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Книга Third Degree. Содержание - Chapter 22

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Then a Delta Force officer volunteered to drop onto the mountain and set up a protective perimeter, if a helicopter pilot would try to airlift the trapped marines to safety. To do so would mean almost certain death. Danny didn’t want to die. He had no illusions about war. He was forty-three years old, and he hadn’t reached that age by volunteering for suicide missions. Yet he’d felt a voice rising up his throat, trying to volunteer him. Why? Was he trying to live up to the legacy of his father, the red-faced crop duster who’d fought in the Big One? He certainly had no faith in his immortality under fire. But at bottom, he realized, it was simpler than all that. If someone didn’t take a bird up there, those marines would die. Forty-two husbands, fathers, and sons. Fate had placed their lives in Danny’s hands. Of the two other pilots there that day, one had a son he’d never seen, and the other always had his eye on the main chance, which meant flying milk runs for rock stars, not dying in Afghanistan. So without thinking very much, Danny had raised his hand and said, “I’ll go.” The most meaningful reward he ever got in the military was the look in the Delta operator’s eyes after he volunteered. The look said, You are a crazy fuck, and you’re probably going to die, but, brother, you are One of Us.

Danny landed on the mountaintop three times before they got him. He wrung performance out of that chopper that the engineers who’d designed it would never have believed. His Pave Low took more AK rounds than by any physical law it should have survived, and the blasting sand and water stripped off half the paint and all the decals by the end of the second run. But eventually the ship gave up the ghost. It took an RPG round to kill it. Danny’s door-gunner screamed a warning, and Danny jinked at the last second, but the hissing rocket clipped his tail rotor and the controls went gooey on him. He didn’t even remember the crash, only an absolute certainty that the end had come, and that it had come in a chopper, as he had always known it would. He thought of his father as he fell, with his beloved Pave Low windmilling in the air like Pete Townshend’s guitar arm. There was a bright flash in his head, then the face of a girl he’d loved in high school, and then…nothing.

Only later did he learn that his crew were killed on impact. Danny was ejected, seat and all, through a hole the mountain ripped in the cockpit during the ship’s final spin. A piece of shrapnel tore through his left leg, and some Afghans fired a burst of AK rounds at him, connecting once in the same leg. And then a miracle occurred. Inspired by Danny’s desperate barnstorming, the pilot of one of the AC-130 gunships over Tora Bora threw away his regulation book, diverted to the besieged mountain, and rained hell and death down on the Afghans for ninety minutes straight. The Delta Force operators tied Danny to a stretcher they found in the wreckage of his chopper and carried him down the mountain, fighting a rearguard action all the way. The last six marines came with them. A hundred meters from the bottom, elements of the First Marine Division rushed up like a camouflaged tide and swept them back down to safety.

They gave Danny and his dead crew a Mackay Trophy for that action, but the ceremony was hollow for him. He never again saw any of the marines he’d saved that day. He did receive a couple of letters, one from a wife in Kansas, thanking him for saving her husband. The jarhead had added a postscript himself at the bottom: Semper fi, buddy. You’re always welcome here. They put in a snapshot of their kid, too, a freckled girl standing in short rows of corn. Danny had only read the letter once, but he kept it in his top dresser drawer, to remind him that sometimes you just had to say “Fuck it” and do the right thing, no matter what it cost. If you did, you never knew what someone else might do to help you. Or what good might come of it.

“Ten seconds!” Sheriff Ellis cried, his voice pitched high from the stress. “Take us down, Danny!”

Danny loved Laurel; he hadn’t the slightest doubt about that. And he hated his wife, for using his son as a hostage. He had an obligation to Michael that nothing could remove, but didn’t he also have an obligation to Laurel? What if she was carrying his child? God forgive him, a healthy child who could speak and listen? Laurel had given him everything she had to offer and asked nothing in return. She’d simply trusted that he’d do the right thing by her. And that he had not done-

“Five seconds,” said Sheriff Ellis. “This is Black Leader, we’re going to hover low and hit the spotlight. Everybody-”

Danny twisted back the throttle and slammed down the collective, and the helicopter dropped like King Kong off the Empire State Building.

“Shiiiiiiiitttt!” Ellis screamed, his face bone white with terror. “What’s happening?”

“We lost the engine!” Danny shouted, intentionally throwing the ship out of trim. “Brace yourself!”

Anything less than a crash might have left Ellis capable of issuing orders on the way down, so Danny had pulled an emergency autorotation, virtually killing the engine and causing a controlled crash in which only the energy stored in the still-whirling rotor blades could spare them from death. Red emergency lights lit up the instrument panel, and the whoop-whoop of the low rpm warning filled the cabin. He waited until the last possible instant to flare, then yanked up on the collective, certain that the primal terror scrambling the sheriff’s brain would prevent him from giving the go order. The Bell bounced hard on the front lawn, its rotor tips spinning bare inches from the brick front of the house.

“What just happened?” Ray Breen shouted. “Are you guys okay?”

“Holy Christ!” yelled Ellis, clutching his chest in terror.

Danny unhooked his harness and scrambled out of the chopper onto wet grass. When the sheriff saw this, he assumed the ship was about to explode and tried to do the same, but Danny leaned back inside and yelled, “Give me ten minutes! Ten minutes alone with him! Stay on those mikes!”

Comprehension dawned in Ellis’s eyes, followed by a blaze of anger, but Danny broke away and sprinted around the chopper to the front door of the house. He slammed into it with all his weight and started banging on it like a fugitive at a church door.

“Open up! It’s Danny! Warren, it’s me! It’s Danny!”

Over his shoulder he saw two alien figures in black body armor break cover and charge him. They’d closed to within twenty feet when the door fell away and someone yanked him inside.

Chapter 22

Warren slammed the door and stared at Danny with wild eyes. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Trying to save you!” Danny replied, panting from his exertions.

He saw the gun in Warren’s hand, then Laurel over his shoulder, watching with terror in her eyes. Through her fear Danny saw the glow of gratitude. Warren looked nothing like the man Danny had taught to fly. High on his left shoulder, his shirt was stiff with clotted blood. He had the face of some soldiers Danny had seen, those who had been asked to do too much, or to witness too much, and had somehow found themselves still walking the earth after all their friends were dead.

“Where’s your kids?” Danny asked, trying to orient himself from memory. The kitchen and den were a few yards behind Laurel; the hall to Danny’s right led to a guest room, then to a back door to Warren’s study. Behind Warren was the great room, which opened onto the study and the master suite.

“Beth’s in the safe room,” Laurel answered, after her husband refused to. “I don’t know where Grant is.”

“We need to get Grant in the safe room, too.”

“Grant’s fine where he is,” said Warren.

78

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