Major Missy “Warbird” Malden shifted uncomfortably in her chair and looked around her holding cell. It was pretty clean, all things considered. Not that she’d had much experience with cells, other than those she’d seen on TV. It had been touch and go for a while when she was a kid, but she’d always managed to avoid the cops for the most part, unlike the vast majority of her friends. At least until that one time…She shrugged to herself. At least there wasn’t a toilet in the corner.
But clean or not, this was not where she’d thought she would be two days into the Red Flag exercise. She should be up in the skies, directing test missions and worrying about how to explain to her front-seat pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Conrad, why she was requesting a transfer to another squadron—at least in a way that he’d believe. Her heart clenched in her chest as she realized how badly she’d screwed everything up.
At least she didn’t have to worry about that conversation anymore. She was pretty sure that being arrested under suspicion of espionage was going to put the brakes on her career. Especially since she couldn’t defend herself from the accusation. Or suspicion, or whatever it was that had landed her in jail.
She couldn’t understand how a horrible, horrible accident had somehow turned into a criminal inquiry within a few hours. And worse, people seemed to think that she was somehow involved. A Royal Air Force pilot, along with Eleanor Daniels—Missy’s best friend and roommate at the Red Flag training exercises—were missing in the Nevada desert after both their planes went down. How anyone could even contemplate that Missy had anything to do with such a horrible accident was completely bat-shit crazy. But was it an accident?
Please be alive. Please be alive. The two pilots hadn’t been found yet, which she hoped was a good sign. But why couldn’t their surveillance locate them? Missy clenched her fists. There was something very off about all this.
Red Flag was supposed to be a safe place to train, a yearly opportunity to finesse skills and beat the shit out of the friendly foreign military pilots who came to train and compete with them. It was basically one big bragging-rights fest with a side order of making or breaking airborne careers.
It was an exercise that was always run with precision. Until this time. When she’d heard that TechGen-One, a military contractor, was sponsoring this year’s training, she’d been thrilled. Hell, everyone had, because the whole event had been slated to be canceled due to budget issues.
But since they’d arrived to compete, nothing had gone as expected. And what was more worrying, TGO seemed to have taken operational control of the base in exchange for providing the Red Flag funds, all with the approval of General Daniels, Eleanor’s father.
Now it was hard to tell which way was up and whose orders to obey.
The door banged open, and Missy instinctively jumped up. A man in dress blues entered, a thick file beneath one arm. “As you were.” He nodded back to her chair.
She sat as was ingrained habit. The silver oak-leaf emblem on his collar told her he was a lieutenant colonel; the name on his badge said “Janke.” He outranked her. He loomed large in the doorway, tall and blond, with a buzz cut that made him look more like a marine recruit than an air force officer.
“I’ve been assigned as your JAG in this matter,” he said, flipping open the folder with a pen. Crap. If she’d already been assigned a judge advocate general, the general must really believe she had something to do with the crashes.
Shit just got real. She was legitimately a suspect. Somehow she’d expected that someone would open the door and let her go. Apologize for the mistake. She’d half thought it would be Conrad, the one person on earth who’d go to bat for her. Who’d believe her. Who’d cut through the bullshit and get to the right person with the right information.
He sat at the table, and she followed suit.
“What exactly is it that I’m being accused of? If someone would just tell me, I’m sure I could clear this up pretty quickly.” She just wanted to get back to her aircraft, get airborne, and help search for Eleanor and the British pilot.
“Sir,” he said.
What? “I’m sorry—”
“You forgot to say sir.” He leaned back in his chair. “Do you make it a habit of disrespecting your superior officers?”
She frowned. She hadn’t come across an officer with that kind of attitude in ten years. She forced her face into a blank expression. “No, sir. I apologize.”
He stared at her, his light blue eyes cold, empty almost, and his thin lips pursed together.
A feeling of dread seeped through her, rendering her hands and feet cold. She flexed her fingers.
“All you have to tell us is where you were the night before last.” He pulled a tight smile and reopened the file on the table between them. “And tell us anything you know about TechGen-One and General Daniels. Particularly anything Eleanor said.”
She fought not to do a double take. What? Why was he asking about TechGen-One and Eleanor’s father? Suddenly, a whole battery of thoughts whirled in her head. She’d been right. Damn.
“I don’t know anything about TGO except what everyone knows, sir. They saved Red Flag from being canceled. As for General Daniels…I’ve…” She paused. Why was her lawyer interrogating her?
She put her palms flat on the table. “Colonel Janke. Why don’t you tell me what the charges against me are? I mean, you did say you were my assigned JAG, didn’t you?” She paused. “Sir.” This was total bullshit.
He rose slowly and gave her a smile. A pitying, condescending smile. But even that couldn’t disguise the jumping vein in his neck. “This is the moment, Major.” He nodded. “This is the moment you will look back on for the rest of your life—no matter how long or short that may be—and you’ll wonder if answering my two simple questions would have saved you.”
She didn’t like the long pause he inserted after the word short. She didn’t like anything about this. “Are you threatening me, sir?”
He moved fast, banging his fist on the table. She jerked back from him and then cursed herself for showing her fear.
“I don’t have to threaten, Major. Your entire future is in my hands.” There was a pause—a silence that hung in the air.
Missy forced herself to hold his gaze. “I want a different JAG.”
A line wrinkled his forehead, and she was sure she saw a flash of panic in his eyes. He straightened. “Just those two questions, and I’ll make sure you’ll be back in barracks by sunset.”
Her gut told her not to trust him. If being on the streets as a kid had taught her one thing, it was to listen to her gut. “I want a different JAG,” she repeated.
He took a step toward her, and she scraped her chair loudly away from the table and stood.
Colonel Janke looked her up and down, not lasciviously, but maybe wondering how much she’d fight back.
She took a step toward him, invading his personal space and forcing him to take one backward. She wanted him to know exactly how she would respond to a threat against her.
Whatever the hell this was turning into, she wasn’t going down without a fight.