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Sarah Langston winced as the barrel of the gun jabbed her stomach. The knit cap, turned backward on her head, made it impossible to see. She could feel the motion of the SUV, but she had no idea where her captors were taking her. Fear permeated every cell of her body.
The man with the gun leaned close and whispered in her ear. "Tell you what. We'll give you one more chance. You let us know where your brother is and we'll let you go."
He'd asked that question fifty times before. Always, her answer was the same. Why wouldn't they believe her?
Her voice trembled. "I told you. I don't know where Crew is. He's homeless. He contacts me when he wants to talk."
Her pulse drummed in her ears as her muscles tensed.
The second man, the driver, hadn't spoken for a long time. The tires made a different sound when they'd switched from paved roads to gravel. They'd left the city. Where were they going? What did they intend to do with her?
Both of them had been wearing masks when they'd grabbed her outside her home. They must have been waiting for the opportunity to catch her alone. More than once in the last day, she'd felt the invisible press of a gaze on her only to turn and see no one. Yesterday, she noticed the same Chevy Suburban parked outside the grocery store and at a friend's house. She'd dismissed it as coincidence.
In an attempt at escape, she'd managed to pull the mask off of one of the thugs, the skinny one with the bulging eyes. After that, they put the blindfold on her and drove without saying anything other than that same question, over and over again.
She could only guess at why they were looking for Crew. Her big brother was in and out of addiction, jobs and her life. Maybe he owed them money.
The sound of the tires rolling along changed. They were on a dirt road. Tension filled the silent car. Why were they driving so far out of town?
She knew then that the man had lied. They had no intention of letting her go.
The car rumbled to a stop but her thoughts continued racing. When she'd pulled the skinny one's mask off, he'd gone ballistic. The men had not wanted to be identified. They were taking her out of town to kill her, some place where her body wouldn't be found.
Sarah's mind moved at the speed of light. She had seconds to plan her escape. She'd been working to loosen the ties around her wrists.
Her car keys with the pepper spray attached were in her pocket. She coughed and turned her body slightly while she slipped her hand into her jacket pocket.
The man next to her jabbed her stomach with the gun. "Get out and don't try any funny business."
The front door opened. She heard footsteps and then the door closest to her squeaked open.
The driver spoke. "Come on, sweetheart."
Sarah scooted along the seat toward the open door. She tried to picture where the two men were. Judging from his voice, the driver had stepped away from her door.
The gun pressed against her back as she scooted along the seat. Her fingers wrapped around the pepper spray slowly, carefully pulling it out of her pocket. Then in one quick movement, she turned and pressed the release button.
The groaning told her she'd hit her target. She tore off the knit hat and leapt out of the car.
An arm suctioned around her waist, and a hand slapped over her mouth. Her keys flew out of her hand, but she wasn't done fighting. She'd just have to use a different weapon. She bit down hard on the man's hand and felt a rush of triumph when he yelped and pulled his hand away. She scratched fingernails across the arm that held her waist. He didn't let go.
She elbowed him in the stomach, a hard swift jab.
His grip on her let up enough for her to angle away from him. Heart racing with fear and urgency, she ran toward the trees. Branches, sky and undergrowth were all a blur in front of her. Her sharp, rasping breathing enveloped her. Feet pounding, jumping over logs, pushing through the trees.
Please, God, help me get away.
The men behind her shouted, breaking branches, charging toward her. Their noise growing louder, closer, pressing on her.
Sarah pushed forward, willing her feet to move faster. Fighting off the terror that rose inside her, she stumbled into the clearing that bordered Bridger Lake. She only had a second to survey her surroundings before the men burst from the trees.
On instinct, she turned and ran toward the other part of the forest and the mountain beyond that. If she could make it up the mountain without being caught, maybe someone in the fire tower at the top of it could help her.
She prayed she'd make it that far.
* * *
From the high metal tower where he watched for forest fires, Bryan Keyes drew the binoculars up to his eyes and scanned the forest and the lake below. He studied the tree-covered mountains in the distance, searching for wisps of smoke. As dry as the summer had been, the tiniest fire could rage out of control within minutes. Anything out of the ordinary would draw his attention. In the few weeks that he had been here, he'd memorized every patch of trees, every cluster of rocks. The solitude and monotony of fire spotting was a far cry from his usual job as a police detective recently relocated to Discovery, Montana.
His stomach coiled into a tight knot. He didn't want to think about his work as a cop. He'd taken a leave of absence when doubt had crept in, and he'd started wondering if he could ever really make a difference. After months of work gathering the evidence that Tyler Mason was using his temp work agency for human trafficking and illegal labor, Mason had avoided going to trial.
Bryan stepped away from the windows that wrapped around the tower's octagonal structure. Even thinking about Tyler Mason put his nerves on edge. He wanted justice. Though he'd grown up in Discovery, Bryan had been a detective in Spokane for years. Tyler Mason lured unsuspecting immigrants and sentenced them to lives of hard labor and imprisonment all over the United States. When Bryan uncovered a slave labor factory in Spokane, his investigation led him to Tyler Mason who owned a home and a business in Discovery. In an effort to take down Mason, he'd requested a transfer five months ago.
But then a key witness had disappeared, and the case had fallen apart. And now, the department didn't want to expend any more time or manpower on what seemed like a battle they couldn't win.
Gritting his teeth, he studied the landscape. A dust cloud on the road below indicated that a vehicle was headed toward Bridger Lake. Unusual to see people out here, considering how high the fire danger was. The metal of the car glinted in the late afternoon sun.
Bryan drew the binoculars back up to his face, watching as a man got out of the driver's side and opened the back door. A moment later, a woman jumped out. Bryan's back stiffened. The man grabbed the woman from behind, but she twisted away, running into the forest. The driver and a second man chased after her.
Bryan's heart pounded as he scanned the area, trying to get a clear view of what was going on. At this distance, it was hard to tell, but nothing about the interaction seemed friendly.
Finally, he spotted all three of them in the clearing by the lake.
He watched the man push the woman forward. The binoculars shook as Bryan focused in on the action. He was too far away to see clearly and the angle was all wrong, but it looked like the woman's hands were tied behind her back. He couldn't be sure.
He adjusted the focus hoping to see more. No luck. The woman's long brown hair hid her face as she trudged forward with her head down. Then just before the three of them disappeared into the trees, one of the men reached into the back of his waistband. Sunshine shone against the metal of the gun.
His breath hitched. They were going to shoot her.
Bryan dropped the binoculars as adrenaline surged through his body. The most direct route to the woman was straight down the nearly ninety-degree mountain, a hard five- to seven-minute run on rocky terrain to the lake where the armed men had parked. It was the only chance he had of getting there on time. Hiking out to his truck and then taking the circuitous route on logging roads would take an hour or more.
He regretted having turned in his police issue Glock, but the forest service provided a rifle in case of bear attacks. He grabbed it and bolted out the door and down the narrow metal stairs of the tower.
Holding the rifle with both hands, he scrambled down the mountainside. Rocks rolled in the wake of his hurried footsteps. No clear trail came into view. He'd grown up camping in these mountains and had developed pretty accurate radar for finding his way. He knew where the road connected to the lake, but would he get there in time?
As he ran, he listened for the crack of a gun being fired breaking through the thick August air. Silence surrounded him. Did that mean the woman was still alive?
He jumped over a boulder. The terrain became steeper, and he dug his heels in. His foot caught on a root and flung him forward. The rifle flew from his hands, clattering to a stop on a sheer cliff some twenty feet down. He could maneuver around the cliff, but there was no time to climb down and retrieve the rifle.
He forged ahead, praying that he'd be in time. He worked his way through the thick trees seeking an open path.
Bryan stopped, blood freezing in his veins when a gunshot shattered the serenity of the forest.
* * *
From the moment she'd pulled the mask off one of her abductors, Sarah had sensed that the hours of her life were numbered. Now as they dragged her deeper into the forest, she knew she was nearing the end. The men were not bothering with the masks anymore. Clear evidence that she wasn't coming out of this forest alive.
One of the menthe muscular one with the deep voicepushed hard on her back. "Where is he?"
They still hadn't given up their line of questioning. Some sort of last-ditch effort to get the information they'd kidnapped her for in the first place. Their desperation and rage had escalated since her second escape attempt.
She spoke between gasps. "I don't know where my brother is." Her wrists hurt from where the rope cut into her skin. This time they'd made sure her bindings were tight.
Deep Voice grabbed her hair, pulled her close and hissed in her ear. "You're his sister." He shoved her forward. "You should know."
Sarah stumbled from the force of the push. "He doesn't have a phone. He lives all over the place." Though she and her brother had been raised in foster care together, their lives had gone in very different directions. The last time she'd seen Crew, he had not been in good shape. He was sober, but rail-thin and shaking, probably from withdrawal.
"He talks about you," said the second kidnapper, a skinny man with acne scars whose eyes were still red from his dose of pepper spray. His words made Sarah frown. How well did Crew know these men? How had he gotten mixed up with people who were so clearly dangerous?
"I'm telling you, I haven't seen him in a month, and I don't know how to get in touch with him."
"You're lying." Deep Voice grabbed her arm at the elbow and swung her around, which made the rope dig even deeper into her wrist. "Where have you hidden him?"
She lowered her head and angled away from the criminal. "I'm not hiding him. Why won't you believe me?"
"You've got thirty seconds to tell me." She heard the slide on a gun click back. Even under the threat of death, she couldn't tell them. Why wouldn't they believe her?
"Yeah, stop protecting him." Acne Scars grabbed her shoulder and pushed her to the ground. She landed on her knees.
"Twenty seconds," said Deep Voice. The menacing tone in his voice told her that he would have no qualms about shooting her.
Sarah closed her eyes. Oh, God, please take me quickly. "Ten seconds."
Her whole body shook and she tasted bile. "I don't know where he is." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "I'm telling you the truth."
Please, God, send help. I don't want to die.
"You got anything to say?" said Acne Scars.
She shook her head. A cry rose up in her throat. "No, I can't tell you where he is because I don't know." Her stomach somersaulted. She couldn't contain her anguish. "Please believe me."
"Six. Five. Four."
As she leaned forward, every muscle in her body tensed. Tears formed. "Please."
"Three. Two. One."
She lurched at the boom of the gunshot as her body went rigid. No pain came. She took in a ragged breath.
She heard Deep Voice's harsh laughter. "That was a warning shot." Cold hard metal touched her temple. "Next time, it's for real. Put the blindfold back on her so she can't see it coming."
The hood went back over her head. A cold hand touched the back of her neck. The low voice was seductive. "Where is Crew Langston? Did you put him on a bus, help him get out of town?"
She shook her head, unable to form the words. Her heart pounded. She couldn't stop shaking.
"All right, lady, this is it." The hard gun barrel pressed against her temple.
Braced for another gunshot, she startled when she heard a thwacking sound, like a hard object making contact with flesh. One of the men groaned, and the gun was no longer pressed against her head. Flesh smacked against flesh. Men grunted. A body hit the ground close to her. Sarah struggled to get to her feet. Strong hands wrapped around her upper arm, warming her skin.
"Let's get you out of here and to a safe place." The voice sounded vaguely familiar. A hand grazed her forehead, lifting the hood off.
Her rescuer's eyes grew wide with recognition as her breath caught. Bryan Keyes. The man she thought she'd never see again. The man who had broken her heart into a thousand pieces.
The larger of the two assailants, curled up on the ground, stirred.
"Come on, we've gotta move. I'll cut you loose as soon as I can." Bryan glanced around. He was probably looking for the gun or the best direction to run.
Acne Scars lay facedown, not moving. A log not too far from him must have been used to knock him out. But Deep Voice had started opening his eyes. They couldn't wait any longerthey needed to move.
Bryan must have reached the same conclusion because he shook his head and then pulled Sarah toward the trees. She ran, hindered by her hands still tied behind her back. Bryan held her arm to steady her.
He pulled her deeper into the trees until they came to a steep incline.
"No way can I climb that with my hands tied," she protested.