Authors: M. L. Buchman
Copyright © 2012 by M.L. Buchman
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Dawn Adams
Cover illustration by Paul Stinson
Cover images © Brosa/iStockphoto.com; Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
FAX: (630) 961-2168
To my Lady, for whom all my words are written.
To my stepdaughter, for her steadfast belief.
To them both, all my heart.
To my reading group and my mentors,
I couldn’t have done it without you.
To Deb and crew—what a joy!
But this being a work of fiction,
whatever I couldn’t find out
I made up.
The aerodynamic force on a helicopter’s rotor that provides an upward force to climb or maintain flight.
To become elevated; to soar.
The CNN film crew had made it fun. But now…
The laptop stood balanced on a couple of empty, dull green ammo cases for the minigun. Sweaty pilots and crew stood gathered around the computer, waiting for the network to roll the clip.
Captain Emily Beale and her team rushed into the tent from the Black Hawk helicopter landing area, still in their hot, sticky flight gear, helmets clutched under their arms. Just past dawn here, late-evening news back home.
A dozen guys who hadn’t been lucky enough to fly that night packed the already baking tent. They wore shorts and army green, sleeveless tees revealing a wide variety of arm tattoos. Some with girls’ names, some snakes, some helicopters, all with feathered wings. The men squatted on the dirt and sand that passed for a floor, perched on benches, or stood, feet wide, with arms crossed over muscled chests.
The observation jolted Emily a moment before she shrugged it back into her mind’s dustiest footlocker. Just another reminder that the entire female roster of this forward deployment included only one name—her own.
Brion Carlson came on and flashed his famous scowl, cuing his multimillion-person audience that the next clip would be fun, not war-torn hell, not drowned mother of twins, not car pileup at eleven.
Emily’s free hand rested on the M9 Beretta sidearm in her holster. Tempting. A couple of 9 mm rounds through the screen might cheer her up significantly. But then they’d all know how she felt. Be hard to laugh it off after that level of mayhem. She knew hundreds of ways to kill a person but how do you kill a newscast? Shooting a laptop didn’t meet the ultimate criteria for complete suppression. She scanned the intent faces of her flightmates. Still, a bit of localized destruction held its temptations.
She’d only been in the company for two months. The first week or so, she’d been a total outsider. But as she’d proved herself on mission after mission, she’d gained acceptance, grudging at first, then not. Now, on the precarious cusp of true welcome, this.
“Hot from the fighting front, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, CNN caught up with Black Hawk pilot Captain Emily Beale as she cooks up a storm for her flight crew. She’s the first, and so far the only, female pilot to qualify to fly helicopters for SOAR, the elite 160th Airwing.”
“Air regiment,” Big John called out. Someone shushed him.
“With the Night Stalkers, as the Special Operations Aviation Regiment call themselves—”
“Damn straight,” John answered and then turned to scowl at whoever had been foolish enough to try and shush him before.
“—she flies, literally, where no woman has flown before.”
The clip rolled. A close-up of steak sizzling on a surface so black that it didn’t reflect the scorching, midday sun. Odd place to start, but what the hell. The Black Hawk’s nose cone covering the terrain-following radar assembly really had been plenty hot to sear a steak. And the meat had tasted damn good. A humorous opening. So far she could live with this.
Then the camera pulled back.
First the nose of her chopper, which was kind of cool. Made a nice surprise for the average viewer.
Then the camera swung toward the person wielding the cooking tongs.
She groaned. Silently. But, damn! She’d given them loads of footage why she flew had answered a thousand probing questions about a woman in a man’s world and this is how they started?
Ray-Bans. Blond hair running loose over her shoulders. A trick only Special Forces, SEALs, and SOAR pilots could get away with in all the U.S. military. The elite fighting teams were supposed to wear nonmilitary hair, even mustaches and beards, to blend in wherever they were inserted. SOAR pilots usually did the close-cropped military thing, but not her company. She liked the sound of that, her company. No longer the newbie on the outside looking in.
The laptop image scanned down her body as if she were a model for
. This was not what she’d signed up for. At least it would be uphill from here.
She’d made it into the Black Adders, the nastiest and toughest company that SOAR had ever fielded. They belonged to the 5th Battalion, which was the nastiest and toughest battalion, no matter what the other four claimed. That’s why the 3rd Black Hawk Company of the 5th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) wore their hair long. It made them more like their customers, the Special Forces operations specialists they transported to and from battle. Of course, none of them minded the added bonus of being able to thumb their noses at the establishment they’d give their lives to defend.
The camera continued its slow scan down her body. Army-green tank top. Running shorts and army boots. Standard desert camp gear. She was soaked in sweat, and the clothes clung to her like Saran Wrap. A point the cameraman had made the most of, both on his pan down and back up.
But this wasn’t who she was. It wasn’t the point of the interview. She flew the most lethal helicopter ever devised by man, and they were turning her into a porn star. Her grip on her still-holstered M9 sidearm grew painful, but she couldn’t ease off.
“Em-i-ly!” “Whoo-hoo, Captain!” “Now that’s what we’re talking about!” The catcalls in the tent overrode the voice-over. Attracted attention from outside the tent. More air jocks drifted in to see what was up. Is that how they thought of her every day? To react would only admit her intimidation. And that door wouldn’t be opened for anybody.