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Authors: Brett Battles

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Praise for Brett Battles
And the Jonathan Quinn series
THE
CLEANER
“Brett Battles makes a grand entrance into the thriller scene with this
unputdownable
spy novel.
The Cleaner
has it all: exotic locales, James Bondian derring-do, and ingenious plot twists that will keep you sweating all the way till the end.”
—T
ESS
G
ERRITSEN
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“This book is a pure delight. Protagonist Jonathan Quinn is a unique and welcome addition to the world of crime fiction.
The Cleaner
is a brilliant and
heart-pounding
thriller; I’m on the edge of my seat, awaiting future installments of Quinn’s adventures.”
—J
EFFERY
D
EAVER
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“An emotionally tense tale of espionage and betrayal from a new author who writes with assurance and sophistication,
The Cleaner
’s
teeth-gritting action
is an auspicious debut for the talented Brett Battles.”
—P
ERRI
O’S
HAUGHNESSY
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“Hypnotically gripping,
The Cleaner
moves with the speed of an assassin’s unerring bullet. From Colorado to Vietnam and Germany, this
ripping-good read
will leave anyone who loves suspense not only happily satisfied but eager for Battles’s next thriller.”
—G
AYLE
L
YNDS
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“Brett Battles is a compelling new voice in the thriller genre.
The Cleaner
combines the best elements of Lee Child, John le Carré and Robert Ludlum. Deftly plotted, perfectly paced and expertly executed … Jonathan Quinn is a character worth rooting for. Battles is a
master storyteller
. Find a comfortable chair and plan to stay up late. You won’t be able to put it down. A stellar debut.”
—S
HELDON
S
IEGEL
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“The
Cleaner
is a terrific novel. It features a compelling plot,
thrilling action
and an unforgettable cast of characters. This debut novel is a powerful read.”
—R
OBERT
K. T
ANENBAUM
,
New York Times
bestselling author
“Globetrotting suspense, intriguing characters and a plot that ricochets like a bullet, Battles’s first novel is definitely in the running for
best thriller debut of the year.”

Daily Record
(UK)
“A page-turner … Quinn [is] a
compelling
protagonist.… Admirers of quality espionage fiction can look forward to a new series worth following.”

Publishers Weekly
“Battles hits for extra bases in his first novel.
The Cleaner
is
a tightly written page-turner
, filled with tradecraft and offering as much action as a James Bond film … a wild ride.”

Booklist
SHADOW OF BETRAYAL
“Battles has established himself as
one of today’s best thriller writers
, right up there with Lee Child, Barry Eisler and Thomas Perry. His writing is smooth and perfectly paced. His ‘cleaner’ is eminently believable as well as a hero worth caring about. I look forward to many more years of Brett Battles’s books on my nightstand.”
—Deadly Pleasures
“As in [Battles’s] previous two Jonathan Quinn novels,
the action is heart-pounding
, gripping, and always engaging.”
—Tucson Citizen
“An absolute pleasure to read. Battles has a true gift for writing thrillers and this book should put him on everyone’s list.… From page one this is
a perfect summer read
.”

Crimespree
magazine
“[A] plot so
downright clever
it’s a wonder somebody hasn’t tried something similar in real life. Start
Shadow of Betrayal
early in the day, or be prepared for a later-than-usual bedtime.”
—BookPage
“Battles
keeps the reader hooked
to the last sentence.
Shadow of Betrayal
is a wonderful thriller.”

www.iloveamystery.com
THE DECEIVED
“Breakneck pacing, colorful locales, and
dizzying plot twists
make the Quinn series a welcome addition to the political thriller genre.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Plenty of
globetrotting nonstop action
, plot twists, tight writing, whiz-bang high-tech devices … Derring-do will always find an audience.”

Booklist
“A successful sequel to
The Cleaner
.
Highly recommended
.”

Library Journal
(starred review)
“Complex and believable.”

Deadly Pleasures

No Return
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

A Dell eBook Edition

Copyright © 2012 by Brett Battles

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Dell, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

DELL is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-345-53219-0

Cover design: Jerry Todd

www.bantamdell.com

v3.1

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Other Books by This Author

A DISTANT BOOM ECHOED FAINTLY ACROSS THE
hills.

Wes Stewart peered at the sky. He recognized the sound, but it was one he hadn’t heard in years.

“What the hell was that?” Danny DeLeon asked. He was holding the second camera.

“Sonic boom.”

Danny still looked confused, so Wes added, “You know, when a jet breaks the sound barrier.”

“Really?”

Wes squinted toward the western horizon, then raised his arm and pointed. “There. See him?”

Danny shaded his eyes. “I don’t see anything.”

“Flying south, just a little bit above the mountains.” Wes’s finger tracked the movement of the jet.

“No, I don’t.… Wait. It’s like a white dot.”

Wes nodded. “Yep.”

“That thing’s moving
fast
.”

“It’s a fighter jet, Danny. That’s what they do.”

“Damn.”

While it was novel to Danny, for Wes it was a reminder of a time when he would have barely noticed a sky full of jets.

“You guys set?” Dione Li, their producer/director, asked from behind them. She was leading a group of three others over to the base of the rock formation. The look on her face was pure Dione: ten percent annoyed, fifteen percent pissed, and one hundred percent determined. “We got a lot to do today, and I don’t want to mess around.”

“Same speech, different city,” Danny said through the side of his mouth.

“I’m sweating,” Monroe Banks announced, more an accusation than a statement.

“On it,” Anna Mendes called out. She whipped out a couple of Kleenex from the makeup utility belt around her waist and dabbed at a line of perspiration that had formed on Monroe’s forehead.

“Is it going to be this hot every day?” Monroe whined as she fanned herself with her hand.

Wes rolled his eyes. The last he’d checked, the temperature had been hovering around ninety-two degrees, not so bad for mid-day in the high Mojave Desert. Of course, that was because it was October—not August, or July, or September, or June, or even May, when it seldom dipped below one hundred while the sun was out.

Donning her faux, producer-mode smile, Dione stepped over to the spot she’d picked out earlier, then turned back to the others. “So, Monroe, we’ll have you stand right here for the intro shot. Behind you we’ll see the empty desert, then, as you finish, look to your right and follow the rock up. Wes will mimic your movement with the camera. Danny, I want you to get a wide shot from down the slope. Try to get as many of the formations—”

“Pinnacles,” Wes corrected her.

“As many
pinnacles
,” Dione said, smirking, “as you can into the frame.”

Danny gave her a nod. “Will do.” He shuffle-stepped down the small slope into position.

Their location was the Trona Pinnacles, a group of tufa deposits that stretched in an east–west line across the dry bed of Searles Lake. It was a few hours north of Los Angeles, and twenty miles from Wes’s hometown of Ridgecrest, California. The Pinnacles had been formed by an ancient sea, and the best way Wes had ever heard them described was as a bunch of giant, caveless stalagmites.

Alison Pringle, the tallest member of the crew, slipped behind Wes. “Where do you want me so I’m not in your way?” she asked.

Wes pointed at a spot a few feet behind his position. “There should be good.”

She touched his arm just below his shoulder. “Thanks.” She smiled, then moved off.

While Monroe moved into position, Dione glanced at Alison. “Are we good with sound?”

“Monroe, can you give me a level?” Alison wore a pair of headphones that allowed her to monitor both Monroe’s voice and any ambient noises the host’s mic might pick up.

“One. Two. Three.”

“We’re fine,” Alison said.

“Four,” Monroe finished.

Dione turned her attention to Wes. “Set?”

Wes nodded.

She leaned toward him, and in a low voice asked, “You all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’re awfully quiet.”

Wes frowned. “No I’m not.”

“Whatever you want to think, but, yeah, you are.” She did a quick check of the rest of the crew, then said, “All right, Monroe. Whenever you’re ready.”

Monroe closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again, an entirely different person emerged. The less-than-pleasant Monroe the crew had been subjected to since they’d arrived in Ridgecrest the night before had been replaced by the bright, friendly version the 1.3 million viewers of
Close to Home
were used to seeing.

“All right,” Dione said. “Here we go. And … Monroe.”

Monroe gave it a beat, then, “A vast nothingness. Brown for as far as the eye can see. A wasteland. A place no one would willingly visit, right?” Another beat. “If you believed that, then you’d be missing out on some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Hi, I’m Monroe Banks, and welcome to another episode of
Close to—

“Hold on,” Alison called out.

Dione groaned. “Seriously? She almost had it in one take.”

Alison had a hand pressing one side of her headphones tight against her skull. “I’m picking up a hum.”

“Electrical?” Wes asked.

Alison shook her head. “Don’t think so.”

“I don’t hear anything,” Dione said.

“It’s getting loud—”

“I think I hear something,” Wes said. It wasn’t so much a hum as a rumbling whine.

“I hear it, too,” Monroe said, cocking her head.

A second later it was loud enough for everyone to hear.

Dione frowned. “What the hell is—”

“Oh, God!” Danny cried out from the bottom of the slope.

He was staring off to the east.

Whatever he’d seen was hidden from the others by the massive pinnacle at their side. Wes half ran, half slid down the slope toward his fellow cameraman.

“Where are you going?” Dione shouted after him. “I want to get this shot off.”

She hadn’t seen the look on Danny’s face. Wes had. Danny was terrified.

As Wes skidded to a stop he turned his head to follow Danny’s gaze, but it took a moment for his mind to actually figure out what he was seeing.

A military jet. A fighter.

Only instead of being a white dot in the distance, this one was a mass of gray ripping through the sky no more than five hundred feet above the ground. And its trajectory was taking it lower, not higher.

Wes’s first thought was that it was going to crash. His second was,
It’s going to crash into us
.

“What?” Danny said, alarmed.

Wes hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

“Up the slope. Behind the rock,” he yelled.

Not having to be told twice, Danny took off running for the questionable safety of the pinnacle.

Wes scrambled to follow, but slipped on the loose dirt and fell to his knees. The ground began to shake as the roar of the aircraft intensified. He looked back quickly and saw there was no way he was going to make it to shelter in time.

He was going to die.

He started to turn away, but a flash of light from the back of the jet stopped him. For half a second it seemed as if nothing had changed, then the nose of the aircraft inched upward a few feet, and the jet veered to the left, away from the pinnacle.

He saw me
, Wes thought.
He saw me and did something to miss me
.

But whatever the pilot had done was only enough to change his path, not his fate. Wes watched as the plane began dropping lower and lower—its new target the emptiness south of the crew’s position.

Wes pushed himself up and began sprinting toward the crew’s vehicles. He’d only made it a dozen feet when—

Whomp
.

He skidded to a stop, mesmerized as the plane plowed into the desert floor.

He had expected the jet to flip and roll, breaking into a million pieces seconds after it smashed into the ground. Instead, the multimillion-dollar aircraft barreled through the earth, throwing up dirt and plants and rocks, but remaining intact. Then, just before it stopped, it twisted sideways, enveloping itself in a cloud of dust.

Wes jerked out of his trance and raced the rest of the way to the green Ford Escape he’d been in charge of driving out to the location that morning.

As he started to drive off, he glanced back and saw some of the shoot crew running toward the other vehicle, a Toyota Highlander. Dione was in the lead and waving frantically for Wes to stop.

But stopping wasn’t an option. He jammed the accelerator to the floor and sped into the open desert.

WITH NO ROAD OR PATH TO FOLLOW, WES
pushed the Escape faster than he should, bouncing over dirt and rocks and avoiding what vegetation he could. Soon he was surrounded by sagebrush set ablaze by the crash.

Thump
.

Sparks flew out from the side of the car as he smashed over a clump of burning brush.

Immediately he heard a rumble.
The axle?
Had he damaged it?

Just then a fighter streaked across the sky, a mere hundred feet above his roof.

Jerking back in surprise, Wes nearly swerved the truck into the gouge created by the crash. But he quickly regained control and shoved the accelerator back to the floor.

It took him four and a half minutes to get from the pinnacles to the plane. Four and a half minutes that felt like a year.

Slamming to a stop, he jumped out of the SUV and ran toward the aircraft. The fighter that had buzzed by moments before had been joined by another, both circling helplessly a few hundred feet above the wreck of their friend.

The dust cloud from the crash was still dissipating as Wes weaved around the small pockets of fire where the groundcover was burning.

The aircraft was pointed almost toward him, so he could see into the cockpit. The glass canopy was gone. He had no idea when that had happened, or where it was for that matter. It certainly had been in place when the plane had swept past him before it had hit the ground.

Wes looked around anxiously, thinking that maybe the pilot had been able to eject. But then he spotted a person still in the cockpit, slumped to the side, unmoving.

Unmoving didn’t mean dead, though.

Wes ran around the plane looking for the easiest way up. But the brush next to the aircraft was more densely packed, pushed together by the crash, and all of it on fire. He continued searching until he spotted a narrow gap.

I can make that
, he thought.

Somewhere behind him doors opened, then slammed shut.

“Wes!” It was Dione. “Get back!”

He ignored her as he sprinted toward the gap, then leapt up onto the wing at the last second. But he landed hard, his knees slamming into metal and sending him sliding backward. Groaning, he clutched at the wing to keep from falling off. Once he’d stopped moving, he shoved himself to his feet and lurched toward the fuselage.

“Wes!” Dione yelled. “That thing could explode!”

Wes reached the fuselage, then shimmied down a lip that ran from the wing to the cockpit. He could see the back of the pilot’s head now, tilted to one side, still motionless.

He grabbed the back of the cockpit opening and threw himself forward, aiming his feet for the lip just outside the pilot area. But his toes barely touched the edge before slipping off. Immediately he clamped his hands tight to the rim of the cockpit to keep from falling to the ground. Below his dangling feet, he could feel heat from the burning brush.

“Wes!” a different voice—Anna, it sounded like—called out.

He heaved himself upward, scrambling with his legs until one of his feet found the lip. Ten seconds later he was exactly where he’d been trying to get, only now sporting a long scratch down the inside of his left arm.

He leaned into the cockpit and pressed two fingers against the man’s neck. A pulse. Strong.

“Can you hear me?” Wes said.

No response.

He quickly scanned the man’s dark green flight suit for any blood. When he saw none, he probed lightly down the man’s arm, across his ribs, then down his thighs.

He was pretty sure the pilot’s left leg was broken, and possibly two of the ribs. But there were no other obvious injuries.

“Hey,” he said again.

The pilot remained motionless.

He was about to give the man a shake when he noticed something that should have registered right away. The pilot was holding his helmet under his left arm.

Holding
his helmet. No way he’d been flying like that.

“Hey,” Wes said, moving the man’s face side to side. “Hey, wake up!”

There was a moan, but nothing more.

“Come on, buddy. Wake up!”

This time the man’s head rolled forward, then slowly tilted up.

“Good, good,” Wes said. “We got to get you out of this thing.”

Wes grabbed the buckle of the harness holding the man to the chair and tried to pop it open, but it didn’t budge.

“Is there some kind of safety lock on this?” Wes asked.

The man moaned again. “See the ground … trying … it’s not … it’s not …”

Wes slapped the pilot’s face. “You’ve gotta wake up.” This time the man’s eyes blinked several times, then opened all the way. “I’m trying to get you out of here, but I can’t undo your harness. Help me. What am I doing wrong?”

The pilot jerked his head right, then left, his consciousness returning. He focused on Wes. “What happened?”

“You put your plane down in the middle of the desert,” Wes told him. “And if you help me, you’ll actually walk away.”

“The crash,” the man said. “Oh, God. Tried to eject … followed protocols but … the display … the electrical … everything just … something …”

“Yeah, okay. We can talk about that later,” Wes told him. He yanked on the harness, but it didn’t give. “Help me get this open.”

The man looked down at his chest, staring for a moment.

“Jammed,” he said. “Already tried. Wouldn’t open.” His head lolled back. “Must have blacked out.”

Wes stared at the buckle. If it was jammed, how was he going to get the guy out? There had to be some way. His eyes moved from the buckle to—

The straps!
He could cut through them.

He turned and looked out at the others. Dione and Anna were standing back by the SUVs, looking worried.

“I need a knife!” Wes yelled.

Dione pointed to her ear and shook her head.

“Dammit,” he cursed under his breath.

Just then something off to his right caught his attention. Danny. He was toward the front of the plane, holding his camera and shooting the wreck.

“You have a knife?” Wes yelled.

Danny moved his eye away from the viewfinder.

“No,” he yelled back, shaking his head.

Wes turned to the pilot. “Just hang on. I’ll be right back.”

The pilot nodded, gritting his teeth. “I’m not going … anywhere.”

Wes leapt from the plane and landed just beyond the edge of the burning brush. His knee howled in pain, but he ignored it and sprinted toward the SUVs.

“A knife!” he called out. “There’s one in the Escape.”

Anna shot to the back of the truck and threw open the rear hatch. As Wes neared, she popped back around and ran up to him.

“Here.” She held out a utility knife, blade retracted.

“Thanks,” Wes said as he grabbed it and turned.

Anna didn’t let it go right away. Her fingers strayed against his palm, her face full of concern.

Wes looked back. “I’m going to be okay.”

With a reluctant nod, she let go, and Wes started toward the plane.

“Wait,” Dione said, reaching out and grabbing his arm. “You’re not going back there.”

“He’s stuck! The only way to free him is to cut his straps.”

“I don’t care. It’s not safe.”

He shrugged out of her grasp and began running.

This time he angled himself so that he didn’t have to stop as he jumped onto the wing. Again his knees smashed against the surface, but he anticipated it this time and didn’t slip.

When he stood up, he could see the pilot straining to look over his shoulder. Wes raised the knife. The pilot started to smile, then suddenly he craned his neck, as if he was trying to look behind his seat.

The man’s eyes went wide. He started to yell at Wes. “Get ba—”

Whoosh
.

An explosive burst of flames engulfed the cockpit.

“No!” Wes yelled.

He started to charge forward, hoping he could still get to the pilot.

“Wes! Stop!” Anna screamed.

He made it to the middle of the wing before the heat of the new blaze forced him to throw his arms up in front of his face. He staggered backward a few steps before the wing disappeared from under him.

He hit the ground hard, knocking the air out of his lungs. Gasping, he rolled out of the burning brush.

Hands grabbed him, pulling him farther away as he sucked in air, trying to fill his lungs again.

“We’ve got you,” Anna said, her voice raised so she could be heard over the roar of the fire.

Danny showed up a few seconds later and helped them lift Wes to his feet and half walk, half carry him farther back.

Wes tried to turn back. “The pilot!”

“It’s too late,” Anna shouted. “There’s nothing you can do for him.”

Wes looked toward the cockpit. It was completely engulfed in flames. He sagged against his friends.

“It’s all right. We’ve got you,” Danny said.

Together the three crew members dragged Wes away from the heat of the fire into the cooler heat of the desert, finding shelter on the other side of the vehicles.

Once Wes finally caught his breath, Dione asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah … Fine.”

“Here.” Anna handed him a bottle of water.

Wes took a sip, paused, then took another. “Thanks.”

“What the hell were you—”

“We’ve got company,” Danny said, cutting Dione off.

Wes’s eyes, stinging from the smoke, were having a hard time focusing on anything. But before he could ask Danny what he’d seen, a not-so-distant thumping answered his question.

Helicopters. A whole mess of them.

“YOU’RE LUCKY.” THE SEARCH-AND-RESCUE
paramedic applied ointment to Wes’s forearm. “A little singed hair, first-degree burn, a few bruises, and that scrape on your arm. Could have been a lot worse.”

Wes owed two people for his life that day: the pilot for changing his plane’s course, and Dione for delaying him. Those few critical seconds she’d blocked him from running back to the jet had kept him from being caught in the flames.

He stared at the wreckage while the medic continued to work on him. The fire was out now, and several members of the naval rescue team were working to remove the pilot’s body, while others were moving around the plane, some taking photographs, others searching for God knew what.

“Excuse me, Mr. Stewart?” Wes pulled his gaze away from the wreckage. Standing a few feet away was a naval officer. He was wearing a khaki uniform, not the olive green jumpsuits of the rescue team. “I’m Lieutenant Miller. When you’re through, there are a couple of questions we’d like to ask you.”

“Of course,” Wes said.

The medic taped a piece of gauze over Wes’s burn, then stood up. “He’s good to go.”

“Please,” the lieutenant said, “if you’ll follow me.”

He led Wes to the helicopter farthest from the plane. A canopy had been set up beside it, and several portable stools were scattered about underneath. The other members of the
Close to Home
crew were all there, even Alison and Monroe, who’d been left back at the Pinnacles when the others had followed Wes to the crash site.

The moment they saw him, those who weren’t already standing jumped to their feet and ran over.

Anna was the first to reach him. She looked at the gauze bandage on his right arm and grimaced. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Wes said. “I’m fine. Nothing major.”

“Jesus, Wes, you could have been killed,” Dione said, not for the first time.

Wes shrugged, but didn’t reply.

Danny gave him a lopsided grin. “You going to be able to hold your camera up with that?”

“Danny, seriously,” Anna scolded.

“I was just joking,” Danny said.

Alison glared at him. “Now might not be the right time.”

The lieutenant put his hand on Wes’s back. “Sir, if you’ll please step into the helicopter.”

“Are you taking me somewhere?”

“No, sir. Just more privacy inside.”

“They just want to know what you saw,” Dione said. “They’ve talked to the rest of us already. The guy inside said once they finish with you, we can get out of here.”

The lieutenant stopped at the open door of the helicopter and motioned for Wes to pass through.

Inside, another man sat on the bench seat that ran along the back of the passenger space, glancing at the top page of a notepad. He, too, was dressed in khakis, but he was older than the lieutenant, probably in his mid-forties. On the collar of his uniform were the silver leaves denoting a commander.

The commander set the pad down as he rose from the bench, his back hunched slightly to compensate for the limited space. “Hello, Mr. Stewart. My name is Thomas Forman.”

Wes shook his hand. “Good to meet you, sir.”

“Have a seat.” Forman settled back on the bench, motioning to a spot near him. As Wes sat, the commander glanced toward the door. “That’ll be all for the moment, Lieutenant.”

Lieutenant Miller saluted, then closed the helicopter door, leaving the two of them alone.

Forman gave Wes a smile. “First of all, I want to thank you for reacting as quickly as you did. Your colleagues told me you didn’t hesitate to rush to the scene. Not many people would do that.”

Wes shook his head dismissively. “I don’t know about that, Commander. It didn’t end up helping, anyway.”

“I think you’re undervaluing your efforts, Mr. Stewart.” Forman picked up his notepad. “As much as I wish it wasn’t, my job is to investigate this accident, and try to find out what happened. Part of that means interviewing witnesses such as yourself and your colleagues.”

“I’ll help however I can,” Wes said.

“Thank you, I’m sure you will.” Forman smiled briefly, then turned serious. “As you can imagine, what you witnessed here is an event we consider very sensitive. It’s always a matter of national security when one of our planes goes down, but today we’ve also lost a member of our family.”

“Of course,” Wes said. “I understand completely.”

“Thank you. I promise I won’t take up much of your time. Just a couple of questions and you can go.” The commander glanced down at his pad. “Mr. Stewart, why don’t you start by describing what you saw?”

“You can call me Wes, sir.”

“All right.” Forman paused, his eyes seeming to assess Wes anew. “You’re a Navy brat, aren’t you?”

Wes looked surprised. “Yes, sir. How’d you know?”

“You called me Commander. Then the ‘sir,’ ” Forman said. “One of your colleagues, Miss Li, I believe, mentioned you’re actually from around here.”

“That’s right,” Wes said. “I grew up on the base, then moved to Ridgecrest during high school.”

“Hell of a homecoming,” Forman said.

“You can say that again.”

“Were your parents in the Navy?”

“My dad made lieutenant commander.” Wes hesitated. “Retired when I was fourteen and took a job with one of the defense contractors in town.”

“Was he a pilot?”

Wes shook his head. “No. He did something out at the airfield, I think, but he never really talked about it.”

“He still in town?”

“He’s dead,” Wes said matter-of-factly.

“I’m sorry,” Forman said.

“Thanks. It … happened a long time ago.”

Forman gave him a sympathetic nod, then said, “The crash. Tell me about it.”

With a deep breath, Wes did just that, telling the commander about the noise, Danny’s initial reaction, running down the hill to see what was happening, then the realization that the plane was heading right for them.

“You’re sure about that?”

“I’m not an expert,” Wes said, “but I think he must have seen us.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it seemed like at first he was going to hit us, then I’m pretty sure the engine flared, and he pushed past us and angled out here. At least that’s what it looked like to me.”

The commander took this in for a moment. “And then what happened?”

“I knew he was going down, so I ran for the car. But he hit before I got there. He skidded across the ground, then I took off to see if there was anything I could do to save him.”

“I applaud your courage, Wes,” Commander Forman said. “Your father would be proud of you. But you should know the chances of surviving a crash like that are basically zero. There was little you could have done. The pilot most likely died the moment he hit the ground.”

“Actually, that’s not true, sir,” Wes said.

“I’m sorry?”

“The pilot wasn’t dead. When I reached the cockpit, he was still alive. But his harness was stuck, so I went to get a knife. Before I could get back to him, the cockpit caught fire.”

The commander stared at him for a moment. “Was he conscious?”

Wes shook his head. “Not when I first got there. But he had a pulse, so I did what I could to bring him around, and he eventually came to.”

“Did he say anything?”

Wes struggled to remember. “Told me his harness was jammed. Then he was muttered some other things, but nothing clear.”

“He was alive,” the commander said. Not really a question.

“Yes,” Wes said. “I think Danny even recorded it.”

“Recorded what?” The commander checked his notebook. “Danny DeLeon?”

“Yeah. He’s our second cameraman. He shot everything.”

The commander leaned back, his head nearly touching the wall of the helicopter as he stared past Wes. Then he suddenly sat forward again.

“It would be a huge benefit to me and my team if we could see what was shot.”

“Of course,” Wes said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

The commander stood up. “Maybe we should take care of that now.”

“Sure. No problem.”

Forman opened the door, then let Wes exit first. Once they were both outside, the commander motioned to Lieutenant Miller. “Come with us.”

Wes and the two officers headed toward the far corner of the awning, where Danny was standing with Dione and Alison.

“Mr. DeLeon?” the commander asked.

“Yes?”

“Your colleague tells me you have footage of the plane from right after the crash.”

“Um, yeah,” Danny said. “I’ve … uh … also got some from while it was still in the air, too.”

“We’d really like to see that,” Forman said. “It could help the investigation.”

“I can show it to you if you want,” Danny offered.

“I was hoping we could take it with us,” Forman said. “I’d like some of our experts to take a look at it and see if it might help determine what went wrong.”

Danny looked uncertain. “We don’t have any way to make you a copy right now. We could do it on one of the laptops back at the hotel.”

“Copying’s not a problem. If you’ll just give
us
the tapes, we could—”

“Digital card,” Danny interjected.

Forman smiled. “Digital card, then. We can make the copies back on the base.”

Dione took a quick step forward. “Hold on. That footage belongs to the Quest Network. It’s not leaving our hands. If you’d like a copy, you can send someone to pick it up at the hotel.”

“Miss Li, I totally understand your reluctance,” the commander said, his voice calm and accommodating. “I promise you, we will return your original as soon as possible.”

“Oh, no. No one’s giving anything to anyone,” Dione told him. “There’s a certain thing called freedom of the press.”

“Again, I understand your reluctance,” the commander said patiently. “But this isn’t a matter of press freedom. It’s a matter of finding out why one of our men is dead, and trying to prevent it from happening to someone else. All I’m asking for is your help.”

Before Dione could say anything else, Wes jumped in. “Sure,” he said. “No problem. We can get you the card.”

Dione glanced quickly at Wes, her jaw clenched. “This isn’t your responsibility. It’s mine.” She turned her attention back to the commander. “That footage is network property.”

Wes locked eyes with her. “They said they’d give it back as soon as they can. You know it’s the right thing to do.”

She held his gaze for a moment before finally turning away. “Fine,” she whispered.

Wes turned to Forman. “Danny can get you the digital card.”

“But we want it back tomorrow,” Dione demanded.

“We’ll do what we can,” Forman said.

She frowned, then gave Danny a single terse nod.

“Please give it to Lieutenant Miller,” Forman said.

Danny led the lieutenant over to the SUVs.

“I’m going to lodge a formal complaint,” Dione said.

The commander smiled sympathetically. “If you feel that’s necessary, then by all means do so.”

She pulled away from them and marched off to where the others were gathered.

“Sorry,” Wes said as he stood waiting with Forman.

“It’s okay,” the commander told him. “She’s just doing her job. That I can understand.”

A few moments later, Danny and Lieutenant Miller returned. In the lieutenant’s hand was a digital card.

“Thank you,” the commander said. “If we need to speak to you further, we’ll be in touch. But you’re free to go now.”

He started walking back toward his helicopter, Lieutenant Miller falling in step behind him.

“Excuse me,” Dione said.

The commander looked back. “Yes, Ms. Li?”

“Don’t you need to know where we’re staying? So you know where to return the card when you’re done?” There was more than a little accusation in her question.

“Of course. I’m so sorry. Sometimes I get too focused on the task at hand. Where
are
you staying?”

“At the Desert Rose Motel on China Lake Boulevard,” Wes said.

“Thank you. We’ll get the card back to you as quickly as possible.”

“We appreciate that.”

“Again, thank you all for your help.”

As the crew climbed back in the SUVs, Wes took a final look at the mangled remains of the plane. He was trying to think of something more he could have done, but he knew deep down there was nothing. He got behind the wheel, then headed back to Ridgecrest.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Dione said to Wes once they’d reached the highway.

Wes remained silent.

“They had no right to take our footage.”

“I don’t know if they had a right or not,” Wes said. “But it wasn’t worth arguing about. We watched someone die out there today, remember?”

She took a deep breath. “I realize that. It’s just I don’t like being taken advantage of.”

“So you’re taking the moral high ground on this?”

“Damn right I am.”

“You thought it was perfectly fine to have Danny shooting footage of the trapped pilot?”

“Don’t get righteous on me, Wes. News teams shoot that kind of stuff all the time.”

“Last I checked, we weren’t a news team.”

“It doesn’t matter that we’re not a news team,” she said, getting heated. “We witnessed a news event, and were the
only
people on the scene.”

“So it was our obligation,” Wes said.

“Absolutely.”

Wes caught Danny’s eyes in the mirror and shook his head. Danny arched an eyebrow, but gave a slight nod and remained silent.

The truth was, they
did
have the footage. Wes had gotten the auto-backup system working that morning before they’d left the hotel. It was set up to wirelessly transfer everything from the cameras to a flash hard drive in the back of the Escape at fifteen-minute intervals without the operators needing to do anything.

They’d tell Dione in a few days. But not now. If she knew they had the shots, she would have Wes send them to L.A., and they would be on all the networks within an hour.

But that wasn’t really what made Wes keep his mouth shut.

He had been right beside the pilot, had actually talked to him. He’d had the chance to save the man’s life and failed.

This wasn’t news to Wes.

This was far more personal than that.

THE BIG BROWN, THAT’S WHAT ONE OF WES’S
old friends used to call the desert. And that’s exactly what it was. Vast and tan. The dirt, the bushes, the birds, the rocks, everything variations on the theme.

Wes had never intended on seeing it again. Not in person, anyway.

But time had a way of changing things, and when the assignment for the “High Desert” episode had come up, Wes had realized it would be his opportunity to do something he should have done a long time ago.

When they’d arrived the night before, they had entered the valley high on the western edge, driving along the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Below them, the eastern half of the valley had been lit up like a squashed ball of Christmas lights, a glowing oasis in an otherwise dark landscape. At night the city of Ridgecrest was indistinguishable from the adjacent Navy base at China Lake.

The moment Wes had seen those lights, his chest muscles had begun constricting tightly across his ribs as if they were trying to crush him. In his ears, blood had thundered past, sounding like the rapids of the Kern River. He’d glanced around to see if anyone had picked up on his distress, but the others had been either staring out the window or half-asleep.

The next morning the town had looked somewhat diminished. There was just no way to hide all the brown from the sun. And while Wes’s tension had mellowed, it hadn’t gone away, becoming a low simmer he was unable to shake off.

“You grew up here?” Danny had asked incredulously as they’d driven through town that morning on their way out to the Pinnacles.

“It’s got its good points,” Wes had replied.

“Name three.”

“The people are nice. Air-conditioning is a given. And you always know someone who has a swimming pool.”

Danny had snorted.

“I don’t know,” Alison had said from the back. “I kind of like it. Looks homey.”

“It was,” Wes had said.
For a while, anyway
.

Now that the sun had set on a day none of them could have ever expected nor would ever forget, Wes wondered if there was any way he could just return to Los Angeles. Not even back in his hometown for twenty-four hours, and a fighter jet—an F-18, he’d learned from the medic who’d patched him up—nearly killed him.

If that wasn’t an omen, he didn’t know what was.

He had just stepped into the shower when someone pounded on the door to his room. He tried ignoring it, but whoever it was wasn’t giving up.

“I’m coming!” he hollered as he climbed back out and threw a towel around his waist.

He pulled the door open. Danny was standing there, his arm in the air ready to knock again.

“What?” Wes asked, pissed.

“Uh … hey. Just wanted to let you know we’re all meeting at the cars in ten. Going to grab something to eat.”

Wes stared at him, saying nothing.

“I … uh … I thought you’d like the heads-up. Maybe we can get a drink, too. Don’t know about you, but I could sure use a beer or three.”

Wes shook his head and shut the door without replying.

“Does that mean you’re coming or not?” Danny called through the door.

Wes got back into the shower, letting the hot water stream over his head. He knew the others were going to want to know what he’d seen. They’d want to hear details. And if it didn’t happen tonight, it would happen tomorrow.

Better to get it over with now.

He finished his shower, pulled on some clothes, and was at the SUVs only a few minutes late. With the exception of Monroe, everyone was already there. But that wasn’t surprising. She seldom joined the crew after hours.

Dione looked at Wes. “So, where should we go?”

“What do you mean?”

“To eat,” she said as if he were dense as a brick.

He shrugged. “Hell if I know.”

“Come on, Wes, we’re starving,” Tony Hall, the crew’s production assistant, said. Dione had kept him running errands all day, so he’d missed all the fun at the Pinnacles.

“It’s been seventeen years since I’ve been here,” Wes said. But no one in the group seemed very sympathetic. He dug deep into his memory. “Uh … if it’s still there, John’s Pizza’s not too far away.”

“John’s it is,” Dione said.

John’s was still there. Unfortunately, though, the beer and the pizza didn’t last long enough for Wes to finish telling them about the crash. So, at Danny’s suggestion, they stopped off at a bar within walking distance of the motel named Delta Sierra.

“That booth’s empty,” Alison said, pointing across the room.

Danny laughed as they sat down. “Check this out.” He pointed at the table. It was glass topped, and underneath was a large piece of paper with the words pilot lingo in bold on top. Term number one, printed larger than the others, read:

DELTA SIERRA—Dumb Shit

The aviation theme didn’t end there. The walls were covered with framed pictures of pilots and planes and hangars. And prominent on the list of drinks were a Bogey Shot, a Flattop Martini, and something called a Hornet in a Cage.

Alison touched Wes on the arm. “Maybe we should have gone somewhere else.”

“Why?” Danny asked. “This place is great.”

“That’s because it was obviously named after you,” she scoffed. “I was just thinking that after the day we’ve had, maybe someplace a little less
aircraft
oriented might be better.”

Anna smiled at Wes. “We don’t have to stay.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s fine. Besides, Danny’s buying.”

Laughter all around.

Danny grinned. “I don’t believe I actually promised that.”

“I don’t care if you promised or not, it’s what’s going to happen.”

More laughter.

When things settled down again, Danny said, “I’ll tell you what surprised me most out there today. I thought that plane was part of the Air Force, then all of a sudden we were surrounded by all these Navy people … sailors … whatever you call them. Since when is the Navy in the middle of the desert?”

“China Lake’s a naval base, Danny,” Alison said.

“Yeah, but where’s the water? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the Navy’s thing boats?”

“The Navy needs a place to test its planes and weapons,” Wes said. “So they set up out here a long time ago. Nothing better than the empty desert to drop a bomb in. And it’s ‘ships,’ not ‘boats.’ ”

“Seriously, Danny,” Dione said. “It was all in the episode brief.”

“Like I’m the only one who never reads those.” He looked around the table for support, but everyone stared back at him like he was an idiot. “Okay, fine. Sorry.”

“I think it’s time for that first round?” Dione suggested.

“Right.” Danny climbed out of the booth.

“Take Tony with you,” Alison said. “So they won’t card you.”

“Ha-ha,” Danny said, glaring at her. Though he was twenty-seven, he had one of those baby faces that made him look like he was barely out of high school. By comparison, Tony, a couple of years younger, actually looked like he was in his late twenties. As Danny turned for the bar, he motioned Tony to join him. “You can help me carry the drinks.”

As soon as they were gone, Alison and Anna decided to make a pre-drink trip to the ladies’ room, leaving Dione and Wes the only ones still at the table.

“Don’t spread this around yet,” Dione said, “but the office wants us to try to make up the time without adding a day.”

“Did you expect anything less?”

“I was looking at the schedule, and I think if we cram two of Tuesday’s interviews into Monday, we’ll be able to do it.” She gave Wes a hopeful look. “Might mean working an extra hour, though.”

Wes shrugged. “I could always use the overtime.”

“It’s just an hour.”

“Easy to say with your cushy staff job. Freelancer rule number one: Get paid for every hour you work.”

She gave him her best puppy-dog eyes, which only caused him to sneer. With a chuckle she shrugged. “Hey, it was worth a try. I guess it’ll be cheaper than shooting an extra day. I really should charge the Navy for the lost time.”