Authors: Catherine Mann
And then she would follow Madison and Ted’s path out of this place forever.
Brett downloaded the data received during the latest chat with Misty. Sometimes things were just too easy. He had Misty right where he wanted her, and his hired help from the local sheriff’s office was taking care of the messier details on the mountain. He was perfectly positioned halfway between civilization and no-man’s-land.
Clicking through the commands to file and save, Brett finished with a final tap, then spun in the leather chair to face the four-paned window. From his third-floor tiny office in the Alaska Peninsula Power Plant, he could overlook Bristol Bay in the distance, imagining it feeding into the Bering Sea. Fishing boats dotted the thawing waters along the peninsula that led to the Aleutian Islands.
And here he sat, in the perfect position to use the untapped potential of one of those islands. Far enough away from the scrutiny of major cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks, but not completely isolated on one of those godforsaken islands.
How naïve for Misty and her friends to think they could live off-the-grid as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. The world was too global, even in the remotest corners of Alaska. Those who grabbed control first, those who created opportunity out of even a barren wasteland, the kingdom builders like himself… They would survive in the end.
Above all, Brett was a survivor.
Communicating with Misty had offered the perfect means to install keylogger software into her computer, which in turn spiderwebbed into the community’s mainframe. The inside contact would be sure they couldn’t run the kind of advanced scan needed to detect the program.
Every keystroke made on their computers was logged and sent in daily emails to Brett.
No one slipped anything past the keylogger. Printouts were made and checked for cooperation, for dissent. There was no room for mistakes.
The insular community had been all too easy to infiltrate, manipulate. What would young Misty think if she knew her own little society was corruptible? He’d only needed to figure out which ones to tempt with the promise of feeding an ecoterrorist agenda. Those corruptible few were the truly bloodthirsty ones, as the world would know four days from now.
How easy it was to fool people through a computer. With an Internet connection and some help from his hired goon in the sheriff’s office, Brett could pretend to be anyone on this end.
Even Ted and Madison.
Sunny jammed her foot into the toehold Wade had carved out of the ice wall.
Gut-gnawing terror fueled her determination. Her muscles strained and trembled as she clung to a tiny crinkle overhead, eyes locked on Chewie leaning over the edge, barking furiously.
Panicked paws shifted and twitched, sending small snow showers down on her head. She’d stuffed her bulky overgloves into the bib of her snowsuit. Cold penetrated the thin undergloves, which were waterproof but not nearly as warm. A minor inconvenience, when she thought about her two dead friends below.
Her hand slipped.
Wade palmed her back and wedged his shoulder under her butt. How he managed that
while keeping his own balance climbing, she couldn’t imagine and didn’t have time to ask. Ted and Madison lay lifeless twenty feet below, and since there was no sign of a third body, she had to wonder. Had the deputy gone for help and been killed? Was he out there now? Or oh God, could the deputy have killed them? And if not him, then someone else who might still be nearby?
She shivered and secured her grip with fingers so frozen they were stiff and numb. She refused to slow Wade down. She’d already done enough damage, bringing him out here with her during her reckless dash to escape. But if she hadn’t, then Ted and Madison’s bodies may never have been found. The people at home might never have known they were dead, since there wouldn’t have been anyone to report them missing. The only hint of their disappearance would have been the lack of emails, which would be easy enough to write off as making a clean break.
God, it was too easy for a person to fall off the face of the planet.
But then wasn’t that what her family had made a point of doing, severing all ties with civilization?
So close. She was so close. Only a few more inches.
Slapping an arm over the edge, she hauled herself upward, groaning at the effort, afraid she wouldn’t be able to pull her own weight. Her arms trembled, and her toes cramped.
Chewie stretched over, his jaws open. His fangs flashed in the early-morning sun.
He sunk his teeth into her parka, tugging, yanking with just the extra help… she needed until…
Sunny hitched a knee over the edge. Growling with exertion almost as loudly as her dog, she levered herself over and rolled away flat on her back. Exhausted. But she couldn’t afford to rest. She scrambled to the edge on shaky legs and reached for Wade in case he needed help.
Wade vaulted over the edge, landing beside her, crouching on one knee. She should have known a superhero wouldn’t need her help. Hysteria welled in her oxygen-deprived brain.
She flung herself around him, clinging to life and vitality, grateful to be alive. So damn glad Wade was alive as well, that he hadn’t been harmed chasing her into whatever the hell had happened below. All the ache and want she’d felt for him during that insanely impulsive kiss roared to life again, catching her unaware when her defenses were down. Her already rattled world had been shattered in less than a few short hours. Now all she could think about was broad shoulders and how much she wanted to wrap herself around all that strength until things righted again. How totally anti-her. She wasn’t the clinging-vine sort. Was this how Stockholm syndrome worked? Yet she couldn’t deny her nerves tingling to life like thawing after a deep freeze.
A bit mortifying though, as Wade was certainly only pausing to give her enough time to catch her breath before they moved on.
Chewie nudged her shoulder just as Wade cupped the back of her neck, staring into her eyes. Checking her pupils again?
He squeezed once reassuringly before tugging her hood up. “We can’t afford to rest.”
Unspoken was the horrible threat that there could be a killer lurking nearby. “Do you need me to carry you?”
“No, no…” She pushed herself onto her hands and knees, then rose. “I can do it.”
“Good. Make sure you keep up.” He pulled the fat gloves from her overall bib, the backs of his fingers brushing quickly along the top of her breasts. “My team will be using my locator beacon to search for us,” he said, the last part loudly. As if announcing it to anyone who might be listening? “And I want to position us in the best possible place for extraction. Are you sure you don’t want me to carry you on my back? The faster we move, the sooner we’re out of here.”
He held up the gloves.
She stuffed her hands inside, fighting for enough oxygen to level her out for travel.
“Lead. I’ll keep up.”
With a curt nod, he started away from the hole in the earth. Away from Madison and Ted’s icy crypt. Her foot sunk into a deeper drift and she struggled to stay upright, not to lag, her eyes locked firmly on Wade’s broad back. Stride by stride, he guided her down the rugged slope.
Chewie loped behind her as if protecting her back.
A scant scattering of stunted conifers dotted the landscape the farther they descended.
Not dense, towering pines like in other parts of Alaska. The wind was too fierce here for that, snapping off tops of taller trees. Tearing at her every step until she feared the roar could blot out warning sounds. At least the barren landscape made it easier to scan for threats, human or otherwise, as they neared brown bear territory and the end of hibernation.
Watching Wade’s measured, steadied steps, she didn’t doubt that he could have carried her down the mountain pass just as fast. She was holding him back, but he wouldn’t leave without her. He’d made that clear.
Time to commit to getting off the mountain, even if it meant stepping into the outside world. She would face whatever else came her way—
A buzz vibrated the air by her ear. Then another. Chewie’s growl overrode the wind just as Wade turned back toward her.
“Gunfire!” He yanked her arm and tucked her behind him as he zigzagged to the left.
Bullets spewed against a lone tree ahead, splintering frozen bark left, then right. Her hand in Wade’s, she trailed him, racing, scanning, finding…
A man stood on top of a boulder a football field away, rifle on his shoulder. She hesitated, stunned. She’d suspected, but still, to see the sheriff’s deputy, Rand Smith, peering down the scope of a rifle rattled her.
He fired. She shrieked once and ducked, bracing for the impact of the bullet.
Wade yanked her down behind a short, fat tree. Panic kicked into overdrive. No matter how well versed she was in mountain survival, she was really out of her element now. Her body had been pushed to the edge of endurance, and fear sent her teeth chattering in a way that had nothing to do with cold.
Bullets zinged off the trunk, two in a row,
. Snow from the branches spewed in chunks. She grabbed Wade’s parka and pressed closer. A sense of their life and death stakes tangled up with a bizarre mess of want and fear until she desperately needed to hang on to the one familiar person in a world flipped upside down. The deputy dropped to his stomach and took aim again.
“Chewie?” she whispered, looking around frantically, then calling louder, “Chewie?”
Zing. Another bullet ricocheted off a pile of rocks at the base of the mountain.
Wade shoved her to the ground and dropped on top of her with an “Ooof.” Anything that hit her would have to go through him. Except he didn’t flinch, so she hoped, prayed, he hadn’t been hit. The bullets kept popping, echoing around the narrow crevasse in the mountain. Snow and ice chunks battered down around them, clinking off Wade’s backpack.
His hand slid from her and to his waist. He pulled out a gun, an ominous black pistol. He held it up, but for some reason, he didn’t shoot. Not that she intended to question anything he did right now, because he was the one keeping them alive and
was the one who’d screwed up again and again.
Faster and faster the mountain rumbled, until she realized.
Deputy Smith wasn’t trying to shoot them. He was trying to start an avalanche and collapse the walls on top of them.
Wade was running out of options fast.
The bastard lying belly down on a stretch of ice kept shooting at them, and while Wade had a clear shot, more gunfire could risk setting off an avalanche, since he had the foothills and overhang above him. A few more yards and they would have been in clear open space—clean pickings for the gunman. But he also could have gotten off a shot of his own. Wade gripped the barrel of his 9 mm. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it, but if the man came closer, he wouldn’t have any choice. He just prayed the snowy overhang would hold until the chopper arrived.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he mumbled softly.
He kept his body between Sunny and the bullets. Snow and chunks of ice thudded and stabbed downward, faster, thicker. He hunched around her, tighter. Adrenaline seared his veins until he could almost feel his near-frozen toes thawing.
“Wade”—Sunny gripped his jacket—“any ideas? What do you need me to do? We can’t
just stay here like sitting ducks.”
“I agree.” Another shot echoed. An icicle stabbed into the earth an inch away from his head. Shit. He rolled to his side, tucking Sunny behind him. A second fell. Fire flamed through his shoulder. He fought the urge to shout, to roll to his side and clutch the wound. “Now would be a good time to say if you know of any secret caves.”
“Sorry.” Her breath caressed his neck. “It’s flatland ahead and nothing that I know of back the way we came.”
He needed to decide fast. Wait until the other guy ran out of bullets. Or shoot back. The flat terrain ahead of them that appeared so starkly majestic at other times looked damn barren, open, and dangerous right now, empty except for the crouching gunman.
And a tiny speck on the horizon.
His heart rate ramped. A chopper. His. Theirs.
The rotors growled louder, closer, until the gunman’s head popped up. He bolted out and tore off running, long strides lumbering through the snow too fast and far away to catch even if he could, which he couldn’t—not with Sunny to look after.
Wade jumped to his feet, dragging Sunny up with him. Ignoring the blazing pain from his shoulder. “We need to book it.”
Still, he kept his eyes glued to the guy even while racing to the open area. The beacon in his boot would direct the helicopter even without radio contact. Rotor wash stirred up a hurricane of snow around them.
“My dog!” she screamed. “Chewie!”
Chewie leaped from behind a tree, loping across the ice toward them.
“We won’t leave him,” he shouted back.
The chopper engine grew louder, the winds swirling harder. The helicopter sprayed bullets into snow near the deputy. The rifle fire stopped abruptly. A curse whispered on the wind as the guy bolted to his feet and sprinted away. Part of Wade burned to chase the bastard down and pound the shit out of him. But getting Sunny the hell out of here had to take priority. They would deal with the gunman later.
Wade grabbed her hand and ran harder, trudging through the snow toward the clearing.
The helicopter hovered overhead. He pumped his hand, signaling for them to drop a line, which was faster than waiting around for a landing.
The cable descended with a treble hook seat rather than a basket. Wade hefted Sunny onto the seat and strapped her in before she could ask for help. Much like his mom, who had found it faster to do something herself than to explain. Now his mother could barely feed herself because of her battlefield injuries.
Thoughts of how he hadn’t been there to help those closest to him threatened to rattle his focus, and he of all people knew how important attention to detail was in his job. Wade hooked himself to the same cable, facing Sunny. He grabbed the dog by the collar and hauled him into his lap, arms around the furry beast.