Lauren Henley pulled into a spot at the farthest end of the small parking lot, and her nerves settled a bit. Though she’d been inside only once before, the large building with its dingy, corrugated metal exterior, wide sliding doors, and lack of anything resembling style or curb appeal felt familiar. The offices were outdated—with wood-paneling on the walls. The furniture was a strange blend of bland cubicles and a collection of mismatched older furniture. But none of that mattered because she’d judged this operation in the same way any other pilot would—based on the conditions inside the huge hangar that housed the helicopters.
One helicopter, connected to a ground power unit, sat at the end of the parking lot, on a painted circle with an “H” in the center. The helicopter’s familiar silhouette further eased the knot in her stomach. The twin-blade main rotor designated it as an earlier version of the four-rotor OH-58D Kiowa Warriors she’d flown for most of her career in the US Army.
The hangar doors were closed, so she headed for the man-sized door to the side of them. Inside, she moved into a hallway with offices flanking both sides. She paused in the doorway of the first office to her right and smiled as she recognized the occupant.
“Lauren, hey, come on in.” Lieutenant Brian Cole stood and rounded his desk, surprisingly agile given his large frame. He hadn’t lost much muscle mass since they’d served together, but he had even less hair, taking his previous buzz cut down to the skin now. He shook her hand vigorously. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Hello, Lieutenant. I’m thrilled to be here.”
“We’re happy to have you. We have some administrative stuff to take care of, but I was just about to head out to the hangar. Why don’t you join me?”
“I know you had an abbreviated tour when you interviewed a couple of months ago, but I’ll hit the high points again.” He led her through the narrow hallway, pointing out the break room, an office outfitted with three multi-purpose workstations, and a set of gender-specific locker rooms.
“You’ll have the ladies’ to yourself unless we have guests.”
“No other female pilots?”
“Not currently, though we have had before.”
She didn’t care either way. She’d flown with a few other women in the army, but her squadrons had been comprised mostly of men.
As they entered the hangar, she drew in a breath and immediately identified fuel and engine grease. Lieutenant Cole chuckled. She hadn’t been as inconspicuous as she’d hoped.
“Missed it, huh?” He didn’t need an answer. “How long has it been?”
“A month. Since I went up in my test ride with you.”
“Bet that feels like forever after so many years in.”
She nodded. After ten years enlisted, most of them spent inside helicopters, she’d never really considered doing anything else after she left the military, though the timing of her retirement had changed from her original plan. Between her time in the hospital, physical therapy, and the police-department application process, she’d spent nearly a year not working for the first time in her adult life. At first she’d tried to view the time off as a vacation. Once fully ambulatory, she’d even taken a trip out to Wyoming to visit a friend from basic training. But a week and a half in, she’d returned to early morning wake-ups and increasingly strenuous workouts to start her day. By the time she received the call with her official start date, even her routine couldn’t calm her restless energy.
“You remember our fleet? These three and the one outside are OH-58Cs that we bought from the army when they upgraded to the D version you’re used to piloting. So that’ll help your learning curve on them. They aren’t the newest birds, but we try to keep them in good shape.”
Whatever olive-drab paint scheme the aircraft had previously worn had been replaced by navy blue and white with an orange stripe and the police-department logo. In addition to the three 58s, a smaller all-black helicopter occupied a space on the far end of the hangar.
“That one’s a McDonnell Douglas 500E. Ever flown one?”
Lauren shook her head.
“We’ll train you on that one after the 58s. She’s faster and a whole lot more fun to fly, but these are the workhorses of the unit and where you’ll spend most of your time.”
Lauren walked around the helicopter closest to her. The two top rotors were oriented in line with the body of the helicopter, and one was secured to the tail to avoid damage while moving it around on the ground. She’d been in the hangar during the interview process, but she’d been nervous and uncertain whether she even wanted the job. Now she took in the lieutenant’s information with the fresh eyes of a pilot who’d committed to flying these machines.
She smoothed a hand over the tail as she walked the length of it. The glossy, clean feel of the surface made her miss the constant grit and sand-covered flat paint she’d been used to in the desert.
“These are our regular patrol helicopters. That one over there is for flight training. It doesn’t have the spotlight or FLIR.” He pointed toward the bird in the far hangar bay.
Lauren nodded as she bent to inspect equipment on the aircraft closest to her. The globe of the FLIR thermal-imaging camera extended almost halfway to the ground from where it was mounted on the underside of the cockpit. The spotlight occupied a swivel closer to the nose. The electronics were expensive to replace if they were damaged during flight-maneuver training. She’d once watched a pilot scrape a FLIR unit right off a helicopter when he misjudged a running landing.
“Buck, come over and meet the new pilot.”
“One sec, Lieu,” a deep voice boomed from the darkened far corner of the building.
When a short, rail-thin man came out from around a set of metal shelving, Lauren nearly laughed out loud. He immediately gave Lauren a smile big enough to match his voice and thrust out his hand.
“Lauren Henley. It’s good to meet you,” Lauren said. “Buck, is it?” The patch on his shirt read “G. Buck.”
“Yep.” He grinned and dropped his own gaze to his chest to let her know he’d seen her looking. Whatever the “G” stood for, he didn’t seem willing to give it up. “Welcome, Lauren.”
“Buck is our unofficial parts guy. He works with our mechanic to make sure we’re stocked with everything we need,” Lt. Cole said. “Within the budget, of course.”
Buck fished a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. The writing on it barely seemed legible. “Got a new list. I’ll look up the prices and type it up all neat, how you like it.” He nodded once more at Lauren and headed back toward the offices.
“Air One?” The female dispatcher’s voice came through the radio clipped to the edge of Lt. Cole’s pants pocket. He pulled the radio loose, raised it, and keyed the mic.
“Hermitage is requesting you for a 10-53 from a business at 3301 Lebanon Pike. Suspect left in a black Honda with chrome rims. Direction of flight was toward the county line.”
“The county is divided into sectors or precincts. Hermitage is the precinct designation and also refers to the particular suburb in that area. A 10-53 is the code for robbery,” Lt. Cole said before engaging his microphone again. “Air One is direct. We’ll advise when we’re airborne.” He looked back at Lauren, then nodded toward the door. “You want to go?”
“Yes.” A tiny nervous tremor shot through her, but she ignored it. She’d been in a helicopter only a couple of times since leaving the army and wasn’t going to miss this chance.
He headed for the front of the building, and she followed. As they passed through the hallway, he called out for Buck. Outside, Lt. Cole and Buck went to work, each already knowing his share of the tasks to ready the helicopter for flight. They only spoke when needed, and only to verbally confirm a task to each other.
Lauren stood by, restless and unaccustomed to doing nothing as the bird was readied for flight. She resigned herself to watching for now—closely—memorizing the preflight routine. The mechanics were similar enough that she need only capture the slight differences in how this department conducted theirs. The two men inspected the outside of the helicopter, and then Lt. Cole freed the rotor blade while Buck climbed in. After Buck started the engine, Lt. Cole unplugged and moved the ground power unit.
Lt. Cole signaled Lauren, and she scrambled into the back while he occupied the copilot spot to Buck’s left. The seat next to Lauren’s had been removed to make room for several black boxes with wires that fed under the front seats—the electronics for the added surveillance equipment.
She put on a headset and stretched as much as her seat belt would allow to look between the front seats. She scanned the gauges in the middle of the console, automatically performing her own preflight checks. The routine helped calm her jitters. One screen displayed digital duplicates of the analogue gauges, and the other provided a GPS map of their location.
Buck pulled up on the collective and controlled the throttle with his left hand, while steadying the stick with his right. He lifted the aircraft smoothly off the ground and guided it into a controlled hover over a nearby strip of asphalt. Lt. Cole told her that area was used for police-recruit driver training. Lauren closed her eyes, enjoying the familiar vibration of the rotors while she listened to Buck and Lt. Cole talk through a few more checks. She looked for and found a wind sock across the field at the same moment Buck turned the helicopter into the wind and took off.
Lt. Cole keyed the radio. “Air One, we’re en route. ETA six minutes. We’ll be monitoring Hermitage frequency.” He twisted a button on the radio and glanced over his shoulder at Lauren. “All the precincts have their own radio channel. We usually stay on the countywide channel, then switch to the precinct frequency when we’re dispatched to a call.”
Right away, she began to hear the radio chatter of the officers assigned to the armed-robbery incident. In the left seat, Lt. Cole monitored the radio and jotted notes about the suspect description on a notepad mounted on a small board strapped to his right thigh.
As Buck began a circular pattern over the area where the suspect vehicle was last seen, Lauren searched the streets below for the black Honda with chrome rims. She tried to keep up with the radio traffic, but she didn’t know the geography below them or the meaning of the codes used by the responding officers.
She’d taken a test flight with Lt. Cole, and they’d simulated a search for a suspect vehicle. But the real thing, complete with the soundtrack of rapid radio transmissions, proved more daunting. When she got lost in the police work, she focused instead on flight. As Lt. Cole said, the inside of the helicopter was similar to what she was used to—minus the weapons systems. Apparently, the mayor didn’t want the police unleashing Hydra 70 rockets on the public, although Lauren was prepared to argue the effectiveness of a forward-mounted .50-caliber machine gun.
Lt. Cole had been clear about the differences between this aviation unit and the Kiowa Warriors Lauren was used to flying. While she’d flown reconnaissance and provided support to ground troops, this unit was patrol and surveillance only, with the occasional transport of police personnel to a scene when an investigation was time-sensitive.
They weren’t able to locate the black Honda and eventually had to break off and return to the hangar for fuel. Lt. Cole pointed out several major landmarks along their route. Lauren could tell by the twisting interstates and blocks of neighborhoods below her that she’d be spending a lot of time in the coming weeks studying maps of the city.
“Come on in, Lauren.” Lt. Cole looked up from his desk and waved her in. When they returned from the call, he’d left her outside with Buck doing a post-flight on the chopper. As she entered, he swept his gaze over her. He didn’t assess her in a sleazy way, rather in the clinical manner of one soldier evaluating another.
“They didn’t send you to the uniform shop yet?”
“No, sir.” She brushed her hands against her hips, hating the fabric of her one good pair of dress pants. She’d spent the entire previous day with human resources filling out paperwork, but no one mentioned uniforms. As far as she was concerned, she couldn’t get in one fast enough. She hadn’t needed anything fancier than jeans and a T-shirt in years. In the army, formal meant dress blues.
“Okay. You can knock that out this afternoon. If nothing else, they’ll issue you pants, T-shirts, and a plain overshirt. You can order some with patches and embroidery.” Instead of a one-piece jumpsuit, he wore navy BDU style pants and a long-sleeved, navy flight shirt over a black T-shirt. Inside the hangar, Buck had shed his outer layer and wore only the T-shirt, which had Police Aviationprinted across the back in white letters.
“Well, you’ve had another taste of what we do. What do you think?” He leaned back in his chair and rested both hands on top of his head. Behind him, photos of his wife and three kids were pinned to a corkboard.
Lauren sat in the chair on the opposite side of his desk. “That was cool. Thanks for letting me tag along.”
“You don’t seem psyched. I thought you’d love being back up there.”
“I did.” The feeling of weightlessness had been blissfully comfortable. But now that her feet were on the ground again, nervousness crept back in.
“How are you?” He waved his hand in the general direction of her legs to indicate she knew what he referred to. And she did, just as she understood his reluctance to put a name to what had kept her out of the cockpit. She’d been injured and had been brought home on a medical transport. Sometimes fellow veterans who hadn’t had that experience didn’t like to talk about it. She guessed it reminded them that it could have happened to them.
“I’m good.” Physically, she’d recovered, if not enough for the army, at least to the point of passing a civilian physical. Psychologically—the psychiatrist she’d talked to at the veterans’ hospital had helped her see that she’d spent hundreds of hours safely inside a helicopter, and she couldn’t let one horrible hour keep her out of them. And she’d taken only four sessions to come to that realization. She’d spent the first two staring at the diplomas on the wall in his office.
She’d been relieved and apprehensive to find out the police department flew OH58s. She’d spent more hours than she could count in a similar cockpit while enlisted. But she’d worried that it would all feel too much like the events that led to her injury. Trying to keep up with the actions of the ground units and the transmissions on the radio, and keeping herself oriented against the streets below had made her worry that she’d made a mistake in taking this job.
The lieutenant looked skeptical at her words of assurance, and she didn’t blame him. Her voice had sounded hollow even to herself. “Do you want to do some paperwork? Or would you rather tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m going to be your boss, Lauren. But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember being your friend.”
“I just—over there—” She stumbled to a stop, not wanting to give in to the waves of desert heat that threatened to wash over her if she let herself sink too deep in the memories. Her burgeoning worry had little to do with Afghanistan, but that’s where her mind went when she was anxious. She closed her eyes and took a breath, determined to leave that part of her life behind. Police aviation was her new reality. That’s the only way this would work.
“I was deployed. I might understand.”
“Being up there today—it was a lot to take in. It’s been a long time since I felt so inept.”
He chuckled. “Is that all? Hey, I’m sorry.” He held up his hands. “I thought you planned to tell me you changed your mind about the job.”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
“You aren’t giving up over a shot to your ego.”
“It’s not ego.”
“Sure it is. You’ve forgotten what it felt like to not be a hotshot pilot. Go home and read the angst-filled diary you kept during WOCS.”
She laughed. Warrant Officer Candidate School had kicked her ass, but she’d never been one to pour her heart onto a page. He had a point though.
“Listen. I know you can flat-out fly. But we don’t expect you to pick up all this other stuff right away. Let’s complete some of this paperwork. You’ll have plenty of time to learn police procedures and codes.”
She nodded, trying to shove away her worry about whether she’d made the right choices. Deciding it was too late to turn back, she focused instead on the administrative work entailed in joining her new unit.
Sergeant Kim Montgomery surveyed the forty-eight men and women situated in rows before her. They all stood at attention, their eyes forward. She could always tell, though, which of her new police-officer recruits had a military background by how comfortable and crisp they were while at attention or in formation. The civilians took a bit longer to catch on to the subtleties of the posture, how to fall perfectly in line with the person next to them, and how to keep their eyes front even when distractions came from around them.
She glanced at her training partner as he walked down a row of recruits and glared at each one. Officer Andre Biggs towered over each of the seven women in the class, as well as most of the men. He’d gathered a few extra pounds on his nearly seven-foot frame over the years, but he remained in good-enough shape to best most of the trainees that came through when he taught them physical tactics. Together, Kim and Andre were responsible for overseeing the training of each recruit class.
The current group, session seventy-nine, had lost one member during their first week. On average, another seven percent of their class would drop out or fail a section before graduation. Today marked the beginning of their second week. Kim had just led them on a formation run around the training academy campus, then assembled them in front of the main classroom building. She glanced at her watch—ten minutes until the start of today’s law class.
“Officer Biggs, I think they can all still breathe,” Kim said.
“You are correct, Sergeant Montgomery.” As he turned the corner into another row, he raised his deep voice. “In fact, they look downright comfortable. Did you power walk the last half of your lap?”
“Certainly not. Session seventy-nine, left face.” The reaction after she issued the command wasn’t nearly as sharp as she wanted. By the end of their training that turn would be precise and performed as one unit. She moved to the front of the formation and led them down the road for another trip around the property.
They would make this loop several times each day, especially in this early phase of their training. The recruits hadn’t earned idle time, so during any lags in their schedule, Kim and Andre either put them through physical exercise or quizzed them on what they’d learned so far in the classroom. Often they combined the two by punishing incorrect answers with push-ups.
As they descended the hill toward the front boundary of the training academy’s property, one of the men, about halfway back in the formation, began a cadence. Kim smiled. At least one military guy in every class always took the initiative to start the call-and-response cadences on the runs and marches. Early on during their training, they just pulled out old ones from whatever branch they’d served in. But as time passed and the class grew together, they made up new ones, specific to their experiences as a group in the academy. Kim never discouraged the practice. The rhythm of the songs helped the group learn to stay in step and built camaraderie with the class. Plus, she liked the cadences. Given her own service, she was comfortable running to them. And some of her recruits became very clever with the verses, including names and events from the training classes. She’d struggled not to laugh at them many times.
She led the group along the lower portion of the property, behind the classroom buildings. The training academy shared acreage with the aviation hangar and the K-9 offices. A large multi-use field provided a sort of crossover space among all three units. One section had been fenced off for training dogs, while another area contained the driver-training and obstacle courses for the police recruits. The large asphalt square next to the aviation hangar was reserved for helicopter takeoff and landing, as well as refueling.
Kim had spent her first three years with the police department on patrol. Two years ago, not long after her promotion to sergeant, she’d been tapped for a post at the academy. Given her military experience, she understood the need for solid training. For police officers in today’s climate, training and preparation were becoming increasingly important, and Kim took her role very seriously.
As her group circled close to the hangar, Brian Cole stepped out of the office door. He shaded his eyes with his hand and watched them approach.
“Monty,” he called. “Do you have a minute?”
She issued a sharp command to the class leader. “Tran, lead your session up to the classroom for afternoon law instruction.”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” The young Vietnamese man had emerged quickly as one of the strongest of the class. His peers had elected him as a leader during the first week, and she hadn’t been surprised. He stood out even during the application process. He was smart, confident without being cocky, and athletically fit.
She jogged to a stop next to Brian. He pulled an e-cigarette out of his pocket and lifted it to his mouth.
“How are you doing?” he asked as a vanilla-scented vapor swirled around them.
“I’m good. Man, you need to give that crap up.”
“I kicked cigarettes. At least this doesn’t smell as bad.”
“Jury’s still gotta be out on how bad they are for you, though, right?”
“Just because you don’t trust anything that isn’t a hundred years old.” He laughed. “Technology is the future.”
“Whatever. What’s up?”
“The higher-ups finally granted me clearance to fill that pilot spot that’s been empty.”
“Yeah.” He stared at his feet.
“Is it not? You’ve been talking about being short-handed for over six months now.”
“You—ah—you might know her.”
“Who? Oh, the new pilot. Cool. Girl pilots are hot.” Kim grinned. Kim’s friend Courtney had been an army pilot, and Brian had flown with her. Since Kim had been transferred to the training academy, she and Brian had grown closer.
“You may want to reassess that opinion when I—”
“Spit it out already, Brian. At this rate my recruits will be graduating before you finish this story.”
“It’s Lauren Henley. She’s the new pilot.”
Kim took a step back, tightening her jaw against the tirade that tickled the back of her throat. Lauren had dated Courtney, and things hadn’t ended well at all. Courtney had been serious about a future with Lauren, and Lauren had reacted by cheating on her with a man after only a year together.
Brian didn’t wait for her response. “You know we all flew together at Fort Bragg before Courtney transferred to Fort Campbell. I ran into Lauren when I was back in North Carolina for a visit last year, and it seemed like she was ready for a change. I hinted around that we might be looking for a pilot soon. When I received clearance to hire, I gave her a call.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You couldn’t have given me a heads-up? I thought you were more loyal than that.” A shaft of grief twisted in Kim’s gut. Courtney had died seven years ago in a helicopter training accident at nearby Fort Campbell. She’d give anything to see Courtney again, let alone work alongside her. They’d often talked about what they might do and where they would live after the army. Neither of them had planned for the military as a career, rather as a stepping stone to their futures.
“I’m sorry if you’re upset. You know that if she was here I’d have offered her the job. I miss her, too.”
“I’m not upset. I’m disappointed. I can’t believe you’d trust someone like Lauren Henley enough to have her on your team, anyway.”
“She’s one of the best military pilots I’ve ever flown with. This is business, Kim, not personal.”
“You know what she did.” She hated his ability to separate Lauren’s actions from her attributes as a pilot.
“You’re going to have to figure out how to get over this. She started this morning.”
She glanced around, suddenly expecting to catch sight of her any minute.
“I sent her to the uniform shop.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded tightly. She resented that he couldn’t summon more loyalty for Courtney and that he’d just reduced the size of her world here on the training grounds. This was her domain, where she took her recruits through every patch of woods and blade of grass trying to find creative ways to improve their skills. Now she would be on alert.
“This doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
“Right, Brian. That’s why you waited until the day she started to tell me about it.” In front of her recruits, she would never refer to him as anything except Lieutenant.
“You probably won’t have much interaction with her though. How often does your path cross with that of any of the other pilots?”
“Pretty damn often. I eat lunch with you at least once a week.” If the weather was good, they claimed a spot at a picnic table outside the hangar. Otherwise, they ate in one of their offices.
“Sure. But we’re friends.”
“Well, don’t expect to see me down here anymore. If you want to have lunch, you can come to my office.”
When he waved off her concern with a flick of his hand, she wished the situation could be that easy. When Courtney had confronted Lauren about her infidelity, she didn’t even have the decency to try to justify or explain her actions. Not that there was a valid excuse for cheating. Kim had zero desire to even force professional politeness toward Lauren.
Lauren slid behind the wheel of her 1996 Chevy pickup and put on her sunglasses while waiting for her phone to connect to the Bluetooth stereo she’d upgraded to only a month after buying the truck. She tapped the music icon on her phone and started streaming. She’d obviously have to rely on her favorite tunes to keep her sane during the forty-five-minute commute in Nashville traffic every day. The old truck had been fine when she lived close to the base, but she might have to consider a newer model now.
The small one-bedroom apartment she’d rented south of the city wasn’t any more luxurious than her housing had been. But she’d been able to secure a six-month lease, and the other complexes she’d contacted wanted at least a year commitment. She’d unpacked her meager belongings a couple of weeks ago.
Deciding to make the move from North Carolina hadn’t been difficult. She had no real ties to the area that weren’t military. After the army had decided it no longer had use for her, she couldn’t flee the base fast enough. But somehow in the process, she’d become uncharacteristically indecisive and felt better about not committing to Nashville for an entire year.
She’d run into Brian Cole at Bragg just as she was forced to make a decision about her future. Brian called it perfect timing, and she couldn’t argue since she hadn’t had a better idea. She could probably have applied to some other private organizations around the country. But, even though she’d be a civilian pilot, the law-enforcement setting kept her in the semi-military culture she was used to. Brian was a friendly face. He knew her reasons for needing to escape, but he’d been nice enough not to mention them when he framed his idea for her future.
They’d caught up on some army gossip and touched very briefly on Courtney’s death before he pitched his offer for employment. She’d asked for time to think about it, but she’d already started laying out a plan.
She’d needed to escape her life, and Brian offered a relocation that put her four hundred miles away from anyone who knew her. She could start fresh and leave military life behind her. Every day she discovered a new habit she had to break, but she’d consciously been making the effort. Her first day in her new apartment, she’d left her bed unmade. That rebellion had lasted only one day, but she’d done it, and now, at least, she didn’t tuck the sheets in quite as tightly.
She arrived at the hangar with fifteen minutes to spare before her shift started and headed for the women’s locker room to stow the supplies she’d shopped for the night before. She liked to keep everything she needed to shower and freshen up at work. After claiming the center locker, she pushed a shower caddy loaded with her favorite toiletries onto the top shelf. Since all the lockers were empty, it didn’t matter much which one she used.
The guy at the uniform-and-supply shop had outfitted her with two complete uniforms and promised the rest would be ready in a couple of days. Once she received them, she would keep an extra uniform in her locker as well. He’d helped her order a helmet, a knee board to hold her notebook, night-vision goggles, and an assortment of other equipment off the list Lt. Cole had sent with her.
As a civilian pilot, Lauren wasn’t issued a gun and wasn’t required to train in defensive tactics. The other pilots in the unit consisted of a mix of sworn police officers that had been trained as pilots—the old way of doing things—and civilian pilots who’d been hired because they already possessed flight experience. The current police chief preferred the civilians because it didn’t take as much time, or money, to train them in police procedure as it did to turn a police officer into a pilot.
She glanced at her watch, then left the locker room to start her second day on the new job. Thinking about starting over still made her nervous, even now that she was in the middle of it. But every step along the way, from North Carolina to Nashville, she’d been fighting the apprehension that tightened her stomach.
Maybe she should start arriving at work even earlier and avoid the traffic that made her nuts. She could move her evening workout to a morning schedule instead. Brian had told her that some of the guys used the weight room at the academy. She wanted to keep up the strength training she’d started as soon as she’d been cleared from physical therapy.
She unlocked her phone and set her morning alarm an hour sooner. Before she could think about how much earlier she’d be waking up, she locked the screen and shoved the phone into her pocket.
She found Brian in the hangar. He’d said he was going to introduce her to the pilot who would be in charge of her training for the next several months. Yesterday, before she’d left, she met two of the guys who worked the second shift. She would eventually rotate to the afternoon shift—coming in at three and working until eleven p.m.—as part of her training. Night flying presented more challenges, but she’d always enjoyed the feeling of being up there alone in the dark.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” she said as she joined him and another pilot next to one of the helicopters.
“It’s Brian around the office, unless we have company.”
“Understood.” Not only was the urge to refer to him by rank ingrained, but she also felt it signified respect.
Brian indicated the man standing next to him. “This is Tim Carlin, who’ll be handling your training.”
“Hey. You must be Henley.” He stuck his hand out and Lauren grasped it. “Though you’ll soon realize we all refer to each other by last name, except the lieutenant here. He calls everyone but Buck by their first names. Nobody calls Buck by his.”
“Why’s that?” Was she going to find out what the “G” stood for?
He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, then grinned and pointed at her. “You almost got me. I’ll let Buck tell you that. So, L.T. said you were army?”
“Hooah. Me, too.” He patted his slightly rounded stomach. “Though you probably wouldn’t have guessed it with this dad-bod I’m rocking these days.” He was a few inches taller than Lauren and—like a lot of military guys she knew—he still looked in decent shape but had gone a little soft around the mid-section.
“I might have. You kept the hairstyle.”
“My wife cuts it. Number-one blade on the sides and three on top. Nothing fancy.”
“I had a buddy that used to say he had a good army wife because she would cut his hair and launder his uniforms without him even asking.”
“Mine’s one of the good ones, too. Stood by me through some shit and raised our kids when I was deployed four times.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Three girls. From fifteen to twenty-four.” He unlocked his phone and showed her a picture of three pretty dark-haired girls.
“They look just like you.”
“Yep. Despite how much I was away, I never had to question their parentage.”
“You got any kids? Husband?”
“Nope.” Lauren didn’t clarify. She’d been brought up in the military under DADT and hadn’t broken those old habits despite the change in policy. Brian knew she was gay, and she figured that information would eventually spread around the hangar, but she wasn’t comfortable volunteering it just yet.
“Okay, enough chitchat. Training starts now. Step on over here. We’re doing a pre-shift on this bird. Then we’ll move it outside so it’s ready to go.”
“You’re in good hands.” Lt. Cole touched her shoulder, then headed for the offices, leaving her alone with Tim, who had already launched into his description of a pre-shift inspection.
Together they scrutinized every inch of the helicopter. Tim kept up a commentary on why they checked each piece of metal, glass, electronics, and moving parts. He didn’t believe in a visual-only inspection. He put his hands on every part of the machine. They climbed up next to the rotors, opened the engine compartment, and checked for liquids where there should be and leaks where there shouldn’t be. From Lauren’s side, Tim’s face was partially obscured by the engine, but she could see that his eyes never stopped moving and his hands followed.
He was a talker. And when he wasn’t examining the particular parts of the helicopter, he filled in with history about the OH-58C they inspected and its acquisition from the military years before. Lauren didn’t mind though. As long as he was talking, she didn’t have to.
Tim crawled underneath the fuselage, opened a valve, and caught a fuel sample in a small cup. Lauren continued down her side of the helicopter, pulling over a step stool so she could see across the top of the tail boom where it tapered toward the tail rotor and vertical fins. Lauren ran a hand over the curve of the metal, feeling for abnormalities.
After they finished, Tim stood back and glanced at the helicopter from nose to tail one last time. “She’s ready to go. Let’s move her out.”
The chopper spotter was already in position under the cockpit, between the landing skids. Lauren extended one arm of the machine on her side and attached it to the top of the skid, then did the same with the second arm. Tim secured the other side. While Tim unfurled the long cord with a remote at the end so that he could stand behind the tail, Lauren shoved open the two large hangar doors, then walked around the helicopter to spot the front. Tim grasped a metal rod that extended from the lower tail fin. He pushed a button on the remote, and the chopper spotter lifted the helicopter. Tim counteracted the helicopter’s forward center of gravity to keep the nose from dropping. Then he drove the spotter back toward the hangar door, guiding it with his hand on the tail as well.
Lauren called out minor adjustments in the steering as she lined up the helicopter to fit through the hangar doors without incident. Outside, Tim parked the helicopter on the painted “H” and lowered the skids back to the ground.
“I always unclamp the spotter. Even if you think you might move it again soon.”
“Yep. Had a guy on evening shift a few years back that left it on. Idiot tried to take off with it still attached.”
Lauren shook her head. The added weight on the skids would have made the takeoff feel clunky, and he would have known there was a problem right away. “Lazy preflight.”
Tim nodded, and she hoped she’d earned a little respect. In addition to the pre-shift inspection they’d already done, a pilot should do a modified version prior to every takeoff and after every landing. Pre- and post-flight inspections were crucial, and a good pilot never cut corners in order to become airborne. They’d all had the possible consequences drilled into them. They’d trained on how to handle in-flight emergencies, and given Tim’s propensity for safety, Lauren figured she’d be doing so again. She actually looked forward to showing him how well she could handle a simulated autorotation, designed to test her reactions to engine or tail rotor failure.
“Are we ready to go?” Brian asked as he stepped outside the office.
“All set,” Tim said.
Brian raised his chin in Tim’s direction. “Tim does the most thorough preflight in the unit.”
“I saw that.”
“We don’t leave the helicopters outside overnight. So on mornings when the weather looks good, you’ll be doing the inspection and moving one out. When you rotate to second shift, you’ll sometimes bring that one in and pull another one out.”
“L.T. tracks the flight time on all of them, and he’ll tell us when to switch them.” Tim tilted his head back and glanced at the azure, cloudless sky. “Going to be a beautiful day. We should get some hours in.”
“You fly only when it’s sunny?” Lauren asked.
Brian laughed. “Probably sounds crazy to you. We check the weather multiple times every day. We don’t fly in storms, and we don’t let the helicopters sit in the rain. These things aren’t super watertight, and rain doesn’t mix with the electronics. Broken helicopters are expensive to fix, and I don’t have the budget for it.”
“Money is that much of an issue?”
He nodded. “Our section has the second biggest budget in the department, and I account for every penny. I find the best price I can on fuel, and we use mostly in-house mechanics if we can. But just when I think we’re ahead, something comes up. Last month we had to pull the engine out of NP404.” He pointed at the helicopter in the far bay. “We shipped it to the manufacturer in Canada for repair.”
Tim slapped Brian on the shoulder. “We always know when it’s been an expensive month, if L.T. puts us on call-out only and cuts back all our patrol hours.”
“Someone has to steer the ship.”
“Be careful there. We might start thinking you’re a navy man.”
Lauren laughed with them. As she caught the familiar sound of a cadence, first faint, then increasingly louder, she glanced around. A pack of people, all dressed in navy-blue shorts and T-shirts, jogged from behind a large metal storage building about a hundred yards away. Their formation wasn’t as tight as she was accustomed to seeing, with gaps and uneven rows, as some of the members struggled to keep up with the pace of their leader.
A lone woman loped along at the front of the group, her long strides appearing much easier than those of some of the men and women behind her. Her blond hair was short, not long enough to be called a pixie cut, but not buzzed either. From this distance, Lauren couldn’t easily make out her features, but she could see that her pale legs were lean and strong. Lauren had spent enough time doing PT to recognize the distinct shape of a sports bra restraining—well, flattening—the woman’s breasts under her fitted, navy T-shirt.
“Looks like the new recruit class is out for another run.”
“Sloppy as hell.” Lauren shook her head.
“You should have seen them the first day.” Brian nodded toward the group, which now lumbered away from them down the edge of the strip of asphalt used for recruit driver training. “This is an improvement. Sergeant Montgomery will run them so much they won’t be able to help shaping up.”
She could definitely get used to watching Sergeant Montgomery’s shape around the property.
Lauren slipped onto the picnic table bench next to Buck, across from Brian and Tim. She unwrapped a turkey-and-bacon sandwich she’d made the night before, opened a small bag of pretzels, and popped the top on her diet soda. She allowed herself one a day, unable to kick a mid-day jolt of caffeine despite knowing she should avoid artificial sweeteners.
“How’s the training coming along?” Buck asked.
“I think it’s going well, but maybe you should ask Tim if he’s sick of me yet.”
Buck glanced at Tim expectantly and he shrugged. “I’ve been ditching her with busywork for half of every day.”
She tossed a pretzel across the table at him. For the past three days, every morning, she’d been stuck in the shared office, studying police ten-codes, policy, and procedure until her vision nearly blurred. After lunch, Tim took her up in the training helicopter. On the second day, he let her take the controls, and for the rest of the day she’d buzzed like a junkie with a fix after far too long. They’d stayed north of the city, over some of the more rural areas of the county, but he’d praised her flying and said the next day they could start exploring urban areas.
“She can fly. But then we knew that, or L.T. wouldn’t have hired her.” Respect flowed through Tim’s voice. She’d learned quickly that Brian was a good leader. He provided the perfect buffer between the pilots and department administration, but he also wasn’t afraid to bury his hands in an engine in the hangar. The guys trusted him, and she already knew from her time serving with him that she could, too.
“How’s it feel to grab the stick again?” Brian asked with a stupid grin.
She winked, refusing to be baited. “Like it belongs in my hand.” She’d cycled through doubt and anxiety since she’d separated from the army. Though she’d been able to talk herself back into generic optimism about her future, a part of her worried that law enforcement wouldn’t fit. Today, she realized that she could still have everything she loved about flight without the deployments, the danger, and the competitive stress of military aviation.
Lauren’s father and grandfather had both been navy pilots. From a young age, they’d taught her that she needed to fly better and move up the ranks faster than the next guy. When you’re on a career path in the military, every promotion matters.
Across the parking lot, Sergeant Montgomery climbed out of a small, dark car in the parking lot. Lauren guessed she was headed for the largest of the brick classroom buildings, which would take her right by their picnic table. The sudden urge to stand and retreat to the hangar swept through her. She didn’t want to meet her. Maybe, because she’d been watching this woman run for a week now, she didn’t want to spoil the fantasy if reality couldn’t live up to it. As she neared, Lauren could make out her features and thought she recognized her from somewhere.
Thankful for the dark-tinted lenses of her sunglasses, Lauren studied her openly. She wore the navy polyester uniform as well as anyone Lauren had ever seen. Her creases were sharp, and her boots had a military shine. The boxy shape of a Kevlar vest under her shirt distorted the curves of her torso, but Lauren easily retrieved the memory of Officer Montgomery in her running shorts and T-shirt. Her short hair lay smoothly against her head, as carefully tamed as her uniform. Her features were elegant in glorious contrast to her athletic body.
“Hey, Monty, have you met the new pilot?” Buck called.
Lauren pulled off her sunglasses. The nickname tickled something in her memory. Monty glanced over at them, and her posture stiffened. She glanced behind her, as if looking for a reason not to join them.
“Hey, guys.” Monty still seemed uncomfortable, but she finally lifted bright-green eyes to Lauren’s. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Something told Lauren she should already know her. She just couldn’t place from where. Monty. She jerked her gaze to the name on the left breast of Monty’s shirt as a cruel wave of recognition swamped her. K. Montgomery.
“It’s Kim. Montgomery.”
Kim. Courtney’s friend, Kim. Lauren pulled her gaze back to Kim’s and saw her own apprehension reflected there. For whatever reason, Kim didn’t want the guys to know they had a history, of sorts, and Lauren was willing to play along. “Lauren Henley. Nice to meet you.”
“How are the guys treating you?” Despite Kim’s words, her tone was detached and barely polite.
“Really well.” She glanced at the three men. Buck and Tim seemed oblivious to the tension between the two of them, but Brian looked nervous.
“Okay.” Kim rubbed a hand over her head, first ruffling her hair, then smoothing it back down. “I’m swamped with work.”
“You aren’t joining us, Monty?” Tim asked.
“I already ate.” She walked away without another word.
“What’s wrong with her?” Buck asked Brian.
“Probably just a rough day with the recruits. You know how those knuckleheads are.” Brian lifted his water bottle as if trying to appear nonchalant, but his gaze slid guiltily away from Lauren’s.
Buck nodded. He balled up his lunch bag and stood. “I want to change the oil on the cranky old girl this afternoon so we can put her back in the rotation.” Lauren was learning that each helicopter had a nickname, sometimes even different ones from each pilot. The oldest chopper was also the most temperamental, thus Buck’s sarcastic moniker.
Tim went with him. As they walked away, Brian looked up at her, his expression hinting that he wished she would follow.
“Is that going to be a problem for you?” He tilted his head in the direction that Kim had disappeared in. At first, she’d wondered if maybe Brian didn’t know that Kim had been Courtney’s best friend, but apparently he did.
“You could have warned me.”
He shrugged. “I wanted you for this job.”
“I don’t know if it’s me you need to worry about. In case it wasn’t clear, she’s not my biggest fan.” And she has good reason.
“It certainly seems that way. But she doesn’t work for me, so actually I only have to worry about you.” He went back to eating his potato chips as if he really was as unconcerned as he sounded.
Kim managed not to slam her office door after she passed through it. She’d all but told Brian that hiring Lauren Henley was a bad idea—or she would have if he’d asked her opinion before it was too late.
She circled her desk and dropped into her chair, nearly dumping herself on the floor when it tilted back a little too far. She jerked forward and growled. She’d hated that damn chair from her first day in this office but had never bothered to exchange it since she tried not to spend too much of her day sitting.
She’d known the moment Lauren figured out who she was, and a part of her was pissed that it took as long as it did. Since they’d never been stationed on the same base, they’d met only twice in passing in the time that Courtney and Lauren dated, but she hadn’t forgotten what Lauren looked like. In fact, Lauren hadn’t changed much. Her dark hair had been pulled back in the low bun female pilots favored in order to accommodate their helmets. Courtney used to talk about how much she liked putting her hands in Lauren’s waves when she wore it loose and falling to her shoulders. She tried to remember what Courtney had said about Lauren’s lineage. Caucasian, African-American, and Korean ancestry combined to contribute to Lauren’s exotic good looks. Courtney had extolled the beauty of Lauren’s smooth, latte complexion, but Kim found her eyes much more captivating. She’d met Lauren’s gaze for only a moment, and she couldn’t discern their color for sure—she thought maybe hazel. But there was something within them that Kim hadn’t figured out yet.
Courtney had freely discussed her physical relationship with Lauren. Kim didn’t have to use much imagination to picture how fit Lauren was beneath her T-shirt and baggy BDU pants. She seemed just as confident and slightly aloof as Kim remembered. In fact, Courtney had complained that Lauren never seemed to fully let her in. Despite her bearing, Kim had seen a flash of reaction when Lauren recognized her. If she didn’t know better, she would have called it pain, but maybe it was just panic. She didn’t care if Lauren hurt over Courtney. In Kim’s view, Lauren was due a little heartache anyway.
Courtney had certainly shed plenty of tears over Lauren. Kim had been stationed an hour northwest of Nashville, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when Courtney, in North Carolina, found out that Lauren had cheated on her. As irrational as it seemed, she thought Courtney was most broken up about the fact that it was with a man. Courtney was the first woman Lauren had been with, and Courtney had told Kim she worried that Lauren would wind up with a guy. She knew Lauren wanted a military career and thought she would eventually decide that being in an opposite-sex relationship would be easier for her in the long run. Kim had stayed on the phone with her for hours that first night after their breakup and called every day to check on her. A few months later, Kim had been thrilled when Courtney had transferred to Fort Campbell. Away from Lauren, she’d finally been able to heal.
Kim and Courtney had met in high school in rural Northeast Georgia. They’d bonded over their need to hide their sexuality, their shared disdain for the popular kids, and later, a desire to enter the military after graduation. They’d gone to the recruiter’s office together and enlisted. Their limited contact while Kim attended OSUT to prepare for her work as a military-police officer and Courtney began her training to become a pilot had been trying for both of them. But after their training was complete, they made every effort to stay in touch despite the distance their assignments put between them.
They’d ended up stationed together at Fort Campbell for only a year before Courtney’s death. After losing Courtney, Kim had finished the remaining two years on her contract, then separated from the army. She’d decided to stay in middle Tennessee after meeting a police recruiter at a job fair on base.
She jerked herself out of her reminiscence, and, determined to put Lauren out of her mind, she pulled her computer keyboard closer to the edge of her desk. Her work required only limited interaction with the pilots. She’d just have to cut back on socializing with them. She tapped out her password, then navigated to the calendar she used to track the progress of each training class. The first few weeks were heavy with physical training and classroom work. The recruits trudged through the grueling process of learning Tennessee law, the classes taught by an attorney with the district attorney’s office, assisted by a law intern. The sheer amount of memorization, not to mention learning to interpret and apply what they learned, often resulted in several failures or withdrawals from the program.
In a couple of weeks, she and Andre would start working with the recruits on defensive tactics. She enjoyed knocking the bigger, stronger guys down a peg while showing the smaller ones how controlling a situation had less to do with size than they’d thought.
“November, papa, four-oh-five to John C. Tune airspace. We’ll be coming in on runway two, attempting a running landing.” Tim had prearranged some training time with personnel at the small airport not far from the hangar.
“Attempting?” Lauren scoffed. “I’m pulling this shit off. No question.”
“Let’s see it.”
While Tim continued to broadcast their heading for other aircraft in the area, she circled the airport, checking the wind sock for direction and mentally preparing for the maneuver. A helicopter required more power for hovering than for flight. If a partial engine failure, a stuck pedal, or some other mechanical failure resulted in a loss of power, a pilot couldn’t drop the helicopter into a hover and land in the typical manner. Instead, she would bring the helicopter in at a shallower angle and perform a running landing—essentially sliding the helicopter across the ground on its skids.
She set up her approach into the wind, watching her speed to keep the helicopter from sinking too quickly.
“Talk me through it, Henley,” Tim said.
“Speed is thirty knots, now dropping below.” She called out each step as she completed it. “Pushing forward cyclic to bring the skids in level.”
“If you’re not level?”
“Um, tail low can cause a tail boom strike. Nose low and we pitch forward.” As the helicopter came down, she kept her eyes up the runway, focusing on bringing it in smoothly. She hadn’t had to verbalize her actions since her early days of flight school. Forcing her to think about what she was doing instead of acting on instinct nearly threw her off. But Tim needed to know that she understood the way the helicopter would react to her adjustments and why. She answered several more rote questions while carefully guiding the helicopter closer to the ground. Yes, she knew that the cyclic controlled drift and that her feet on the pedals kept the desired heading. But she hadn’t consciously thought about those things in so long.
When the skids touched down and slid across asphalt, Lauren eased down the collective, and the helicopter vibrated to a stop. Lauren paused, waiting for Tim’s reaction.
“Well done. Take her back up, and let’s head to the hangar.” He keyed the radio microphone and called for clearance to take off.
She lifted the helicopter into a hover and turned it into the wind, doing a quick check of the controls before taking off. She was confident she hadn’t damaged anything in landing, but it never hurt to take a moment.
“Something wrong?” Tim asked.
“Nope. Just making sure nothing feels wonky.”
“Wonky?” He laughed.
“Make fun. But you know exactly the sensation I’m describing.”
Twenty minutes later, she’d set the helicopter down next to the gas pump to the right of the hangar. She shut the engine down and handled some post-flight checks. As she stepped out of the helicopter, she took off her flight helmet and tucked it under her arm. She’d been flying for at least three hours every day for two weeks and was starting to get spoiled. Brian had cut back the patrol hours during the latter part of the month due to budget constraints. But since she was training, she flew nearly every day. Her lucky streak wouldn’t last though. The run of beautiful summer weather they’d been enjoying was due to end, and she’d be grounded when the rain came.
Lauren didn’t want to turn as she heard the familiar cadence of the cadets chanting while they ran. In fact, she didn’t need to. By now, she could visualize the figure at the head of the group. She knew Kim’s long stride and that her features would remain relaxed, as if she could go all day. Lauren had given up trying not to think about Kim’s dewy skin. Something about a woman with a sheen of sweat had always turned Lauren on. During basic training, her spot in the formation had been directly behind one of the other female recruits. For ten weeks, she’d nearly gone crazy staring at the moisture on the back of that woman’s neck. And that was when she’d first started acknowledging her attraction to women, before she’d even touched a woman.
She wasn’t in any danger of growing too close to Kim though. For as many times as she’d watched her run, or caught a glimpse of her across the parking lot, they hadn’t spoken again. Kim was avoiding contact, but Lauren hadn’t gone out of her way either. Seeing Kim pulled her in too many directions. She was attracted to her—she could admit that. Kim was gorgeous. She was strong and gave off an aura of power and confidence that enticed Lauren. But Kim was a direct link to Courtney. And thinking about Courtney brought up feelings she’d rather not explore. Revisiting old failures didn’t appeal to her. Courtney was one of her biggest regrets.
Andre stood before rows of recruits and gave them his most intimidating stare. Kim walked around the group while he held their attention. Most of them had learned by now to continue staring straight ahead, but a few still snuck nervous glances. She debated correcting those who strayed, but she liked that they were still a little afraid of Andre. The first part of their training was meant to break them down. Kim and Andre didn’t train like the staff had in the old days—the rules had changed. Recruit training had become more politically correct.
Kim’s program was designed to teach them to respect the chain of command and follow orders, while also working on their physical stamina. The next phase of training for this group would focus on police procedures. But she still planned to run their asses all over the property as well. Sometimes she sent them on long routes meant to build their endurance, letting them spread out and allowing the faster recruits to lead the way. Other times, she kept them in tight formation, those exercises meant for team building. They had to adjust their pace as a pack, keeping the weaker recruits in the fold. Kim quickly learned which ones were team players. They would align themselves with the slower runners and verbally encourage them throughout the run.
“Rest up, kids. Tomorrow morning we’re going for a nice, long jog.” She searched their faces, seeing the desire to groan in protest on several faces, but they all managed to restrain themselves. “In the afternoon, you’ll switch off between CPR training and defensive tactics.”
She uncharacteristically allowed them a murmur of approval. Andre glanced at her to see if she intended to correct them, but she gave a subtle shake of her head. They’d been doing little but working out and studying law for the last two weeks. Since the day they arrived, they’d been itching to finish training and do real police work. She wasn’t so long out of the academy that she’d forgotten how it felt to look forward to something new.
“Dismissed.” They began talking as soon as they broke formation. “Quietly.”
She waited until the recruits had cleared the area, then headed back into her office. She unlocked a cabinet in the corner of her office and grabbed a box of ammo for her service pistol, then slung a small bag containing ear plugs and shooting glasses over her shoulder.