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       Hawx (2009), p.13

           Tom Clancy
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  She handed him a copy of the corporate magazine with a picture of Troy standing next to an F-16 on the cover.

  "Sure, I guess so," he said, obviously still unaccustomed to his celebrity status.

  "Hail the conquering hero," Jenna repeated, half-mocking him.

  There were more smiles and glances of recognition as Jenna and Troy made their way through the hallways on their way to the Firehawk executive coffee room.

  "You really made a name for yourself out there over the Gulf of Thailand," she said as they sat down to savor their paper cups of French roast. "Just as you did in Guatemala, and in Zambia, too."

  "Cambodian pilots aren't the best." Troy shrugged. "Zambia was pretty easy. The fight was pretty much a ground operation, and the guys from DefenseCo rolled that up pretty fast. Guatemala was just plain weird."

  "How do you mean?" Jenna asked.

  "I guess I was pretty naive in those days. One morning, I was fighting a Zapatista Su-25. I knew that Svartvand had supplied it to them, but in my mind, the pilot was a bad guy . . . any guy trying to kill you with Aphids is a bad guy, right?"

  "Sure, y'all would naturally think of someone trying to kill you as a 'bad guy." "

  "Well, here I am that same night. I sit down to a nice dinner in a pretty fancy steak house, and I start talking to the guy next to me . . . and it's the guy. The guy who tried to kill me in the morning is the same guy who is asking me to pass the salt and pepper."

  "That's the world of the PMC." Jenna smiled. "It's all just business. No hard feelings. By the sounds of what you did to the Cambodian Air Force over in the Gulf of Thailand, you seem to have gotten over your naivete."

  "Yeah, guess so. But since Guatemala, I haven't sat down to dinner with anybody that had spent his day shooting at me."

  "Speaking of dinner," Jenna asked. "What are you doing for dinner tonight?"

  "Harris has me down for some kind of meet and greet, but that's early, so I could probably do it around eight o'clock if that works for you?"

  "That works for me." Jenna smiled. "Where are you staying . . . I can pick you up at your hotel."

  TO JENNA, THE CONQUERING HERO LOOKED VAGUELY vulnerable as he stood in front of the Marriott Courtyard in Arlington waiting for his chariot and its charioteer. She imagined him as a puppy dog in need of a good petting--or as a small deer as viewed through the eyes of a tigress.

  Jenna had mixed feelings. Was she heading for trouble with the thoughts she was thinking of Troy? There were many reasons to keep this idea filed under "what if," as it had been since Las Vegas. Most of these other reasons contained the word Hal. On one hand, she found Troy hands-on sexy in that bad-boy sort of way that is often so appealing, but on the other, she knew that bad boys can be a lot of fun.

  Jenna had mixed feelings about Hal, too, though. The fire was definitely gone from their relationship. Both of them had moved on emotionally. She knew there were many reasons why she shouldn't be moving on in the direction of Troy Loensch. She knew that boring people like Hal were good in the long term, while bad boys were always a potential for trouble.

  "Business must be good here at the home office," Troy said, looking over the Carrera. "Very nice-looking ride . . . and a fine-looking chauffeur too."

  Jenna was pleased that he thought her to be "fine-looking," but felt a little peevish that this comment was an afterthought tagged on to his gushing about the Porsche.

  "Where are we going for dinner?" Troy asked.

  "Didn't feel like D. C. traffic tonight," Jenna said. "Thought we'd head out sixty-six. Feel like country food tonight, y'all. I made a reservation at a little place out on Fox Mill Road--chicken-fried steak and hush puppies and all. Sound okay?"

  "Sounds good to me."

  When they got past the Beltway on 1-66, she glanced in her mirror and depressed the accelerator with the pointed toe of her Jimmy Choo and opened up the Carrera. If he liked the car, she'd show him the car. She noticed a smile. She also noticed a bit more than a glance at her leg.

  "Nothing like a jet," she said casually. "But if y'all gotta be on the ground, it's the way to go."

  "I asked around about Hal when I was in Herndon this afternoon," Troy said. "They said he's not at Firehawk?"

  "Oh, yeah, I shoulda mentioned," she said apologetically. "Thought you probably heard. Yeah . . . Hal took a job with Escurecer, y'know, the PMC. He's been with them about three months . . . based out of their Alexandria office."

  "Didn't know that," Troy said. "Guess it's my fault for not staying in closer touch."

  "Y'all aren't very good about answering your e-mails," Jenna said in a mock scolding tone.

  "Yeah, I'm a bad boy."

  Jenna thought about saying something about how the teacher would have to punish the "bad boy," but she bit her lip.

  "So, why'd he leave?"

  "Escurecer offered him a job that has some flying involved," Jenna explained. "He really wanted to get back into the air. . . . That and umm, y'know . . . Fire-hawk has this thing about not wanting employees married to other employees."

  This time, Jenna bit her lip after she let slip something that she wanted not to have slipped.

  "Married?" Troy asked "Who? Wait . . . you guys got married?"

  "No, not yet." Jenna shrugged. She hadn't planned to be discussing wedding plans with the conquering hero tonight, but she knew she was foolish to delude herself into believing it would not come up. "We've been together a long time . . . talking about it . . . so it was finally time to commit."

  "Congratulations." Troy smiled.

  She was pleased to have detected a trace of disappointment in his tone.

  "Didn't notice a ring," Troy said, glancing at her hand.

  "Oh, it's at the jeweler . . . umm . . . getting sized," Jenna lied.

  The ring was in her purse.

  "Is Hal gonna be joining us tonight?" Troy asked after they had been seated at the restaurant.

  "No, he's out in New Mexico for a training thing .. . not sure exactly what . . . He can't talk about it, y'know."

  The dinner conversation grew more and more relaxed, measured in increments by the number of drinks they had. It had started out as typical co-worker chitchat. They talked at length about Firehawk. Troy spoke of mutual acquaintances with whom he had worked in the field, and Jenna regaled him with amusing and occasionally ridiculous stories of home office politics.

  "Glad that you and Hal are finally making it .. . urn . . . official," Troy said at a break in the conversation.

  "Girl's gotta think about her future," Jenna said. "Biological clock, y'know."

  "So you're thinking of having kids?"

  "Probably . . . sure . . . I guess."

  "Can't picture Falcon Two all settled down in the suburbs with a minivan and soccer practice." Troy laughed.

  "Where do you picture me?"

  "Well . . ." Troy felt himself going red.

  "Yeah," Jenna said. "You and me both."

  "I'm sorry I didn't . . . y'know . . . back in Las Vegas that time."

  "I'm sorry too," Jenna said. "But you were right .. . Hal and me . . ."

  "Doesn't mean that I haven't wished that . . . things .. . well, would have gone different . . . and if you and Hal hadn't been . . ."

  "He's a rock," Jenna said. "He's the kind of guy that a girl thinks about as a father of her children. He's solid . . . he's a good guy."

  "What about me?"

  "I'm sorry, but when I think about you, I see this crazy dude taking shots at SAM sites . . . the dude who smoked all these MiGs over there . . . a dude who's gonna be impossible to tie down. Did you ever think about settling down, y'know, really settling down?"

  "Well . . ." Troy's expression told all that needed telling. The notion of settling down was an anathema.

  "And what about monogamy?" Jenna said. The wine was talking. "How many girls do you have waiting for you in all your ports of call?"

  "What is this? Twenty questions?" Troy said indignantly.

  "I'm sorry," Jenna said soothingly. She reached across the table and gently took his hand. She felt him willingly let it be taken.

  "I'm sorry," she repeated. "It was none of my business . . . it's the same things that make you not husband material that make you so very . . . very appealing to me."

  Chapter 29

  Firehawk Compound, Kota Bharu, Malaysia

  "WE'LL HAVE TO GIVE THE SANDIES SOMETHING TO chew on," Raymond Harris said as he walked Troy back to the operations building from the Gulfstream that had just flown him in from Bangkok. "We'll have to show them that this is damned serious."

  The "Sandies" were the firm of Sandringham Partners, Ltd., one of the other PMCs operating in Malaysia. The name made it sound like a firm of London chartered accountants, but in fact, the company was a Cayman Islands--based gang of what Harris referred to as "damned mercenaries who change sides more often than most people change their shirts."

  "What do the Sandies have to do with us?" Troy asked. "I thought they were mixed up in some sort of special ops thing way down near Kuantan. We're not even really engaged in country here."

  The compound in Kota Bharu Province, officially sanctioned by the Malaysian government, was Fire-hawk's base of operations for the Gulf of Thailand missions against the Cambodian Air Force, but Firehawk was not actually running operations within Malaysia.

  "We're not functioning in a vacuum here, Loensch," Harris said. "Guarding the perimeter at these bases is key. It's not something that you'd notice, but you'd sure as hell notice if it wasn't being taken care of. Whenever we go into one of these Third World shitholes like this, Firehawk has to pay the right people to take care of us .. . usually local people who know the lay of the land."

  "I understood that, but I admit that I didn't think about it too much," Troy admitted.

  "Well, it's something that I have to think about when I set up an operational base anywhere," Harris explained. "In this case, we've been paying this organization run by a guy named Buddy--that's not his real first name, but he calls himself that--Keropok, Buddy Keropok. We've been paying Buddy to take care of us, and his people have been doing a damned good job. There weren't any perimeter incidents when you were serving your first tour out here, right?"

  "Right, I mean there were no problems that I knew of," Troy said.

  "Anyway, Buddy and his people are also doing some other sorts of operations down around Kuantan. That's where they've been having some trouble with the Sandies. The Sandies have killed about a dozen of Buddy's people, and he's getting real pissed off."

  "As well he should," Troy agreed.

  "Buddy's people killed some Sandies too," Harris conceded. "But only in retaliation. It's an eye for an eye in this culture, same as any. So Buddy came to me and asked me, since I'm running PMC ops here and the Sandies are another PMC, couldn't I just talk to them and figure out a way to end this."

  "Were you able?" Troy asked.

  "I went down to Singapore for a sit-down with Sandringham's station chief. He's got a real nice flat in a modern building down there. I told him that Buddy's people were doing a good job of taking care of us, and asked what his problem was."

  "And . . ."

  "Turf war. Buddy's got a little contraband transfer thing going on south of Kuantan."

  "You mean smuggling?" Troy asked, interpreting the phrase contraband transfer.

  "I wouldn't exactly call it that, but whatever it is, it got in the way of something that the Sandies were doing." "Smuggling?"


  "Not enough for both?"

  "Trouble is that the Sandies have been fighting the rebels for so long down in that area that they essentially control the whole east coast of Malaysia. This includes contraband transfers. The rebels used to run all that, but now the Sandies do."

  "And they don't want to share?"

  "The Sandies are dealing from a position of strength. They have the government wrapped around their proverbial fingers since they beat the rebels. They don't feel that they need to share with anyone. I told him to cut Buddy some slack, and he said he'd think about it. He got cagey and told me we'd talk in the morning."

  "That sounds indecisive."

  "Well, he needed to talk to his bosses," Harris said. "And his bosses talked to our bosses, and that night, I got a call from Herndon. The Firehawk board of directors had gotten a call from the head Sandy down in the Caymans. They came up with a novel solution."

  "What's that?" Troy asked, intrigued.

  "The head Sandy said make us an offer, and Firehawk offered to buy Sandringham," Harris said. "The Fire-hawk board figured that if Firehawk owned Sandringham, then they would just tell the Sandies down at Kuantan to back the hell off."

  "That sounds like it ought to work," Troy said, thinking that all's well that ends well.

  "Except for one little detail . . . it didn't work. The Sandies turned down the Firehawk offer. They didn't even counter. Firehawk upped the bid and the Sandies just hung up the phone on 'em. I went back to see the bastard in Singapore the next morning, and he basically told me to go fuck myself . . . and take Buddy Keropok with me. That's why we gotta get involved and show the bastards that Firehawk means business."

  "How can we do that?"

  "We have seven F-16s here at Kota," Harris said, thinking out loud. "We'll load up with JDAMs. The Sandies have a staging base down on the coast near Kuantan. We'll just teach 'em a lesson the old-fashioned way."

  "Can we do that?" Troy asked. "I mean, does our mandate, our contract, allow us--"

  "Sure as hell," Harris said. "Remember when we were out in Sudan and the Al-Qinamah were hiding in Eritrea and we needed to go after 'em, but we had those damned `rules of engagement'?"

  "Yeah . . ."

  "We were allowed to fire if fired upon?"

  "Yeah . . ."

  "Well, every PMC contract that's been written has a provision that permits every PMC to defend itself .. . and the lawyers have told us that this means we can go after the sources of threats just like we did with the damned SAM missiles over there in Eritrea."

  "Just to clarify, then," Troy said. "Our job would be to curtail the Sandringham threat against Buddy Keropok, who is our protector here in Malaysia?"

  "Screw it," Harris said. "This is a fuckin' war. We're gonna do more than that. We're gonna blow the Sandies the hell out of Malaysia."

  "Do they have any airpower, any fighters that might oppose a bomb run?" Troy asked, interjecting an element of practicality.

  "Nothing more than a few choppers and a Gulfstream or two."

  "Should we do a recon flight over their base just to make sure?"

  "Absolutely, but we'd better do it quick," Harris said, eager to get his operation off the ground. "I want to feed real-time data back here so that we can launch the strike package as soon as possible . . . like I mean within an hour or two."

  "I'll volunteer to fly the recon flight," Troy said.

  "Plan on a long day, then," Harris said. "I want a maximum effort on that target, so as soon as you touch down after the recon flight, I want you to load up and fly as part of the strike package."

  "Absolutely." Troy smiled. His job was to kill bad guys, and if the bosses at Firehawk said the Sandies were the bad guys, then it was them he would kill. However, he thought it so ironic that had the acquisition negotiations, handled between people safe in their comfortable offices, gone differently, the killers and victims would suddenly have been friends. After his last mission in Guatemala, though, these ironies were no longer surprises.

  "Isn't this great?" Harris asked as the two men parted company outside the operations shack.

  "What's great?"

  "Being able to declare a war when it needs to be declared, and then just go do it."

  "As opposed to . . ."

  "Having to wait for a big room full of politicians to argue and bicker about it and quibble over rules of engagement. That's why all wars ought to be run by the PMCs. We're a hell of a lot more efficient
than governments . . . don't you think?"

  "Absolutely," Troy said, not quite able to get his head around what Harris perceived as the logical future of armed conflict.

  Chapter 30

  Flight Level 220, over the South China Sea

  TROY WAS TAKING THE LONG WAY AROUND. FROM THE Firehawk Compound at Kota Bharu, Malaysia, he had flown due east, rather than south to Kuantan. Over the South China Sea, he leveled out at twenty-two thousand feet and snuggled into the flight path, the highway in the sky that was traveled by commercial flights between Manila and Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The odds that Sandringham was tracking Firehawk flights on radar was remote, but Raymond Harris was taking no chances.

  Troy might have climbed up to a commercial altitude above thirty thousand feet, but he didn't want to be seen visually by the airliners on their highway, and he wanted to be closer to his operational altitude when it came time to turn on his camera pod. He would cross the Sandringham base at around ten thousand because a low-level pass would seem too deliberate. At ten thousand, he'd be high enough to be just another plane in the fairly busy airspace, but low enough to get good resolution on the digital images that he would be transmitting back to Kota Bharu.

  As he approached the Malay Peninsula and began his descent, Troy could look off to the left and see the sprawl of red roofs and occasional ivory-colored skyscrapers that marked the city of Kuantan, Malaysia's ninth largest.

  Turning north, he could soon make out the Sandringham base. It was larger than he expected, dwarfing the nearby village of Kemasek. He saw the black stripe of a recently paved runway. He also saw--and did a double take when he did--what looked to be a pair of F-16 fighters, just like his.

  How could this be?

  Harris had insisted that Sandringham airpower consisted of helicopters and executive jets.

  It's a good thing we're doing this recon flight, Troy thought to himself as he imagined Harris reacting to pictures of the F-16s that were streaming back to Kota Bharu from his camera pods.

  "HOW THE HELL DID THEY GET THOSE?" HARRIS ASKED rhetorically and angrily as Troy climbed out of the cockpit. It was almost as though he were mad at Troy for them being there--blaming the messenger for the bad news.

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