TODAY, MORE THAN any other, reporter Will Masterson prayed that his lies would save lives. Starting with his partner's, Homeland Security Agent Simon Rouss, aka Hafiz Tarkan.
Please, God, be on my side today. Will raced on foot down the two-lane, rutted, forest-service road, cursing his stupidity as well as a few new souvenir bruises. He smelled rain in the air as the wind shivered the trees with a late-season breeze. His nose felt thick and caked with clots. He should have known his sympathetic commentaries in the Moose Bend Journal toward the recent immigrants flooding over the Canadian border would draw blood with the locals. Blood that would hopefully protect Simon while he embedded deeper into the terrorist cell in the hills.
Because Will knew the men who'd hijacked him and hauled him into the forest to beat the tar out of him over his recent op-ed piece weren't actually disgruntled rednecks but rather international terrorists.
The lie that had just saved Will Masterson's hide, the lie perpetuated by the boys toting 30.06s and wearing work boots, was the only thing keeping Simon from being brutally murdered. Which would only be the first in a hundred - maybe a thousand - murders by the Hayata terrorist cell hiding in the northern Minnesota woods.
If only Will hadn't been ambushed by the double-edged sword called failure sitting in his PO box. A letter from Bonnie. He'd opened it, and the words knifed him through the chest: Bonnie Strong and Paul Moore invite you to a celebration of life and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.
He should have dropped the invitation to his floorboard and crushed it under his foot. Instead, he'd let the memories, the grief, the failure rush over him and blind him to the three men lying in wait like a nest of rattlers. He should have done better by Lew's wife, protected her, made sure she was safe. Who was this Paul?
A year of undercover work, of slinking around this hick town, praying for a way to destroy the Hayata cell, and it all had to come to a head the same day his mistakes rose from the past to haunt him.
"Tell Bonnie and the girls I love them." Lew's words, hovering in the back of Will's mind could still turn his throat raw after three years. If Simon bought it, Will would be sending yet another letter home to a wife and loved ones.
Soldiers had no business getting married.
Will's breath felt like a razor inside his lungs. A branch clipped him, and blood pooled inside his mouth. Ruts and stone bit into his cowboy boots as he ran, and sweat lined his spine. The sky mirrored his despair in the pallor of gray, the clouds heavy with tears. How long had he been unconscious after they'd thrown him off the four-wheeler?
Better question.how much did they guess about his alliance with Simon? Obviously, the good ol' boys who snatched him as he'd sat in his truck, waiting for his contact, knew Will's habits. Simon's habits. They'd found them, despite the fact that he and Simon had picked the backwoods gravel pit for its remoteness. But please, please let them believe my lies . . . which would mean maybe Simon's cover hadn't been blown. Maybe there wouldn't be another unnamed star embedded in the wall of honor at Langley . . . like Lew's.
Thunder rolled overhead when Will burst from the road onto the gravel pit. Yes, thank you, the thugs/terrorists/angry readers hadn't damaged his wheels. Probably, however, they thought his 1984 Chevy wasn't worth their time.
What they didn't know was that reporter Will Masterson didn't just spend his time penning controversial editorials and writing the crime beat for the local weekly. Under the hood of this baby, he had a 350 Hemi with a high-lift cam and a fourbarrel Edelbrock Thunder carb.
They didn't call him Wild Will for nothing. Okay, he'd earned that nickname for different reasons, during a different life. But sometimes the moniker still meant something. Like now as he hopped in and slammed all three hundred and fifty horses to the floor, spitting gravel behind him as he raced to the Howlin' Wolf.
Please, Simon, be there. Or, if he'd been forced to make a fast exit, let him have taped his latest intel under Will's favorite table.
After a year of undercover work, he and Simon had one chance - one click in time - to get it right. One opportunity to avenge the thousands of victims who died at the hands of terrorists around the globe. Victims like Lew.
Please, Simon, be there.
The late-afternoon drizzle seemed a fitting backdrop to the painful truth that Search and Rescue (SAR) canine handler Dannette Lundeen had to voice to the crowd of damp searchand- rescue personnel combing Lookout Mountain near the fields behind the High Pines Rest Center.
June Hanson - dementia patient, age eighty-six, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of fourteen, and recent escapee from the nursing home - would probably be returned to her family in a body bag.
Please, Lord, don't let her die alone. Dannette crouched beside Missy, her German shepherd/golden retriever mix, and scratched the dog's floppy ear. Missy's respirations came one on top of another, her stacked breathing a natural alert for the smell of something near or already dead. Trained in search and rescue, Missy and Dannette had recovered more than their share of casualties, and Dannette read the diminishing potential for success in her animal's demeanor.
Twilight threaded gray fingers around the trees, through the brambled forest, and around shaggy pines and spindly poplars. A crisp breeze, dredged up from the still-soggy earth, whistled against Dannette's hood. She felt chapped, hungry, and worn birch-bark thin. And, with night encroaching, hope had dwindled with the sunshine to a meager shadow.
From her backpack she drew out a water bottle, set down a collapsible bowl, and filled it. Missy lapped greedily.
Fifty feet away, she heard the echo of Kelly's call to her dog, Kirby. The younger SAR shepherd, out on his first real trial, probably hadn't yet picked up the scent cone or Kelly would be radioing Dannette for advice.
The overpowering smell of death scared most dogs. Then again, it didn't exactly warm Dannette's insides with a happy feeling.
Dannette stood and let Missy finish her water. Maybe Missy was wrong. She wasn't Super Dog, although Dannette had to admit that following Missy's instincts often led them to hideouts unthinkable even to the most keen SAR personnel. And Missy was an air-scent dog, which meant she followed the smells left by the scraping of skin on rocks, trees, and bushes. Sadly, Missy's abilities decreased as the day worsened.
If only it hadn't taken the nursing-home staff an hour after June turned up missing at morning breakfast to call the sheriff's office, then two more hours and the urging of the mayor - June's desperate son - to finally call Kelly, their local, nearly certified K-9 handler. Not only had a late-morning shower diffused the scent cone left by Mrs. Hanson by then, but the variable winds and temperatures had scattered the scent and confused Missy. They'd walked the perimeter in a hasty search for two more hours before Missy caught the scent and alerted them to Mrs. Hanson's trail.
Dannette found that, as usual, the dementia patient didn't stick to the deer trails or clearings. Mrs. Hanson had pushed through honeysuckle and raspberry bushes, climbed over downed birches, crossed a stream, and ascended a hill that should have put her in traction. Even dementia patients who struggled to move in ordinary circumstances proved they still had gumption when some errant impulse revved up their synapses. But Mrs. Hanson had lived a stout life, had run a farm until her husband's death a few years ago, and would probably still be milking her Jersey if her mind hadn't betrayed her. The woman could easily be a mile from here or sitting atop Lookout Mountain.
Or - if Dannette read her dog correctly - dead.
Missy sat on her haunches and licked her lips. Water dripped off her jowls.
Dannette picked up the empty bowl and shoved it back into her backpack. "Okay, ready?"
Missy tilted her head.
"I know, sweetheart. But if it makes you feel any better, I'm glad you're here. You handle death so much better than Sherlock. He'd have his hackles up and be cowering under that white pine." She stepped away from Missy, changed her tone. "Find." They'd been working on a free search all afternoon, after Missy's first alert. With Kelly and Kirby twenty-five feet to the west, Dannette let Missy run twenty-five feet or more ahead, quartering the wind for scent debris. Dannette checked her GPS with her map, pinpointed her position, and radioed the incident commander.
"10-4, Search One," replied Sheriff Fadden.
Dannette pictured the guy as she'd last seen him, wearing a black, lined Windbreaker, his stomach rebelling against the snaps, using a bullhorn to direct traffic at the nursing home. Just what June Hanson's loved ones needed as they watched the chaos.
To add to their pain, Dannette had seen two news reporters from the local rags already lurking, smelling blood. The leeches.
"Just heard from Search Two," Fadden continued. "Kirby alerted to scent and Kelly is tracking north toward Lookout Cliff."
He had a flattened Midwestern accent, although nothing else about him could be labeled flat. Including his ego. One month of working with or around him with the local SAR crew told her that she'd have better luck trying to reason with a bull moose. Dannette had no doubt that if Fadden could get away with it, he'd drop-kick her and her SAR dog back to her home state.
Sadly, he needed her, and they both knew it. On hand to help Kelly and her K-9 Kirby pass their SAR K-9 certification, Dannette and Missy were the only K-9 unit within two states with the teaching hours and credits to certify the team. Said certification would qualify the sheriff's department for a healthy government grant for rural SAR, an end goal that Fadden never failed to keep in the forefront of Dannette's purpose here in Moose Bend, Minnesota. Unfortunately, in his mind that goal didn't warrant tapping his force for live-victim-search training or scooping from the currently dwindling county SAR fund for K-9 training scents and devices.
The Fadden types in the world didn't put stock in the successes of the canine SAR community and, in fact, stirred up false hopes with their unrealistic, all-or-nothing attitudes. One failure and the entire SAR K-9 reputation suffered; one success and they were heralded as heroes.
It left little room for the long, dark, soggy afternoons that defined SAR K-9 work. If she and Kelly failed to locate Mrs. Hanson, Dannette knew Sheriff Fadden would push what buttons he could to shut down her K-9 training course and send her back to Iowa with a bill for expenses. Which meant that more people, like Mrs. Hanson and four-year-old Ashley Lundeen, would perish, alone and afraid.
This is not about Ashley. Dannette's thoughts recoiled against the familiar stampede of memories, and she shook herself back to the search at hand.
"10-4," Dannette said as she checked her topo map with her flashlight and noted Kelly's sector and direction. She frowned, checked again. "Search One to Search Two, please confirm location."
Kelly's voice came over the line, young and just breathless enough to indicate she was following Kirby at a fast clip. "Crossing Devil's Creek, about one hundred yards from Lookout Cliff."
"10-4," Dannette acknowledged, her heart thumping. If Kirby had also alerted, perhaps Mrs. Hanson still lived and had simply holed up in a location that emitted a putrid odor, a cave with guano or even the remains of a dead animal. Dannette folded up the map, her heart lightening.
She plowed into the fractured, darkening shadows of the forest, watching Missy work the scent. The dog stopped, circled, her nose high, then turned and looked at Dannette. Dannette used her clicker to urge the dog forward. The handheld device gave instant encouragement without having to rely on verbal cues.
The rain drizzled down into her jacket, and she shivered; she was hungry, cold, tired. But she refused to think of the hot shower waiting. Not until she found Mrs. Hanson.
No one deserved to die alone. Without family.
The thought roughened her throat as she steadied herself on a skinny poplar and climbed over a downed, softened birch.
Without family. No, Dannette had a family - her dogs, Sherlock and Missy. Probably the only real family she'd ever had, except perhaps for Jim Micah and the other members of Team Hope. Yeah, they felt like family. At least as far as she'd let them inside her heart.
It simply wasn't wise to let people that close. Because getting close also meant allowing them a glimpse of the nightmares she still hadn't shaken.
This is not about Ashley. Dannette told herself that twice more as she watched Missy run back to her, the hair on her neck bristled. Her breathing turned rapid as she sat, a passive alert to the target scent.
"Good dog," Dannette said. "Refind."
The dog bounded off, far enough ahead to keep the scent but not so far that Dannette couldn't see her in the growing darkness. Please, Lord, have her on the trail of something real and alive. She could still hear little Robby, June's grandson, pleading in the back of her mind.
Please find her, moaned another voice, one buried in her heart.
She pushed through a netting of branches and flinched for only a second when one backhanded her. The smells of decay and loam stirred up from the ground, and foraging animals clung to the night air. Darkness drifted like fine particles through the forest, so gradual as to nearly not recognize its accumulation. A cool breeze carried the echo of barking, a faint tugging on Dannette's ears as she pushed aside tree limbs and stomped through bramble. Hopefully Kirby and Kelly weren't far behind.
Missy waited at the base of a large rooted trio of birches. She looked at Dannette, her ears pricked forward. Dannette put a hand on her back. "Find."
Dannette fought to keep Missy in the beam of her flashlight. They'd have to quit soon, and that thought made her want to weep.
Please, Lord, let us find Mrs. Hanson. Alive.
Missy barked, an active alert that she'd uncovered something. Dannette marked a tree with a reflector, then trudged through the brush after the dog. Missy stood, outlined in a hover of pine.
"Search Two to Search One." Kelly's voice broke over the radio.
Dannette keyed her radio while she tried to get a fix on her canine. "Search One here." The deepening darkness turned the forest into a black-and-white, B-version horror flick, complete with escaping birds and the rustle of ominous wind.
Dannette aimed her flashlight on the ground in front of her.
Missy stood over a form, a body for sure, dressed in dark pants and a blue Windbreaker, crumpled in the fetal position, its back to her.
Her heart banging against her ribs, Dannette held her breath and approached. Missy danced around the form, animated, her breaths fast.
Dannette's chest clogged, and a tiny, panicked voice inside told her to turn and run. Dark memories lurked on the fringes of this moment to snare her and suck her down, to drown her.
Dannette held back a gasp and reached for her dog.
The form wore a black bag over its head. The smell of death didn't permeate the air, but the fine hairs prickled on Dannette's neck as she inched away. "Good dog," she whispered.
Static proceeded Kelly's voice, punctuating the moment and frazzling Dannette's tightly strung nerves. "I found her! Mrs. Hanson is alive!"
Dannette's knees gave out, a weakness borne from part relief, part horror. And maybe a little from the ringing in her ears.
Whom exactly had she found?