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Sabrina Adelante's sturdy Casio Pathfinder watch beeped once on the hour, the shrill noise causing her skin to prickle with restless anxiety.
Time was working against one very young and very lost girl, and even her watch had something to say about that.
Time, and some idiot at the Port Renegade PD. Tara Fisher had been missing for nearly two hours inside the state park. Two hours before the police had thought to call in the park search-and-rescue unitnever mind that the hiking trails on which Tara had disappeared were as familiar as breathing to every member of the SAR team. Two hours during which Tara, walking at an average pace, could cover about five miles.
Given that Tara could have traveled in any direction from point last seen, or PLS, their search area was a circle with a radius of five miles and, as any geometry student could tell you, an overall area of nearly eighty miles.
Damn the Port Renegade Police to hell.
With a snap of her wrist, Sabrina wrenched the steering wheel to the right, executing a too-quick turn into the parking area at the Black Wolf Run trailhead and sending a spray of gravel into the air. She barely registered the sound of tiny stones raining against her shiny black paint job as she stomped on the brake, bringing the car to a skidding halt.
Muttering a few Spanish curses that years ago would have had her mother stuffing a bar of soap in her mouth, Sabrina angrily kicked open the Jeep's door. As she stepped out, Alex Gray and Jessie DiCosta, the other two members of her tracking team, jogged across the parking lot to greet her. She gave them a quick nod of acknowledgment as she hefted her bulging backpack in front of her to rummage through it.
When the two of them reached the Jeep, Alex reached inside its open back to pull her walking stick out, just as he had a hundred times before. "Here you go, beautiful." Holding the stick out with one hand, he used the other to readjust the backward Mariners baseball cap that had already flattened his short, dark hair. He wore the thing so often, it was a wonder it hadn't fused to his head.
She glared at him while leaning her body against the driver's-side door until it closed with a heavy click. Normally she would have laughed or at least snorted at the "beautiful"her mom had always said Alex would flirt with a broom in a dress if one presented himself. Today, she merely smacked the sheet of paper she'd dug out of her pack against his chest, leaving him scrambling to grab it when she let go. She tucked her stick under her arm and then handed a second sheet to Jessie, who'd been quietly waiting beside her.
And then her skin started to prickle and crawl with the peculiar kind of restlessness that her family generally referred to as "ants-in-her-pants syndrome." Whatever they wanted to call it, all she knew was that her body needed to be in motion, because standing still in the parking lot had suddenly become unbearable. Knowing Jess and Alex would understand, Sabrina pulled her pack onto her shoulders and started off toward the trailhead without another word.
A few seconds later, Jessie came up beside her, her long, athletic legs matching Sabrina's stride for stride and then some. She reached out with one pale, freckle-dotted hand and untwisted one of the shoulder straps of Sabrina's backpack as they walked. "Jacket?, She motioned with her head back toward the Jeep, then caught her shoulder-length blond hair in her hands, tying it up with a rubber band into a messy knot. "Smells like rain."
Sabrina slanted a glance at Jess and kept moving, her hiking boots crunching down hard on the gravel as she headed toward where the trailhead sat en-shrouded by a thick cluster of hemlock and giant sequoias. "Screw the jacket," she said, then immediately regretted her harsh tone. While she didn't mean to direct her anger at Jessie, she knew her tracking partner well enough to know that her colleague's sweet nature also came with a highly sensitive side. "But thank you," she added.
Alex whistled as he jogged up to take his place on Sabrina's other side. "Damn, you're tense today. Whaddup, boss?"
"We're looking for Tara Fisher." All three of them were finally on the move, but that fact did little to settle the butterflies of anxiety knocking against Sabrina's rib cage. "Senior at Port Renegade High. She's five foot one, weighs 110 pounds, and is wearing a navy-blue zip-up sweatshirt and jeans. Her point last seen is Hot Spring Seven, which is where she and her friend Paula Rivers were soaking when she decided to try to find a sweet spot on the mountain where her cell phone might work. Paula said she waited about twenty minutes and then tried to look for Tara, but she never found her."
Hot Spring Seven was one of at least twenty hot-spring pools along Black Wolf Run, an intermediate five-mile hiking trail that wound up the first third of Renegade Ridge, through what was arguably one of Washington state's most beautiful forests. The springssome hidden, others out in plain view were what made Black Wolf Run one of the more popular trails in the whole fourteen hundred square miles of Renegade Ridge State Park. Despite the unpredictable terrain in the park, visitors rarely got lost on or near Black Wolf, as it was pretty straightforwardgo straight up, soak in a spring, come straight down. But that's not to say Tara couldn't have wandered off the path or jumped onto another trail in the weblike network that wound through the park.
"Who reported her missing?, Jessie asked as they moved into the cool, damp shade of the forest canopy. Almost as if they'd choreographed it, Jessie and Alex fell back about five feet and fanned out behind her. Sabrina was the point person of their SAR teamthe one who would follow the girls' trail, step-by-step. As flank trackers, Jessie and Alex's job was to look forward while Sabrina looked at the ground, shouting out warnings when another set of tracks was about to intersect the ones they were following, or when Sabrina might be about to run into a tree or a person.
"Paula bypassed the ranger station and called the police as soon as she came down the mountain," Sabrina said.
To Sabrina's left, Alex muttered a soft curse under his breath, letting her know she didn't have to explain any further. She did anyway. "The police, in turn, bumbled around from two-thirty to four before calling us. Add twenty minutes for us all to get here and for the tracking team leaders to get briefed, and you have."
She let the sentence trail off.All three of them knew what they had. They had a lost, undoubtedly frightened girl who'd been missing for way too long. The first few hours were critical when it came to finding a lost hiker.
Her walking stick struck packed dirt with a frustrated thump as the gravel portion of the trail ended, and the sounds of Alex's and Jessie's followed. It only took them seconds to reach the bend in the trail, where the ferns lining the side of the gravel path marched inward, narrowing the passage on Black Wolf Run. Tall, densely-packed coniferous trees mostly Douglas firs, Sitka spruce and the western hemlocks that marked the area as temperate rainforestalso closed in around them, dripping with moss and blocking out much of the pale-gray light overhead.
"Two hours." Jessie sighed. "What is the matter with these people?"
If they were lucky, Tara would be sitting on a rock somewhere, waiting for them. But as they'd all learned from experience, teenagers rarely held still, especially when caught up in a panic.
A flurry of footprints that looked like the right size caught her eye, and Sabrina stopped to examine them. Crouching near the loose dirt dusting the edge of the trail, she scanned the area, piecing together a complete print in her mind from the partials before her.
The muffled sound of thunder rumbled from the east, and she glanced upward at the fast-rolling gray clouds, the fall breeze that drove them sending a chill across her exposed face and hands. This part of the Olympic Mountain Range, in a region where southern maritime and northern outflow winds combined, was known for bad weather and heavy precipitationboth of which would undoubtedly strike before the afternoon was over.
Jessie crouched down beside her, careful to stay back out of her line of sight. "Those papers you gave us, that was Tara's footprint, right?, She tugged the sheet out of her pants pocket and unfolded it, examining the footprint image on it once more.
"Not exactly," Sabrina replied. "And these aren't the ones we're looking for." She stood, dusting her hands off on her pants leg.
"Nope," Alex concurred from her other side as he and Jessie rose as well. "Close, though."
Leaning over, she traced the footprint on Jessie's sheet of paper with her finger. "This image is actually of the friend's boot. Paula and Tara like to shop together, so they bought the same brand of hiking boots on the same day from the same store. Tara's are size-six Ecco brand hiking boots with a hexagonal lug print. Paula's about your height, so."
"So Paula has monster feet, as evidenced by what's on this paper, and Miss 110-Pounds has the very tiny version," the six-foot-one Jessie finished with a wry smile. As usual, Sabrina was surprised at Jessie's self-deprecating comment. The woman was all lean muscle with a dancer's grace, and that, coupled with her long blond hair and freckled complexion, gave her the wholesome look of an outdoor-gear model.
"You have very nice feet," Alex said, wagging his dark eyebrows at her. "Nothing monster about them."
"I bet you say that to all the girls," Jessie returned in a bored, exaggerated monotone, more than used to Alex's flirtatious ways.
Sabrina barely registered the conversation. She could still feel Paula's hand clutching her arm. Some-thing's wrong. Tara's scared to death of hiking by herself. She'd never disappear like this.
Not that she hadn't heard those words a hundred times before, but still Sabrina couldn't shake the feeling that despite her SAR team's excellent record when it came to finding the missing, today wasn't going to be their lucky day. Call it intuition, call it her reaction to the smell of storms in the air. It felt too much like the day Rosie Donovan went missing, the day the police started their vendetta against everyone on the park's search-and-rescue team because of her.
Don't think about Rosie.