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In Love And War
By Merline Lovelace
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Military Affair by Merline Lovelace
"Raven One, this is Raven Three."
The call came through Tess's earpiece, soft and staticy in the stillness of the hot, steamy afternoon. Reaching for the radio clipped to the shoulder of her green Nomex flight suit, she keyed her mike.
"This is Raven One. Go ahead Raven Three."
"Unidentified nape at nine o'clock."
Nape. Her team's slang for naked ape, or human.
She spun around, her boot heels crunching on the crushed shells that constituted the only runway on this tiny atoll in the South Pacific. Blinking salty perspiration from her eyes, she searched the jungle edging the airfield.
"I make him at fifty meters," her team member radioed.
Seconds later, Tess spotted the figure moving through the dappled shadows. He was on the dirt track that led from town, if you could call the dozen or so thatched huts perched on stilts a town.
"I've got him, Raven Three."
Slowly, she brought her weapon to her shoulder. The high-powered scope fixed on the distant image and magnified it seventy times over.
She didn't particularly like what she saw. The nape was tall. Lean. Scruffy as hell. His cheeks and chin sported several days of dark, bristly growth. His tropical-flowered shirt flapped open above wrinkled tan shorts. He wore decent-looking boots, but appeared to be missing one sock. What knotted Tess's stomach muscles, though, was the camera looped around his neck.
The camera appeared ordinary enough. One of those digital jobbies that stored hundreds of images on one chip and downloaded directly to a computer. The kind every tourist seemed to have invested in these days. But the man who carried this one didn't look like your average tourist, which made Tess wonder just why the heck he was heading to the tiny airstrip and what he wanted pictures of.
The area threat briefing she and her team had received before departing Hawaii had stressed that relations between the United States and the government of the Namuoto Islands had improved considerably since its bloody, ten-year-long civil war had ended in 1998. But here, at the northern tip of the island chain, anti-American sentiment still ran high. Understandable, Tess supposed, given the U.S.-backed covert operation involving South African mercenaries that had failed so miserably and cost so many lives. The handful of residents on this tiny atoll had been less than welcoming when a plane bearing United States Air Force markings had swooped down yesterday.
Tess flicked a quick look over her shoulder at the C-130 Hercules she and her team were charged with protecting. The four-engine transport was parked at the far end of the runway, poised for a fast takeoff. Its crew waited in the shade of the wing. Edgy and anxious, they were sweating out the return of the recovery team that had climbed up the island's jagged volcanic peak to the crash site of the World War II-era Corsair.
The team should be starting back down the mountain any time now. They'd hacked their way up to the mangled wreckage of the single-seat fighter before noon. Their initial radio report indicated little had survived the crash and subsequent detonation of the plane's ordnance, not to mention six decades of scavenging by wild creatures. All they'd recovered from the site were a few bits of human bone. Still, those fragments represented a fallen warrior who'd served his country during a time of great crisis. It was Tess's job to make sure no one - including the small cadre of al-Qaeda-trained terrorists believed to be operating out of base camps in neighboring Indonesia - messed with the people or the plane sent to transport this fallen warrior home for long-overdue honors and burial.
Her glance cut back to the nape. He looked harmless, but she'd long ago learned never to trust appearances. Anyone in her line of work who did was asking for a bullet.
"I'm moving up for an intercept," she told her team. "Raven Two and Four, maintain your positions. Raven Three, back me up."
"Roger, chief." Danny Boyle's Alabama drawl drifted through her earpiece. "I've got you covered."
Tess lowered her weapon and tucked it into the crook of her arm. The M249 SAW - Squad Automatic Weapon - was outfitted with a Special Ops package, yet was still light enough to be carried easily and fired from the hip, even when loaded with a 200-round ammunition box. After six years as a military cop, Tess could take the SAW apart and clean it in six minutes flat. After three additional years as one of the air force's elite Phoenix Ravens, she could reassemble it again in her sleep. The butt of the weapon rested lightly on her hip as she crossed the clearing toward the nape.
The brutal training program every Phoenix Raven went through was designed to provide a working knowledge of everything from international law to unconventional and highly effective close-combat techniques. In what was touted as the equivalent of graduate program for supercops, instructors took law enforcement and security to the next level. In the field, however, the basic operational principle of every security force operative was to begin at the lowest end of the force continuum and escalate only as necessary.
In this case, Tess decided, she'd start with a simple command.
"That's far enough!" she shouted. "Stop where you are."
Excerpted from In Love And War by Merline Lovelace Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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