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       Hawx (2009), p.8

           Tom Clancy
 
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  "All I need now is some aromatherapy gel and some cucumber slices for my eyes." Jenna giggled, her voice already sounding less gravelly.

  "All I want is that shower you were talking about this afternoon," Troy said, looking at Jenna in the half light. She had peeled back her flight suit to the sports bra beneath. Seeing Munrough's breasts, nice ones at that, was like seeing foliage for the first time after an eternity in the desert. He knew that such phenomena existed, but actually seeing it made it so much more real, and so very appealing.

  "Look, there's a dude under all that dirt," Jenna said as she leaned closer, reached out and put her hand on his cheek.

  nadil!"

  The two startled Americans turned at the sound of the voice. It was a short man in his early twenties who was missing several teeth. They had been so preoccupied with the sensual joy of the water, and so used to being alone in the desert with no one else around, that they had dropped their guard.

  "Ma-smuk?"

  Another man emerged out of the shadows. Both were short of stature, making the AK-47 that each carried seem enormous. By the way they had the muzzles pointed downward, it was apparent that neither had noticed that the two Americans were carrying sidearms.

  "Sorry, we didn't mean to steal your water," Jenna said in an apologetic tone as her fingers crawled slowly toward her holster, which she had set aside when she pulled back her flight suit. She had no idea what they were saying, but hoped her tone would set the men somewhat at ease.

  "La 'afham," one of the men said with a shrug, as though he had no better idea of what she had said than she had of his earlier assertions.

  "Mundhu 'an kuntu murahiqan 'ahbabtu 'as-sayyidata s-suwidiyyat," the first man said to the other, nodding toward Jenna and obviously remarking about her blond hair. It was something these men didn't see every day. Perhaps never.

  Having the attention focused on her allowed Troy the opportunity to get his hand around the grip of his Beretta.

  "Al-'an wajadtu imra'a li-z-zawaj." The man chortled.

  `Ana 'aydan 'uhibb 'as-sayyidata l-misriyyat, khassatan hawajibahunna s-sawda," the other said, shrugging as if to say that he didn't care for blondes.

  Troy wrapped his finger around the trigger and gently slid his Beretta from its holster.

  Chapter 16

  Culver City, California

  "THIS IS REALLY AWKWARD, TROY," CASSIE KILMER said nervously.

  "Let me give you some space." The man in the coral-colored polo shirt smiled as he put on his sunglasses and stepped out the front door onto busy Sepulveda Boulevard.

  Across the office, Yolanda Rodriguez watched him leave, then glared back at her keyboard, pretending that she hadn't been watching.

  "Well, shit, Cassie, this is a little awkward for me too!" Troy said, looking at Cassie in disbelief.

  "You were gone for two years," Cassie said angrily. "And back only twice in that whole time."

  "That was my job . . . we talked about it--"

  "What was I supposed to do?" Cassie interrupted angrily. "You had your job and it was your life. What was I supposed to do? Just put my life on hold while you were off somewhere living your life? You can't just go off and expect me to stay here all frozen in time like a state of suspended animation or something. I'm a person too. I'm entitled to live a normal life."

  "How was I supposed to know you had this guy?" "Enrique is not just a guy."

  "Excuse me, how was I supposed to know you had this `not just a guy'? Why didn't you at least tell me, so I don't come walking in here and make an ass out of myself."

  "I didn't . . . y'know . . . I didn't know you were coming back," Cassie said, glancing at the large ring on her left hand. "Enrique and I didn't become officially engaged until . . . you know . . ."

  "So you thought I was dead and you jumped into bed with In-Reekie?"

  The inadvertent, giggly yelp emanating from Yolanda's desk indicated both that she had in fact been eavesdropping, and that she was well aware that Cassie had been in Enrique's bed long before she received the report that Captain Troy Loensch was missing in action and presumed dead.

  "I'll run these down to the FedEx drop box," Yolanda said, standing up and grabbing a stack of important-looking orange and purple envelopes.

  "I cried when I heard the news," Cassie said sadly, tears forming in her eyes. "I cried all damned night when I heard that you weren't coming back. I cried for you and I cried for me. That was when I realized that it didn't matter . . . you were gone from my life a long time before that . . . and I realized that I should have moved on long before. I'm glad that you're all right . . . but I'm still moving on. There's nothing left for you here, Troy. There's nothing left in my heart for you."

  "Hey, but Cas--" Troy started to say.

  "There's nothing more to talk about, Troy," Cassie said emphatically. Her body language as she stepped toward him read not as a move to be close, but as pushing him toward the door.

  Troy realized that it was neither possible nor desirable to beg her to reconsider. She wouldn't, and he didn't want it.

  He left the real estate office wishing he could kick a dent into an expensive panel on Enrique's Porsche, but the punk had already driven off

  As he walked down Sepulveda, back to where his mother's car was parked, Troy thought about everything that had happened to him over the past months. They were the kinds of experiences that people describe as life-changing, but Troy couldn't tell. Everything in his life, every point of reference, had changed, so he couldn't really tell whether he had changed, or if it was just a case of everything changing around him.

  His nearly three weeks of wandering in Eritrea with Jenna Munrough had been like a bad dream, punctuated by experiences like that night at the well when they shot the two men, and the two desperate days of being chased by the local militia. When they had reached that Doctors Without Borders compound at the end of their wanderings, they had finally learned why the American helicopters never came.

  After the calamity over Dhuladhiya Island, in which eleven American aircraft were shot down attacking the sovereign nation of Eritrea, the United Nations had pulled the plug on the operation and the United States was given forty-eight hours to withdraw its forces.

  The fears that the Joint Task Force base at Atbara would be overrun were finally realized, but by that time only a few dozen Americans remained. They never made it home.

  Troy Loensch had made it home.

  The Doctors Without Borders people had gotten him and Jenna across the border into Djibouti, where the American embassy had arranged for a flight back to the United States.

  As Troy climbed into his mother's Chevy Equinox, he thought about how strange it was to no longer be strapping himself into an aircraft. During his two years overseas, he had rarely driven a car, spending much more time in the air than on a highway. In Sudan, he hadn't driven at all. After four days back home he was only just reacclimating himself to Los Angeles traffic.

  He didn't know whether he would ever be back in a cockpit.

  So much had happened while he was on the run in Eritrea that he felt like Rip Van Winkle. When he and Jenna landed at Dulles Airport, they were met by Air Force personnel who whisked them to a military hospital to be checked out, rehydrated, and treated for dysentery. They expected to be promptly shipped back to the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency and the 55th Wing, but instead they were given a thirty-day leave and told that their next assignments were not yet known.

  As they began to catch up on the news from their lost weeks, they discovered that in the wake of the Dhuladhiya disaster, Congress had passed legislation terminating overseas peacekeeping operations by the American military.

  As Troy and Jenna were being checked out of the hospital after two days, they were each handed a packet offering them a bonus for accepting an early discharge. The termination legislation carried a steep decrease in the Pentagon budget, and the Air Force had decided to stay ahead of the curve and to reduce ma
npower wherever possible.

  "How'd it go with Cassie?" Barbara Loensch called from the kitchen when she heard her son slam the front door of the family's Northridge bungalow.

  "Oh, all right . . . we decided to call it quits," Troy answered. He thought about telling his mother the whole story, but decided it was pointless.

  "Quits? That's too bad . . . I thought she was, y'know, a nice girl."

  "Oh yeah, she's a nice girl," Troy said, pretending that he meant it. "But y'know, it's just not gonna work out. We're completely different people than we were back in college."

  "Yeah, I suppose . . . sometimes I think that your father and I are completely different people than we were back then."

  "You and Dad?"

  "So, have you decided whether you're going to take that offer from the Air Force?" Barbara said, changing the subject.

  "I dunno." Troy shrugged, grabbing a can of Hyper-X energy drink from the fridge. "They gave me a month to decide. The money's good if I take the discharge."

  "Why would they pay to get rid of a good pilot like you?"

  "They just have a whole lot less to do in the world now."

  "What will happen in those places like over in Africa where you were?"

  "They'll just fall apart," Troy said sadly. "Like what happened in Sudan. The Al-Qinamah just swarmed into that base where I had been. Killed a bunch of people. That was after we lost so many pilots that night when I got shot down."

  "That was terrible," Barbara said. "Terrible that it had to happen like that."

  "It was like getting stabbed in the back," Troy said angrily, slamming the remainder of his energy drink. "They gave the Joint Task Force the authorization to bomb those arms boats, but the State Department, some dude that was at the meeting, decided to try to do some diplomatic intervention and bad guys got wind ofit. They had two days to set a trap . . . and we got trapped."

  "I can sure understand you not wanting to go back," Troy's mother said sympathetically.

  "On top of that, they want to pay me not to go back," Troy said. "That's a pretty sweet deal . . . I just don't know what I'm gonna do next."

  Chapter 17

  Glendale, California

  "FIRST DAY ON THE JOB, HUH?" YOLANDA RODRIGUEZ said as she put on her mascara. "Like, I bet you're pretty excited, huh?"

  "Yeah, it'll be pretty weird having to be somewhere after not having to be anywhere for a few months," Troy said, reaching for his jeans. "But I've been screwing around for long enough; it's time to get back to work and earn some cash."

  "Hey, screwing around?" Yolanda giggled. "Is that what you call us?"

  "Hey Yo, y'know what I mean," Troy pleaded. They both knew what he meant, and they both knew that their relationship really amounted to little more than screwing around. They had hooked up after Cassie dumped Troy. Yolanda engineered a "chance" meeting and turned on the charm, and their first night together was sufficiently memorable for there to be a second, a third, and so on. But they both knew it was just a lot of fun and little more.

  "Hope you got a day off pretty soon, though," Yolanda said. "Sure missed you not drinkin' Corona and shots with us last night."

  "You know I couldn't do that, especially on my first day," Troy said.

  She understood. The job that Troy had taken was with Golden West Courier, piloting one of their Beech-craft Bonanzas between Burbank Airport and points throughout California and Nevada. Company rules prohibited alcohol consumption by pilots for twenty-four hours before wheels-up.

  "So you gonna get your own place then, huh?" Yolanda said, slithering into a tight, teal-colored skirt.

  "Yeah. First paycheck," Troy confirmed. "Gotta get out of that house."

  "Must be weird watching your own parents split up, huh?"

  "It's unreal."

  "So your dad, he's got something going on the side?"

  "No, it's not like that . . . least I don't think so .. . don't want to think so anyway. I think they're just tired of each other."

  An hour after watching Yolanda drive away in her coffee-colored Sebring, Troy was in the cockpit of a Golden West Bonanza going through his final check for takeoff. At last, cleared for Runway 26, he cranked up the Continental E-185 and let its 205 horses lift him into the sky over the San Fernando Valley.

  Climbing out over the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north toward his stops in Bakersfield and Fresno, Troy felt the elation of once more being in the air. The Bonanza was about as far from an F-16 as you could get and still be in an airplane, but that didn't matter. He was flying.

  Just as Troy's life was starting to come together, his parents' lives were coming apart. When Office Tech downsized, the longtime employees with the biggest salaries were the first to go. Carl's being out of work put further strain on an already strained marriage. Barbara went up to visit her recently widowed sister in San Luis Obispo for a couple of weeks. That was a month ago.

  Troy had started spending most nights at Yolanda's, but he was looking forward to getting off on his own permanently.

  Watching the trees of the Angeles National Forest slip past beneath his wings, Troy was reminded of how desolate Sudan and Eritrea had been. He was glad to be out of that place, but he found himself missing Hal Coughlin and Jenna Munrough. After all that the three of them had been through in the early part of their knowing one another, a bond had finally formed. Now it had been broken.

  He had gotten a couple of e-mails from Jenna, but they hadn't really kept in close contact. Like him, she and Hal had taken their discharge bonuses and had gotten out of the Air Force.

  They had both taken jobs with one of those defense contractors that are clustered all around the Washington, D. C., Beltway. Troy had forgotten which one. There were so many, and he had never heard of this one. It sounded, from Jenna's e-mail, as if she and Hal were "together," but she hadn't actually said as much.

  He occasionally thought about her in a "what if" sort of way, but the memories of the dirt-encrusted Jenna with her short, ratty blond hair in comparison with the reality of Yolanda's beautifully proportioned body and her long, well-kept ravishing raven hair kept Troy happily in the here and now.

  The unspoken understanding between Troy and Yo was that they were each in it for the sex--but the sex was good.

  The downside of their relationship, if you could call it a "relationship," was that Yolanda reminded him all too often of Cassie. The two women worked in the same office, and occasionally Yo would mention something in passing.

  From what Troy had gathered, Cassie and Enrique had hit a rough patch, and for a moment Troy entertained thoughts of phoning her--but only for a moment. The next he heard, they were back together, and he was glad that he had not called.

  The ship of his once inevitable relationship with Cassie had long since sailed, and he was glad to have said bon voyage.

  Chapter 18

  Sacramento Executive Airport, California

  TROY POPPED OPEN HIS LAPTOP. THE SUN WAS GOING down, and he had about forty-five minutes to kill before the Golden West Courier van arrived with baskets of letters and parcels from the sprawl of state office buildings in the city. He had been on the Valley route for a week, making stops up through the San Joaquin, culminating in an end-of-the-day run from the state capital to Los Angeles.

  After nearly six months, he had come to really enjoy his job, which offered plenty of solitary flying time in airspace with generally good flying weather. To break the monotony, he and the other four Golden West pilots rotated routes. Last week he had been on runs up to Santa Rosa, Eureka, and Redding, and next week, who knows? The variety was nice.

  He flicked idly though his e-mails.

  There was one from his mother, responding to his response to her Why haven't I heard from you in two weeks? e-mail.

  There was an urgent e-mail from a man in Nigeria who desperately needed Troy's help in transferring eight million dollars to a bank account in Andorra.

  There was another one that asked Any chance we can
hook up? in the subject line. He didn't recognize the name. Who in the world was [email protected] . Com? Troy was about to delete that one, thinking it was just a come-on to a soft-porn site, but he decided at the last moment to take a look.

  The jmm was Jenna Munrough.

  She and Hal Coughlin were going to be in Las Vegas, attending some sort of convention, and she was inviting him to come up and join them for a day or two.

  Jenna Munrough. As the months had gone by, Troy had thought less and less of her, and even less of Hal, and of their days with Task Force Sudan.

  Could he hook up with them? The Golden West run to Las Vegas was an overnighter because of packages that the casinos needed flown to Los Angeles at the start of the business day. Troy hadn't been on this route for a few weeks. The guy who was due for it next week owed Troy a favor, so the answer was yes.

  Would he hook up with them? If for nothing else, he was curious to hear about what they were doing. They could get together for dinner, hang out for a few hours, and that would be that.

  Should he hook up with them? During their weeks in the desert, he had started to develop what chicks call "feelings" for Jenna, and she had expressed as much toward him. Evidently, she and Hal were still an item, so what should he do?

  What the hell? Troy decided that he'd do it.

  Five days later, he was climbing into an orange-roofed taxi from the Desert Cab Company at the McCarran Airport General Aviation hangar. He had stashed his gear at the cheap motel where he usually stayed, had combed his hair, and was headed for the Mirage, where Jenna and Hal were staying.

  "Great to hear your voice, Loensch," she said affably as Troy reached her on his cell phone from the cab.

  "Umm, good to hear yours. You sound the same," Troy said. Memories came flooding back at the sound of her voice.

  "I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult." She laughed. "Where are you?"

  "Stuck in traffic on the Strip near the Tropicana. Where are you?"

  "At the Mirage . . . I'll meet you in the lobby by the big fish tank."

 
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