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There's nothing wrong, she told herself. There's a logical explanation.
Anita made an effort to put the worry about her brother away as the darkness closed around her in a moist fist. She took the thermal imaging binoculars from her backpack and tried to find a more comfortable position on the small mat. But no matter how she settled her slender frame, the rock fragments seemed to find her. The whine of mosquitoes sounded constantly in her ears.
Focus on the job, Anita. Do what you've waited years to do. She was a hundred yards away from the most exciting moment of her career. Buried deep in this forest in the Seychelles Islands was something she had been hoping to see for a decade.
In spite of the excitement, the worry about her brother crept back. They always connected somehow on July 15, the anniversary of the accident that took their parents' lives. Even if they were half a world apart, Drew managed an e-mail or a quick text message. It was a pact they'd made and kept faithfully.
She mentally calculated the date in the States again. No, she hadn't made a mistake. It was now July 17, and still no word from her brother. She took a deep breath to release the knots in her stomach as she eyed the sun, sinking slowly into the Indian Ocean in a swirl of vibrant crimson. Pay attention, Anita. Another fifteen minutes, maybe, and they'll be here.
The tiny island was bisected by a ridge of mountain. The upper region where she was camped was forested and rugged, which saved it from the ravages of residential and agricultural use. Palms rustled in the cool ocean breeze.
Anita swatted at a mosquito that buzzed her ear. She pulled up her long, kinky brown hair and applied another squirt of bug repellent to her neck. Her job still felt surreal to her. She relished the chance to be in a corner of the world that few people saw, to have an opportunity to document one of the ten most endangered species in the world, a species that might be brought back from the brink of extinction with her help.
The sun disappeared and the sky changed to a soft gray. Anita readied her binoculars and trained them on the mouth of the cave. When the animals were dormant yesterday, she'd quietly hacked away the kudzu vine that threatened to choke access to the cave. Her hands still ached from the effort.
After a few more moments of silence, there came a sound like the rush of an angry stream. Anita had just enough time to ready the video camera as the sheath-tailed bats surged out of the cave mouth. They rose as a large, black shadow against the sky, chittering as they flew out in search of insects. She craned her head to watch their progress, counting as quickly as she could.
Then the cloud vanished as the bats disappeared into the night.
Anita leaned back on her mat, her skin still prickled in goose bumps. Unbelievably, the precious bats were alive and healthy here, and she felt more determined than ever to see that this tiny colony survived in the face of a world that seemed equally determined to stamp them out.
She covered her mouth with a mask to filter out the ammonia gases that enveloped the bats' home, and stole into the cave to collect guano samples and photograph the roost. Her fingers shook as she worked. There would be no way to undo the damage if the bats returned and were spooked by a human presence. The cave was damp and still. Piles of droppings collected in heaps upon the floor. It took her no more than ten minutes before she hurried out again, panting and damp with sweat.
She settled down on her mat to wait for the bats' return, readying an infrared camera this time. The piece of equipment brought Drew to her mind in a sudden rush of worry. He would laugh his head off to see Anita taking pictures. He always said people should give her the camera only if they wanted a close-up of her thumbs. She checked her PDA again, but there was still nothing from him.
Maybe he couldn't get a message through to her remote location. Her comfort was fleeting. She'd been able to call his Arizona apartment several times, and he hadn't answered. None of her e-mails had gotten a response, either.
Anita's mind traveled back to the hot, arid desert, where her brother was a photographer for the prestigious Wild World Magazine. Someone else surfaced in her thoughts: a big man with vibrant blue eyes and a strong chin. She tried to shake his handsome face from her mind.
Forget it, Anita. You did what you had to do. Booker will see that someday.
Deep down she knew she was fooling herself. He'd never forgive her, though she was certain she'd done the right thing when Wild World's owner, Cyrus Leeman, pointed her to the colony of endangered bats on Booker' s property. He couldn' t be allowed to put them at risk, and she'd made sure he didn't have the chance.
But why did she feel so bad about the look of betrayal on his face when he'd found out?
Had her face borne the same expression when Jack, the love of her life, had cracked her world apart? She took a deep breath. Her actions had nothing to do with love, she reminded herself sternly. Her feelings for Booker had been a mistake, and relationships sometimes had to be sacrificed for the greater good. They'd dated for months, spent every free moment together until that wonderful, awful moment he'd told her he loved her. It still made her breath catch to recall it.
Buried in thought, she lost track of time. She was relieved when an hour or so later, the whoosh of wings announced the return of the bat colony. Her fingers took over, taking pictures, swiveling the camera from side to side until the swell of the winged tide was over. She packed up her gear and headed down the gravel path toward camp when her satellite phone vibrated. Frowning, she looked at the screen. The number was familiar, starting her heart into a quick staccato. "Drew?"
The voice on the other end was faint, raspy. "Ani."
There was only one person who would dare call her Ani. She pressed the phone closer to her ear and listened to her brother's irregular gasps. "What's wrong? You sound out of breath."
There was a delay before he answered. "Need your help."
She felt a stir of fear as she struggled to hear him through the bad connection. Drew didn't need help for anything. He was ever the bullheaded, larger-than-life brother who shot first and aimed later. "Tell me."
His voice faded in and out. " trouble."
She felt a stab of alarm. "I can't hear you. Tell me again. Where are you?"
"Please gotten myself in too deep this time."
Her throat constricted. "What happened? Are you still in Arizona?"
"Yeah, I've been " Dead space swallowed up his words. "You've gotta help me, Ani."
"I can't hear you. It's a bad connection. Are you hurt? Do you need the police?"
Drew managed one more word before the phone clicked off.
Anita stood stock-still, her body taut. Frantically she redialed Drew's number and got an "out of service" message for her trouble. If his words hadn't scared her enough, the desperate tone of his voice had. He needed her help to escape from something, something deadly.
She had to go; she had to find him.
His final word tumbled over and over in her ears.
The harsh Arizona sunlight beat down on Booker Scott as he wrenched the barbed wire back into place. Second time this week it'd been cut. He knew exactly who was responsible, and he knew they'd be back, with more help and more firepower. They were checking things out, seeing if his property offered the necessary amenities. Ace reached a paw up to scratch under his collar, his sturdy German shepherd body parked in the shade of the pickup.
"They're getting bolder, Ace." He wondered if they were watching him at that moment from some concealed spot in the rugged side of the distant gorge. But even more menacing than the trespassers on his property were the bankers, looking for their pound of flesh. He'd take guns over bankers any day.
He fought against the desperate feeling that rose in his gut. It's still my land for a while longer. His eyes followed the sun-parched ground, speckled with boulders bearing resurrection moss, until it folded into the steep gorge on the western periphery of the property. The black mouth of Mesquite Cave was almost invisible, tucked into the shadow of the massive rock that overshadowed it.
It was all there, the key to saving his ranch and his father. Right there, but locked away from him as surely as if it was chained in a steel vault somewhere. Thanks to Cyrus Leeman and his beautiful helper, Anita Teel. He allowed his mind to picture her for only a moment. Long hair, brown eyes, determined chin, full lips that left an indelible imprint on his.
He whirled around to face the small man with the battered straw hat. He knew the guy's name was Diego.
"Trabajo?" Diego repeated, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Work? Booker almost laughed. How could he possibly pay to have someone else work his property when he could hardly afford to keep it going now? "No, man. Sorry."
Diego nodded and turned to shuffle off.
Booker stopped him. "Here." He tossed Diego a cold water bottle from the small cooler he'd brought along.
The man caught the bottle and tipped his hat. "Gracias."
Booker nodded back, threw his toolbox in the back of the pickup and fired the engine to life. Ace jumped into the back, and they headed into town.
He didn't expect to see Cyrus Leeman chatting with the Border Patrol agent Tony Rogelio in front of the bank as he eased his truck to the curb. Rogelio gave him a nod and drove away in his own vehicle. Once again, Booker wondered if the agent was a man to be trusted. He tamped down the worry and started across the sun-baked sidewalk.
Ace dutifully followed Booker out of the truck and stood in a shaded spot.
Leeman cocked his head in between sips of water from a bottle. "Mr. Scott."
Booker wondered why the wiry man didn't ever seem to sweat, not even on the bald spot that gleamed in the sunlight. He nodded and continued past until Leeman stopped him.
"How are things going on the ranch? Heard you sold off some of your stock and two horses."
Booker turned to face him. "Not your business."
Leeman smiled, showing perfectly straight teeth. "Just being neighborly."
"Neighborly?" Booker felt his self-control snap. "You want my property and you'll do whatever it takes to get it. Don't need neighbors like that." The dog picked up on the tension in his owner's voice. He straightened, ears stiff and body tense.
Leeman shot the animal a wary look and capped the water bottle. "Is your dog friendly?"
"Most of the time, but he's a real good judge of character."
Ace kept intense eyes trained on Leeman.
He shrugged. "Now really, Scott. You are paranoid. Why would I want that useless piece of land? There's no easy water access. Can't even mine on it, anyway."
Booker clenched his fists to keep from punching Leeman in the gut. "You made sure of that, didn't you?"
He shrugged. "Environmental protection isn't my main concern. That was your girlfriend's bailiwick."
"Not my girlfriend and again, not your business." He'd thought she was his girlfriend, but he'd been wrong, so wrong.
"How are those bats, anyway? Keeping a good watch over your opal mine?"
Booker straightened his baseball cap, buying a moment to steady himself. "You work hard to be that obnoxious or does it come natural?"
Leeman laughed. "Miss Teel's article about your bats was well-received. I believe her research team was given a handsome grant." He looked casually away for a moment. "She's coming to town, you know."
He struggled to take it in. Anita was coming back? The anger and bitter disappointment flared as intensely as it had four months earlier, when he discovered who she really was. He kept his face controlled in spite of the feelings that coursed through him like a swiftly moving stream. With every ounce of remaining control, Booker turned away from Leeman.
"Stay, Ace," he told the dog, and pushed through the bank doors.
Leeman was goading him. Anita had no reason to come back to Rockridge. She'd done her work, saved the world and left his heart in the dirt.
He shot a look back at Leeman, who still had the remnants of a smile on his face as he backed away from the dog. Anita wouldn't come back. His heart seemed to have developed an unsteady rhythm.
* * *
The oppressive desert heat pressed down on Anita as she neared Rockridge in the battle-scarred Dodge she'd rented. It seemed hostile already, this place that hid her brother somewhere, in some sizzling corner. From the airport, she'd placed one frantic phone call to Wild World Magazine. The secretary confirmed Drew hadn't been heard from in several days. The second phone call went to the police. Their professional coolness infuriated her as it had when she'd called the first time from the Seychelles. This was her brother they referred to with such detachment. She made arrangements to meet with them as soon as she arrived.
The road reflected the summer heat back at her in angry waves. The Dodge seemed to feel it too: the engine rattled and coughed, causing her to slow to a crawl several times.
Her stomach finally convinced her to pull into a dust-covered diner. She ordered a sandwich to go and waited while they prepared it. As she collected the bag and paid, she noticed a truck pull up by the side of her rental. The driver, whose face was concealed by sunglasses and a baseball cap, peered in the side window.
Anita held her breath and watched him from the restaurant. Why was he so interested in a dented old Dodge? She stood frozen with indecision. Should she go ask the stranger what he was after? Drew's terrified words came back to her. Her brother was involved in something bad, and for some reason he hadn't shared any info with the police. Was this nosy stranger linked to his disappearance? Or was she sinking into paranoia? There was only one way to find out. Anita took a deep breath and pushed through the door.
The person in the truck turned a quick look in her direction and immediately drove off.
She tried to shake off the fear. You're a stranger in a small town, Anita, she told herself. You're a curiosity, like a new animal at the zoo.