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Authors: M. L. Buchman

Hot Point

BOOK: Hot Point

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Also by M.L. Buchman

The Night Stalkers

The Night Is Mine

I Own the Dawn

Wait Until Dark

Take Over at Midnight

Light Up the Night

Bring On the Dusk

The Firehawks

Pure Heat

Full Blaze

Copyright © 2015 by M.L. Buchman

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Don Sipley

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

To the librarian at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. You know why, and all my thanks for it!

Chapter 1

The sharp warning buzz of a critical system's failure crackled through Vern Taylor's headset.

A momentary panic hit him as palpably as the time Mickey Hamilton had gotten drunk and decided that plowing a fist into Vern's chin made some kind of sense.

Vern had just flown his helicopter down into the critical “death zone.” Helicopters that broke between fifty and four hundred feet above the ground were in a really bad place—too high to safely crash and too low to stabilize and autorotate in.

A glance out the window didn't improve the news. The Mount Hood Aviation firefighters' airfield was still two miles ahead. Below him was nothing but a sea of hundred-foot fir trees covering rugged, thousand-foot ridges.

So screwed!

Meanwhile, the more rational part of his brain—that the U.S. Coast Guard had spent six years investing so heavily in training and that four more years of flying to fire had honed—was occupied with checking his main screen on the helicopter's console.

He located the flashing, bright red warning. Hydraulic failure in the primary circuit.

He smelled no burning rubber or hot metal.

Several things happened simultaneously.

The first thing was being seriously ticked off that the helicopter was trying to kill him.

Vern had been type-certified in the massive, ten-thousand-pound firefighting helicopter for precisely thirty-two hours and—a glance at the console clock—seventeen minutes. It simply wasn't fair to be killed on his second day flying this sweet machine.

The second thing that happened was he actually read the flashing message: #2 PRI SERVO PRESS. The backup hydraulic-pressure warning system wasn't reporting any problems, which meant it was still running to cover the failure of the #2 pump's pressure.

Vern double-checked.

No secondary alarm.

He wiggled the cyclic joystick control with his right hand, which altered the pitch of the blades to control his direction of flight.

His chopper wiggled exactly as it should. The back pressure of the controls against his dry palm felt normal.

He tried restarting his breathing. That worked as well.

Then—with the practice of a hundred drills that had felt like a thousand under MHA's chief pilot Emily Beale's watchful eye—his left hand came off the collective control alongside his seat long enough to grab the correct circuit breaker among the eighty other breakers, switches, and controls that made up the overhead console attached to the chopper's ceiling.

He pulled on the breaker that shut down the #2 Primary Servo pump.

The alarm went silent, and the blinking red warning on the screen shifted to a steady red glow. Then his hand returned to the collective, completing everything that really needed doing.

The third thing that happened—all in the same moment, as far as he could ever recall—was the thought that Denise Conroy, Mount Hood Aviation's chief mechanic, was going to kill him even if the helicopter had decided not to. Breaking one of Denise's birds on your second day flying it solo and expecting to survive unscathed was downright foolhardy.

The pilots generally agreed that upsetting the head of MHA's helicopter maintenance team was not to be considered a life-prolonging experience.

Nor was disappointing Emily Beale, who had only certified him in the Firehawk yesterday morning. The four years he'd flown the little MD500 for MHA wouldn't count for squat if he dinged up their newest twenty-million-dollar bird.

He followed the other two Firehawks back into camp. They were the massive Type I juggernauts of the heli-tack firefighting world, able to deliver a thousand gallons of water and foam or retardant to a wildfire. Only a few helicopters could carry more, and those were all far less agile machines. This chopper ruled the wildfire helitack sweet spot.

The Mount Hood Aviation Firehawks were painted gloss black, and with the red-and-orange racing flames of the MHA logo running from the nose down the sides, they looked as cool and powerful as they really were.

The Firehawks were built from Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters. Each one was an eight-foot-high, ten-foot-wide, and forty-foot-long nasty-looking machine. Black Hawks, no matter how prettily painted, always appeared to be looking for a fight. They were the tough boys on the block, even if the two in front of him were flown by women: Emily, ex-military and kind of terrifying, truth be told, and Jeannie, one of the most competent and prettiest fliers he'd ever met.

How in the hell had some photographer guy snapped her up? Jeannie was awesome. Not that they'd ever done more than fly together—it wasn't like that between them—but seeing her look so damn happy emphasized how totally lame his own relationships had been.

Closing his eyes for a moment, Vern braced himself. Stepping on the rudder pedal, he twisted the tail of the five-ton helicraft to the side, then shifted the cyclic joystick in his right hand to compensate. Again, it felt completely normal, proving that the backup hydraulic system was indeed operational, even if his breathing still sounded harsh over the headset and microphone system he wore. He remained in formation with the other choppers but now flew mostly sideways in order to look behind him.

He opened one eye. A cloud of black smoke was streaming from his chopper. No sign of a fire warning on the instrument panel, so it was just the burning off of some hydraulic fluid that had spilled before the pressure loss was detected and he'd shut down the pump. They were under two minutes from Mount Hood Aviation's Hoodie One base camp.

Not enough time to burn everything off. Thankfully none of the fumes—nasty, astringent stuff—had leaked into the cabin. Vern realigned the controls to once again face forward and retain his position in the flight. He also managed to convince his breathing that he was back in control.

The MHA airfield and base camp lay less than a mile ahead now. They were perched low on the northern side of the towering mass of Mount Hood—eleven thousand feet of dormant, mostly, ice-capped volcano. The airfield was easy to miss among the towering fir trees and the vibrant yellows and reds of September aspens and maples.

It was the end of day, so the mountain's shadow already lay long across the camp, and the grass airstrip was not empty like he'd hoped. The four smaller choppers of MHA's seven-bird fleet had already returned, parked along the north side of the strip close to the towering Douglas fir trees that defined that side of the base. Pilots and ground crew were milling around them.

Along the other side of the field were the low buildings of the long-defunct kids' summer camp that MHA had taken over. Though much of the structures' dark wood was covered with green moss, like so much else in the Pacific Northwest, the buildings were dry and warm inside.

But were the other pilots, ground crew, and smokejumpers tucked away safe and warm?

No such luck.

They seemed to think that just because it was a beautiful, late-September afternoon, everyone should be out at the cluster of picnic tables that served as the camp's main hangout. As he neared, he could see the dots of their bright faces turning like damned daisies following the sun—all tracking the path of his smoking flight.

And sure enough, the nightmare awaited.

There at the end of the row of four already-parked choppers and the two smokejumper delivery planes was the maintenance truck. In front of the truck stood five feet and four inches of livid woman with dark blond hair down her back—her feet planted as if part of the mountain's basalt shield. Though not close enough to see, he knew she'd be standing with her arms crossed over one of the nicest chests he'd ever seen.

He could feel the burn of her glare at a thousand yards out.

Vern followed the other two Firehawks in for a landing, Denise coming into focus as he approached. Jeans, T-shirt, and a canvas vest that had once been beige before it spent years being worn around broken helicopters. She wore a tool belt like an Old West gunslinger. Damn, she was gorgeous and cute at the same time. And about the most unapproachable woman he'd ever met.

A single drop of salty sweat dripped into his eye and stung. He sniffed the air again—no smell of fire other than the bit of wood char that you always picked up flying over a wildland fire.

A glance back as he hovered, spun into place, and set his bird down on the markers. Yep, still smoking black.

Denise was going to do more than kill him; that would be too kind.

She was going to outright annihilate him.

He hoped that she at least waited until after he was done landing before she did so.

* * *

“What did you do to my poor bird?” Denise Conroy heaved open the cargo bay door and spoke to Vern Taylor's back in the pilot seat. She reached up and pulled down on the gust lock in the middle of the rear cabin's ceiling. That would keep the rotor blades from turning unexpectedly once she climbed atop the helicopter to check the engine.

“Broke it,” was his sassy reply.

“I guessed that much. Confirm ignition key in the off position,” she called out even though she could see forward between the seats to the center console that it already was. Outside the front windscreen she could see Mickey and Bruce pressing their faces up against the windscreen and making funny faces at Vern, blowing out their cheeks like puffer fish or three-year-olds.

“Confirm off and out.” Vern pulled the key free and dropped it on the center console of radios that ran between the pilot and copilot's seats. Then he gave the finger to his juvenile buddies who laughed and moved on. She made a mental note to wash the outside of the pilot's side windscreen—while wearing gloves.

She stepped back outside, slid the big door shut with perhaps a bit more force than she should have, and climbed on top of the Firehawk helicopter using the notches built into the section of the helicopter's hull that had been covered by the door. Denise began peeling off the cowling of the Number-Two turbine engine, being careful of the still blazing-hot exhaust. She could feel the radiant heat on her cheeks as soon as the sheet metal was shifted aside.

The stink of scorched, high-temp phosphate hydraulic fluid made her glad for the slight breeze that was wafting it away. She pulled on goggles and neoprene gloves so that the acidic fluid wouldn't splash in her eyes or sting her hands.

The cause of the failure was instantly apparent from the spray pattern. The side of a hose had split and shot out a broad fan of pressurized fluid. Some of it had puddled, and some of it had struck the engine and been vaporized.

Vern finished filling out his log as if everything was absolutely normal before climbing down from his seat.

“You do know, Vern, busting a bird when you've had it less than two days really puts you on my bad list.” Denise jerked out a wrench to loosen the blown hose, but in her nervousness, she scattered several other tools as she did so. She gathered them back up as quickly as she could. How had she even spoken that way to a pilot?

Vern didn't sound the least bit put out by her tone. “The few, the proud, the helitack firefighter pilots of MHA. We're all in the crapper with you, Wrench. How are we supposed to fly to fire without actually using your helicopters? That's the puzzle, isn't it?”

She shifted her scowl from the engine and aimed it down at him.

Vern leaned with his back against the pilot's door of the helicopter, staring off into the distance as if completely unconcerned about the midair breakdown and oblivious to her conflicted emotions.

It was her fault that the pilot had been placed in danger.

And Vern was teasing her about it. He was tall enough that the top of his head was almost close enough for her to swing down and rap it sharply with the wrench in her hand, which might cheer her up a bit. But he wasn't the problem, so she rammed the wrench back into her tool belt, knocking a few other tools loose that she then had to retrieve from the helicopter's innards.

She really shouldn't be aiming her anger at him; it was she herself that she was furious with. She'd sent a bird aloft that had broken in the sky. That was wholly unforgivable. Her pilots counted on her to provide safe, airworthy equipment, and she'd failed one of them.

Firehawk Oh-Three had been in the Mount Hood Aviation inventory for less than a month, and now it had blown a hydraulic line. Thankfully, Vern hadn't been in any danger from the failure—the backup system had taken the load. But she'd thought the bird was clean when she signed off on the airworthiness certificate, something she'd done every day for a month.

It definitely wasn't clean at the moment. In addition to the blown hose itself, hydraulic leaks were messy and took time to clean up. Furthermore, the fluid that sprayed into the engine, which hadn't cared in the slightest, had caused the trail of acrid black smoke that had scared the daylights out of her. She'd had to wrap her arms around herself to hold herself together until Vern set the bird safely on the ground. The burn-off of fluid had also added to the mess with sticky exhaust particulate sheathing the rear half of the pretty black-and-flame paint job.

“I can feel you aiming nasty thoughts down at me.” Vern rubbed a hand on the top of his head as if it was getting hot. Then he turned to look up at her. His lean face was rich with a summer's tan. His mirrored shades hid the dark eyes that matched hair that, in her more psychotic moments, she'd occasionally fantasized toying with. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you're planning to break something else on my helicopter, Slick. Go away. You're distracting me.” And he was. Denise had some principles, and those included not getting sucked in by the charm of a handsome flyboy. The last time she had let that happen was…a long time ago, and it wouldn't be happening now.

“Yes, ma'am, Wrench, sir.” Then he saluted, hitting his forehead hard enough to pretend he was knocking himself silly.

No matter
handsome and charming he was, she would
be tempted.

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