Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
She set her pack on the plywood floor. She was dirty and smelled, and she wanted hot water, hot food, a hot fire. But she could see snow falling in fine, tiny flakes and wasn’t sure now that she and Devin should risk descending the mountain in the middle of a storm. They could take the trail down to the old logging road, but it wouldn’t do them any good; they’d still have to trek miles to get to civilization. If one of them had left a vehicle there, that would have been a sensible option. On foot, they’d get to warmth, electricity and running water faster if they headed back to the lodge the way they’d come.
And now that she’d smashed Devin’s phone, they couldn’t just get to a spot where there was service and call for help. Not that there was one close by, anyway.
We could sit out the storm,
Nora thought, surveying the dry, cozy cabin.
She and Devin had enough supplies to last at least another day, and maybe he could figure out how to install the chimney and get the woodstove working.
Nora liked the idea that no one else would be able to find the cabin, either. They’d be safe there.
She’d get Devin, and tell him her idea.
As she started back for the door, she heard someone moving fast in the evergreens out in front of the cabin and went still, stifling a startled scream.
“Run, Nora, run! Hide!”
He was yelling frantically, and she could hear the terror in his voice. Her heart jumped, a painful jolt of adrenaline surging through her as she gulped in air. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have a weapon or know how to fight or
“Stay away from her!”
Devin, Devin, Devin.
Nora bolted for the cabin’s back door, tore it open and scrambled outside, over scrap lumber and an old tarp slick with snow. She dived into the trees and crouched down low, snow whipping into her face and down her neck, sharp branches clawing at her.
She’d left it in the cabin. She had on her hat and gloves, but her tent, her sleeping bag—all her supplies were in her pack. She couldn’t turn back, and she moved fast down a short incline into a steep, shallow gully.
The leaves were wet and slippery under the snow. One wrong step, and she could fall and break an ankle, knock herself out on a rock. Even if she was able to get right up again, she didn’t want to lose her head start.
Devin, where are you?
She kept moving. She didn’t call him, didn’t say a word. She tried to make as little noise as possible as she descended the short, very steep hill into the crevice of the gully. She couldn’t hear the sounds of running anymore—just her own panting, and, she swore, her thumping heart.
The sky seemed to disappear, become a part of the endless trees towering over her. The snow came down nonstop. She looked up at it and felt as if she were in the middle of an all-white kaleidoscope that just kept whirling and wouldn’t let her out.
Choking back tears, too frightened to cry, she stumbled and fell onto one knee. The deep, sopping leaves and evergreen needles immediately soaked through her pants. She got up, shaking now.
Rotting fallen trees and huge boulders, some taller than she, littered the crevice, offering places to hide. Nora knew she had to stop, or whoever was chasing Devin would hear her, see her, follow her footprints…find her.
I need to help Dev.
But what could she do? She was defenseless, helpless. She didn’t know where he was. Who was after him.
Maybe it was just a bear chasing him, and he’ll be all right.
She dropped behind a massive boulder, into snow and brown, wet leaves. She sank as low as she could, squeezing herself between the cold granite behind her and the gnarly roots and trunk of a tall evergreen in front of her. She curled herself into a tight ball, trying to make herself as invisible and as hard to find as possible.
She knew it wasn’t a bear chasing Devin.
She realized her hat had come off and pulled up her hood, which she should have done sooner to keep the snow from going down her neck. She thought of Elijah explaining how to trap body heat. Wind and cold, wet conditions were the enemy.
And here she was, tucked against cold, wet rock and sitting on cold, wet ground, both of which would suck the warmth out of her and send the cold straight in.
It was snowing. Hard.
At least I’m out of the worst of the wind.
Without her pack, with her pants already wet…
She started to cry, but she could hear Elijah warning the class not to waste energy and body heat panicking.
And she didn’t want whoever was out there to find her.
She drew her knees up under her chin and watched the snow collect on the spruce needles and dead leaves.
Now she knew how Drew Cameron had died up here.
He was murdered.
Just like Alex.
She strained to hear even the slightest sound out above the gully, but all she heard was the howl of the wind whipping through the trees.
Nora squeezed her eyes shut tight and silently repeated her mantra.
Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think…
Three hours after he’d left the lodge, Elijah was well onto the north side of the mountain and figured Jo was probably fifteen minutes behind him. He’d spotted her a while back. She’d catch up with him eventually. She was fit as hell.
He remembered the feel of those strong legs of hers last night.
How to mess with a man’s situational awareness. He refocused on the steep, rough trail. Light, wet snow clung to the evergreens around him and slickened a stretch of exposed rock, but the storm was just starting. It would get worse. He’d be spending the night out in it.
He’d made good time and hadn’t run into anyone or seen any sign of anyone on the mountain. If Devin and Nora had taken another route and gone back to the lodge, all the better. Elijah figured he and Jo could have a snowball fight and heat up cocoa over a hot fire.
Given the conditions, he estimated he was still a half hour out from where his father had died. They’d come this way dozens of times when Elijah was a boy. Day hikes, overnight camping trips. His father could hike for hours without a break and could sleep anywhere—on rocks, roots, pine needles, in the middle of ferns, on the side of a mountain. Elijah had inherited—or learned—those same abilities, which had come in handy during his years of military service.
The trail leveled off and narrowed even further as it curved sharply along the base of a rock-faced knoll. With a near-vertical wall of granite to his right and a sharp drop to his left, Elijah decided to stop thinking about Jo’s legs and focus on not falling off the damn mountain.
He heard a scraping sound directly above him and then a hissing as small stones and dirt let loose and cascaded down onto him. He put up an arm, deflecting a baseball-size rock, and jumped back, maintaining his footing on the slippery ground.
More rock and dirt piled onto the trail in front of him.
He quickly retraced his steps back to where the trail had leveled off, then charged up through dense spruces to the top of the knoll. The mini landslide hadn’t started spontaneously, when he happened to be on a tricky section of the trail. One wrong move, and he’d have gone right off the trail—at least a forty-foot drop.
But Elijah didn’t see anyone, didn’t hear anyone over the sound of the wind. The falling dirt and rock and the noise of his own running through fallen leaves and evergreen needles had covered any sound his attacker had made in retreat.
He stepped over a decaying, moss-covered oak stump to the edge of the rock face where the rock-and-dirt slide had started and saw footprints—almost certainly from a man’s boots—fast disappearing in the accumulating snow.
He squinted out into the trees and falling snow, which was coming down faster, more heavily. Even in the storm, it was a hell of a view out across the mountain peaks from up here—and a perfect spot to lie in wait for someone down on the trail.
His hand stung where he’d bloodied his knuckles dodging the mini landslide. Served him right, he thought, for not wearing his gloves. He focused his attention on the scene and noticed a walking stick on the ground, partway beneath a knee-high boulder that, obviously, someone had tried to dislodge, setting off the rock-and-dirt slide.
Elijah picked up the walking stick. It was Devin’s—had to be. Had that skinny little bastard just tried to knock him off the mountain? But Elijah didn’t think so. He clutched the thick walking stick. Devin had left it behind before his tumble at the falls yesterday. Jo had just fetched his pack back to the lodge.
Pushing back a spark of fear for the teenager, Elijah concentrated on the immediate problem. The main purpose of the attack hadn’t been to kill or disable him—there were more efficient ways to accomplish either one—but, more likely, to interrupt him, delay him, slow him down.
And, possibly, to implicate Devin at the same time.
Elijah debated tracking his attacker, but only for a half second. Jo was right behind him, and she needed to know what was going on.
The snow was several inches deep as he headed back to the trail. He dropped down onto it just as Jo came around the curve. He felt a dangerous rush of emotion. He had no regrets about last night, he decided. Not one. But that didn’t mean it had been sane to make love to her.
She fastened her turquoise eyes on him. “What happened to you?”
“Someone tried to play King of the Hill with me.”
“You were attacked?”
“That sums it up.” As he eased his pack off his shoulders and set it down in front of him he gave her a quick rundown of what had transpired.
“You don’t know who it was?” she asked.
“Have you seen anyone else out here since you started up the mountain?”
He shook his head. “Just me and the chickadees. And you, of course. Didn’t like being left behind, did you?”
She ignored him. “I haven’t seen anyone, either. Let me look at your hand. Do you have a first-aid kit?”
“Yes, but all my hand needs is a glove. It’s damn cold out here.”
He interrupted her. “The storm’s moving in fast. We’re already up here. Let’s just find Nora and Devin.” He unzipped his pack’s main compartment and got out his gloves, noting that Jo was decked out in high-end hiking gear and clothing—A.J., he thought. “You have a price tag hanging from your spanking-new backpack.”
“I’ll cut it off later.”
“We can go our separate ways, or we can stay together.” He put on his gloves, ignoring the sting of his knuckles. “Which?”
“We stay together,” she said without hesitation.
Jo gave him a tight look that reminded Elijah she was a federal agent.
“Because I am,” he said.
He lifted his pack and shrugged it back on as he walked up through the trees onto the knoll, in order to bypass the pile of rock and dirt that now blocked the trail. He thought he heard Jo mutter something about Camerons and rules, but when he glanced back, she was right behind him. “I’m not letting you out of my sight,” she said.
“Same here, sweet pea.”
She fell in beside him. “It wasn’t Nora or Devin who set off that landslide. You know it wasn’t. A.J. said Rigby was checking up at the falls, but I didn’t see him. There’s cell phone coverage back there. I tried him a few times. No answer. I don’t trust him, Elijah.”
“Whoever attacked me knows he has company up here.”
“He knows who it is, too,” Jo said. “The storm’s getting worse. If he’s smart, he’s beating a path off the mountain and out of Black Falls. But I never count on bad guys being smart. We need to find Nora and Devin before he does.”
Elijah didn’t respond. He knew he didn’t need to.
Jo moved with assurance, gripping the front straps of her pack as she ducked around the low branches of a hemlock. She’d been hiking for hours and her pack had to be heavy, but she looked tireless, determined. That was the Jo Harper he’d always known. How the hell had she ended up protecting the vice president’s kids?
How had he ever let her go?
But he had, and there was no going back.
They intersected the trail about a quarter-mile out beyond the knoll and took it uphill—no sign of footprints. Both the wind and snow picked up, reducing visibility. Elijah had snowshoes, but Jo didn’t. Luckily, conditions were still fine for boots.
They were close now to where his father’s body had been found by the teenager he’d befriended.
Jo touched his arm and slowed her pace, but he’d heard it, too—a moan, a shuffling sound up ahead. He took off his pack, unzipping the outer compartment to locate his weapon, a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson. Her Sig, he’d already observed, was in a belt holster on her waist, under her new jacket.
He heard another moan, this time mixed with a sob, but left his gun where it was in his pack when he saw Devin stagger out from behind a snow-covered balsam fir. He tried to speak. “Nora…” He was ashen and in obvious pain as he clamped one arm to his middle. “He’s after her.”
Elijah heard Jo’s quick intake of breath, but he was closer to Devin and caught him as he fell forward, shutting his eyes, grimacing. He sank against Elijah’s chest. “You’re all right now, Devin. I’ve got you. Who’s after Nora?”
“That big bastard…”
“Rigby?” Jo asked sharply. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. Nora…” Devin’s eyes flickered open, and Elijah could see the fear shoot through the teenager as he tried to pull away. “I have to go to her.”
Jo wasn’t having it. “Not a chance.” She shrugged off her pack and set it on a gnarled, snow-covered tree root. “You’re hurt, and you need to be straight with us, so that we can help.”
Elijah got Devin down onto the ground, his clothes already soaked. He moaned, near tears, shivering in pain as snow collected on his bare head.
“What happened?” Elijah asked.