Black Hawk, she hesitated. “I think I’ll walk out of here,” she told him.
“Mina, you’re exhausted,” Jake was quick to say. “I’m not going anywhere until you get in this helicopter.”
“He’s right,” her grandfather seconded. “It’s been a long day. Let’s go home, child.”
Knowing she’d been outvoted, Mina relented. But she would have dearly loved to have been left alone with those bundles to see what was in them. Her grandfather’s concern for her well-being, she knew, was genuine. But she suspected Jake was more concerned about leaving her alone with those mysterious packages aboard the downed Matrix.
She sat next to Jake on the flight to Cherokee. He tried to make polite conversation, but she barely heard him because her mind was so consumed with the distinct possibility that the man she’d rescued was a drug dealer. Why hadn’t she seen it before now? A private plane filled with packages wrapped in garbage bags? Two men on board, one a pilot, one a...what? she wondered. What was Jake’s role in all of this? Was he the hired gun?
She observed him as they flew through the now darkened sky toward Cherokee. He was so handsome. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and when he smiled, dimples appeared in both caramel-brown cheeks. He had perfect teeth, a square-chinned, clean-shaven face that now had a five-o’clock shadow, nice ears, an interesting nose with a small scar on the bridge and curly dark-brown hair that was cut close to his perfect head. And when he looked at her, there was nothing but warmth and sincerity in those warm honey-colored eyes. He could be the all-American boy next door. Big, athletic, superbly muscled and with a personality to match. But he could also be a cold-blooded killer who ran drugs for a living.
He smiled at her now. “I don’t know how I can repay you for what you did for me today,” he said, eyes shining with good intentions.
“I’m just sad that there was nothing we could do for your friend,” Mina said. Too many times, while in the service of her country, she’d had to transport the bodies of fallen soldiers. This situation gave her a cold feeling inside. Her sister, Desiree, who was a psychotherapist, wanted her to go to therapy, saying that even if she didn’t believe she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, there could still be residual aftereffects from her experiences in the military. She shouldn’t be too proud to seek help. But Mina knew she was fine. It was only a few times a year, like today, that she was reminded of the negative aspects of military life.
“Me, too,” Jake said softly. “I dread having to tell his wife. They have two small kids.”
“Did you know him well?”
“We’d only been working together for a few months, but he was a nice guy, devoted to his family.”
Devoted to his family, Mina thought. Would a guy who loved and cherished his family be working as a pilot for a drug dealer? She wasn’t naive. Of course a man could love his family and be a criminal.
They didn’t have time to finish their conversation, because in a matter of minutes the Black Hawk, which could reach a hundred and sixty miles per hour, was landing in a big field adjacent to her grandfather’s lodge. The pilot explained they’d be going on to Asheville where Jake would be checked out by a doctor at Mission Hospital.
Before Mina and her grandfather could go, though, Jake grasped Mina by the hand. “I don’t want to lose touch with you, Mina. Give me your number, please. I’d like to call you when I come back this way.”
Mina met his eyes. Did she want this man who could be a drug dealer to phone her? Was she being too judgmental? She had no proof he was a dealer, just a suspicion that could probably be blamed on reading too many suspense novels.
He handed her his cell phone. “Would you enter your number for me?”
She took it, quickly tapped out her number and handed it back to him. “Stay safe, Jake.”
He gave her that killer smile and then turned and went back to the waiting helicopter.
She and Grandpa Beck watched as they rose into the sky and sped off. Her grandfather put his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the cabin in back of the lodge where they lived. The lodge was set to reopen next week for the fall season. Guests would start arriving on Sunday afternoon. Soon they would be busy catering to the needs of hunters, fishermen, hikers and a host of other nature lovers.
“I don’t know about you,” Grandpa Beck said, “but I’m hungrier than a bear at the end of hibernation.”
Mina laughed and said, “Come on, then, I’ll make you some scrambled eggs and bacon.”
“Breakfast for dinner,” Grandpa Beck said, grinning. “Now you’re talking!”
* * *
As the helicopter rose in the air, Jake watched the figures of Mina Gaines and her grandfather recede into the distance. He didn’t know why, but being near her gave him a warm feeling deep inside. It was a cliché, but he felt as though they had been fated to meet.
He turned and looked straight ahead as the pilot cranked up the speed of the Black Hawk and shot toward Asheville. This case had taken a turn for the worse when he’d been so close to wrapping it up.
He worked out of the Atlanta Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which served the states of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. He’d infiltrated the Charlie Betts drug ring by first ingratiating himself with the big guy. He’d had Betts under surveillance for weeks and had followed him to his favorite nightclub one evening, when a drunken reveler had had the audacity to attempt to slug the drug dealer. Before Betts’s own bodyguard had the chance to act, Jake had stepped between the drunk and Betts. Impressed with his physical prowess, Betts had given Jake his card and told him if he ever needed anything to call him. The next day, Jake called and said he was down on his luck and could use a job. Betts hired him as low-level muscle.
He’d worked his way up to accompanying John on the weekly flights to Canada, where Betts’s marijuana supplier lived. He and Monahan had become friends, and Monahan had confided in him that he wanted out of the organization—but there was only one way out: death. That was when Jake had offered him another alternative: testify against Charlie Betts, and Jake would stand up for him and try to get him immunity.
That’s what they were attempting to do when the Matrix had gone down. They had a plane full of marijuana as evidence against Charlie Betts.
Jake was angry at himself for not anticipating that Charlie Betts had tapped John’s home phone. He should have cautioned John against telling anyone about their plans, even his wife, Lynn. Jake blamed himself for John’s death. He would do everything in his power to make John’s sacrifice mean something. That meant Betts and his organization had to go down.
Once they’d landed in Asheville and he’d seen John’s body being taken to the morgue, Jake got on the phone with the Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta.
Hoyt Granger was in his fifties and had a gravelly voice due to too many cigarettes, a habit he was constantly trying to kick. “Jake, what the hell happened to you? You were supposed to report in hours ago!”
Jake told him everything, and then patiently waited for his response.
“Thank God you’re safe,” Granger said. “My guess is Betts expected you and Monahan to go up in flames. That didn’t happen, so now we have ourselves a predicament. When word reaches Betts, and I’ll make sure it does, will he send his men to retrieve the drugs or write millions of dollars off just like that? I’m betting he’ll want to recover what he believes to be rightfully his. So you need to stick around. Stay out of sight. It might be to your advantage if Betts thinks you didn’t survive so I’m going to spread the news that both you and Monahan died in the crash.”
“You’re leaving the drugs at the site as bait?” Jake asked, to be certain they were on the same page.
“That’s right,” Granger confirmed. “Get back to Cherokee, hole up in a motel and I’ll send you the needed