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Hayley Cole shouted once more, then decided to save her breath for running. It wasn't that the dog was ignoring her. Sometimes he just got so intent on something, the rest of the world ceased to exist.
Serves you right, she told herself, for spoiling him. Treating him like a human just because half the time he acts like one.
That he'd shown up on her doorstep when she most needed him, that she now couldn't imagine life without the uncannily clever Cutter didn't help at the moment, as she was traipsing after him through midnight-dark trees. If she hadn't known these woods from childhood she might be nervous, but it was the wrong time of year for bears, and she wasn't afraid of much else. But a sassy dog could get into trouble; just last night she'd heard coyotes. And a cornered raccoon could be nasty. While she had faith in the clever dog's ability to come out on top, she didn't want him hurt in the process.
At least out here, if you heard a sound in the night, your worry wasn't who, but what. Well, maybe except for that blessed helicopter that had buzzed the house a while ago, setting Cutter into the frenzy that started this whole chase. They weren't uncommon in the Pacific Northwest, what with the navy and coast guard coming and going. Normally they didn't ruffle the dog, but this smaller one had been frighteningly low and had set him off like a rocket.
She dodged around the big cedar tree on the north side of the trail that could barely be found in full daylight. She should have grabbed her heavy, hooded parka with the flashlight in the pocket, but while fall was in the air it was still merely cool at night, not cold. Besides, she hadn't realized this was going to be a lengthy expedition.
She was on her neighbor's property now, and she doubted the reclusive older man would welcome either her or her four-legged mischief maker, so she forged onward.
"Like some stupid character in a bad horror movie," she muttered under her breath, rethinking sharing the last of the beef stew she'd made with the carrot-loving dog.
She rounded a large maple and nearly tripped over Cutter, who had stopped dead.
"Whoa," she said, recovering. "What?"
The dog's tail gave an acknowledging wag, but his attention never wavered. He was staring through the trees at something. A little waryit was too early for bears, wasn't it?she moved up beside the dog to look. For a moment it didn't register, it seemed so unlikely.
In the darkness it was almost indistinguishable, in fact would be invisible if not for the faint light from the house. That light slipped over polished, gleaming black, so that the shape she saw was a series of faint reflections, curved and straight, rather than the object itself.
But she still knew what it was, instantly.
The helicopter that had rattled her windows fifteen minutes ago was sitting in her reclusive neighbor's yard.
Something about the thing sitting there, glimmering faintly in the dark, unsettled her. The fact that it had no apparent markings unsettled her even more. Weren't they like planes? Didn't they have to have numbers on them?
Maybe it's a prototype, her logical mind said. Hasn't been registered yet. Lots of aircraft industry up here in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe her neighbor was a designer or something. She had no idea what he really did, nor did any of the others in this semirural, forested little community. Being mostly kind, they didn't call him antisocial, at least not yet. The speculation ranged from eccentric hoarder to grief-stricken widower, depending on the mind-set of the speculator. Hayley, who herself valued her privacy and the quiet of this wooded setting, preferred to simply leave him alone if that's what he chose.
Being right next door, she'd seen him more often than anyone, which meant exactly twice. And both times he'd retreated immediately inside, as if he feared she might actually approach him.
But now she was wondering if a little more curiosity might have been wise. Scenarios from mad scientist to terrorists foreign and domestic raced through her mind. Her mother would have laughed at the very idea of such things in quiet little Redwood Cove, but her mother had been unaware of many dark things in the world in the last years of her life. Not by choice, but because she was focused on the battle to extend that life as long as possible, a battle Hayley had fought beside her for three years, until it was lost eight months ago.
She heard a sliding door opening, and in the next instant a bright light on the side of the house came on. Instinctively she jerked back, even though the apparently motion-sensing floodlight didn't reach this far. Cutter, on the other hand, took a half step forward as two men stepped out onto the deck. His nose lifted, twitching rapidly as he drew in the scents the faint breeze wafted his way.
The light threw the helicopter back into the realm of, if not ordinary, at least no longer sinisterat least it did until she realized she could now see that indeed, there wasn't a single marking to identify the craft.
The light also made the silver in her neighbor's neatly trimmed beard gleam. The second man, much younger, with a buzz cut and a leather jacket, was a total stranger. He seemed to be helping the older man as they went down the steps, gripping his arm in support.
Her breath caught as, coming down the steps into the yard where the helicopter waited, the leather jacket parted and she saw a holstered handgun on his hip.
She grabbed Cutter's collar; all her silly notions about men in black and their black helicopters suddenly didn't seem so silly anymore. Were they the good guys, if any still existed, and was her neighbor being arrested? Was the reason for his reclusiveness something worse than she'd ever imagined?
She shivered, wishing more than ever for her parka. And then another thought followed rapidly: What if he was the good guy? What if these men in the black helicopter were the bad guys, and her neighbor was being snatched by them? That it could be some twisted combination of both also occurred to her; these days it was harder than ever to tell bad guys from good.
The two men got into the helicopter, the younger one again helping the older, with every evidence of solicitousness. Moments later, the helicopter came alive, engine humming, running lights blinking on.
Her mind was racing. Two men, one of them armed, get on the helicopter, and it starts up. So obviously, unless her neighbor was the pilot, which seemed unlikely, the other man was. Which had to mean her neighbor was going willingly, didn't it? Otherwise, wouldn't he run while the other man was occupied with well, whatever you did to fire up a helicopter? Unless he couldn't. Perhaps he wasn't well enough? Or was simply too frightened to try to escape?
Or could there have been a third man, waiting aboard the craft all this time?
Cutter made an odd, uncharacteristic, whining sort of sound just as a movement on the deck caught her eye. And she realized there was at least a third man, because he was coming out of the house now. Tall, lean, with hair as dark as the sky.
He had a large duffel bag slung over his left shoulder. He started down the deck steps, and two things happened simultaneously. The sound of the engine got louder. And Cutter let out a sudden, sharp bark.
Before she could react, the dog had twisted free of her loose grip on his collar. And to her dismay he bolted, straight toward the third man. Tail up, head down, he raced out of the trees and across the open yard. Cutter was never vicious, but the man he was charging didn't know that, and she took off after him.
So much for a silent retreat, she thought as the man, obviously having heard the dog's bark, dropped the duffel bag to the ground.
The dog ignored her, intent on his target. But he was running happily, joyously, as he did when he greeted her if she'd been away and left him home. Some part of her mind wondered if perhaps he knew the man. She'd never seen him before; now that he'd turned in their direction she knew she wasn't likely to forget a guy who looked like this one.
She had a split second to wonder if the mystery of Cutter's appearance in her life, at the time when she'd needed the distraction most, was about to be solved.
The man turned to face the dog's onslaught.
And pulled a gun. Aimed it at Cutter.
Panic lifted her shout to a scream. He didn't shoot. It should have been reassuring. Except that he instantly turned his attentionand his weaponon her. She kept going. He hadn't shot Cutter, and he had to be a lot more threatening than she was.
Then again, maybe not, she thought, her pace slowing as the dog reached his goal. And while she'd never expected him to launch into an attack, she certainly hadn't expected what he did next; the dog sat politely at the man's feet, then looked over a furry shoulder at her with an expression of utter delight. His tongue lolled happily, his ears were up and alert and he looked just as he did when he found the exact toy he'd been searching for.
He looked, for all the world, as if he were saying, "Look, I found him!"
The man lowered the lethal-looking black handgun but did not, she noticed, put it away.
She grabbed Cutter's collar, firmly this time.
"I'm sorry. He got away from me, but he's harmless, really. He doesn't usually I mean, he's usually a bit slow to warm up to strangers. He doesn't generally charge up to them "
She was babbling, she realized, and made herself stop.
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "We didn't mean to trespass." She glanced at the waiting helicopter, gave an embarrassed smile, hoping her neighbor could read her expression since he doubtless couldn't hear her inside and over the noise of the engine.
Her gaze shot back to the man who had just muttered the curse. The light was behind him, silhouetting his rangy frame, making him seem even taller, looming over her. Her gut told her the quicker she got them out of here, the better. She tugged on Cutter's collar, but the dog was reluctant and reacted with uncharacteristic resistance.
Everything the darn dog had done since that helicopter had buzzed the house had been uncharacteristic, she thought, tugging again.
The door of the helicopter opened. The first armed man she'd seen leaned out.
"Time, Quinn," he shouted over the noise of the engine and the growing wind of the main rotor.
Hayley heard the exchange and registered that the man her suddenly recalcitrant dog seemed so attracted to was apparently named Quinn, but she was mainly focused on getting them both out of here. Normally she was able, barely, to lift Cutter if she had to. But dragging him when he was actively resisting was something else.
She turned, intending to walk away, hoping the dog would just follow; normally he always did, not liking her too far away from him. Not that he was behaving normally just now, but
She gasped as the man called Quinn suddenly appeared in front of her, blocking her path. She hadn't even heard him move. And in that instant the entire scenario went from ominous and unsettling to threatening. Because clearly this man was not going to let her just walk away.
"I'm sorry," the man said.
Then he grabbed her, so swiftly she had no time to react. He ran his hands over her, so obviously searching that any thought that it was some personal assault never really formed.
She elbowed him. "What do you think you're doing?"
It was a rhetorical question, and it got the answer it probably deserved: nothing. She tried to pull away again but he held her in place with ease, warning her without a word that he was much stronger than she.
And then he lifted her off the ground. She fought, clawing, kicking, landing at least one solid blow. She barely had time to scream before she was physically tossed aboard the helicopter. She twisted, trying to get out before the man called Quinn got aboard. Cutter, she noticed through her panic, did nothing but whine in obvious concern. Somehow she'd always assumed the dog would defend her, would attack, bite
She was pushed down into a seat. She scrambled to get to her feet, but Quinn leaned over and grabbed Cutter, tossing the fifty-pound dog into her lap as if he weighed no more than the duffel bag that followed. And then he was aboard himself, and the door slammed shut behind him with grim finality.
She sat in the seat he'd shoved her into, her heart hammering, her hands shaking as she clung to Cutter, fighting to wrap her mind around one simple fact.
They were being kidnapped.