Dark Side of Dawn

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2001-01-01
  • Publisher: Signet

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Chapter One

Air Force Captain Joanna West was just congratulating herself for catching a brisk tail wind and making up the twenty minutes lost due to her passenger's late arrival at the State Department's helo port when disaster struck.

    The devil-red Ferrari didn't look like disaster when Jo first spotted it from the cockpit of her UH-1N. It looked like the fine piece of machinery it was, eating up the winding country road below with the ground-hugging grace of a predator. She identified the Italian sports car easily. With five brothers, each of whom considered himself the penultimate car guy, she'd been taught early to appreciate the beauty of a machine that could streak from zero to sixty in 5.3 seconds. This particular machine was headed south, cutting through the rolling green hills of Virginia's famed horse country at just about the same speed as her helo.

    "Jesus!" Her copilot's reverent voice came over the cockpit intercom. "Look at that baby."

    "I'm looking."

    "How much do you think something like that costs?"

    "More than we'll ever be able to afford," Jo replied dryly. "Something over two-hundred thousand, if I remember correctly."

    With the ease of long practice, she kept one eye on the instruments, the other on the gleaming red Ferrari as it sped along the curving road. The bright September sunlight glinted on its windshield. Its chrome trim sparkled as if polished with diamond dust. Lord, what a beautiful piece of workmanship!

    Her hands and feet light on the controls, Jo tipped the chopper's nose a few degrees to keep the Ferrari in sight. Known affectionately as the Huey to the two generations of military aviators--and not quite as affectionately by a number of other names---the UH-1N responded like the tried and true workhorse it was. The Vietnam-era helo was an old airframe, older than Jo herself and she'd be hitting the big three-oh in a few weeks. But it had been regularly modified over the years. Even more to the point, its proven reliability, easy maintenance, and superb safety record made it a joy to fly.

    Jo knew the bird's moves almost as well as she knew her own. She should. She'd been flying Hueys for more than five years, first with a Rescue Squadron based out of California and now with the prestigious 1st Helicopter Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. She'd been handpicked for this assignment and counted herself fortunate to wear the patch of the Fabled First.

    Of course, the fact that she'd darted in under police sniper fire last spring to pluck Major Carly Samuel and former hockey star Ryan McMann from a raging flood might have had something to do with her current position. Carly's grateful mother, a powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives, had "suggested" to the Air Force that they reward Jo's heroic actions by moving her to the Washington-based unit. A component of the 89th Wing, which provided airlift for the President and high-ranking VIPs, the 1st Helo Squadron accepted only the best of the best.

    Jo had jumped at the assignment when it was offered. Career-wise, it was a great move. What's more, it had come at exactly the right point in her personal life. She'd just ended an engagement to another pilot, and welcomed the change of scene to help blunt the hurt of their breakup. ,She'd packed her bags, piled them into her cream-colored MG, and driven across country from her California base without looking back.

    So here she was, ferrying passengers like Mrs. Beth Adair to high-level meetings and conferences. The tall, flame-haired Secretary of State and her entourage were now strapped in the seats behind Jo and her copilot, going over their notes for the speech Mrs. Adair was scheduled to give at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

    The size of the Secretary of State's entourage had surprised Jo when she'd received the information for preflight planning, as did the fact that her passengers included a Secret Service detail. She'd been in the job long enough now to know that the Secret Service normally provided protection only for the President, Vice President, visiting heads of state, and their families. Although Jo wasn't privy to the specific rationale for this exception to the routine, she guessed the extra protection had to do with the Secretary's tough-minded foreign diplomacy. News reports indicated that at least one terrorist group had targeted Mrs. Adair personally.

    Who woulda thunk it? Jo thought wryly. A small-town Wisconsin girl rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers of national and international policy. Four months ago, she'd been flying rescue missions off the coast of California. Now she was cruising along beside the smudgy purple peaks of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, peering through her helmet's sun-visor at a bright red Ferrari as it cut through a patchwork of green pastures, white rail fences, and windbreaks of maple and oak ablaze in fall colors below.

    She was taking a last admiring look at the Ferrari's sculptured lines when it whizzed passed a tree-lined side road. The moment the sports car sped by, a white van pulled out. Within seconds, the van had nosed up directly behind the speeding car. Their bumpers almost kissed, then the Ferrari leaped forward in another burst of speed. Exhaust plumbed from the van as its driver, too, laid the pedal to the metal and gave chase.

    Jo's copilot leaned into his shoulder harness and squinted downward. Lieutenant Charlie Fairbanks had logged only half the flying hours Jo had, but kept a light hand on the stick. Jo had been pleased to draw him and Staff Sergeant Mike McPeak, the flight engineer riding in the rear with the passengers, for this mission.

    "What the heck are they doing?" Charlie exclaimed.

    "I don't know. Playing tag, maybe."

    "Not too smart on these narrow roads."

    Shrugging, Jo eased the stick to the left to tip the aircraft into a turn. Suddenly, her hand froze on the controls. The Ferrari had headed into a turn as well, but too widely. Far too widely!

    While Jo watched with her breath in her throat, the driver tried to cut his angle, overcorrected, and fishtailed wildly across the road.

    "He's going to hit!"

    Charlie's grim prediction was no sooner out of his mouth than the Ferrari sideswiped a guard rail. Sparks flew as metal scraped along metal. For a moment, only a moment, it looked as though the driver might regain control. Then the car spun away from the rail and off the opposite side of the road. Its right side tipped high in the air. The left side dragging dirt, it crashed through a white fence and plowed a trench through a lush green pasture.

    Either unable or unwilling to halt its own forward momentum, the white van sped right past the shattered fence. It didn't stop, didn't even slow, as a horrified Jo watched the Ferrari's wheels tip higher in the air. The sports car rolled, then rolled again, landing on its roof.

    From her ringside seat, Jo couldn't miss the flames that licked at the front tires. Instinctively, she took the Huey into a steep bank, bringing it down for a closer look. Already startled by the careening Ferrari, a half dozen sleek Thoroughbreds grazing at the far end of the pasture took off at full gallop.

    She was still making the sharp, descending turn when the senior Secret Service agent jumped onto the intercom. "What the hell's going on?"

    Her eyes on the deadly fingers of fire licking at the front wheel wells, Jo keyed her mike. "A car just below us went off the road and rolled. I'm going down to take a look."

    She instructed her copilot in the next breath. "Get on the net to the control tower. Ask them to notify the state troopers."

    Charlie was already reaching for the bank of radio switches. "Roger."

    "Tell them we'll stay on the scene until they arrive."

    Jo's throat closed, almost choking off her words. Horrified, she spotted the Ferrari's driver, trying desperately to wiggle out the side window. He wouldn't make it! The flames now dancing around the front wheels had already generated a funnel of black smoke. The tires were burning. It was only a matter of moments ... seconds ... until the fire reached a fuel line.

    Jo had only those seconds to weigh her responsibilities. First and foremost, she had to protect the VIP aboard her aircraft. That was her mission, her charge, her sworn duty. Yet she couldn't just sit back and let a man die when she had the means to save him.

    "The driver's trapped in the vehicle," she advised the Secret Service rep. "We've got fuel suppressant fire extinguishers on board. I'm taking us down."

    "That's not your decision to make!"

    "I'm in command of this aircraft."

    "And I'm in charge of Mrs. Adair's security detail. What if this is a setup? A terrorist ploy to draw her down into a trap?"

    A burning vehicle? A trapped victim? Jo didn't think even the most sophisticated terrorist could stage a scene that precisely. But her passenger's safety had to remain a primary concern.

    "The copilot will stay with the aircraft and lift off at any sign of danger," she informed the agent.

    "I can't take that chance. I won't take that chance."

    "I will." Mrs. Adair's authoritative voice came over the mike. "Take the chopper down, Captain."

    Jo didn't need the sideways look Charlie shot her to know Beth Adair's concurrence wouldn't relieve the pilot-in-command of responsibility for this decision. She'd have to answer to her Director of Operations when she returned to Andrews Air Force base.

    "Advise Andrews that I'm putting us down," she told Charlie tersely.

    She banked and brought the Huey to earth far enough away from the wreck to protect both the aircraft and its passengers from the explosion that appeared more and more likely with each passing moment. Bright tongues of fire danced along the Ferrari's undercarriage. Black smoke billowed from its front end, drenching the fall afternoon in the scent of burning rubber.

    Eyes stinging, nostrils pinched against the acrid stench, Jo threw her legs out of the cockpit and jumped down. Her one-piece resistant flight suit covered her in fire-resistant Nomex from her neck to her ankles. Her leather-palmed gloves would protect her hands, the helmet and visor would shield most of her face.

    "Stay with the aircraft," she shouted to Charlie. "Keep the engines at one hundred percent."


    She caught the extinguisher the flight engineer tossed her on the run. Sergeant McPeak jumped out and followed with the second extinguisher. Together they raced toward the burning vehicle. Her stomach clenching, Jo saw that it could go at any moment.

    They aimed extinguishers at the dancing flames. Foam sizzled and spit on hot metal. Smoke billowed a dirty gray instead of black. For an anxious second or two, Jo thought they'd doused the fire. She'd barely dragged in a breath of relief when tiny tongues of red flickered anew inside the right front wheel well.

    "Get back!" she shouted to the engineer. "I'll pull him out."

    She didn't consciously weigh the fact that Sergeant McPeak was married with two small children, one of whom was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Jo had brought her aircraft down. The risk was hers and hers alone. Throwing up an arm to shield her face from the fierce heat, she darted in and bent to grab the driver's wrist.

    Under more controlled circumstances, she would have assessed his injuries before attempting to move him. The present circumstances were about as uncontrolled as Jo ever wanted to experience. Digging both boot heels into the lush green pasture, she yanked on his arm.

    He grunted, the sound barely audible over the blood roaring in her ears.

    "Push!" she yelled. "Push!"

    He lifted his head, his face white and strained, his jaw locked tight. "My ... foot's... caught."

    Cursing, she dropped flat on the ground beside him. She needed only one look to see that the Ferrari's roof had crumbled, pinning the driver's right leg between it and the steering wheel.

    Jo carried a Swiss Army knife with the other survival gear in the pocket of her flight suit, but there wasn't time for an emergency amputation, even if she had the guts to perform one under these conditions.

    Grappling through the window for a hold, Jo got a one-handed grip on his pants leg right above his ankle and yanked, His foot didn't budge.

    "No ... good. I'm ...stuck." Sweat ran down his temples. "You'd better ... get ... back before ... she ... blows."

    Ignoring the desperate croak, Jo put everything she had into another brutal pull on his trapped leg.

    "Push, dammit!"

    For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happened. Beneath her fingers, Jo felt his calf muscles bunch as he gathered himself for another, all-or-nothing push.

    He came free with a grunt. White-faced, he tried to crawl away from the car.

    Jo scrambled up and traded her death grip on his leg for one on his arm. Panting, her breath stabbing into her lungs, she dragged him away from the heat and the choking smoke.

    An ominous hiss warned her the Ferrari was about to go. Flinging herself facedown, Jo covered its driver with her body. A half-second later, the world exploded around her.

Copyright © 2001 Merline Lovelace. All rights reserved.

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