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Who Do You Trust?
By Melissa James
Harlequin Enterprises LtdCopyright © 2003 Melissa James
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKa-Nin-Put Village, Tumah-ra Island, Arafura Sea
McCluskey pulled back on the throttle to lose altitude: eight thousand feet and falling.
Don't go beneath ten thousand feet before the official UN nod to go, Skydancer. Strict government orders, McCluskey. The militia shoots first and won't ask questions later.
Anson had known the orders were impossible when he gave them, which was why he'd sent him to this war-ravaged island. Mitch McCluskey, code name: Skydancer. Also known as the rule breaker.
His cover was perfect, bona fide work with the Vincent Foundation, doing food drops to war-torn towns and villages the world over. He handed out bags of grain and longlife milk, throwing extras at the militia to stop them from shooting pregnant women and hungry kids, snatching food to tame their aggressive corps. He had great footage - if you could stomach watching it - of Tumah-ran men torching buildings in their hometowns, shooting old people, dragging girls and young women away with them. Boys as young as ten destroying their neighbors' homes and tearing friends' families apart for the sake of the warped politics they'd been force-fed - in reality, for control of the oil-rich shelf below the coral reefs surrounding the little island, an untamed paradise until the hated strike of black gold.
Then he'd returned to Darwin and traded the official DC-10 for his own Maule bush plane, on recon work for the Nighthawks, a select bunch of expert international troubleshooters. Answerable only to Nick Anson, an ex-CIA hotshot who'd made it his business to stop military takeovers in small nations from becoming bloodbaths. Only the cream of the top brass had even heard of Nighthawks. The heads of governments of the world only used them when they had to make public denials of involvement. If the rebel flyboys, ex-Navy SEALs and one-time Special Services or Green Berets were captured in hostile territory, they were on their own.
He wasn't gonna get squat on film this high up, with this dark, turbulent band of monsoon cloud beneath him. He had to drop lower. After Bosnia and East Timor, the world wouldn't invade another disputed territory unless there was compelling evidence of human rights abuse by the ruling junta.
Which was today's job description. Survey the hot-spot island, make a lightning check of the land for incinerated pits or half-hidden, telltale pockmarks, and bring back footage to give the government - and the media, if those in power didn't want to know. Give the disaster-hungry rumormongers the irrefutable proof of what the world didn't want to know about.
Mass graves of the militia's victims.
Like the ones he'd found and filmed in thick forest close to the Albanian border. The ones that still gave him nightmares. The dead faces still wearing looks of terror - begging for help that never came. Pleading for their lives as they were mercilessly gunned down, old and young, women and babies -
But not the young girls. They had a worse fate.
Damn, I'm getting too old for this.
He lowered the plane by the nose through clashing, roiling clouds, until the altimeter hit four thousand feet. No weapon possessed by Tumah-ra's cheap, gung-ho militia boys could bring him down from this high; but just one photo of an Australian plane here would destroy any chance of a peacekeeping force in Tumah-ra. The recent spy charges against the two Aussie CARE workers in Bosnia left the bloody taste of suspicion in the minds of paranoid dictators. The militia, the real rulers of Tumah-ra now, would jump on their current puppet boys in government to get rid of all international interference, and more innocent people would die.
So go in fast, get the shots and fly out faster.
But the weather and Tumah-ra's roughneck terrain shot his ambitions to hell. Lightning flicked around him. Rain pummeled the wings. Wind slapped the plane in the face, jerking it back, up and to the side. Clashing storms between hills, half-torn jungle and the sudden rise of slumbering volcanoes turned the flight into a crazy game of dodge-ball hide-and-seek.
What was the bloody use of killing himself, staying at this altitude? He had to drop right down, even if the local crazies started taking potshots at him - and they would if they saw his gray kangaroo mascot on the tail. After East Timor, Aussies were about as welcome in rebel-run Tumah-ra as a dose of black plague.
Let 'em try to kill him. He wasn't about to die now. This was his last Nighthawk mission.
With a little smile, he pressed his fingers to his lips and touched the picture taped to the panel. A nearly three-year-old photo of his precious Matt and Luke, the last time he'd seen them. "I'm coming for you, kids. Hang in there. I'm coming home."
Rain pounded on the wings. A clap of thunder hit right over the plane. Down and forward he pitched like a bat out of hell - and another volcano loomed in front of him. "Damn!" He pulled back on the throttle and circled the clouds - and he all but ran into a long hill standing above the streaming jungle like a dank bald head, at an altitude a slingshot could pick off. If some half-baked sniper in the jungle aimed at his fuel tank -
But he had to take the risk. For on the eastern end of the hill, half-hidden by a canopy of trees outside the thatched-hut village of Ka-Nin-Put, he found it: the best footage op he would ever get. He pulled on his special goggles, similar to night-vision lenses, so he could see clearly. "Oh, my sweet godfather," he breathed.
It was worth a Pulitzer Prize. The UN would have to send in a peacekeeping force after seeing it. He didn't want to take the shot - wouldn't if he had his way - but he had no choice. Circling the hill for the best angle he got a clear view, aimed out the powerful, high-tech digital camera built into the underwing, and started taking footage that the world would soon see.
A child standing on the edge of a gaping hole: a rough manmade crater half-filled with broken bodies.
She couldn't be more than four. Her dress was ragged, filthy, hanging from a malnourished body covered in sores and scratches. Mud poured in from the torn lip of the crater as the torrential downpour dissolved the earth around her. She stood still, wailing the same words over and over - probably cries for the dead parents who lay in that hole beneath her.
Within minutes she would fall in and join the body count.
Where to land? Damn it, why didn't Anson get him a Harrier, or at least a chopper? A jet or bird could V/STOL - do a vertical short landing and takeoff in almost any weather conditions - in seconds. Even in this tough bush plane, his chances of landing safely were almost zip in this downpour. If the ground collapsed, he'd take the kid out instead of saving her.
"Holy Hannah, this is suicide!" But he looped the hill in a mad circle for the approach, like a kamikaze on a death mission.
The hill was a strange, bare swathe about a mile long and two hundred feet wide. If the plane were bigger, he'd never be able to land or turn for takeoff. In this rain the only way to do it was to land at the other end and make a run for her, hoping like hell the militia were hiding somewhere out of the insane weather.
He patted the console. "C'mon, Bertha, we can do it!" He released the throttle, eased the wheel forward, pulled out the landing gear and flew straight over the child, touching ground a scant twenty-five feet from her. The wheels skidded on the sodden ground. He had only one chance at this. "Work! Come on, Bertha, work!" He pulled back on the throttle, easing the brakes to stop the plane fishtailing.
The trees rushed to meet him. He needed turning space - oh, God, Matt and Luke, his precious boys - he couldn't die now, not when he finally had the chance to have his kids with him again -
Then a tire tripped on a lump of rock; Bertha slowed with shocking suddenness, and Mitch hit the brakes too hard in reaction. His body slammed against the wheel; he heard a crack in his lower chest, then felt stabbing, searing pain.
Forget the pain. No time to think! He scanned the land. Fifty feet turning space, max. He locked the brakes, grabbed his assault rifle, a coil of rope and ran.
With every step more ground dissolved beneath his feet. Holes and jagged cracks appeared. He fell, got up and stumbled on, dragging in ragged breaths of agony.
Excerpted from Who Do You Trust? by Melissa James Copyright © 2003 by Melissa James
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.