Rising Hope by Edie James


“Gonna be a great sunset tonight.”

Coast Guard helicopter pilot Dave Wenmark eased back on the collective as he depressed the left pedal, swinging the aircraft around to offer his passenger a view of the coastal mountains. The pretty bayside town of MacKenzie Cove and the sparkling Pacific filled the horizon.

He shouldn’t have wasted the effort. His passenger sat rigid as a rock, her hands fisted in her lap, her eyes tightly shut against another wave of nausea.

Just his luck. He blew out a breath and cut the detour short, angling straight for the landing site next to the abandoned barn. Despite the vicious side winds, he set the aircraft down like a feather. Not that the gorgeous blonde in the passenger seat noticed. She was too busy trying not to throw up.

He rolled his eyes. He’d been hoping his skills would score him a few points with the lady. Maybe on the next delivery. If they had calm winds, she might learn to like flying.

Or at least notice him.

He armed the parking brake, killed the power, and searched for something memorable to say. He liked the ladies. He just didn’t know how to relate to them. His buddy, Armando was constantly on him about it. “You’re like a block of wood, Wenmark. Smile. Tell a joke. Do something.”

But what? The words wouldn’t come. He watched the rotors slow as his passenger struggled to unclip her seatbelt. “Keep an eye on the cargo,” she ordered and bolted out of the aircraft, making a beeline for the oleander bushes at the corner of the barn.

He winced. He’d never been airsick. He couldn’t imagine a worse fate. Flying was his life. He’d do it twenty-four seven if he could. That’s why he’d jumped at the chance to add this undercover assignment to his regular Coast Guard duties.

So far, with the exception of Agent Walker’s issues with flying, it had gone as promised. A beauty of a helo to fly and just enough danger to make life exciting. Mostly, though, being an undercover drug runner was deadly dull. Who would have thought? Except for the flight time, it was nothing but wait, wait, wait. Wait for the sellers to show, then wait for the other undercover agents to offload the merchandise.

The agents running the sting were FBI—or maybe NSA. Not that they’d clue him in. The blonde said she was DEA, but he wasn’t even sure about that.

Not that it mattered. His only job was to fly this pretty little Eurocopter wherever the lady ordered then ferry her back here, to the middle of nowhere so scruffy-looking undercover agents could cart the duffle bags away. Then he and the blonde parted company until the next assignment.

The only other stipulation was to keep his mouth shut.

No problem there. He didn’t have a wife, or even a steady girl. Who was he gonna tell?

Once he completed the shutdown sequence, he squinted through the windshield in the direction Agent Walker had taken. Still no sign of her. His heart rate shot up. What if she fainted or something?

He unclipped from his seat and grabbed the door handle, but then thought better of his idea. She might prefer privacy.

Itching to do something, he eyed the pile of black duffle bags strapped to the floor of the aircraft. Three in total. The rough-looking agents who came to claim the stuff had warned him not to touch anything. As if they were in charge. He knew better. His CO, and the up-tight FBI guy, Halliburton, ran the show.

The cargo called to him. Maybe just a peek. He’d never actually seen the drugs. Was it some kind of new meth, or were they pills?

He eyed the bushes again, then the dirt road heading away from the property. The sightline was at least half a mile. No sign of the pickup crew, and still no sign of his partner.

Lower lip between his teeth, he loosened the cargo strap that held the bags in place. He left it clipped to the cargo fasteners in the floor, pulling it away from the bags just far enough so he could unzip one. Clear plastic bags, each one packed with rows and rows of cushioned red capsules filled the bag.

He whistled softly. There had to be dozens of packages in each bag. And each package held probably a hundred capsules. Maybe a whole lot more. He’d never been good at eyeballing things.

He slid his phone out of the thigh pocket of his utility pants and snapped a couple shots of the contraband. Probably he shouldn’t, but the mission was almost complete. He wanted a souvenir.

The urge to touch them overcame him. He slid his phone back in his pocket and grabbed a package from the center, hefting it to judge the weight. A pound or so, he figured, and leaned over to put it back.

A dark box lay beneath the pack of drugs he lifted. Some kind of high-tech storage case, a foot long and six inches wide nestled in the next layer of packets. He snapped another photo, slipped his phone back into his pocket, and reached for it.

Heftier than the drugs, the box was solid. Well-made. He pried open the clasps, lifting the thick lid. His jaw dropped. A handful of jewelry, rings and necklaces and stuff, all of it studded with diamonds and dark red gems, glinted in the light.

He slammed it shut, but it was too late to unsee the stash.

Fingers shaking, he struggled to close the clasps. He couldn’t have said why, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to know about the package.

No wonder the guys who whisked the drugs away didn’t want him touching anything. He’d been told this was a drug interdiction mission. This went way above his pay grade. And if he’d learned anything in his few years with the Coast Guard, it was to stay in his lane.

Engine noise caught his attention. He looked up. The pick-up agents were less than a quarter mile away. He shoved the small case back into place and smoothed the packet of drugs back on top.

Heart pounding for no good reason, he stepped away from the cargo and yanked the side door of the helo open. The two agents were just exiting the old exterminator’s van they drove. Agent Walker headed back from the bushes, her blonde hair swinging in the wind.

He nodded at the men—Sleazy and Chunk, he called them privately—and grabbed the gutter above the door, swinging himself out of the aircraft.

Chunky climbed straight in.

Agent Walker reached them. “You okay?” Wenmark asked.

She looked pale, but nodded quickly. “I’ll do.”

“Rough flight?” Chunky asked.

Wenmark fumed silently. Would have been a lot rougher with an average aviator. Let them try driving a squirrelly helo over these mountain passes in this kind of blow.

Sleazy eyed her. “You can take off. We got this.”

That earned the man a smile. “Great.” She waved at them. “Until next time, gentlemen.”

She pulled the strap of her purse up over her shoulder and headed toward the barn.

Anger flared in Wenmark’s stomach. He wanted to make her smile, and these guys roll up in their ugly old van, looking like they hadn’t showered in a week, and it’s like they offered her the world.

He couldn’t win.

Chunky motioned his partner into the aircraft. “Joe, look at this.”

The two men hovered over the duffles. He winced. He’d forgotten to re-secure the tie downs. His hands started to sweat as he struggled to act casual.

Dark eyes boring into him, Sleazy tapped out a text on his phone.

Wenmark swung his gaze to the barn. So what if he opened one? They’d never know. Even if they did, he was part of this assignment too. Anyway, his security clearance was probably higher than theirs.

Agent Walker drove off, her little sports car a flash of blue against the clump of dusty oleanders.

Behind him, the two agents murmured, then Sleazy charged out the opening, straight at him.

“Not smart, fly boy.” He shoved Wenmark hard in the chest, sending him flying.

Wenmark landed on his butt. The impact shot pain straight up his spine. His phone flew out of his pocket, bouncing into the bushes.

He splayed out his hands to stop the backward slide. The dirt dug into his palms. He tried to reach his sidearm, but he was still skidding.

The man kept coming, until he was standing over him.

“Hey!” he yelled, but he didn’t have any air in his lungs. The word came out more like a squeak.

Sleazy’s face hardened. He whipped out a pistol.

Wenmark tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry.

The man squinted down at him. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I only looked,” Wenmark started to protest, but the words never made it out of his mouth.

The bullet silenced him long before the thoughts became sound.

His vision faded.

A voice carried on the gusting wind. “We’re gonna need a new pilot.”