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Sky Hunters: Operation Southern Cross

Sky Hunters: Operation Southern Cross by Jack Shane
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The expert, the fearless, the crazy-the most lethal weapon in the U.S. arsenal

Only the best can make it in X-Battalion, the top-secret experimental arm of the U.S. military's TF-160 Nightstalkers. The mavericks and madmen who fly the highest tech attack helicopters make their own rules as they shuttle CIA spooks and Special Ops commandos to high-risk zones -- and leap into the fight without question whenever the need arises.

But fresh from a successful mission against a Colombian drug lord, XBat finds itself the target of a new and unexpected enemy: fighter jets from a revitalized Venezuelan air force. A brutal new-age SS is coming alive in this volatile South America powderkeg, with the power to start a war and a terrifying weapon to help them win it. But now they've got XBat's rogue warriors on their tail, who are determined to pursue the growing threat from Caracas to Cuba . . . and eliminate it by any means necessary.

HarperCollins; May 2009
304 pages; ISBN 9780061945793
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Title: Sky Hunters: Operation Southern Cross
Author: Jack Shane

Chapter One

It All Started With a Bang!

The hidden warehouse known as Casa de Coco went up in a ball of flame and smoke. Two tons of coco leaves, 100 gallons of kerosene and 15 one-hundred-pound bags of processed "supercrack" cocaine -- all gone in a fiery flash.

The dozen narco soldiers lounging around the jungle camp's barracks were thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion. It was just past midnight, but the blast turned night into day. The noise was so loud in fact, it caused the soldiers' ears to bleed. What was happening?

As the stunned gunmen struggled to their feet, another explosion went off just a hundred feet away. They saw the missile this time. It streaked right by them, following a path down the middle of the camp's only street, before taking a sharp left-hand turn and slamming into the compound's second-most important structure: the chemicals shed.

This explosion was twice as loud, twice as fiery, twice as violent as the first. This second blast flattened not only the chemicals shed, but every building around it, throwing the gunmen to the mud a second time. Several were killed by the sheer force of the explosion. Worse for them, the building hit had been full of toxic chemicals, especially hydrochloric acid and ammonia, components used for changing coca leafs into cocaine. Blown sky high, this fatal acid rain came back down in a deluge, burning some of them horribly.

The third blast came seconds later. The gunmen saw the missile this time too. It went over their heads, down the street again, its tail trailing smoke and greenish fire before it corkscrewed itself into the camp's third-most important structure: its water tank.

This explosion was the most violent of all. The jungle floor shook as if the area were being tossed by an earthquake. A tsunami of water and mud roared down the main street, leveling every building still standing and carrying away more of the hapless gunmen. Thousands of gallons of water, now gone, meant there was nothing to fight the fires, now raging all over. The camp had become hell in a very green place, all in less than a minute.

The surviving gunmen began to panic. These were precision-guided weapons being fired at them. They could tell by the way the missiles flew and how they picked out their targets. But the camp was in a part of the South American jungle so deep, so isolated, no one knew if it belonged to Colombia or Peru.

Who the hell would be dropping million-dollar bombs on them out here?

The explosions were clearly heard at Casa de Pablo two miles away. The place was a mansion hidden in the thick jungle. Dozens of rooms, an Olympic-size swimming pool, exotic gardens, a zoo.

It was the home of Pablo Escoban. He was extremely wealthy, the first man in history to make more than a billion dollars illegally selling cocaine. His estate was located in this isolated place not for security reasons but simply because elements inside the Peruvian and Colombian governments allowed it to exist out here. They would not harm him, try to arrest him or do anything to interfere with his weekly half-ton shipments of cocaine, and now supercrack, to the United States. Of course, he paid them handsomely for this favor.

He'd lived in the jungle for almost five years now -- and in that time, the only thing he'd ever had to complain about was the sometimes drenching rains.

Until today.

The explosions woke Pablo from a deep sleep. His bed was shaking, his windows rattling. He could even hear the water in his pool sloshing around. To the east, massive fireballs were rising over the patch of jungle where his large cocaine plantation was located. They looked oddly beautiful, ascending into the night.

Pablo ran to his bedroom's balcony and yelled down to the small army of security men who protected his property twenty-four hours a day. But it was already too late. Coming out of the fireballs on the horizon were a half dozen helicopters. Pablo could clearly see their silhouettes against the fire in the sky. They were loaded down with weapons, gun muzzles sticking out of their fuselages and rocket launchers hanging off of their wings. The helicopters weren't making any noise, though. They almost seemed like something from a dream.

Pablo knew this was not the Colombian or Peruvian army coming to get him. One of his many spies would have warned him in advance of such an attack -- and besides, he paid heaps of money to both countries just so something like this would not happen.

No -- these helicopters belonged to someone else.

He ran. Back into his bedroom, into his shirt and pants and slippers, down the stairs, through his opulent living room and kitchen and out the backdoor. There was a seldom-used opening in the twenty-foot-high wall that surrounded his palace. Pablo headed straight for it. Usually a cool customer, he was in a full-blown panic now. His only chance, or so he thought, was to get to the cover of the thick jungle beyond his lavish grounds. The only problem? The jungle was a place so dangerous, none of his bodyguards chose to follow.

The helicopters were over the mansion just seconds later. Again there were six of them, even as another six had remained over the cocaine plant, continuing to pummel it with rockets and cannon fire.

Three different kinds of copters were quickly buzzing Escoban's manse. Two were small and bubble nosed. They were flitting around like a pair of giant insects, dropping dozens of flares all over the compound's grounds. Behind them were two mid-size helicopters. These were gunships, distinguished by the number of weapons hanging off of them. They began firing rockets and missiles almost immediately, aiming at targets illuminated by the cloud of slowly falling flares.

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