The Devil's Waters

Chapter 1

2010

On board HH-60 Pedro 1

Hindu Kush

Afghanistan

The earphones in LB’s helmet buzzed.

“Where’d he go?”

LB lay still. He’d stretched out on the Pave Hawk’s vibrating floor and wasn’t going to give up his spot just because the pilot sounded a little edgy. These helo jocks were good, and what little they didn’t know about the valleys and mountains of Afghanistan, multiple arrays of electronics could tell them. GPS, FLIR, Inertial Nav—the cockpit up front shimmered with green gauges, digits, and shifty electronic lines. LB lay in the back of Pedro 1, comfortable. He had his own job to do once they reached the village. He lolled his head to the side to glance out the window, into the canopy of high blue over the serrated edges of the Hindu Kush.

Beside him, Wally couldn’t help himself; he had to look. He rose to his knees, pivoting to get a peek out the windshield. The moment he did this, Doc’s boots filled in the vacated space.

Wally’s voice sizzled over the intercom. “Whoa.”

In that moment, the squall socked away the sky and mountains. The floor under LB’s rump and rucksack shook as their copter disappeared into the fat, blowing mist.

Around LB, everyone—the flight engineer, back-end gunner, even old hands Doc and Quincy—peered out the windows. This wasn’t a fascination with weather, how thick a whiteout nature could whip up at nine thousand feet in the Afghan mountains. The men were on the lookout for Pedro 2, the other Pave Hawk on the mission, with its own giant rotating blade somewhere, invisibly, close by.

LB couldn’t enjoy having the floor all to himself if no one was competing with him for it. The others had noses pressed to the windows like pooches, paying him no mind. The pilots and engineer continued their radio chatter. Even in their clipped speech over the intercom, LB deciphered some nerves. He slid back against the door, shoving himself to a sitting position, and shouldered beside young Jamie to get a gander at the storm.

“Whoa is right.”

The HH-60 blasted through the squall at 120 miles per hour. Snow and sheets of fog streaked by in hurrying, purling ghosts of opaque white. Visibility ramped down to zero.

The air frame rattled, suspended beneath the spinning rotor. The HH-60 was built for rugged, not smooth, flying. She was neither sleek nor pretty. The aircraft was designed to be hard to bring down, not much else. Left and right, mountain peaks and sheer walls zoomed by, completely obscured. Somewhere in this same blank morass flew Pedro 2, another HH-60.

“Ringo 53, Pedro 1,” the pilot called to their HC-130 fuel plane cruising two thousand feet overhead, above the storm. “You got eyes on?” “Negative, Pedro 1. Blind on your position.”

LB muttered, “Shit.” The intercom picked this up.

Wally shot him a cool rebuke from behind his Oakley shades.

LB ignored him. Wally was a captain and a CRO, but that didn’t have much juice up here, where all their tails were equally on the line. On his knees, LB squirmed between Doc and Quincy. He stuck his head into the narrow alley between the engineer and back-end gunner for a clear view of the cockpit.

LB didn’t look out the windshield or at the gauges and flowing emerald lines on the heads-down display. He was interested not in computers or satellites right now, but in the pilots, the hands on the controls.

He’d been in this situation before, a year ago in southern Afghanistan, Paktika Province. Same drill: high altitude, sudden whiteout, PR mission. The air force after-report said the copter pilots lost spatial orientation only minutes after being swallowed whole