I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers (3 page)

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
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Chapter 3

The girl sat across the wooden table from Kee in the mess tent, shoveling it down as if she’d never seen food before. Someone had set her up with a mounded plate. Fries and sausage. Eggs and toast. Two pancakes and a hot dog complete with mustard, ketchup, and relish.

Some fliers wanted breakfast in the morning, some wanted dinner when they finished their night’s flying. The girl was working her way through both.

Kee tried talking to her, but her Pashto sucked. Really sucked. Okay, beyond sucked. She could say “Thank you” two tries out of three. She had Los Angeles street Spanish, mostly too foul to use in public, picked up some Mandarin from the Chinese Tong gangs, learned Japanese and Korean after she’d joined the Army, but Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, Russian… nope.

She’d requested assignment to SOAR 5th Battalion because they were based out of Tacoma, Washington, and mostly worked the Pacific Rim stuff. She’d gotten that, but to a unit that was on loan to a mash-up force mucking out the ’Stani mountains. Army thinking.

“Has she spoken to anyone yet?” The Professor, though she’d keep that nickname to herself in the future, looked all cool with shower-slicked hair already drying into curly waves of sun-tipped mahogany. He had civvy shorts with a button-down shirt and sat down like at some fine dining table, setting his fork and knife properly on his paper napkin beside his plate before sliding onto the wooden bench.

It was somehow easier to imagine him as a guardian angel after seeing him in civilian clothes. His arms and legs were the long lean muscle of a bicyclist or a cross-country runner. Despite his thin frame, he looked tough. Far tougher than his ever polite and reserved character would imply.

“The kid?” He called her thoughts back from wherever they’d just wandered.

“Nada.” Kee glanced at her. “The kid’s mouth is never empty anyway, so not much chance.”

The Professor lit out with a line of something that flowed all twisty and smooth as if he’d spoken it all his life. Spoke what might be the same thing in two other languages then shrugged.

The girl eyed him carefully as she took another slice of toast, mashed it into her egg, and scooped both into her mouth quickly, bulging her dark cheeks out like a determined chipmunk. Those eyes, bright hazel in a dark face beneath forest-brown hair, watched everyone. Like a street kid terrified the food would vanish before she could wolf it down. She ate even faster after the Professor looked at her once more.

“Mission accomplished.” Kee couldn’t resist needling the man despite his rank. He was completely out of place in a war. Though the image of being safely under the protection of his avenging-angel mode slipped into her thoughts again.

He grimaced. “Telling someone who’s that hungry to eat more slowly isn’t likely to be effective. Even if she understood me, which I doubt I achieved.”

Kee looked at the girl’s hollowed cheeks and whip-thin forearms where they stuck out of her wrap. That wasn’t just a few missed meals.

“She’ll figure it out in about two minutes.”

“Figure out what?”

Kee poked at her own eggs. She was hungry enough after the long, cold night to wolf them down as well. Maybe if she ate slow, the kid might—

The girl’s eyes widened in alarm.

“Too late. I’ll get a rag.”

Professor Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III narrowed his eyes at her as she got up. She considered warning him to move, but decided against it.

Just as Kee returned, the girl’s stomach rebelled. Her cheeks puffed for one more moment as she tried to fight her body’s instincts, then she spewed half-chewed chunks of food all over the table, Kee’s breakfast, and the Professor.

Kee slapped her hand over her mouth to suppress the laugh, not that it did much good. She handed the first cloth to the kid.

“Aww, I’m so sorry.” She tossed another one to the Professor, his dignity clearly offended by being covered from mid-chest to thighs in hot dog pieces and lumps of soggy bread.

She turned to go fetch more serious cleanup tools. An orderly was already headed her way fully armed, so she aimed for the chow line to get two fresh plates. One egg and one piece of toast for the kid, and eggs, bacon, potatoes for herself.

The kid, once she’d wiped her face, came out clean. She’d almost gone haring off like a rabbit when Kee had squatted before her to wipe her face, but she put on a brave face and stuck it out. The Professor was gonna need another shower and a fresh set of civvies.

She slid the plate toward the kid, but stopped it halfway across the table.

“How do you say, ‘slowly’?”

The Professor didn’t look up from his attempts to remove the worst of the mess from his lap. “Which language?” He didn’t sound at all happy.

“Like I’d have a clue.”

At her acerbic tone, he stopped and looked at her. Glanced at the kid.


Medlenno. Ponyat?

The kid nodded and Kee finished shoving the plate across the table. Under Kee’s watchful eye, the kid tore off only a small bit of bread, folded it around some scrambled egg, and may have even chewed it once or twice on the way down.

“Thanks, Professor. Wha—Sorry, Lieutenant. I’m sorry, sir.” He shrugged noncommittally, letting her off the hook.

“Ask your question.”

“What language was that, sir?”

“Russian for ‘slowly.’”

“Not Farsi?”

“Afghani was the first one I tried. Then Pashto and Arabic. I don’t know Tajik, Uzbek, or the dozen others kicking around this region. But I had an idea while she was covering me with her half-eaten breakfast.” He wiped off the last of it with a damp cloth. The desert air was already drying his clothes. Still they’d need a good washing and he’d want another shower.

“Just as the common language of Southeast Asia is French for the oldest people and English for the next generation because of the Vietnam wars, in this region Russian is the lingua franca of war and commerce. Perhaps in another five years, if we’re still in residence, we shall be privileged to bear witness to the next generation of war children speaking English.”

He climbed to his feet, took a step toward the water station to wash his hands, hesitated, and turned back to her.

“And on the ground, and perhaps out of the Major’s hearing, Professor doesn’t bother me. Which I find to be a bit surprising, but true.”

Big John dropped down a tray with a plate mounded high beside her, across from the Professor’s spot. Then thudded onto the bench with a sigh of relief.

“Not you.” He aimed a finger at John and headed off to wash up.

John looked after the Professor then at her. “What was that about?”

Kee poked her fork down until it hit food and brought whatever she’d stabbed up to her mouth. Her attention was all on Archibald Stevenson III. All that breeding had paid off. He hadn’t raised his voice to the kid, never mind cuffed her upside the head. Hadn’t even looked flustered as he’d dumped the worst of it into the orderly’s bucket. She liked her men a little rough around the edges and seriously built. The Professor was reserved and the long-and-lean type, not her style at all. But “decent guy” looked damn good on him.

***

The orderly swabbed the table, the bench, and even scooped up what had gone into the dirt. He headed off with Kee’s nod for thanks.

“Are you gonna eat that?” Before she could respond, Big John snagged a piece of her bacon.

With a quick grab she secured his plate and half cocked it in his direction, the sausages almost tumbling off the lower edge.

“You gonna wear that?”

He laughed and handed the piece of bacon to the kid, who snatched it from his hand but managed to slow herself and nibble on one end.

Kee dropped his plate back to the table and took a piece of his toast in payback.

“Why Big Bad John?”

“Ask Crazy Tim.” He waved a forkful of hash browns at a man sitting down next to the Professor’s spot. He was short and dark-haired, part Latino in his broad face.

“You don’t know the song? And they let you in the Army?” Crazy Tim’s accent placed him as Puerto Rican, but it was mostly buried beneath a Southern smooth like good bourbon. He turned to Big John. “Don’t they got standards no more?”

“Either way, they let her in.” John’s deep voice rumbled but remained absolutely neutral.

Kee couldn’t tell if that was an intended insult or a compliment. She’d bet the former, but getting into a fight with a fellow crew chief on her first day wouldn’t be such a good idea. Not that she hadn’t done it before. But she’d resist, especially after the Major had reprimanded her during the flight.

“Because, he is big, he is bad, and he is John. Sure, you could replace him with a tree trunk, which wouldn’t smell so nasty, but it wouldn’t be so big or so bad.”

“And this pint-sized idiot,” John aimed his fork again, “is Crazy Tim. And why Crazy you might ask…”

Tim leaned in, “Because I is one crazy-ass dude.” He was also one built dude. A head shorter than the Professor or Big John and twice as wide, without an ounce of fat anywhere. He clearly worked out big-time and she was down with that. His tank top revealed a Night Stalker stallion with wings across his upper arm, like a lot of the guys wore. But instead of death riding on its back, there was a serpent with an improbably big nose on a human face.

“What’s with the nose?”

“We’re the 3rd Black Hawk Company of the 5th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, airborne, commanded by Major Mark ‘The Viper’ Henderson, the baddest dude in the sky.” Tim said it all in a single breath like a blessing. “You are flying with the Black Adders, if you can hack it. And the ultimate Black Adder…” He tapped the tattoo of the face with the tip of his knife. “Mr. Bean.”

He flexed his shoulder, making Mr. Bean’s nose even more prominent.

If Queen Hoity Beale could hack it, Kee knew the Black Adders had to be a cakewalk. The woman had become a legend, as a woman. Kee’d show them what a real woman could do. She’d spent the last two years in training and met some real stand-up fliers. But the training-team caliber sure wasn’t carrying over to this pack of lame misfits.

“He’s Crazy Tim because,” the Professor returned to sit beside the kid with a fresh plate of his own, “he was the first one to ask for it when Captain Beale formed a crew.”

“What about you? How’d you end up stuck with her?” Kee winced at her own words. Here she was insulting the man. You didn’t call a crewmate a wimp even if he flew on the girlie-ship. She gave it a day, maybe two before she found out how much of a laughingstock flying on the girlie-bird made her with the other crews. ’Course, the Professor flew with her, and there was no calling him a wimp once you got a good look.

John burst out laughing, showing a flash of his white teeth as he rocked his head back. The kid jumped a little, then slipped a hand half across the table.

Kee took a piece of bacon from John’s plate along with another piece of toast and dropped them into her palm. “
Medlenno
.”

The girl nodded and went back to eating.

“You got the wrong image, girlie. Captain, whoops, now Major Beale ain’t someone you get stuck with, she’s somebody you survive.”

“If you are good enough.” The Professor cut his bacon in pieces and ate it with his fork. The girl watched his actions with interest. Inspected her own plate, which lacked any silverware, Kee having forgotten, and went back to eating the piece of bacon in her hand. Kid was observant at least. Some brains.

“If you’re good enough.” Tim nodded all serious.

Kee wondered how long they’d keep teasing her. Sure, Beale’d proved she could fly, but the legend implied she could do it without a helicopter because she was so damn good.

A shadow crossed the entry to the tent. Major Muscle “The Viper” and Major “Queen Hoity” coming in out of the sun. They moved in perfect harmony like they were wired at the hip, first to the chow line and then an open table in the corner.

“They always like that?”

John didn’t even glance over. “Honeymoon.”

“Do not be so sure, my big, bad friend.” The Professor concentrated for a moment, his light eyes unfocused as he considered. “I’ve flown with her for seven years, you for half a year. Have you ever seen her look like that?”

“Honeymoon.” John sounded like he was just being contrary for the fun of it.

“Honeymoon,” she echoed, because she knew it would irritate the Professor. Kee handed the girl her juice and a piece of the Professor’s French toast. Tim handed over a slice of apple.

The Lieutenant didn’t even have the decency to sound huffed, just changed the subject.

“How’d you know?”

“Know what?”

The Professor’s blue eyes, the color you could only find in the midst of spring watching new leaves against a blue sky, shifted from looking off into some inner space onto Kee, momentarily robbing her of the ability to speak. They were the kind of blue you could fly into forever, with just that elusive bit of green that came and went. And sharp. There was a real mind behind all that education and now it all focused on her. First time she’d wanted to squirm since hitting the base.

“The kid. How did you know she’d be sick?”

“Been there.” She clamped her teeth shut fast enough to click her teeth together.

No past.

Her first rule of survival. She had no past before the Army. No starving kid from the streets barfing in the soup line when her stomach rebelled at a second serving. No Dumpster diving. No begging for change to buy one of the hard-boiled eggs the local booze merchant kept in the jar on the counter for the alkies. None of that.

She looked away until she caught herself, then she met his eyes directly. How in the world had this man done that? Seven years in the Army, no one ever slipped around her guard and into her past.

There was no way he would get another word out of her, guardian angel or no. Mr. Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III had probably never been hungry in his life.
Ooo. We’ve missed teatime, Mummy. I’m simply famished.

He opened his mouth, then apparently thought better of it.

Decent of him, damned decent. Kee almost blushed about the harsh thought she’d had just the moment before. Something else she never did.

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
9.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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