooner the better."
"In that case, I'd go with letting us fly it to Lima and then handing it off to a Peruvian pack train."
She turned over the plan for a few seconds. Her fawn-colored eyes gazed deeply into his, measuring whether or not he was someone to be trusted. "If you think that's best "
What the hell. He might as well close the sale before he went in back and finished himself off. He asked smoothly, "What are we delivering, ma'am?"
* * *
Navy Commander Brady Hathaway jolted as one of the floor controllers below abruptly barked, "Commander. Come here! We've got a problem."
He descended from the observation deck to the floor of what they fondly called the Bat Cavea hundred-twenty-yard-long, fifty-foot-high cavern hollowed out millions of years ago by magma from a now extinct volcano. His shoes rang in quick staccato on the steel steps. None of the two dozen computer and surveillance technicians on duty at the rows of consoles took that sharp tone of voice with him lightly. Plus, when Carter Baigneauxa longtime Special Forces operator himselfsaid there was a problem, it was guaranteed to be a bona fide crisis.
As Brady's long strides carried him across the floor, the question foremost in his mind, though, was why Carter had told him to come down onto the floor. Why hadn't he sent whatever image had his Cajun knickers in such a twist to one of the big screens on the far wall for everyone to see? Six Jum-boTrons lined the far wall, at the moment displaying various satellite tracking maps of the world.
He reached the technician's desk and the array of monitors on it. "What've you got?" he asked tersely.
Carter stabbed a finger at his far left monitor. "I was cruising through a routine check of the surveillance cameras in the cave complex and I spotted this upstairs at Pirate Pete's."
Brady took one look at the noose dangling damningly in the middle of the cluttered storeroom. "Who's on duty up there?" he bit out.
Brady swore violently. He took off running, sprinting across the floor, leaving rows of startled technicians in his wake. He raced down a low tunnel hollowed out of volcanic rock and skidded to a stop in front of the large freight elevator that carried people back and forth between the Bat Cave and Pirate Pete's Delivery Service up on the surface. The decrepit shipping company and its ramshackle office acted as a front for the H.O.T. Watch's surveillance operation here in the Caribbean. It allowed his guys to move around on missions with a credible cover, and it explained to the locals some of the supplies and personnel that came and went from the island.
C'mon, c'mon, he urged the elevator. He knew Hollister was messed up after that last mission, but he'd had no idea the guy was actually contemplating offing himself. Brady shoved a distracted hand through his hair. It hadn't been Hol-lister's fault. Nobody'd seen the ambush. They'd all been suckered. It had been a miracle that Hollister himself hadn't been killed. The guy'd been shot in the backit had taken months to heal and he still wasn't cleared to go out on operational Special Forces missions.
The elevator's double doors started to slide open, and Brady turned sideways, jumping into the space before they'd fully opened.
The noose still hung empty from the beam in the middle of the room. The entire storeroom and all its sloppy contents were, in fact, the elevator down to H.O.T. Watch Ops. He opened the rusted electrical panel and punched the button disguised as a circuit breaker that would return him to the surface and Pirate Pete's. As the elevator lurched into silent motion, he climbed up on the chair quickly and untied Hol-lister's knots. He flung the rope away in distaste.
The storeroom/elevator came to a halt. He heard voices out in the front room. A woman laughed. Ahh. That explained why Hollister hadn't finished off the job, yet. He'd been interrupted by a customer. God bless her.
He took a calming breath and stepped out casually. "Hey, folks."
The woman jumped. Edgy, she was. Hollister jumped, too, and threw a chagrined look past Brady to the storeroom from whence he'd just emerged. Brady ignored him and instead nodded pleasantly at the womanwho was a hell of a looker.
Hollister spoke up. "The lady, here, wants to have herself delivered to a remote area of Peru. She says there are no roads to where she wants to go, and she prefers a ground insertion to an air insertion."
Brady's eyebrows went up. An unusual request. Peru wasn't exactly the safest place on the planet, particularly back in the mountains. Shining Path guerrillas still roamed the region, not to mention various drug growers and runners, and plain, old-fashioned bandits. "That's a pretty dangerous destination. May I ask why you want to go somewhere like that?"
Her expression became closed. Stubborn. She replied smoothly, "It's personal. I really can't go into the details."
"Fair enough. When do you want to leave?"
"As soon as possible."
Brady thought fast. All the shrinks had talked to Hollister. They'd prescribed painkillers and sleeping pills and declared him mildly depressed, but that was to be expected after a traumatic loss like he'd experienced. In private to Brady, the shrinks had declared him ready to return to duty. But Hollister had, as of yet, made no move to get himself removed from the injured reserve list. And something Brady couldn't quite put his finger on didn't seem right with John. He'd hesitated to put his old friend back in the field for a couple of months now.
No matter what the docs said about the guy being ready to get back in the saddle, that noose in the back room shouted otherwise. Like many experienced field operators, Hollister apparently could successfully bullshit a psychiatrist.
Brady tapped his front tooth thoughtfully. The fact remained that he had a suicidal operator on his hands. And if Hollister really wanted to kill himself, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he was going to be able to do to stop the guy. The problem with men like him and Hollister was they were trained in too many forms of killing. There was really no way to stop them from successfully turning that knowledge on themselves if they so chose.
He eyed the woman before him speculatively. Hollister was a responsible guy. Too responsible. It was the reason he was such a mess now. If he put Hollister in charge of getting this woman safely to her destination, the major would take that responsibility seriously. Enough to stay alive and finish the job. He still might kill himself out in the mountains of Peru after the woman was delivered to wherever she wanted to go, but it might buy Brady a little time to figure out how in the hell to talk Hollister into living. It was worth a shot.
Decision made, he announced, "We'd be glad to take you to Peru, ma'am. Cowboy, here, is just the man to escort you there."
Hollister's gaze jerked to him in surprise and denial. Brady blandly ignored the frown and miniscule negative shake of the head that Hollister threw him.
The woman's gaze swiveled to Hollister. Her mouth curved up into a sudden and blinding smile. "Cowboy? As in John Cowboy?"
Hollister glared over at Pirate Pete in the corner. "That's correct. John Hollister, ma'am. Pleased to meet you."
She held a slender hand across the counter. "Melina Montez."
Brady interrupted smoothly. "Why don't you go over Miss Montez's travel documents with her and figure out what visas and shots and the like she'll need for the trip. In the meantime, I'll have one of the boys bring over your gear, Cowboy."
He damn well wasn't giving John Hollister a second alone until the guy walked out the door with the woman.
Hollister must've figured that out because he sighed in resignation. "Fine. I'll take her to Peru."
But the promise to finish what he'd started in the storeroom hung heavy in his voice. Brady made brief eye contact with his best field commander, sending him a silent plea to reconsider. But the look in Hollister's eyes was firm. Implacable.
The guy'd made his decision and he wasn't budging. Brady might have delayed the inevitable with this little stunt of sending him to Peru, but inevitable it was.
Melina was a bit shell-shocked at how quickly these two men verified her travel papers, which she'd already secured for Peru. They outfitted her with a backpack and assorted clothing and gear from a local sporting goods store and drove her by Jeep to a long but deserted-looking airstrip. No more than an hour, all told.
The second manBrady, he called himselfclimbed into the pilot's seat of a twin-motor, eight-passenger airplane he called a King Air, while Hollister threw their gear in the back and helped her climb in.
The airplane buzzed down the runway and leaped into the air, bumping through some afternoon turbulence, then settling into a steady drone.
Brady, up front, set some sort of autopilot and leaned back to relax. Hollister slipped out of the copilot's seat and came to sit across the narrow aisle from her.
"Where are we going?" she asked.