The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.
Scroll Down to Read Now or you can also buy it here if you want to own it:
A special treat this month. In 2017, I released the novella The Sum Is Greater as part of a Kindle Worlds promotion. It would go on to spend almost a month in the Top 2 of all Kindle Worlds. After the rights returned, I considered simply re-releasing it with a few contractually required changes, but the novella begged to be more. It begged to be bigger and as it grew, it expanded into the start of a brand new series. The novel will be serialized across the summer, right here–for free!
Part 1 below is the core of that novella. Part 2 will have some overlap with the past but with Hannah and Jesse finding an all new team. Part 3 encompasses a whole new adventure for them.
Please welcome, Shadow Force: Psi
Delta Force recon specialist Hannah Tucker needs out of the Colombian jungle and she needs out now.
Night Stalker pilot Jesse Johnson aims to oblige…until his helicopter is shot down. He finds that more than a little inconvenient.
Stalked by guerrillas, crocodiles, and other jungle unfriendlies, they must learn to control skills they never knew they had — or even existed!
Together they discover an unpredictable psychic ability to project sound and distract their enemies. Though the crocodiles remain unimpressed.
Their introduction to a secret military force, whose unique psi talents lay hidden in the shadows, launches them into a whole new world they never imagined.
“You call this here mess an extraction?”
Jesse looked over at the sarcastic pair of boots that were addressing him. These boots had real personality to them—black army boots with a smooth Tennessee accent that had been battered and worn in ways that took a lot of time and would never pass a barracks inspection—so he did his best to address them respectfully.
“Sure I would, if y’all call that being right ways up.” He was still harnessed into the seat of his Little Bird MH-6 helicopter, but the boots appeared to be planted in a red dirt sky—literally dirt, and it was definitely red. If he’d died and they’d buried him, it would have been a kindness if they’d at least put him in a coffin first. The legs strapped into those boots dangled downward—dimly lit by a combination of moonlight and the wash of the small cabin light he’d turned on.
The night was quiet except for the lazy ticking of hot metal cooling slowly. Instead of the sharp bite of Jet A fuel—the crashworthy tanks had turned out to actually be crashworthy, which he appreciated—he smelled…rotting leaves.
A face bent up to look at him. It was a slim, fresh face with long blonde hair that rose in a tangled wave toward the dirt-y sky rather than dangling downward as it should have. The eyes were hidden by night-vision goggles. Blue eyes would go well with that face. Hazel too.
He wondered if the eyes would be more or less sarcastic than the boots.
“Well, you’re alive. That’s something.” Sarcasm levels roughly equal.
“It is my preferred condition.”
“As opposed to being dead?”
“Absolutely.” Something was puzzling Jesse about this whole conversation, but he was having trouble putting his finger on exactly what.
“And the upside-down part of this lame excuse for an extraction?” The face smiled at him—just a frown turned upside down. That was Momma talking, but he was fairly sure she wasn’t here. Actually, Momma had died on the same operating table where he’d been born, but he often held conversations with her in his head. At least when he was younger he had. The echoes of them had stuck with him.
He looked around. Nope, she wasn’t here—another proof that he was still alive. He didn’t expect to meet her until he hit the pearly gates that Sunday School had promised him. Also, the way he’d always imagined her, she didn’t have such a gut-grabbing Tennessee accent, more a soft Texan twang. Unless they’d relocated San Antonio while he was otherwise distracted, which was a possibility. But…
Oh! He’d missed that he was the one who was upside down, dangling from his seat harness—rather than the boots hanging from the red dirt sky. Which actually made far more sense now that he thought about it. Then he remembered having his helicopter’s tail rotor shot out and the tumbling fall. The skidding, rolling (a couple times end-over-end, he seemed to recall) crash landing came back on instant replay and he wished it hadn’t. Near-death experiences weren’t much more fun in memory than while they were actually happening. He slapped the seat harness release and crashed down onto his head. Thankfully, in a crumpled Little Bird helicopter, that wasn’t very far.
It would have hurt even less if he’d still been wearing his helmet.
Oh. That explained the problem he’d been puzzling at when the sarcastic boots arrived and started talking with that smooth accent—though he’d forgotten about it until just now. He’d taken his helmet off—after the crashing and rolling bit had been done with—and set it atop the cyclic joystick just the way he always did at the end of any mission. Then the helmet had taken off like a rocket and banged into the ceiling. Except it wasn’t the ceiling anymore because his helicopter was upside down. Gravity, not a mysteriously jet-powered helmet trying to launch into orbit. It all made much more sense now that his world had righted itself once more.
He untangled himself, found his helmet, and crawled out of his helo to face the sarcastic boots and the smiling (or frowning) visage that he expected to find at the other end of the equation. The projection of tactical information on the inside of his helmet’s visor had died along with his helo. He tossed the helmet back inside, then folded his hands over the rifle slung across his chest with the stock folded. His attempt to stand failed miserably and he collapsed back against the side of his helo.
Standing didn’t work so well when his knees were proving their dislike of the sudden change in orientation. Maybe he’d just sit for a while.
At least he was now on the dirt—rather than under it. Much better. To pass the time, he inspected the boots. Right-side up made them look far more sensible—at least as sensible as non-cowboy boots ever were.
He eased the collar of his flightsuit against the pounding humidity of the jungle. Now he could hear the jungle even if he couldn’t see where it lay beyond his tiny pool of light. Animal noises, lots of them, sounded from one tree to the next—though they tapered off even as he listened.
Back to the boots. Legs in jungle camouflage rose from them in a perfectly normal manner. But then the whole image went sideways again.
“Several possibilities,” he said aloud. “Either I knocked my head right hard, the moonlight is playing some strange tricks on this country boy, or you’re a person of the female persuasion.” He’d been told to extract a Delta Force operator doing deep recon in the Colombian jungle. But Delta didn’t have women that he knew about.
“Door Number Three.”
“Okay, ma’am. I guess I’ll take your word for that.” What he could see for himself by the limited reach of the dim cabin light supported her claim. A vest filled with multiple magazines and a pair of handguns—one in the unusual gut-center holster of a Delta operator. An HK416 sniper rifle over the shoulder. Eyes still hidden by the NVGs that cast a light green glow on her cheeks—atypically, it tinted her skin glorious-elf rather than ghoulish-zombie. The long blonde hair brushing past the operator’s shoulders wasn’t a giveaway either, as Delta Force often wore it that way—frequently with beards, though maybe not in her case, what with being a female-type person.
That’s when he remembered that he had a backup set of NVGs himself. He reached up and found them in the pouch beside his upside-down seat. Definitely female was the first thing he noticed when he pulled them on—armed to the teeth, but no male operator had slim curves like that.
“Can you walk?”
“Maybe,” he wasn’t sure that it was something he wanted to test at the moment. His knees were still shaking from just how close he’d come to dying in the last few minutes. “Why?”
“Because the guerillas who shot down your helicopter are bound to be coming to see who came with it. They’re very heavily armed as a habit and I expect you wouldn’t be real glad to meet them. This group is particularly twitchy because they aren’t supposed to be here…which is why I’m here. Except I don’t want to be here anymore, which is why you’re here, for all the good it’s not doing me. However, we can just sit here jawing if that’s the way you want go down.” Sarcasm levels were high. Wasn’t that supposed to be “confidence levels were high”? Maybe not. He was sitting on his butt in the red Colombian dirt surrounded by gun-toting bad guys, after all.
He was right about the Tennessee, though. Reese Witherspoon would look good in that accent. Of course Reese looked good in just about anything.
“We’d best be moving along, you hear?”
“Oh. Right. Hang on, ma’am.” He crawled back into the helo.
The FARC had been seriously bad news. The guerilla revolutionary army of Colombia had financed itself with drugs and kidnapping and were never known for kindness to strangers—especially not military ones. When the FARC leaders had made peace with the government after fifty-two years of fighting, certain elements were very upset. The worst of them had formed the Nuevo Ejército Revolucionario Colombia—New Revolutionary Army of Colombia, or NERC.
“How are you at counting to thirty?” Jesse called back to Ms. Could-pass-for-Reese-in-military-gear. Jesse knew he couldn’t trust his own abilities at the moment, just in case he had been concussed.
“Just fine. Why?”
He yanked the safety pin and pressed the trigger on the self-destruct charges on the Little Bird and then patted it on the console hanging from the floor. Or perhaps he should now call it the ceiling. Didn’t really matter, in thirty seconds it would no longer exist in either form.
“So long, buddy,” he whispered to his helo and crawled back into the open. Jesse made it to his feet and felt much steadier than his first attempt.
“Five,” she announced.
“Which way do we go?”
She pointed west into the darkness; the direction he’d flown in from.
“I have a suggestion,” he took a deep breath to steady himself, which was of depressingly little help. No time for another one.
“What’s that? Ten.”
# # #
Hannah cursed, grabbed the pilot’s upper arm, and broke into a sprint. He wasn’t particularly steady on his feet, but his long legs helped him keep up.
She should have realized that, even rattled from the crash, he knew enough to destroy something as sensitive as a Night Stalkers helicopter. The US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment flew very specialized and valuable equipment—none of which could be allowed to fall into the rebels’ hands. But he might have been a little clearer in warning her before pulling the pin.
“Fifteen!” She should be counting down, not up.
They sprinted back up the furrow his crash had dug through the small jungle clearing. When she’d seen the RPG take out the tail rotor on her ride home, she’d never expected to find anyone alive. Any normal, merely human pilot would have signed paid-and-delivered with that kind of damage. But he wasn’t any mortal human, he was a Night Stalker. Somehow he’d salvaged the situation enough to live to tell about it. Hadn’t crashed his sense of humor either—something far too rare in men.
“Why this way?” He seemed to be finding his stride and she had to hustle to keep up with his long legs in their race for the tall trees.
“Ten!” She was counting in the proper direction now. “They won’t expect you to backtrack toward the people who shot you down.” She aimed straight for the NERC camp, which lay less than a kilometer away. It was the best deception she could come up with on twenty seconds’ notice. The guerillas would rush blindingly to the crash site, hoping for a hostage. Not finding one, they’d assume the pilot had continued to run away from the point of attack. They’d never guess that he—they—would be hiding out on the same side of the clearing as their own camp.
“Toward?” His voice came out in a squeak.
“Five!” She did her best to reinforce that it was far too late for questions.
“My hat!” The pilot spun on his heel.
Because she hadn’t let go of his sleeve—four—as they sprinted, she was spun around and almost flew aside. Three. Her grip held and she continued the spin to drag him back in their original direction despite his greater height and mass—two—and slammed him to the ground behind a tree.
The jungle blew up!
White light sheeted into the trees, which chopped it into searchlight beams momentarily brighter than sunlight.
No need for her NVGs, she flipped them up—a massive fire now lit the entire clearing brilliantly as the helo’s fuel torched off as well with a second gut-punching thump!
Silhouetted against the glow were a half dozen NERC who had rushed into the clearing from just fifty meters past their own exit point. The force of the explosion was enough to tumble the guerillas to the ground, but they’d been too far away to do her the courtesy of dying.
Hannah unlimbered her rifle as a secondary explosion breached a fuel tank and the helo really shredded. Two of the NERC were down from shrapnel. In moments she’d shot the two standing farthest away—one male, one female. Didn’t matter. Their troops were typically a third female, and most of them made the men look mild. They wore hard-ass chiquita like a badge of righteous honor.
As soon as the roar of the explosion had washed by—while bits and pieces of helicopter were still whistling past, catching tree trunks with harsh thwaps—the Colombian jungle roared awake. Birds, parrots (a whole separate class of animal way cooler than mere birds—she loved to watch them play when she was stuck immobile in some strategic hiding spot), shrieking monkeys (a whole class of animal she could do without), even a roaring jaguar (a beast she never wanted to meet in person), created a cacophony that would mask any sound. Not that her silenced rifle made much more than a soft click when fired.
Hannah took advantage of the distraction to drop the next two farthest guerillas. They’d think the shooter was over on the opposite side of the clearing, taking out the nearest targets.
There was a sharp clack of metal close beside her. The pilot had just unfolded the stock of his FN-SCAR combat assault rifle.
“No!” She slapped down on the barrel as he fired.
Instead of sheeting out a gout of muzzle flame to tell the rebels their exact location, the round blasted into the dirt close in front of them. Both of them spent the next few seconds spitting out the blown-back powdery dirt—thick with the taste of loam and the high iron content that turned it rust-red.
“Not without a flash suppressor, you idiot, unless you want them to see us,” she shouted over the ongoing jungle madness. “Don’t you have any survival instincts?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” he reached into a thigh pocket and slipped on a suppressor that would also nearly silence the weapon. “S’pose I’m still just a touch rattled.”
“Lie still. Don’t do anything until I say.”
They lay in silence and watched as the lone remaining NERC wandered about the clearing. He checked his comrades. The two who had gone down during the explosion weren’t getting back up. Then he found the first of the bodies, each with two holes in his head and one in the heart. That captured his attention.
Jolting up, he began scanning the firelit far side of the clearing just as she’d planned.
Hannah could feel the pilot staring his question at her.
She just shook her head. Some itch kept her from dropping the last man. The guerilla had no night-vision gear, so there was no chance of him spotting them.
Then, a flashlight’s beam swung by less than three meters beyond their barrels. It was soon followed by a NERC patrol. She and the pilot lay in the center of the secondary team.
This was so not good.
# # #
Jesse held his breath and wondered how much it hurt to die. He could hear the crunch of leaves beneath the guerillas’ boots. Whispered Spanish. Animals still screaming up in the trees…a whole world away.
At a soft sound to the right, the flashlight beam—which had been arcing toward him—slashed away even as it lit his hand. There was nothing over there that Jesse could see, but it definitely held the guerilla’s attention.
The NERC flowed around them to both sides. The two of them were horribly exposed; no ghillie suits that snipers used for hiding themselves, not even leaves and branches piled over them. All he could do was lie still and pray.
Somehow, in all his years of service, the enemy had never been so close he could touch them. Could smell them going past—from both the long sweaty day and the highly spiced meal that he must have so rudely interrupted by getting shot down.
Jesse’s stomach had the temerity to growl—he really needed to remember to eat before a mission—but thankfully his Little Bird bonfire chose that moment to find something else to blow up as the helicopter continued through the stages of its immolation. The guerillas were far more intent on what was going on in the clearing than right at their feet.
Another light swung in from the left, but again veered aside to track a soft click barely loud enough to hear. Each time a light came toward their wholly exposed position, there was always some sound to distract them away.
Their accents were so thick as they shouted above the ongoing explosions—both mechanical and arboreal—that he could only catch a word here and there. That, and his Spanish was much worse than his Farsi. Regrettably his Farsi sucked almost as badly as his Arabic. Helicopter pilots weren’t usually worried about blending in down on the ground and his last three deployments had been in Afghanistan.
The Delta operator shoved her rifle down into the leaves accumulated around the tree they were lying beneath. He did the same. It hid the potentially reflective metal, though they both kept their safeties off and their grips on the handles. The rough polymer and the cool metal of the trigger lent absolutely no comfort at all.
Once it was obvious that the guerillas were all in the clearing and cautiously searching the far tree line for “the pilot’s escape route,” he risked a whisper.
“The ghosts are definitely on our side tonight.”
“Ghosts?” She didn’t take her attention off the guerillas. There was now a full platoon-strength force of thirty bad-asses in the clearing. About a quarter of them were some of the bad-assedest—most bad-assed? baddest-assed?—women he’d ever seen, if he didn’t count the Tennessean Delta operator standing in for Reese Witherspoon at his side. Even with the sarcastic boots on their side, taking on the NERC would definitely be a no-win scenario.
“Do you have a better explanation?”
“For the sounds that kept distracting their attention sideways every time they came close.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“They weren’t loud, but I heard them just fine.” Jesse puzzled at that. Delta operators weren’t known for missing details. He still felt disoriented by the events of the last fifteen minutes, but he wasn’t concussed. No headache. No blurred vision. The sounds that had distracted the guerillas’ attention to either side of their not-so-much-a-hiding-place position had definitely been real.
“There are a lot of strange sounds in the jungle,” she dismissed his concerns with a whispered shrug. The noises from the burning helicopter were diminishing and he could start making out more of the Spanish being bandied about the field. They kept yelling to find the shooter, but their attention was still on the far side of the clearing. Mostly.
Because the fire was dying back from bomb to bonfire, he pulled his NVGs back down and spotted two nasty-looking NERC easing around the clearing perimeter, circumnavigating it just inside the tree line. On their present course, they were going to walk right over his and the Delta’s butts, which was going to be uncomfortable on several levels.
He pointed them out to her and she pulled down her goggles as well.
This time he was listening for it and heard the “ghost” distinctly—it sounded like a cross between a voice and a cracking tree branch. It was farther into the jungle and drew the search team deeper into the trees, circling behind their own position before continuing out the other side.
“Surely you heard that,” he whispered when they were well clear. “Cracking branch, definitely. Maybe even a voice.”
“Not a thing. You trying to freak me out?”
“Hey, I’m not the one being protected by ghosts.” Except he was, because he was lying in the dirt next to her. He tried to figure out how to unwind and repair that last sentence but finally decided that keeping his mouth shut was the best bolster to his argument.
She turned to him. Maybe light brown eyes rather than blue hid behind the NVGs…though they still didn’t feel any less sarcastic than the boots.
“I’m not imagining things. Seriously, there are a lot of very convenient sounds in this jungle tonight.”
She turned back to watching the others. “I’ve always had good luck hiding on patrol. I was just hoping that you didn’t jinx that.”
“Bet you were top of your SERE class.”
Her silence didn’t deny the charge. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training was a brutal course designed to humble Special Operations soldiers about how poor their survival skills actually were if stuck behind enemy lines. The thing he’d hated most was the Resistance phase—not giving away critical information under interrogation. The instructors weren’t paid to be kind, but he’d bet that the guerillas would be much worse.
“How do you do it?”
“What?” She kept her attention on the NERC who were fanning out to move off into the jungle on the far, eastern side of the clearing.
“Create your ghosts?” Their whispered conversation was definitely getting surreal. Do you believe in ghosts? was a question for starry-night campfire storytelling, not life-and-death jungle encounters. And the rest of his night wasn’t shaping up much better. The patrol that wanted to kill or capture him—thankfully headed in the wrong direction. The sounds. The female Delta operator who still hadn’t said her name—which might be because he hadn’t asked—thinking he was insane.
The first of the guerillas shifted into the far trees. Damn those things were big. Unlike anything he’d ever seen before, though Texas wasn’t known for its thick jungle.
Of course she hadn’t asked his name either. “I’m Jesse Johnson. Most folks call me Outlaw. And you’re?”
“Hi, Pissed. Pleased to meet you. I’m guessing that your parents either had it in for you at the start or that they were drunken Brits—that’s what they call getting drunk over there, you know.”
She snarled as quietly as one of her ghosts. Apparently she already knew that.
Jesse kept an eye on the departing guerillas. The clearing was slowly emptying as they fanned out to the far side of the clearing. Exactly as “Pissed” had said they would.
One circled the helicopter as the flames died down. He squatted down to peer into the cabin before shouting to his comrades, “Sin piloto!”—No pilot. Even Jesse could translate that. Then he picked up something from the ground. Nothing valuable should have survived.
“Mirame!”—look at me! He shouted it out.
The guerillas not quite into the trees turned to do so as he lifted Jesse’s cowboy hat out of the grass and tucked it onto his head.
Nobody, but nobody put on another cowboy’s hat.
Jesse shot him.
The guerilla screamed before he collapsed and died beside Jesse’s equally dead helicopter.
“What the hell!” Now the female Delta operator lying beside him wasn’t pissed anymore; she was livid. The guerillas poured back into the clearing. “What were you thinking? You idiot. We were almost in the clear.”
“Dang!” He hadn’t been thinking. They’d already wrecked his helicopter, one that had been the best ride a cowboy could wish for. They’d killed his “horse.”
His hat—that Daddy had given him and his Momma had made the hatband for while she was pregnant with him—had been one violation too many.
“Any other bright ideas?” She sounded bitter and he couldn’t blame her. Any sweet teasing while she’d been hanging from her boots clinging to a dirt-y sky was gone.
“Well, we could use a really, really loud ghost right about now. Over there,” he pointed toward the north side of the jungle.
Hannah wondered if her first shot should be in “Outlaw” Jesse’s head. No point in introducing herself now—they were going to die in short order. Their position was too exposed to rise from. It might be the middle of the night, but the entire NERC platoon of thirty men and women was streaming back into the clearing. There was no way that the two of them—no, the one of her; because she wasn’t going to count on Jesse for shit even if his single shot had been dead clean—could take on that many and survive.
He was right. They absolutely needed a big noise in the trees off to one side.
“Do it! Do it now!”
She turned to him. His face was now inches away. His face was as close as a lover’s—which was the dumbest thought she’d ever had before an imminent firefight.
“How?” In her peripheral vision she could see that the guerillas were already halfway back across the clearing, but she was having trouble looking away from him. A man didn’t get to his position without being exceptional. Maybe he had merely screwed up. Too bad his one goof was going to get them killed.
“I dunno how you do it,” he squinted hard for a long moment. “Imagine them…suddenly being distracted.”
She tried…and Jesse glanced away for an instant in exactly the right direction. She hadn’t heard a thing.
“No! A big sound,” he gripped her shoulder. His grip was powerful. How did a goddamn air jockey get so strong?
Hannah could feel the strength of him. There was an intensity to his strength. A focus.
“Better!” He didn’t glance aside this time.
She could see a number of the NERC hesitate and aim their weapons to the north side of the clearing, but they weren’t moving.
“What?” Jesse could apparently see the worry on her face.
“I don’t know how to make it any bigger.”
“Maybe the trick is you’ve really got to feel it.”
“Any suggestions, Mr. Know-it-all?”
Jesse glanced at the NERC, many of whom were still coming their direction. Though almost a third were paying attention to the north woods.
“Running out of time here, Outlaw.”
“Okay,” he turned to face her. “This is probably going to make you even angrier at me than you already are, ma’am, but it’s the only idea I’ve got so don’t be pitchin’ a hissy. Take whatever you’re feeling and, for now at least, don’t aim it at me. Focus it and pump it to the north.”
“What are you—”
He shoved aside both their NVGs.
Snagging a hand around her neck, he dragged her in like a macho asshole and kissed her—hard. Not like a first-time peck. Nor a soft, sensual test. It was a kiss between lovers who had been surviving too long apart on a starvation diet of phone sex. The shock of it jolted into her as hard as the round that had punched a hole in her hip in the Bolivian coca fields.
Anger at him tore one way, but it had been a long time since she’d felt a real lover’s kiss and it ripped her body in another direction as well. As one of the few Delta Force women, her best course of action had been to behave like one of the guys. Just fit in and do her job. Which left out relationships for any number of reasons. Even dating a civilian would signal that she was open to such things. Equality in the military? Not even close. Guys got to smile and brag about their conquests. Women had to hide it completely or abstain.
Jesse’s kiss smashed through all that like a hammer blow. The heat that flooded into her awakened a deep, primal need that she’d long since forgotten. Or perhaps never knew.
She—who didn’t need anyone—could lean on a strength like that. Could feel it in her. It built inside until it was so big she couldn’t contain it anymore. It spilled out like—
Jesse jolted, then broke off the kiss as if he hadn’t been doing anything more than slapping a breaching charge into her hand.
“Hey!” Hannah kept her voice low. It was a damn poor way to end a kiss of that caliber—even under threat of imminent death.
“Look,” Jesse nodded toward the clearing. The entire platoon spun aside to stare off into the north side of the jungle. They stampeded through the trunks and vines—racing deep into the jungle. In moments, she and Jesse were alone, lying along the clearing’s west side and looking at the seven bodies and the last flickers from the burning helicopter.
“What did they hear?”
“You really didn’t hear the gunshots and shouts?”
Hannah could only shake her head. She hadn’t had a girly moment since her step-pa had celebrated her sweet sixteen in the most horrific of ways. All of her Prince Charming dreams had flown away that night to never return. After that she’d always slept with her hand around the handle of a butcher’s knife—something dear old Step-pa learned to respect right fast.
But the only thing she could hear now was the racing of her heart and the after-hum of Jesse delivering perhaps the best kiss ever. No perhaps about it, actually.
“Well, that was one powerful ghost. Let’s get out of here. We can figure this out later.”
She nodded but was having trouble pulling herself back to the task at hand. She felt oddly drained. Not tired, but more as if her wits had just departed into the night, leaving her to wander about lost and alone.
This time it was Jesse who took Hannah’s arm to steady her. They yanked on their NVGs—the helicopter’s fire, now fading into red embers, no longer enough to floodlight the area. He raced them into the clearing.
“You said their camp is behind us to the west,” he explained. “They’ll return from the north—perhaps through this clearing, perhaps not—and head west. River to the south. I’m right particular about not swimming with crocs. So, we go east. The direction they’ve already gone and decided was a false lead.”
She nodded as she ran beside him but didn’t try to shake off his grip. Jesse had a steadying influence. At least her knees weren’t being all wobbly—that would be too girly for her.
“I’m Hannah Tucker, by the way.” First time she’d ever been kissed without someone at least knowing her name. “And if you call me Hannah Montana, you’re a dead man.”
“Noted. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” he held out his other hand and they managed an awkward handshake while they sprinted.
It was hard not to laugh. Even if his deep accent hadn’t given him away as being from the heart of Texas, his politeness most certainly did.
She focused on their escape. Straight across the clearing wasn’t a bad tactic. Sometimes the best evasive course was the unexpected straight line.
At least that’s what she assumed Jesse’s reasoning was until they reached the midpoint and he slowed for just a step, almost unbalancing her when he bent down to snatch something from the ground.
Then he tugged on a black cowboy hat as they continued their sprint side by side.
“You must really love that hat.”
“Daddy gave me this hat when I turned sixteen. It’s a damn fine hat and we’ve been through a lot of miles together. Momma made the hatband.”
Unable to reconcile the differences between their sixteenth birthdays—his family all happy together and gathered around a cake with candles versus her step-pa proving how awful a man could be and her own ma doing nothing to stop him—Hannah sprinted for the far side of the clearing.
# # #
They were five meters from the safety of the jungle wall when a lone guerilla stepped out of the trees smack in front of them, looking to see where his teammates had gone. He’d been the lone survivor of the first group to enter the clearing and must not have heard all the uproar back and forth across the clearing.
Jesse’s rifle was over his shoulder so that he could hang onto Hannah’s arm with one hand and grab his hat with the other. Being emptyhanded at this moment was a bad mistake.
The NERC didn’t hesitate.
The round slammed into Jesse’s shoulder—the hard impact enough to slam him to the ground.
His grip on Hannah’s arm pulled her down on top of him.
In his NVGs, he could see the heat trail of the second shot that passed through where her head had been moments before.
Thankfully Hannah generated a “ghost call,” which had the NERC twisting left. While he was distracted, she placed three rounds in him at point blank range with her handgun.
Jesse lay on his back with his ears ringing from the loud rounds from the guerilla’s AK-47—and the inevitable secondary explosion of screaming monkeys. Hannah’s Glock 23 had been silenced, making little more than a click as it ejected each spent round and chambered the next.
She lay full on him and he could feel both her strength and her slender waist that his arm had somehow snaked around.
“You feel good.” Even when he ran his hand up her back and ran into her rifle, she felt good—female curves, warrior strong, and armed to the teeth. And her kiss. He’d expected a fist to his jaw for that trick, instead it was a smooch that even Veronica’s best efforts after the senior prom couldn’t match. They’d ridden out to the swimming hole on his family’s ranch and she’d made sure that he had the best sendoff to the Army a Texas cowgirl could provide. Sorry, Veronica, not a patch on a Delta warrior from Tennessee.
“You feel good too. Are you okay?”
“Sure,” he buried his face in her hair and enjoyed the smell of her. Beneath the rust and jungle, she was rich and warm like a Texas sunrise on a fall day, and sweet like the scent of honey from a nearby hive.
“Weren’t you shot? It looked as if you’d been shot.”
“I think I was,” he seemed to remember that too. But it was hard to care with that soft cascade of blonde hair brushing down over his face below his NVGs.
Then he shrugged.
“Yikes!” His shoulder seared with the pain as if punched with a massive fist.
In moments she was kneeling over him, drawn in a hundred shades of magnified green and heat-outlined infrared. The NVGs were so sensitive that he could still see the remnant traces of his kiss on her lips and his nuzzle on her neck.
Her fingers found the wound and it was all he could do to not yelp again. Hannah yanked on something, none too gently, and a few seconds later she held up his radio. Or at least the remains of it. Thankfully, he’d attached the oversized battery pack, so the bullet had severely deformed but not tried to punch through the Kevlar vest.
“You took a shot straight to the comm gear.”
“That isn’t usually fatal, is it? What about the rest of me?”
She poked a finger around his shoulder, a little gentler this time—though it still stung like crazy—then held it up for both of them to inspect. No bright wash of hot blood in the NVGs. “You’re going to live this time, cowboy. Next time? Maybe not so much.”
He lay his head back against the soil in relief. “Guess I won’t be phoning home anytime soon. How about you?”
“Both my radios are trashed. I snuck into the guerillas’ camp and used one of theirs to call for an extraction, which you were nice enough to totally bungle.”
“You, a Tennessee blonde, snuck into a camp filled with mean and nasty Latino guerillas to call for an extraction? And I thought E.T. had a hard time phoning home. He just had to ride through the sky in a bicycle basket.”
“You don’t happen to have one on you? I’d take even that as a ride out at the moment. Otherwise we’re back to Plan B of walking out of here.”
“Sorry, ma’am. Seem to have left my magic bicycle in my other flightsuit.” Though he wished he hadn’t. Walking out from the middle of the Colombian jungle through hostile territory didn’t sound fun.
“Spare radio, perhaps?”
“That was my spare. I blew up my regular ones along with my helo. Not as if us pilots plan on doing much walking under normal circumstances.”
She rose to her feet, grabbed his hand (on his good side, thankfully), and pulled him up. “The guerillas will have heard those AK-47 shots.”
“And the monkeys, don’t forget the monkeys.” They were still overhead, chattering up a storm of protest.
“If only I could. Let’s move.”
Once on his feet, he tested his shoulder carefully. It still hurt, but he could use it. If actually being shot was worse than this, definitely don’t sign him up.
He picked up his rifle and slung it over his shoulder, “Dadgum it!” Jesse switched the rifle to his other shoulder.
“You are a wonder, cowboy. How did you ever make Outlaw, talking like that?” Hannah just shook her head at him.
He found it knocked aside, picked it up, and tugged it down over the NVGs’ elastic straps.
“Any decent cowboy watches his language around a lady, whether or not he’s a bona fide outlaw.” He waved her toward the safety of the jungle. “Ladies first.”
“South,” she said. “It’s the last option open to us. They’ll find this dead hombre and head east in the next few minutes.”
“The river,” Jesse groaned. He’d rather take a horse or a helicopter than a boat any day. Assuming they could find a boat. He definitely wasn’t going to try riding any crocs.
Hannah led the way.
Jesse didn’t complain about her leading. In addition to her Delta skills guiding them to safety, even in full military gear and through his NVGs, Hannah Tucker provided an exceptional addition to the scenery.
They’d moved along the riverbank in silence.
Hannah typically traveled deeper in the jungle—away from the river—where the tall trees shadowed the undergrowth out of existence. But they needed a boat. A canoe. At this point she’d take a log raft. That meant sticking close by the water to watch for one and fighting their way through the snarled mass of undergrowth that survived on the sunlight reaching deep into the river valley. Along this stretch of the Rio Naya, “a town” might be two huts and three canoes. Shifting farther into the jungle, it would be too easy to miss.
A helicopter, maybe a couple of them, buzzed by, well to the north.
“The Night Stalkers are looking for us,” Jesse noted. “About time. Black Hawk and a pair of Little Birds by the sound. Too bad we’re not still at the clearing.”
“A bit of a trade-off,” Hannah dodged a leaf bigger than she was only to slam into a vine that was bigger around than her thigh.
“How’s that, ma’am?” Three hours of brutal trekking and he was still as polite as could be.
“If we were still there, they’d have to take us home in body bags.” As if to prove her point, sporadic gunfire sounded far away. Moments later there was the harsh dragon’s-roar buzz of a helo’s M134 Minigun delivering a couple thousand rounds in return.
“Any ideas how to get their attention without a radio?” They were fading away, but maybe they’d swing farther south on their return or as part of some search pattern.
“Could always fire a round at them. Our threat sensors can tell direction and angle of any incoming rounds.”
“But?” Hannah could hear the joke in his voice.
“Getting that kind of attention from a DAP Hawk gunship is often answered with a spread of Minigun fire and 70mm Hydra rockets. With me gone missing and someone firing at them, I expect they’d fire first and ask questions later.”
“You’re not being very helpful, Jesse. Got anything else?”
There was a long silence as she found a way through a tangle of tree roots taller than they were, at least taller than she was. Jesse had eight or ten inches on her and maybe could see over the top of the roots rising from the jungle floor like great vertical slabs of wood.
“You could…” he cleared his throat hesitantly, “…try making some sound to get their attention.”
“But since I don’t know how to do that…”
“It would be a problem.”
She finally escaped the tree-root labyrinth and broke through into the clear along the river. They were at the center of a sharp bend that nearly doubled back on itself. They were going to practically be backtracking to continue along the riverbank. A low beach stretched out into the river in front of them.
“Almost midnight. Take ten minutes,” she stepped out onto the beach and let herself collapse down onto it.
Jesse hadn’t complained once. Not about the pace, not about the hard traveling. Special Operations soldiers really were a cut above, no matter what branch they were in. Even a Marine or Green Beret would probably be whining by now. Hell, if she was alone rather than traveling with a Night Stalker, she’d be whining by now. The mosquitos were lethal, the footing treacherous, and the likelihood of actually finding a way out, practically nonexistent.
They settled on a small sandbar beach along the bend in the river and dropped down to rest and rehydrate.
“How’s the shoulder?” Hannah tossed an energy bar to him.
“Sore, but no worse than my feet. How are you?” He tossed a Tootsie Pop in her direction. She could really get to like him. Three weeks in the Colombian jungle, she was desperate for any Americana—but Tootsie Pops were the national food of Tennessee. She skipped her own energy bar, unwrapped the Pop fast with a practiced twist, and took her first long taste.
“Grape!” She couldn’t stop the happy sigh. “How did you know?”
“Can’t say as I did. They just transport in the heat better than a real treat like a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup.”
She took out the pop long enough to make a raspberry noise at him and popped it back in. “Reese’s,” Hannah mumbled it in disgust around her mouthful.
“Must admit I’m finding myself to be a little jealous of all the happy noises you’re making.”
Hannah was rather tickled by that. She made some deeply yummy sounds and Jesse sighed most satisfactorily as he chewed on his energy bar.
Hannah actually considered the question of how she was doing. Normally she’d just brush it off, with a “fine” or an eye roll for his even asking. She was used to working alone; deep recon had always been her specialty ever since her real father had taught her how to hunt. That was before he’d run off with Larry’s wife. So Larry had moved in on Ma, and her own life had gone down the shitter.
But walking the jungle with a tall blond cowboy left her less to complain about than she’d expected.
“I’m tired. Good, but tired. Really tired. Maybe making those ‘ghosts’ took it out of me.” Or maybe it was that electrifying kiss that had so occupied her thoughts as they’d tramped along the river.
She could feel him studying her by the starlight. They’d both switched off the NVGs to save their batteries. The night was quiet. Fast flap of wings pinpointed a passing bat. The cry of a distant animal as it fell prey to some night hunter. The occasional far-off sound of the helicopters as they quartered the wrong section of the jungle looking for their missing pilot, and hopefully her as well. Otherwise there was only the soft lap of the river as it ran over roots and rock and mumbled along the edge of their “beach.”
“You really heard…things?” She didn’t know what else to call them.
“Sure did, ma’am. Clear as you and me talking.”
A shiver slid up her spine. “How is that even possible?”
“You’re asking me? I grew up on a horse ranch outside San Antonio. Most mystical thing we’ve got there is a starlit night like this one that seems to go on forever. We got plenty of bats emerging at sunset. They’re kinda mysterious, but I wouldn’t call them mystical exactly.” His vague silhouette waved an arm upward. She tipped her head back to look up. She’d served so many deployments in South America that she’d grown used to seeing the Zodiac constellations directly overhead rather than along the southern horizon as they’d be from US soil.
“It sounds nice,” she’d never been on a horse ranch, or to San Antonio. She was certainly never going back to her ma’s place in the Chattahoochee wilderness of Georgia. The day she left, she’d declared her home as the neighboring Tennessee since that’s what her accent said anyway. Then she’d done her best to eradicate the accent, which she’d had less luck with. But she’d managed to avoid Georgia for all except two training missions in the last ten years, which was what really counted.
“San Antonio is God’s country. There was never a thing so pretty as a sunrise over the bluebonnets from horseback. Or a fall sunset over fields grown thick with coneflower. Country like San Antonio is why the good Lord made horses to ride out into it.”
“I rode a burro once. On a mission in Oaxaca. Does that count?”
“No, ma’am. Not even close. How can a Delta Force soldier be such a sad case that she’s never ridden a horse? You’d be a total failure in ‘Outlaw’ school.” His tone was light, even teasing. She wasn’t used to that either. No one teased her, ever. Not unless they had a death wish.
But his question cut anyway. She could feel it right down to her bones. She was a sad case when the best kiss of her life had been to help her make a noise as if she was passing gas at a distance.
“I’m not sure that I like the idea that I can make sounds outside of my body.”
“Can see how it might be a tad unnerving, but it proved downright useful. You gotta admit that.”
She did, but still felt cold despite the night’s muggy heat.
It didn’t seem possible. But…
She thought about making a small noise across the river. What would that sound be like? A bird? A wild pig’s grunt? A restless parrot?
By the shift of his cowboy hat’s outline against the stars, Jesse turned to face across the river.
This couldn’t be happening! Wasn’t she enough of a freak as it was? A woman in Delta Force? A loner? And now some sort of a mental ventriloquist? Going mental! She definitely had that part of it down.
“Try to make a louder one.” Jesse didn’t sound the least put off by her.
How had she done it before? She concentrated on projecting the explosive concussion of Jesse’s helicopter’s destruction.
“I heard a pop. ’Bout the size of a Rice Krispie.”
This time she went for monkey screams and hand grenades.
“Don’t worry none, Hannah. It saved our behinds when it counted.”
“Shit!” She had no idea what she’d done differently that time before. This time she closed her eyes, bore down, and threw herself into it.
Then she heard it herself, a distant rumble upriver barely big enough to sound over the lapping of the river against the banks.
Except when she stopped and opened her eyes, the sound kept continuing on with a life of its own.
# # #
Jesse heard the sound keep building, unlike anything else Hannah had ever made. Too dark to see anything, so he flicked on his NVGs.
A sizeable wooden motorboat was idling downstream. It was a battered old Chris Craft complete with a pointed bow and a windshield, though what it was doing on the Rio Naya he couldn’t imagine. It had rounded a bend and come into view less than fifty meters away. The middle of the night didn’t seem to be a likely time for fishermen. However, a load of severely ticked NERC guerillas would make perfect sense.
The boat seated a dozen men tightly, most scanning the banks with flashlights—several had their weapons at the ready.
He and Hannah were again completely exposed on their tiny beach, except this time a diversionary sound wasn’t going to make any difference at all.
Then he heard a loud crunch!
What had Hannah come up with to—
Then he could see her jaw working and the little white Tootsie Pop stick shifting between her lips.
Turning back, he could see that the boat was still coming.
“In the water!” Hannah whispered.
“Crocodiles,” he reminded her.
“Many angry guerillas with guns,” she replied. And they were sweeping their flashlights along the bank, already cutting off the retreat from their little beach.
He slung his rifle over his shoulder and followed her into the river. There was no way to repress the shiver that had nothing to do with the warm, muddy water.
They were up to their necks, drifting downstream with their feet dancing along the bottom by the time the boat reached them. The bow looked much higher with nothing but his NVGs and his black cowboy hat above the water.
With a quick kick, Hannah lunged upward and silently snagged a hand over the bow trim.
Not wanting to be left behind, he did the same—barely managing to suppress his curse when he ended up hanging from his bruised shoulder. It felt as if it was being ripped out of the socket.
Now what? They were hanging from opposite sides of the bow in the darkness, being slowly trawled downstream. Like crocodile bait.
Impossibly, Hannah began hauling herself out of the water one-handed. He tried, he really did, but one-armed pull-ups weren’t a standard training challenge for helicopter pilots. Apparently it was for Delta Force operators.
In her other hand, she had out her silenced Glock 23.
Once she had her head up to the height of the rail, she aimed a quick nod in his direction.
Then she kicked him underwater, below the line of the sloping bow.
Ow! Oh! They needed a sound so they wouldn’t see her when she cleared the rail. But if he thumped on his side of the boat to distract the guerillas, they’d just look over the side and then shoot him.
Hannah wasn’t nodding at him!
She was motioning him toward her. Between hanging onto both the boat and her weapon, her hands were full.
He reached out his free hand until it landed on her waist. Wrapping his hand in her belt, his fingers ended up inside her waistband, inside her underwear. Soft skin of her hip pressed against the back of his hand.
The hard crack of sound so startled him that he almost lost his grip on her and the bow rail. It was over in the trees, behind the motorboat, but clear enough that it sounded like an attacking cavalry.
The guerillas began firing into the trees, back toward the beach they’d left behind.
Jesse lost his grip on Hannah’s waistband as she yanked herself aloft.
By some impossible effort—maybe he should audition for a superhero movie—he managed to get his own head up high enough to see what was happening.
All of the guerillas, even the boat’s driver, were firing aft. Hannah shot them, starting with the closest first. They were all down before any of them understood they were under fire.
She hauled herself up onto the bow but he couldn’t seem to manage it. Perhaps he’d just drift along and—
With the gunfire stopped, he could hear a deep, throaty growl that sounded very close to hand.
The sounds that Hannah had generated were nebulous and hard to define, even when they were loud enough to startle.
That roar clicked some checkbox in his most primitive hindbrain that said, “pissed-off crocodile.”
Jesse practically levitated onto the boat’s bow.
For a second, he lay beside Hannah as they both gasped with the effort to board.
She loaded a fresh clip.
He yanked his own weapon.
They shared a look that he’d call “happily evil,” then they vaulted over the low windshield together.
All of the guerillas were hit, but a few weren’t down. Not right off anyway.
Not a one of them had a radio.
Jesse did his best not to notice how quickly the bodies they left in their wake disappeared from view—not drifting behind, but each yanked abruptly below the surface.
“We need to open a clinic for heartburn medicine here.”
“Why’s that?” Hannah slid behind the controls, because of course she could drive a boat. Nothing the woman couldn’t do.
“Those crocs are going to be getting a serious case of indigestion from all the ammo the NERC were wearing.”
It earned him a half laugh, more than he’d gotten so far from her. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
# # #
She finally found the throttle and aimed them downriver. They had at least forty kilometers of river to navigate and she’d like to be offshore before sunrise. It was just 0300 hours so the chances were low, but she had to try.
Jesse dropped into the seat beside her. He held out a Tootsie Pop.
“How many of those do you take on a mission?”
“So that one’s yours.”
He unwrapped it, then poked her in the ribs. When she opened her mouth to protest, he stuck it in her mouth. “More fun watching you eat them than having one myself.”
“Sho-sholate,” she managed around the Pop. Chocolate was even better than grape. Sheer heaven!
She risked taking her hand off the throttle long enough to squeeze his hand for a moment, and there it was. There was a deep connection that rippled the length of her arm. Jesse Johnson felt solid like no man in her life ever had. Hannah wanted…what? To curl up inside that strength; bury herself in it and wallow as if in a pure male bubble bath. Hannah pulled her hand back and told her libido to behave itself—it was thinking about far more than a bubble bath.
“How’d you do it?”
First she’d make sure they were somewhere quiet and not likely to be shot at. Then she’d… “How did I do what?”
“Make such a big sound.”
“Trust me, pretty lady, it was a Texas-sized shitkicker. Pardon my language.”
“It wasn’t me,” and still she hadn’t heard a thing. “Okay, it wasn’t just me.”
“What in the wide, wide prairie are you talkin’ ’bout? Who else was there?”
“I had this idea as we were hanging from the bow. I wondered if by myself I can only make small sounds. Personal-evasion sized.”
“I don’t think I like where this is going.”
“My guess was that whenever we’re touching, you’re an amplifier for whatever it is I’m doing.”
“An APU?” Jesse’s voice rose sharply. “That’s what I am? An auxiliary power unit? I’m the same as what a Black Hawk uses to start its engines?”
“An APU. That’s the perfect analogy. You’re my personal, private, executive, outlaw APU,” she couldn’t resist teasing him if he was going to make such a fuss over it. From her point of view, it was far better than being the one making the sounds in the first place. She slewed the boat to avoid something that might have been a log or might have been a crocodile. She wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
“A power boost when I need one.” Maybe that was the secret to his kiss. It had sure had one serious power boost behind it. They’d have to do a little more sparking to see what happened—preferably when they weren’t racing for their very lives.
Jesse was quiet for a long time.
“Have you ever heard of such a thing?” She really hoped that he wouldn’t dismiss her now as insane. She had enough of that worry all on her own.
“Heard enough campfire ghost stories to last me a lifetime. But real world? Can’t say as I have. You?”
“Not even close.”
They held their silence through several “villages” not even big enough to have a dock. At idle, the low rumble of their inboard engine might let them slip through unnoticed. Then she realized that none of these places were likely to have electricity or radios to warn anyone of their passage. She opened up the throttle as far as she dared, but it was so loud in the eerily silent jungle that even medium-low felt thunderous.
The first village of any sort was a depressingly long way downstream—if the NERC hadn’t come along in their boat, she and Jesse would still have been walking at this time tomorrow night.
The only sound loud enough to hear was the occasional roar of an airborne Minigun well astern—which showed that the Night Stalkers were still looking for them. Also that the NERC guerillas were being surprisingly willing to die in hopes of shooting down another helo as the Night Stalkers wouldn’t be firing until someone fired at them.
A town of several dozen houses and a dock with several boats had her easing down on the throttle and creeping along. She didn’t want someone recognizing their boat and wondering why someone other than a NERC guerilla was driving it. There were a couple boats at the dock that might catch her, especially as she barely knew how to drive the boat and didn’t know the river. If she tried to hurry, they were bound to hit something bad.
“How’s our fuel?” Nerves made her skin prickle. She could feel hidden eyes watching them slip by in the dark. But no searchlight blasted forth to illuminate them. Maybe they could steal some fuel from the boats at the dock if they had to.
“We’re good,” Jesse’s whisper reminded her of lying side by side at the edge of the clearing and their soft-spoken introductions. There had been an intimacy that—that she wasn’t going to think about right now. Or ever. It was just crazy talk. All of it inside her head and she was going to keep it there come Baptist preachers and hellfire.
A few miles past the town there was nothing but the dark river winding its way to the ocean. All she could hear was the engine’s steady throb until it blended into the background. The resulting silence was as oppressive as the heat. Less than an hour to sunrise, things were getting tight and she needed a distraction.
“Tell me something about you I don’t know, cowboy.”
“Wa-all,” he drawled out the overdrawn Texas version of the word “well.” “I’m thinking right hard about when I can try kissin’ you again, ma’am.”
“If I need to make a big noise, I’ll let you know.”
He mumbled mostly to himself, “Finally meet a beautiful, competent woman, and she thinks I’m just useful as a dadgum APU.”
Hannah yanked the throttle back to idle.
Jesse nearly smashed himself like a bug on the inside of the windshield as the boat slowed sharply and settled hard into the water. It began drifting in the slow current. “What the… For cryin’ out loud.”
She grabbed him by the lifting loop on the front of his survival vest used for winch rescues. But he was so strong and solid that, when she yanked on it, she ended up pulling herself out of the driver’s seat.
# # #
Jesse didn’t hesitate.
Hannah’s momentum was on the move and he helped it along. He scooped a hand under her butt. He finally got to answer the question that had been about the only thing that let him keep up with the crazy pace she’d set through the jungle: Hannah Tucker’s behind felt even better than it looked.
His arm around her back included her rifle. Their chests were held apart by his own rifle and both of her handguns slung between them. But leaning in just a little was enough to let them kiss.
It hadn’t been a fluke of crisis in the jungle. She tasted fantastic. Chocolate Tootsie Pop and…fresh, like she was just coming to life. And she felt even better. He snugged her tighter into his lap. He’d known her for about four hours and he couldn’t get her naked soon enough.
He wasn’t that sort of guy.
Okay. Maybe he was. A little bit. If only because the civilian pickings were so damn easy for a Special Operations pilot.
But the only thing that had ever supercharged him like this was flying a Little Bird. The tiny helo specialized in clandestine missions in tight places. It was fast, sleek, and maneuverable—and the parallels to the woman in his lap were obvious enough that she was irresistible.
There was no way to undo her shirt without removing her vest. And he wasn’t willing to risk letting go of her enough to do that. His flightsuit had a front closure and she had that zipped down to where his FN-SCAR rifle hung across his solar plexus. Her hand slipped inside the heavy flame-resistant layer and her fingers dug into his chest as if to hold on while he worked his way down her chin and throat. Her skin was smoky—not like a fire, but like a mystery just waiting for him to—
“Who cares?” She dug her fingers into his hair and pulled him so tightly against the base of her throat that he couldn’t even kiss her there.
So he nipped her instead—hard.
“We care,” he managed to extricate himself enough to look up. He yanked on his NVGs that he didn’t remember shoving aside, and there they were. He could tell by the formation that they were Night Stalkers—no one else flew helos in such tight groupings. That, and any local helicopter would likely be using their running lights to avoid collisions. The Night Stalkers were moving low, fast, and blacked out.
“They’re already past us,” Hannah had leaned back in his arms, tipping her head back to look upside down at the sky. It was easy to imagine her arching over him as he—
Focus, Jesse! He was—just on the wrong thing. His hand still cradled the finest behind ever born of woman.
Still not focusing. He managed to look away from her bare throat and back to the sky.
“I wish we had a way to signal them,” she was still arched against him.
“We do. You do. Together. On one…One!”
Jesse imagined that he was an APU for ventriloquist Hannah Tucker. Not some piddly ol’ Black Hawk auxiliary power unit, but one of the monster ones mounted on a C-17 Globemaster III jet transport. He pumped energy through the hand cradling her behind and the other that was over her breast despite the thick vest blocking his grasp.
“Huh!” Hannah snapped as rigid as a fence post for a moment, then she collapsed bonelessly against him. Her head lolled back as if she’d fainted. He scooped her back against him, supporting her head. She had a pulse but she was definitely out.
He leaned his head down to make sure she was breathing just as the sonic boom rolled over them like the crack of God’s own buggy whip. Five seconds since her grunt—which meant the sound must have boomed into existence about a mile away. If she’d made the sound straight overhead, that meant it should reach the departing helos right about…
The helos stumbled in the sky as if slapped by a massive wind. Actually, more as if the pilots had yanked their hands from their controls to cover their ears, even though they’d be wearing helmets.
Sure enough, they circled back to investigate.
It would be nice if Hannah could make another, perhaps less horrendous sound, but she was still out cold. Then he remembered the IR flasher in one of his flightsuit’s pockets. They’d been too far away for that to be of any use before, but now that they were headed his way…
He set Hannah gently back into the driver’s seat. The boat was twisting slowly in an eddy current, with the engine still running at idle.
Digging out the infrared flasher, he triggered it and aimed it skyward. Invisible without NVGs, it would be a brilliant strobe in the helo pilots’ view.
Sure enough, in moments Patty had slewed her own Little Bird down to their boat. She hovered so that her skids were barely off the river water and brushing against the side of the boat. That placed her rotor a few feet over his head, and the side-mounted sitting bench extending over the gunwale and into the boat.
He lifted Hannah’s limp body onto the bench and buckled her in. He slung her rifle over his shoulder next to his, got a good grip on the bench seat, then kicked the boat’s throttle to full.
“Go!” He shouted as he hauled himself onto the bench beside Hannah and the boat took off.
Luck was with him!
The boat raced downriver, straight enough to pick up significant speed. At the first bend it ran head-on into a tree so massive that the boat merely bounced off—now a crumpled and sinking version of its former self. Then the fuel blew and a nice fireball shredded the wooden boat into a thousand splinters.
He strapped on a seatbelt as Patty carved a hard turn, low over the jungle. He grabbed the intercom headset that always hung just inside the pilot’s door and tugged it on.
“Hey, Patty.” Jesse wrapped an arm around Hannah’s shoulders to keep her from flopping around. Her head landed on his shoulder and stayed there as if she was just sleeping. He checked her pulse again, strong and steady. He resisted the urge to run his hand down any lower.
“You crazy bastard, Outlaw!” Patty practically screamed in her thick Gloucester fisherman accent, almost incomprehensible to the Southern ear when she was upset. “You go and make a fireball—” she said it fie-ah-ball “—when there’s a stealth jet that doesn’t even show up on my radar making sonic booms around here somewhere?”
She thought a jet had made the blast, not him and Hannah. That was fine with him; there were some things he wasn’t comfortable revealing even to a fellow flyer and friend like Patty.
“At supersonic speeds, they’d be way over the horizon by now.”
“You’d better hope so. You get me killed and I’ll come back and haunt you. If my Mick doesn’t get to you first for doing me in.”
“No killing my gal,” Mick spoke from the other pilot’s seat with that half laugh of his. “Especially not when I’m sitting next to her. Who’s your buddy?”
“The Delta I went in after. Got knocked out.” He buried his nose in her hair and squeezed more tightly on her shoulders. From his seat, he could see the other pair of helos forming up around Patty and Mick’s.
It was a little disorienting to be sitting facing sideways on the bench mounted on the outside of the Little Bird rather than seated inside and flying it. But it was far less disorienting than racing through the jungle on a boat while dodging crocodiles and NERC guerillas.
“What happened to your bird?”
“I goddamn hate RPGs,” aw-p-gs Patty continued in her thick New England.
More like rocket-propelled Gloucester than grenades.
“They just suck so bad. Why did someone ever invent those? Flying would be so much better without them. How about you dis-invent those, Outlaw?”
“Sure, just as soon as I get a new bird.”
“Do we need to send in a salvage team for your old one? What did y’all do to that there poor thang?”
“You’re always so cute when you try Texan. Leastwise it helps me understand your gibberish some. Y’all is plural, by the way. I’m a singular type person.”
Or was he? He had a passed-out woman cradled against his shoulder and—And he was being utterly ridiculous. She wasn’t a woman and she definitely wasn’t with him. She was a Delta operator who had singlehandedly saved his sorry hide.
“No. It was a total airframe loss; can’t believe I made it out. Then the bad guys were moving in, so I triggered the destruct charges.”
“I did that once…kind of. I parked it in an active volcano. Sort of the same result.” There was a story he hadn’t heard. Of course, Patty—like the former swordfisherwoman she was—always seemed to have a taller story to go after any shorter one. “Well, you just sit back and rest easy. The carrier is in international waters, so we’ve got another hour to reach her.”
Hannah stirred against him, waking. She finally sat up long enough to assess that they were flying. In silence they watched the last of the trees slide by, the beach, then they were over open ocean.
“Feet wet,” Patty announced.
Hannah made no effort to escape his embrace. Instead, she snuggled back against him and returned her head to his shoulder as they watched the dark ocean flashing by below and the brilliant stars shining above.
He wasn’t just over the ocean. He was in over his gol-durned head! Hannah wasn’t some buckle bunny from a rodeo or a Fort Rucker, Georgia, bar gal from around one of the watering holes where his 5th Battalion E Company was based during those rare times there wasn’t a mission.
She was a top warrior. One who was fast consuming all his thoughts.
He was a Texan based in Georgia and she was a Tennessean based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina—the home of Delta.
Besides, he barely knew her. But already he couldn’t imagine letting her go.
The debriefing teams had, per protocol, kept them apart. Her report on the NERC had taken hours and hours. Hannah had made some notes, even captured some images, but most of it she’d stored in her own memory using methods that would allow her to perform accurate recall.
All of which had been fine…until they started in on questions about a stealth supersonic jet.
Her utter mystification had slipped for just a moment, and they’d hounded her about that. In that final effort, had she created a sonic boom? There’d been no chance to speak with Jesse. One thing she knew for damn sure; there was no way she was giving up ground on denying that one. She did not create magical, mystical sounds that traveled outside her body! They’d lock her up and throw away the key. Thankfully she could honestly answer that she hadn’t heard a thing. As to being passed out when she’d been rescued, she could only shrug.
“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t conscious at the time.” She’d thought that would stop their questions. Instead it got her remanded to medical, who recommended light duty for two weeks’ observation.
The sun had been rising the last time she saw Jesse. They’d dismounted onto the deck of an aircraft carrier and been whisked apart before she had a chance to say hi, bye, or what did she have to do to get another kiss. Though if she was hammered into unconsciousness by a kiss, what might taking him to bed do? Kill them both?
Now the sun was setting again. They’d fed her, but they hadn’t let her sleep or shower.
The seaman apprentice leading her to a cabin said he had no knowledge of a Night Stalker named Jesse. It rapidly became clear that he was so rule-bound that he wasn’t even going to admit to having heard of the Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR. Must be his first cruise out of Navy boot camp.
Down four decks on steep ladderways that she almost nose-dived down. Of course if she’d slept in the last three days, it might have helped.
Her thoughts being preoccupied by a man was so unlike her that her entire inner balance—that utterly Zen state of kicking ass for a living—was all out of kilter.
Gray steel, narrow companionways, more gray steel. The Navy needed a serious lesson in imagination. There was a story that the first thing the brand-new Delta Force command did, on the day they took over a decaying office building in the back corner of Fort Bragg, was to plant a line of red rose bushes along the walk.
The Navy needed some of that.
“How much trouble would I get in if I painted an art deco mural on one of these walls?”
The seaman apprentice flinched.
This was fun. Too bad Jesse wasn’t here. He’d appreciate the humor of the situation. Think up something funny to say next. Why had she thought that? She hadn’t laughed in a long, long time.
“Are we ever going to get to a cabin? I need to—”
In answer, the seaman led the way through a final twist in the passage, pointed at a steel door—gray—then he looked down and practically jumped out of his boots.
Tucked in the corner of the turn, his back against her cabin door and his head tipped sideways against a wall, sat Night Stalker Jesse Outlaw Johnson. His extended legs were crossed at the ankles. His flightsuit was nondescript tan and she couldn’t see his face. But there was no question who it was because of the black cowboy hat that was pulled low on his brow.
She managed to shed the seaman, then wasn’t sure what to do.
Shy wasn’t her normal style. But squatting down to gently shake Jesse’s shoulder felt impossibly intimate. Of all the things he could have done, he’d chosen to sleep against the door of her assigned quarters. There was no lock, but he’d been too polite to invade her privacy by going in to crash out. Neither had he left a note telling her how to find him in the floating zoo that was five thousand sailors and flyboys aboard an aircraft carrier.
Instead, he leaned against her door, snoozing beneath his beloved cowboy hat.
Well, if shaking his shoulder was too personal, what was a woman to do?
She kicked his boot hard enough to awaken him.
He startled but didn’t raise his head enough to look her in the face.
“Well, at least y’all are right side up this time,” he addressed her boots. Then he tipped his hat back enough to look up at her. “Morning, ma’am.” His smile was making all sorts of suggestions about the kinds of things he knew.
Hannah wasn’t comfortable with any of them. Somehow he knew more about her from a single night tramping in silence through the jungle than multi-month boyfriends—five months being as long as she’d ever kept one—or multi-year teammates did.
For lack of any better idea of what to do, she kicked the sole of his boot again.
“Are you always this grumpy in the morning, Hannah?”
“Only after ten-hour debriefs. How long have you been asleep here?” She reached over his head and twisted the door handle.
“Yipes!” Jesse exclaimed as he tipped over backward to sprawl across her threshold. How more than six feet of cowboy could be so cute was beyond her. Then he raised a watch to his face as if lying half in an aircraft carrier’s hallway and half in her quarters was a normal thing. “About fifteen minutes.”
Looking down at him, she could see his exhaustion just might equal her own.
“They all riled up over you not hearing a sonic boom?” he asked, folding his hands over his sternum, apparently content to lie there all day as if he was out on his beloved prairie.
Just what had he told them? She wasn’t ready to answer such things, especially not out in the hallway where they could be overheard.
He struggled up to his feet to look down at her. It was the first time she’d stood toe-to-toe with him when there was enough light to really see. He wasn’t just a cowboy; he was a tall and handsome cowboy.
She didn’t trust handsome men. Everything came too easy to them. Even tromping jungle with him didn’t change that. But she couldn’t deny that something was there between them.
“Your eyes, ma’am. They’re green. Never thought about that possibility. Right nice eyes. Hardly sarcastic at all.”
Truth was, they really did have a connection that went deeper than making noise.
Damn it! She hated facing the truth.
# # #
Hannah waved him into her shipboard cabin.
Jesse wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but a stone-faced Delta operator wasn’t it. He’d seen a hundred thoughts slide by behind those green eyes, but not a single hint of what she felt about any of them.
“Maybe I should just go.”
“Your choice,” she shrugged, then stepped past him.
But he saw an emotion that time. Fleeting, hard to pin down, but it might have been hurt. There was no way that any decent person could walk away from that. He stepped in, shut the door, and leaned back on it.
It was a narrow space. A bunk bed and tiny desk. Through a side door there was a small room all done in stainless steel: sink, toilet, and showerhead with a drain in the middle of the floor.
“Officer quarters. Very fancy. They must like you.”
She dropped down to sit on the bunk but didn’t say anything. The lower bunk had been made up, the mattress on the top bunk was still rolled up and unsheeted.
“Maybe some handsome lieutenant took one look at the beautiful Delta and vacated his quarters to serve her every whim.” He eased out the desk chair and straddled it to face her. “You look like a horse what forgot to come in from the rain, Hannah.”
“Gee, thanks, Outlaw. You say the nicest things to a girl.”
“It’s either that or go back to the idea I had before you fainted in my arms.”
“What was that?”
Jesse made a show of pulling off his hat and checking inside it.
“A lady forgets a kiss like that and I have to wonder where I lost my ego. I think it just died a lonely and sad death.”
That earned him a flicker of a smile, but that was all. “Something stuck in your craw, Hannah? Best just to say your piece and get it out.”
She nodded wearily.
He’d forgotten that Delta operators weren’t known for speaking. So he kept his mouth shut long enough for her to overcome the high fence of that internal habit. Sure enough, she finally nodded again before asking her question.
“You didn’t say anything? To them?” She waved toward the upper decks.
“About a sonic boom loud enough I’m surprised it didn’t sink our boat and send us swimming with the crocs? Not a thing. I don’t think Patty bought it, but she’s a smart enough gal to keep her mouth shut between pilots—once I played dumb.”
“A sonic boom? Is that going to happen each time we…” Hannah trailed off.
“Kiss? I’m hoping not or we’re going to be disturbing a whole lot of folks. Maybe we could get a desert island, just you, me, and our sonic boom. I suppose I could get used to wearing earplugs while we—”
“I’m serious, Jesse!” It was a cry of dismay that forced him out of the chair to come sit beside her. He reached out to put an arm around her hunched shoulders—
“Don’t touch me!” She cringed away.
He yanked his arm back in shock. Jesse knew his jaw was down, but he couldn’t do anything about it. All he wanted to do was touch Hannah Tucker. Hold her close. For as long as she’d let him.
“What happens if we touch, Jesse? What if we make love? Do we knock a jet out of the sky next time? This is scaring the shit out of me!”
“So this isn’t about me?”
“Why do men always think it’s about them?” Hannah glared at the ceiling. Then she sighed. “I really, really liked kissing you, Jesse. But this whole sonic thing… I was a much happier woman before you told me about it.”
Jesse suspected that he might be much happier as well. At least at the present moment. But having ended up dead was probably their only other option. They wouldn’t have escaped the first flashlight beam sweeping across them without her gift. He’d probably have been taken hostage or, more likely, killed while the world was still hanging upside down if not for her. Now he’d turned her world upside down.
They sat on the bunk, with just inches between them. She’d planted her elbows on her knees. Her beautiful, light blonde hair hid her face. He had to catch himself before he reached out to play with the ends of it.
She needed answers.
If only he had some.
“That solves anything?”
“Well, I’d make some comment about how long you been growing ripe in the field, Hannah, but I’d be lying. You smell like heaven to me. Just go wash up.”
“I don’t have anything to change into.”
“I’ll go find you a fresh change of clothes somewhere. While you get naked in the shower,” Jesse sighed. “Alone. Being noble sucks, just so you know.” He had a hand on the doorknob before she spoke again.
“You think there’s an answer to this?”
“Got to be, Hannah. We’ll find it.”
“Good. Because I wasn’t joking before about what I’d like us to do together.”
He couldn’t turn around or they would be doing it—and knocking jets out of the sky be damned.
Jesse opened the door and the colonel standing there almost knocked on Jesse’s face.
“Excuse me. I was looking for Master Sergeant Tucker.”
Hannah looked up at the familiar voice. Her commanding officer was standing opposite Jesse, his fist still raised in midair. He wasn’t her direct CO any longer—he’d recently taken over command of all of Delta Force—but he was the man who’d seen something in her and brought her into Delta in the first place.
His gaze traveled past Jesse and found her.
She managed to reach her feet without collapsing. This didn’t look good in any fashion. She tried on her best salute, which in her current state, wasn’t much of one.
He saluted back, “Master Sergeant.” He shifted his attention back to Jesse, who was much taller than Michael Gibson. Colonel Gibson wasn’t a big man…simply the most dangerous one she’d ever met.
“Chief Warrant 3 Jesse Johnson,” Jesse saluted.
“Chief,” Gibson nodded a terse greeting. Then asked her, “May I come in?”
Jesse glanced to her for permission. At her nod, he stepped aside. He probably didn’t know what he was taking on by offering to face down a Delta Force colonel, but she wouldn’t put it past Jesse to try if she asked him to. Again, he wasn’t like any man in her past.
With the two men in the tiny room, it suddenly felt very crowded.
He’d been Major Michael Gibson when she’d first joined the teams. He’d been her champion since the first day. Delta assigned women for deep-cover ops when it was easier for a team to blend in as a couple. But solo recon had remained in the men’s world—until she’d come along.
Unlike SEAL Team 6, which favored action teams of six to twelve, Delta was based on small teams operating with a high degree of autonomy. Occasionally even carrying out solo reconnaissance. It was the rare operator who had the skill set for those types of missions and they were in high demand. Hannah had proved to Major Gibson that she was the perfect solo operator. A loner by nature, more comfortable outdoors than in, with all of the skills demanded of a solo operator—not just a shooter or tracker or breacher, but all three and more. Now as a Delta Force colonel, he’d come to rely on her skills and her stealth often enough to keep her very well occupied.
She glanced at Jesse, but he was keeping his expression carefully bland as he closed the door, remaining rather than departing. He didn’t shrink in size, the way most men seemed to around Gibson. He appeared to grow bigger and stronger.
Maybe there was a man who could take on a Delta colonel, even though there was no need.
“What can I do for you, Colonel?”
“Sit down before you fall down, Tucker.”
“Yes, sir,” she dropped onto the bunk and it took everything she had to not keep going and simply collapse onto the pillow. She’d long since lost track of the last time she’d slept. One of the main drawbacks to operating solo—you had to stand both watches to not miss anything and to stay safe. In Colombia, crawling off into the trees to get occasional naps didn’t work so well. Once she’d woken to watch a viper slither over her leg as if it was just another tree branch. Another time she’d startled awake nose-to-nose with a monkey and scared them both half to death.
Gibson sat at the desk chair, and only cocked a questioning eyebrow when Jesse came to sit beside her.
“You the pilot who hauled her out?”
“It was more of a team effort, Colonel.”
Gibson waited too. He didn’t generally like talking in front of strangers.
At the moment, she didn’t give a damn.
Jesse’s politeness broke first. “Perhaps I should go.”
He was partway to his feet when Hannah placed a hand on his arm to stop him. He looked down at her with those sky-blue eyes she’d had no chance to appreciate last night… Only last night?
She shook her head infinitesimally, begging him not to go.
He settled again, then looked down at her hand on his forearm.
Hannah snatched her hand back.
She could see Gibson making the straight-ahead assessment of the situation, but he was totally wrong.
If it had only been about sex, she’d have merely been embarrassed. Maybe not even that. She wasn’t above telling the colonel that he could stay the hell out of her personal life.
This time, she was just glad that she hadn’t sunk the aircraft carrier.
# # #
Jesse kept his mouth shut as Gibson started questioning Hannah.
“I reviewed the transcripts of both of your debriefings on my flight down.” Which meant that a bird colonel had traveled a long way just to speak with Hannah; probably receiving live updates on the debrief while in transit. He then began asking nuanced questions that Jesse could see Hannah struggling to answer.
It wasn’t because of her exhaustion. These were the deep-level questions that any typical debrief would probably miss. Gibson didn’t bother with the mundane topics such as enemy strength or lessons learned. He went down another level, way past the merely tactical and deep into the strategic.
Jesse’s awe of Hannah grew as she reached down somewhere deep inside that slim, trim body and unearthed answers.
Assessment of NERC reactive abilities against different sizes and styles of strike forces?
Locals’ leanings and concerns regarding the NERC presence—would they protect the guerillas from fear or loyalty? Or bribery? Or betray them if given half a chance?
What changes had she noticed in operation or training patterns from their former FARC group profiles? Might these new renegade and splinter groups combine forces, or fracture further? Founded on political ideals, the FARC revolutionary army had become very comfortable with the financing opportunities through drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. The NERC were now the traffickers with only marginal attention to the political rhetoric. They would be loath to give up these lucrative ventures for any reason.
The questions went on until she was weaving.
“Enough already,” Jesse leaned in to stop the process.
The colonel met his glare blandly for a long moment. Maybe it wasn’t too late to recall that the colonel outranked him by approximately forty-three pay grades and could squash him like a horsefly, even if he was in a different command. They were both US Army Special Operations.
“Okay,” Gibson nodded as calmly as he’d done everything else, without a flicker of emotion. “I have one more question, then I’ll go.”
Hannah looked almost blurred past recognizing with exhaustion.
“I also read the debrief of the extraction team. They report a sound that they could only equate to a sonic boom. It drew their attention back to your position on the river. There is no evidence of any other aircraft, of any type, in the area. The sound was not monitored as directional, or arriving or departing the area. No light or other explosive indications were observed. Neither of your reports reflected this. Comments?”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Hannah shook her head several times. “Not a thing.”
Jesse judged that she was being a little too emphatic in her denial to quite be believed—even though he himself knew it was true; she couldn’t hear what she did. He kept his own mouth shut rather than lying to a superior officer.
After another of his long silences, the colonel stood.
He saluted them both. “Sergeant Tucker. Chief Johnson. Damn fine work. Glad you both made it out intact.”
They both saluted back even while the colonel indicated they should remain sitting. It was just as well, he doubted if Hannah could stand.
“Chief, I hear that you’re on temporary leave.”
“Yes sir. Standard practice after loss of an aircraft. Time for full processing of the report, acquisition of a new bird, and it gives the pilot’s nerves time to settle as a ‘best safety practices’ consideration.”
Colonel Gibson nodded, because of course he knew all that. “You hail from San Antonio.”
It wasn’t a question, so Jesse didn’t bother answering.
“You’ve got a flight booked to go home.”
Again Jesse saw no point in repeating things that Hannah’s CO already knew.
The colonel eyed Hannah.
Jesse saw that she was asleep sitting up. He rose and eased her down to the pillow, lifting her legs onto the bed.
Not a twitch. She was all the way out between one breath and the next.
Then he stood, facing the colonel, and waited.
“I’m dropping her from light duty to leave status as well. What she did in that jungle for three weeks was as impressive as hell.”
“Three weeks?” He’d been tapped out after one night. He looked down at the slip of a pretty blonde asleep on her bunk and just couldn’t equate the deed with the woman.
“I could have sent in a full squadron and not learned as much. See if you can talk her into going to San Antonio with you.”
That was about the last thing he’d ever expected to hear from the stern colonel.
He moved to the door and rested his hand on the handle but didn’t open it.
“This is important. There are things I’m not supposed to talk about. But while you’re in San Antonio, have her look up a Delta by the name of Ricardo Manella and his sister Isobel.”
“Isobel Manella the movie star?” One of his favorites, maybe even ahead of Reese. He had no idea she was a Heart of Texas girl—because the best of Texas was San Antonio, not some Podunk town like Brady in the geographic center. Isobel was the young Selma Hayek—started in Mexican telenovelas and blasted into Hollywood with Selma’s sexiness and Emily Blunt’s Sicario warrior skills. Sister to a Delta, no wonder she could make her fight scenes look so realistic.
“That’s the one.”
Jesse let his silence ask why.
“She didn’t hear a thing?”
And suddenly the conversation took on a whole new meaning. The colonel knew something that neither he nor Hannah did. Even understood why he hadn’t spoken: to both defend Hannah and not lie at the same time.
“No, sir. Not a thing.”
Colonel Gibson stared at him for a long moment, then nodded to accept Jesse keeping her secret.
“Hannah Tucker has a need of ‘home,’ Chief Johnson. A bad need that she’ll never acknowledge. However, you do anything to mess up my best field operative, you’ll have me to answer to. Are we clear?”
Jesse hadn’t found many officers who could deliver a threat and make it sound real. Drill sergeants had whupped that out of him back in Basic Training.
“Yes, sir,” he answered carefully. He didn’t salute, because the colonel’s question had nothing to do with the military.
And he didn’t doubt the unspoken threat for a single instant.
(To be continued in July)
Copyright © 2019 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2019 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
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