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Authors: Tara Janzen

On the Loose

BOOK: On the Loose
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“Piense como el cazador, pero piense como el
conejo, tambien...”

B
OB
M
AC
K
ENNA

Always good advice, from the Central American
highlands to the Mideast desert sands.
For all the change, things seem to stay
pretty much the same, don't they?

K.K.

Honey York.

Unbelievable.

She stepped down into the pool, bent over—
sweet geezus
—and splashed some water on her arms.

He reached up and loosened his tie.

Fuck.

Yeah. Right. They'd done that, and seeing her again only proved what he'd done a pretty damn good job of denying for the last four months: Once had not been enough.

Not even close.

And it pissed him off.

He didn't need this.

“Ms. York's safety and comfort are going to be your top priority for the next two days,” the flack was saying. “Nothing, and I mean
nothing,
is going to come between you, and absolutely
nothing
is going to happen between you, so get those thoughts out of your head, and if you bring her back here with so much as a single hair out of place, you will find yourself back at the
bottom
of the food chain. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Rydell?”

“Crystal.”

PROLOGUE

Peru, 115 kilometers NE of Cuzco

C. Smith Rydell refocused his spotting scope on the three men exiting a canvas-walled hut nearly hidden in the trees below. He recognized two of the men coming out of the hut, had worked with them a few months ago on another U.S./Peruvian joint reconnaissance mission, and no way should either one of the agents be at this remote airstrip hanging off an Andean mountainside so steep it defined the word “dizzying.”

Halfway to heaven and headed straight to hell,
he thought.

“Mendez,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Coming out of the hut. Wearing a black shirt.”

A dozen other men, all heavily armed, were working in the encampment, stacking cargo and doing maintenance on the eight-hundred-meter stretch of dirt that had been hacked out of the forest.

“Old Julio Mendez?” his partner asked, swinging the lens of his digital camera away from the men on the runway toward the canvas-walled hut. A Peruvian counterdrug agent, Rufio Cienfuegos, was stretched out flat on his stomach next to Smith in the OP—observation position—they'd been manning since daybreak. A thick blanket of clouds hung in the air below their hiding place, obscuring the deep green valleys of the Rio Vilcanota and giving the landscape a surreal otherworldliness. Sky above them, glaciers off to the south, rugged mountains jutting out of a sea of white—Smith felt suspended in air, just him and Rufio and a full crew of
narcotraficantes.

“Old Julio,” he confirmed. “And Carlos Moreno, tan shirt, black pants.”

“Moreno, too?” Rufio said with disgust, adjusting the focus on the camera. “Yeah, that's Carlos, all right.”

Too many things had been going wrong with the DEA's counterdrug operations in Peru over the last year—missions gone bad, information leaked, two agents killed—with the problems all pointing to a traitor somewhere inside Joint Ops Central in Lima.

“Didn't Mendez put in for vacation this week?” Smith asked.

“Yeah,” Rufio said. “He was going to visit his sister in Miami, but this ain't no fucking Miami.”

It sure as hell wasn't.

After the last agent had been killed, Smith's former masters at the DEA had “requested him to volunteer” through his new unit for a joint saturation airfield reconnaissance mission. Their intelligence had obtained credible information that numerous undetected flights were being made between Cali, Colombia, and a series of remote Peruvian airstrips hidden in the mountains around Cuzco. The cocaine cartel based in Cali had the lock on drug traffic in the Cuzco region. The two dead agents had both been assigned to the Field Command Post in Cuzco.

There were no coincidences. It was all connected. Someone in Lima had been giving away everything the Cuzco post had been coming up with to fight the increase in drug-related crime flooding the city, and people were getting killed because of it.

Find the damn traitor, find the damn airstrips, and find the damn pilot who was making the border-hugging, below-radar flights without slamming nose first into an Andean mountain—those were Smith's orders, straight from General “Buck” Grant, his boss at SDF, Special Defense Force, a group of black-ops warriors based in Denver and deployed out of a hell and gone annex of the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

“Pendejos,”
Rufio swore softly, tracking the men through his camera, taking picture after picture. “They're going down.”

Yeah, they were assholes, all right, and they were definitely going down.

Smith's bonus task on this operation, as requested by the Agency analysts, was to find the damn plane and take pictures. The analysts were concerned that the type of aircraft performing the theorized flight profiles could not be identified in terms of aviation industry standard production. Aircraft with the necessary service ceiling and range did not have the agility required to negotiate the rough terrain at such low altitude. Furthermore, the analysts' computer simulations indicated that even if an airplane with all the required attributes existed, the success probability of such flights was on the order of sixty percent. The rest of the time, according to the simulations, an aircraft attempting such profiles would either be forced up to a radar-detectable altitude, or it would crash. No one could fly that low and stay off the rocks, not consistently, not in the Andes. The odds of two or more pilots with such an unusually high skill level being in the same place at the same time were even slimmer.

No, the Agency analysts had concluded. It was one person, one pilot—but who?

It was Smith's job to find out, and as soon as he nailed the bastard's ass to the wall and had him behind bars, he'd be happy to tell him how impressed the Agency analysts were with his flying. Until then, he was looking for one helluva plane, one helluva pilot, God knew how many airstrips, and at least one son of a bitch—or he had been. Today had gotten off to a good start, with him and Rufio up by one airstrip and two sonuvabitches.

The distant drone of a multi-engine airplane coming into earshot brought a grin to his face and drew his gaze upward, away from the scope.

Perfect.

Make that one airstrip, two sonuvabitches, the freakazoid plane no one could tag, and whoever in the hell was flying it, he thought.

A very good day, indeed.

“Bango,” Rufio said.

Smith's grin widened. “Bingo,” he corrected, scanning the bank of clouds stretching from peak to peak across the valley. Wisps of the white ether rolled along the edge of the airstrip and drifted into the trees, adding a complication factor of about a hundred to any move the pilot might make. This was going to be either one hell of a landing, or it was going to be one hell of an explosion if the bastard finally missed. Either eventuality worked for Smith.

Unless the damn plane came down on top of him and Rufio.

His grin faded. Yeah. That could happen. It could happen in a heartbeat. When the wind kicked up,
he
could hardly see the airstrip, and he was practically on top of the damn thing.

Fuck.

He scanned the clouds again and hoped the mystery pilot was on top of his game this morning—way on top.

And where in the hell was he? The plane's engine note reverberated in the narrow valley, growing louder, but Smith couldn't pinpoint a direction of approach. Under the current conditions, if he'd been the pilot, he'd be following the valley upward, beneath the clouds, and would try for a straight-in landing.

But he was no hotshot Cali cartel pilot getting paid in gold, land, and more money than he could count.

The sound of the engines suddenly broke free in the morning air, and Smith caught a blur of motion off his left shoulder.
Geezus.
He ducked, for all the good that would do him if the pilot miscalculated anything—anything at all. But okay. Fine. The guy had made his point. This cartel flyboy was doing things the hard way this morning, popping straight up over the jagged peaks at Smith's back and dropping down out of the sky, right on top of the hidden airstrip—and on top of Smith and Rufio's OP—and doing an amazing job of it.

The sleek twin-engine Piper Seneca came in steep, then leveled off and streaked along the opposite edge of the strip, hugging the base of the slope through the clouds. The plane's camouflage paint caught Smith's attention for a second, but then blended into the mist as the pilot banked hard right, standing the plane on its wingtip and losing altitude. Smith could only watch its ghostly outline, impressed as hell. He knew pilots, he knew planes, and this guy was worth every dollar, ounce, and acre he was getting paid—and then some. With perfect timing, the pilot snapped the plane level in precise alignment with the strip and simultaneously throttled back just over the treetops three hundred meters from the landing threshold.

Something about the way the guy was flying sent an odd sensation sliding across the back of Smith's brain—odd and disconcerting, not quite a memory, but close enough to give him a nanosecond's worth of pause.

He glanced at Rufio, making sure his partner was recording everything with his camera. Whether the pilot made his landing or not, Central was going to want it all in pixels and jpegs.

But the landing was a done deal. Smith could tell. This pilot didn't make mistakes, not on the job. There was no hesitation in the aircraft's approach sequence, no second passes, no second guessing. This guy knew exactly what he was doing.

Exactly.

The odd sensation returned, stronger, twisting into a cold knot in the pit of his stomach—and he watched. Watched the plane clear the tree line with 25-degree flaps. Watched it flare three feet off the deck and touch down without even the barest hint of a bounce. The instant the wheels were solidly planted, the three-bladed props reversed pitch at full throttle, and the craft slowed to a halt with runway to spare.

Eight hundred meters wasn't much, but it was more than enough for this pilot, and Smith had seen it all before. The way the airplane spun a perfect one-eighty and taxied to the fuel drums at the edge of the strip without the slightest waver. The way the pilot pivoted the aircraft smartly counterclockwise, facing the left passenger hatch toward the fuel drums and holding the plane with the brakes, keeping power to both engines.

Smith had seen the skills, seen the confidence—seen the sheer, unadulterated arrogance more times than he cared to remember.

The cold knot turned to lead in his gut and started to tighten.

He'd seen the fucking plane, seen the custom camouflage paint job, the top of the craft a dull, mottled brown and tan, the underside a bluish gray, both sides making the aircraft difficult to track whether the observer was looking down against the ground or up against the sky. The dull texture of the paint indicated a radar-absorptive substance, which wouldn't make the craft completely stealth, but would further diminish a weak radar return.

Yeah, he'd seen the plane. He'd seen it explode on contact with a piece of Afghan real estate during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Or so he'd thought.

The Piper Seneca was replaceable, the paint job easily duplicated, but the landing sequence was a signature piece, literally, as if the pilot had written her name across the sky.

Her.

Irena Polchenko.

Every emotion he had froze inside him, froze like ice, because he wasn't going wherever this boatload of crap wanted to take him.

This was impossible. She was dead—and if she'd had her way, he'd have been dead, too. She'd personally arranged it, his death, put quite a bit of personal effort into it,
very
personal, the black-hearted bitch.

Yeah, she'd fucked him, and then she'd
really
fucked him. And then she'd died. He'd seen it, six years ago, watched the whole thing happen in a remote valley high up in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and even hating her, it had torn his guts out to watch her crash, to watch her plane fall out of the sky and be so helpless to stop it.

But win and move on was what he did, against the odds, to the very best of his ability, every time. It's what he got paid to do, and once he'd walked away from the site, he'd never looked back.

Never.

He was looking now, though, and wondering what he'd missed, wondering if they'd all missed something. Wondering if, so help him God, his betrayer really was in the Piper's cockpit.

A large, swarthy man carrying an assault rifle opened the hatch and surveyed the edge of the strip. Mendez, Moreno, and two of the other narco-guerrillas materialized out of the tree line and exchanged recognition signals with him. Satisfied, the man turned and gave an “okay” hand signal to the pilot, who then shut down the left engine and throttled the right engine back to an idle with the prop at neutral pitch.

“Looks like we've got a party,” Rufio whispered, his camera trained on the plane.

The left prop came to a stop, and the reception committee placed a short ramp beneath the passenger hatch. The big guy with the rifle emerged, followed by a trim, dapper man carrying a briefcase.

“Guardia de seguridad,”
Rufio said.
Bodyguard
.

“Sí, y principal.” Yes, and the principal,
the guy who needed protection. Smith forced himself to take a good look at the men, and it took effort, too much, to tear his gaze and every atom of his attention away from the cockpit.

“You getting all this?” he asked Rufio.

“Everything,” Rufio confirmed.

The Peruvian agent was young, but smart, and as tough as he needed to be.

“We need the pilot,” Smith reminded him—unnecessarily, he knew, but
goddamn.
He trained his 40-power spotting scope squarely on the cockpit, waiting for the worst—and the worst was exactly what he got.

After the makeshift ground crew of armed guerrillas secured the main landing gear with chock blocks, the pilot opened the cockpit's hatch and stepped onto the left wing's antiskid pad.

Smith didn't need to wait for her to remove her helmet before he recognized her. She was unmistakable: tall and slender, five feet nine inches of pure, man-eating female inside a black flight suit—and he'd loved her.

The helmet came off and a cascade of silken, raven black hair fell almost to her waist.

Fuck.
Of all the stupid crap he could have picked to remember upon seeing her rise from the dead, that he'd once been stupid enough to love her would have been his last damn choice. And it had been the whole goddamn problem. He'd been in love, so impressed with himself for winning her over all the other guys who'd trailed her like a pack of hounds, and she'd been working him right from the start.

She'd worked them all, and with that face, with that body, with that whole kick-ass, take names, do-me-if-you-can—and you probably can't—attitude, she was still working men. He didn't doubt it for a second.

Rufio let out a soft, low breath, proving him right, buying the whole Irena package, hook, line, and sinker in less than three seconds flat.

BOOK: On the Loose
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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