Free Fall Page 1

Author: Catherine Mann

Series: Elite Force #4

Genres: Romance


Horn of Africa

When Stella Carson was eight years old, her mother rented the movie Out of Africa so Stella could envision where her mom lived when she left Tallahassee for Peace Corps trips. Those images had helped through the first night alone saying her prayers. And through a summer with her brothers as babysitters while their father drove his UPS route.

In the fall, a photo of her mother went in her backpack, helping Stella hold strong during a rocky start of third grade when she landed in the principal’s office for a playground fight. Nobody would make fun of her daddy’s efforts to send his baby girl off to school, even if her braids were lopsided with mismatched bows. Stella knew how to punch like a boy, thanks to her three older brothers.

Her siblings had failed to mention the importance of saving the infamous Carson left hook for the walk home, off school grounds.

But she’d survived the principal’s punishment, as well as her father’s disappointment, by envisioning her mom dispensing medicine and mosquito nets to needy kids. The school wouldn’t suspend her anyway because they needed Stella’s perfect scores on standardized tests. Tuning out the principal’s lecture, she’d stroked one of the mismatched ribbons between her fingers, tabulated the number of pinholes in the ceiling tiles, and pretended she didn’t need her mother.

When Stella was fifteen her mom died on one of those annual aide trips. She had a tough time understanding why Melanie Carson chose to leave her family to help other families in a foreign country. It didn’t make sense to a grieving teenager, and Stella craved answers. Understanding. Order.

By college, she’d realized if she didn’t decipher what really happened the day her mother died and find peace for the restlessness inside her, there would be no building a family of her own. Something she desperately wanted. So she’d changed her major to criminal justice, landed a job in Interpol’s American office as a code breaker, and poured all her energies into wrangling an assignment in Africa.

Here. Now. In a country every bit as magnificent as in the movie Out of Africa and as tumultuous as her feelings about the place that stole her mother.

Finally, she could piece together her mom’s last days. Find answers about her mother’s mysterious death. And if not answers, at least gain closure.

Although her whole quest would be moot if she didn’t squeeze more life out of the sleek boat she was steering at breakneck speed along the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden.

Stella thumped the already maxed throttle, the metal so hot to the touch it damn near blistered her palm. Logic told her the engine didn’t have anything more to give. Still, she calculated angles to take the choppy sea faster. She stayed well clear of the other vessels just as they stayed away from her. Everyone kept their distance in these lawless waters.

The hull’s nose popped over a wave and slammed back onto the churning surface. She bit her tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The motor revved and muffled, catching hold of the water and shooting forward again. Seconds counted. Timing was everything.

A team of Navy SEALs and a pair of Air Force pararescuemen were counting on her to be in place for the pickup if things went wrong with their helicopter rendezvous. Sure, those special operations dudes could swim for miles, but even the most elite of the elite warriors didn’t relish hanging out in shark-infested, pirate-riddled waters.

Sea spray stung her overheated face as the sun melted downward in the sky. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, her eyes on the sonar and radar screens feeding images of the SEALs and pararescuemen—also known as parajumpers or PJs. Six SEALs and two PJs were diving, about to “count coup” on a suspected pirate frigate, a stealthy tap-and-go.

The mother vessel was towing four faster skiffs for overtaking their targets once they reached the open sea. Except today the U.S. forces were under water disabling the smaller crafts, something the Somali pirates wouldn’t discover until they were out in the middle of the sea ready to prey on others. Those four malfunctioning boats, clearly dismantled right under their very noses, would screw with their heads.

Never underestimate the power of psychological warfare.

As a field operative for Interpol, she’d been sent to assist with the investigation into stolen artifacts by pirates off the Horn of Africa, to decipher the codes and patterns to their movements. Local government officials in the region had requested international help. Those stolen treasures brought major bucks on the black market, money then used to fund separatist groups and local warlords that increased criminal chaos. Groups responsible for instigating ruthless uprisings. Rampant looting where women were brutalized. Young males, barely teenagers, were being pressed into service. At least one of those child soldiers was on that main vessel today.

Another reason the PJs had been tapped to participate was for the safety of the kid as well as the SEALs if things went to hell. PJs received the same SEAL training needed to carry out the mission, but with additional medic skills to make a house call behind enemy lines. PJs were like Supermen with EMT bonus powers.

There hadn’t been any PJs around for her mom. Melanie Carson died here and her family had been given sketchy details along with her body to bury. Authorities had written off the injuries as results of a car accident. Stella hadn’t believed them then any more than she believed them now. She’d worked her entire career with Interpol with one goal: to find the truth about her mother’s death. Finally, she had her chance and she wouldn’t allow anything to derail her plans.

Today’s launch of her mission was everything.

A helicopter had dropped the SEALs and PJs in the water five miles out from the pirates. Afterward they were supposed to swim five back where the chopper should be able to pick them up. But as a fail-safe, she and four heavily armed CIA operatives stayed nearby in the speedboat.

She’d plotted contingencies, and more contingencies for the contingencies, because logic was her strength, her secret weapon even. It was all about backup plans.

Pop, pop, pop.

The unmistakable sound of gunfire carried across the water. Stella braced, sweat chilling under her bulletproof vest. She looked over her shoulders at her four CIA teammates aiming MP5 submachine guns.

“Is it pirates?” she shouted over her shoulder, wind tearing strands of hair loose from her braid.

“Don’t think so,” an operative known only as Mr. Smith barked back, scanning the distant horizon where two fishing boats bobbed. Of course, CIA agents were always Smith or Brown. Or if working in a pack like today, Jones and Johnson joined in. “They seem to be shooting in the air, partying maybe.”

His buddy Mr. Brown squinted into the scope on his gun. “The place is littered with these bastards. I’m not trusting that party spirit.”

Mr. Jones hitched his weapon higher. “We can outgun them.”

Stella eyed the horizon. A whale arched just ahead, then slapped its tale in a majestic display so at odds with the turmoil playing out on the water’s surface above them. “Or we can stay cool and keep moving closer in case the chopper needs to bail out.”

An explosion in the sky sent shock waves across the water. The CIA dudes dropped to their knees. So much for keeping cool.

Stella steadied the boat and studied the radar. Her heart punched into her throat. Had the pirate ship blown up? Had the PJs and SEALs been injured in the raining debris and flames?


The radar offered plenty of details.

But the news?


As bad as it got.

“The chopper exploded,” she announced, forcing her voice to stay flat, calm. Professional.

Now that she knew where to look, debris rained in the distant sky, a splash spewing on the horizon. The crew she’d briefed this morning was almost certainly dead, and if not, a different contingency was in place to search for them—a second PJ pair. Just the thought delivered a sock in the gut as she thought about another child hearing the news that her mom or dad wasn’t coming home.

But she had to push through the feelings threatening to suck her under. Her role now? Crystal clear.

“We have to get our guys out now rather than waiting for them to swim closer. Those look like dolphin fins out there, but if I’m wrong… We need to move.”

Nailing the throttle again, she compartmentalized. Later, she would climb up onto the embassy roof alone and mourn the aircrew. At this moment, her focus had to be on extracting the men in the water.

How far had the special ops men swum from the vessel? How close would she have to sweep by the known pirate frigate? And the unknown bad guys in these waters? Who had launched that rocket at the chopper?

She took a read off the sonar beside the radar, homing in on the blips. Beacons sent signals from her pickup targets. Men. Swimming. Closer. She eased back on the horsepower. Searching the surface for the slightest… ripple.

“Got ’em,” Mr. Smith announced with conviction an instant before she saw what snagged his eagle eyes.

The barest perceptible cuts through the water. The pirate vessel was a surprisingly distant shadow in the sunset. Good God, how had the men made it so far so fast? Even if the other boat was speeding away.

She cut the engine back to idle. Her four CIA field agents went into action while she kept the boat as steady as possible. They didn’t talk much—but dudes from the agency rarely spoke. One at a time they hauled sleek bodies in wet suits onto the deck. Her muscles burned as she gripped the wheel straining to spin free.

Man after man rolled onto the deck. Six, seven… eight.

The final guy whipped off his face mask and pinned her with piercing brown eyes and an intense focus that kept people alive beyond the odds. The air snapped in an indefinable way that defied the logic she embraced.


Had to be.


He nodded once, giving her a thumbs-up. “Go, go, go!”


Shaking off the momentary distraction, she revved the engine to life again. Her brain cycled to contingency twenty-freaking-two, a cave cut into the mountainous shoreline. Minutes passed in a blur as she drove and watched the screen, monitoring traffic. Pathetically few officials policed the area. A boat racing across at a reckless speed wouldn’t appear at all out of the ordinary around this place.

Even as the yawning entrance to the cave came into sight, she refused to relax her guard. She pulled back on the throttle. Entering slowly, she scanned while her quiet companions held their MP5s at the ready. Would an Interpol operative, four CIA agents, six SEALs, and two PJs be enough to face anything that waited inside? The low hum of the motor echoed like a growling beast in the cavern, one light strobing forward into the darkness.

Illuminating a waiting U.S. fishing boat.

Her final contingency.

Her plan had to work; otherwise, she would screw up her hard-earned chance of working in Africa before the mission barely got off the ground. She flung open the door to the small forward cabin of her speedboat. The clang of metal hitting metal echoed in her mind like the closing of her mother’s coffin. Melanie Carson’s daughter would not give up on day one.

Digging around in the hull, Stella pulled out small duffel bags, one after the other, tossing them to each of the men in wet suits.

“Change, gentlemen. We’re about to become American tourists on a sightseeing excursion. Mr. Jones,” who could blend in best with the locals and even spoke a regional dialect thanks to his mother, “will be our guide. We’re swapping boats, then splitting up at the dock. Blend into the crowds. Report at the embassy. You’ve got a duress code if you need to call in. Any questions?”

Only the sound of oxygen tanks and gear hitting the deck answered her.

“Good.” Her heart rate started to return to something close to normal again.

The sound of zippers sent her spinning on her heels to take care of her own transformation. She unrolled a colorful rectangular cloth, an East African kanga, complete with the standard intricate border and message woven into the red and orange pattern.