Hijacked (RWA® 2013 GoldenHeart® Finalist)

Chapter One

Hail Mary, full of grace…

Cold air bit at Ben Martin’s face as he crouched in the recesses of a poorly lit airplane hangar. He’d gone from hunter to prey a handful of minutes ago, and his mind reeled at the reversal of his fortune. The image of a rabbit quivering beneath a bush flickered through his brain. His imagination filled in the shadowy edges of the picture with Arctic wolves waiting for the doomed bugger to make a fatal dash.

Pray for us sinners…

He shivered, and couldn’t say whether the shudder came from the cold or his thoughts. The hunters, so close on his heels that his back tingled, needed nothing but a blaze of harsh light to expose his hiding place.

…now, and at the hour of—

No. This would not be the hour of his death.

Ben tried to quell the rapid beat of his heart and quiet the rasp of his breath. He’d ricocheted through two miracles already tonight, two more than he deserved. Unless the Almighty slipped him one more, he wouldn’t live to see dawn, less than an hour away. Panic rose, and he squelched it. Not helping.

His gaze shifted to a pilot on the far side of the warehouse-like space, readying a Cessna for flight. Ben didn’t want to involve a civilian, but he was flat out of options. Other than hoping for a giant hand to reach down and pluck him out of Louisville, Kentucky—which was not likely—this was it. The pilot, poor bastard, was Ben’s ticket out of danger.

The wind blew a burst of frigid air into the cavernous room. Ben shivered again, this time from the cold. He lifted his hand to rub his left arm, which throbbed in concert with his pulse, and flattened his lips. Denial had its uses, like glossing over the fact that he’d been shot. Seemed pretty reasonable to him, since he recoiled from the idea with enough horror to make him puke. Didn’t matter that the wound was minor, he still got queasy when he thought about it. He’d staunched the bleeding and applied a rudimentary dressing, but the doggone thing had shifted. He tugged it back into place, wincing at the sting of movement.

His heartbeat, a bit slower but now very loud, drummed in his ears, and he shook his head to clear the rhythmic pounding. It obscured sounds he needed to hear, such as another employee showing up. Or the cops.Adrenaline pumped madly, surging into his veins. He shifted his weight, his fingers twitching in readiness.

It was too soon for the adrenaline, but he had no control over it. Ben muttered, “Hurry up,” and willed the pilot to move faster. He had no more than fifteen minutes before the drug dog found him, unless his decoy attempt had succeeded. He made a soft, derisive sound. Not much else had gone well over the past couple of hours. No reason to expect he’d fooled the dog.

The memory of Roger Grantree’s voice, dispassionate and traitorous, wormed its way into his mind and broke his concentration. Bastard set me up. Blew my cover. Rage and an equal measure of stunned disbelief roiled in Ben’s gut. He shoved the emotion away even as his stomach clenched at the gall of his partner’s betrayal. Granted, they’d only partnered for this operation, but Ben had trusted the guy. Trusted him.

Grantree was dirty, had misled Ben and thwarted every step of his investigation. But Ben had figured out the guy’s scam, and had gotten close to the truth. Too close. Close enough to hear Roger order his murder over the tinny cell phone speaker. Ben didn’t know how far Roger’s influence extended, but tonight he’d seen local law enforcement, his own federal agency, and Louisville drug dealers. And they were all looking for him. He swallowed in an attempt to rid his mouth of the coppery tang of fear.

Hangar doors creaked on their rollers as the pilot put every ounce of his weight into the chore of wrestling them open, and Ben forced his attention back to the man. Wiry and slightly built, he was dressed for the weather with a toboggan hat, wool coat, and gloves. The ease and efficiency of his movements gave the impression of youth, but it was hard to tell. His breath puffed out in little white clouds as he hauled back on the tow bar, moving the plane in groaning millimeters until momentum finally got it rolling. Its white wings and fuselage glinted in the dim light of the hangar, then faded into predawn darkness outside.

Ben took advantage of the pilot’s preoccupation to dodge between parked planes and cross the expanse of hangar floor. He darted behind a mechanic’s chest-high toolbox near the massive doors. Metal rang against concrete when the pilot unhooked the tow bar from the nose wheel, then strode with unswerving purpose—toward the toolbox. Ben ducked his head and held his breath. He did the Zen thing and tried to render himself invisible, to become one with the universe, one with the toolbox. Whatever. He tensed his muscles for attack, since he didn’t have much confidence in meditation as a form of escape or evasion.

The footsteps stopped on the opposite side of the toolbox. Metal clinked on metal. Then, silence. A bead of sweat trickled down Ben’s brow. If the pilot elected to use it, the tow bar—or any tool on top of the cart, for that matter—would double as a painfully effective weapon.

The moment expanded until his nerves were a whisper away from snapping, and…the footsteps moved away, their cadence normal, unhurried. He sank back, let out a quiet breath, and tried to calm the thudding of his heart.

He peeked around the edge of the box. The pilot headed for the far door, his back to Ben. Ben slipped through the pool of light outside the hangar and blended into the shadows cast by the plane, and waited as the guy wrestled the doors again.

A fine tremor started in his hands but he squeezed them hard, pushing away the weakness of fear, pushing past the pain. Focus. Focus on the pilot—his ticket to safety.

The rollers at the top of the second door squealed in their tracks, then quieted when the door thumped closed. The pilot walked to the plane, backlit by a single bulb over the doors.

Secure that he couldn’t be seen in the shadows, Ben spared a glance toward the street. The expanse of runways and taxiways allowed him to see a quarter of a mile, maybe a bit more. His breath caught. A drug dog with its handler came into view. Even factoring in the airport’s perimeter fence and the less-than-direct route to his position, they’d have him made in ten minutes, max.

No time to finesse this.

He pulled his gun, thumbed the safety to verify it was still on, and grasped it left-handed, leaving his uninjured arm free. The pilot opened the cockpit door and leaned in, but didn’t enter the plane.Adrenaline flooded Ben as he slipped around the plane, his footfalls masked by gusts of wind. He crowded the smaller man, trapping him between the door and the fuselage.

“Do exactly as I say and you’ll be all right.” Even to himself his voice sounded guttural. Threatening. Desperate.

The pilot went utterly still. Grateful for the guy’s good sense, Ben opened his mouth to issue orders.

But the pilot erupted in a flurry of movement, arms and legs flailing, glaring evidence of an untrained fighter. A couple of blows landed before Ben managed to grab the guy’s arms and pin them to his sides. The smaller man twisted in Ben’s hold and he almost lost his grip, almost dropped his gun. He let loose an instinctive jab to the guy’s jaw, barely remembering to pull the punch at the last second. He needed the guy alert enough to fly.

Stunned by the blow, the pilot looked up at him. His huge, dark eyes were luminous, reflecting light from the bulb over the hangar. A red mark, precursor to a monster bruise, decorated his cheek.

A cheek that was smooth.

A cheek that bore no evidence of ever having grown a beard.

Because the cheek belonged to…a woman?

He snatched the knit hat off the pilot’s head, and stared at distinctly feminine features under a mop of short hair.

“You’re a girl!”

©Leslie Lynch, 2011