I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers (2 page)

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
3.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Kee knew the woman’s name even before she spoke in that refined voice of hers.

“Emily Beale.”

***

“You for real?” Kee couldn’t equate the tall slip of a blonde standing in the dust beside her with the legend. Real or not, no woman truly met SOAR standards before Kee’d come along. That was cold cash to your dealer on the street. There had to be another story here.

“Last I checked.”

Kee managed to clamp her tongue between her teeth before she could put her foot any further down the rabbit hole. The legend told that the title of SOAR’s number-one pilot belonged to the only woman flying in all five battalions. Kee also knew for a fact that officers lived to mess with lower ranks’ minds.

SOAR pilots were as badass as the ground pounders they carted through the sky. Every hour a Special Forces guy trained, a SOAR flier trained. Green Berets didn’t have nothing on a Night Stalker. And they couldn’t fly. The Delta operators, the D-boys, okay, they were something other. Even a SOAR couldn’t keep up with them, but the crew for the 160th’s helicopters sat at the pinnacle of the U.S. military’s air power for a reason. They were the best. That meant being the toughest.

Major Beale was a total lightweight, all trim and slender. If you gave Kee a .50cal machine gun to cart around with a case of ammo, you’d be getting somewhere. But if you gave a little FN SCAR carbine to Ms. Major Beale, could she even pick it up?

Major and Major. Her brain went click, loud enough to be audible. Major Chunk-o-Muscle had smiled at the sky when this bird had swung into view. He had the shackle of gold on his left hand to match Beale’s sparkler. Married her way to the top. Hey, whatever worked. Didn’t mean she wanted to fly with the little Miss Hoity Girl. She’d never make her mark if they always kept her in the shadow of SOAR’s only other woman.

But, damn, a berth on a DAP Hawk. Even with a girl pilot, she’d be aboard some serious hardware.

“Having trouble, Keiko Smith?”

“Don’t call me that shit.”

“What shit?” The curse sounded prissy coming out of that perfect face.

“Keiko. My mama may have named me after a stupid killer whale, but that don’t make it my name. Name’s Kee.”

“Not unless you’re fifteen years old. No one knew Keiko the Whale’s name until he starred in the movie
Free
Willy
in the mid-nineties. She named you in Japanese. It means blessed child. A—”

“Don’t give a shit. And I’m not Japanese. I’m American.” Maybe half Japanese, or part Chinese or whatever, and half who-knew, for sure her mother didn’t. Two days in transit, Kee really needed sleep. She wanted on this chopper so bad it hurt right down to her aching butt. Maybe the cute copilot she’d met earlier, Archibald something the flippin’ Third, really flew the missions. Could Beale be a fake legend?

“Doesn’t matter. The name is Kee. And how is it you know my name?”

The silence landed on her as oppressive as the heat. Fort Campbell, Kentucky, could be hot, but she was dyin’ here. The heat off the bird burned into her brain. The first day in heat was always tough. The first day in heat and going on forty-eight hours with no shut-eye, that rated plain old harsh.

Only when a hand landed on her shoulder, hard, did she realize she was weaving. Soldiers didn’t weave. She blinked her eyes several times to clear the fog and shrugged off the steadying hand even though it belonged to a major.

“Name’s Kee, ma’am. Kee Smith.” A name she’d taken the day she joined the Army, the day she’d reinvented herself. She staggered away, stumbled on her duffel and dragged it onto her shoulder. The rifle case, usually so light in her hands, weighed a ton.

Beaten. Again. She’d set her hopes so high. Five years of busting butt and she’d made it. SOAR. The 160th. She’d toughed it out. Survived. Faced down every man jerk on the way up who said women couldn’t make the grade. Every crap sergeant who thought a woman only had one use in the world and then tried to demonstrate what that was.

First they hated you for being a woman, then for not giving out, and finally, most of all, for when you whupped their ass in public. Then this. SOAR had five battalions, and she’d ended up here. Even if Kee had the heart to climb over another obstacle, knowing that Major Muscle backed up his wife meant she never could. The Army’d stuck it up her backside but good this time.

“Sergeant Kee Smith!” Major Beale’s voice snapped through the burning heat.

Kee stumbled to a halt, head hanging down and she couldn’t drag it up. Right. As stick-in-the-mud as her hubby. She’d offered no “sir.” No frickin’ kowtow to the high master. She’d be cleaning out latrines until she died, a skill she already had too much undeserved practice in.

She managed to turn but didn’t speak. If they were going to burn her down, she’d take it standing. Head up, shoulders back, and, screw Ms. Perfect Size Two, chest out.

Major Prissy-Butt Emily Beale of Hoity-Toity Land still stood in front of her bird. A couple of armorers in their red vests were reloading the rocket pod. A fuel truck hovered nearby, waiting for the ordnance crew to clear.

Her arms were crossed, her purple helmet, unbelievable, with the rampant gold Pegasus, the winged horse of the Night Stalkers, dangled negligently from her fine-fingered hand. It had a bullet crease where a round had shot into the Kevlar, probably made the woman poop her pants. Or maybe she’d shot the helmet herself by accident. They stared at each other across a dozen paces of stamped earth.

Kee stood ready for ire, rage, dressing down. But the woman just stared. The smile that pulled up one corner of her mouth lit the eyes and changed her from pretty to magazine-ad beautiful. She was a knockout! No wonder she’d tripped Major Muscle. But the smile wasn’t for Kee, but rather for some joke only the woman knew. Then, snap! The smile was gone. So gone, Kee couldn’t even picture it in her mind’s eye. Not on that face.

“I know your name because Major Henderson assigned you to me, Smith. And we’re both going to have to learn to live with that.”

The Major paused. Long enough for Kee to hear the unspoken second half of that sentence. Beale was most definitely not looking forward to figuring out how to live with her.

“You’ve got eleven hours and fourteen minutes to briefing, eleven hours and thirty-four to flight. Get some rack time. And lose the goddamn attitude.” She turned away.

Kee wavered on her feet again, the duffel almost dragging her down to the dirt.

The Hawk. It filled her vision. They were letting her on a DAP.

***

Archie watched Sergeant Kee Smith from where he lounged comfortably in the shade of Major Henderson’s Black Hawk, just two birds away.

The tiny woman saluted Major Beale’s back smartly. Enough spite to it that maybe she hoped a sniper was watching and would take out the Major. Then glanced around to make sure no one noticed.

Fooling yourself again, Archie.

But he didn’t turn and leave. Couldn’t. Sergeant Kee Smith. Almond eyes. Buffed out the way even most guys couldn’t achieve, but a body that was all woman. Dark skin of the warmest shade the sun had ever kissed, like a permanent, perfect tan. Brown-black hair, with a single streak the color of a golden sun. It made for a saucy statement that lightened what would otherwise be a forbidding beauty.

With his usual luck she’d be a tramp or a prude or a lesbian, or just want to be his friend, if that.

He’d never found a way to speak to an attractive woman. Pretty, sure. But attractive, the ones who wrenched at his gut merely walking by, tied his tongue into a Gordian knot. Had he really commented on her chest? It was very nice, and rated somewhere between remarkable and spectacular on his own personal list. He had always been partial to well-chested women and that fact surprised him. It did seem rather crass after all, but true nonetheless. But there existed no First Lieutenant Archibald Stevenson III he knew who would actually say such a thing to a woman. Now he watched her from his bit of shade as if she could fulfill every prurient fantasy he’d harbored as a young boy.

Sergeant Kee Smith hadn’t acted offended at his comment, but neither had she flaunted her body at the Major as she had for his enjoyment.

Still she stood facing the DAP Hawk, entranced despite Beale’s departure. Some pixie-sized fairy of mythological origin reborn in this desert wilderness. Careful, Archie. It couldn’t happen of course, he was an officer and she was enlisted. Quick road to a court martial.

However, that didn’t stop a man from thinking thoughts. He knew himself too well. He could fall for a woman, dream of her from afar for months, and never take action. Never actually speak to her. Too much disappointment lay down that road, one he’d vowed never to walk again. He liked women, enjoyed being with them. But when someone hit the inner ring of his “attracted” button, he became a mute. Patricia in high school. Mary Ellen in college. Most recently, Lorenna, the medevac trainer, who he managed to never speak with directly during the entire two-week course.

Well, if any of those women had hit the inner target ring, Sergeant Smith had just whacked it with a bull’s-eye shot. Despite her size, there was a force of nature, a power that wrapped and curled around her filling up far more space.

He’d wasted far too much of his life thinking about women who would never be his. He really should pay more attention to the ones who wanted to be with him, but they never bull’s-eyed that button in his brain.

“What are you staring at, Bucko?”

“That’s Lieutenant to you.” His response was instinctive even as he blinked a couple times. Kee Smith stood right in front of him. His eyes had tracked her, even if his brain hadn’t. And this time they were focused where no decent man’s should be, on that delicious double curve where chest rolled into that mysterious crevasse between her—one more blink and he returned his eyes to her face.

“Nothing. Simply observing.”

“Well, Lieutenant.” Amazing that she could pile so much sarcasm into a single word. “Have you observed where my billet is, Lieutenant Professor, sir? I need some sack time.”

Professor? The nickname that had nearly made him insane during Green Platoon training didn’t bother him in the slightest at this moment. And that made for an interesting observation in itself.

“Professor?” She snapped her fingers in front of his face.

Now she’d think him a complete dolt.

“This way. I’d be glad to show you.”

“No thanks, just point the way. I need to sleep, not wrestle off some guy.”

That snapped him out of it. “Stow that, Sergeant!” Came out harsher than he intended. A little flirting, that is all she was doing, and he had shut her down hard. Very smooth.

She actually blushed and looked down. “Sorry, sir!”

About the cutest damn thing he’d ever seen, that a woman so clearly a primal force could blush. No longer trusting his tongue, he pointed at the small tent set aside as women’s quarters.

“Thank you, sir.” She headed away without a backward glance. No teasing sashay of the hips, no coquettish glance over the shoulder. Had his own thoughts misinterpreted her comment? Had she thought he was suggesting…? He’d never… But she wouldn’t know that, so he was just another guy to her.

He watched the diminutive juggernaut heading for her target.

He headed for the showers, hoping his common sense would catch up with him somewhere along the way.

Chapter 2

“When did the desert get so frickin’ cold?” Kee cinched down the cuffs of her flight suit to cut any chance of airflow up her arms. Slick, fingerless gloves helped, but she had to huff on her fingertips to make sure they had feeling. Two hours cruising in the dark and all she had to show for it was a chill halfway to frostbite. She tapped her rifle case for the third time where she’d secured it against the bulkhead. Felt good to have it near her, even on a DAP Hawk where the chances of using it were close to—

A low laugh on the headset in her helmet, just a notch louder than the turbine whine and rotor thud that was part of a Hawk ride. She’d guess Staff Sergeant Big Bad John, her fellow crew chief. One serious piece of very large man with a deep boomer of a voice to match.

“At this altitude, we often experience a sixty-to-seventy-degree temperature swing day to night,” Lieutenant Stevenson said. Okay, she didn’t have their laughs sorted out yet. He didn’t act put out by her earlier screwup so she did her best to stop kicking herself over it.

“Oh, really? Do tell, Professor, sir.” She’d tagged him with it and he hadn’t argued. Just started answering to it with those perfect manners of his.

“With the low moisture and thin air—”

“Less chatter.” That was Queen Hoity, though Kee’d been smart enough to keep that tag to herself, sounding all put out. Clearly someone she’d rather have in Kee’s seat had left the Black Hawk. Well, tough. Sergeant Kee Smith nursed the copilot-side gun now, right behind Professor Stevenson III’s seat, and they wouldn’t be prying her out anytime soon.

“And Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am?” She turned to look over her shoulder between the pilots’ seats. Beale was looking straight at her with the night-vision goggles focused on her like the glowing green eyes of a ghoul. NVGs looked alien no matter how often you saw them.

“Show some goddamn respect unless you want to walk home.” Major Beale’s voice was far chillier than the high-altitude desert air.

Kee felt as if she’d just been kicked, again. Disrespecting a lieutenant. Twice. What had she been thinking?

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, sir.” And she focused back outside over her gun. How could she have been so stupid. Lieutenant Stevenson had seemed so… pleasant? Easygoing? But this was the Army and Major Beale had just made it clear exactly how she ran her chopper. This wasn’t some forward infantry squad who didn’t care how you acted as long as you shot straight. She was in regular Army now and had to keep reminding herself to act it.

Kee desperately sought something else to concentrate on other than her current failings, but not a damn thing was happening out there.

***

The slip of a girl moved quickly between one rock and the next. Twice the helicopter had passed near. As her parents had taught her, she’d never looked at them, never tried to see. Instead, she hid behind a rock, shifting to make sure she stayed hidden from view. “Flying Death could see in the dark,” her parents had told her. Now they were gone, leaving a hole in her chest that was bigger than her heart, and she had to remember the lessons for herself without reminding.

She swallowed hard against an aching throat. She hadn’t found water since last night. But she hadn’t found food in four days. Her stomach was past growling. It simply hurt all the time.

Once the helicopter moved away, she edged forward again and peered around the rock. Some men had driven a pickup truck up here, high into the mountains, driven right by her. They had then parked it and walked away, hiding themselves out of sight. She watched for a long time, but no one moved near the truck. Maybe, just maybe, they had left some food or water there.

It was close enough to reach in a quick dash. She could get there, grab any food, and get away with no one the wiser.

Still in a squat, she raised to her toes, her bare feet aching against the cold rock.

Before she ran, she listened one last time.

The helicopter was returning. She eased back, resting her heels on the hard stone with a shiver. Again she must wait. Before they were gunned down, her parents had taught her how to wait.

She was very good at it.

***

Kee rubbed her eyes. Hours of night patrol and nothing to show for it. Tonight’s briefing included line patrol of a no-fly zone. She hadn’t latched into rumor central yet, but she’d bet something was going down elsewhere on the line. Real common to have a legman out to watch for a flanking maneuver. We push in one place, bad guys squeeze out in the other place.

Bet they pulled line watch a lot in this bird. Major Muscle being protective of his wife with his assignments and all. Kee’d just have to wait for the stray bad guy instead of the main action. Once she nailed a few, maybe Major Muscle would transfer her somewhere real.

Over chow before the preflight briefing she’d confirmed that Major Mark Henderson and Major Emily Beale had just tied the golden noose around their throats couple months back, stateside. Some big deal. Big John had said the President served as best man. When she’d asked president of what, he’d clammed up and given her a look like she was dumber than stupid. Well screw him, too. She’d been scratching her way through house-tall blackberry bushes on a ten-day training mission in the Washington State rain forest two months ago.

“Light up two o’clock low.” Kee snapped it out before her mind consciously registered the sudden movement, then a bright splash of green streaked across her night vision. If she hadn’t had the night-vision binoculars flipped down into position, she might not have seen anything at all before they were all dead.

She toggled off the safety. Her gun spun up and she had the spot tracked even as the chopper slammed down and sideways. The streak of green light, hot across her night vision, shot past where they’d just been. RPG. Nasty piece of hardware. Rocket-propelled grenade, cost less than her sidearm and excelled at taking out $40 million choppers. If they’d been fifty meters closer or she’d been a half second slower, they’d be hurting.

The harness that kept her strapped to her seat jerked against her shoulder and crotch as the Lieutenant stood the Hawk on her nose. The Professor was better than Kee’d guessed. Queen Hoity probably watching the instruments and crapping her pants. Sure, Beale was the legend, but Kee couldn’t picture Major Hoity as a hard-ass pilot.

Archie wasn’t running, he was dropping right down on their heads. A bit of that hidden steel coming out. Nice.

Kee considered letting the pilot know she had the target, had picked out a car-shaped heat signature clear in her night-vision gear to track as reference, twenty yards from the point she’d first spotted. But you were supposed to have the target you called without telling anyone. It was her job to have it wired. She did, so she kept her mouth shut. She just didn’t have a line on the shooter yet.

It wouldn’t take much to slip the ’copter around so Big John had the target instead of her, but the Lieutenant wasn’t going there. Decent.

“Jeep?” Queen Hoity, not the Prof. Only conversation gonna happen at this point had to do with the target, not Mr. Bad Guy’s choice of ride.

“It’s…” Damn, which way was north? “…at ten o’clock. In the rocks beside the road. Two rotors out.” About a hundred and change feet. You learned that pilots wanted all distances in the size of their rotor-blade sweep. Gave them comfort they weren’t about to hit anything.

Jeep? Kee spared a glance. Squared-off hood, the green glow of the infrared heat signature well spread, bit heavy on passenger side. Jeep. Been cooling for more than half an hour, less than two. Beale knew her heat signatures at least. That was something.

“I don’t see it. Bury them on my mark. Two, one—”

Kee never heard the “mark” as she unleashed the minigun on the point she’d picked out in the dark. Quick one-second bursts to save ammo, a hundred rounds of flying death in each volley tore at the rocks. The tracers lit the area enough that she could see where they must be hiding, a narrow crevice among the boulders.

The Professor swung the Hawk farther around, opening the target up for her. A searing flash somewhere down by Kee’s feet announced a rocket was away. Two seconds later all hell broke loose as the Jeep disintegrated in a huge plume. More flash than just their rocket and the target’s gas tank. Mr. Baddies had more explosives aboard the vehicle. Kee slapped the night vision aside as the Jeep’s gasoline tank set off a secondary plume, bathing the area in blinding light. She could feel the heat blast on her face as they practically flew through the rising flames.

There, visible now that they’d come around, three men down and bloody, and a fourth with a launcher. Reloaded and headed back onto his shoulder.

She opened up and laid in hard. In the first second, the only man still standing was pinned to a boulder by her fire¸ the RPG launcher flailing out of control as the bullets tore him apart. Three seconds later she nailed something that didn’t appreciate it and their hideout disappeared in the glare of another explosion.

Archie slammed the Hawk over and circled the other way.

“Check it, John.” Ms. Hoity again.

For a second Kee felt the fighting heat rise. She didn’t need checking. She’d nailed the bastards.

Then she remembered. Fresh eyes. Not blinded by rocket launches and muzzle glare.

One circle at hard gees, jamming her down into her seat. It blew the breath out of her. Though the Black Hawk laid so far over onto its right side that even aiming low, Kee could only see night sky. So, she’d watch the night sky for unfriendlies until landscape came back into view. Nothing up there but a couple stars. Moments ago the mountain night was covered with sheets of glittering stars. Yup, her night vision would be shot for another thirty seconds at least. Good call having the other crew chief check it out.

“Looks clean.” John called out.

Damn straight. She’d done good.

With a hard snap the chopper leveled out and pummeled away from the site nose down.

“Hang on.” That was definitely Big John.

Hang on. She didn’t have any choice, harnessed in and hands clamped on the gun. So what the—

Her gut slammed one way as her body slammed the other. If her eyes could have bugged out of her head, they would have. Even with the warning, no way a year of training flights had prepared her for that move. And those trainers were brutal. The Professor had some serious moxie. And the souped-up MH-60M really packed a punch.

Turned around hard, the Hawk tipped nose down and roared back the way they’d just come.

She flipped the night-vision binoculars down in front of her visor. Scan. Lean out and scan for any other nasties. If the Professor was really good, he’d fly exactly over the burning Jeep, so the flames didn’t zap his gunners’ night vision.

Give him another point. Kee caught only a bit of side glow from the fire. There, she could see where she’d set off the secondary explosion by nailing the shooters. Four bodies, maybe five, buncha pieces, hard to tell. Fifty feet, there lay…

“A single perp, plus one rotor, curled up, not spread-eagled.” A spread-eagled stance, whether standing or prone, would indicate someone trying to steady themselves if directing a weapon. Curled up meant hurt or scared.

Usually.

The Hawk twisted on its tail again and slammed down. A kid. Gone fetal, wearing the white broadcloth of a poor villager less than five feet from the open door in front of Kee.

“Grab him.”

Kee slapped her harness release, snapped a three-meter monkey line to her vest so that she couldn’t get left behind, and jumped out. She snagged the kid as he tried to crawl away. Must weigh about ten ounces. She slid her hands down the body, chest a little rounded beneath the thin, cotton wrap. Girl not boy, and not as young as her size implied. No hidden hardware, hands empty, a hard grab found no weapon clenched between her legs and confirmed the gender. The girl batted at Kee’s hands like moth wings.

Kee tossed her aboard and dove in behind as the Professor hammered the Hawk upward.

Only when she was securing their prisoner at the back of the bay did her brain register what her eyes had seen while she’d squatted over the girl.

The Professor leaning out his door, his FN SCAR carbine covering her, his NVGs down and bathing his face in a green glow. Above him, their backup team, a standard K Hawk, slewed into place with a hard hammer of blades, double-checking the area from on high.

If the Lieutenant was watching her, that meant Beale was piloting, had been piloting. So, the woman did know how to fly. To really fly.

And the Professor. He hadn’t looked like an uptown wimp, but rather a guardian angel hovering over her.

As she clawed back to her post against the chopper’s climb and harnessed in, she decided it made perfect sense that an angel in her world had the glowing eyes of night vision and stood ready to unleash hellfire from his hands.

Not too shabby, Professor.

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
3.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Crowned by Cheryl S. Ntumy
Lone Star Millionaire by Susan Mallery
Lies Lovers Tell by Day, Zuri
3: Fera - Pack City by Weldon, Carys
La bruja de Portobello by Paulo Coelho
The Deed by Lynsay Sands
Courting the Clown by Cathy Quinn
Letter From Home by Carolyn Hart
The Bootlegger Blues by Drew Hayden Taylor
A Marquis for Mary by Jess Michaels