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Belize City, Belize
Maya Carpenter glanced around the crowd in the Blue Moon Cafe, searching for her father, a man she hadn't seen since she was five years old. A man wanted in ten countries, including this one.
Though uncertain she'd recognize him, he'd said he would know her. A glance at her watch told her he was already twenty minutes late. This wasn't the type of circumstance that allowed for tardiness.
Something was wrong.
That meant he probably wasn't going to show. She'd spent a lifetime trying to escape her heritage, but he'd sounded so sincere on the phone two weeks agothe first contact since she was fivewhen he shared that he was terminally ill and wanted to see her one last time.
In that moment, he'd been convincing, and how could anyone deny their father a dying wish? She hadn't even realized it until his call, but she needed closure. Maya had finally agreed, but now?
Doubts suffused her to the core.
She scraped her bag from the chair as she stood and rushed from the table in search of the door. She weaved her way through the dining patrons and dodged the tray-toting waiters until she spotted the exit.
Had she walked into some sort of trap?
But this was her father. He'd supported her mother fleeing to the U.S. from Colombia with Maya after the kidnapping that almost cost her life. He'd never harmed her other than with his poor career choice.
Outside the Blue Moon Cafe, she found the sidewalk rimming the street and hurried to the parking lot.
A black sedan edged to the curb next to her and she picked up her pace. The door opened and a man in a suit stepped out and into her path. She tried to skirt around him, but he gently grabbed her arm.
"Senorita Carpenter, your father," he said, his Spanish accent thick, and gestured to the inside of the vehicle.
She leaned forward to peer inside the four-door sedan and there, sitting on the far side in the shadows of the backseat, was Colombian drug lord Eduardo Ramirez. At least, she supposed it was him, though she couldn't really remember his face, and he would have changed after all these years, as had she.
Maya's pulse thrummed in her ears and dizziness swept over her.
He stretched his hand toward her, inviting her in. Either she was about to fill a huge hole in a lifetime of hurt and bring closure, or she was the biggest fool that ever lived.
She slid into the seat next to him, and the man on the sidewalk shut the door.
"Papa? " Uncertainty ripped through her as the endearment fell flat.
"Maya, my precious girl. It's been far too long since I've seen you." The man's laugh was warm and friendly, yet laced with menace. It was definitely not her father's but somehow familiar. "But no, I'm your father's worst nightmare."
"It's now or never."
Connor Jacobson peeled the catering van from his hiding place in the thick forest a safe distance from the airstrip where he and his brother Jake had remained undetected.
Throughout the morning, he'd watched the Learjet for the telltale signs it was being prepped to leave the countrypretending to deliver a catered lunch in order to gain access to the jet wouldn't work otherwise.
While he watched, the jet had been refueled and though he hoped to see someone perform a preflight check, getting by those armed guards would be tricky. Adding a couple of pilots into the mix might kill the plan completely. Connor didn't want anyone to get hurt, and that meant he'd have to move fast.
Troy McDaniels of Genesis Air Holdings, an aviation leasing company, had hired Connor to recover the Learjet, making him a Learjet repo man, of sorts.
At least for today.
The men with guns complicated what he'd been led to believe would be the simple recovery of a sleek, private Learjet costing in the millions.
People weren't usually willing to give up their expensive toys and apparently would go as far as hiding them, but employing a security detail to protect property that no longer belonged to them seemed a little extreme.
This was some serious on-the-job-training for Connor's first time, because Troy hadn't said anything about Uzi-toting guards. But Troy had suggested Connor consider using the element of surprise. Now he knew why.
The van bumped over the road, grating at Connor's already agitated mood. They hadn't bargained for this. If only he had more than two days to think this through, but he'd been informed that after that time the jet would be out of the country and more difficult to extract.
For the same reason, he'd wait to file a flight plan, and grab his clearance after takeoff. If someone got wind of his plans, the Learjet was as good as gone, taking his hopes for a future with it.
Gunning the van, he tossed a grin Jake's way, hoping to invigorate his brother, his face now a few shades lighter.
"I've come to appreciate that your charm has its advantages."
Jake had convinced a woman to let him use her catering truck for the morning, though some extra cash had been required to seal the deal. She'd been given the necessary directions about where to find her vehicle later in the day. That is, if everything went as planned.
Now that he'd seen just how remote this airstrip was, he wasn't sure they'd paid her enough.
"You're sure a plate of cupcakes is going to convince them?" Jake gripped the overhead handle as Connor floored it over the rutted road to the airfield. "I'd think that caviar would be more in line with what they're expecting."
"Relax. There are five plates of sandwiches that, for all they know, were made special for the rich and unscrupulous. They won't be able to tell the sandwiches are nothing more than tuna. Those will convince them if they question us, which they won't, and it only takes one platter to get us on the plane. Once we're on, there's nothing they can do unless they want to shoot holes in the plane. I doubt they've been given that authority."
Or at least he hoped they hadn't. At the moment, hope was all he had.
From the corner of his eye, Connor could tell that while his brother had agreed to come along at first, now he was losing his nerveand fast. Connor had invited him for one reasonhe needed a copilot to fly the jet and Jake was an experienced commercial pilot for Journey Airlines. Connor had dragged his brother away the day before he was to leave for his vacation in Hawaii. His only regret at the moment was potentially putting his brother in harm's way.
"Jake, we're posing as caterers. If they won't let us on, we'll think of something else. They're not going to shoot us for bringing cupcakes. Once we're on the plane, we shut the door and take off. Got it?"
"Got it." His brother shifted in his seat, appearing to grab on to the idea as though his life depended on it.
It just might.
Connor's pulse raced in his ears as he drove around the lone hangar on the remote airstrip. One of the guards came into view. The other must have disappeared into the hangar.
Connor parked the van near the door to the jet where the guard eyed them. Fortunately, he hadn't assumed an aggressive posture that signaled suspicion, and a quick glimpse told Connor the other one wasn't on his way back. Amazing what a van decorated in the flowering script of a catering business could do.
"Wipe your palms, buddy." Connor laughed as he spoke to Jake, hoping the guard standing like a sentinel next to the bird would see that he and Jake were good ole boys just doing their job.
Connor wondered if they were expecting the jet to be repossessed or if they were protecting the plane for another reason. If the lessee was mixed up in something requiring armed guards, it was none of Connor's business. He was just there for the plane.
When Connor stepped from the vehicle, he strode around the front of the van to speak with the dark-haired sentry. Connor tugged a slip of paper from his pocket and stared at it as though he needed confirmation.
"We're here to deliver food to a jet on this strip, and the N-number matches. Never mind there's only two jets here and this one is the only white Learjet with black-and-gold stripes." Connor laughed, but the guard didn't crack a smile.
He held out a pink-frosted cupcake with red sprinkles. "I was afraid we'd be late. You hungry?" he asked.
The guard eyed the cupcake then glanced over at the hangar. Finally he shook his head. "No."
Connor got the sense the guy wanted the cupcake, but thought better of it. Good. The man believed the story. "Suit yourself."
Jake got out of the vehicle, his demeanor a little too cautious for Connor, but then again, the guns should intimidate any normal person. He slapped his brother on the back and slid the side of the van door open to reveal the food. Each of them grabbed a tray.
The guard slid his key into the Learjet door, unlocked and tugged down the steps, then lifted the top section for them. Jake hopped up the three short steps into the jet and then made a show of entering the cabin to deposit the plate after which he would slip into the cockpit where he would begin the start-up sequence. It would take thirty seconds for each of the engines to start, but they only needed one to taxi the jet down the runway, putting distance between them and the guards, and they could start the other engine during the taxi.
Connor handed off one of the two plates to the guard, buying a little time. The guard hesitated at first then finally took the plate.
"Help yourself. There's an extra plate anyway." He gestured to the van. "Drinks are in the van."
He hopped up the steps and entered the jet, joining his brother. They had no more than ten seconds, if that, before the distracted guard noticed he'd been outma-neuvered.
When Connor spotted the guard heading to the hangar with the plate of cupcakes, he tugged the steps closed and shut them inside the jet.
Jake began the start-up sequence, and Connor watched the hangar through the small window.
Fifteen seconds and counting.
The guards appeared at the hangar entrance and launched toward them, holding their weapons in the air.
"Jake. Get this thing moving."
Connor couldn't lock the guards out, so he secured the door by holding the handle in place. They would be on him in seconds.
The door shook as the two gun-toting men tried to open it. They pounded on it, spewing curses.
The first engine fired up. Jake began taxiing the jet. The guards banged harder against the door.
Were they going to shoot? Connor held his breath and sent up a silent prayer.
Jake increased their speed until the guards could no longer keep up.
Connor dropped into the pale leather captain's chair in the cockpit next to his brother. The first engine had reached the ten percent mark, and Connor brought number-two thrust lever forward.
Gunfire pinged the fuselage, sounding like the last couple of kernels of popcorn in the microwave. He hoped the bullets didn't pierce the exterior.
"I thought you said they wouldn't shoot?" In the close quarters of the cockpit, Jake's glare felt more like a death threat.
"I guess they figure they're in big trouble for losing the plane over a plate of cupcakes." Connor thought that would make his brother laugh, but Jake's expression remained solemn.
The Lear increased speed down the runway until they lifted into the air. Connor's elation soared with the jet, his relief palpable. "Now that we're airborne, get us clearance so we can start climbing to altitude."
Communications complete, they continued increasing altitude. Heart knocking against his rib cage, Connor felt more alive than he had in months. They had actually succeeded.
He released a long sigh, his adrenaline-powered energy expended for the moment. "We made it."
"Are you saying you had any doubt? Because you sure went out of your way to convince me it would be a piece of cupcake." Jake laughed, his face finally relaxing. "I can't believe I survived that."
"Yeah, I guess I still owe you, then."
"I'm not sure you can afford to repay me."
"That bad, huh?"
"With the time you spent in Iraq getting shot down, and then flying those test planes, I'd say you're accustomed to facing death on a daily basis. Me? I enjoy life too much."
"Sorry about that. This wasn't exactly what I imagined we'd face, either."
In repossessing the jet, he'd fully expected to walk into the airport, present the required documentationinsurance, lease termination, power of attorney, the worksthen file a new flight plan and fly the plane out. That was before he and his copilot brother had discovered the Learjet had been moved to a private, uncontrolled airfield an hour and a half drive from the airport in Belize City.
That also was before they'd seen the two armed men lurking near the jet as though they were expecting a hostile takeover. But it didn't matter anymore. He and Jake had the jet now, and Connor was on his way to getting his life back on track.
While serving as a fighter pilot, he'd crashed and burned once too often, and the Flying Evaluation Board had deemed him unable to fly safely. He'd lost his wings and served out the rest of his term as an Air Liaison Officer. Then as a test pilot, crash and burn had officially become his M.O. or modus operandi.
Though most people didn't consider an ex-fighter pilot anything but a hero, Connor couldn't help but think of himself as a loser. He'd wanted to be an Air Force hero like his dad, like his grandfather, but he'd failed miserably. Maybe if he switched gears and gave up the risky flying jobs altogether, he wouldn't be the loser of the family anymore. He'd be able to get back on speaking terms with Reg, his older, overachieving brother.
If he'd gotten on track sooner, then maybe Connor would still be engaged.
Retrieving the jet would secure him the funds he needed to buy the aeronautical business that serviced the airport, making him an FBO, or fixed-based operator, and keeping him firmly planted on the ground.
Too bad the only way to get those funds had been another risky job. Too bad he had the feeling that settling down wouldn't be as easy as he thought.
Wanting to shake the negative thoughts, Connor stood to shrug out of his jacket. A loud bang resounded from the back of the cabin. Stunned silence passed between Connor and Jake.
"I'll check it out," Connor said.
Dread sliced through him as he exited the cockpit. He hadn't even considered searching the plane first. He'd assumed Jake would have at least taken a cursory glance in the lavatory since he was the first one on. But then again they hadn't exactly had time for anything besides a quick escape.
As he strode down the aisle he took in the extravagantly furnished and spacious cabin. Rich, supple leather covered the reclining seats and walls, and an elegant wood veneer, the cabinets and accent trim.
The pounding continued and he searched the compartments for a weapon. It was reasonable to expect a person that would hire security with Uzis would also store a weapon for personal protection somewhere on this rig. Connor almost wished he'd smuggled his nine millimeter into Belize with him. It hadn't seemed worth the risk, but he hadn't known then what he knew now.
"Connor," Jake called from the cockpit.
He spun around. Jake dangled a firearm from the trigger guard. "Found it under the seat."
Connor made his way back to retrieve the gun. Once he held the nine millimeter in his hands he made sure a few rounds were chambered.
Glock 'n' roll.
Jake cleared his throat. "You know what happens when we shoot guns on planes, right?"
His brother worried too much. Though using a firearm in a pressurized cabin wasn't the smartest thing, it wasn't as if one bullet holeor even severalin the fuselage would cause an explosive decompression.
Maybe just a slow pressure leak. Before Connor could return the sarcasm, the knocking grew louder.
Connor held his weapon at the ready and swallowedthe last thing he needed was a situation in which he was forced to actually use the gun in his hands.
He opened the door.
Terrified, honey almond eyes stared back at him, the woman's mouth smothered with duct tape.