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The site might as well have been on Mars, rather than tucked in the South Dakota Badlands. Shane was still sweating from the fifteen-mile bike ride, which was nearly vertical in some places along the lonely trail and eventually led to an abandoned mine. They'd finally reached the spot known by the other endurance racers as Sheer Drop. It was a cliff of gray rock, striated with layers of black and white, studded with one lone tree standing sentinel against the sky. The view was spectacular. Even in his preoccupied state, Shane recognized the magnificence of the canyon below, twisting and brushy, and the hills with their covering of wind-tossed grass. The air was scented with the tang of newly fallen rain on long-parched ground.
Shane knew the Desert Quest race producers were keeping tabs on the participants. Back at the campground, which served as base of operations, they tracked everyone carefully via the GPS units all the racers carried, particularly Shane, as he was a late addition. He knew that race producer, Martin Chenko, and the man Shane was really interested in talking to, Devin Ackerman, were watching them.
Go ahead and watch, Ackerman. Enjoy things while you can.
A cold drizzle of rain snaked down his back as he laced on his climbing shoes and secured the bike before beginning preparations for the descent, slipping on a harness and checking the static rope already affixed to the top of the cliff.
The bank of clouds blotted out the afternoon sky, and the wind blew in sporadic gusts. If the October drizzle morphed into a serious storm, the corrugated rocks would turn slick and rappelling down would be dangerous. Storms in the South Dakota Badlands were more than noisy. They were deadly. The man next to Shane regarded him without a hint of a smile, prematurely silver hair glinting in the sparse sunlight.
"Think you can make it? You've got to prove competency before they'll let us race as a team," Andy Gleeson said. "If you can't, say so now and I'll find another teammate. I'm in this thing to win the fifty thousand. My partner bugged out two weeks ago. That's the only reason I'm giving you a look."
"I got that. I can do it, if they don't call it on account of the weather. It's just a trial run."
"Seems to me you got a good incentive to win," Gleeson said, giving him an appraising look. "Ranching can't pay too good."
Shane started. "How did you know I'm a rancher?"
Gleeson looked at the sky. "Ah, you just hear things."
What things? Did Gleeson know about Shane's brother, even though he'd used a fake last name? If he did, then Ackerman might know the truth as well, the real reason Shane had entered the race. He itched to grill Gleeson, but further questions would only make things worse.
Shane jerked the strap on his helmet tight. "I know I'm your second choice." He also knew he could handle the physical requirements of the race. Climbing, swimming, canoeing and the like were no problem, after having spent plenty of time training for triathlons and Iron Man races.
The question was, could he accomplish his real goal? He knew deep down in his bones that race publicity man Devin Ackerman killed his sister-in-law, and all he had to do was find Ellen Brown, the woman who'd lied to give Ackerman an alibi. Many of the racers were repeaters so the chances were good some of Ellen's old teammates were competing again. All he needed was a way to contact her, convince her to come clean, at least enough to cast doubt on the police's ironclad case against his brother. Or maybe Ackerman would incriminate himself. Shane had done additional research, combing through blogs from previous Desert Quest races for any mention of Ackerman, and knew that the man liked to party. And when he did, he liked to talk.
All I need to do is stay around long enough to find the tiniest particle of truth, just enough to help Todd.
Gleeson checked the anchors. "Secure," he said.
Shane checked them again anyway, earning a nod of approval from his partner. A noise from down below drew his attention. A road followed the base of the cliff through pockets of smaller rock formations. A dark vehicle drove slowly along, heading in the direction of the campground. Shane watched the slow progress, wondering who would be driving up just then. Most of the racers were in camp, waiting out the storm, and the vehicle didn't have the Desert Quest markings on the side to identify it as a race official's.
He felt a spatter of rain on his face as the storm picked up, the wind tearing at his T-shirt. The car continued on, toward a small canyon, pinched in on both sides by rippled rock.
Gleeson rubbed his chin. "What do you think? Storm going to get worse?"
Shane didn't have to answer. A crackle of lightning sizzled overhead, followed a few moments later by the rumble of thunder that shook the sky and the ground under their feet. This high up, it seemed as though they were right in the center of the storm as the rain unleashed all its fury, howling around them.
They moved away from the tree toward a narrow outcropping of rock that would serve as scant shelter while Gleeson checked his satellite phone. "Message from HQ says we're officially postponing. We'll have to wait for a break and then take the bikes back." He looked up at the sky, face puckered in anger. "Why couldn't it have waited an hour? I wanted to get us qualified tonight."
Shane wasn't listening. From his position he could barely make out the car below as it entered the canyon. A memory of the past intruded, a time when his father had entered just such a canyon in just such a storm. One second it was clear, and the next they were nearly swallowed up by the crush of rising water.
Shane should have learned from that experience how deadly and unforgiving water could be. If only he'd learned.
Somehowwith God's help, his brother had saidthey'd escaped the flash flood then. He wondered if God was keeping tabs on that little car now.
Kelly Cloudman gripped the wheel as the wind shook the car. She glanced in the rearview at Charlie. Fortunately, the three-year-old was asleep, oblivious to her tension as they crept along. The walls of the canyon blotted out the meager light, leaving her straining to see. She sighed, wondering again why she was driving through the middle of nowhere, South Dakota, with Charlie.
Because he's yours now and he needs you.
She shot him another quick glance, noting the slight curl in his hair and the round cheeks that matched those of her twin sister, Rose. They were fraternal twins, but Kelly and her sister had always been more alike than differentuntil her sister succumbed to alcoholism.
Where are you, Rose? What have you done?
She didn't know, in spite of her efforts and the halfhearted attempts by the police to locate Rose. Even their uncle Bill, who had returned to his job as Tribal Ranger after nearly losing his life and Heather's, the woman he would later marry, to a madman, had had no luck discovering the whereabouts of her vanished sister.
Sometimes she thought the whole thing was a dream. But the little child left in her car a year and a half ago was certainly not. Charlie was a flesh-and-blood child who desperately needed her. A vicious splatter of rain on the windshield made her jump.
"We'll be okay, Charlie," she whispered. "This job pays enough for us to find a place to stay until your mommy comes home." If she ever does. She swallowed the doubt.
Having a family hadn't been part of her vision. Not through college or the nursing school from which she'd just graduated a few months before. She'd been interested only in her academic pursuitsuntil a certain blue-eyed rancher had reminded her how incredibly joyful life could be.
Joyful and devastating.
He's gone now, Kelly. He's got no place in your heart or your life anymore.
She'd gained a child and lost her soul mate, and now she was driving through a nasty storm to some desolate part of South Dakota she'd never laid eyes on before, even though she'd grown up in the state.
The rain fell harder now, slamming into the front windshield. She should have arrived for her job as race medic the day before, but Charlie had been sick and she was reluctant to make the drive when he was running a fever. Was this the way parenting was? The constant worry and rerouting of plans? She flashed on her own mother, who had struggled with drug addiction for years before she beat it. Sadly, her death had all the symptoms of an overdose, so Kelly and her sister had believed her to be a junkie right up to the very end. Guilt rose thick and cold inside her. She hadn't even been able to find Rose to tell her the truththat their mother had been murdered. And she'd been so caught up in her own pursuits, she hadn't had much time for their mother until it was too late.
She pushed the hair out of her face. Motherhood was a complicated thing, an intricate connection between woman and child that persisted even when trauma and addiction got in the way. So far, hard as it had been to juggle her career and her role as a mom, she would not trade a minute of it. As if he heard her thoughts, Charlie started, suddenly awake.
"Mama Kelly," he said, brown eyes wide.
"It's okay, honey. I'm here." She had been floored when he decided to call her Mama, and somewhat awed by the responsibility of holding the title.
"Yes, Charlie. It's raining. We'll be at the campground soon, okay?"
He pulled his flannel blanket with the trains printed on it to the side of his face and reached out to pet the elderly cat snuggled at his feet.
She looked again at the GPS fixed to the dashboard, which suddenly blinked to a blank screen.
"Don't quit on me now," she muttered, pushing down panic at the thought of being lost in this maze of twists and turns. At this point she just wanted to get out of the canyon. The sides were high, giving her the pinched, closed-in feeling that something bad was going to happen between those gray walls.
Stop being silly. You're driving through a storm, that's all.
Her stomach clenched into a tight ball as the storm let loose, pounding the roof of the car with fury.
Charlie whimpered, and the cat meowed her alarm.
"It's okay. We'll be fine in a minute. You just keep Paddy Paws company." The old cat settled down again, curled in a gray ball against Charlie's warm side, just like the day she found them both in the backseat of her car.
They were far from fine as the wheel failed to respond. Frantically she yanked it back and forth, to no avail, as the car drifted. The water began to fill the canyon, as if someone had turned on a giant faucet, causing the car to hydroplane. Willing herself not to scream, she wrenched ineffectively at the wheel. It began to turn in lazy circles until the car smacked into a rocky projection and lodged there. Flash flood, of course. She should have known it, shouldn't have made the stupid mistake of entering the canyon in these conditions.
She peered out the window, terrified to see the water rising steadily. It was cresting the bottom of the door and moving fast. If she didn't get Charlie out of that car, they would drown. The roar of the wind and rain was so loud she could not hear Charlie's crying now. She reached over the backseat and unbuckled him, pulling him to the front. He wrapped his arms and legs around her, burying his face in her neck, clutching his train blanket. Paddy leaped into the front seat, too.
With fingers gone cold, she unlocked the driver's door and pushed.
She kicked and slammed at it with all her might but the door would not open, pushed tight by the force of the water outside, which now reached the bottom of the car window. Fighting down panic, she looked around for something to break the window. The jack was in the trunk.
Again she kicked at the door with every ounce of strength, but it would not open. Lightning scorched the sky, illuminating the terrifying flood outside the window. Thunder roared around them and they both cried out.
Heart in her throat, she watched the water rise, murmuring words of comfort that she did not believe to the terrified boy in her lap.
Shane continued to stare down into the howling storm that buffeted the little car below. He recognized the moment when the water overwhelmed the vehicle and it began to hydroplane. The car was now wedged against the rocks, and Shane had not seen anyone escape. Even if the driver had managed to shove open the door, he would have to be a strong swimmer to escape the flood that thundered past the car.
He didn't allow himself to think about it. Instead he trotted to the edge to hook up to the rappelling rope.
Gleeson yelled from behind. "What are you doing?"
"There's a car down there in trouble."
"You can't do that. They've closed the ropes course. Too dangerous."
Shane shot him a grin. "Do you know a faster way down?"
He watched Gleeson's openmouthed stare with a flicker of satisfaction as he slid over the side. The wind buffeted him back and forth as he rappelled down, his knees and elbows banging into the wet rocks on either side. He tried to keep the car in view during his descent, but the driving rain made it nearly impossible. At one point he began to twist helplessly, rocked by the violence of the storm, thunder splitting the air around him, until he regained some sense of balance and continued down dizzily to the bottom.
Unhooking quickly, he fought the disequilibrium and ran across the slippery ground in the direction of the car, thinking all the while that the driver could have used a dose of common sense. As little as two feet of water was enough to carry away a full-size car, and driving into a boxed-in canyon in the middle of a storm was a recipe for disaster.
Tripping on a root exposed by the torrential rain, he fell, skidding in the sandy earth for a yard or two before he regained his footing and pushed himself to go faster. The driver wouldn't have much time before the car was completely inundated. He reached the spot closest to the half-filled canyon where he could secure a rope to a sturdy pinnacle of rock. The wind tore at him as he lowered himself down. Water swirled up to the driver's window. Rain stung his eyes, and he could make out only the pale gleam of a face.
Pulling a flashlight from his belt, he yelled over the wind. "Get back!" It took two blows for the window to break. Hundreds of rounded bits of safety glass were snatched immediately away by the pull of the water now rushing in through the gap. Using his boot, he cleared as much of the remaining glass as he could and reached in to grab the person in the car. The tension in that slender arm was palpable as fingers locked around his. It took all Shane's strength to fight against the water, which poured into the car in a mighty tide.