she couldn’t get the blood to stop flowing.
She found a clean paper towel and pressed it firmly against the two-inch-long cut. The stranger was looking at her with a hint of humor in his gaze.
“We haven’t introduced ourselves,” he said softly. “Hello, I’m Jake, and you are?”
“You can call me Mina,” she said.
“Whenever someone introduces themselves like that, there’s usually another name that they’re trying to conceal,” he observed with a smile.
“It’s short for Amina,” she said.
“One letter short,” he joked. “Wow.”
Mina laughed. She liked his accent. He wasn’t Southern, that was for sure. He sounded like a New Yorker. “I suppose Jake’s short for Jacob?”
“No, Jason. I know it should be short for Jacob, but Jake’s what my parents started calling me and it stuck.”
“Like mine, only one letter shorter,” Mina noted.
“You’re sharp,” he said.
“You’ve been hit on the head,” she countered. “It doesn’t take much to be sharper than you are right now.”
“And beautiful,” he added.
“The head thing again,” she said.
He ignored her. “Where are we, Mina?”
“You’re near a little town called Cherokee, close to the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Where were you headed?”
“You’re quite a few miles away,” Mina told him as she continued to press the paper towel to his forehead. “What are you, a businessman? That Piper Matrix is some sweet plane.”
“You know planes?”
“I was a helicopter pilot when I was in the army.”
“How long since you were discharged?”
“Going on two years,” she answered.
“What was your rank when you left?”
“I was a captain,” she stated simply.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “I was in the army for a couple of years but did it mainly for the educational benefits.” He looked into her eyes. “Sit, Mina. Please.”
But she wouldn’t sit. “Are you thirsty?” she asked. “There’s water in my backpack.”
“I could use a drink,” he said. But before she could retrieve the water he reached up and grasped her hand. While he had hold of it, he brought it down to eye level and said, “Your hands are so small, but extremely competent. Is that you in a nutshell, Mina, small but extremely competent?”
Mina found both his words and his touch disconcerting. She pried her hand from his and got the water bottle her grandfather had given her earlier.
He opened it and drank deeply, still looking into her eyes. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Mina. She removed the paper towel from his forehead. The cut had stopped bleeding.
“I guess I won’t have to go back into the plane, after all,” she said. “You’re not bleeding anymore.”
He smiled at her. “I’m a fast healer.”
* * *
In truth, he didn’t want her to go back inside the plane. If she hadn’t already noticed the bundles strewn all over it and begun to put two and two together—a private plane with mysterious, securely wrapped packages as the main cargo—he would consider himself lucky. His rescuer seemed to be a very intelligent woman. And he didn’t want her getting mixed up in this mess. At this point, he didn’t know what his next move was going to be. He had to contact the agency. She’d said her cell phone didn’t work up here. There was no reason to believe his would either. He didn’t have a satellite phone. No harm in trying his cell, though.
He still felt it in the back pocket of his jeans. He was surprised it hadn’t fallen out of his pocket while he was upside down. Tight jeans, he guessed.
Try as he might, Jake couldn’t get a signal. He sighed inwardly. What would he say to his boss, anyway? John Monahan was dead. And there was no bringing him back. He had failed to protect a witness. John might have worked in Betts’s organization for years, but he was trying to clean up his act for the benefit of his wife and two small children. It irked Jake that he hadn’t been able to anticipate someone tampering with the plane. But John had been a conscientious pilot. Jake had seen him examining the plane before climbing into the cockpit.
If John had missed signs of tampering, how could he have recognized them? Still, he blamed himself for John’s death. And he meant to make sure that justice was served in the end.
He scowled as he tucked the useless phone back in his pocket. Mina noticed and frowned in response. “No luck, huh?”
“Nah, but it can wait.” His stomach growled. He smiled wryly. “You wouldn’t have something to eat in that handy backpack, would you?”
Mina smiled warmly and dug in her backpack a moment.
They were companionably eating energy bars beneath the sugar maple when they heard the rotors of a helicopter in the distance.
* * *
Benjamin Beck hated two modes of transportation: riding on a bus and flying. The UH-60 Black Hawk he was in now was being piloted by a young hotshot from the Army National Guard. Two other Guardsmen made up the team. Ben was sitting up front with the pilot giving directions. The Great Smoky Mountains looked a lot different from the air, but Ben had never gotten lost in his life. Soon, they were hovering over the area where he’d last seen Mina more than five hours ago. He looked at the pilot and said, “Try due south. That was the direction the plane was heading when she was going down.”
Less than five minutes later they spotted it.
“Looks like a Piper Matrix,” said the pilot with admiration. “Nice plane.”
Ben was busy craning his neck, trying to locate Mina. He hoped nothing had happened to that girl. He had not wanted to leave her, but her plan of action had clearly been the only option for them at the time.
His heartbeat accelerated with excitement and happiness when he saw her sitting propped against a tree, a big guy sitting beside her. “There they are!” Ben exclaimed, pointing and grinning.
The pilot grinned too. “So I see,” he said. “I’m going to set her down in that clearing over there.”
* * *
It was dark by the time the Black Hawk rose into the air again. One of the Guardsmen was a medic and had examined Jake and determined his vital signs were good, and except for his head injury, he was fine. Then the Guardsmen removed John Monahan’s body from the wreckage, put it in a body bag and stowed it in the back of the Black Hawk.
Mina and Grandpa Beck stood apart talking while all of this was going on, but she didn’t fail to notice Jake speaking privately with the helicopter’s pilot and the keen look of interest on the pilot’s face during the course of their conversation. She also noticed that one of the Guardsmen came out of the plane carrying one of those wrapped bundles Mina had avoided stepping on when she’d entered the downed plane and presented it to the helicopter pilot, who told him to leave it on the plane.
That made her wonder what was in those bundles that made them not important enough to salvage from the wreckage. There had been about thirty twenty-four-inch cubes. Or maybe, she thought, there was something in them that Jake didn’t want the National Guardsmen to know about, and during his conversation with the pilot he’d convinced him that they weren’t worth bothering with.
Her curiosity was definitely