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       Hawx (2009), p.9

           Tom Clancy
 
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  In the late afternoon, traffic on the Las Vegas Strip moves at a snail's pace, but at last, Troy was walking through the wall of glass doors at the Mirage Hotel.

  The lobby was a swirling sea of humanity. There were hard-core gaming types, convention-goers intent on shedding business suits to become swingers for the night, and swingers who came out only at night. There were bachelor partiers and bachelorette partiers. There were beautiful people, and the inevitable beautiful people wannabes.

  But Troy saw no Jenna Munrough.

  He found the fish tank and scanned the crowd. He walked to the opposite end of the fish tank and was wondering if there might be another fish tank.

  "Hey, Loensch! Y'all just walked right past me."

  It was Jenna's voice. Troy turned. He saw no one he recognized.

  "What's the matter?" Jenna said in mock anger. "Y'all walked right past me like I wasn't there. Is that any way for ya to treat your old buddy, Falcon Two?"

  Troy was speechless. He heard the voice, but it was not coming from a pilot with short-cropped hair and a dusty olive-green flight suit.

  Her voice was coming from lips the color of rose petals. Her hair, once scraggly and spiked, now flowed to her shoulders in sensuous waves. Her flight suit was superseded by a shimmering black cocktail dress, her dog tags by a jeweled pendant.

  "Jenna," Troy said, feeling himself starting to go red in the face. "Umm . . . you look great . . ."

  "How 'bout a hug for Falcon Two for old times' sake?"

  A whiff of her fragrance and the feel of her hair against his cheek, and Troy could not imagine this gorgeous woman as the pilot he remembered as Falcon Two.

  "Hey, Loensch, good to see you."

  Troy turned at the sound of Hal's voice. He was more or less as Troy remembered him, though he had traded his flight suit for an open-collared sport shirt and a blazer that looked expensive. The last time that Troy had seen his face was that day when he was dangling from a parachute harness over the Denakil Depression, and Hal had flashed past in his F-16.

  "Let's go eat," Jenna said, taking Troy by the arm. "We got reservations at Carnevino over at the Palazzo .. . you still like steak, don'tcha, Loensch?"

  She seemed taller, Troy thought as they walked toward Las Vegas Boulevard. It must be the four-inch heels.

  She seemed unusually friendly, and so too was Hal. It must be that whatever had happened in their final weeks together in Sudan had erased the old animosities that had once hung over them.

  "Guess you guys must be rolling with the high rollers," Troy said, looking at the menu after Hal asserted that their expense account would be picking up the tab. The dry bone-in rib eye was priced at about double Troy's typical weekly expenditure at Safeway.

  Hal and Jenna laughed and said that they'd landed in a good situation, job-wise.

  "We're working for a company called Firehawk?" Jenna said, framing the statement as a question as if to ask whether Troy had heard of them. "Consulting company in Herndon, Virginia?"

  "I've heard the name," Troy said. It sounded only vaguely familiar. "What is it that you do?"

  "It's a private military contractor, a PMC," Jenna said. "It's like an NGO, a nongovernmental organization, like Doctors Without Borders, but military."

  "What does it . . . do you . . . actually do?" Troy asked.

  "It's like a private security firm . . . only a lot bigger," Hal said. "It's almost like a . . . Well it is like a private army."

  "Is that legal?" Troy asked.

  "You can't swear allegiance to a foreign army," Hal said. "Doesn't mean you can't work for a private company."

  "Now that Congress has curtailed overseas deployments, warfighting is gonna be outsourced." Jenna shrugged. "The Germans and the French have been doing this for years. The Bundestag won't let German forces operate overseas in a combat role because of that nastiness back in World War Two . . . so they contract with private firms."

  "I thought the Germans were in Afghanistan," Troy said.

  "But only in Regional Command North," Jenna replied, sipping her Merlot. "They were about as far from where the Taliban is shooting as possible."

  The food had come, and Troy found the rib eye to be the best he could remember. It was probably not worth the price, but it was good, and he wasn't paying.

  "What's the convention that brings you to Vegas?" Troy asked as he glanced longingly at the citrus mascarpone cheesecake with fried pumpkin on the dessert menu.

  "Global Security ExpoCon," Hal explained. "It's a meet and greet for PMCs and suppliers . . . hardware . . . software . . . all that stuff. You oughta come by tomorrow."

  "Sounds interesting," Troy said. It was a strange concept, but it sounded intriguing. "Wish I could, but I got a flight at 0730 . . . I fly for a courier company . . . the Vegas run is taking things back and forth to L. A. for the casino bosses."

  "So you're still flying?" Hal said jealously, realizing that they'd been talking all evening about their company and hadn't asked what Troy was doing.

  "Don't have the kind of expense account that you guys have, but I'm in the cockpit twenty hours every week . . . Sometimes more."

  "Cool," Jenna said. "I sure miss it. That's the one thing about the Air Force that I do miss."

  "What exactly do you guys do for Firehawk?" Troy asked.

  "Operational planning," Hal said. "Figuring out what we need, and how to get the most out of it. It's a lot like the military, but the chain of command's a helluva lot shorter and decision times are a helluva lot quicker."

  "I'm an administrative liaison," Jenna said. "I spend a lot of time schmoozing with customers--Pentagon, State Department . . ."

  "State Department?" Troy said. "Weren't those the guys that got us shot down?"

  "The person responsible for that took early retirement," Hal said conspiratorially. "Nobody really knows what happened to him."

  Chapter 19

  The Palazzo, Las Vegas

  CONVERSATION TURNED TO LESS WEIGHTY TOPICS, and at last the threesome was strolling back toward the Mirage in the warmth of the Vegas evening.

  "I know of a table that's got my name on it," Hal said at last. "Care to join me?"

  "No, the tables are never that good to me," Troy said. "And it's getting close to taps for this old dude."

  "Me neither." Jenna laughed. "No table ever been good to this old country girl."

  They parted with Hal inviting Troy to look them up if he ever came to Washington, and vowing that he and Jenna would visit Troy when they came to Southern California.

  As Hal dashed off to find that special lucky table, Jenna shook Troy's hand and bade him good night.

  Troy was just savoring the way her skirt swirled as she turned, when she turned back.

  "Hey," she said, tossing her hair and slinging her purse onto her shoulder. "It's still pretty early; could I buy y'all a drink? I owe you a rain check from once back in Sudan."

  "You got a long memory, Munrough. . . . Would this be on the Firehawk expense account?" Troy asked.

  "You betcha, Loensch."

  Through the lobby of the Palazzo and down an endless hallway was the entrance to a small--by Las Vegas standards--bar, with low light and dark wood. It was empty except for a couple in a booth, and three guys, obviously conventioneers and probably ExpoCon conventioneers, watching and probably betting on a televised basketball game.

  Jenna and Troy slid into a booth as an attentive waitress arrived promptly to take care of them. Jenna ordered a bourbon neat, Troy another glass of Sprite. She knew not to question the drinking habits of a pilot on the eve of an early flight.

  "You know, y'all really ought to think about coming to work at Firehawk," Jenna suggested. "We're always looking for a few good men."

  "Thought occurred to me," Troy admitted. "But I like doing what I'm doing . . . and after that deal at Dhuladhiya, I'm pretty soured on the military."

  "This ain't the military," she said. "We don't play with red tape."

  "Mmmm
m," Troy replied in a tone that said he really didn't want to talk about it.

  "Besides, looking back at the way it ended over there, I thought our little adventure was kinda fun." Jenna smiled.

  In the flickering light of the single candle, Troy found her really gorgeous. He almost said it, and if he'd had a drink, he probably would have. Instead, he just watched the dancing reflection of the candlelight in her eyes and in the strings of jewels that dangled from her ears.

  "Remember that night at the well?" Jenna said.

  "How can I forget? We blew those poor guys away."

  "One dude was getting pretty frisky with his AK, and I sure didn't like the way he was looking at me." Jenna shrugged.

  It was hard to imagine this beautiful woman in the candlelight as the same person who'd put two nine-millimeter rounds into a person's forehead.

  "I was thinking more about what we were talking about before all that," Jenna explained.

  "About taking a shower?" Troy smiled.

  "And about how I had a kind of a thing for y'all. By the way, you sure do look pretty good when you're all cleaned up."

  "You too, Munrough."

  She reached across the table and gently touched his cheek, just as she had that night at the well.

  "We never had a chance to finish that conversation," she drawled. "Seems like we got some unfinished business."

  In one fluid motion, she slid around the table, snuggling next to him and stroking his back.

  He looked into her eyes, at the dancing light and at the irresistible woman beside him.

  When her lips brushed his, he succumbed. One passionate kiss was followed by another, yet more passionate. She pressed her body against his, and he felt her hand suddenly beneath his shirt.

  He placed his hand on her bare thigh, and she moved as though encouraging him to move it higher. It was a good thing that the bar was dark and nearly deserted. It was a good thing that the television set at the bar was loud enough to drown out the murmur of groans coming from the booth.

  "Let's go up to your room . . . now." She gasped as she fumbled to unbuckle his belt.

  "I'm staying at a motel down by the airport," he whispered, his hand massaging the bare flesh well north of her thigh.

  "My room, then," she said breathlessly.

  "Isn't that also . . . y'know . . . Hal's room?" "He'll be at the tables all night."

  "What if he's not?"

  "I need y'all to--" she said, panting desperately.

  So did Troy, but the image of Hal's face came to him, carrying the expression he'd had the first time they crossed paths after that night on the mountain in the Colville.

  "We better not do this," Troy said, leaning back.

  "What the hell?" Jenna said, her voice trembling with the desperation of interrupted passion. "I'm burnin' up here, y'all. I need you to come on in and finish me off."

  "What are we doing?" Troy asked. "I mean besides the obvious. Why are we . . . I mean you and Hal .. . Why are you here with me?"

  "Because I've wanted this for a long time, and it feels like you're wantin' it too."

  "What are we doin' to Hal?" Troy asked.

  "He's not here, Loensch," Jenna said, leaning back and straightening her disrupted underwear. "I'm tryin' to do you."

  "Man, I left him on a goddamn mountain. You reamed me from one end of the hangar to the other for being the self-centered asshole who left him to die. Now, here I am with the woman he thinks he has something with . . . I just can't . . . as much as I want to . . . just can't . . ."

  "This is sure a surprise from an arrogant, self-centered bastard like you," she said, sighing and smoothing her dress. "You got me all on fire, and then you want to pull back without completin' the deal."

  "You know what I mean," Troy said.

  "Yeah, dammit, I know what you mean," Jenna said, staring into space. "Let me catch my breath. I shouldn't have . . . we shouldn't have. I'm gonna go back to my room . . . alone . . . gonna take a cold shower . . . alone . . . and be glad this never went any further."

  She reached into her purse and took out her brush, then looked sadly into Troy's eyes.

  "You're right," she said, looking seductively into his eyes. "Tomorrow I'll be so glad we didn't, but right now, I want you so bad."

  Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, California

  "GOLDEN WEST EIGHT-SIX-FOUR, CLIMB AND MAINTAIN heading and flight level one-five-zee-ro," crackled the voice in Troy's headset as he climbed out over a California coastline tinted gold by the rays of the late-afternoon sun. Beneath him, the ocean was a deep cobalt blue.

  "Roger, this is Golden West Eight-Six-Four, climbing and maintaining," he replied. "Good day."

  One thing about his job was that it gave him plenty of time to be alone with his thoughts and with the voices in his head.

  More and more, the voices themselves were becoming his circle of friends. Cassie had left him--an old wound, healed but with permanent scarring. He and Yolanda saw less and less of each other, getting together every few weeks--then every few months--only to be reminded that they had little in common.

  The voice of the woman in his headset reminded him of the voice of the woman in his head. Since Las Vegas, Jenna's voice bounced frequently into Troy's mind. He heard the Ozark drawl telling him he was an asshole for leaving Hal Coughlin on a mountaintop to die, and he heard it tell him that she craved the warmth of his body.

  It seemed that his relationship with Jenna over the past months and years had been a series of unfinished conversations, a relationship that had not yet really formed into a relationship. From the night at the well in Eritrea to the night at the bar in Las Vegas, it was a series of conversations that ended in midsentence without reaching a conclusion. Maybe that was why his mind played and replayed them over and over, each time continuing them to an alternate, imaginary finale.

  With Cassie, it was an intended life together of many decades that ended unexpectedly and suddenly on the second lap, like a multicar pileup on a NASCAR track. With Yolanda, it was mutually satisfying, mutually understood shallowness. With Jenna, it was an ambiguous something that was never truly defined, but that might have been defined any number of ways.

  After Las Vegas, they had exchanged e-mails. On the surface, they ignored both the fact that something had happened in Las Vegas, and that nothing had happened--although innuendos flowed freely between the lines.

  What had happened--or not happened--in Vegas had not stayed in Vegas, but over time, the e-mail traffic grew less frequent. Troy hadn't heard from Jenna in weeks.

  That night, when Troy opened his laptop and saw the @fhcoherndon. Com suffix on an e-mail, he thought for a moment it was Jenna. As he took a second look, though, he noticed that the From line read [email protected] . Com, not [email protected] Com.

  Who? What?

  Troy clicked on it.

  Dear Captain Loensch, Your e-mail address was passed along to me by Captain Munrough. I understand that she and Captain Coughlin gave you a bit of background on what our company is doing. Getting straight to the point, I'm inviting you to consider employment opportunities here. Please advise if you would be interested in visiting us in Herndon. I would be pleased to give you a personal briefing. I look forward to hearing from you.

  General Raymond Harris (USAF, Ret.) Director of Air Ops, Firehawk, LLC

  As a word to describe Troy's reaction to an e-mail from Harris, two years after Dhuladhiya, surprise would have been a serious understatement. How should he respond to such an invitation from his old commander? He recalled Jenna suggesting such a thing, but he had given it no more than a passing thought since Vegas. Troy started several replies to Harris and deleted them all. He decided to sleep on it, and he woke up deciding, "Why not?"

  Headquarters, Firehawk, LLC, Herndon, Virginia

  IT HADN'T TAKEN TROY LOENSCH LONG TO FIND THE place. Herndon is practically in the shadow of Dulles Airport.

  Firehawk's unmarked and nondescript headquarters building wa
s a seven-story steel and glass structure, set amid a landscape of steel and glass structures that make up the office park sprawl along Highway 267 between Leesburg and the nation's capital. On the wall of the lobby was a stylized aluminum rendition of the company logo, a bird's head surrounded by flames.

  "Troy Loensch to see--" he started to explain to the receptionist.

  "He's expecting you, Captain Loensch," she interrupted in a crisp, efficient tone. "Fill out the sign-in sheet, don't forget your social, and show me some ID, if you please."

  These formalities done, she handed the retired Air Force captain a badge, directed him to an elevator away from the other elevators, and told him to push seven.

  The seventh-floor lobby was clean and corporate modern, trimmed in light wood with large photographs of soldiers in the field wearing very clean uniforms that carried the Firehawk logo as a shoulder patch.

  Just as he started to look around for a seventh-floor receptionist, a door swung open.

  "Well, hello, Falcon Three, it's good to see that y'all finally made it to Herndon."

  It was Jenna Munrough. It was the same Jenna Munrough he had seen in Las Vegas: the one with lips the color of rose petals and with the long blond hair. It was the same Jenna Munrough who had made him almost defy his better judgment--and wish later that he had. She was wearing a straight, businesslike skirt with her photo ID clipped to the waistband.

  "Good to see you too, Munrough." He smiled, extending his hand.

  "Glad you could make it," she said, ignoring his hand to give him a polite hug and a quick I-haven't-forgottenour-last-meeting-even-if-you-pretend-you-have pinch.

  She escorted Troy to Harris's office, and after an exchange of pleasantries, she smiled and left, closing the door behind her.

  The room befitted the image of a military man gone corporate. There was a flagpole and the obligatory 1/32-scale mahogany models of aircraft that Harris had flown, as well as framed photos of him with various notable people.

  "Please sit down, Captain," Harris said, using Troy's last military rank and gesturing toward a comfortable-looking chair. Harris seemed in good form. He was a big man, but Troy noticed that he seemed to have lost a little weight, as though he had been working out. "I appreciate you coming to see us."

 
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