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By Tess Gerritsen Debra Webb
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNever Say Die be Tess Gerritsen
1970 Laos-North Vietnam border
Thirty miles out of Muong Sam, they saw the first tracers slash the sky.
Pilot William "Wild Bill" Maitland felt the DeHavilland Twin Otter buck like a filly as they took a hit somewhere back in the fuselage. He pulled into a climb, instinctively opting for the safety of altitude. As the misty mountains dropped away beneath them, a new round of tracers streaked past, splattering the cockpit with flak.
"Damn it, Kozy. You're bad luck," Maitland muttered to his copilot. "Seems like every time we go up together, I taste lead."
Kozlowski went right on chomping his wad of bubble gum. "What's to worry?" he drawled, nodding at the shattered windshield. "Missed ya by at least two inches."
"Try one inch."
"One extra inch can make a hell of a lot of difference."
Kozy laughed and looked out the window. "Yeah, that's what my wife tells me."
The door to the cockpit swung open. Valdez, the cargo kicker, his shoulders bulky with a parachute pack, stuck his head in. "What the hell's goin' on any -" He froze as another tracer spiraled past.
"Got us some mighty big mosquitoes out there," Kozlowski said and blew a huge pink bubble.
"What was that?" asked Valdez. "AK-47?"
"Looks more like .57-millimeter," said Maitland.
"They didn't say nothin' about no .57s. What kind of briefing did we get, anyway?"
Kozlowski shrugged. "Only the best your tax dollars can buy."
"How's our 'cargo' holding up?" Maitland asked.
"Pants still dry?"
Valdez leaned forward and confided, "Man, we got us one weird passenger back there."
"So what's new?" Kozlowski said.
"I mean, this one's really strange. Got flak flyin' all 'round and he doesn't bat an eye. Just sits there like he's floatin' on some lily pond. You should see the medallion he's got 'round his neck. Gotta weigh at least a kilo."
"Come on," said Kozlowski.
"I'm tellin' you, Kozy, he's got a kilo of gold hangin' around that fat little neck of his. Who is he?"
"Some Lao VIP," said Maitland.
"That all they told you?"
"I'm just the delivery boy. Don't need to know any more than that." Maitland leveled the DeHavilland off at eight thousand feet. Glancing back through the open cockpit doorway, he caught sight of their lone passenger sitting placidly among the jumble of supply crates. In the dim cabin, the Lao's face gleamed like burnished mahogany. His eyes were closed, and his lips were moving silently. In prayer? wondered Maitland. Yes, the man was definitely one of their more interesting cargoes.
Not that Maitland hadn't carried strange passengers before. In his ten years with Air America, he'd transported German shepherds and generals, gibbons and girlfriends.
And he'd fly them anywhere they had to go. If hell had a landing strip, he liked to say, he'd take them there - as long as they had a ticket. Anything, anytime, anywhere, was the rule at Air America.
"Song Ma River," said Kozlowski, glancing down through the fingers of mist at the lush jungle floor. "Lot of cover. If they got any more .57s in place, we're gonna have us a hard landing."
"Gonna be a hard landing anyhow," said Maitland, taking stock of the velvety green ridges on either side of them. The valley was narrow; he'd have to swoop in fast and low. It was a hellishly short landing strip, nothing but a pin scratch in the jungle, and there was always the chance of an unreported gun emplacement. But the orders were to drop the Lao VIP, whoever he was, just inside North Vietnamese territory. No return pickup had been scheduled; it sounded to Maitland like a one-way trip to oblivion.
"Heading down in a minute," he called over his shoulder to Valdez. "Get the passenger ready. He's gonna have to hit the ground running."
"He says that crate goes with him."
"What? I didn't hear anything about a crate."
"They loaded it on at the last minute. Right after we took on supplies for Nam Tha. Pretty heavy sucker. I might need some help."
Kozlowski resignedly unbuckled his seatbelt. "Okay," he said with a sigh. "But remember, I don't get paid for kickin' crates."
Maitland laughed. "What the hell do you get paid for?"
"Oh, lots of things," Kozlowski said lazily, ducking past Valdez and through the cockpit door. "Eatin'. Sleepin'. Tellin' dirty jokes -"
His last words were cut off by a deafening blast that shattered Maitland's eardrums. The explosion sent Kozlowski - or what was left of Kozlowski - flying backward into the cockpit. Blood spattered the control panel, obscuring the altimeter dial. But Maitland didn't need the altimeter to tell him they were going down fast.
"Kozy!" screamed Valdez, staring down at the remains of the copilot. "Kozy!"
His words were almost lost in the howling maelstrom of wind. The DeHavilland shuddered, a wounded bird fighting to stay aloft. Maitland, wrestling with the controls, knew immediately that he'd lost hydraulics. The best he could hope for was a belly flop on the jungle canopy.
He glanced back to survey the damage and saw, through a swirling cloud of debris, the bloodied body of the Lao passenger, thrown against the crates. He also saw sunlight shining through oddly twisted steel, glimpsed blue sky and clouds where the cargo door should have been. What the hell? Had the blast come from inside the plane?
He screamed to Valdez, "Bail out!"
The cargo kicker didn't respond; he was still staring in horror at Kozlowski.
Maitland gave him a shove. "Get the hell out of here!"
Valdez at last reacted. He stumbled out of the cockpit and into the morass of broken crates and rent metal. At the gaping cargo door he paused. "Maitland?" he yelled over the wind's shriek.
Their gazes met, and in that split second, they knew. They both knew. It was the last time they'd see each other alive.
"I'll be out!" Maitland shouted. "Go!"
Valdez backed up a few steps. Then he launched himself out the cargo door.
Maitland didn't glance back to see if Valdez's parachute had opened; he had other things to worry about.
The plane was sputtering into a dive.
Even as he reached for his harness release, he knew his luck had run out. He had neither the time nor the altitude to struggle into his parachute. He'd never believed in wearing one anyway. Strapping it on was like admitting you didn't trust your skill as a pilot, and Maitland knew - everyone knew - that he was the best.
Calmly he refastened his harness and grasped the controls. Through the shattered cockpit window he watched the jungle floor, lush and green and heartwrenchingly beautiful, swoop up to meet him. Somehow he'd always known it would end this way: the wind whistling through his crippled plane, the ground rushing toward him, his hands gripping the controls. This time he wouldn't be walking away....
It was startling, this sudden recognition of his own mortality. An astonishing thought. I'm going to die.
And astonishment was exactly what he felt as the DeHavilland sliced into the treetops.
Excerpted from Double Impact by Tess Gerritsen Debra Webb Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.