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Six months ago
Outside the crippled AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, two men wearing the only two parachutes were falling through the midnight darkness toward life.
Inside there was only death.
US Air Force Colonel Vicki “Taser” Cortez stared at the inside of the jump door she had just closed, blocking her own chance of survival.
Except she wasn’t any of those labels anymore.
If she set foot back on US soil, she’d be stripped of rank and court-martialed along with every other person on this plane. Too guilty to ever plea bargain a lesser sentence. Leavenworth for life. For what this crew had done, they might bring back the firing squad.
The sick joke was, she wasn’t even Vicki Cortez. That was just the name on the identity papers her mother had bought when they’d slipped across the Mexican border a lifetime ago. A name she’d since associated with bank accounts, pensions, and security clearances that properly would belong to a dead girl.
With the two civilians off the plane and parachuting to safety, and the Ghostrider yawing drunkenly through the last of its death throes, there was nothing left to do.
No one left to be.
She pulled the challenge coin from her pocket. A cast metal coin, the very first one every handed out by her commander after he made general. It was a sign of his respect, and the honor of it had been her anchor for nineteen years.
Nineteen years she’d spent following General JJ Martinez on his quest. A man of perfect integrity.
He had fought for what was best for their country—his country, not technically hers.
And when blocked one too many times despite their combined efforts, the three-star general had taken on the battle himself.
Had it been a failure?
The shuddering of the deck through her boots would argue for that. The highly modified C-130J Ghostrider was damaged past any ability to land. Two hundred million dollars of stolen aircraft was in its last minutes of life.
The main gun mounted in the middle of the cargo bay, the 105 mm howitzer, had exploded and was still on fire. Through the small round view-glass in the jump door, she could see that both portside engines were also now burning. Fuel pouring from the shrapnel-punctured wings caught fire even as it streamed out.
Yet tonight they had destroyed four major drug cartel strongholds along the south side of the Mexican border. Hundreds had died beneath the barrage of this gunship. Millions, perhaps billions of dollars of drugs had burned as well. It wouldn’t stop the flow, but it would cripple it while each cartel fought an internal battle to establish new leaders now that so many had been executed.
Perhaps it would finally force the United States and Mexico to do something useful together.
But all that was over.
All that was left to do was to die.
There would be no landing in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert—impact with the terrain was imminent.
A day ago, even a few hours ago, she’d have gone to sit by the general and await her fate.
But Jeremy Trahn had shown her something before she’d strapped him into the last parachute and shoved him out the jump door to safety. Against his sweet nature, he’d helped her. He hadn’t killed. But he’d shown her how to, and she’d done it without compunction.
While being her prisoner, he’d also improvised a weapon that would have blinded her, would have stopped the general—but hadn’t used it. The unused weapon and a final kiss were the last things he’d given to her.
Yet he’d given her more.
The plane slid hard across a pocket of turbulence, slamming her against the closed bulkhead door. She could feel the plane’s will to survive as the damaged wings caught air and stabilized despite all the damage done to it.
Why couldn’t that have been her life?
Instead, for nineteen years she’d been the general’s weapon, unleashing all the blackness coiled within her chest at his command.
Go find out what’s really happening at Lockheed on this project and fix it.
Track down whoever is blocking this initiative and have them court-martialed for being an idiot.
She had done everything except kill for him.
Until the cartels’ headquarters tonight.
Taz didn’t know if it was funny or sad. For the nineteen years she’d been in the military, she’d never killed anyone.
During her youth in the ghettos of Mexico City and later as a teen in San Diego, she’d been lethal with a knife. She’d never hesitated to serve justice as executioner—wasting no time with judge and jury. All that had ended the day she’d walked up to the Air Force recruiter to escape that life.
And now, she was again not military—for the act of stealing this brand-new plane and eradicating with prejudice the leadership of four Mexican drug cartels. Those very acts had severed her from her decades of dedicated service.
Now? She wasn’t even the general’s Taser anymore.
The only thing that remained truly hers was the nickname “Taz.”
If Jeremy had done anything, it was to offer her a glimpse of an alternate life.
Taz glanced around for the general. He’d gone back up to the C-130J’s cockpit. She could see his back as he sat rigidly upright in the jump seat behind the pilots, watching them fight the already lost battle to retain some control of the landing. The AC-130J Ghostrider was going down hard no matter what they did.
Only now did she understand that the general had taken her life as surely and carelessly as she’d given it to his service. He’d never abused her, but he’d used her without mercy or a second thought.
She flexed her wrist and felt the Benchmade Phaeton drop-blade tactical knife she always wore there.
Another hard yaw threw her to the deck hard enough to knock some sense into her. The hull’s metal groaned as forces torqued the airframe one way and then another. There was no need to take the general’s life; the plane would do that for her.
The weapons console was useless now. All of the Ghostrider’s bombs had been dropped—all of the ammunition fired. The explosion of the very last round had killed both the big howitzer and the wing. Only the HEL-A laser remained, but its aiming cameras had been burned away. Nothing left to shoot at anyway.
Two of the gun crew members who’d survived the initial explosion of the M102 howitzer stared blankly at the shattered weapon. The three others were dead or dying on the narrow walkway around the gun.
Of them all, that’s the one that counted.
And it was so simple…
And the safest place in a plane crash?
Taz sprinted for the tail, racing upslope against the steep dive of the C-130.
An inch under five feet, she was small enough to slip through a gap under the Bofors 40mm autocannon.
The pair of surviving gunners still hung on beside the ruined howitzer, taking no action to save themselves.
Squeezing between them and the big gun, the hot metal of the breech burned a line along her shoulder, but she ignored the pain.
The AC-130J’s rear ramp had been fitted with vertical bomb launch tubes. No seats back here. Maybe, if she braced herself against the tubes and the tail broke away on impact, she’d have a chance.
The gunners had been snapped out of their lethargy by her passage. In moments they’d squeezed in to either side of her as the dying plane flailed and twisted toward the hard earth. The g-force pressed the three of them more tightly together than if they were having a threesome.
It was dark back here. Almost safe. The red night-fighting lights by the gun barely reached the launch tubes. Just enough that she could see the wide eyes of the man pressed chest-to-chest against her.
A sickening lurch.
“There goes the wing,” the one behind her gasped out.
She’d helped recruit them to this final mission, but now couldn’t even recall their names.
In a death spiral now, inevitable with only one wing. Not even being in the tail would offer any safety.
She clutched the general’s coin to her chest for luck.
General Martinez would welcome death come to find the warrior at last.
Well to hell with that.
Before the first spiral was complete, before she had a chance to throw the coin away, before the twisting momentum became unsurvivable, the plane slammed into the ground.
Taz remembered only flashes of what came next.
The curious soundlessness of the fuselage ripping away from the tail—the hull skin shredding, the cross-connecting beams shearing.
A clear view as the fuel in the remaining wing exploded, pulverizing the main fuselage—too loud to be called a sound.
The gaping mouth of her chest-to-chest companion as he was burned alive by the flash of fire blasted into the now open-ended tail section. She was small enough, or he big enough, that she remained tucked safely in his heat shadow—saved from the worst burns by yanking her flight jacket over her hair and face.
The final shudders of the man behind her as his neck was broken when slammed against the launch tubes.
No more slide and tumble, the tail came to rest in a shallow arroyo filled with sand and tumbleweeds.
Claw her way out from between two corpses.
Tumble onto the night-cool sand.
No longer a US Air Force colonel.
No longer the general’s feared right-hand Taser.
Crawling with no thought but…away.
No longer Vicki Cortez.
All of her past selves dead in the flaming wreckage.
Another hard explosion behind her—she didn’t bother turning to see—assured her that her body wouldn’t be missed.
She was north of Nogales.
In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
Once more in los Estados Unidos—north of the border.
Once more an illegal with no identity.
Just as she had at eleven years old, she set her guide by the North Star and kept moving.
Clear of the wreckage, clear of the likely search perimeter, she buried herself in the cool night sand and slept.
When she woke, it was…again? …still? night.
The general’s coin remained clutched in her hand. The lone remnant of her past. Rather than dumping it in the sand, she jammed it into her pocket.
She continued north.
Taz hadn’t expected to survive this operation, hadn’t expected to want to, or she’d have emptied her bank accounts. Now all she had was the emergency fund that was never off her person.
In Tucson, she bought a new identity. Colonel Vicki “Taser” Cortez of the United States Air Force became US citizen Tanya Roberts.
The clean social security number and identity came from a crooked mortician and a corrupt medical examiner who took most of her funds between them for not reporting Tanya’s recent death. Tanya was buried as Jane Doe—death by mugger.
Nothing in “her” apartment worth keeping or pawning when Taz checked it out, except for a phone with no contacts or recent calls other than work, and a set of car keys. Tanya had been a true loner, and perhaps even welcomed death. Perfect.
Taz replenished her funds by emptying out Tanya’s meager bank accounts, and she was done.
As Tanya, she was now legally five years younger—which was closer to her true age. She’d actually joined the Air Force at fifteen straight out of high school after her first name change had aged her three years. Now, her ID declared she was thirty-two instead of Vicki’s thirty-seven, or the thirty-four she actually was in some half-forgotten reality.
With her size and looks, she could have safely dropped ten years instead of just the five.
A week and a hundred miles later, she filed for a legal name change in Phoenix. Somehow, having the same name as a tall, redheaded, 1980s Hollywood sex-kitten actress just seemed too unlikely. She also wanted as clean a break as possible from anyone seeking the dead Tanya Roberts.
Flores was her original family name, left south of the border when she was eleven. She took that back for her mother’s memory.
Her birth name was meaningless. In the Air Force she was always Taz or Cortez. But Jeremy had called her Vicki when they’d made love.
She’d had sex when she cared to, but there was little question that mere sex wasn’t something Jeremy Trahn understood.
And he’d proven the difference to her, much to her surprise.
She wasn’t Vicki to anyone except Jeremy. So, she kept both her family name and nickname, and, for luck, the name that Jeremy had called her.
The Motor Vehicle Department clerk hadn’t even looked at the picture on Tanya Roberts’ old driver’s license before issuing her one under her new/old name, which had saved the five hundred dollars she’d had folded tight and ready. They’d switched over the vehicle registration at the same time. Social Security had accepted the name change with the court order and new ID; they gave her a fresh card just as painlessly.
With no plan beyond survival, Tasia Vicki Flores pocketed her new identity, climbed into “her” rusted-but-running 1997 Toyota Corolla, and left Phoenix to follow wherever the North Star led.
(Print and Audio available by Release Day)
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