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       Hawx (2009), p.15

           Tom Clancy
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  He realized that she had not crossed his mind since he had crossed paths with the CIA.

  Yesterday, though, Troy had had little else on his mind, knowing he would soon be seeing her. Months ago in Las Vegas, he had taken the high road, refused her advances, and had often regretted this decision. On his last visit to the Firehawk home office, he had allowed himself to be seduced by this Ozark tigress. It was hot, wild ecstasy, but he had often regretted this decision. He regretted the dishonesty of what his delicious encounter meant to an unknowing Hal Coughlin, the man whose ring Jenna wore.

  Then, he'd killed this man.

  In less than an hour, he'd walk into the Firehawk headquarters, and he would come face-to-face with Jenna. Did she know it was him?

  What would she say?

  What should he say?

  How could he look into those blue eyes of hers knowing that he had killed her fiance?

  THE MAN WHO WAS SCHEDULED TO RECEIVE A CORPOrate commendation that was to be the equivalent of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first in Firehawk history, entered the building not the same conquering hero as on his last visit, but a wary, conflicted man. This afternoon, he would play the role of conquering hero in front of Firehawk's adoring home office staff, but the man inside the shell inhabited a murky world of guilt.

  There were layers upon layers of guilt that began with leaving Hal Coughlin for dead and ended with actually killing him. Amid the layers was the fact that he had decided to tell no one at Firehawk that he had been approached by the CIA. Of course, that meeting had never happened. Indeed, it felt like a bad dream.

  Fortunately for him, it was in a crowd of people that Troy next looked into Jenna's eyes. There was an informal buffet luncheon ahead of the presentation, and Jenna was there.

  She smiled broadly, but there was no hug.

  "How are things?" Troy asked.

  "Oh, y'know . . . so-so," Jenna replied, setting down her paper plate of potato salad. "Did you know that Hal died?"

  "Oh," Troy said.

  Jenna took his look of surprise that this was the first thing she said as surprise at hearing that Hal was deceased.

  "Yeah, it was over in Malaysia where you were," Jenna continued. "He was working on a hush-hush project for Escurecer. They had just gotten a contract to supply an air combat component for Sandringham Partners. He went over with the first batch of F-16s. They had just arrived in country when Firehawk went to war with Sandringham."

  "That must have been awkward. for you, working at Firehawk and having him . . . on the other side. . . ."

  "Yeah, it was." Jenna nodded sadly. "Even though we broke up before he went."

  "I didn't know that."

  "That's because you never read my damned e-mails," Jenna said, shaking her head. She wasn't smiling. This was not playful banter, but the despondency of an emotionally exhausted woman. The fiery Jenna he had known before had been superseded by one far more circumspect.

  "Yeah . . . Hal and I broke up. It was not long after you and me . . . and no, I never told him about us. It was just one of those things. I could tell that he was losing interest . . . that the fire was gone. Now it's Hal who's gone."

  Troy could see a tear forming in the eye of a woman he had never seen cry.

  "Can I ask you a question?" Jenna asked, quickly dabbing at the offending eye with a paper napkin.

  "Yeah . . ."

  "You were flying a lot in the war, and you shot down one of the Escurecer F-16s, right?"

  "Yeah . . . but we didn't know they were Escurecer. They were flying out of a Sandy base. I sure as hell didn't know that one of them was Hal . . . I feel like shit."

  "You should," she said. "I know it's war, I know it's your job and all, and I know that he may have been shooting at you . . . but you still should feel like shit."

  "I do," Troy said sadly.

  "So did I," Jenna admitted. "I cheated on him .. . with you. Didn't think I'd feel like I did because of that . . . but I did. Then I broke up with him because I couldn't . . . emotionally . . . and then I heard he was dead . . . I'm not a crybaby . . . never been a crybaby, but y'know . . . I felt . . . and then I found out you had been. I'm just totally, y'know . . . wasted."

  "I know what you mean," Troy said sympathetically.

  "How?" Jenna said bitterly, as if to say that there was no way that he could possibly comprehend her regret and her guilt.

  They just stared at each other.

  "Congratulations on your award," she said at last, turning to walk away.

  SOMEHOW, TROY MADE IT THROUGH HIS PRESENTATION, receiving a commendation for his part in what was simply Raymond Harris's personal war against a rival on behalf of a smuggler.

  Harris spoke at length on the Firehawk program in Malaysia. Troy didn't hear the words. His mind wandered, first back to Jenna and to Hal, finally coming to rest on the words of the CIA men.

  Harris really was emerging as a demagogue, his appetite only whetted by the raw-meat taste of the power that came from the omnipotent ability to declare your own wars and to fight them with the most high-tech of weapons.

  Troy looked at Jenna in the audience as he accepted his award. She had been looking at him, but she glanced away when their eyes met.

  Afterward, there were handshakes and pats on the back, and several people wanted their picture taken with Troy. When this tapered off, he looked around for Jenna, hoping to resume their conversation and guide it toward a more positive resolution. She was nowhere to be seen.

  When he had arrived, he had parked his rental car one row back from her Porsche. When he left the building, it was gone.

  Back at the hotel, he ordered a hamburger at the bar and had a couple of beers. A news-talk show came on the television, and Troy was surprised to see Raymond Harris on with a congressman from Missouri. Harris was on his familiar jag about PMCs being the future of warfare, and the congressman was gushing about how much money the government was saving.

  "PMCs have proven to be excellent partners in respect to efficiency, skills, low prices, and reliability," the congressman said in his soft Midwestern drawl, looking at the talking-head moderator. "They've been able to fulfill most of the missions normally handled by regular armies, without risking political fallout."

  "Initially they were just consultants," the talking head said to his guests. "But each year, they come closer to serving as fully operational armies. For many client countries, it seems that PMCs have become essential."

  "Any time you have customers that come to rely on you as an essential part of the program, that's when you know that you're doing your job." Harris smiled confidently.

  Troy still thought the CIA guys were wrong about Harris, but he could certainly see how they'd jumped to that conclusion.

  Chapter 33

  Headquarters, Firehawk, LLC, Herndon, Virginia

  TROY WAS SHOWN INTO RAYMOND HARRIS'S LARGE top-floor office, the office that didn't remind you that he was a retired general so much as it hit you over the head with that fact. Harris was behind his big desk, next to his flagpole.

  He was on the phone but waved for Troy to take a seat. As Harris finished his call, Troy's eyes roamed the room, looking at the framed photos of Harris with famous people and his collection of 1/22-scale mahogany aircraft models. As his eyes came to rest on an F-16, he thought about Hal and the cruelties of war.

  When the call was finished, the two men exchanged pleasantries and Harris got down to business.

  "I wanted you to be among the first to know that I'm stepping aside as Director of Air Ops here at Firehawk." Harris smiled.

  "That's sort of a bombshell," Troy said. He was bowled over. Harris was synonymous with air operations at Firehawk. He had run the Air Ops Division since its inception and had watched it grow into one of the top ten air forces in the world. "This is really astounding .. . what next for you?"

  "That's the good part." Harris grinned. "I'm staying with Firehawk. I'm just moving to a new division." "Which division?"

  "One you've never heard of, and one I can't tell you about . . . unless of course you accept my invitation to come over and work with me there."

  "Sounds like a desk job," Troy said. "I don't think that's right for me. I like what I'm doing and I'm real anxious to get back overseas and start doing it some more," Troy said

  "Well, I will tell you that this job does involve flying," Harris said.

  "How much flying?"

  "There'll be an opportunity for you to get into the cockpits of some pretty extreme stuff."

  "Hmmm," Troy said thoughtfully. "What does it pay?"

  "As you recall the last time I offered you a job, we sat in this room and I asked you what you were making, and I doubled it. This time, I know what you're making, and I'm offering to double it."

  "Well, then I guess you have your guy," Troy said. A change of pace was always good, especially after all the anguish he'd been wrestling with since Hal died.

  A doubled salary didn't hurt, either.

  Troy was a little startled that Harris had already prepared the papers and nondisclosure agreements for him to sign, but only just a little. As soon as these details were attended to, he began his explanation.

  "Back at the end of World War Two, when the Germans were way ahead of us on certain kinds of technology, the Army and the Army Air Forces went in to scoop up the German scientists and the stuff they were working on. You've heard of Operation Paperclip, right?"

  "Of course," Troy said. "That was when the Americans got hold of Wernher von Braun, who invented the V2 ballistic missile . . . and brought him to the United States to build a whole succession of bigger and bigger rockets that led to ICBMs and to the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon."

  "Right." Harris nodded. "But Paperclip was only one of several programs of that sort. Another one run by the U. S. Air Force was called Project FALCO, for Foreign Aircraft and Logistics Capture Operations. Paperclip's bailiwick was big rockets, while FALCO's was veryhigh-altitude fighters. You've heard of the YF-12 and the SR-71, which came along in the sixties and flew at altitudes up to a hundred thousand feet . . . well, there were others you never heard of."

  "Why not? That was a half century ago."

  "Certain things just stay secret. In this case, HAW, the High Altitude Warfare program, was parallel to other things like the SR-71 that were merely top secret. HAW remained classified beyond all access partly because it was classified beyond all access. They had done such a good job of keeping it a secret that the biggest secret was simply that they had kept it that way."

  "How does this affect Firehawk?" Troy asked. The history lesson was nice, but he was anxious for Harris to cut to the chase.

  "Because the program still exists," Harris said, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, as though to underscore the secrecy. "For several decades after its heyday in the sixties, the program was underfunded and didn't really do very much, but in the last couple of years, they've really cranked it up again. It's now called HAWX for High Altitude Warfare, Experimental, because of the emphasis on really advanced systems."

  "That doesn't explain how this affects us."

  "It affects us because the U. S. Air Force has decided to privatize it and hand it off to a PMC," Harris said excitedly. "They're so pleased with the efficiencies of working with PMCs that they decided to let us run with it. On top of that, it's growing so big so fast that they want to keep it another step away from congressional oversight. They're afraid this increases the chance of information getting leaked."

  "Where is the program located?" Troy asked.

  "It's been all over. It was at Wright-Pat, then Langley, and now it's out on the Nellis Air Force Base range about a hundred miles north of Las Vegas, out by Groom Lake. Officially, it's known as the 24th Test and Evaluation Squadron."

  "Mmmm," Troy purred conspiratorially. "Out by Area 51?"

  "About fifty miles to the northeast," Harris replied straight-faced.

  "What would I be doing exactly?"

  "There are three primary missions of the 24th TES. First, just like the squadron designation says, there's testing and evaluation of experimental and secret aircraft and hardware, with an emphasis on high-altitude systems. Second, the 24th has been called on to fly live high-altitude combat or recon missions. All of these will be strictly on the 'black ops' side. You'll get to continue doing what you're doing now, it's just that nothing that you do will officially have happened."

  "I understand." Troy nodded. "What about the third mission category?"

  "As needs dictate, the 24th is involved in training of United States and Allied pilots, new people who come into the HAWX Program. Y'know, we might even get involved in capturing enemy technology to evaluate."

  "It sounds interesting," Troy said. "I'm ready for this kind of thing. When do I start?"

  "That's the spirit," Harris said, giving Troy a fatherly glance. "Since we're all wrapped up in Malaysia, thanks in no small part to your own celebrated efforts, I'd say that you can start as soon as possible. Shall we say in ten days? That'll give you a week and two weekends to recharge your batteries. See you in the desert, Loensch."

  Chapter 34

  Glendale, California

  "WISH YOU WEREN'T GOING OUT OF TOWN AGAIN SO soon," Yolanda Rodriguez complained, kicking the sheets from her naked body and sitting up in the bed. "You and me . . . like we made some real chemistry last night, huh?"

  "I've missed you too, Yo," Troy said, reaching up and pulling her into his arms.

  After accepting Raymond Harris's job offer, Troy had flown back to Southern California for ten days to see his parents and to fill his eyes with a change of scenery. It was only after he had been around for about five days that he phoned Yolanda. The strain of visiting his parents separately and of listening to them complain about each other had driven him to seek another change of scenery, and Yolanda was always easy on the eyes.

  She rolled on top of him, kissing him passionately.

  He was reminded yet again why he missed Yolanda so much and why he was glad he'd decided to call her.

  He almost hadn't.

  He hadn't seen her since he had come back from Guatemala, and then only briefly. He wasn't sure how she would react after all this time, but she happily--even excitedly--accepted a dinner suggestion.

  Dinner had gone well.

  They laughed, joked, and had a great time. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed just staring into her dark eyes and watching the beautiful choreography of her hand gestures as she spoke. He had forgotten how much fun it was to listen to the way she told a joke, and how he enjoyed the sound of her laughter.

  After dinner, things went even better.

  They made love in the car--Yolanda thrived on the naughtiness of sex in unconventional places. After that, they went to a dance club where she knew the bouncer, danced, had a few drinks, made love in the room where they kept rolls of quarters, and ended the evening at her apartment.

  Her breathing grew deeper as she wrapped her legs around him and squeezed him hungrily. Troy had really missed Yolanda.

  Though there was no hint of long-term commitment in their relationship, they shared a genuine friendship and a very rambunctious mutual lust.

  Exhausted and gasping, the two lovers lay together, holding hands, catching their breath and staring at the ceiling.

  "Sure is fun, huh," she said, looking at him longingly. "Wish you'd bring your tight little ass back through town more often."

  "My job, y'know. I'm on the road a lot."

  "Yeah, I suppose you're right. Richard would sure be pissed big-time if I started spending a lotta time with you."

  "Who's Richard?" Troy asked. There was no jealousy as there had been with Cassie's dalliance with Enrique, because there was no commitment, no presupposed boundaries with Yolanda. There was just idle curiosity.

  "Richard's my boyfriend, my gringo boyfriend," Yolanda said in a matter-of-fact way. "He's a big-time banker downtown. He lives over in Bel Air."
r />   "How'd you meet him?"

  "At this big charity party. There's lots of celebrities and stuff. Richard's wife is some kind of queen of the charity party ladies."

  "So Richard is married?"

  "Oh yeah, and he's got some kids too, but they go to boarding school somewhere."

  "Is his wife cool with you being . . . y'know . . . with Richard?"

  "I don't think she knows. He says she's too busy with all her society shit."

  "Is he gonna leave her and marry you?"

  "How'd you know?" Yolanda asked sarcastically. "He said that he wanted to, but I know it's a line of bullshit . . . he ain't gonna leave her. She'd take all his money, and I sure wouldn't like that. I like things the way they are. He's got money. He buys me nice things. Jewelry and shit. Takes me places."

  "Is he good in bed?" Troy smiled.

  "That's none of your fucking business." She giggled, climbing on him again.

  Troy imagined that it really would take several guys to fully satisfy Yolanda's boundless energy and appetite for male companionship. Once again, as often in the past eighteen hours, he did what he could to answer her compelling call.

  When they had finished, Troy stood up and suggested a shower.

  Yolanda literally leaped at the suggestion, but the deluge of warm water across their bodies only stirred the embers of her passion into flames yet again.

  Finally, they were dressed. Troy was tying his shoes as Yolanda, dressed in tight jeans and a skimpy lilac-colored bra, rooted through her drawers looking for a particular top that she wanted to wear.

  "Yo, could I ask you a question?" Troy said, his voice in a serious tone.

  "Oh baby, don't tell me you're gonna pop the question, cuz I don't want to spoil what we got, babe."

  "No, I wasn't, I mean I don't want to spoil what we got either. That wasn't the question."

  The idea of being married to Yolanda Rodriguez had occurred to him, but only in fleeting moments of passion. To wake up as he had today held great appeal, but the thought of waking up like that every day was merely exhausting.

  "I have a hypothetical question," Troy said. "I'm looking for your advice, some woman's intuition."

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