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He pulled away. Left her again. A few months ago she would have cried. Or raged. A part of her wanted to now.

Except as she watched him retrieve her crutches from the back of the truck, she couldn't help but wonder what two-thirds he'd left unsaid. And was she really ready to hear what else she might learn from deciphering his "manspeak" when they climbed back into the truck again?

Chapter 7

Who would have thought he'd prefer a chemical-warfare class to making out with his wife in a parking lot?

Saluting a passing officer, J.T. strode up the walkway toward the brick and brown building, late-afternoon sun beating down on his shoulders. Damn it, but Rena had wriggled under his skin and made him say more than he wanted. His trump card in their relationship had always been keeping his cool. Weathering the storm.

Somehow he'd managed to walk away a few minutes ago without giving in to the predictable urge to distract her with sex. Even with that out-of-control kiss of hers, he knew she would do a ninety-degree about-face once they took the edge off their frustrations.

She would start asking more of those chick questions. If he stayed quiet, he pissed her off. If he answered, somehow he came up short of what she wanted.

So he would go slow, soften her up since, no doubt, his prideful wife wouldn't easily get over his leaving. And with a cargo hold full of luck, they wouldn't die from hormonal overload.

He pushed through the glass door into the building, the full blast of air-conditioning catching him in the face. The soft echo of his boots on the industrial carpet echoed along with the low-pitched rumble of voices, ringing telephones, computer chimes.

From one of the rooms stepped Spike, his spiked hair longer than his previous buzz now that he wasn't undercover. In keeping with his regular OSI position, he'd exchanged the flight suit for khakis, a sports coat, and a palm tree-patterned tie that never stayed tight enough. Not exactly the normal look for an OSI agent, but Max "Spike" Keagan got the job done. His way. "Hey, dude. Are you on the schedule for chem-warfare update?"

"Heading that way now."

"Me, too. Thought I'd listen in." Spike slipped into pace alongside him. An easy man to hang with, the guy was as comfortable with silence as J.T.

They'd worked well together during the weeks training the OSI agent to pose as a loadmaster for the infiltration into the American base in Rubistan. Regs kept Spike from holding the crew position solo, but he knew enough to look credible when flying along with another loadmaster. No doubt Spike had picked up some additional tips from his pilot fiancée.

J.T. cleared the door into the room packed with aviators, tables in front of them littered with gas masks. Two more tables lined the front of the room with stacks of training carbon filters, a couple of training chemical suits. A mannequin stood propped in the corner, outfitted in the full gear.

C-17 squadrons didn't fly with set crews except during wartime or special operations, but allegiances gelled all the same, as could be seen by the seating choices. J.T. found his boots carrying him back to the corner with Scorch, Bronco, Crusty, Joker, Cobra…

And, God help him, motormouth Gabby, a six-foot-two-inch wiry guy in constant motion like a kid on sugar overload. Apparently Gabby had raided a Pixie Stix factory today.

"Hey there, sir, glad you could make it. How's your wife? Her foot doing any better? Sorry to hear about your totaled car, but good thing nobody was hurt bad, sir."

Swinging his gas mask up onto the table, J.T. averted his gaze from Scorch—smothering a laugh with his hand over his mustache. For some reason Gabby insisted on calling him sir no matter how many times he reminded the kid he wasn't an officer. Sarge would be fine. Or his call sign, Tag. Call signs were a universal leveler in the air to build a more cohesive team while flying. "My wife's doing better, thanks. She had to pull some office time, so I figured I'd work in the class, after all. Saves me having to make it up later."

Scorch leaned back in his chair, the Ivy League creases in his appearance and flight suit not the least diminished by his casual sprawl. "So she's getting around okay?"

"On crutches, yes sir."

"Glad you've been able to stay on the schedule with night flights." Scorch nodded. "We need you around here."

"I can pitch in extra," Gabby interrupted, "anytime you need time off or whatever. I'm always looking to log more flight time."

"Thanks." J.T. didn't bother arguing because it was a non-issue since the kid didn't have anywhere close to the security clearance needed to fly these missions.

Gabby reached for his Mountain Dew. "Where's Bo?"

Scorch shot over his shoulder. "Had some other appointment."

"Hmm." Gabby's combat boot twitched nonstop against the leg of the table while he banged back a gulp from his soda. "Wonder if his flight attendant's in town?"

J.T. hoped so since it would keep the squadron player occupied if Nikki came home for the weekend.

Cobra, the squadron's previous player but now happily married to one of the flight surgeons, hooked a boot on his knee. "If his girlfriend's not back soon, she'd better hurry. Word from my wife has it that the nurses flocked to the clinic yesterday when he got his cast sawed off."

Scorch swung his gas mask from the floor to the table. "About time he pulled his weight around here again."

They needed all the flying hands up and running. World deployments already taxed manpower, and the current surveillance flights added an extra load. But stopping the terrorist drug activity would put a serious dent in cash flow for the bad guys. Their dirty money bought things like shoulder-held missile launchers off the black market.

Already, their squadron had lost two planes in just that manner. His, shot down by the Gomer in a boat nearly four months ago. Another plane piloted by Cobra later was nailed during an operation to rescue American hostages being held overseas. Cobra's Gomer had camped his ass out in a field three freaking miles away from the runway for the fateful pop.

Gabby whistled low. "Damn, but Bo's got the good life. Women crawling over him. Guess we old married guys have to live vicariously through him, huh?"

Old? Gabby was what? All of twenty? But he certainly was married—to a nineteen-year-old wife who worked checkout at the base commissary to help make ends meet.

J.T. remembered those days well. If life wasn't so crazy he'd have the talkative kid and his wife over for a few meals and mentor him. Except Gabby and his wife would probably run screaming for divorce court with him as a model.

Cobra ducked to the side, lifted a brown grocery sack from under the table and passed it to J.T. "Oh, hey, Tag, when we heard you were coming today, we decided to throw you an impromptu baby shower like we did for Crusty a few months ago when his little half brothers came to live with him. We all chipped in and got you a few things."

Ah hell. If Gabby's goofy-ass grin was anything to go by, J.T. could smell a roast coming. He took the bag from Cobra. Crewdogs cut zero slack when razzing their own. The best way to handle it? Play along.

And plot the, comeback.

Already plans formed to ink permanent marker around the earpieces on their headsets so they would walk around for hours after landing not knowing about the doughnut rings circling their ears. And the beauty of it all? Nobody ever suspected him. Usually funnyman Bronco took the fall.

J.T. fished his hand into the bag. "Earplug holder?" He shook the suspiciously light canister. No sound. He cocked an eyebrow at Cobra. "Empty?"

"Bo thought you'd need earplugs to block out the baby hollering, but then Colonel Dawson reminded him that all you old guys are just about deaf anyway from so many years on the flight line. So Bronco stole the plugs out to take home for when his kid's pitching a fit."

Chuckling, J.T. dug in the bag again, pulling out a bottle labeled … Viagra. Ah crap. "Damn, guys, it's brutal around here today."

Gabby leaned forward. "Well, not totally. This bottle's empty, too, since it's mighty obvious you don't need that, either, old man."

At least the kid had a sense of humor buried in all that chatter. J.T. jerked the two bulky remaining items, larger, soft packages.

"Huggies and Depends." Cobra announced the obvious with a wicked grin. "'Cause you'll both be going into diapers at the same time."

"Same foods, too," Scorch added. "Should have thought to add some of that rice cereal and strained carrots my sister feeds my niece."

And the roast got hotter. J.T. pivoted toward Spike. "Just decided to sit in on the class, did you?"

Spike loosened his palm-tree tie. "Wouldn't want to miss out on a good party, even brought along a subscription card for TV Guide," he said, patting along his jacket pockets as if searching. "For all those nights you'll be walking the floors."

More smart-ass quips rippled through the room until someone shouted over the fray, "Hey, what happened to those Viagra pills? Maybe I can find some use for them."

Cobra snagged the empty bag and dumped the "gifts" inside like a nice "hostess." "Since Tag didn't need them, we dished them out to the lieutenants for experimentation."

Rolling her eyes. 1st Lieutenant Darcy Renshaw strode across the room and plopped into the seat next to her fiancé, Spike. "Just what those dorks need, more ego inflation."

J.T. dropped the brown bag by his feet. "Well, thanks, everybody. You are all too, uh, generous."

"Ahhh—" Cobra chuckled low "—that's only the beginning."

"Seriously, man." Scorch cruised the front legs of his chair to a landing. "We'll be getting together a real celebration later. Just couldn't resist this now. Congratulations."

"Thanks." J.T. thumped his heart, plastering a sardonic smile in place. "I feel the love."

More laughter rumbled through the room as he pulled his chair up to the table beside Scorch.

"Tough crowd today." The aircraft commander smoothed two fingers along his mustache. Rumor held he'd once singed the blond stache in a bar with a flaming Dr Pepper mixed drink, thus his call sign.

"Only the strong survive around here."

Scorch's eyes flicked up to J.T.'s, held for a somber second that affirmed the truth of those words…

From inside the rusted-out jeep bouncing along the rutted desert road in a convoy, J.T. stared back at Scorch beside him. Both of them resigned. Resolved. Scared enough to piss themselves.

Hands bound behind his back, J.T. tried to brace with a boot on the back of the seat. Shock absorbers shot, the vehicle rocked, threatened to pitch him out. The hemp cut deeper into his wrists, burning like hell, not as bad as his ribs, though. Those flamed like a son of a bitch, but the pain kept him awake.

Could be worse.

Each jolt jarred groans from Bo sitting in front, his mangled hands manacled and swelling. The young lieutenant's teeth chattered, shock setting in.

J.T. glanced back at Scorch. They would have to do something for the kid soon.

Sand caked in Scorch's mustache, the aircraft commander's Ivy League blond veneer dusty as hell. In that moment, they bridged the gap between childhoods of brownstone walk-up and mansion, between enlisted and officer. It was them against the enemy, keeping the bastards off Bo and away from Spike who carried more secrets than all of them put together.

A whistling premonition sounded.

Hell, not a premonition at all. A missile. Crap. "Incoming!"

J.T. ducked a second ahead of Scorch. The missile arced, another, both closer, taking out the lead vehicle, then the last. Explosions, one, two shook the ground.

He propped his shoulder against the back of the seat. "Bo, you okay? Damn it, kid, answer me."

A grunt sounded from the front while J.T. lay in the back seat staring over at Scorch, both of them trussed and unable to help.