2018 RITA® FINALIST FOR BEST NOVELLA!
At the end of the earth, they’ll play a dangerous game…
French Foreign Legionnaire Cody Castillo—“Texas” to his fellow commandos—is an adrenalin-junkie. Chasing deadly thrills is his only reprieve from a bloodstained past he can’t forget. But when he finds himself caught in a mass murderer’s crosshairs in the lonely wilds of New Zealand, he finds an unexpected and intriguing ally.
Ex-air force pilot Tia Kupa has always found safety in nature, until a killer turns the wilderness into a playground. In this life-or-death game, the guarded woman who lives by the rules must rely on a risk taker with a death wish. The sexy devil-may-care legionnaire may be the wrong guy for her, but desire is just as primal as terror. Even if they outrun a predator, they can’t escape the sizzling bond neither of them saw coming.
The chopper appeared on the horizon, hovering like a dragonfly over the slate-blue mountain range. Right on time. A second later the bass throb of its blades ricocheted around the valley, on air so crisp Cody Castillo felt he could reach out and snap it.
He hauled his kayak and paddle from a baggage cart parked outside the airport terminal, loaded with the few supplies he needed for a river paddle. Food, pup tent, sleeping bag, thermals, first aid kit, safety gear, wet weather gear. His gut fizzed. One night in an alpine hut—alone, hopefully—and then nobody and nothing for four beautiful days. Fuck right off, world.
CROOKED VALLEY AIRPORT, the sign read. Well, Crooked Alley. The V had fallen off the line of letters spaced along the roof of the squat hangar that passed for a terminal. The Y was on its side, the T just hanging in there. Way out here at the end of the world, if you needed a sign to tell you where you’d wound up, you were crazy lost.
He’d been to plenty middles of nowhere—Marfa in Texas, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Camopi in French Guiana… Like this, they weren’t the kinds of places you happened upon, pit stops on a road trip, derelict stations on a train line. Nope, it took full commitment to get nowhere. For him, in this case: a ride in a rattly legion Peugeot 4WD from his base at Calvi to Bastia, a ferry from Corsica to Nice, a flight to Paris and then Auckland, via Hong Kong. That sucked up the first forty-eight hours of his leave. Then to Christchurch and a two-day wait for a flight over the Southern Alps aboard a five-seater Cessna piloted by a farmer who might have learned to fly in World War II, going by his age and the way he dipped and dived like he was still dodging the Luftwaffe. Just one journey left—a chopper ride to the source of the legendary Awatapu River—and then he was on his own steam.
Cody laid the kayak on the deserted tarmac, grit scraping the hull. Yep, Crooked Valley/Alley was his kind of airport, where the arrival of a plane seemed to baffle the skeleton staff. No baggage carousels—just the cart pulled by a quad bike, driven by the ace pilot himself, once he’d shut down the plane. “Security” was a ninety-year-old unarmed guard in a uniform she might have worn for half a century, shrinking into it every year until it hung off her like a kid’s costume. No gates, no announcements—more a bus stop than an airport.
The helicopter began to descend, surfing the clouds sloshing over the range. Ah, New Zealand. A throwback to the days when the biggest threat to aviation was a Canada goose. One-third the size of home—
One-third the size of Texas. A long time since Texas had been home.
As it neared, the chopper mutated from insect to bird to machine, the blades beating a different note from the engine. An older model Eurocopter. Not the armored, camo-painted Puma or Tigre he usually rode but a tidy little Écureuil. A squirrel. He shaded his eyes as the chopper kissed the tarmac and settled, late-afternoon sun bouncing off the windshield. The rotors slowed until the disc dissolved and the blades became distinguishable—twelve, nine, six, then the regular three as they whined to a stop. What was the pilot’s name again? Cody squinted, trying to picture the address on the confirmation email. Tia, right? Tia Kupa.
The pilot’s door hinged back and he stepped out. No, not he, not with those curves rounding out the tight blue jeans and that thick black hair swaying to her shoulders. She, and one hell of a she.
She swiveled and walked his way, shoving her hands in the pockets of a black leather flight jacket. The kind of woman his mom would call handsome rather than pretty. Statuesque. Square jaw, cut cheekbones, smooth skin a little darker than his own, dark brown freckles splattered across her nose and cheeks. Maybe thirty, so about his age. She had the commanding aura of an officer, someone who quietly assumed she’d be respected, and thus was respected. Māori, he guessed.
“You’re my guy?” She pushed sunglasses off her face and looked him down and up. Her eyes weren’t the brown he’d expected—not that he’d stopped to think about it—but a blazing green, almost hard to look at with the sun striking them. “The kayaker?”
“Yes, ma’am. Tex—I mean Cody.” It felt weird to be that guy again—no one called him Cody anymore. But introducing himself as “Texas” felt off. His commando team had inflicted the nickname on him years ago but he didn’t offer it around.
She assessed his shiny orange kayak, nose to stern. “You might want to ditch the price tag.” She nodded at the ticket attached to a grab loop.
“Yeah. Easier to buy a new kit than transport it.” Not that he needed to explain.
“If you have the money, sure, why not?” There was a bite in her voice. Yep, she had him all figured out. The kind of adventure tourist who bought new gear and chartered a helicopter? He wouldn’t take kindly to that guy, either. But hey, who cared what she thought, as long as she dropped him somewhere remote and deserted. “I’m busting for a wee. Keep an eye on her for me.” She waved vaguely at the chopper.
He looked left and right. Apart from the security guard, who was sitting slumped at a graying bench dragged up against the hangar wall, there was no life for several dead-flat miles. “You expecting a hijacking or a parking ticket?”
“Funny,” she said, her tone indicating it wasn’t. “Don’t go any closer till I get back.”
She flicked her sunglasses onto her nose and walked away, ruffling her hair, her stride lithe and confident. Owning it.
He knelt over his kayak and pulled a water bottle from one of the dry bags stashed in the hull. He’d been crazy thirsty since Hong Kong, like the flight had sucked the water from his body.
“Hey, Cody,” Tia called from the hangar a couple of minutes later. “Give me a hand with these.”
He stowed the bottle and strolled over, the sun warming one side of his face. She waited by a roller door. Two single kayaks were lined up in front of her, faded and scratched, one yellow, one green, paddles balanced on top. As he neared, she nodded at the nose grab loops while she grasped the stern ones.
“It’s not meant to be a group tour,” he said as they lifted. They better not be taking anyone else.
“They’re for a couple of tourists who are climbing the glacier and crossing the peaks before doing the Awatapu. The conventional route.”
Right. Because he hadn’t earned the downriver kayak without first hauling ass uphill? Whatever.
“Glaciers are too slow,” he said, walking. The kayaks were lighter than he’d expected—but then, the climbers would be carrying a lot of their gear. “When are these guys due at the river?”
Extra incentive not to mess around. Not that people usually caught up to him on any river, let alone a fast one. They dropped the boats near the chopper and in silent accord returned for his kayak.
“You’ve kayaked before, right?” She knelt before the port skid and began fitting heavy-duty straps to it.
“Yep,” he said, yanking off his boat’s price tag. The elastic gave with a snap that made her head turn. He caught a hint of a smile. He’d taken it off so it wouldn’t flap during the ride, but he stopped short of explaining.
“You know the Awatapu is a grade six? Messy rapids, waterfalls, boulder gardens, sieves that’ll suck you under and keep you forever, snags to lose a battleship in…”
Tremendo. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You know no one does it solo?”
“I do a lot of things solo. I like it that way.” Not quite true. Not a lie. In a parallel life where things hadn’t gone to shit, he’d have been standing here with his brother, racing to be first into her good books and maybe even her bed. In this life, yeah, he was a loner, outside the legion. The shine had gone out of chasing women, like it had a lot of things.
“You know there’s no mobile reception, and no one passes by? These climbers are the only others up there.” Her lips tightened. “The only ones presumed alive.”
“You didn’t think of talking me out of it before I paid you?”
“Hell, no. I need the money. But we’ve already lost four tourists on the river this spring and it’ll be bad for business to lose a fifth. So just…don’t die.” Her tone caught somewhere between dry humor and genuine concern.
“Wait, four tourists? I heard about two, a month or so back.”
“Another couple went missing a fortnight ago. The tapu had only just been lifted after the last pair.”
“If a place is tapu, it’s sacred or forbidden. When someone dies up there, it becomes tapu until it’s blessed.”
“When someone dies. This happens often?”
“There’s a reason the river’s called Awatapu. But I’m hoping like hell both couples are waiting for us up at the hut, living off eels and huhu grubs.”
He noted her pronunciation—Ah-wah-tah-pu. Long vowels, a soft T, even stresses on the syllables. Not far off Spanish. “What’s it mean?”
“The forbidden river, the sacred river. Want to lift your kayak and paddle up here, and I’ll strap them?”
“And…Wairoimata?” he said, hoisting the craft, following her lead on the pronunciation, rolling the R. “That’s the name of the town I’m getting out at, right?”
“Yeah. Wai means water, roimata is tears.”
“Water of tears. Uplifting names. Did you fly them in—the missing tourists?”
She frowned as she strapped the kayak. “The ones from two weeks ago, yes. Danish couple. Experienced kayakers.”
“But not the others—the first couple?”
“I didn’t think they could handle the paddle. Both couples are officially still missing, but yeah, it’s a safe bet they won’t be walking out. We’ve had some late-season snowfalls so it’s not a good time to be lost in the bush. Not that there’s ever a good time.”
He pictured the terrain he’d flown over—the Alps, subalpine scrublands, rainforest… “Guess it can be tough to find people out there.”
She tugged at the kayak—it didn’t budge—then straightened and dusted her hands on her jeans. “Yep. I was up there long days, searching. I’ll be paying off the fuel for months.”
“You cover your own fuel on a search and rescue?”
She picked up the remaining straps and walked to the other side. “I’m funded to a point,” she said as they got to work. “But what am I supposed to do when the budget maxes out, leave them out there? And I took the second couple in, so… They’re probably snagged in tree roots, caught in a sieve. They’ll be flushed out soon, with the snow melting in the tops. The river always gives up its dead. The bush, not so much.”
“I’m getting the idea these aren’t the first people to disappear up there.”
She gave him a sideways look. “How much research did you do on this river?”
“Enough to know it’s one of the wildest kayaking runs anywhere.”
“See, I’d have thought that would warn people away, but it just seems to attract them. I’ve never understood that urge to put yourself in danger.”
“And yet you fly a helicopter.”
“I fly it very safely.” Her voice strained as she pulled a strap. “The lucky ones get airlifted out with broken limbs. Of course, by then they’ve usually been waiting a while—hungry, dehydrated, hypothermic…”
“You trying to talk me out of it?”
She yanked. “Would you listen?”
“Would you heed the warning?”
“No, ma’am. You’re just saying that for the record, right? Covering your liability.”
“Yep. That and the fact I’m not your mother. I take it you’ve been in a helicopter before.”
A dimple in her cheek twitched. “Okay, we’re good to go.”
“I’m a soldier.” Now, why did he feel the need to make that clear?
“You’re a soldier.” Not a question, more a sarcastic echo. She tipped her head and studied him like he’d blown her assumptions and she had to start over.
“I can hear you thinking.”
“You’re a psychic, too? Wow.” Deadpan again, like it was the end of a long day and she didn’t want to encourage conversation. Neither did he, normally. Mindless chatter shriveled his soul. But she was fun. There was passion hiding in those eyes, a smile simmering under those lips.
“Yep,” he said. “You’re thinking, ‘What kind of soldier charters a helicopter rather than hiking in?’”
That dimple again. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“‘And what kind of soldier buys a new kit instead of stealing military supplies?’”
“Maybe you are psychic.” She folded her arms. “Or maybe you’re a rich-boy fantasist who thinks that because he’s in some hick backwoods at the end of the Earth he can reinvent himself into anything he wants—like, say, a soldier—so the gullible local girl will trip over herself to fall in bed with him.”
“And maybe you’re also a risk taker with a death wish,” she continued, a twitch away from a smile. “You’ve done so many reckless things—out of rich-boy boredom, let’s assume—that you’ve overridden your survival instinct and now it’s only a matter of time before you make headlines and everyone says all that bullshit like ‘He lived life to the fullest’ and ‘He died doing what he loved’ and ‘He’ll always stay beautiful.’ But you’ll just be unnecessarily dead like all the other unnecessarily dead people.”
Shee-it. She was ten kinds of cool. “You calling me beautiful?”
The smile broke through, curving her lips at an intriguing angle. An exasperated smile, but he’d take it. “Still, it’s not a bad thing that fate weeds out the risk takers. Makes the herd stronger. Just try not to die in my country, on my river.”
“My people’s river. Ko Awatapu te awa, ko Maungapouri te maunga. Awatapu is my river. Maungapouri is my mountain.” She jerked her head at the highest of the snow-crowned peaks jutting up behind the deep green nearer range. “I haven’t always lived here but my whānau—my family—are anchored by these mountains and that river, guardians of them. So yeah, don’t die on my watch because you’ve screwed up your wiring and death is the only challenge left.”
Oh, he was getting a reminder that a very different challenge could still amp him up. He had zero time for women who were impressed by his uniform or his family’s money. A pity legionnaires with death wishes didn’t do relationships.
She walked past him, toward the cockpit. “See, to me, you look like a rich guy with too much time to spend at the gym.”
Okay, so that stung—his fitness had come from hard work, self-control and self-loathing. Those he could take credit for. But it also meant she’d been checking out his body.
Guessing he wouldn’t get an invitation, he circled the chopper and let himself in as she settled in the pilot’s seat.
She raised her chin in cool appraisal, clipping on her harness. “What’s your weapon?”
A test? “Le Fusil à Répétition modèle F2. Sometimes a Hécate II.”
She hovered long, slender fingers over the dials on the instrument panel, eyes narrowed, following their path. Not taking chances, even though the blades had just stopped spinning. Overkill, but he’d tolerate that in a pilot. “That’s the FR-F2, right? Sniper rifles.”
“You know them?”
“Those don’t sound like US military issue. So…what? You’re a mercenary? Sorry, I mean security contractor?”
“In a sense,” he said. “Just not a well-paid one.”
“Isn’t that the whole point of selling out—making money?”
“Not for me. I’m a legionnaire.”
She gave him that sideways look again, pulling on her headset and handing him his. “What, like the French Foreign Legion?” Her voice boomed through the intercom.
“Oui, Légion Étrangère, mademoiselle.”
“You are so full of shit you could be a long-drop at a campground in January.”
“No idea what that is, but it sounds bad.”
She checked the panel above their head, again following her fingers with her eyes, and adjusted a lever. “Seriously? You’re a legionnaire?”
“Yes, ma’am. Caporal Cody Castillo du groupement des commandos parachutistes du 2e régiment étranger de parachutistes de Calvi.”
She did a three-sixty check through the windows, and engaged the starter. “Commandos parachutistes,” she repeated disdainfully. “A parachute commando?”
“You know, most people are impressed by that.”
“You’ll never catch me jumping from a perfectly good aircraft.”
“Afraid of heights?”
“Only of falling from them, which is totally rational and something you should be grateful for right about now.”
“Yes, ma’am. That I am.”
“Are you for real with that ‘yes, ma’am’ thing?”
“Habit. My abuela would have me over her knee if I didn’t show respect to women.” Okay, so he might be hamming it up there. His grandmother controlled the family fortune from a laptop, not a rocking chair. Why haul your grandson over your knee when a withering stare was plenty scary?
As Tia worked the controls with deft fingers and sharp eyes, a muted whine filtered through the headset and the shadow of a blade glided across the ground in front, slowly pursued by another.
“Vous parlez très bien français,” she said.
“So do you.”
“Expensive education—and that’s about all I remember. But you had an abuela?”
“My family’s from Mexico.”
“And you’re not?”
“Texas—born and raised.”
She gave a sharp laugh. “Right, so you’re a legionnaire commando from Texas.”
“Now, what have you got against Texas?”
“Nothing. It’s just that you’re not what I…” She shook her head. “It’s just one of those places that seems, I dunno, mythical.”
You’re not what I…expected? Hell, neither was she. “Says the woman who lives in Middle Earth. But go ahead and believe what you want about me. I just care that you’re a good pilot.”
The seat underneath him hummed, as if the chopper were straining with impatience. He knew the feeling.
“The best,” she said.
“Where did you learn to fly?”
She sighed, a scratch through the headset. “Would you ask me that if I was a guy?”
She increased the engine speed and the blades whipped faster. “I get asked that a lot and you know what? My male counterparts don’t. I’ve checked with them. They don’t get the question.”
Shit. Was she right? Would he ask a guy that question? “Ma’am, I got total respect for all pilots—planes, helicopters, fucking hang gliders. Takes guts and brains and composure, and that’s something few people have.”
She scoffed, as if she wanted to be pissed at that but couldn’t manage it. “Nice recovery.”
The chopper lifted without a shudder and skimmed above the tarmac. He liked the way she talked. Sharp and combative but with enough humor that she didn’t cross into mean or bitter. Sparring, not landing real blows.
“You don’t mention on your website that you’re a woman. You don’t have a photo.” Because he was damn sure it would’ve given him extra incentive to book her, on top of her stellar reviews and safety record. “Was that deliberate?”
“I don’t say I’m a man, either. If people assume the wrong thing, that’s on them, not me. I don’t want my gender to help me or hold me back. I’ve had journalists wanting to make a big deal out of it. Even a publisher once, though she was more interested in…” She frowned. “I say no to everything. I don’t want to be the ‘plucky aviatrix keeping up with the big boys.’”
He got the feeling that’d happened before—and that it was the big boys who did the keeping up. They rose over a braided river, the shallow, bleached water in no hurry. The Awatapu’s lower reaches. Around him the chopper felt weightless, a mosquito next to the albatrosses he was used to.
“I guess what I’m asking,” he said, “is how a civilian pilot in probably the least gun-crazy country in the world knows her sniper rifles.”
“Nine years in the New Zealand air force.”
Ah. “Flying choppers?”
“Yep, though I started on transport craft—Orions, Hercules.”
“They’re still making those things?”
“The ones I flew were Vietnam relics. Of course I grew up with visions of racing Skyhawks, but by the time I enlisted they’d been sold.”
“You didn’t fly other jets?”
“We didn’t have any.”
“An air force without jets? You serious?”
“And our emblem is a kiwi, a flightless bird. Go figure.” She activated the radio. “I’m just going to call in.”
She spoke in clear, clipped shorthand. Phonetic call sign, position, altitude, direction, destination. Ahead, the last of the spring snow clung to the range’s shadowy folds, in denial about the blue dome that curved above.
“To be fair,” she said when she’d signed off, “all that Top Gun shit went out with the nineties. The future’s in drones, which doesn’t leave many options for real combat pilots. I’m not into that remote-control crap. If you don’t have the guts to go to a place you have no business blowing it up.”
“Where did you serve?”
“Samoa, the Philippines, hunting pirates in the Middle East… Took a bunch of scientists to Antarctica one summer. Mostly disaster relief and humanitarian missions, which is how it should be.”
“Word. Though they can cut you up as much as combat. Why did you leave?”
Silence. “We had a…family crisis. My koro—my grandfather—he’s lived in Wairoimata all his life, and he was struggling to get his head around it. And my brother and I needed to…get away. So we made a pact to come down here for a bit. Lie low, look out for Koro. Of course, Koro thinks it’s us who needed him. Didn’t mean to stay this long but it’s one of those places that sucks you in. Besides, now I have this monster to pay off.” She slid a hand across the top of the instrument panel. “So I’m here for a while, like it or not.”
He got the feeling she liked it okay. There was more to her story, but if she didn’t want to share, then all good. Who was he to pry? Happy families weren’t his thing, either, not anymore.
“I know a guy you might know,” he said. “Ex-legionnaire. Came to us from the New Zealand army.”
“Yeah, because I know everyone in this country. We all went to school together. Or is this more of a ‘You’re brown, he’s brown, so you must know each other’ kind of thing?”
“Hey, I’m just as brown as you.”
“So you should know better.”
He laughed. He was almost sad it was such a short flight.
Way below, the chopper’s long shadow flickered over green rock-strewn foothills, like some slimy black creature rolling and jerking over the land.
“Okay, Cowboy, what’s his name?” Tia asked, the words rushing out, like she’d been trying not to ask.
“Austin something. Austin Fale— Falelo…”
She quietly swore, a whisper in the headset. “Austin Faletolu. He used to date my brother. I hate that.”
“What, that he dated your brother?”
“No, that I know the random guy you’re talking about.”
“It happens a lot?”
“More than it should in a country this size.”
They fell silent, he in awe, as the landscape got wilder. Barely tamed farmland gave way to rainforest, and trees in turn succumbed to a desert of jagged rocks and brown tussock. Along the edge of the range, fresh landslides left plummeting scars of scoria. A country on the move, tossing and turning and refusing to settle into sleep.
Man, he felt alive. Anticipation churned in his stomach and his skin buzzed. Not a wired adrenaline, like the start of an operation, but a lightness, a freedom. Escape in T-minus ten.
“You have travel insurance, a will?” Tia asked.
Aaaand bubble burst.
© 2016 BRYNN KELLY, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGES USED UNDER LICENSE FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.